A Wars of the Roses Annotated Bibliography

As a regular on Facebook groups to do with wargaming and the Wars of the Roses I often come across the question "What's the best book on the period?" It would be helpful if the asker would indicate the "best book for what, exactly?" but I think it normally means "I'm a wargamer new to the period, what is the one book I can get that'll tell me everything I want to know?"

I'll start by saying that there are a lot of books out there on the late 15th century in England, and it is a bit of a minefield. The last 20 years has seen a big increase in single battle monographs, backed up with new research both archival and archaeological. If you are serious about the period then there's a lot of good stuff about, and no single volume history will cover the battles in the detail contained in these monographs. If this sounds daunting, hunting them down and reading them all, then you should go over and look at the Battlefield Trust's "Battlefields Hub", which has detailed information on all registered battlefields in the period. From there you can follow up to the actual battlefield registrations on the Historic England website.

That then means that what you need is a single volume that explains what the Wars were about, puts the battles and campaigns in context and points you at the individual battlefield studies you might be interested in. This bibliography covers those sort of general books, and not specific books on aspects of the wars, nor biographies of individuals. They will often include descriptions of battles, but note that anything published BEFORE 2010 will come up short in respect of the battles of Bosworth and Towton, and books published more recently than that will be deficient for Northampton and Edgcote at least. Detailed archaeological work has also been carried out in the last 5 years to find Mortimer's Cross and Barnet, so again descriptions of locations of these should be treated with caution. Even then, recent publication is no guarantee that the writer is aware of modern research and findings, as I discussed recently in this post.

So, here's the books I've read that you should be aware off, and what I think of them. I hope to add to this post as I work through my reading "to do" pile.

[NB You will find no works of fiction here, not now, not ever. If you want to know the history of a period, read a history book. Preferably one with footnotes, references and a bibliography. And don't mention Shakespeare either.] 

Essential histories: The Wars of the Roses. Michael Hicks, Osprey Publishing (2003)

Not to be confused with Hick's full sized book on the subject, this little book does most if not all of what a wargamer or someone new to the subject needs. Like most of the Essential Histories series it is written by a proper period specific historian.  It tells the story clearly and succinctly, and has maps of all the campaigns and a good selection of contemporary or near contemporary illustrations. Inexplicably from my point of view it is the only one of Hicks' books that gets the date of the battle of Edgcote wrong. You could do a lot worse than starting here. In fact, this is the book I'd definitely recommend to the newcomer wanting an intro to the period.

The Wars of the Roses - John Gillingham (1981)

If you want something a bit more detailed than the Osprey, Gillingham's work, now over 40 years old, still holds up really well. He is good on the purpose and course of campaigns, and avoids writing in detail about battles because he doesn't think enough is know in order to do so. That's okay by me, as you should be getting your battle details from elsewhere, as discussed above. He argues persuasively that England wasn't awash with conflict for 30 years, which is the sort of feel you get from playing Kingmaker. There's been a lot of research on how late medieval England worked since this was published, so some of its views are dated, but there isn't an accessible modern single volume history that does, so this is still worth bothering with, and second hand copies are really affordable.

Lancaster and York - Alison Weir (1995)

A "popular" history, rather than one with any academic pretensions, this is very readable and covers all you really need to know in terms of a chronological narrative. There's nothing ground breaking in the research - in fact in terms of the understanding of English politics it doesn't take you any further forwards than Gillingham. Its appreciation of the military aspects of the conflict are limited, but it gets a shout out for taking Wavrin's battle accounts seriously, something a lot of writers don't do. The book more or less ends with the death of Edward IV, and Bosworth only gets a passing mention. I don't find this a problem. 


The Wars of the Roses - Hugh Bicheno (2015/16/19)

Originally published in two volumes, Battle Royal and Blood Royal, this is a racy, readable but annoying book. It is one of the best modern books on the military aspects of the Wars, how the campaigns were planned out and what the various protagonists were trying to achieve. He is excellent on the importance of the Lancastrian power base in the midlands under Margaret of Anjou, for example. The book is horrendously marred by the desire to tell the story of "The Real Game of Thrones" and is stuffed with psycho babble nonsense about the affect of Edward IV's "illegitimacy" on him and everyone around him. If you can ignore that, then it is well worth spending your time on it. Lots of good maps, and useful analyses of who owns what or holds what office. Pretty good on the continental aspects of the campaigns too.

The Wars of the Roses - J R Lander (1965 & later)

Bit of an odd one this. It's a slim volume compared with the rest - except for the Osprey - but it wins out in one useful way. It's mostly extracts from original sources, knitted together with commentary and narrative. Some one else in a review reckoned it was 80-20 sources to text. Flicking through it again, that looks about right. This is a book where you really know why the writer thinks and says what he says, because there are big pieces of evidence to support it. In a way it isn't for the faint hearted, and it is obviously somewhat dated in its analysis being 50 years old BUT it has bags of period flavour. It wouldn't be my one book on the subject, but it is certainly worth reading to get under the skin of what contemporaries thought was going on.

