By Nathen Amin
Amy Licence is arguably the most prolific historical writer in Britain at the moment, and I often marvel at how she constantly puts out numerous books concurrently without any depreciation in quality. Coming hot on the heels or her recent releases is Red Roses, the first book which focuses on the women of the House of Lancaster during the 14th and 15th centuries.
The story of the Wars is very much en vogue at the moment, which is great news for those of us enamoured with the struggle between York and Lancaster, a period often overlooked in favour of the later Tudor period. That being said, within a few years so many books have been released on the subject it seems difficult to find a book that takes a fresh look at the conflict. Licence has managed to do just that, concentrating on the females surrounding the various Lancastrian leaders. The men may have got the glory, but behind them were their women – the wives, daughters and mistresses whose lives and influences played a key role in how the Wars played out. Some, like Blanche of Lancaster and Joan Beaufort, were born Lancastrians whilst others like Katherine Valois and Margaret Anjou were married in. It is no surprise to see Licence, renowned for her women’s histories, note in her final chapter that the book is an attempt to provide an alternative narrative of English history and to ‘complement the dominant male version of events with one of female experience and influence’.
Licence’s book is chronologically split into five parts, allowing easy navigation between subjects and also breaking up the oft-times confusing nature of the period, which in this respect spans about 150 years. Part One focuses on the various wives of John of Gaunt, that father of the Lancastrian Dynasty and one of England’s most wealthy and influential magnates. Through his three wives, Gaunt’s descendants would reign over England, Portugal and Spain, spreading the Lancastrian connection across Europe. Part Two focuses on the struggle between Richard II and Henry IV with Part Three providing an overview of the early 15th century and the stories of Katherine Valois and Joan Beaufort, Queens of England and Scotland respectively. Part Four features the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, led in part by the domineering Margaret Anjou, queen to the beleaguered Lancastrian king Henry VI. The final part of the book finishes, perhaps fittingly, with arguably the greatest of all the Lancastrian women, Margaret Beaufort, a Lancastrian by descent and marriage.
We are treated to the author’s own reserved ideas on the period, putting forward her theories on events without leaping to sensational conclusions, as unfortunately often seems to be the case these days. The book runs through a number of primary sources, discussing contemporary opinions on the subject at hand with modern analysis. What is particularly appreciated is that the author does not attempt to enforce her developed opinion as fact, but rather puts forward the information and lets the reader decide. It’s a power I, as the reader, appreciates being given.
As is Licence’s wont, Red Roses is a thorough and detailed piece of work, well researched and different enough from other Wars of the Roses books to make it a worthwhile read. Although I would have preferred to see colour photographs, that this is the only real gripe I have with the book is indicative of the strength of the work presented. It’s a fascinating project documenting the lives of many intriguing women, connected through a shared Lancastrian affinity. An engaging and informative read.
Amy Licence is the author of several books on the Tudor dynasty and the Wars of the Roses, including In Bed With the Tudors (‘A fascinating book examining the sex lives of the Tudors in unprecedented detail’ Daily Express), Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York and The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII. Amy has written for the Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and BBC History Magazine and has appeared on BBC radio and television. She lives in Canterbury with her husband and two children.