A leading Catholic historian's study of the Wars of the Roses is an admirable introduction to a deeply confusing period in English history, says Nick Thomas
The Wars of the Roses and the Lives of Five Men and Women in the Fifteenth Century by
Desmond Seward, Constable, £25
THE MID-15TH century must be one of the most confusing periods in English history. It was dominated by a brutal dynastic struggle sustained partly by personal ambition, partly by family vendetta, and in which many of the key players changed sides more than once. The red rose was adopted by Henry VII as the Lancastrian emblem only to combine it with the white rose of York once the war was Over; but the Wars of the Roses is far too colourful a concept, and far too well established to lose its currency now. Even accepting the anachronism, the conflict would be more accurately termed the "Battles of the Roses"; for, as Desmond Seward notes in this absorbing new account, it gener
ated only 13 weeks of active campaigning in the course of some 30 years. The wholesale death and devastation with which we associate those years was real enough, but was due to repeated outbreaks of plague, not to slaughter and pillage. This was a most unusual civil war, bitterly fought and yet leaving the general population largely untouched.
In order to clarify the story, Seward traces it through the lives of five people, all prominent in their way, who were directly involved; two soldiers (John de Vere and William Hastings, favourite of Edward IV), two ladies (Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, and Jane Shore), and one lawyer and cleric, John Moreton, who survived against the odds to enjoy old age as Archbishop of Canterbury. Although their intrusion into the main thread of history is occasionally a little forced ("Jane and her husband would probably have been in the crowd), the device works well, lending a human scale and sense of sequence to a period which otherwise seems inaccessibly complex and remote. The five interwoven biographies are also, of course, fine works of scholarship in their own right. In the course of this study, Seward also paints a vivid and bizarre picture of English medieval society, which aspired, still, to high ideals of chivalry and courtly love; and yet in which eleven-year-olds were examined, naked, by potential husbands, and fighting men hacked at the armour of their opponents with the pole-axe and the mace.
As our guide in this curious world, the author also enjoys the odd joke, describing how Hastings would often have found his friend and master, Edward IV, in bed with his once-and-future enemy, the Duke of Somerset before explaining why this need have no homosex. ual significance.
The Wars of the Roses i; admirably researched am noted, and liberally suppliet with informative illustra. dons. Seward also begins tip book with a chronology, Who's Who, and gertealogica trees, making it as hard a. possible for the reader to ge lost along the way. Ulti mutely, though, it is do author's own enthusiasm fo5 his subject which makes it st consistently entertaining.