Post-classical history

Introduction: The Wars of the Roses?

At seven o’clock in the morning on Friday 27 May 1541, within the precincts of the Tower of London, an old woman walked out into the light of a spring day. Her name was Margaret Pole. By birth, blood and lineage she was one of the noblest women in England. Her father, George duke of Clarence, had been the brother to a king and her mother, Isabel Neville, had in her time been co-heir to one of the greatest earldoms in the land. Both parents were now long gone, memories from another age and another century.

Margaret’s life had been long and exciting. For twenty-five years she had been the countess of Salisbury, one of only two women of her time to hold a peerage in her own right. She had until recently been one of the five wealthiest aristocrats of her generation, with lands in seventeen counties. Now, at sixty-seven – ancient by Tudor standards – she appeared so advanced in age that intelligent observers took her to be eighty or ninety.1

Like many inhabitants of the Tower of London, Margaret Pole was a prisoner. Two years previously she had been stripped of her lands and titles by an act of parliament which accused her of having ‘committed and perpetrated diverse and sundry other detestable and abominable treasons’ against her cousin, King Henry VIII. What these treasons were was never fully evinced, because in truth Margaret’s offences against the crown were more general than particular. Her two principal crimes were her close relation to the king and her suspicion of his adoption of the new forms and doctrines of Christian belief that had swept through Europe during the past two decades. For these two facts, the one of birthright and the second of conscience, she had lived within London’s stout, supposedly impervious riverside fortress, which bristled with cannon from its whitewashed central tower, for the past eighteen months.

Margaret had lived well in jail. Prison for a sixteenth-century aristocrat was supposed to be a life of restricted movement tempered by decent, even luxurious conditions, and she had been keen to ensure that her confinement met the highest standard. She expected to serve a comfortable sentence, and when she found the standards wanting, she complained.2 Before she was moved to London she had spent a year locked in Cowdray House in West Sussex, under the watch of the unenthusiastic William Fitzwilliam, earl of Southampton. The earl and his wife had found her spirited and indignant approach to incarceration rather tiresome and had been glad when she was moved on.

In the Tower, Margaret was able to write letters to her relatives and was provided with servants and good, expensive food. Her nobility was not demeaned. Earlier in the year Queen Catherine’s tailor had been appointed to make her a set of new clothes, and just a few weeks previously more garments had turned up, ordered and paid for directly by the king. Henry had also sent his cousin a nightgown lined with fur and another with Cypriot satin, petticoats, bonnets and hose, four pairs of shoes and a new pair of slippers. More than £15 – roughly the equivalent of two years’ wages for a common labourer at the time – had been spent on her clothing in just six months. As she walked out into the cool morning air, Margaret Pole could therefore have reflected that, although she was due to be beheaded that morning, she would at least die wearing new shoes.

Her execution had been arranged in a hurry. She had been informed only hours previously that the king had ordered her death: a shockingly short time for an old lady to prepare her spirit and body for the end. According to a report that reached Eustace Chapuys, the exceptionally well-informed Imperial ambassador to England, the countess ‘found the thing very strange’, since she had no idea ‘of what crime she was accused, nor how she had been sentenced’. Few, in truth, would ever quite understand what threat this feeble old lady could have posed to a king as powerful and self-important as Henry VIII.

A thin crowd had gathered to bear witness. They stood by a pathetically small chopping block, erected so hastily that it was simply set on the ground and not, as was customary, raised up on a scaffold. According to Chapuys, when Margaret arrived before the block she commended her soul to her creator and asked those present to pray for King Henry and Queen Catherine, the king’s two-year-old son, Prince Edward, and the twenty-five-year-old Princess Mary, her god-daughter. But as the old woman stood talking to the sparse crowd (Chapuys put the number at 150; the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, suggested it was fewer), a feeling of restlessness went around. She was told to hurry up and place her neck on the little piece of wood.

The Tower’s regular executioner was not on duty that morning. He was in the north, alongside King Henry, who had visited the farthest reach of his kingdom to dampen the threat of rebellion against his rule. The Tower’s axe had therefore been entrusted to a deputy: a man of tender years and little experience in the difficult art of decapitation. (Chapuys described him as a ‘wretched and blundering youth’.) He was faced with a task wildly inappropriate to his ability. Only one other noblewoman had been executed in England since the Norman Conquest: the king’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. She had been beheaded in a single stroke with a sword by a specially imported French executioner. This was not that, and the hapless executioner knew it. When the signal was given to strike, he brought the weapon down towards the block. But he botched the job. Rather than cutting cleanly through Margaret’s neck in one stroke, he slammed the axe’s blade into the old woman’s shoulders and head. She did not die. He brought the axe down again, and missed again. It took several more blows to despatch her, a barbarous assault in which the inept axeman literally hacked the old woman’s upper body to pieces. It was a foul and cruel butchery that would shock everyone who heard of it. ‘May God in his high Grace pardon her soul,’ wrote Chapuys, ‘for certainly she was a most virtuous and honourable lady.’3


