Dan Jones, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors, (London: Faber & Faber, 2015)
Dan Jones’ muscular account begins with Catherine de Valois’ marriage to Henry V in 1420, and ends in 1541, with the brutal execution of Margaret Pole (at 67) by Henry VIII; the final remnant of the Plantagenet dynasty to be mopped up by the Tudors.
Between these events Jones provides a comprehensive retelling of what he calls ‘a vicious and at times barely comprehensible period of deep political instability’. His writing is fluent, authoritative and full of detail which will interest readers who are familiar with Shakespeare’s tetralogy. For those of us who are, it’s fascinating to consider how Shakespeare treated the chronicles of Holinshed, Hall and others as a smorgasbord, editing, splicing and often creating events for dramatic effect.
Jones isn’t wrong to say that at times the Wars of the Roses are ‘barely comprehensible’. Newcomers to the period, and perhaps those unfamiliar with England’s geography, might struggle, so the family trees and maps which preface the text should prove useful in not just in placing the battles and spheres of influence, but distinguishing between the many Richards, Edwards and Henrys who make an appearance. In truth, though, it’s not much more complex than following Game of Thrones, surely?
What Jones is really talking about when he speaks of incomprehensibility, I think, is the decision-making and motivations of some of the assembled cast. A strength of his writing is his objectivity in interrogating the participants’ actions, their errors, their foolish pride, and their strengths, too. He’s strong, for instance, on the ways in which various ‘kingmakers’ fell because they were insatiable and could brook no opposition to their influence. Often they were easily offended by real or perceived slights by their monarchs. Machiavelli tells us that:
A man who becomes prince with the help of the nobles finds it more difficult to maintain his position than one who does so with the help of the people. As prince, he finds himself surrounded by many who believe they are his equals, and because of that he cannot command or manage them the way he wants. [a]
… and the history of this period bears him out time and again.
I don’t think there’s any conflict between that objectivity and the way Jones unequivocally lays the blame for the turmoil firmly, and I think fairly, at the feet of Henry VI. He says that the country and its nobles were ‘not robust enough to deal with a king who simply would not perform his role’. Harsh, but accurate.
Overall, this is well-written and as accessible as the convoluted times can be. If you’re interested in the period, for Shakespearean or other reasons, I recommend it.
Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe (ed. Anthony Grafton, trans. George Bull), (London: Penguin, 2003)