The Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses

by Alison Weir


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Lancaster and York. For much of the fifteenth century, these two families were locked in battle for control of the English throne. Kings were murdered and deposed. Armies marched on London. Old noble names were ruined while rising dynasties seized power and lands. The war between the royal houses of Lancaster and York, the most complex in English history, profoundly altered the course of the monarchy. Alison Weir, one of the foremost authorities on British history, brings brilliantly to life both the war itself and the larger-tha-life figures who fought it on the great stage of England. The Wars of the Roses is history at its very best—swift and compelling, rich in character, pageantry, and drama, and vivid in its re-creation of an astonishing period of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345404336
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/1996
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 134,252
Product dimensions: 5.51(w) x 8.23(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen; The Marriage Game, A Dangerous Inheritance; Captive Queen; The Lady Elizabeth; and Innocent Traitor and numerous historical biographies, including The Lost Tudor Princess, Elizabeth of York, Mary Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband.

Read an Excerpt

The Riches of England
In 1466 a Bohemian nobleman, Gabriel Tetzel, visited England and described it as ‘a little, sea-girt garden’. The Italian scholar Polydore Vergil, writing at the end of the fifteenth century, was impressed by the country’s
delectable valleys, pleasant, undulating hills, agreeable woods, extensive meadows, lands in cultivation, and the great plenty of water springing everywhere. It is truly a beautiful thing to behold one or two thousand tame swans upon the River Thames. The riches of England are greater than those of any other country in Europe. There is no small innkeeper, however poor and humble he may be, who does not serve his table with silver dishes and drinking cups.
England, wrote Piero da Monte, papel envoy to the court of Henry VI, was ‘a very wealthy region, abounding in gold and silver and many precious things, full of pleasures and delights’.
Much of the land was then covered by forest and woodland. Flocks of sheep were to be seen everywhere, for the prestigious wool trade was the life-blood of the kingdom. Cattle, too, were much in evidence, as were herds of deer. Arable land was often still divided into the open strips typical of feudal farming, but in many places there were abandoned villages, fallen into decay around ruined churches. The Warwickshire antiquarian John Rous speaks of ‘the modern destruction of villages’ being ‘a national danger’. Many villages had disappeared after a large proportion of their inhabitants had died in the great epidemic of plague known as the Black Death of 1348–9. This depopulated some villages, and left others with too few inhabitants to cultivate the land. Those who remained were often able to negotiate cash wages in return for their labour and sometimes to exploit the social mobility that this new development gave them by moving elsewhere. Other villages had been swallowed up by farmers and landowners enclosing land that had formerly been common with hedges and fences, so as to provide grazing for wool-producing sheep.
There were 10,000 townships in England, but nearly all were the size of many modern villages. London was by far the largest city: around 60-75,000 people lived there. York, the second most important city, had 15,000 inhabitants, lesser towns perhaps 6,000 at most. Most towns and cities were bounded by the confines of their walls, and nestled in a rural environment. Trade centred on them and it was controlled by merchant guilds.
There was a network of roads linking towns and villages, but few minor roads. The upkeep of roads was generally the responsibility of local landowners, but they were often less than conscientious. In many parts of England travellers were obliged to hire local guides to see them to their destination, and roads were often rendered impassable by rain and mud. Contemporary records indicate that the climate was colder and wetter than it is now.
By 1485, England had a population of between 750,000 and 3,000,000. Estimates vary because the only available sources are the Poll Tax returns of 1381 and parliamentary records dated 1523–4. What is certain, however, is that England’s population was shrinking during the fifteenth century, and also that many people moved to the great wool-cloth producing areas in Yorkshire, East Anglia and the West Country. About nine-tenths of the population worked on the land; Venetian visitors noted how few people inhabited the countryside, and commented that the population of the realm did ‘not appear to bear any proportion to her fertility and riches’.
The Venetians saw the English as ‘great lovers of themselves. They think that there is no other world than England.’ Englishmen were deeply conservative: ‘If the King should propose to change any old established rule, it would seem to every Englishman as if his life were taken away from him.’ Foreigners, or ‘strangers’, as the insular English called them, were resented, and tended to live in tight communities, mainly in London, which was more cosmopolitan, or in East Anglia, where many Flemish weavers settled.