Margaret Pole was at one level just another casualty of the religious wars that dominated the sixteenth century, in which followers of the old faith – Roman Catholicism – and various splinter groups of the new faith – Protestantism – sought to smite one another into submission. These wars took different forms. Occasionally they were fought between kingdoms allied to opposing faiths, but far more often, the religious wars were civil and dynastic conflicts that ripped individual kingdoms asunder. This was certainly the case in England during the 1540s, and Margaret’s execution in that sense represented a reforming king’s deliberate strike against a powerful family who clung to the old faith.

Yet her death could also be seen as the undignified final act in a long spell of non-religious aristocratic violence that had begun nearly a century earlier. These were wars of politics and personality that had sprung from a struggle for hegemony following the slow but catastrophic collapse of royal authority from the late 1440s onwards. This conflict, usually assumed to have been closed on the accession of Henry Tudor as Henry VII in 1485 and his defence of the crown at the battle of Stoke in 1487, in fact continued to haunt sixteenth-century politics long afterwards. Certainly it played a role in Margaret Pole’s death, for this old woman was one of the last surviving members of the Plantagenet dynasty and a living relic of what we now call the wars of the roses.

Dozens of Margaret’s immediate and extended family had fallen victim to these wars. Her father, George duke of Clarence, was twenty-eight when his brother King Edward IV had him executed for treason – drowned in a butt of the sweet Greek wine known as malmsey, in memory of which Margaret was said always to wear a tiny wine keg on her bracelet.4 Two of her paternal uncles had been slaughtered in pitched battles during the 1470s and 1480s. Both of her grandfathers had also died on the battlefield; one ending his days with his head impaled on the city gates of York, a paper crown nailed to his skull. Margaret’s brother Edward, styled but not officially recognised as earl of Warwick, had spent most of his twenty-four years of life imprisoned in the Tower of London. Henry VII had ordered his execution by beheading in November of 1499, when rumours spread of a plot to break him out of jail. Margaret’s eldest son Henry Pole, Lord Montague, was executed in January 1539; her eldest grandson, Montague’s heir, also called Henry, would die while incarcerated in the Tower some time after 1542. The whole history of the Pole family between the 1470s and 1540s was one of brutal destruction undertaken by three different kings. And in this the Poles were far from exceptional. They were simply the last of the great aristocratic families to be persecuted to extinction in the wars of the roses.

That England was used to killing its most illustrious men and women did not detract from the profound shock that Margaret Pole’s callous execution caused around Europe. By 13 June the news had reached Antwerp, and a week later it had spread to the Imperial Court.5 In early August the countess’s second son, Reginald Pole, a renegade Catholic churchman who had risen to the rank of cardinal, wrote bitterly to Juan Alvarez de Toledo, cardinal archbishop of Burgos, that his mother had ‘perished, not by the law of nature, but by a violent death, inflicted on her by one from whom it was the last due, as he was her cousin’. Reginald’s only consolation in his mother’s savage murder was that she had suffered a martyr’s death. ‘To suffer as Christ, his Apostles, and so many martyrs and virgins suffered, is not ignominious,’ he wrote, but Pole nevertheless went on to compare Henry VIII unfavourably to the ancient tyrants Herod, Nero and Caligula. ‘Their cruelty is far surpassed by the iniquity of this man, who, with much less semblance of justice, put to death a most innocent woman, who was of his own kin, of advanced age, and who had grown old with a reputation for virtue.’6

To paint Henry VIII as a brute killer in a long line of otherwise virtuous kings was somewhat disingenuous. Henry was certainly capable of violence and cruelty towards members of his own family, but such were the times. Indeed, if anything could be said for Margaret’s death it was that it marked the end of the bloodbath that had been continuing on and off since the 1450s. When her poor, mangled body finally dropped to the ground, there remained barely a single drop of Plantagenet royal blood in England, other than the little which flowed in the veins of Henry VIII and his three children. Nearly a century of butchery was coming to an end not by choice but by default: almost all the potential victims were now dead.


One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase ‘the wars of the roses’ came from the pen of the nineteenth-century British writer and royal tutor Lady Maria Callcott. Her children’s book Little Arthur’s History of England was first published in 1835. In describing the violent upheaval that convulsed England in the fifteenth century, Callcott wrote, ‘For more than thirty years afterwards, the civil wars in England were called the wars of the Roses.’7 She was right and she was wrong. The precise phrase is not recorded before the first quarter of the nineteenth century, but the idea of a country torn in half by the rival houses of Lancaster and York, represented respectively by the emblems of red and white roses, went back in some form to the fifteenth century.

