Battle Royal

Battle Royal

The Wars of Lancaster and York: 1450–1462

Hugh Bicheno

Pegasus Books, New York, 2016, 416 pages

Book Review published on: June 9, 2017

Battle Royal is one of the most robust and comprehensive compendiums of English history during the War of the Roses in press. This historical piece begins with a forlorn Henry VI fumbling through the requirements of ruling and managing a divided kingdom and ending with Edward IV avenging his father and successfully securing the crown for the House of York. Additionally, many famous figures make their entrances in this piece and provide, for what may be the first time, a full and unfettered rendition of the outbreak of the War of the Roses and the path leading to the eventual Tudor Dynasty in the next chapter of this long period of significant upheaval, betrayal, and constantly changing alliances.

A major improvement over previous literature written throughout this period is the full graphical representation of the complex family lineages who all played key roles, including the kings, princes, dukes, earls, barons, and cardinals. This is the first review that displays all of the houses and alliances over the course of many centuries adding a very handy (and necessary) reference to ensure clarity. Many of these lineages, names, and royal titles are very similar throughout, making these graphical family trees absolutely essential. Additionally, the neutral position of this book grants readers the ability to see the parties from a position of objectivity. Considering the complexity of this time period, these improvements are vital to anyone interested in early British history.

The depiction of Henry VI and his wife Marguerites at the outset is critical. The inability of Henry VI to follow effectively in his father’s footsteps posits him as weak and in an untenable position to maintain the throne. Simultaneously, and much more relevant, is the role of the queen during this time. In an age when women did not have a real role in politics, this is a turning point. This was truly a warrior queen who fought her husband’s battles and kept the ruling house together throughout the period. This was an amazing piece of statesmanship and alliance building by a queen of foreign birth and few true supporters. She was a force of will and carried the country during a time when her husband was not only incapable, but at one point, even catatonic. Her opposite and equally impressive opposition is Cecily of the House of York and her offspring. These two figures are some of the most influential individuals involved and they both suffer similar tragic loss as events unfold.

Certain individuals, such as Warwick (the Kingmaker), were also particularly charismatic and tremendously influential throughout and worthy of in-depth review of their roles. As for the conduct of battle, the brutal execution of several of the key leaders at the Battle of Wakefield provided the catalyst to bring this conflict to a new level of condoned savagery and overt vengeance. No longer were the nobles of one side spared in the contest but instead quickly branded as traitors, forfeited trials, and immediately dispatched; often times beheaded and placed on display. This seems to take effect so readily, that all elements of chivalry, decency, and mercy are replaced with a new set of brutal norms.

The follow-on acts are played out during the time of Edward IV and then take another turn for the worse with his brother, the famous Richard III. After Richard III meets his fate, the tides of fortune once again swing to those of the previous line, and the act begins again for the Houses of York and Lancaster. As a result of the constantly changing fortunes, combatants, and family lines involved, I recommend that the first time reader first look to other texts such as Fatal Colours, Fatal Rivalry, and the Battle of Bosworth to help understand the significant events surrounding this time in history. This compilation assumes that the reader has a working knowledge of the individuals and time periods involved, and it will be very challenging to decipher as you move throughout this excellent work otherwise.

Book Review written by: Col. Thomas S. Bundt, PhD, U.S. Army, Fort Detrick, Maryland