The death of the last White Rose in 1525 was really the final rattle of opposition to the Crown to have its origins in the wars that had shaken the realm since the first outbreak of violence during Henry VI’s reign in the 1450s. By the 1520s the generation that ruled and moved England were, by and large, not veterans of Bosworth or Stoke. Anyone who had participated in either of those battles would be in his fifties – approaching old age, by the standards of the time. Few could now remember the horrors of Towton. Henry VIII’s generation were children of (relative) peace, and though the elderly would have spoken of the violence of civil war, and shared their memories of the ferocious battles that had taken place in the midlands, the marches of Wales, the outskirts of London and the far north, the truth was that most of the protagonists and the participants of the wars were long dead. The wounds were passing into the realm of history and folklore.
One very important reason for this was that the central issue that had lain at the root of the wars appeared to have been resolved. This was not a case of an overmighty nobility having been blunted, of a system we now call ‘bastard feudalism’ having been destroyed, or of a radical shift having occurred in the power structures of England, as has sometimes been argued. Rather, it was the result of a final restoration of determined and legitimate kingship that would have been recognisable to men who had lived a century earlier, during the heyday of the Plantagenets. Henry VIII was not merely a king who had inherited his crown by right of birth rather than conquest: he was a majestic, assertive, warlike prince who combined the swagger and grit of Edward IV with the appetite for all the trappings of Renaissance princeliness that was common to the other great monarchs of his generation: most especially Francis I of France and Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Although ‘the wars of the roses’ had in the 1480s become wars of dynastic legitimacy, their origins were not in a squabble about blood. Rather they had lain squarely in the English polity’s inability to cope with the inane, destructively pliant kingship of Henry VI. This vacillating king, peaceful and pious, had unleased a half-century of political trauma.
Henry VIII could hardly have presented a more different character. ‘Our king is not after gold, or gems or precious metals, but virtue, glory and immortality,’ the English scholar-courtier Lord Mountjoy had written to the great Dutch humanist Erasmus on Henry VIII’s accession in 1509. Henry had many faults, as the second half of his reign would amply demonstrate, but during his early years it was clear that personal authority had finally been restored to the crown by a king whose right to rule was stronger than that of any of his predecessors since 1422. Henry’s accession thus solved two problems at once: it addressed the vague and random problem of personal authority on the part of the man who happened to become king, and the question of legitimacy as a matter of blood-right, which had been disastrously thrown open in 1460 when Richard duke of York had decided to abandon his quest for political leadership and claim the crown. The basic symbols and images of Tudor kingship presented Henry VIII as the embodiment of red rose and white rose reunited. He understood the role, and played it perfectly.
This is not to say, of course, that Henry could afford to ignore dynastic threats completely, as the Richard de la Pole saga had demonstrated. Alternative Plantagenet and ‘Yorkist’ lines of royal descent were thin, but they still existed. In the spring of 1521 Henry had acted ruthlessly to press charges of treason – conspiring or imagining the king’s death – against Edward Stafford, duke of Buckingham, whose long line of descent from Thomas of Woodstock connected him to Edward III, and whose loud mouth, insufferable pride and arrogant bearing had been inherited all too obviously from his father, the foolish kingmaker duke who had rebelled against Richard III. Edward’s crime was largely a case of grumbling about royal policy, listening to prophecies concerning the king’s life and muttering that he himself might one day make a better monarch. But this was enough to bring down the greatest nobleman in England. Buckingham was subjected to a show trial at Westminster Hall, had a guilty verdict delivered to him by a tearful duke of Norfolk and was beheaded at the Tower of London on 17 May 1521. The charges against him were largely trumped up, and his trial stage-managed to produce the inevitable judgement. It is hard to imagine that Buckingham would have been so sorely treated by the king were it not for the Plantagenet blood of which he was so proud.
Other noble families might have presented Henry with concerns if he had put his mind firmly to it, but by the end of the 1520s the king’s mind was occupied with dynastic matters of a different sort. His marriage to his brother’s widow Katherine of Aragon had produced only one surviving child, Princess Mary, and his head had been turned by the woman who would become his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The issues of religious reform that exploded out of his search for a divorce during the early 1530s provided new political dividing lines just as deadly as those that had existed between the various factions of Lancaster, York, Neville, Tudor and the rest during the fifteenth century. To be sure, dynastic issues were still alive, but they were now fused with the politics of religion, shaped by domestic concerns and Henry’s increasingly monstrous sexual psychology and hunger for power and grandeur.
