The two books listed in the title are written by Alison Weir who has made herself quite the authority on the British Royal Families over the years, especially the Tudors as she is most known (at least by me) for a series of books dealing with Henry VIII and his children. However, she has written on a wide range of material, including the Spanish Civil War, as my friend Lewis at From Across the Pond looked at the other day.
In the first book, The Wars of the Roses, she looks at the series of wars for the crown of England between the Houses of Lancaster and York. In the second, The Princes in the Tower, she focuses on the two young sons of Edward IV, the heir and briefly styled Edward V and his younger brother Richard of York who are imprisoned in the Tower of London by their uncle Richard in his bid to become Richard III at his brother's death. I have had a passing knowledge of this history for some time, but I enjoyed looking deeper into it as doing so always uncovers certain aspects that were not know to me before, or made me rethink certain assumptions previously held.
I had never really taken the time to know the exact details about why four Kings were deposed during this period (two of them on more than one occasion) nor done much research on the characters of the time. John of Gaunt has always interested me, and I have looked at his history a little more deeply, thus I know about his claim to the throne from Edward III that was passed down through generations, and I knew the basics of the different houses, Lancaster and York and how that leads to the Tudors. But I did not know many of the supporting players such as Margaret of Anjou or mighty Warwick, the Kingmaker who most likely changed sides one too many times. It amazed me at how often the throne was put at stake during this period and the reasons why, usually for more power. Every time one noble gets too wealthy, he begins to exert his force over the King, or resents the one that does. It led to several rather fierce battles and a changing of the guard many times.
I found it fascinating, at least from Weir's telling of it, that most of the lower classes were spared much of the trouble, other than the uncertainty surrounding the crown, and one would imagine those families that might have had someone involved in the campaigns. Mostly, however, it seemed that most of the battles were decided by who had the most peers in line, or who had control of London. Henry VI gets a second chance to be King and is ushered out of the Tower after a lengthy confinement to once again take up the throne, but his mind is more feeble that it ever was (though Weir takes great pains to suggest that he was not simple as we know the term, but otherwised engaged with pursuits mostly religious in manner and accustomed to his wife handling most of his Kingly duties.) His second reign lasts less than two years.
And of course, there is the story of the second book which is really just a continuation of the previous wars. After the death of King Edward IV, Richard, Duke of Gloucester feels threatened by the powerful Woodville (or Wydville as Weir names them) family who has been lifted beyond their station (as most nobles presume) by the King as his wife is Elizabeth Woodville. Likewise, Elizabeth feels threatened and Weir suggests put Richard in a position in which he had no choice but to take power, at least for the moment. Where Weir places the tyrant label on Richard is the moment he kills the princes. She goes on to look into detail about what truly happened with Edward and Richard, including the limited forensic work done on certain bones found in the tower during the reign of Charles II.
The powerful familes that were brought down are many - the Nevilles, the Beauforts, The Woodvilles and Greys and even the Duke of Buckingham. And most notably, the House of Lancaster, though Henry VII would tell you (as his mother Margaret Beaufort did) that he was the heir of that great house that included Henry V. But in truth, and as much as I love the Tudors, they are really the usurpers from a pure geneological standpoint. Others had better claims on the throne, notably Queen Isabel of Castile and the King of Portugal (both through John of Gaunt.) In fact, Henry's mother Margaret Beaufort had a better claim. However, Henry and his heirs were able to solidify their power, and it is on purpose that they are known as ruthless when it came to potential threats. No one wanted to see a repeat of what happened before. The change from Tudor to Stuart was far calmer than that of the late Plantagenets - Richard II to Henry IV, Henry VI to first Richard, Duke of York and then to his son Edward IV, then back again to Henry VI, then back to Edward IV, and then the finale, the killing of Edward V just after his fathers death, Richard III as usurper and then his death at Bosworth field to Henry Tudor, the first of the Tudor line as Henry VII.
She details a great bit of her source work and offers her thoughts to the veracity of them which I enjoyed. She quotes them generously, and places them in the context of when they were written, which is important here as some writers did not have access to earlier documents or people, and the corraborations help to determine what is actual fact from what is legend. The most appreciated source, for me and I think Weir as well, is Sir Thomas More. He had great access to many in the Tudor house and before, and there is no doubt that his skills as a writer helps paint a fascinating portrait, if not at times too concerned with a moral than a telling of actual history. It would be interesting to read the entire thing.
The most fascinating idea I learned from the two books was that Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, was suggested to have desired a marriage with Richard III once he took power. As her later character is given much gloss by the Tudors, being the wife of Henry VII, the mother of Henry VIII and the grandmother of the three subsequent monarchs, she was never thought of by me as someone other than those roles above. However, Weir describes the possibility that she might have been far more shrewd than I had given her credit for, and perhaps quite a bit ambitious and a schemer. I knew that Richard III considered marrying Elizabeth to cement his crown (as she was the true heir after the princes died), but Shakespeare in all his zest to spice things up and truncate the time frame, gives us a dirty old man Richard and a pure and virginal Elizabeth. In truth, it is likely that she wanted the marriage and may have already been Richard's lover before his first wife, Anne died.
Further, I had never really thought about the manner in which the Lancaster's took the throne in the first place. They were usurpers over Richard II, and it is only by the brilliance of Henry V that the house lasts. The Yorks had right on their side when Richard, Duke of York finally pressed his claim, after many years of doing the bidding of the Beauforts during Henry VI's minority. And in Richard III's attempt to take the throne from his nephew and sister-in-law, he doomed the rightful line of Kings to extinction. And more, the irony of denying Richard of York's claim due to it being passed through a woman, even though the ancient claim on the throne of France, which the Lancaster's pressed, was also of a femaile line, passing through Isabel of France.
Finally, I began to consider the notion that these wars, in a way, strengthened the English throne, rather than weakened it as would be expected. After having changed hands so many times, with each new King pardoning those of his faction and punishing those that betrayed him (though Edward IV is terribly guilty of being too lenient and allowing the same people to rebel on him again and again), and the propaganda that was constantly being submitted to the public gave way to each new monarch claiming that it was by divine right that they had defeated their foes and restored order in the Kingdom. There had to be some excuse for the constant disruption. Though England would never move so far towards an absolute monarchy like France and Louis XIV, the Tudors held great power and it was that dynasty that truly built the modern United Kingdom. The strength of that divine right they claimed certainly helped them do so.
If you enjoy history, especially that of England, you will enjoy these two books. Weir invests the pages with color and energy, and the individuals noted are engaging characters that the reader quickly begins to identify with. There are the usual confusions from time to time when one or another Duke or Earl has his head cut off and someone else takes his place. And she generally refers to her characters by their titles - Richard Neville is Warwick as Earl of Warwick. his father Richard is Salisbury as Earl of Salisbury, Edward's brother George is always Clarence as Duke of Clarence. The one that got me was Jasper Tudor, Henry VII's uncle. He was made Earl of Pembroke, then lost it to someone else and then regains it. I had to remember who was where from time to time. And her geneology charts leave much to be desired, mostly because she reproduces a chart made out by hand in the back pages of the book. Some of her handwriting obscures some information that might have been useful. But the subject matter is highly entertaining, and there is no little amount of treason, battle, blood and revenge. And that can't be bad, right? That is all.