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Reading the Wars of the Roses: The Original Game of Thrones

Reading the Wars of the Roses: The Original Game of Thrones

Let us… tell sad stories of the death of Kings (Shakespeare’s Richard II, Act III, Scene 2)

Take away Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, the superhuman White Walkers, and their the zombie-like minions, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has a lot in common with England’s Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), an epic event Martin himself has identified as a key historical inspiration for his fantasy saga. Both stories involve complex, multi-generational, personal, dynastic, and military conflicts for multiple thrones. The Kings of Plantagenet England were also the sovereigns of Wales, Lords of Ireland, and, though the claim was already hollow by 1455, the asserted Kings of France. Both sagas, the fictional and the historical, have delicious characters aplenty, including tragic heroes, brutal, malevolent villains, ambitious, greedy, fractious, and scheming nobles forever changing their colors, and women behind the throne, energetically filling the voids created by inept, even mad, male royals. Both stories are filled with honor, backstabbing, battles, beheadings, betrothals, ruinous lust, secret marriages, and charges of witchcraft, if not actual sorcery. Militarily, the wars marked a period of transition. Ironclad knights faced off in individual combat, hacking and slicing one another, when not dodging the fire from newfangled cannon.

The Wars of the Roses may not have been called that at the time, but Lancastrians and Yorkists at times made respective use of red and white rose symbols. The intermittent struggle was a playground for William Shakespeare, who turned the conflict and its origins into two tetralogies, the so-called “Henriads,” eight historical plays (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1-3, and Richard III) that served as both high drama and a propaganda argument for the Tudor dynasty. That upstart family, the product of a secret union between Henry V’s French widow and her Welsh bodyguard, was the surprising, ultimate victor of the struggles among the houses of Lancaster, York, Neville, Beaufort, Stafford, Stanley, Woodville, and others that carried a drop, and sometimes less, of Plantagenet blood.

Just as the Wars of the Roses stimulated Martin to write A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin’s cycle (with its 24 million books in print, digital, and audio versions) inspired HBO to produce the better known, televised adaptation, Game of Thrones. Likewise, the BBC found the time was ripe to restage Shakespeare’s Henriads under the title, The Hollow Crown. In one speech, Shakespeare’s despondent Richard II (played magnificently by British actor Ben Whishaw—you may remember him as 007’s latest “Q”) sums up the epic, bloody struggle from a king’s perspective (Act III, Scene 2, excerpt):

 For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings;

How some have been deposed; some slain in war, / Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;

Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d; / All murder’d: for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, / Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks, / Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life, / Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus

Comes at the last and with a little pin / Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Shakespeare’s insightful litany describes what the kings, queens, kingmakers, and other would-be masters of England faced during the long decades following Richard II’s overthrow in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke of the House of Lancaster. Other takes are found in the many histories, biographies, and novels published or reissued in the aftermath of Martin’s and HBO’s success. What follows is not a bibliography of the Wars and their leading players (I’ll list an online bibliography URL below), nor even a list of the best books available. But I’ve selected 16 books that I found to be generally reliable entry points for the reader newly interested in this fascinating period of English history.

  • The Wars of the Roses: From Richard II to the Fall of Richard III at Bosworth Field-Seen Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries, by Elizabeth Hallum ed. (Grove Press, 1988, OOP). The first recommended volume is a beautiful, richly illustrated coffee table book, unfortunately out of print. The text includes many extracts of contemporary accounts, heavily influenced by Tudor rewriting of history.

Let’s continue with another tetralogy, four recent general histories of the wars.

  •  The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir (Ballantine, 1995; forever in print)
  • Lancaster Against York: The Wars of the Roses and the Foundation of Modern Britain, by Trevor Royle (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)
  • The Wars of the Roses, by Michael Hicks (Yale, 2010)
  • The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the House of Tudor, by Dan Jones (Viking, 2014)

None of these should be read as the last word on the conflicts. The authors differ in their views of individual culpability for tragedy of the major players, including Richard of York, Margaret of Anjou, Warwick the Kingmaker, Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, Richard III, Henry VII, and even the inept Henry VI. Hicks is perhaps the most “scholarly,” or at least academic in writing style. He examines the economic background more than the others. Weir and Jones have written the most accessible page-turners, though differing in their interpretations. Trevor Royle, more than the others, sees the conflict as one between two Plantagenet branches over who had the true right of succession. Weir and Trevor Royle trace the origins to the overthrow of Richard II, while Jones ignores Bolingbroke’s stroke of state and begins his tale with the death of Henry V, the succession of a child king, and the secret marriage of his widow to a Welshman of no importance.  If you are new to the Wars of the Roses, I’d suggest you start with Jones or Weir, and take it from there. Weir begins earlier (1399) and ends earlier (she leaves out Richard III and the Princes, saving that for another book). Jones puts a greater focus on the bit players who began the Tudor dynasty.

