Reviewed by: Michael Hicks Author: Trevor Royle Publisher: Little, Brown Price (RRP): £25
Trevor Royle’s New History is well-written and readable. He has read widely, is generally up-to-date, quotes extensively from the sources, and has all the best anecdotes. If confused by dramatis personae, who constantly change their titles, pray turn to the appendix where most are identified and distinguished. Readers will be both entertained and instructed.
Yet Royle’s interpretation is highly traditional. Over-mighty subjects needed to be kept in check and “murder and assassination were commonplace”. “At the heart of the conflict”, he writes, “was the dynastic dispute that divided the Royal House of Plantagenet”. Yet he supplies no family tree nor a full explanation of the claims.
The book goes back to 1399, which Royle reaches on p78, then to 1398, where Shakespeare starts, and even further back: to 1388, to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, to Poitiers (1356), Crecy (1346), and the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). From 1399 forward he tells the full story – including Owen Glendower’s revolt, Agincourt (1415), and Joan of Arc – and arrives at 1455 and the start of the Wars of the Roses only on p215. This is not so much about the Wars of the Roses as about late medieval England, and none the worse for that. Wyclif and Chaucer have walk-on parts, and Scotland is well-represented – as befits a Scottish author – even including the belling of the cat at Lauder in 1482.
Royle’s account of the 1450s is Yorkist enough to satisfy even Richard, Duke of York. Queen Margaret of Anjou has a bad write-up and Edward IV a favourable obituary. Royle does not apparently appreciate just how heinous treason was or why and how far short Edward fell from the Christian ideal desired by the Crowland Continuator (whom he selectively quotes). Strangely Edward’s son Edward V is called the Crown Prince after his accession, because he was as yet uncrowned.
Ricardians may also be pleased that Richard III’s usurpation was desperate rather than premeditated, that “the truth will never be known” about who killed the little princes in the Tower, and that there were long odds against Henry Tudor’s succession. They’ll be less happy to learn that “Richard conformed to the class from which he sprang”. The solution was Henry VII, who brought new hope and “a settled dynastic solution”. Perhaps. Certainly Shakespeare would have agreed.
It is indeed with Shakespeare’s eight History plays, where four centuries of the English imbibed their history of the Wars of the Roses, that Royle begins and on which he aims to improve. Does he succeed? Not really. But his book will communicate better to a 21st-century audience and will doubtless be more widely read today.