Roses were a popular symbol throughout Europe during the middle ages, and their colours, whether deployed in politics, literature or art, were judged to have important and often opposing meanings. The fourteenth-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio used red and white roses in hisDecameron to symbolise the entwined themes of love and death.8 Roses were doodled in the margins and illuminated letters in books of prayer, calendars and scientific texts.9 Aristocratic families in England had included roses in their heraldic badges since at least the reign of Henry III in the thirteenth century.10 But in the later fifteenth century in England, red and white roses began to be associated closely with the fortunes of rival claimants to the crown.

The first royal rose was the white rose, representing the house of York – the descendants of Richard duke of York, who asserted his right to the crown in 1460. When Richard’s son Edward became King Edward IV in 1461, the white rose was one of a number of symbols he used to advertise his kingship. Indeed, as a young man Edward was known as ‘the rose of Rouen’, and on his military victories his supporters sang ‘blessed be that flower!’11 In later decades, the white rose was adopted by many of those who chose to align themselves with Edward’s memory, particularly if they wished to stake their claim to royal pre-eminence by virtue of their relationship to him.

The red rose was far less common until it was adopted and promoted vigorously by Henry Tudor (Henry VII ) in the 1480s. The earliest quasi-royal use of the red rose was by Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV ), who had his pavilions decorated with the flowers during his famous trial by combat against Thomas Mowbray in 1398.12 There is some (slight) evidence that red roses were also associated with Henry IV’s grandson, Henry VI. But it was only after the battle of Bosworth in 1485 that red roses flourished as a royal badge, representing Henry VII’s claim to the crown through his connection to the old dukes of Lancaster. The red rose was then used as a counterpoint to the white, puffing up the weak Tudor claims to royal legitimacy. (‘To avenge the White, the Red Rose bloomed,’ wrote one chronicler, studiously following the party line after Bosworth.13) As king, Henry VII had his scribes, painters and librarians plaster documents with red roses – even going so far as to modify books owned by earlier kings so that their lavish illuminations included roses of his own favoured hue.14

The red rose was more often invoked retrospectively, as its principal purpose after 1485 was to pave the way for a third rose: the so-called ‘Tudor rose’, which was a combination of white and red, either superimposed, quartered or simply wound together. The Tudor rose was invented to symbolise the unity that had supposedly been brought about when Henry VII married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York in 1486, entwining the two warring branches, the houses of Lancaster and York, together. The story this rose told was of politics as romance: it explained a half-century of turmoil and bloodshed as the product of two divided families, who were brought to peace by a marriage that promised to commingle the feuding rivals. When Henry VII’s son Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, the court poet John Skelton, who grew up during the worst of the violence, wrote that ‘the Rose both White and Red / In one Rose now doth grow’. The idea of ‘wars of the roses’ – and, most importantly, of their resolution with the arrival of the Tudors – was thus by the early sixteenth century a commonplace. The concept took hold because it offered up a simple, powerful narrative: a tale that made the world, if not black and white, then red and white. It implicitly justified the Tudors’ claim to the crown. And to writers over the centuries – including the Tudor historians Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, Elizabethan dramatists such as William Shakespeare, eighteenth-century thinkers such as Daniel Defoe and David Hume, and nineteenth-century novelists like Walter Scott, all of whom invoked the roses in their depictions of the wars – the idea was irresistible. But was it really true?

The answer, alas, is no. Modern historians have come to understand that the wars of the roses were far more complex and unpredictable than is suggested by their alluring title. The middle-to-late decades of the fifteenth century experienced sporadic periods of extreme violence, disorder, warfare and bloodshed, an unprecedented number of usurpations of the throne, the collapse of royal authority, an upheaval in the power politics of the English nobility, murders, betrayals, plots and coups, the savage elimination of the direct descendants of the last Plantagenet patriarch, King Edward III, and the arrival of a new royal dynasty, the Tudors, whose claim to the throne by right of blood was somewhere between highly tenuous and non-existent. It was a dangerous and uncertain period in which England’s treacherous political life was driven by a cast of quite extraordinary characters, men and women alike, who sometimes resorted to unfathomable brutality and cruelty. The scale of the violence, the size and frequency of the battles that were fought, the rapidly shifting allegiances and motivations of the rivals, and the peculiar nature of the problems that were faced were baffling to many contemporaries and have remained so to many historians. This is one very good reason why a simple narrative of warring families split and reunited took root in the sixteenth century and has endured so long afterwards. But it is also true that this version of history was deliberately encouraged in the sixteenth century for political ends. The Tudors, particularly Henry VII, promoted the red rose/white rose myth vigorously, drawing on methods of dynastic propaganda that had been employed reaching far back to promote the dual monarchy of England and France during the Hundred Years War. Their success is self-evident. Even today, with several generations of modern historians having put forward sophisticated explanations for the ‘wars of the roses’, drawing on research into late medieval law, economics, culture and political thought, the simple Lancaster/York narrative is still the one that prevails when the fifteenth century becomes the subject of screen drama, popular fiction and discussion in the press. Victory to the Tudors, then: the very notion of ‘the wars of the roses’ continues to reflect that dynasty’s innate genius for self-mythologising. They were masters of the art.

