English history is a convoluted, twisted thing. As evidenced in past reviews (The Lost King and The Tudors) nothing in English history is cut and dried. Such is the case presented to us by Alison Weir, author of The Wars of the Roses.
Henry VI’s reign started off well enough, with England coming off financially well after the Hundred Years’ War with France. Many landed families (wealthy land owners and lords) held the majority of power, near “King Maker’s” as it were. England was poised to break through the feudalism which plagued the countryside and start a renaissance age until the disastrous reign of Henry VI, at whose feet the majority of the blame for the Wars of the Roses is laid.
There are rivalries between powerful families. There always has been and always will be. Even in America, such powerful families have had feuds (see Hatfield v McCoy, Astor v Vanderbilt, etc), though with far less bloody results. But the feud between the houses of Lancaster and York shaped England forever and altered the course of history and, if one could go out on a limb, precipitated the rise of Protestantism and the birth of the Church of England.
Henry VI (of House Lancaster) was a usurper to the throne, make no mistake about it. However, though there were others with stronger claim to the throne of England, nobody spoke up to counter Henry’s claim, therefor giving a small sniff of legitimacy to his claim. He took advantage of this brief lull to solidify his claim, since nobody thought to bring up the small fact that the Earl of march, a seven year old stripling of a boy, had a stronger claim to the throne than he.
When the House of York finally made argument that Henry VI had no claim to the proper throne, war kicked off as competing families (each with a massive stake in who was king, since their monies came from them) each threw their hat into the ring. From there, it was only a matter of time before civil war kicked off and the Houses of York and Lancaster were at each other’s throat.
This book was an eye-opening look into a time of English history that I had never before been that interested in. Weir’s meticulous depiction of the honorable (and not so honorable) men and women of the time is refreshing, and you easily get a sense of who you want to see come out on top (even though it happened six hundred years ago, give or take). In the end, though, it all mattered no, since another usurper took then throne by assassinating the king and installing himself as Richard III (who would then be later deposed by Henry Tudor, or Henry VII, which would then lead directly into the Tudor Dynasty).
The author does have a few annoying habits of leading the reader into a scene (“as we’ll see later” is one of them), which often jar the reader out of the trance they are in. While it is difficult to have an all-encompassing view of the Wars of the Roses, switching between one time and jumping to another in order to build the proper bridge between that person and the incident that she had been previously talking about is both helpful and harmful, since by the time she gets to the point, you had forgotten what the original point was. Nonetheless, this is a minor quirk of her writing style and in no way takes too much away from the book as a whole.
A well-crafted tome and definite must-read for the lover of history.
–Reviewed by Jason
#1 by Terryt on November 1, 2014 - 5:01 pm
If you are going to review a history book, you really should read a little broader in the time period. Henry the VI’s grandfather was the usurper, not him. And your description of the book–which I have not read–makes it sound as if the author portrays him as a very active player. Historically, he was a weak, religiously devout nonentity, and the real players were the “bastard” Lancastrians (i.e. The Beauforts) the Yorkists, and a number of powerful noble families who were rivals, such as the Earls of Northumberland and Warwick.
#2 by warpcordova on November 2, 2014 - 9:39 pm
The author has a habit of focusing on supposed background characters and bringing them to the forefront. The statement that Henry VI was a usurper to the throne was factually true, since the entire line after Henry IV was arguably illegitimate.
Read the book. The author has a voice that keeps it from being dry and dull.