The Red Rose and the White: The Wars of the Roses 1453–87

Michael Hicks looks at an engaging history of the battles that tore England apart in the 15th century

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Reviewed by: Michael Hicks
Author: John Sadler
Publisher: Pearson
Price (RRP): £25

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This new narrative of the Wars of the Roses (which were fought in 15th-century England between the House of Lancaster and the House of York) is lively and colourful.

It is related as far as possible through contemporary quotations. Stuffed with character sketches, stories, forceful judgements and epithets, it makes the most of the nicknames (eg Bull Talbot), the tit-for-tat killings, striking phrases and illuminating choice of words – although ‘Paladin’ perhaps is overused.

There are some memorable passages, on the 1440s, on Henry VI’s murder – “not vindictiveness, merely housekeeping” – and on Henry VII’s recall from “unconsidered and obscure exile”.

Much here will please supporters of Richard III. “There is nothing to show that Richard coveted his brother’s throne… he seemed to have been motivated by a desire to do right by the taxpayer. He does not appear cynical or avaricious. Was he… the loyal public servant driven by the others to stake his own claim?” Buckingham appears the evil genius.

Naturally Sadler focuses on the battles, which he recreates with imagination and verve. Evidently he has visited all the battlefields. He supplies detailed maps and even beautiful colour photographs of the sites of Towton, Hedgeley Moor, Tewkesbury and Bosworth.

He treats with precision the leadership, numbers, casualties and the course of the battles. All are illuminated with vivid anecdotes. It is here that Sadler is at his most independent and authoritative. He argues his case forcefully and refutes misconceptions with aplomb.

His battlefield narrations make rattling good reads. He shows field artillery in use often before the battle of Bosworth. The political interpretations are decidedly traditional.

Explanation of the wars is left to the interplay of rival personalities and to contingency. The book seems overconfident about the poorly documented battles. Recent books by Haigh (1995), Boardman (1998), and Jones (2002) are quoted, but some obvious items, such as Boardman’s The First Battle of St Albans 1455 (2005) and Hicks’s Essential History (2003) are overlooked.

The sparse archaeological evidence is ignored, not just for Bosworth – probably revealed too recently to be included – but also the mass grave at Towton. The best anecdotes are often late, culled from the Tudor chronicler Hall, legendary, or merely fanciful. The decisive role for archery that is presumed can seldom be substantiated.

More often than he realises, Sadler relies on ‘inherent military probability’. Although generally at his strongest on the borders, his Scottish war of 1480–4 seems to ignore both the betrothal of the future James IV and Princess Cecilia, which was broken in 1480, and the fall of Dunbar.

Away from the fighting, Sadler’s reading is dated, patchy, and often inadequate. None of the modern editions of chronicles or other sources (such as the Parliament Rolls) are used.

The many minor slips, such as personal names, scarcely matter, but some – such as the unfamiliarity with Ireland attributed to the Earl of Wiltshire, one of the Ormond Butlers – are more serious. Dynastic issues are oversimplified, there are some confusions of rank and kinship, and the seizure of Fougères (1449) and the fight at Clyst are treated too cursorily.

The Red Rose and the White must be judged purely a military history and as such is probably the most accessible and engaging yet.
 

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Professor Michael Hicks is head of history at the University of Winchester