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?
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A. J. Pollard
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