So, the Wars of the Roses: an interminable generational feud that leads to the collapse of government, the slaughter of innocents, bloodthirsty warlords, foreign intervention, an extremist insurrection and mass beheadings. I blame Tony Blair.

How the hell did we get here? Well, like most problems in life, it all starts with 

  

William the Conqueror (French-ish) invades in 1066 after a punch-up outside a pub in Hastings, giving a bloke called Harold one in the eye. 

  
Blinding shot

His sons, William Rufus & Henry, then rule one after the other, until 1135 Henry’s daughter, Matilda, ascends the throne. However, the nobles detest the idea of being ruled by a Roald Dahl character, so ask her cousin Stephen to step in. An unseemly tussle ensues until Stephen allows Matilda’s son, Henry II, to have a go. 

So far, so linear.

Because his dad, Geoff, is the Count of Anjou, it is widely accepted that Henry II is the first of the great ‘Angevins’. Remember that all of them up until this point rule a sizeable chunk of France as well as England, but it’s in the twelfth century that the combined territories come to be considered as a full-on, no-messing empire with stoomtroopers & droids & Lords of the Sith & stuff. 

  
The court of Henry II

Crucially, you can also now bring over a donkey duty-free on the ferry from Calais. Good times.

Geoff is also one for wearing a plant (Planta) called ‘broom’ (Latin: ‘Genista’) on his T-shirt. So Henry II unofficially adopts this as his surname: Plantagenet. Pretentious but memorable. It’s a name we’ll be returning to in our great trilogy in Kingston – as is another convention that gets its first outing under Henry II, namely the pain-in-the-arse prelate who thinks he’s God’s gift and who can’t keep his mouth shut. (Oliver Cotton plays the ‘pestiferous, lewd, licentious’ Bishop of Winchester for us.) Henry II eventually has his turbulent priest, Thomas Beckett, silenced by some squaddies in Canterbury Cathedral. But by now, it’s too late: a precedent has been set, and we’ll be putting up with gobby bishops taking potshots at the executive for the next nine hundred years. 

  
Turbulent priest

After Henry II comes his son, Richard the Lionheart, who’s memorable chiefly for being one of the first in a long line of deluded young men to travel to the Middle East to help impose a religion on some poor sods who merely want to get on with their lives. Thankfully, he’s prevented from returning after the authorities take away his passport, leaving his idiot younger brother, John, to balls things up entirely. With pleasing constitutional consequences all round.

  

With Magna Carta, John places himself and England’s future sovereigns within the rule of law. This means that, in theory, English kings & queens can no longer do whatever the hell they like. (In public at least.) 

  

Obviously, this theory will be tested to destruction a number of times – not least by one Richard III, child killer, tyrant, war-pig, car-park. But I run before my horse to market.

Son of John, Henry III, takes over in 1216, but he’s only nine years old, so OFSTED-registered childminders tend to the nation while he plays with his X-box. We have a Magna Carta now, of course, so the thing pretty much runs itself – until Henry grows up and it all starts to go wrong. His voice breaks, he starts spitting and swearing and getting into porn, and before you can say ‘fledgling constitutional monarchy’, he’s shoved the charter down the back of the sofa & started picking fights with his barons again, just like his dad. (Oh, and having a pop at the French, ‘coz that’s what you do when you grow up.) Still, he gives England it’s very first parliament. Which is nice.

Next up, the first of many Edwards. Son of Henry III is Edward I, Hammer of the Scots. A bit of a thug, he wanders up and down the M1 picking on anyone unlucky enough to get in his way. 

  

He first has a go at the Welsh, ultimately stealing all of Wales and stashing it in a couple of suitcases in Westminster Abbey. In the process, he slays the Prince of Wales, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, and gives the title to his son, Edward – who is at least a damn sight easier to pronounce. Other notable scraps: he executes Scottish rebel William Wallace (Nicola Sturgeon played by Mel Gibson with a blue face.) And meanwhile, the Irish are having to pay for all this exorbitant fighting. So, a fairly unpleasant period for everyone apart from the English. Thank God someone invented rugby union.