This book tells several overlapping stories. In the first place it seeks to draw an authentic picture of this harsh and troubled period, looking where possible past the distorting lens of the sixteenth century and of Tudor historiography and viewing the fifteenth century on its own terms. What we will find is the disastrous result of a near-total collapse in royal authority under the kingship of Henry VI, who began his rule as a wailing baby and ended it as a shambling simpleton, managing in between to trigger a crisis unique in its nature and unlike any of the previous constitutional moments of the late middle ages in England. This is a story not of vain aristocrats attempting to overthrow the throne for their own personal gain – of ‘bastard feudalism’ gone awry and ‘overmighty nobles’ scheming to wreck the realm (both have, at times, been explanations put forward for the wars) – but of a polity battered on every side by catastrophe and hobbled by inept leadership. It is the story of a realm that descended into civil war despite the efforts of its most powerful subjects to avert disaster.

For nearly thirty years, Henry VI’s hopeless rule was held together by the endeavours of fine men and women. But they could only strain so hard. The second phase of our story examines the consequences of one man’s decision that the best solution for this benighted realm was no longer to induce a weak king to govern his realm more competently, but to cast him aside and claim the crown for himself. The means by which Richard duke of York did this were not unprecedented, but they proved extremely destructive. To a crisis of authority was added a crisis of legitimacy as the ‘Yorkists’ began to argue that the right to rule was not only a matter of competence but was carried in their blood. The second part of our story charts this stage of the conflict, and its eventual settlement under the able and energetic king Edward IV, who re-established the authority and prestige of the crown and, by the time of his death, appeared to have brought England back to some semblance of normalcy and good governance.

The third part of our story asks a simple question: how on earth, from this point, did the Tudors end up kings and queens of England? The family spawned by the unlikely secret coupling of a widowed French princess and her Welsh servant during the late 1420s ought never to have found themselves anywhere near a crown. Yet when Edward IV died in 1483 and his brother Richard III usurped the crown and killed Edward’s sons, the Tudors suddenly became extremely important. The third strand to our story tracks their struggle to establish their own royal dynasty – one that would become the most majestic and imperious dynasty that England had ever known. Only from the slaughter and chaos of the fifteenth century could such a family have emerged triumphant, and only by continuing the slaughter could they secure their position. So as well as examining the wars of the roses as a whole, this book drills down into the early history of the Tudors, presenting them not according to their own myth, but as the fifteenth century really found them.

Finally, this book examines the Tudors’ struggles to keep the crown after 1485 and the process by which their history of the wars of the roses was established: how they created a popular vision of the fifteenth century so potent and memorable that it not only dominated the historical discourse of the sixteenth century, but has endured up to our own times.

That, then, is the aim. My last book, The Plantagenets, told the story of the establishment of England’s great medieval dynasty. This book tells the story of its destruction. The two books do not quite follow chronologically from one another, but they can, I hope, be read as a pair of complementary works. Here, as before, I aim to tell the tale of an extraordinary royal family in a way that is scholarly, informative and entertaining.

As ever I must thank my literary agent, Georgina Capel, for her brilliance, patience and good cheer. I also owe a great debt of thanks to my visionary editor at Faber in the UK, Walter Donohue, and to the equally wonderful Joy de Menil at Viking in the US. They and their teams have made this book a pleasure to write. I am grateful also to the staffs at the libraries, archives, castles and battlefields I have visited during the writing of this book – and most particularly to the staff at the London Library, British Library and National Archives, where I have spent a great deal of my time over the last few years. The book is dedicated to my wife, Jo Jones, who, with my daughters Violet and Ivy, has once again suffered my scribbling with love and humour.

And so to our story. In order fully to comprehend the process by which Plantagenet rule was destroyed and the Tudor dynasty established, we open not in the 1450s, when politics began to fracture into violence and warfare, nor in the 1440s, when the first signs of deep political turmoil emerged, nor even in the 1430s, when the first ‘English’ ancestors of the Tudor monarchs were born. Rather, our story starts in 1420, when England was the most powerful nation in western Europe, its king the flower of the world, and its future apparently brighter than at any time before: a time when the idea that within a generation England would be the most troubled realm in Europe would have been little short of preposterous. As with so many tragedies, our story opens with a moment of triumph. Let us begin.


Battersea, London, February 2014

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