Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou

Image of Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou
Release Date: 
June 29, 2015
G.P. Putnam's Sons
Reviewed by: 

“a rich historical tapestry of words.”

The middle book of a proposed trilogy, Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou by Conn Iggulden is a feast for lovers of English historical fiction.

The novel opens in late summer of 1454 with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, plotting an attack on the wedding party of the son of Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury. Henry Percy and Richard Neville are bitter enemies despite the fact that they are related by marriage, and Percy sees the wedding as an opportunity to destroy Neville.

He meets with his younger son, Thomas, and gives him his orders. “They will be on horses and on foot, a merry wedding party traipsing back to feast on a fine summer day. And you will be there, Thomas. You will ride them down, leaving no one alive. That is my order to you.”

The attack is a failure, as Salisbury is not as unprepared as Percy hoped, but the hatred and greed for power that exists between the House of Lancaster and the House of York is now revealed for all of England to see, as though any, from nobles to peasants, have doubted it. The kingdom sways at the edge of an abyss that is civil war.

Withdrawing to Baron Cromwell’s castle, Salisbury is furious. “To be forced to run from a Percy enemy was a humiliation that burned so bright it was hard to think at all.”

At Winsor Castle, Queen Margaret’s chief spy, Derry Brewer, reports to her and the Duke of Buckingham on the intelligence he has gathered during his foray through England. He wishes he could tell the Queen that Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, is despised and ruining England, but he cannot. “In his heart of hearts, he knew the duke was managing the vast and complex business of state with rather more skill and understanding than King Henry ever had.” But that is not what Margaret wants to hear.

The queen is struggling to preserve the authority of her husband, King Henry VI, and protect the future of her son. It galls her that Richard Plantagenet of the House of York and his hated allies, the Nevilles, control a Lancaster king.

With Henry VI in a near catatonic state, the Duke of York is Lord Protector of the Realm, and is in a position to seize the throne if he wishes. Derry reminds the Queen that the council of lords will soon meet to name her son Edward as royal heir. “If York interferes with that, his ambition to rule will be revealed.”

With her husband’s mind in some faraway place, incapable of recognizing even his own wife, a “blank-faced monarch nodding in his chair . . .” Margaret is surrounded and controlled by her enemies. The Earl of Somerset, her closest and most trusted advisor has been arrested for treason on the orders of the Duke of York. Margaret of Anjou needs the king to awaken and take back his power.

The king does awaken, a seeming miracle that owes nothing to medical science as practiced at the time. No one can explain why the king “fell asleep” more than 18 months before, nor can anyone explain why he has suddenly recovered his senses. Margaret doesn’t care why, she only wants him to assert himself. Henry does, sending the Duke of York and the Earl of Salisbury packing, and releasing the Earl of Somerset from the Tower. For the moment at least, the Lancaster faction is back in control.

As Henry prepares to go on a royal progression though the country to show his subjects that he well, the Duke of York, Salisbury and his son, the Earl of Warwick, plan to take back the king by force of arms under the pretense that he is being held captive by evil advisors in the person of the Duke of Buckingham, Henry Percy, and the Earl of Somerset. As the old saying goes, that is the pot calling the kettle black.

In the town of St. Albans, the forces of York and the forces of the king meet in a battle of archers, pikes, swords, axes, described in vivid, gut-wrenching detail by Mr. Iggulden. The king’s forces are defeated, Henry himself badly wounded, and the Duke of York and his allies gain temporary custody of the king. The House of York has regained power.

Margaret soon rescues Henry, taking him to Kenilworth Castle where she spends the next four years gathering an army and planning her strategy for defeating the House of York. At Blore Heath, Salisbury routs the queen’s much larger force, but suffers such losses that he is unable to reach the Duke of York. Salisbury, York, Warwich, and York’ son the Earl of March, flee the realm. The House of Lancaster regains power.

The ascendency of Henry VI and the House of Lancaster is brief, as The Duke of York returns a year later to fight again, capturing the king and forcing the queen to flee to Wales to the estate of Owen Tudor. With Tudor’s aid, Queen Margaret plans yet another campaign against the Duke of York.

Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou is a rich historical tapestry of words, each narrative of the opposing characters woven together to create such a story of greed, betrayal, loyalty, and thirst for power, that it seems some outlandish costume drama, instead of a fictional chronicle of historic events.

A careful perusal of the genealogies included in the book is necessary to understand the tangled relationships between the various factions. At least a superficial knowledge of English history would be helpful, as Mr. Iggulden’s novel of these complex times might be difficult for the casual reader. Still, five out of five stars for a wonderful novel.