Edward II succeeds Edward I. He is his fourth son, and only succeeds to the throne in 1284 when his elder brother, Alphonso, dies. In spite of the fact that Edward is clearly hopeless at being a King and has a boyfriend called Piers Gaveston, the general public are just relieved at not having someone called Alphonso on the throne, so are happy to put up with their new King’s deficiencies. Ultimately however, their antipathy to someone named after an indigestion remedy becomes even harder to put up with: Gaveston is executed, and the King kidnapped and buggered with a red-hot poker. 

 
Which really does give him heart-burn.

Edward II’s son, called, startlingly, Edward III, succeeds to the throne in 1327 – and this is where it all starts to get pertinent to us & our endeavours in Kingston. (This is also where you need to concentrate because this gets effing complicated from here on in.) Indeed, you could argue that Edward III is the root cause of the unholy car-crash that is the fifteenth century:

a) He starts a war with the French which effectively is still being fought a hundred years later at the start of our Wars of the Roses trilogy. (Hundred Years War.) 

b) He has lots of sons. Look at this. (But not for too long, otherwise your eyes start to bleed.)

  

The eldest of these sons is Edward, the Black Prince. (Not to be confused with the Black Death, another gentleman quite popular at the time). The Black Prince dies young (not of the Black Death but of amoebic dysentery, a different complexion altogether), which means that his son, Edward III’s grandson, Richard II, inherits the crown in 1377. Three other sons of Edward III that survive and have kids are, in order of succession: 

  • Lionel, Duke of Clarence (who has a daughter, Phillipa);
  • John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, yes that’s right, folks, LANCASTER (who has a veritable blizzard of progeny from various wives and mistresses, all of whose offspring go on to populate our production, Lancastrians & Beauforts galore, principal and most important among them being his only surviving son from his first marriage, Henry Bolingbroke);
  • and Edmund Langley, Duke of York, yep you got it, York, once more, folks, with feeling, YORK (who has two sons, Richard of Cambridge & someone else, I forget).

Richard II turns out to be yet another waste of royal space more interested in his wardrobe – and doesn’t have any kids. Foolishly, he nicks all Henry Bolingbroke’s conkers following a playground competition and passes them round his mates. And so in 1399, said Bolingbroke returns in a fury & boots Richard off the throne, claiming the crown by right of (and here, a dangerously modern concept is introduced into proceedings) superior merit. Bolingbroke starts off by merely demanding his conkers back – but ultimately finds kingship to his liking and stays put, putting Richard to death (probably), but allowing him a glorious closing speech by William Shakespeare.

So, as Trevor is very keen to point out to the cast, here is a gigantic fork in the road, one which will have everyone apologising, praying and paying with money, sanity & lives throughout most of the next century. The line of royal succession all the way from 1066 to 1399 has been uninterrupted, father to son or grandson for 333 years. But here, for the first time since the Norman Conquest, the crown is physically wrested from a sitting king and handed on to a junior branch in the bloodline by force of arms. 

Henry Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV, and spends the rest of his reign putting out fires & being embarrassed by his delinquent eldest son who spends his time getting wrecked with an obese unemployed painter & decorator on a nearby council estate. So, payback of sorts for the usurper, you might think. However, all comes good when the delinquent glue-sniffer graduates from Hooligan Hal to Henry V: superman, war-machine, Olympic gold-medallist. 

  

Hal starts (continues?) a fight with the French and returns in glory, having breathtakingly won on penalties in extra-time. He then jumps the French Kings’s daughter’s bones, and hey presto, she gives birth to a baby boy. Result. 

So, England victorious, the new Lancastrian line secure, and the French shown who’s boss. Sweet as. And then Henry ruins things by kicking the bucket. 

I feel an opening scene coming on…

  

3 thoughts on “Wars of the Roses: Crash course history lesson

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