14.05.05, Grummitt, A Short History of the Wars of the Roses

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Paul E. J. Hammer

The Medieval Review 14.05.05

Grummitt, David. A Short History of the Wars of the Roses. London: I.B. Taurus, 2012. Pp. xliii, 212. ISBN: 9781848858756.

Reviewed by:
Paul E. J. Hammer
University of Colorado at Boulder

David Grummitt's "short history" of the Wars of the Roses offers an excellent overview of England's infamous civil wars of the fifteenth century. Its opening pages are full of the information which students new to this period will find useful. There is a basic timeline, family trees, a map showing the location of major battles, a series of biographical notes on important individuals mentioned in the text and a brief overview of the relevant historiography. The eight chapters which comprise the core of the book read well. They are logically structured, clearly divided into brief sub-sections and supported by a smattering of endnotes. At the end, there is an annotated bibliography which judiciously identifies further reading, including some items not yet published. However, the book also harbors greater intellectual ambitions than this standard "short history" format suggests. As a scholar whose work has straddled the historiographical divide of 1485 which traditionally separates "late medieval" and "Tudor" England, Grummitt knows first-hand how pernicious the effects of this hallowed chronological boundary marker have been on our understanding of pre- Reformation England. In this book (and especially in its final section), he seeks to challenges some deeply-entrenched assumptions about late medieval England and its place in the longer sweep of British history.

In his explanation of the long-term causes of the Wars of the Roses, Grummitt stresses the unstable political foundations of the new Lancastrian dynasty after 1399. With his weak dynastic claim to the throne, Henry IV was forced to rest his kingship heavily upon the notion of popular support and, more specifically, the approval of the commons. This encouraged an ever-louder buzz of the "comyne voyse" in English politics and proved a perilous strategy when later events and personalities increasingly directed the language of the common weal against the crown itself. Grummitt is also sharply critical of Henry V and his bid for dominion in France. The Treaty of Troyes was a Carthaginian peace and Henry V's inglorious death in defense of it burdened his son with an unsustainable legacy. Although the English crown surmounted the immediate problems after 1422, things began to turn sour in the mid-1440s as an older generation of royal officials were succeeded by younger men (19-20). Henry VI also proved himself a truly disastrous king. Time and again, Henry's direct personal interventions proved calamitous--starting with his determination to make peace with France at any cost, which eroded the popular support upon which the Lancastrian monarchy depended. By 1450, the king's political blundering and the unpopularity of his leading officials thrust Richard duke of York into the spotlight as the commons' supposed champion. Thereafter, Grummitt sees York as increasingly calculating and hypocritical in his deployment of the language of the common weal for his own political benefit. By the mid-1450s, Henry VI was an increasingly feeble political figure, caught between the parties forming around York and his own Queen Margaret. Even so, Grummitt emphasizes that "many, if not most, of the lords" were committed to neither side and clung to the hope that the national reconciliation which was dramatized by the Loveday of March 1458 could be sustained to save the realm from disaster (51-52). Events soon proved the contrary.

Four chapters describe the course of the Wars of the Roses between their "false beginning" at the "first" battle of St Albans in 1455 and the battle of Stoke in 1487. This narrative is largely political in focus. Although a few key battles are briefly described (Towton, Barnet, Tewkesbury, Bosworth), this is not a military history of the Wars. York's death in 1460 and the subsequent emergence of his eldest son Edward transformed English politics. Unlike his father, Edward was not tainted by the grubby political maneuvering of the 1450s. Grummitt notes that the Yorkist war effort benefitted decisively not only from London money and the military resources of Calais (where the earl of Warwick was captain), but also from their ability to recruit troops from Burgundy. Burgundian gunners proved especially valuable in reducing Lancastrian castles in Northumberland in 1462-1464 (75). Edward proved remarkably successful on the battlefield, but he and Warwick were also adept in deploying the language of the common weal to claim the crown had passed to Edward "by the elexyon of the comyns": "simply put, they won the propaganda war" (71, 76).

The Yorkist doubling-down on the political legitimacy conferred by popular acclaim in 1461 made Edward vulnerable to the same charges which had previously been levelled against Henry VI's government when Edward fell out with Warwick in the late 1460s. The famously giddy events of 1469-1471 proved both the potency and the limitations of these popular politics: Warwick could challenge, even displace the king, but "no amount of personal charisma or largesse could hide the fact that he was not king" (102). Edward's recapture of the crown and the near-extermination of the Lancastrian leadership in 1471 cleared the way for his "second reign," but he proved a disappointing king even when given the opportunity for a re-set. Edward repeatedly failed to live up to his own chivalric propaganda (and to spend taxes according to the purposes for which they were granted) when confronting France, while the execution of his brother Clarence for treason revealed bitter hatreds at the very heart of the royal family itself. Edward's regime was also haunted by the consequences of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Although Grummitt does not make the point as forcefully as he might, this was a politically disastrous (and characteristically self-indulgent) decision by Edward. Famously, it created the conditions for his brother, the duke of Gloucester, to displace the young Edward V and seize the crown for himself as Richard III in 1483. Grummitt says relatively little about the specific grounds for this action (for example, Edward's rumored precontract of marriage with Eleanor Butler), but he makes the interesting point that Richard's claim to the throne in 1483 closely paralleled the manner of Edward IV's own "election" as king in 1461 (115).