The Burgundian chronicler Philippe de Commines thought the English a choleric, earthy and volatile people, who nevertheless made good, brave soldiers. In fact he regarded their warlike inclinations as one of the chief causes of the Wars of the Roses. If they could not fight the French, he believed, they fought each other.
Many foreigners were impressed with English standards of living. One Venetian remarked that everyone wore very fine clothes, ate huge meals and drank vast amounts of beer, ale and wine. The roast beef, commented Vergil, ‘is peerless’. The Venetian ambassador was guest of honour at a banquet given by the Lord Mayor of London which lasted ten hours and was attended by a thousand people. What impressed him most, though, was the absolute silence in which the proceedings were conducted. This reflected the current English preoccupation with manners and etiquette. His retinue were moved to comment upon the extreme politeness of the islanders.
Northerners and southerners were seen as two distinct peoples – southerners were perceived as sophisticated, better educated, civilised, treacherous, even cowardly, being said to resemble Homer’s character Paris rather than the martial Hector. Northerners were regarded as brash, proud, fierce, warlike, violent, rapacious and uncouth. Their reputation for plundering was notorious, due no doubt to the primitive conditions in which they lived, for while southerners enjoyed luxuries, northerners subsisted on the breadline. As a result southerners feared northerners as much as northerners resented them.
As today, there were local variations in dialect, but in the fifteenth century these differed so much that even Kentishmen and Londoners had trouble understanding each other. Society was insular and localised and people referred to the county or shire in which they lived as their ‘country’; people in other ‘countries’ were regarded as foreigners.
Most travellers from abroad commented on the alabaster beauty and charm of Englishwomen, and many were amazed by their forwardness. One Bohemian visitor, Nicholas von Poppelau, discovered that they were ‘like devils once their desires were aroused’. He and others were enchanted, however, with the English custom of kissing on the mouth on greeting: ‘To take a kiss in England is the equivalent of shaking hands elsewhere.’
In the fifteenth century Western Europe regarded itself as a united entity bonded by a universal Catholic Church and the philosophy of a divinely ordered universe. Late mediaeval man held a deep-rooted belief that society was also ordered by God for the good of humanity, and this concept of order expressed itself in a pyramidical hierarchy that had God enthroned at the summit, kings immediately beneath Him, then – in descending order – the nobility and princes of the Church, the knights and gentry, the legal and professional classes, merchants and yeomen, and at the bottom the great mass of peasants. Each man was born to his degree, and a happy man was one who did not question his place in life.
God’s law was the natural law of the universe, as revealed in the Scriptures and in the divinely inspired canon and civil law of Church and State. Authority derived from God was sacrosanct. Peace and order could only be achieved when all classes of society were in harmony with each other. Disorder – such as heresy, rebellion, or trying to get above one’s station in life – was regarded as the work of the Devil and therefore as mortal sin. It was held that one of the chief duties of a king was to ensure that each of his liege men lived in the degree to which he was born. Sumptuary laws passed during the period regulating dress and behaviour were intended to preserve order in society; that they were necessary is evidence that already some traditional ideals were being challenged.
By the late fourteenth century the structure of English feudal society was showing signs of crumbling as a result of the social revolution engendered by the Black Death. In the fifteenth century the unity of Christendom was undermined by a decline in respect for the papacy and the Church and by a burgeoning nationalism in the countries of Western Europe. Men were also questioning the old concept of order in society. In 1381, the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt had asked: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ In the following century a new materialism fostered by trade and private enterprise gave birth to the beginnings of capitalism, just as the old land-based economy was changing in response to economic demands.
Change did not take place overnight. The order imposed upon society by Church and State was still a potent force in the fifteenth century. The English Church was then part of the ‘Christian Republic’ of Catholic Europe, and was subject to papal laws and taxes. However, the princes of the Church enjoyed less power than in former centuries, and were gradually giving place to the magnates as a result of the increasing secularisation of government. The power of the bishops was more of a judicial than a spiritual nature, and many enjoyed a luxurious existence which was increasingly perceived as being at variance with the example set by Jesus Christ.
