Book Review: The wars of the roses by Alison Weir

Lancaster and York. For much of the 15th century, these two families were locked in battle for control of the British throne. The war between the Houses of Lancaster and York profoundly altered the course of the monarchy. In this book, one of the foremost authorities on the British royal family brilliantly brings to life the war itself and the historic figures who fought it on the great stage of England.

The Wars of the Roses are one of the most confusing periods of English history. From the origins in the rivalries between Edward III’s children to the final resolution with the founding of the Tudor dynasty by Henry VII, there are eight kings, including some of the best and worst England has had; and literally scores of major figures and families: the Nevilles, the Percys, the Woodvilles, the Beauforts, the Cliffords, the Bourchiers — the list is endless.
Making this all comprehensible the first time through is simply impossible. Weir almost manages it, though; her style is very readable and friendly, and exciting without being sensational. Weir begins with a short section describing what England was like in the fifteenth century; then she starts the story proper with Edward III, whose five sons and their families are the central players in the history.

She ends her story in 1471, with the defeat of the Lancastrians and the subsequent murder of Henry VI. She only gives a page or two to the remainder of Edward IV’s reign, and to the story of Richard III and the princes in the tower, and Henry VII’s ultimate accession in 1485. This is almost certainly because she has covered this ground in another book, “The Princes In The Tower”. The omission is understandable but still rather a mistake — the conflict doesn’t end till the Tudors are on the throne (and not even then, really — there were pretenders for years).

The only other criticism I have is that the genealogy tables at the back are too small to read easily. I tried using a magnifying glass but the reproduction is poor enough that some letters are blurred into unreadability. Even when it’s readable, it’s more work than it should be; this is a real problem for a book about the Wars of the Roses, where understanding the genealogy is crucial to keeping your bearings.

Overall I can recommend this strongly, just because it’ll give you the overall narrative clearly and excitingly, but you’ll need another source to cover the period from 1471 to 1485.

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