The Red Rose and the White - John Sadler (2010)

I have mixed thoughts on this one, but overall I was disappointed although I know some people really rate it. John Sadler writes a lot on the period and he has done some really good articles for the Battlefields Trust magazine. This book isn't cheap, even second hand. It was published, as far as I can tell, by the academic arm of Pearsons and seems to be aimed at libraries. It is targeted at the general reader and the military historian, according to the author's introduction. It is a bit of a mixture, between the really quite good, the pedestrian and the careless. The sections on how warfare was conducted draw heavily on Terry Wise's 1983 Osprey, and so really aren't saying anything new. Sadler freely admits that the only original work is on the battle of Hexham. Some bits of the work, like on the nature of kingship, bring academic scholarship to a general readership, so it is handy for that. The descriptions of battles include lots of references to men hacking at one another in a sweaty and bloody fashion. It is hard to put off the idea that he wasn't paying attention at some points. The description of the battle of Northampton in the text, for example, does not tie up with the map. Overall it's worth it if you can get a copy for a price you're prepared to pay, but in a world where you can get Gillingham for less than a fiver, this is not good value at £25+.

The Wars of the Roses - John Ashdown Hill (2015)

Ashdown-Hill is known as the arch Ricardian who did a lot of the leg work in terms of saying that Richard's body wasn't thrown in the river and also getting the DNA sorted to authenticate the body. There are a lot of ideas in this book, like how common the Red and White roses were at the time (not very), and also how the Hapsburgs had a claim to the throne making the Spanish Armada the last Wars of the Rose battle. Generally though, it is a poor piece of work. It states as facts things that are just theories, and is essentially a pro-Ricardian polemic, which I guess is to be expected. There are some dreadful errors in it: Warwick and Clarence are present at the "Battle of Edgecote Moor", for example. I inherited my copy from a friend. I'm glad I didn't pay for it. Of all the books on here, this is the only one with a hard AVOID AT ALL COSTS recommendation.


The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses - Philip Haigh (1995)

This is a really important book. It was ground breaking in being a book about the Wars of the Roses that was actually about the fighting and what happened at the battles. Imagine that! Since its publication there hasn't really been a book to rival it. There have been a few missed opportunities or near misses (Sadler, for one), but not one that deals with the campaign and battles in this way. However, it is now getting a bit long in the tooth, and scholarship in respect of many of the actual battles has moved on considerably. For example, in respect of the three battles I know the best it has the battlefields in the wrong place and doesn't deal with one at all. The description of Towton is now open to question as well. It is completely uncritical in respect of contemporary source accounts of army sizes, so its maps, for example, show armies in positions that are just not possible. By all means get a copy, but you really need to look at the more modern battle monographs that are available to understand the battles, and the book doesn't have enough of the other information on the Wars to mean its worth having despite these issues. It was still inspirational when I got my copy goodness knows how many years ago, but it is of limited use now, although the evidence is that it provides the basis for many wargame refight scenarios.

The Wars of the Roses - Terence Wise (1983)

This is much better than you might expect it to be in such a slim volume. Terry wise was a lovely bloke, and a much under rated influence on the wargaming hobby. His history books are always insightful and worth a look. This book contains enough information to enable you to get through most arguments you might have with people on the period, even allowing for it now being 40 years old. The age means that many of the battle descriptions and maps have now been superseded, but his general narrative holds up well, and he has sensible things to say about how armies were formed and fought. It also has good solid information on liveries/badges etc and, of course, the usual Osprey colour pages. A check of the reading list indicates that Terry used the most up to date books available to him when writing it. On reflection this has a lot going for it, but his thumbnail sketch of Edward IV is uncharitable.

All the books to this point fall into the "trade" or "popular" history category, with the possible exception of Gillingham, and none of them will really impress your tutor if you're writing and essay on the period. All the books below are avowedly written for a university audience, but are still accessible.

A Short History of the Wars of the Roses - David Grummitt (2013)

If you want a quick read that'll tell you most of what academic historians currently think about what is going on and why and the consequences, then this is the book for you. It's an undergraduate's dream if you're doing a general course on the medieval period and you really need to write an essay on the bit you really aren't interested in. It's well written, clear and understandable. Alas it has a few factual typo/errors (Herbert doesn't die at Losecote, Margaret of Anjou's son is called Edward not Henry) but these aren't important if you are trying to understand why things are playing out the way they are. Non-historians can get hung up on dates and names, but often they aren't as important as you might think they are. If you read three books off this list, this should be one of them.


The Wars of the Roses - Politics and the constitution in England c1437-1509 - Christine Carpenter (2008)

This one wins the award for the longest title. I must say thank you to David Grummitt who recommended it to me. This is an academic title, so isn't cheap, but you'd be better off spending your £20 on this instead of Sadler IF you want to read a research historian's take on the period. This is a book written for historians and undergraduates studying the period. It provides a chronology, but it is more about why things happen and how society is supposed to work as an explanation for what is going on and why the Wars break out. If you are new to the period this can't be your only book as you'll get lost fairly quickly. It has a faintly hectoring tone as well, but for me it was a stimulating and thought provoking read. I really enjoyed it, and not entirely because a lot of it rehabilitates Edward IV's reputation as a great medieval monarch and not just Richard of Gloucester's older brother.

