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


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.

Book Review: “The Warrior Queens: The Legends and the Lives of the Women Who Have Led Their Nations in War” by Antonia Fraser

The warrior Queens Fraser

Before there was Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory, and other contemporary women historians and writers, there was Antonia Fraser. Many years ago, in her heyday, I read everything she wrote that I could get my hands on. There was “Mary, Queen of Scots, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, “King Charles II” and a biography of Marie Antoinette, among others. Her non-fiction books were the gold standard of history. But somehow I missed “The Warrior Queens”.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Boudica, the Celtic queen of the Iceni tribe who rose up in rebellion against the occupying Romans in Britain in the mid-first century. I had heard she burned London to the ground! What an amazing story. I had to learn more. Apparently, Fraser felt the same way. The writing of this book was born out by her love of the story of Boudica. Most of the book is dedicated to Boudica’s story, relating it to the lives of other women who led their nations in war. Many of the women in this book I have heard of such as Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, the Empress Matilda of England and her cousin King Stephen’s wife Matilda of Boulogne, the twelfth century Georgian Queen Tamara, Isabella of Castile, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. These are some of my favorite women of history.

Fraser gives us the story of these women leading their troops into war in her inimitable intellectual manner which is very compelling. Her history is fair and balanced, engaging and fun. Her historical arguments make good sense. I especially found the story of the Rani of Jhansi to be captivating. She led her troops against the British during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. I knew nothing about her so it was refreshing to learn of her convictions and bravery.

Her final subjects are Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. It is interesting to see Fraser’s perspective on these modern women and their role in war. This book is women’s history at its finest. I can’t recommend it enough. I couldn’t put it down.

Review: “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World” by Alison Weir

Portrait of Elizabeth of York

Portrait of Elizabeth of York

When I heard that Alison Weir was writing a biography of Elizabeth of York, I eagerly awaited its release. Having been a long time reader of Weir’s non-fiction works and knowing very little about Elizabeth of York made this book highly anticipated. And I was not disappointed!

Elizabeth of York has very much been an enigma to historians. While we still don’t know what her personality was really like, this book shines a bright spotlight on her. It starts out by explaining the circumstances into which Elizabeth was born as the eldest child of King Edward IV. The War of the Roses had been ongoing for about ten years at the time of her birth. Weir tells us of the family dynamics and how the throne of England vacillated back and forth between the members of the Houses of Lancaster and York. When Elizabeth was fairly young, her father was forced to flee the country and Elizabeth, her mother and her sisters sought refuge in sanctuary. Edward eventually came back and had a fairly peaceful reign until his unexpected death in 1483.

Elizabeth and her family’s life was thrown into turmoil as her uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, declared her and her brothers and sisters illegitimate. He set aside Elizabeth’s brother King Edward V and took the throne as king. Her mother took her family into sanctuary once again and both of Elizabeth’s brothers disappeared in the Tower of London, making Elizabeth her father’s heir. It was a very tense time. The plotting and scheming on the part of King Richard III, Elizabeth and her mother and Margaret Beaufort and her son Henry Tudor is explained in great detail by Weir.

Once Henry Tudor won the Battle of Bosworth in August of 1485 and gained the throne of England by right of conquest, he married Elizabeth. Weir explains that Henry wanted to make it clear he had won the throne and wasn’t relying so much on Elizabeth’s position as her father’s heir to legitimize his conquest. Perhaps this is why we don’t know as much about Elizabeth as we would like. Whether it was at her husband’s bequest or her own wish or both to remain in the background, we will never know.

Weir gives us a detailed account of Elizabeth’s life as queen, almost on a day-to-day basis. She tells us how Elizabeth spent her time and her money, who gave her gifts, the birth of her children and the status of her health. She has some great insights into Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband and her children. I found this to be quite fascinating. The book gives us great insight into life in the early Tudor court. It is meticulously researched and highly footnoted and has a very long list of sources. Weir has obviously done her research and is at the height of her writing powers. A thoroughly enjoyable read!