The author of the New York Times bestseller The Plantagenets and Magna Carta chronicles the next chapter in British history—the historical backdrop for Game of Thrones
The inspiration for the Channel 5 series Britain's Bloody Crown
The crown of England changed hands five times over the course of the fifteenth century, as two branches of the Plantagenet dynasty fought to the death for the right to rule. In this riveting follow-up to The Plantagenets, celebrated historian Dan Jones describes how the longest-reigning British royal family tore itself apart until it was finally replaced by the Tudors.
Some of the greatest heroes and villains of history were thrown together in these turbulent times, from Joan of Arc to Henry V, whose victory at Agincourt marked the high point of the medieval monarchy, and Richard III, who murdered his own nephews in a desperate bid to secure his stolen crown. This was a period when headstrong queens and consorts seized power and bent men to their will. With vivid descriptions of the battles of Towton and Bosworth, where the last Plantagenet king was slain, this dramatic narrative history revels in bedlam and intrigue. It also offers a long-overdue corrective to Tudor propaganda, dismantling their self-serving account of what they called the Wars of the Roses.
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Dan Jones is the author of The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queen Who Made England, a #1 international bestseller and New York Times bestseller, and Wars of the Roses, which charts the story of the fall of the Plantagenet dynasty and the improbable rise of the Tudors. He writes and presents the popular Netflix series Secrets of Great British Castles. He is also the author of Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty and Summer of Blood: England’s First Revolution and is working on a history of the Knights Templar due out in 2017.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Note on Names, Money, and Distances
THE NAMES OF PRINCIPAL CHARACTERS in this book have generally been modernized for the sake of familiarity and consistency. Thus Nevill becomes Neville, Wydeville becomes Woodville, Tudur becomes Tudor, and so on. Latin, French and archaic English sources have all been translated or rendered into modern English except in a very few cases where original spellings have been maintained to illustrate a historical point.
Where particularly pertinent, sums of money have been translated into modern currencies with the assistance of the conversion tool at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency, which gives modern values for ancient, and also has a “purchasing power” function. Readers should be aware, however, that the conversion of monetary values across the centuries is a perilously inexact science, and that the figures given are for rough guidance only. As a very rough guide, £100 in 1450 would be worth £55,000 (or $90,000) today. The same sum would represent ten years’ annual salary for an ordinary English laborer in the mid-fifteenth century.
Where a distance between two places is given, it has usually been calculated using Google Maps Walking Directions, and thus tends to be calculated according to the fastest route via modern roads.
AT SEVEN O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING on Friday, May 27, 1541, within the precincts of the Tower of London, an old woman walked out into the light of a spring day. Her name was Margaret Pole. By birth, blood and lineage she was one of the noblest women in England. Her father, George, duke of Clarence, had been the brother to a king, and her mother, Isabel Neville, had in her time been coheir to one of the greatest earldoms in the land. Both parents were now long gone, memories from another age and another century.
Margaret’s life had been long and exciting. For twenty-five years she had been the countess of Salisbury, one of only two women of her time to have held a peerage in her own right. She had until recently been one of the five wealthiest aristocrats of her generation, with lands in seventeen different counties. Now, at sixty-seven—ancient by Tudor standards—she appeared so advanced in age that intelligent observers took her to be eighty or ninety.1
Like many inhabitants of the Tower of London, Margaret Pole was a prisoner. Two years previously she had been stripped of her lands and titles by an act of parliament which accused her of having “committed and perpetrated diverse and sundry other detestable and abominable treasons” against her cousin, King Henry VIII. What these treasons were was never fully evinced, because in truth Margaret’s offenses against the crown were more general than particular. Her two principal crimes were her close relation to the king and her suspicion of his adoption of the new forms and doctrines of Christian belief that had swept through Europe during the past two decades. For these two facts, the one of birthright and the second of conscience, she had lived within London’s stout, supposedly impervious riverside fortress, which bristled with cannons from its whitewashed central tower, for the past eighteen months.
Margaret had lived well in jail. Prison for a sixteenth-century aristocrat was supposed to be a life of restricted movement tempered by decent, even luxurious conditions, and she had been keen to ensure that her confinement met the highest standard. She expected to serve a comfortable sentence, and when she found the standards wanting, she complained.2 Before she was moved to London she spent a year locked in Cowdray House in West Sussex, under the watch of the unenthusiastic William Fitzwilliam, earl of Southampton. The earl and his wife had found her spirited and indignant approach to incarceration rather tiresome and had been glad when she was moved on.
