Book Review: War of the Roses by Dan Jones

While I really enjoyed The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, I was a bit let down by this follow up. Dan Jones still wrote exceptionally well and did his best to be engaging. And there were certain items of interest that I found fascinating. For instance, I had never known that Catherine Valois was most likely all ready sleeping with Edmund Beaufort, cousin to her dead husband Henry V and cousin to Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. Apparently, according to Jones, the widowed Queen was known to be exceptionally horny. So when she married Owen Tudor, it was permitted because he was a political nobody (while of Welsh nobility, his family was stripped of their titles and lands, thus making him a non entity in the Court). So I did appreciate a little bit of this information on not only how Catherine could marry Owen Tudor, but why it was allowed. Though I did think the assumption she was just a horn dog was uncalled for. Yes, I realize it was something that the men at that time were referring to her as, but Jones could have stated that the men around her had issues with her youth instead of making it sound like she was a royal slut. Because it’s fine when a man of royal blood does it, but not a woman (Edward IV cough cough).

Funeral Effigy of Catherine Valois at Westminster Abbey

Another issue I had with this book is the lack of any information on Henry IV and Henry V. His previous book ends with Henry IV being crowned and this book is said to be the sequel and the continuation of that book. This book starts off with Henry VI’s coronation as an infant. That’s a lot of years missing between Henry IV being crowned and Henry V’s death that Jones has not covered at all. To me, it feels he’s done an incomplete story of the Plantagenets by not covering those two Kings and their successes and failures. Jones spent more time focused on the sex life of Henry V’s widow than on Henry V. And I find that troublesome. The only information most of us have out there about Henry IV and Henry V is from Shakespeare’s Hollow Crown series. While I love Shakespeare (and I do), his plays are part history and part entertainment. They were meant to be Tudor propaganda and, therefore, are not historically accurate (though I will admit that I cried at the beauty that is Hiddleston’s Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day Speech because it felt more realistic than any I have ever heard or seen as a Theatre person).

The Real Henry V (Courtesy of the National Portrait Galley); actually, he’s not bad looking.

So once again I feel cheated by not having a complete history of the Plantagents written by historians and it’s infuriating. In America, we are not given a good background in History. At the grade school level, we are repeatedly given lessons on the Pilgrims (who are always good, kind Christian folks who never did anything so reprehensible as give Native American’s blankets laced with smallpox), the Revolutionary War (and told it was because the British were taxing us to death when the truth is we were asking for representation and the ability to self-rule and make laws without having to wait for permission which is what Canada and Australia do), and good old Christopher Columbus, who discovered America (even though it’s named after America Vespucci, the Vikings were here before either of them and Columbus couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag).

Vikings: these bad-asses were here before Columbus, didn’t kill the Native People, some stayed, others went back. These guys deserve a holiday.

Also, Dan Jones basically told the same story I’ve read in countless other books. Practically every book on the War of the Roses focuses on the men. Henry VI is an idiot, his wife has a son that Jones states is Henry VI’s (though many historians don’t believe it since Henry VI was a known celibate and cringed at the mere suggestion of seeing a woman’s breast). Henry VI was also known to have stated that his wife must have gotten impregnated by God himself, which tells you that he never slept with his wife and died a virgin. Also, Jones basically repeats what everyone believes thanks to Tudor propaganda-Richard III is evil.

Reconstruction of Richard III based on his skull (courtesy of the Richard III Society)

Portrait of Richard III (most likely as Duke of Gloucester); Courtesy of Richard III Society

This is where Mr. Jones and I have a big disagreement. He will state prior to becoming King, Richard, Duke of Gloucester was known to his contemporaries as a kind man, big hearted (contemporary court historian John Rous), pious, generous, friend to the poor and downtrodden (contemporary Dominic Mancini), loyal to the Crown (contemporary Robert Fabyan), loyal to his family, and a man who always did what was best for the people, not the titled (Mancini again, writing to an Archbishop). He gives evidence of how Richard set up laws so poor people could petition the courts even when they didn’t have money due to a defense fund created for the duration of the life of one man (a clerk) so the poor would always have the means to seek redress. Jones points out how Richard refused money from towns when he visited and always asked that the funds be returned to those who gave it. Richard spent his own money fixing churches in poor areas, donating to ensure the poor could be buried properly, and always making sure his own bastard children were well looked after and loved. Contrast this with his two elder brothers, Edward IV and Clarence, Earl of Warwick.

