Book Review: “The Wars of the Roses” by Alison Weir

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This is a ripping read! It was very hard to put this book down. Weir, in her inimitable way, can really write a good story. As she states in the introduction, Weir is not just recounting the history of the Wars of the Roses. Her intention is to give us her insight into the personalities involved. Indeed, what drove the Wars ever forward was the temperaments and egos of the principal characters.

Weir takes us back in time to the reign of King Richard II and his deposition by his Lancastrian cousin Henry of Bolingbroke who became King Henry IV. Many historians count this as the origin of the Wars of the Roses. Bolingbroke was the son of John of Gaunt, the third son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainaut. Technically, the heirs of the second son, Lionel of Antwerp would come first according to primogeniture. When King Henry VI’s reign degenerated into corruption and upheaval, Richard Duke of York came to believe he had a stronger claim to the throne as a descendant of Lionel, initiating warfare to assert what he thought was his rightful place. Thus began the series of battles in what came to be known as the Wars of the Roses, the name given to the conflict by the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott in the eighteenth century. What exactly the conflict was called by contemporaries is a matter of debate to this day.

When York dies in battle, the war is continued by his eldest son Edward, the future King Edward IV. Weir is masterful in explaining all the intricacies that led to the various battles. She gives excellent descriptions of the battles, citing primary sources. I especially like how she tells us the status of the battlefields to this day. As always, she writes in chronological order.

Each personality is described with her own personal insight. Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who came to be known as the Kingmaker, was very adept at using propaganda for his own ends. King Edward IV was ruthless. Queen Margaret of Anjou was intensely relentless in protecting the rights of her husband and son. William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk came to a very bad end. Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville and her family suffered greatly during the conflicts. The reader should be warned that the narrative concludes with the end of the readeption of Henry VI and the restoration of Edward IV. There are only a few short pages on what happened next.

The only critique I would give this book is that it was written in 1995 and some of the history has gone through revisions since then. For example, Queen Isabeau of France was not a notorious, pleasure-seeking adulteress. Elizabeth Woodville wasn’t greedy and arrogant. But these are just minor points in a magnificent narrative of this complicated and unsavory time in English history. I highly recommend this book.

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