In the Tower, Margaret was able to write letters to her relatives and was provided with servants and good, expensive food. Her nobility was not demeaned. Earlier in the year Queen Catherine’s tailor had been appointed to make her a set of new clothes, and just a few weeks previously another order of garments had turned up, ordered and paid for directly by the king. Henry had also sent her a nightgown lined with fur and another with Cypriot satin, petticoats, bonnets and hose, four pairs of shoes and a new pair of slippers. More than £15—roughly the equivalent of two years’ wages for a common laborer at the time—had been spent on her clothing in just six months. As she walked out into the cool morning air, Margaret Pole could therefore have reflected that, although she was due to be beheaded that morning, she would at least die wearing new shoes.
Her execution had been arranged in a hurry. She had been informed only hours previously that her nephew the king had ordered her death: a shockingly short time for an old lady to prepare her spirit and body for the end. According to a report that reached Eustace Chapuys, the exceptionally well-informed Imperial ambassador to England, the countess “found the thing very strange,” since she had no idea “of what crime she was accused, nor how she had been sentenced.” Few, in truth, would ever quite understand what threat this feeble old lady could have posed to a king as powerful and self-important as Henry VIII.
A thin crowd had gathered to bear witness. They stood by a pathetically small chopping block, erected so hastily that it was simply set on the ground and not, as was customary, raised up on a scaffold. According to Chapuys, when Margaret arrived before the block she commended her soul to her creator and asked those present to pray for King Henry and Queen Catherine, the king’s three-year-old son, Prince Edward, and the twenty-five-year-old Princess Mary, her goddaughter. But as the old woman stood talking to the sparse crowd (Chapuys put the number at 150; the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, suggested it was fewer), a feeling of restlessness went around. She was told to hurry up and place her neck on the little piece of wood.
The Tower’s regular executioner was not on duty that morning. He was in the north, alongside King Henry, who had visited the farthest reach of his kingdom to dampen the threat of rebellion against his rule. The Tower’s ax had therefore been entrusted to a deputy: a man of tender years and little experience in the difficult art of decapitation. (Chapuys described him as a “wretched and blundering youth.”) He was faced with a task wildly inappropriate to his years. Only one other noblewoman had been executed in England since the Norman Conquest: the king’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. She had been beheaded in a single stroke with a sword by a specially imported French executioner. This was not that, and the hapless executioner knew it. When the signal was given to strike, he brought the weapon down toward the block. But he botched the job. Rather than cutting cleanly through Margaret’s neck in one stroke, he slammed the ax’s blade into the old woman’s shoulders and head. She did not die. He brought the ax down again, and missed again. It took several more blows to dispatch her, a barbarous assault in which the inept axeman literally hacked the old woman’s upper body to pieces. It was a foul and cruel butchery that would shock everyone who heard of it. “May God in his high Grace pardon her soul,” wrote Chapuys, “for certainly she was a most virtuous and honourable lady.”3
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Margaret Pole was at one level just another casualty of the religious wars that dominated the sixteenth century, in which followers of the old faith—Roman Catholicism—and various splinter groups of the new faith—Protestantism—sought to smite one another into submission. These wars took different forms. Occasionally they were fought between kingdoms allied to opposing faiths, but far more often, the religious wars were civil and dynastic conflicts that ripped individual kingdoms asunder. This was certainly the case in England during the 1540s, and Margaret’s execution in that sense represented a reforming king’s deliberate strike against a powerful family who clung to the old faith.
Yet her death could also be seen as the undignified final act in a long spell of nonreligious aristocratic violence that had begun nearly a century earlier. These were wars of politics and personality that had sprung from a struggle for hegemony following the slow but catastrophic collapse of royal authority from the late 1440s onward. This conflict, usually assumed to have been closed on the accession of Henry Tudor as Henry VII in 1485 and his defense of the crown at the battle of Stoke in 1487, in fact continued to haunt sixteenth-century politics long afterward. Certainly it played a role in Margaret Pole’s death, for this old woman was one of the last surviving members of the Plantagenet dynasty and a living relic of what we now call the Wars of the Roses.
Dozens of Margaret’s immediate and extended family had fallen victim to these wars. Her father, George, duke of Clarence, was twenty-eight when his brother King Edward IV had him executed for treason—drowned in a butt of the sweet Greek wine known as Malmsey, in memory of which Margaret was said always to wear a tiny wine keg on her bracelet.4 Two of her paternal uncles had been killed in pitched battles in 1460 and 1485. Both of her grandfathers had also died on the battlefield; one ending his days with his head impaled on the city gates of York, a paper crown nailed to his skull. Margaret’s brother Edward, styled but not officially recognized as earl of Warwick, had spent most of his twenty-four years of life imprisoned in the Tower of London. Henry VII had ordered his execution by beheading in November 1499, when rumors spread of a plot to break him out of jail. Margaret’s eldest son, Henry Pole, Lord Montague, was executed in January 1539; her eldest grandson, Montague’s heir, also called Henry, would also die while incarcerated in the Tower some time after 1542. The whole history of the Pole family between the 1470s and 1540s was one of brutal destruction undertaken by three different kings. And in this the Poles were far from exceptional. They were simply the last of the great aristocratic families to be persecuted to extinction in the Wars of the Roses.
