The Wars of the Roses is one of the most dramatic and fascinating periods in medieval history. Much has been written about the leading personalities, bitter dynastic rivalries, political intrigues, and the rapid change of fortune on the battlefields of England and Wales. However, there is one aspect that has been often overlooked, the role of castles in the conflict.
Dan Spencer’s original study traces their use from the outbreak of civil war in the reign of Henry VI in the 1450s to the triumph of Henry VII some thirty years later. Using a wide range of narrative, architectural, financial and administrative sources, he sheds new light on the place of castles within the conflict, demonstrating their importance as strategic and logistical centres, bases for marshalling troops, and as fortresses
Dan Spencer’s book provides a fascinating contribution to the literature on the Wars of the Roses and to the study of siege warfare in the Middle Ages.
The Castle in the Wars of the Roses by Dan Spencer provides a unique perspective on that most famous of civil wars in England. Dr Spencer combines the story of the Wars of the Roses with the varied uses of the castle during the period, as defensive structures, administrative centres and homes for the nobility. Dan Spencer establishes that the castle as a military structure was still an important asset to any army and served to guard the marches of Wales and Scotland and to act as muster points for gathering armies. Castles were strong defensive structures that could be garrisoned whenever the war came too close, though as Dr Spencer highlights, permanent garrisons were rare by this time, they could provide effective defence and intimidation when needed.
I was aware of a number of sieges during the Wars of the Roses, mainly those at Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh. However, I was not aware that that was just the tip of the iceberg. According to Dan Spencer, there were 36 definite sieges and several more possible sieges – for which there is little contemporary information, so we can’t say for certain. These possible sieges include where there are written orders for a castle to be invested, but no further report of whether the siege was undertaken or the castle surrendered without a fight.
In The Castle in the Wars of the Roses, Dan Spencer argues that while the use of the castle was declining, it still played an important role in the conflict. The book is written in a narrative, chronological style, whereby Dr Spencer tells the whole story of the Wars of the Roses, but with particular focus on the siege warfare and the use and provision of castles. It is an excellent read.
The fall of Bamburgh marked the end of a four-year-long struggle for control of Northumberland. This was part of a wider dynastic conflict between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions for control of the kingdom of England. For much of the second half of the fifteenth century these two rival houses fought a series of wars to win the English throne, which since the nineteenth century has been commonly called the Wars of the Roses. This era is without a doubt one of the most popular topics in medieval English history. Numerous books, articles, plays and films have been produced over the centuries. Looking at all sorts of aspects ranging from the dynamic personalities of key figures, such as Richard III, the causes of the conflict, its long-term legacy and the military campaigns, particularly the major battles. Given this vast output on the subject, it may be pertinent to ask why it is necessary for yet another book to be written. The answer is that one important area has been almost wholly neglected: the role of the castle in the Wars of the Roses.
Why has this been the case? One explanation is the perception that the campaigns of the Wars of the Roses were dominated by decisive battles, in which castles played a very minor role. This argument does have some substance. The era was unusual for the frequency with which significant battles took place. Nevertheless, this does not tell the whole story. As we will see, there were many campaigns in which castles were used in a significant way. Similarly, the late Middle Ages has been characterised as a period in which castles were in a state of transition and decline, in which their traditional role as fortresses was increasingly no longer necessary due to changes in warfare and society.
While there are many books on the Wars of the Roses, none have looked at the conflict in quite this way before. Dan Spencer covers every aspect of the conflict and the actions of the leading players involved, including Henry VI, Edward IV, Warwick the Kingmaker, Richard III, etc. While the major battles are also covered, the spotlight is on the castles, their role in the conflict ad the tactics used to successfully prosecute a siege. Dan Spencer’s impeccable research means that he can build a deep understanding of the layout of each castle, the provisions it stored and the garrison that manned it.
The Castle in the Wars of the Roses analyses not only the strength of a castle, but the prosecution of these sieges and the reasons for their success or failures. Using primary sources, archaeological evidence and his own extensive experience of castles, Dan Spencer has produced a fascinating book that can only add to our knowledge of the Wars of the Roses. The text is supported by wonderful colour images of the castles mentioned, and detailed floor plans. It is whole knew way of looking at the conflict, providing a freesh perspective.
Well written in an engaging narrative, The Castle in the Wars of the Roses is a fascinating, addictive read. And a perfect Christmas present!
The Castle in the Wars of the Roses is available from Amazon or direct from Pen & Sword Books (with 30% off in December!)
About the author:
Dr Dan Spencer has made a special study of late medieval warfare, focusing in particular on gunpowder artillery and castles. Recent publications include The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales and Royal and Urban Gunpowder Weapons in Late Medieval England. To find out more visit danspencer.info or follow him on Twitter and Instagram @Gunpowderdan.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.
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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly
Thank you for this excellent review of Dr. Spencer’s latest book. I look forward to reading it and think it is immensely important to look at property and loss of property as a catalyst for many of the battles fought.
Even from my own studies of more ancient peoples, (Mesopotamia, etc.) it is clear that property inheritance (both matrilineal (Egypt) and patrilineal (Urartu, Persian, Greek, etc) and power are intertwined leading to stratification and conflict. Clearly nobles needed to back the person thought to give them the most in property and status.
I would argue even that Henry IV had to take the throne from Richard II, otherwise as an exile all property through his father would be lost to the crown, thus the roots for the WoTR’s begun.
Thank you Colleen. I think that’s a really good point with regard to Henry IV – he had to safeguard his inheritance for himself and his heirs.
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Thank you. Ian Mortimer’s book on Henry IV is an excellent read and looks in-depth at this aspect of why Henry returned to England.
It’s on my Christmas wish list. Henry IV is my least favourite English monarch – but that’s probably because I haven’t looked into him enough.
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*High-paws* you will likely not be disappointed.
I’m sure I will. Mortimer is a great writer
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This one looks really good. I’ll have to add it to my acquisition list!
It is Stephanie! It’s an interesting read and i know its gong to be a useful research tool.