Shakespeare has a lot to answer for when it comes to promoting inaccurate ideas about English (yep, that’s English, no “British” crown in the 15th century, which someone should point out to Channel 5) history, not the least of which is getting people thinking that the Wars of the Roses all kicked off with rival factions picking different-coloured roses in a flower garden. It didn’t! There also –and, to be fair, this one isn’t Shakespeare’s fault – seems to be an idea that it was between the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, which is even further wide of the mark. Yes, we talk about “Roses matches” when a team or an individual from our great red rose county of Lancashire takes on a team or an individual from that place on the other side of the Pennines, but it really hasn’t got anything to do with the events of the 15th century!
Then there’s the idea that it was a dynastic feud between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Well, yes, it was. Or, at least, it became one. But, as Dan Jones pointed out in this programme, the whole issue of rival claims to the throne and who was descended from which son of Edward III and whether or not claims via the maternal line counted might well never have become an issue had Henry VI been a reasonably competent king. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. He does seem to have been unsuited to the role of king – like Edward the Confessor, he’d probably have made a much better monk than he did a king – but the main problem was that, like his maternal grandfather Charles VI of France he suffered from severe mental illness, possibly a form of schizophrenia. For a time, he was completely catatonic: he didn’t respond to anything. It was nobody’s fault, just a very sad situation, but it was also a very serious situation – a king who was not capable of ruling.
The villain of the Wars of the Roses, if you ask me, was the Earl of Warwick – changing sides to suit himself, always with both eyes on the main chance, using his daughters as pawns to gain marriage alliances with both sides. He seems to have been very popular at the time, but he always seems like a right nasty piece of work to me. Strangely, I don’t think he was even mentioned in this programme, but presumably there’ll be more about him in the second episode. However, it’s usually Margaret of Anjou who gets the bad press, and that annoys me. The reason she gets the bad press is purely because she was a woman. Yes, she showed ruthlessness and even brutality after some of the battles, but that was the way it was in the 15th century. No-one criticises her father-in-law, the great hero Henry V, for executing prisoners of war after battles in France, do they? What Margaret was doing was trying to safeguard the position and rights of her husband and her son. If she’d been a bloke, everyone would have thought she was a great hero as well. And I was very glad to see Dan Jones come out in support of her.
And then there was Richard of York. Trying to overthrow his cousin and seize the throne for himself? Well, as Dan Jones emphasised, no, not originally. He wanted power, but originally only as the leader of a Royal Council. The country was in a mess. The war in France, the Hundred Years’ War as we now know it, was going disastrously badly, law and order was breaking down at home, and the court was rife with corruption and debt. And throw in some feuding favourites and some relatives whose legitimacy was disputed. A right royal mess, all in all. It’s not hard to argue that Richard was, and believed he was, acting in the best interests of the entire nation by trying to intervene.
Dan Jones’s argument was that both Richard and Margaret thought they were trying to do what was best for the country, which was a reasonable assessment of things. But he also said that the baddie in all this was Henry. That was very badly put. Henry couldn’t help being ill. But his illness made him unfit to rule. And then it all started to spiral, as things do. Richard wanted to be recognised as Henry’s heir. He had a legitimate argument based on his descent from the second son of Edward III, and a grown man with plenty of political and military experience would probably have been a better bet as heir than young Edward, the Prince of Wales. But Margaret didn’t want her son disinherited, and she can hardly be blamed for that. And the Lancastrians had been on the throne, as anointed kings for well over half a century by then.
So on it all went … with the Earl of Warwick stirring it all up at every chance he got. I’ll be very interested to hear what Dan Jones has to say about him next week. And maybe the strangest thing about the Wars of the Roses is that it must have seemed, in early 1483, that they were all over and done with. Edward IV was secure on the throne, with an heir and a spare waiting in the wings and Henry VI and Prince Edward of Lancaster long dead. Who would have believed, then, that Henry Tudor would take the throne in September 1485? And it went on for decades and decades after that. It was 1541, over 80 years since the trouble first started, when poor Margaret Pole went to the scaffold. Even in the 1550s, Reginald Pole was being mentioned as a possible husband for Mary Tudor, and Edward Courtenay for Elizabeth. It was perhaps really only by the end of the 16th century, talk about a possible successor to Elizabeth was revolving largely around the descendants of Henry VII, with the odd rather bonkers argument in favour of the Spanish descendants of John of Gaunt’s second marriage, that it was possible to say that the Wars of the Roses were completely in the past.
One final point. Why on earth is this programme called Britain’s Bloody Crown?! Come on, Channel 5! Do you really think that either the Lancastrians or the Yorkists were or ever aspired to be Kings of Scotland? England’s Bloody Crown, if you don’t mind! As schoolboy errors go, that really is a bad one …