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About this book

The civil wars of the first half of the fifteenth century still stand in the popular imagination as the period of greatest anarchy in English history. While historians have long taken a more measured view, controversy still surrounds their interpretation.

In this revised edition of his revaluation of the Wars of the Roses, A. J. Pollard has incorporated into the text the product of new research and consideration of the debates which have emerged since the book was first published in 1988. These include the new stress on 'constitutional' history, intensified dispute about the origins of the wars, and recent reinterpretations of the careers of some of the principal personalities.

In a topic which has become more contested in the last decade of the twentieth century, this introduction offers a succinct narrative, a review of the historiography and an overview of the problems of interpretation of the character, causes, impact and consequences of the wars which periodically disrupted England between 1459 and 1487.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
The phrase ‘The Wars of the Roses’ is one of those historical terms, like ‘The Agricultural Revolution’ or ‘The Glorious Revolution’, which some historians would like to see thrown in the dustbin, but which nevertheless survives if only as a matter of convenience and common currency. By tradition, the Wars of the Roses signify a period of total anarchy brought on by a dynastic conflict which divided England before the coming of the Tudors. Whether they are considered to have started in 1399 (as was originally the case) or in 1455 (as has been the case for the last 100 years), in common discourse they serve as a type for the worst possible civil strife and discord that has ever occurred in England and which must never be allowed to occur again. For this reason, they have never quite lost their topicality. Politicians are wont to invoke the spectre of the Wars and commentators to draw contemporary analogies. Thus, the last months of the Callaghan government of 1976–79, which were plagued by a series of very visible industrial disputes, were tagged ‘The Winter of Discontent’ by public figures anxious to conjure up an image of the utter chaos from which the kingdom was rescued. What more effective way was there than to draw upon the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which refer directly to a phase of the Wars of the Roses in these terms?
A. J. Pollard

Chapter 1. The Wars in History

Abstract
The twentieth century, especially the last third, witnessed a major revision of received ideas about the Wars of the Roses. The 30 years 1455–85, it has been argued, were neither years of constant civil strife nor years of uncontrolled anarchy. In terms of open warfare, it has often been repeated, there were no more than 12 or 13 weeks of actual fighting in the whole 30 years. And this fighting was restricted to the narrow world of the political élite, most of whose members were either indifferent to the outcome or shamelessly opportunistic. A handful of isolated battles, armed clashes, murders and executions, we are told, had little impact on the day-to-day life of the kingdom. These inconveniences were not caused by dynastic dispute: the question of the throne only arose as a consequence of political rivalry. There were no roses, red for Lancaster or white for York, deployed as badges by rival parties. Even the phrase ‘Wars of the Roses’, we are assured, was not thought of until invented by Sir Walter Scott. 1 In short, the Wars of the Roses is a myth. In its extreme manifestation this was the argument advanced by the late S.B. Chrimes in a recorded discussion with Professor R.L. Storey. The roses, he stated, had nothing to do with it and there were not, ‘in any meaningful sense’, any wars. The only admissible use of the phrase, he conceded, was if it were restricted to the first three months of 1461.2 The Wars of the Roses, it would seem, have been talked out of existence.
A. J. Pollard

Chapter 2. The Course of the Wars

Abstract
In 1450 England’s king was Henry VI, a young man in his late twenties.1 He was the son of the famous warrior Henry V, a father he had not known for he came to the throne when he was nine months old. He had no memory of being other than king. He had been cosseted and nurtured to step into his father’s martial shoes. He had inherited two kingdoms, being crowned King of England in 1429 and King of France in 1431. From the age of 16 in 1437, he had begun to play an active part in the affairs of the kingdom. By 1439 his minority was at an end. It had been a surprisingly harmonious minority: rifts, conflicts and factional rivalry had, of course, occurred, but the leading councillors and nobles, inspired by their dedication to the memory of Henry V whom they had served, had been as one in their determination to hand on to his young heir his inheritance in both kingdoms.
A. J. Pollard

Chapter 3. The Character of the Wars

Abstract
The events we have recounted had three separate but overlapping characteristics: that of dynastic struggle; that of factional conflict between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’; and that of a series of private vendettas. The term ‘Wars of the Roses’ is explicitly dynastic. Interpreted dynastically there were but two wars: Lancaster against York and York against Tudor. In an important sense, the second was also a war within the house of York between, on the one hand Richard of Gloucester, Edward IV’s male heirs, real and feigned, his childless sister Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy and the sons of his sister, Elizabeth, Countess of Suffolk, and, on the other hand Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York and her children. As the champion of the rights of Elizabeth of York, Henry VII was an adopted Yorkist. The support he received from ex-household men of Edward IV and Edward V was, in practice, more important in his campaign to win and to hold the throne than his diehard Lancastrian following. Yet he was also the self-proclaimed residual heir and standard bearer of the house of Lancaster. This dual characteristic of Henry VII’s political position was well understood by the Crowland Continuator, who wrote in 1486 that ‘the tusks of the boar had been blunted and the red rose, the avenger of the white, shines upon us’ (my emphasis).
A. J. Pollard