Edward IV courtesy of the Richard III Society & Royal.Co.UK

No where in this book do I have any sympathy for Edward IV. He decides to take the crown from Henry VI because his father, Richard of York failed to. He was known to promise well-born ladies marriage in order to sleep with them, which was legal and considered a binding contract in those days. He was known to have promised something to Eleanor Butler (also known as Eleanor Talbot after the death of her husband), Elizabeth Lucy (also known as Elizabeth Wyte, who did bear him a son) and Elizabeth Grey (also known as Elizabeth Woodville). It is documented that he promised Elizabeth Woodville marriage IF he could sleep with her. So is it beyond the realm of possibilities that he did so with two other women? Does it make his children with Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate? Yes and no. If he promised Eleanor Butler first, then after the woman’s death in 1468, all he had to do was remarry Elizabeth Woodville. That’s it. But he was arrogant and cheated on her numerous times and had a favorite mistress, Jane Shore, that he paraded in court AFTER his marriage. His brother, Clarence was no better. Clarence married Isobel Neville to spite Edward. When she died unexpectedly due to childbirth, he murdered one of her servants (a woman) for no reason. Clarence himself wanted the Crown and hated Edward’s children. Edward retaliated by having Clarence put to death and drowned in a tub of wine (not kidding, Edward killed his own brother). No wonder their mother, Cecily, didn’t like either of them.

Death of Clarence (illustration from the 1900s) [Public Domain Image]

This then brings us to the two princes in the tower. Except there was another boy in the tower. Clarence’s son was also in the tower and had been since his dad’s death. As for the princes, Dan Jones fails to recognize that there was one person who really wanted those boys dead-Margaret Beaufort. She decided when her son Henry was six, he would be King one day. She was descendant from John of Gaunt through illegitimacy and married Edward Tudor. He died and she gave birth at the age of thirteen. Henry was her only child. She quickly married another husband as her son was basically put on house arrest and shuffled around. And when that husband died, she married another less than six months later. But she wanted him to be King.

Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond & Derry, Psedo Queen (Courtesy of Royal.Co.UK)

Having Edward IV’s sons declared illegitimate was one thing, but I don’t think Richard III would have his own nephews killed. If they died, it’s possible they died of the flu, which recently came to the shores of england around that time (1480s) . His own son died from the flu or pneumonia. Children died of illnesses all the time. Vaccines really weren’t available. Margaret Beaufort was petitioning Elizabeth Woodville in secret at this time to marry off Elizabeth of York to Henry WITH the promise he would be KING. Sounds like a good plan except by making Elizabeth of York legitimate, you are making those two boys legitimate as well, and Henry can’t be king. But Henry MUST be king. It was something Jones never discusses because like most male historians, he refuses to think women are capable of murder or of plotting to murder. But it’s much easier to buy into the Tudor propaganda that Richard III is just evil, even though he posts all these contradictory statements from historians at the time telling us Richard was actually a pretty decent guy and a better king than his brother.

Henry VIII (Royal .CO.UK)

At least Jones goes on to state how after the death of Elizabeth York, Henry VII then goes about killing anyone with the remote linkage to the York or Plantagenets, because nothing says be a good role model for your son and heir, Henry VIII, than a good old fashioned murdering spree. Henry VII killed Margaret Poole, daughter of Clarence (remember Clarence). She was old and in her 60s. And Henry VII had her beheaded because her blood was a threat to him. At least know we know where Henry VIII got his paranoia from.

So, do I recommend this book? I think it’s fine. It’s not badly written and Jones does a good job of weaving together the different strands of history together. I do wish he had actually given us Henry IV and Henry V since he references them so much in this book and his previous book. It’s really hard to appreciate both of those men when one has very little knowledge of them. And I liked the book written about the women during this time period much more than this one. This one just seemed more of the standard, run of the mill kind of book. this doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t purchase it. It IS the other half to the previous book and if I get that one, I feel obligated to purchase this one. I just wouldn’t rank this one high on being personally enjoyable for me.