The fifteenth century was a time of stark contrasts within the English Church. On the one hand there was an escalating interest in sermons, homilies, pious moralising and mysticism, while on the other the heretic Lollards, inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe, were attacking abuses in the Church and even questioning its authority in spiritual matters. Lollardy appealed to the poorer classes of society, but was so ruthlessly suppressed by successive kings that in most areas its influence became negligible.
Growing anti-clerical sentiment meant that the clergy were not immune to the general lawlessness of the age, and many cases of violence against men in holy orders were brought before the courts.

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The Wars of the Roses 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 63 reviews.
TKWms More than 1 year ago
Weir does it again for the Anglophile with a staunch medieval addiction. Oh, the costumes and jangling of chain mail, the galloping politics, the ferocious women, the handsome war lords, the wanna-be kings, the intrigue, the scandals, the murders, the skulking and lurking, the battles and righteous causes, the not-so-righteous causes, the marching to and fro and hither and yon, the barring of gates and the storming of gates, the scurrying across the border or the sailing across the channel in storm fraught swelling seas, the back room deals and the back room weasels. "To Arms, To Arms" with seething rebellion and throne usurping all taking place amongst a large bunch of noisy, malevolent, nasty cousins...all served up with delicious relish and lots of "off with their heads" momentum. And...all true. Can't beat that combination!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is history the way it SHOULD be done. Weir's treatment of the subject matter is so engrossing that I felt as if I were reading a thriller... not non-fiction. I found myself shaking my head at all of the political maneuvering (if you think our political system is cut-throat, petty and backstabbing, read this for some perspective!!) and even laughing out loud at her wry comments about the various personalities! I recommend keeping a sheet of notes handy to keep all the kings, queens, rival factions, and family members straight but overall it is a wild ride that I'm glad I took!!
Francine More than 1 year ago
This book is so well written and enjoyable. The history is very interesting. If anybody feels that the past was more innocent than the times we are living in today, this book will change their minds! The brutality of the people and the political intrigue is amazing. The way Alison describes the characters really makes them come to life. I do feel like I am right there with everything that is happening. If you love history, I would recommend this book highly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I buy sight unseen/reviews unread anything by Alison Weir. I have yet to be disapointed in any of her novels. She does her research well, and even thogh some subject matters could be rather dry, she always seems to bring them to life with her chaecters. I love the fact that these charecters are based usually on historical real life figures, and yes, she takes poetic licence with several of them, but never to the detrement of the person, but rather to add another dimension. As a Brit I was raised on this kind of litriture, but I still found information in it that I was not aware of. Just one more good read, hard to put down book.
sam1973 More than 1 year ago
Written beautifully. Brings you into the moment as if history stopped and you were there. Accurate and an easy read. A nice edition for any one's library, especially the English history buffs.
Melissa_W More than 1 year ago
Since I started with "Eleanor of Aquitaine" and then moved to "Mistress of the Monarchy" and "Queen Isabella" I decided to move forward in history through Weir's histories and biographies. Chronologically that meant I had to read "The War of the Roses" before "The Princes in the Tower" or any of the Tudor histories. This book has a very different character from her biographies; the intimate, in-depth feel is gone because Weir has to cover more than three generations of English royal family nonsense and history. That doesn't make the book hard to read but you do have to keep track of that many more people - all of whom happen to have the same names (and titles in the cases of primogeniture). Weir starts her history with the deposition of Richard II by Henry IV (where "Mistress of the Monarchy" begins to wind down) and ends with Edward IV's triumph over the last few Lancastrians. The bulk of the book is spent detailing Henry VI's reign which is torturous and full of power-hungry magnates. Weir makes Henry VI a very sympathetic man, one who really wan't cut out for the job given him as an infant, but spares little sympathy for Henry's wife, Margaret of Anjou, who was the power behind the throne and about as bloodthirsty as any of the Yorks and Lancastrians. The only drawback to this volume is that Weir gives a rough one-page outline of the remaining histories of the central characters as the fifteenth-century draws to a close; she probably covered much of the time period in "The Princes in the Tower" but it would have been nice to have something a little longer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Alison Weir really brings the period to life providing the reader with a real understanding of the background of the conflict and how the various personalities shaped the future of England. The period has some very powerful and interesting personalities that all seem to be cousins or in-laws such as the Beauforts, Nevilles and Beauchamps and Alison Weir does an excellent job of bringing these people to life over 500 years later. I've enjoyed the book immensely.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book although I was bothered by the Lancastrian bias I felt. I felt the book was a great historical account of the Wars and gave me a lot of information I was looking for. I felt she treated Margaret of Anjou a little too leniently and was unduly harsh on Richard III, but otherwise it's a great read for enthusiasts of this period.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The detail of this book is amazing and you will learn so much as you read!