Chapter 4. The Causes of the Wars

Abstract
There were several interlocking reasons for the outbreak of civil war in 1459. The precise weight to be given to each and the balance to be struck between them has, and will remain, a matter of controversy. Dynastic cause, the original idea that England fell into civil strife ‘by reason of titles’, has tended to receive short shrift at the hands of modern historians, but should not be dismissed out of hand. Arguments that the Wars were caused either by economic and financial crisis in the ranks of the nobility, or by defeat in the Hundred Years’ War have also tended to be unfashionable in recent years. Debate at the end of the twentieth century largely focused on whether the Wars resulted from a long-term shift in the balance of political power between the Crown and greater subject, with a resultant increase in disorder and lawlessness, or whether they were largely the consequence of the shortcomings of Henry VI as king. These various factors can be perceived as long-term causes, rooted deeply in the development and structure of English society in the later Middle Ages; short-term causes arising from more recent experience; and immediate causes which led directly to civil war. The long-term developments may have made the Wars possible; the short-term, likely; and the immediate, unavoidable. In the long term the impact of ‘bastard feudalism’ and possible changes in the balance of power between Crown and subject might be significant; in the short term, economic and financial pressures on English landholders, the consequences of defeat in the Hundred Years’ War and the question of dynastic legitimacy are likely to be most relevant; and for the immediate, the clash of personalities and the characters of Henry VI, his Queen and his principal subjects in the 1450s are central.
A. J. Pollard

Chapter 5. The Impact of the Wars

Abstract
Sir Thomas Smith pictured an England in the later fifteenth century in which the country was running with blood and almost half the population killed. Reaction against such exaggeration has led twentieth-century historians to play down the length of the Wars, the level of involvement even in the highest ranks of society, and the extent of disruption. Certainly, there was a tendency for contemporaries and early historians to dramatize the impact of the Wars. But it is possible to go too far in the direction of minimizing the scale. They were not insignificant.
A. J. Pollard

Chapter 6. The Aftermath of the Wars

Abstract
Just as nineteenth-century historians, following sixteenth-century writers, saw the Wars of the Roses in terms of uncontrolled anarchy, so also they painted a dramatic picture of their consequences. In short, during the Wars the old feudal baronage dashed itself to pieces and out of them emerged a ‘New Monarchy’, despotic in character, founded on the support of the landed and commercial middle classes. 1 Little of this account has stood the test of modern scholarship. It is clear now that the old feudal baronage did not commit collective suicide; no middle class emerged to take its place; and although royal authority recovered and was enhanced, few would now describe early Tudor monarchy as ‘new’. Just as the Wars themselves were not so dire, so also the changes they wrought were not so sweeping.
A. J. Pollard

Chapter 7. The European Context of the Wars

Abstract
The Wars of the Roses were part of a common north-western European phenomenon of internal political conflict and civil war in the second half of the fifteenth century. The kingdoms of the Atlantic seaboard were all part of an interlocking cultural, commercial and political network, which meant that what happened in one had important repercussions for the others. Thus events in England were watched closely on the continent, and vice versa. Spies and embassies reported continually on what was happening in each other’s affairs. Rulers in one country plotted endlessly to foment trouble to their own advantage in another. England’s weakness provided opportunities for her neighbours to profit at her expense. At the same time, English rulers sought to exploit divisions within neighbouring countries for their own advantage and looked abroad for alliances to strengthen their hands in their own internal rivalries. International relations were extremely volatile. The civil wars which engulfed England, France, Scotland, the Netherlands and Spain were all at critical moments intensified by foreign intervention; they were part of an interlinked chain of civil wars in north-western Europe. 1
A. J. Pollard

Conclusion

Abstract
A central feature of this study has been the thesis that there were two Wars of the Roses of contrasting characters: the wars between Lancaster and York of 1459–71 and the wars between York and Tudor of 1483–87. The second of these wars were much as recent historians have described the Wars as a whole: a sporadic succession of executions, rebellions and occasional battles. The first, however, involved two separate phases of sustained fighting and complete disruption of normal political life. By any reckoning, in terms of the scale, length and degree of involvement of the political nation, they were major civil wars. In so far as it is possible to trace deep-rooted causes relating to developments in government and society stretching back for a century, these lay in the broader changes in society which increased the expectations of monarchy. The significance of these changes as long-term causes will remain controversial. It was not bastard feudalism and the retaining of baronial armies as such which led inevitably to the Wars of the Roses. Bastard feudalism was but a form of the customary working of patronage in a patriarchal society. It did not spawn hordes of retainers with nothing to do but brawl and fight each other. The question facing historians remains whether the Crown brought its subjects into a constructive partnership in the later Middle Ages as a response to the expansion of the demands placed upon it, or whether, in order to win support for its ambitions in France, it conceded authority and power.
A. J. Pollard
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