Not every major player is the subject of a solid biography, but you can find works on the most interesting lives, including those of Warwick the Kingmaker, Margaret of Anjou, Edward IV, and Richard III. The lives of the “women behind the throne” have long been relatively ignored, but that’s changing lately. Of those biographies currently available, I’ve recently ordered three that have received wide, though not universal, praise:

  •  Margaret of Anjou, by Helen Maurer (2005)
  • Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, by Sarah Gristwood (Basic Books, 2013)… covers Margaret of Anjou, Margaret of Burgundy, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth Woodville, and Cecily and Anna Neville.
  • Warwick the Kingmaker: Power, Politics and Fame during the Wars of the Roses, by A.J. Pollard (Bloomsbury, 2007)

I’ve also read and can recommend a few (there are others) on the character I find most fascinating. Richard III is certainly the most controversial of all the “Rose” actors. He usurped the throne… or took it by legal right. In either case, he cast the two sons of Edward III, the brother Richard undeniably loved, into the Tower of London, a place from which the princes never emerged… or did they? Richard’s reign lasted just two years and ended with the establishment of the Tudor dynasty. From this point, the fallen king was the object of a vicious and sustained propaganda campaign. Shakespeare immortalized him as a hunchbacked villain who killed not only his nephews, but his brothers and wife as well. Richard’s reputation has been restored by some in the 20th century, but the arguments still rage. Kendall writes in a wordy style no longer fashionable, but it’s a delight to read. The original sources on Richard are sketchy in places, and Kendall does an excellent job of explaining the thinking behind his interpretation of the gaps. Carson, an unabashed “Ricardian” (supporter of Richard’s rehabilitation), addresses the many controversies surrounding his life, and, without claiming more than the facts allow, ably establishes that the charges laid against him are either utter rot or possibly the work of others without his knowledge. Hancock’s book provides a new theory as to why Richard summarily executed the man who did the most to place him on the throne. Hammond explains how it was that the unsoldierly Henry Tudor, with the possibly weakest claim to the throne ever asserted by anyone anywhere, defeated and killed Richard III. The story provides an excellent example of the treachery that so many nobles got away with so many times. Both Carson and Hancock are intended for readers already familiar with the period.

  •  Richard the Third, by Paul Murray Kendall (Norton, 1955; reissued 2002)
  • Richard III: Maligned King, by Annette Carson (History Press, 2008, updated 2013)
  • Richard III and the Murder in the Tower, by Peter A. Hancock (The History Press, 2009)
  • Richard III and the Bosworth Campaign, by Peter Hammond (Pen & Sword Military, 2010)

The final controversy about Richard III arose years after his death. What happened to his corpse? Turns out it was not thrown into a river but remained buried beneath what became a paved parking lot. Langley and Jones describe how her intuition that the king was buried under a parking space marked “R” and the hints provided by old documents persuaded a university’s archeology department to undertake a dig, one that incredibly turned up Richard III’s skeleton and answered the question of whether he was hunchbacked or not. Pitts tells the same story, from an archeologist’s perspective.

  •  The King’s Grave, Philippa Langley and Michael Jones (MacMillan, 2014)
  • Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King, by Mike Pitts (Thames & Hudson, 2014)

The most enduring and popular mystery may be “what happened to the Princes in the Tower?” Beginning with the Beefeaters who serve as tour guides at the Tower of London, everyone has an opinion regarding whether Richard III ordered the death of his little nephews. Fields, an entertainment lawyer, examines all the evidence and comes to some surprising conclusions.

  •  Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes in the Tower, by Bertram Fields (Regan Books, 1998)

George R.R. Martin was neither the first nor last to see a goldmine in fiction based on the Wars of the Roses. Possibly the longest novel was The Sunne in Splendour (1982), by Sharon Kay Penman. The most popular novelist currently mining this field is Philippa Gregory, whose books focus on the female leads and led to the BBC/Starz miniseries, The White Queen. Perhaps the most influential novel was written by Josephine Tey. Nearly forty years after its publication, Tey’s novel, the story of a modern Scotland Yard detective’s “reopening” of the Tower murders, was voted “the Top Crime Novel of All Time” in the U.K.

  •  The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, 1951 (numerous editions available)

Start with Weir or Jones, and move forward as the petals dictate.   One good online bibliography can be found at