EugeneTX More than 1 year ago
first, This is a wonderful book without which a tremendous amount of information about the period could be lost. Second, I do wish this author could learn to be a little less judgemental about persons and events and a little less catastrophizing over the way someone ruled, or died, or an event failed to satisfy her. Perhaps it would help to remove the burr from her saddle or whatever causes this. On the other hand, I do love the book and I could have loved it even more if it had been more objective and even tempered. The book itself is an excellent repository of information and helps in understanding what was takinng place in England and across France at the timeline involved. We would not be where we are today except for the investment in blood, sweat, and tears made by all our ancestors across time and space. Take a moment and think of all that has been accomplished since the first millenia. Consider all the battles and diseases our ancestors fought and defeated in moving the ball forward. This is a book for your reference library and will greatly aid you as you work toward obtaining a bigger and better picture of what events were taking place during the period as well as the names of the most prominent persons involved. One should remember that evidence of an event or the lack thereof neither proves nor disproves a fact in question. Evidence is not even evidence until it is accepted by a body of lay experts or officials accepting that it contributes to a better understanding of the question at hand. Even when no evidence is available, reasonable inferences may be drawn if enough evidence is available to render a finding based on reasoning. This still doesn't make it true or false just reasonably so. You will enjoy this book if you overlook the ias.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book extremely well wrtten snd documented. It is also very entertaining and i had difficulty putting it down. I have read several of Ms Weir's books and liked all of them but this is,so far, my favorite.
Diego_in_Austin More than 1 year ago
If you have ever read some of the riveting history books written by David McCollough or Doris Kearns Goodwin then you will definitely be disappointed by this book. Trying to cover hundreds and hundreds of years of history basically renders this book a dry list of dead people who briefly surface, marry, have a kid and then blip out of existence. None of these people truly come to life and are people you end up caring about. By the end you don't really care that this noble or that noble did not get paid for their conquest of French territory, you just hope that it will all be over soon. The book cover is very pretty though.
Anonymous 23 days ago
Great read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
marieburton2004 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Starting off hard to follow with earls and dukes everywhere but getting interesting 80 pages in.. Strictly historical accounts, not dramatic at all.
Shannan79 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author starts out giving the background of the two families. The she goes on to tell why the War was started. She gives details on the major battles and who perished in them. She gave a little insight to what was going on in each character's head.Here writing was not dry at all, in fact more like a novel than a work of non-fiction. The author research was well done. She gave statements to back up her claims. I have read other works by this author and her histories are never dry. Which has made me a big non-fiction fan.My rating for this novel is 4.5/5This month I will be starting the sequel to this novel the Princes in the Tower. About the sons of Edward IV.
Grulla on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Detailed but fun. It helps to scribble your own genealogical chart as you read thru. Those that think that feminine rule would bring on an era of peace and harmony should follow the moves of Margaret of Anjou and reconsider.
santhony on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mid-15th century European History is a fascinating period. In addition to the War of the Roses, the struggle for the throne of England, western Europe was also in turmoil as the French monarchs battled both the English crown and the Burgundian Dukes. This book details the history of these conflicts. By its nature, this history can be terribly confusing. Threading your way through the various lines of succesion can leave a reader scratching his/her head in an effort to differentiate the various Richards, Edwards and Henrys, not to mention the constantly changing holders of the many dukedoms and earldoms that play into the story. While Weir does a servicable job, I can't help but believe that she could have done better in this regard. Of course, the story revolves around the struggle for the British throne following the death of Richard II in 1400. At that point, the throne was usurped by Henry IV, then Duke of Lancaster, setting off the near century long struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York. Following the amazingly successful reign of Henry V, in which most of Western France came under the control of the British crown, conflict ensued with the crowning of the mentally unstable and unsuitable Henry VI, who lost the continental gains of his predecessor. There followed a virtual musical chairs scenario wherein the Lancaster and York candidates traded the throne between them for a period of near 50 years. Playing in the background was the continental conflict between France and Burgundy and the constantly shifting loyalties of the British peerage. The rapidity and constancy with which the various Dukes and Earls switched sides is astonishing. Many heads rolled as a consequence. As noted, the lineages are devilishly confusing as a result of the inbreeding between the major houses and the constantly changing holders of major titles by which the actors are identified. The author includes numerous genealogical tables, however their form is not as helpful as it could be. In addition, there is an extreme paucity of maps which could have helped to follow the story immensely. In reading this book, it is my suggestion to read it in as few sittings as possible. Each time you pick up the book, a certain amount of time is required to identify the characters and historical setting. This is not the kind of book that you can expect to read in stretches of 25-30 pages at a time. It is, nonetheless, a fascinating story and one well worth learning. The author is to be commended for taking on a difficult task, though in my opinion she just misses the mark.