That England was used to killing its most illustrious men and women did not detract from the profound shock that Margaret Pole’s callous execution caused around Europe. By June 13 the news had reached Antwerp, and a week later it had spread to the Imperial Court.5 In early August the countess’s second son, Reginald Pole, a renegade Catholic churchman who had risen to the rank of cardinal, wrote bitterly to Juan Álvarez de Toledo, Cardinal Archbishop of Burgos, that his mother had “perished, not by the law of nature, but by a violent death, inflicted on her by one from whom it was the last due, as he was her cousin.” Reginald’s only consolation in his mother’s savage murder was that she had suffered a martyr’s death. “To suffer as Christ, his Apostles, and so many martyrs and virgins suffered, is not ignominious,” he wrote, but Pole nevertheless went on to compare Henry VIII unfavorably to the ancient tyrants Herod, Nero and Caligula. “Their cruelty is far surpassed by the iniquity of this man, who, with much less semblance of justice, put to death a most innocent woman, who was of his own kin, of advanced age, and who had grown old with a reputation for virtue.”6
To paint Henry VIII as a brute killer in a long line of otherwise virtuous kings was somewhat disingenuous. Henry was certainly capable of violence and cruelty toward members of his own family, but such were the times. Indeed, if anything could be said for Margaret’s death it was that it marked the end of the bloodbath that had been continuing on and off since the 1450s. When her poor, mangled body finally dropped to the ground, there remained barely a single drop of Plantagenet royal blood in England, other than the little that flowed in the veins of Henry VIII and his three children. Nearly a century of butchery was coming to an end not by choice but by default: almost all the potential victims were now dead.
· · ·
One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses” came from the pen of the nineteenth-century British writer and royal tutor Maria, Lady Callcott. Her children’s book Little Arthur’s History of England was first published in 1835. In describing the violent upheaval that convulsed England in the fifteenth century, Callcott wrote, “For more than thirty years afterwards, the civil wars in England were called the wars of the Roses.”7 She was right and she was wrong. The precise phrase is not recorded before the first quarter of the nineteenth century, but the idea of a country torn in half by the rival houses of Lancaster and York, represented respectively by the emblems of red and white roses, went back in some form to the fifteenth century.
Roses were a popular symbol throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, and their colors, whether deployed in politics, literature or art, were judged to have important and often opposing meanings. The fourteenth-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio used red and white roses in his Decameron to symbolize the entwined themes of love and death.8 Roses were doodled in the margins and illuminated letters in books of prayer, calendars and scientific texts.9 Aristocratic families in England had included roses in their heraldic badges since at least the reign of Henry III in the thirteenth century.10 King Edward I had sometimes displayed the golden rose as a symbol of monarchy. But in the later fifteenth century in England, red and white roses began to be associated closely with the fortunes of rival claimants to the crown.
The first royal rose was the white rose, representing the house of York—the descendants of Richard, duke of York, who asserted his right to the crown in 1460. When Richard’s son Edward became King Edward IV in 1461, the white rose was one of a number of symbols he used to advertise his kingship. Indeed, as a young man Edward was known as “the rose of Rouen,” and on his military victories his supporters sang “blessed be that flower!”11 In later decades, the white rose was adopted by many of those who chose to align themselves with Edward’s memory, particularly if they wished to stake their claim to royal preeminence by virtue of their relationship to him.
The red rose was far less common until it was adopted and promoted vigorously by Henry VII in the 1480s. The earliest quasi-royal use of the red rose was by Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), who had his pavilions decorated with the flowers during his famous trial by combat against Thomas Mowbray in 1398.12 There is some (slight) evidence that red roses were also associated with Henry IV’s grandson Henry VI. But it was only after the battle of Bosworth in 1485 that red roses flourished as a royal badge, representing Henry Tudor’s (Henry VII’s) claim to the crown through his connection to the old dukes of Lancaster. The red rose was then used as a counterpoint to the white, puffing up the weak Tudor claims to royal legitimacy. (“To avenge the White, the Red Rose bloomed,” wrote one chronicler, studio...
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