It was in this context that he persecuted the Pole family, condemning the aged Margaret Pole to her hideous butchery at the block in the Tower in 1541, cursing Cardinal Reginald Pole’s name all around Europe and having another of Margaret’s sons, Henry Pole, Lord Montague, likewise executed for high treason on 9 January 1539 alongside Henry Courtenay, marquess of Exeter. Montague and Exeter’s principal crime was to oppose the king on matters of religion, and to rebel (or be suspected of rebelling) against the royal supremacy. The fact that Margaret Pole was the daughter of George duke of Clarence, and one of the only remaining links to the wars of the fifteenth century, was not on its own enough to justify her losing her head in 1541. But it was almost certainly an aggravating factor in her execution.
All the same, the death of Margaret Pole still represents a watershed: she was the last aristocrat who could claim with much seriousness to carry Plantagenet blood in her veins. The pseudo-royal families of York, Beaufort, Holland, de la Pole and Pole were effectively all gone. The Nevilles and Staffords had been bludgeoned into submission. The old nobility had by no means been destroyed as a unit of society, but many great and ancient families had been wiped out. ‘How many men, in the name of God immortal, have you killed?’ wrote Reginald Pole, raging at Henry for the judicial murder of his mother. The answer was simple: enough. The politics that stirred men’s hearts and moved their hands to their swords in anger had shifted decisively from dynasty to faith. After the king died in 1547 the great arguments of his children’s reigns were not Lancaster versus York but evangelism versus papism, reform versus the old ways and, ultimately, Protestant versus Catholic. The wars of the roses were well and truly over.
And yet. On Saturday 14 January 1559, at about two o’clock, Henry VIII’s younger daughter, Elizabeth, rode through London, from the Tower down to Westminster, on the eve of her coronation. As usual, a great series of pageants had been organised to illustrate the many ways in which the new queen’s majesty was righteous and worthy.
At the corner of Fenchurch Street and Gracechurch Street a large stage was erected across the street, ‘vaulted with battlements’ and built on three separate levels. According to the official record of the procession:
on the lowest stage was made one seat royal, wherein were placed two personages representing king Henry the Seventh and Elizabeth his wife, daughter of king Edward the Fourth … [not] divided but that the one of them which was king Henry processing out of the house of Lancaster was enclosed in a red rose, and the other which was Queen Elizabeth being heir to the house of York enclosed with a white rose … Out of the which two roses sprang two branches gathered into one, which were directed upward to the second stage … wherein was placed one, representing the valiant and noble prince king Henry [VIII].
Beside this Henry sat his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and on the stage above them sat a final figure, representing Elizabeth I herself, ‘crowned and apparelled as the other princes were’. The whole pageant was ‘garnished with red roses and white and in the forefront of the same pageant in a fair wreath was written … “The Uniting of the two houses of Lancaster and York.”’ A great play was made on Elizabeth’s name: like Elizabeth of York, who brought unity to the realm through her marriage, it was explained, the new Elizabeth would ‘maintain the same among her subjects’. Unity, said the official account, ‘was the end whereat the whole device shot’.1
Those men and women of London who stood and gawped as the queen’s procession passed by would have understood instantly the version of history that was being suggested by the rose pageant. It had, after all, been repeated at length for more than seventy years. Buildings were decorated with the Tudor roses and other associated emblems of the dynasty. Great stained-glass windows installed in churches during the sixteenth century blazed with red and white petals.2 Anyone who had been lucky enough to browse the books of the royal library would have found the exquisite illustrations on the pages decorated with roses red, white and Tudor – in many cases these were added to books that had been inherited from earlier kings, particularly Edward IV. Other books, too, were emblazoned with the simplified dynastic story of the wars of the roses. Nowhere can Tudor teleology be seen more clearly expressed than in the full title of Edward Hall’s chronicle, ‘The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke, Beeyng Long in Continual Discension for the Croune of this Noble Realme, with all the Actes Done in Bothe the Tymes of the Princes, Bothe of the One Linage and of the Other, Beginnyng at the Tyme of King Henry the Fowerth, the First Aucthor of this Deuision, and so Successively Proceadyng to the Reigne of the High and Prudent Prince, King Henry the Eight, the Vndubitate Flower and the Very Heire of Both the Sayd Linages’.3 As if this were not clear enough, the frontispiece to the publisher Richard Grafton’s 1550 edition of Hall’s chronicle made things visually unmistakeable. The writhing branches of a rosebush prickled their way around the title, growing from the bottom of the page: on either side they were occupied by rival members of the broken Plantagenet dynasty. At the very top of the page, inevitably, sat the magnificently porcine figure of Henry VIII, the messiah, the end of history.
The frontispiece was such a popular motif that it was repeated and reused on other, unconnected works: the same family tree appeared unmodified in John Stow’s 1550 and 1561 editions of Chaucer’s works, introducing the section on the Canterbury Tales.4 Just as John duke of Bedford had plastered occupied France with genealogies advertising the legitimacy of the joint monarchy during the 1520s, and just as Edward IV had obsessively compiled genealogies tracing his rightful royal descent from centuries long gone, so too did the Tudors drive home the simple, visual message both of their right to rule and their version of history. By Elizabeth’s reign, the mere sight of red and white roses entwined was enough to evoke instantly the whole story of the fifteenth century: the crown had been thrown into dispute and disarray by the Lancastrian deposition of Richard II in 1399; this had prompted nearly a century of warfare between two rival clans, which was a form of divine punishment for the overthrow of a rightful king; finally in 1485 the Tudors had reunited the families and saved the realm. It was that simple.
By the 1590s, when Elizabeth I was old, her own reign decaying and a new crisis of rule beginning to loom, the Tudor story of the fifteenth century was a matter not only of historical fact, but of public entertainment. A generation of playwrights mined the monumental histories of Hall and his successor Raphael Holinshed to unearth material for a new and extremely well-received form of spectacle: the English history play. One of the most popular eras for depiction on the stage was the fifteenth century. And the greatest of all the dramatists was William Shakespeare.
In or around 1591 – the dating is a matter of dispute – Shakespeare wrote, or more likely contributed to, the play that is now called Henry VI Part I. The play’s events concern the early stages of the wars of the roses, charting the loss of England’s lands in France and the political upheaval that resulted. In the famous ‘rose garden’ scene, Richard duke of York (called here Richard Plantagenet) and various other noblemen squabble and align into two factions, selecting red or white roses to represent themselves:
[ … ]
Let him that is a true-born gentleman
And stands upon the honour of his birth,
If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,
From off this briar pluck a white rose with me.
He plucks a white rose
Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer,
But dare maintain the party of the truth,
Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me.
He plucks a red rose
I love no colours, and without all colour
Of base insinuating flattery,
I pluck this white rose with Plantagenet.
I pluck this red rose with young Somerset,
And say withal I think he held the right.
Well, I’ll find friends to wear my bleeding roses …5
Above the hubbub of a late Elizabethan theatre, the nuances of political history could be lost. But the mere sight of actors dressed as aristocrats teaming off according to their choice of rose was designed to be instantly understood. Henry VI Part I eventually became part of the cycle of Shakespeare’s two historical tetralogies: eight plays that run, if arranged by their historical chronology, from Richard II to Richard III, and which portray the whole course of pre-Tudor fifteenth-century history.6 The message that had been concocted by Henry VII nearly one hundred years previously had become entrenched in public consciousness. And there it has remained, more or less, ever since.
As we have seen, the wars of the roses and the destruction of the house of Plantagenet did not really come about because two factions divided by blood were destined to atone through war for the sin of deposing Richard II. All the evil of the fifteenth century was not embodied in a villainous Richard III, any more than the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York provided instant salvation. Rather, this was a vicious and at times barely comprehensible period of deep political instability, which stemmed ultimately from a collapse in royal authority and English rule in France under Henry VI. In a system in which law, order, justice and peace flowed so heavily from the person of the king and the office of the crown, Henry VI’s reign (and his afterlife between deposition in 1461 and his death ten years later) was a disaster. The English system of government was robust in the 1420s and 1430s – robust enough to deal with a minority of nearly two decades. But it was not robust enough to deal with an adult king who simply would not perform his role. For a time under Henry VII there was an attempt to rehabilitate his memory, with the old king proposed as a candidate for sainthood who had performed wonderful miracles, including healing a man who had been run over by a wagon, or a young boy who had been injured during a football game.7 Under Henry VIII, however, this was quietly dropped in favour of reverence for the more obviously inspiring example of Henry V. It was difficult to sustain much interest in a man whose doleful and agonisingly protracted rule wreaked long-term damage on the English crown that took decades to repair.
Edward IV undid a great deal of the appalling harm that had been caused by Henry VI, repairing much of the fabric of royal government and taking to kingship with extraordinary brio and competence; but he made two bad mistakes. The first was to marry Elizabeth Woodville, whose large family could not be easily assimilated into a political system that had just endured such a rough shaking. The second was to die in April 1483 – not a matter about which he had much choice in the short term, although it is possible to argue that his physical decline in his later years was self-inflicted by his fondness for gorging and idleness. All the same, the combination of a child heir and a Woodville faction that could not or would not be accommodated was too much for a fragile and weatherbeaten political system to bear. That said, Richard III’s ruthless usurpation of the crown was not and could not have been foreseen by anyone, and it unleashed a period of bloody desperation in which the crown was all but up for grabs to anyone who could show a strain of royal blood and raise a foreign army. It was this battle, fought ‘hot’ between 1483 and 1487 and ‘cold’ between 1487 and 1525, that was won by the Tudors, not the ‘wars of the roses’ as a whole. Nevertheless, the fact is that the Tudors did win. And like all historical winners, they reserved the right to tell their story: a story that has endured to this day.