By Nathen Amin
The Wars of the Roses is a period of English history that is very much in vogue at the moment, a situation undoubtedly bolstered by the Wars’ inclusion in a plethora of recent historical fiction releases by various preeminent authors. Their entertaining, if often disturbingly inaccurate, portrayal of the epic fifteenth century tussle for the crown has satisfyingly been equalled by a variety of releases by academic historians putting forward the ‘true’ story. Dan Jones’ new release ‘The Hollow Crown’ (published as ‘The Wars of the Roses’ in the US) is the latest welcome addition to this field.
As the best-selling author of the critically-acclaimed ‘The Plantagenets’, Dan Jones’ latest effort can be considered a natural sequel to his previous work. The Wars of the Roses were a complex and confusing period in English history and Jones succeeds in simplifying the conflict without omitting any detail detrimental to the understanding of the story. It is a trait not unlike the style employed by Dr David Starkey, that elder statesman of the Tudor period under who Jones studied at Cambridge. The book is divided into four parts, namely ‘Beginnings (1420-1437)’, ‘What is a King? (1437-1455)’, ‘The Hollow Crown (1455-1471)’ and ‘The Rise of the Tudors’ (1471-1525)’. It is to Jones writing ability that this form of splitting up his work doesn’t disrupt the flow of the storytelling process.
Whilst most books about the period helpfully provide detailed family trees, a notable feature of Jones’ book is the additional inclusion of maps highlighting key locations of not only fifteenth century England and Wales but also of France and the Low Countries. Any student of the Wars, new or old, will be grateful for this quick reference. Furthermore his work is well-littered with quotes from contemporary chronicles and other sources, a satisfying method that allows the reader to become engrossed in the story without having to periodically flick to the notes to chase the quote.
Jones considers the origin of the Wars of the Roses to be Henry V’s death in 1422 and the subsequent accession of his infant son Henry VI, for which he makes a compelling and sensible claim. That the infant grew up to be unsuited to ruling either England or France is resolutely clear to all students of the period. Jones however takes this conclusion a step further by essentially declaring the pious and fragile Henry to be main culprit responsible for the outbreak of hostilities, a unusual standpoint. Jones’ concludes “in a system in which law, order, justice and peace flowed so heavily from the person of the king and the office of the Crown, Henry VI’s reign (and his afterlife between deposition in 1461 and his death ten years later) was a disaster”. Jones considers the tragic monarch an “adult king who simply would not perform his role”. He is not wrong.
If the Wars have their roots in 1422, the Jones theorises the dynastic conflict didn’t truly end until deep in the sixteenth century, many decades after the generally accepted end date of 1485/87 when the last pitched battles were fought on a large scale. His acceptable justification for this is the targeting and eradication of the Yorkist bloodline by Henry VIII which included the barbaric execution of Margaret Pole, an elderly scion with an impeccable Yorkist pedigree.
With an impartiality that is refreshing in literature covering the Wars of the Roses, the book documents, in varying detail, all the battles of the Wars and satisfyingly includes a roll call of anybody who was anyone during the conflict, from the kings and dukes down to officials like Sir William Oldhall and the much demonised Empson and Dudley. Jones doesn’t favour a side or a faction, coming to the genre with an neutrality from which no-one emerges blameless. He both criticises and praises Richard III and Henry VII for example.
It is narrative history that certain to attract academic students and historical fiction fans alike, not necessarily an easy accomplishment but one that Jones succeeds in providing. Vivid storytelling and descriptive terms easily paint a picture for the reader of the ruthlessness of the period.
Jones aims in his introduction to tell the story of the Wars in a way that is “scholarly, informative and entertaining”. In this he succeeds.