Despite the new king's claim to popular endorsement, the very public de-legitimation of Edward IV's children and the ominous disappearance of the late king's two sons ("the missing princes in the Tower") undermined the legitimacy of Richard III's kingship. Even his chief ally, the duke of Buckingham, turned against him, although the duke's precise motivation remains a matter for conjecture. Buckingham's rebellion was soon crushed, but Richard was widely seen as having moved "outside the bounds of acceptable political behavior" (117). One crucial sign of Richard's weakness was the number of former Yorkist partisans who plotted against him. Another was the surprising political seriousness now accorded to Henry Tudor, the long-exiled earl of Richmond, whose own highly dubious claim to Richard's throne was bolstered by a pledge to marry Edward IV's eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. During Edward IV's reign, Tudor had been a minor loose end to the Lancastrian catastrophe of 1471. Richard III's usurpation and the disappearance of Edward IV's sons transformed Tudor's prospects in ways which would otherwise have seemed improbable, especially when he moved from Brittany to France in late 1484. Even so, the French crown viewed Tudor's prospects as so weak that he was made over as a fictitious younger son of Henry VI: ironically, Tudor was himself the first of the impostor princes who would plague England until 1499.

Although Grummitt does not make this latter point, he follows recent work by Michael K. Jones in challenging the common idea that Henry Tudor became king of England primarily "by the grace of Charles VIII of France." [1] Instead of serious backing from the French crown, Tudor was merely allowed to contract private loans in France which enabled him to recruit a thousand veteran troops. However, these French mercenaries and their pikes proved crucial when Tudor's small army faced Richard III's forces at Bosworth in August 1485. In addition to protecting Tudor himself from Richard's direct cavalry assault, they ensured the battle lasted long enough to enable Tudor's stepfather, Lord Stanley, to betray Richard and attack his army from the rear. Stanley's betrayal, along with that of the earl of Northumberland (who kept his troops out of the battle altogether), underlined the political failure of Richard III's kingship. By contrast, when Henry VII faced a very similar invasion two years later, his whole army (including Stanley troops) went into action and destroyed the German and Irish mercenaries supporting Lambert Simnel, the supposed grandson of "Warwick the Kingmaker" and son of Clarence, and would-be Edward VI.

The final two chapters of the book explore the broader consequences of the Wars of the Roses, directly challenging "the general consensus among recent historians" that the civil wars "had little immediate and even less long-lasting impact on English society" (133). In Grummitt's view, England had undergone "an unprecedented militarization" (134) under the three Edwards, but the experience of the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century severely dented this embrace of war. Although a large proportion of the political elite took up arms at the outset of the conflict, the battlefield slaughter of 1460-1461 and repeated subsequent turnings of fortune's wheel encouraged a growing weariness of civil war and its costs among the aristocracy. The armies which fought at Bosworth in 1485 were much smaller and involved dramatically fewer members of the peerage than those at Towton in 1461. The experience of more than thirty years of intermittent civil war also increasingly turned the political elite against continuing to accept an overt role for the commons in national politics. By the 1470s and '80s, the "comyne voyse" was being stigmatized and countered with explicitly royalist propaganda. Henry Tudor pointedly never claimed popular approval for his usurpation of the crown in 1485, as Henry IV, Edward IV and Richard III had done. After 1485, the redefinition of "the commons" to deny their legitimate place in national politics "was of paramount importance to the development of a distinctly Tudor political culture" (163). Henry VII also privatized a large part of ordinary royal revenues, cloaking much of his expenditure in secrecy. If the late medieval period witnessed the rise of popular politics in England, the Wars of the Roses saw their fall.

Grummitt also directly challenges some assumptions central to the historiography of Tudor England. While humanism and Renaissance-style politics are commonly associated with the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, Grummitt notes that the studia humanitatis had a significant foothold in England by the 1430s and '40s. As a result, he argues, the humanist analysis of politics, a politic willingness to lie, deceive and even swear false oaths, and the occasional employment of shocking cruelty--Machiavellian politics avant la letter-- became accepted features of English political culture by the 1450s and '60s. Instead of the upstart Tudor dynasty, it was the Wars of the Roses of the mid-fifteenth century which spawned "a revolution in English politics" (178). In this compact but well-written and thoughtful book, Grummitt makes the case that the Wars of the Roses mattered much more in British history than is generally recognized and that scholars of the sixteenth century would do well to think much more about the events of the mid-fifteenth century.



1. Michael K. Jones, "The Myth of 1485: Did France Really put Henry Tudor on the Throne?," in The English Experience in France, c.1450- 1558: War, Diplomacy and Cultural Exchange, ed. D. Grummitt (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 63-105. Cf. A. V. Antonovics, "Henry VII, King of England, 'by the Grace of Charles VIII of France'," in Kings and Nobles in the Later Middle Ages, eds. R. A. Griffiths and J. W. Sherborne (New York: St Martin's Press, 1986), 169-184.

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Paul E. J. Hammer

University of Colorado at Boulder