Golden threads and blood-stained snow

When history comes heaving and thundering to life... The Wars of the Roses by Desmond Seward Constable, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
IN 1450, a couple of farmers got into trouble at Brightling market. Their crime was to repeat in public what everyone was saying privately, that the sixth King Henry was not a patch on the fifth, that the son of the glamorous hero of Agincourt was no more than "a natural fool". Five years later, their pitifully weak and worried monarch erected his banner in the centre of St. Alban's, where the National Westminster Bank now stands, and witnessed the beginning of 30 years of savagery that later generations would call the Wars of the Roses.

To understand the politics of the 15th century, it is as well to forget your geography. The Yorkists and the Lancastrians did not derive from opposite sides of the Pennines. At one stage, the Lancastrians' headquarters was York; much later Yorkist diehards assembled at Lancaster. The gentry who took part bore several titles each, of wildly differing provenance: Henry VII's father is listed in the index under "Bedford, Jasper Tudor, Duke of, see Pembroke, Earl of". As for the women, they were nearly all called Margaret or Elizabeth, and their surnames tended to change even more often.

To add to the confusion, people frequently changed allegiance too. It was absolutely vital to be on the winning side, if you could guess which it would be. Battlefield beheading or the punishment of attainder awaited many a loser - this meant that he was hanged, drawn and quartered and his heirs disinherited in perpetuity. No wonder Lord Stanley waited until Richard III and Henry Tudor were fighting virtually hand-to-hand before weighing in on the side of his stepson and helping to ensure that the Battle of Bosworth became synonymous with the end of the Middle Ages.

Into this blood-soaked melee strides Desmond Seward. It is hard to imagine a historian more in command of his subject, or better able to bring it howling and thundering to life. From an omniscient position, he directs his reader fastidiously and dramatically through the plots, the dynastic marriages, the murders and the exiles. For example, after the savage battle of Towton, he tells us, an area of blood-stained snow, six miles by three, was covered in corpses. And why were they so murderous? They were held together by fear and a patchwork of personal loyalties but in the end, nothing but English stubbornness ensured that they would go on killing each other all day long and into the night.

Seward has woven into this patchwork the golden threads of five extraordinary lives: a squire, a nobleman, a lady, a priest and a harlot. The lady is Margaret Beaufort: left pregnant and a widow by her second husband when she was 13, she lived to see her son crowned and the Tudors established. Yet she kept her integrity, impressing her chaplain, the saintly John Fisher, with her profound spirituality. Like the other key figures - William Hastings, his brother-in-law the Earl of Oxford, John Morton and Jane Shore - Margaret becomes a real, believable, almost modern character in Seward's skilful stewardship.

Other figures sparkle briefly. The portrait-gallery of brasses in medieval churches give us a notion of their looks, their long hair and fluted armour, their wasp-waisted wives in their butterfly hats: Seward fills in the facts. There is Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV's beautiful queen, destroyed by avarice; there is the Earl of Wiltshire, the handsomest man in England, who fought every battle with his heels for fear of losing his looks; there is the visiting Burgundian nobleman entertained by Edward IV at Windsor and given a quilt of ermine-lined cloth-of-gold; there is Shakespeare's "proud insulting Queen" Margaret of Anjou, escaping with her infant son from forest brigands. A wealth of contemporary sources provides these anecdotes, and the result is history as compelling as any novel.

As for Richard III, Seward cannot go along with the whitewash theory. He acknowledges his military skill, but he firmly convicts him of the murder of those little princes, and finds his numerous supporters misguided. Richard's only possible vindication lies in the appalling bloodiness of the times. With classic English understatement, John Paston wrote home to his wife: "The world, I assure you, is right queasy".