mcalister on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you don't know who Alison Weir is, she's an English writer/historian who has written a number of books on Tudor and pre-Tudor England. Personally, I think she falls somewhere between popular history and professional history. Go to any Barnes and Noble or Borders, and you're bound to see at least several of her works on the shelves. Her work is well-researched, and her bibliographies always include both primary and secondary works, but the text itself lacks footnotes, which at times is really, really frustrating (because inevitably some terribly fascinating detail will pop up, but you have no idea where it came from).Like all of her work, The War of the Roses is a political history. This is a parade of Who's Who in fifteenth century England -- names, names, names. And just to make it more complex, English nobility are often referred to by their title instead of their name, making it harder to remember which dynasty this or that particular player belongs to. A random example: "Gloucester" (the Duke of) -- firstly, brother to King Edward IV, secondly a member of the House of York, but most importantly, first name of Richard. Yeah, he will become Richard III. My kingdom for a hyperlinked wiki of characters.Having said that, if what you want is a straight-forward account of who did what, when, and why in the dynastic struggles now popularly known as The War of the Roses, this is a good place to start. It's detailed enough that you should remember the major players (Henry IV, Henry VI, Edward IV, Warwick) yet top-down enough that you won't get lost in side paths and other issues of the period. I think the book's strength is the sheer number of facts she pulls together to weave a narrative. The book's weakness is its lack of interpretation; she ends with a page or two of summation, yet fails to really bring home the lasting implications of this struggle. English politics evolved differently from French or German or any other European nation, and things like Magna Carta and the War of the Roses are precisely why only England could have produced a Locke and a Hobb further on.
k8_not_kate on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Weir is one of my favorite popular historians for her style: she's straight-forward and clear, gives you all the information you need to understand the subject, but still manages to keep you reading. This book is no exception, but she's not quite as engaging as in, say, her biography of Elizabeth I or Eleanor of Aquitaine. Of course, this could be because this story follows not one person but at least a dozen main characters. It's a little harder to get involved when there's so much happening. Also, I would have preferred that she followed the story through the rise of Henry VII: Weir stops after the restoration of Edward IV, which I suppose was the end of the main conflict between York and Lancaster, but I would have liked for the book to continue with the story of Richard III and his eventual overthrow (this is covered, I believe, in Weir's book The Princes in the Tower). Even with those complaints, I would still highly recommend the book to anyone who would like an overveiw of the Wars of The Roses. The book has made me want to dive into Shakespeare's cycle of histories covering the period and is probably a good historical primer if you want to read those plays with a little background knowledge of the time.
ex_ottoyuhr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well worth reading, even if you've never heard of the Wars of the Roses and you don't have the least reason to care about them. Yes, this war mattered -- as Carroll pointed out, it's courtesy of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of Warwick that England got those "wonderful human beings" known as the Tudors on the throne...(If you don't recognize the quote, don't worry, but it's sarcastic.)This is, though, the kind of time period that really ought to be a movie -- or a game, for that matter. We need better-read game developers in this world...
jshillingford on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Alison Weit is an excellent biographer and historian for the British monarchs. Unfortnately, this book one was long-winded. A war, rather than specific historical figures, is truly the centerpiece, and doesn't keep a reader's attention as well. It is well researched, and I had a better understanding of the time period, key players and politics of the time, but.... Still, it is much better than a history text book on the subject.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
These facts would be better applied in story form.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago