Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Pity the poor English royal family of 600 years ago.  Even if you were comfortably sitting on the throne, any number of sketchy relatives could be on the sidelines, quietly plotting your downfall.  You might think you were comfortably #1 in line for the crown, but if you had the misfortune of having your father die before you came of age, plenty of uncles and cousins would be ready to step in and "help" you to rule.  The fascinating series Britain's Bloody Crown takes a look at a turbulent time in English history that came to be known as The Wars of the Roses. This four-part series from Acorn Media is a mix of narration by historian Dan Jones and re-creations of events and battles from that unstable time in history, with several interesting historical documents thrown in for good measure.

The root of the trouble can be summed up with the title of Episode One: The Mad King.  Henry V had been a strong and vibrant ruler, who defeated and ruled most of France.  His son, Henry VI, was decidedly less regal and had no interest in messy things like battles.  That was fine while the Duke of Suffolk was alive to keep things in check, but after his death in 1450, the country was on the verge of collapse.  When a band of rioters breech the walls surrounding London, Henry flees the city.  His no-nonsense wife, Margaret of Anjou, takes control of the situation, along with Lord Somerset, who lost a lot of territory in France and came home to England.  The king's cousin, Richard, Duke of York, decides he is the man to run the country and comes to London with a small army to demand the king make him Protector of England.  There is something of a power struggle between the two factions of Queen Margaret and the Duke of York.  This continues off and on for many years -- the nobles don't want to be governed by a French woman, but the Duke of York tries to raise money by forcing the rich to give up some of their land, which doesn't endear him to Parliament, either.  Eventually the Duke of York is killed after chasing Margaret to Scotland and attempting to capture her.  While it would appear the Queen's side won, the divisions had already been sown that would result in more bloodshed over the next quarter century.

In Episode Two, The King Maker Must Die, the Duke of York's son takes the crown and becomes Edward IV.  Edward is still a teenager, and his closest advisor is Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick.  Edward relies on Warwick's counsel, and Warwick is feeling pretty confident about his status at court.  He goes to France to arrange a marriage between Edward and a French princess.  Meanwhile, Edward has gone behind Warwick's back and married Elizabeth Woodville.  She is a widowed mother of two, which would have been scandalous enough, but she brought with her a large and politically unconnected family. Edward immediately begins putting Elizabeth's relatives into advantageous positions and marrying them off to members of the aristocracy.  Once again, two sides form:  the king vs. Warwick.  Warwick goes to France and allies himself with the exiled Queen Margaret.  The two are eventually able to defeat Edward's forces and restore the weak King Henry VI to the throne.  But Henry is no more of a ruler this time than he was before, and Edward is soon able to return to the throne.

One of the most tragic events in English history is played out in Episode Three, The Princes Must Die.   After King Edward IV was returned to the throne, England enjoyed a period of stability.  Unfortunately, this didn't last.  When he died in 1483, there was yet another power struggle.  While his son, 12-year-old Edward V was the heir to the throne, the late king had apparently asked in his will that the boy's uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, be named as protector of the country until young Edward came of age.  The queen, and her Woodville clan, want the young king to be crowned immediately.  While a coronation date for the young king is set, in the meantime Richard sets about grabbing power himself.  He has young Edward and his brother imprisoned in the Tower of London, attempts to have them declared illegitimate, accuses loyal allies of treason and executes them, sets about killing the most troublesome and powerful Woodvilles, etc. The young princes disappear and  Richard can now have himself crowned king, but there are forces at work to challenge his claim.

The final episode, A Mother's Love, documents the life and behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Margaret Beaufort, mother of the future King Henry VII.  A 13 year old widow when she gave birth to her son in 1457, Margaret had to use her considerable intelligence to protect herself and her son.  Her late husband was a half-brother to the late King Henry VI, so her son has a tenuous claim on the throne.  Margaret marries two more times, the last time to Lord Thomas Stanley who was a rich and influential steward in Edward IV's household.  Margaret is constantly scheming to get her son's lands returned to him and is successful while Edward is alive, but after his death, she decides that Richard needs to be removed from the throne.  Because she has inherited much wealth, she sends money to fund an invasion to her son Henry, who has fled to France.  Henry is eventually able to return to England to challenge Richard for the crown at the Battle of Bosworth Field.  No one is too upset when the devious Richard is defeated.

I enjoyed seeing the people and events of this historical period come alive, and it was very interesting to hear the somewhat irreverent comments of Dan Jones as he explained the motivations that drove the various people to commit seemingly unthinkable actions "for the good of the country."  Jones argues that most of the people were motivated by the desire to protect England and to ensure that peace and stability were restored to the land, but the violence that occurred seemed to always get out of hand.  I was a bit surprised by some of the events (no doubt my lack of historical knowledge contributed to this!).  For instance, whenever someone wanted to challenge the sitting king or ruler, they would just throw together an army of 5,000 or 10,000 men and march toward battle.  I had to
wonder where all these soldiers were coming from.  I know jobs were likely hard to come by (particularly for the non-nobles out there), but I do wonder what would cause someone to throw his lot in with a person who was challenging the current king.  Maybe if they were on the winning side they'd be given lands or money, but it still seems like a risky proposition, particularly if you were on the losing side.  Additionally, it was a bit unclear how some people were able to throw their weight around and have people arrested, confined or executed without any authority.  For instance, before Richard was crowned king, he had several of the Woodvilles arrested and charged with treason -- on what authority???  And why wasn't the queen (widow of the old king and mother of the new one) able to stop it?  It's all very murky.  Events moved very quickly and those in favor one day could suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of events.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Britain's Bloody Crown from Acorn Media in exchange for this review


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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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