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Response to Review of The Wars of the Roses

It is good that this review recognizes significant merits in my book, for example, that ‘it gives emphasis to themes which have often been underplayed’ and ‘contains a number of thought-provoking insights’. Bringing popular politics and international relations into play substantially extends both the context for the Wars and the scope of causation even if, undoubtedly, more will be learnt about these and many other topics. Whilst the reviewer is not altogether convinced and indeed says ‘it is simply untrue that the many existing treatments of the Wars have failed to explain them’, it is certainly not untrue that nobody to date has explained them satisfactorily. Great historian though he was, McFarlane wrote long ago, had not the benefit of the subsequent research that he stimulated, killed myths that should have survived, and charted misleading as well as rewarding directions. He antedated not just recent work on feuds, but R. L. Storey’s classic End of the House of Lancaster. Different though the historians (eg Pollard and Carpenter) and histories of this era are, almost all their books – including my own – start from McFarlane of whom we are all grand-pupils. Obviously I took account of other interpretations, borrowing and acknowledging where appropriate, and providing (I believe) a more credible and satisfactory overview.

A great deal happened between the Crisis of 1450 and the First War of 1459–61, but progression to each subsequent outbreak speeded up – once force entered politics it was easier to repeat! – until Richard III made usurpation his first resort. The balance of chapters in my book is therefore unsurprising and seems indeed mirrored in this review. If moreover the Yorkists receive less treatment, this is surely because I myself have written freshly on all three Yorkist kings in the past dozen years and could draw more fully on my own work. This is true for instance of my account of the Wydeville coup in 1483.

My book deliberately brought a range of different factors and explanation into play that varied from time to time. Dynasticism, for example, is a late addition to the story and the economic crisis ebbs away. I found Lawrence Stone’s three-fold explanation for the English Revolution provocative and stimulating even if not an exact fit to 15th-century circumstances (or 17th-century ones either). Certainly my timescale that dates the First War from 1459 is a considerable improvement on those that antedate it to 1455.

My interpretation starts from the appalling circumstances of the 1450s (which John Watts admits), that could not be managed by any king, whether Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III or even Henry VII. Perhaps Henry VI was not the best man to try, but try he did. Undoubtedly York and later Warwick identified themselves with reform, which was indeed implemented – but was insufficient to achieve the desired results. York’s constant irruptions into politics did not help, but rather made effective government impossible. Warwick at least was consistently identified with reform and was believed, whereas Gloucester seems to have claimed that problems that had been solved still persisted. All were rabble-rousers – which need not mean either that they were insincere or more significantly that the rabble had not good reasons to be roused, reasons that Watts himself has shown drew on the same political principles as those of the elite. York, especially Warwick, and Gloucester appealed to commoners who had political expectations that they demanded were met – a first in the sense that popular unrest in 1381, and under Henry IV, was episodic rather than continuous. These great magnates broke the pre-existing convention that the elite did not involve the commons in their politics and also overstepped the line between loyal representations and treasonable rebellions. If we today can understand why they acted as they did, it was nevertheless symptomatic that established constitutional principles had lost their capacity to restrain them intellectually. It is interesting that Watts seems to end by blaming it all on one man, Henry of Windsor, who was very certainly not the prime mover in the Second or Third Wars, and subscribes to the emergence of ‘a kind of equilibrium in a new political order’ that seems to anticipate developments that came somewhat later. I hope that I have moved the debate on from such rather tired orthodoxies.