Wars of the Roses - Michael Hicks (2010)

Two books from the same historian? Why not? This isn't a longer version of the Osprey book, nor an updated version. Like Carpenter's book this is really a book for historians and undergraduates who want to understand the historical debate. From Hicks' perspective, that is. Whilst some reviews say it's a book for the beginner it really isn't. It assumes you really want to know the political, social and economic causes of the Wars of the Roses. For the wargamer it really isn't an introduction. It mentions the battles only to tell you who won and what that means, same for the campaigns. It's the Wars without the war. Still, the exposition of essentials of the period is incisive and well written. Think the Wars of the Roses is a dynastic conflict that lasted from 1455 to 1485? Think again. Mind you, this isn't a book for anyone who thinks they're a Lancastrian/Yorkist/Ricardian/Tudorian (?). Hicks doesn't like any of them. Henry VI isn't completely useless, but he isn't up to the job. Richard of York is troublesome and has a political manifesto that would never have worked, Edward IV doesn't deliver on his promises and muddles through, Warwick's a pirate and troublemaker, Richard of Gloucester a usurper unable to bring the nobility with him and Henry Tudor is lucky, saved partly by his tyrannical ruthlessness but mainly by an economic recovery. If you can get over your prejudices, however, it is well worth the read if you want a little bit more depth. It trashes Tudor propaganda, but does a proper job, not just the rehabilitate Richard of Gloucester. I found Carpenter more convincing in places, but you can get this for less than £5 second hand, so it wins on price. 

The Wars of the Roses - Graham Turner (2024)

One of the occasional perks of being the chair of a battlefields society is that sometimes you get sent books to review. After my last review of a book from one publisher it is unlikely I’ll be sent anymore books by them, but in my defence it was terrible book. No such qualms with this one.

Graham Turner is the doyen of military history painters. Over the last two decades he has built a reputation for meticulously researched and executed paintings of historical subjects. His best known art is probably that covering the Wars of the Roses. In 2021 eight of his battle paintings were featured on stamps for the Royal Mail, including those of both Northampton and Edgcote.

This book contains all of Turner’s well-known Wars of the Roses paintings and many painted especially for this book. There’s a really fine one of Warwick’s flagship in full sail, for example and numerous others. These are complemented by pencil sketches and numerous photographs both black and white and colour and a single campaign map. It must be the finest illustrated history of the Wars of the Roses ever produced, bar none. 

In addition to the illustrations the book contains a history of the period, written by the artist. It doesn’t tell us anything new, and it is well crafted to be accurate but avoid stepping into any of the various controversies. Turner has not included any battle maps at all, which is certainly one way of avoiding taking a position on the debatable evidence in respect of several battles. I think that’s understandable and doesn’t detract from the book. It’s an excellent starting point for anyone who wants an easy-to-read history of the period, but honestly it isn’t why you’re buying the book. There’s also a chapter on arms and armour and methods of fighting which is likewise a good introduction.

If I was to advance any criticism at all it would be that I think one of my local battles, Northampton, has been a little short changed. We could really do with an imagining of the artillery fortifications in Delapré Park, and surely the moment of Lord Grey’s betrayal is one of the touchstones of the period. But that is a minor point, and the book is a real pleasure for any enthusiast of the period. Put it on your birthday or Christmas list.














Comments

  1. This is superb, so useful - thanks very much.

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    1. Happy to help. I wrote it to save me re-writing these posts on Facebook everytime someone asks the question.

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  2. Having Haigh and Wise as my first introductions to the period, perhaps Essential Histories ought be added? If you reference Wise in your bibliography, why no separate entry for that book?

    I agree this is a useful resource for future reference.

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    1. Good question. I have a copy but it isn't a book I reference as I don' remember it being that detailed. After all it's a standard Osprey, and I bought it mainly for the pictures. I'll find half an hour to re-read it and add it to the list. Besides, how many wargamers need someone to recommend the Osprey on a subject.

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    2. I was thinking of Wise’s Medieval Warfare. That one is a hard bound book coming in at over 200 pages. We may be thinking of different Wise books. Is there another Wise book from Osprey?

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    3. I'm referring to his Wars of the Roses book published in 1981.

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  3. What a great list, thanks Graham.

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    1. You're welcome. I wanted to do more than just a list, so here works better than Facebook.

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  4. Very useful and to the point- although I have a few of these Haigh and Wise and Lander(which last I have had since University also an edited volume of the Paston letters but seeing your opening comments I'm surprised many of the FB ers mention books as the question I most often see is 'where can I find the most basic information on (insert period here) without using a book'......

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    1. Well, you do get the people who ask for all the information to be given to them without opening a book. Preferably can you please scan pictures from copyrighted material and let me have it for free. After all, once I've spent several hundreds of pounds on my new figures and hours gluing them together and painting them i really don't have the money and time to read a £15 book.

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  5. I've updated the list to add Michael Hicks' single volume written for Yale University POress.

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