10 OCTOBER 1981, Page 23

Rose glut

Eric Christiansen

The Wars of the Roses Anthony Goodman (Routledge pp. 294, 12.95) The Wars of the Roses John Gillingham (Weidenfeld pp. 274, £12.50) Nowadays history books tend to come out in lumps. No sooner does Professor A complete his definitive Life and Letters of Plantagenet Palliser, Third Duke of Omnium, but the shops are full of Dr B's The Omnium Coalition: A Study in Compromise, and Mr C's The Duchess and the Duke. Coincidence? But what do you call a coincidence that happens again and again and again? Fishy, I call it.

Take this last year and a half. Stormy times, according to the newspapers: unpopular government, riots, woman in charge, bobbies in armour. And through the confusion comes the steady thudding sound of new books about the 15th century hitting the booksellers' shelves. There was already quite a pile; reissues of Kendall on Richard III and Warwick, of Halsted on Richard III, of three works by Lander, and two short guides to the Wars of the Roses. Then comes Alexander on Henry VII, Hicks on Clarence, and after Dr Wolffe's rather austere Henry VI, Miss Warner's extremely funny Joan of Arc. Then comes an absolutely socking great book on, guess who, Henry VI, by somebody else, and now, two more books with exactly the same titles, The Wars of the Roses.

How does it happen? A little circular from the Home Secretary? 'Dear George, Have been looking through your Spring List and note gap in Winter-of-our-discontent issues. As you know, HMG welcome reminders to ungrateful (!) public of sterner times. Towton, Barnet, street-fighting and Queen Margaret most acceptable. Hope You will be able to fix up something for Autumn. Yours Ever.'

This is only a suggestion of mine, as it may not apply to the Wars of the Roses industry as convincingly as to others. There is, after all, a pressure group devoted W the memory of Richard III, or the White Boar, as they like to call him, and the combined weight of all these pale-pig-fanciers is no doubt sufficient to keep the presses going in good years as in bad. However, Goodman and Gillingham are not under that spell, and if the Home Secretary expects their readers to turn with relief from those dark days to these, he is likely to be disappointed.

For they agree that 15th-century England was a country of full employment, high wages, low taxes, and good business. There were three periods of civil war over the years from 1457 to 1487, but these were brief, undestructive, and civilised by continental standards, and the many deaths of peers and gentlemen did not disrupt or impoverish the kingdom as a whole. Some battles were bloody, most were not, and if the armies contained a large number of yobs it was because the yobs did what the nobs told them to do. A lot of the campaigning was just a matter of hauling large pieces of artillery up and down the country in order to persuade people not to fight, and so avoid the expense and damage of firing them.

This is a refreshing contrast to the troubles of the 1640s, when crackpots were continually making honest men pay in blood the price of their own religious delusions, and then bombarding the survivors with barmy sermons. Civil wars must alwaysbe horrible when contrasted with peace, but they do happen, and since they happened about once every 50 years from the 1 1 th to the 16th century there was nothing particularly terrible about the Wars of the Roses; they were just the last civil wars that Tudor peace-lovers could hold up as an example of how not to conduct politics. At the time they were fought, the tendency of politicians to pursue power or even better government through armed rebellion was accepted as legitimate in certain circumstances — when, for example, the king was unable to govern, or his servants were doing too well for themselves, or when the forces of order were putting lives and property at risk. These were not the cataclysmic struggles that Shakespeare imagined, but spasmodic reactions to the spasmodic misgovernment of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III, which ended when Henry Tudor's enemies ran out of pretenders to rally round.

It is a very complicated story, and presents the historian with two technical problems. How can he shed enough detail from his narrative to make it readable, while at the same time covering the subject with some fidelity? How can he combine this narrative with an examination of why things happened as they did? Mr Gillingham and Mr Goodman here adopt different approaches, and the reviewer can only indicate which is which, rather than plumping for one or the other.

The Goodman way is to cram the narrative into the first half of the book, after a brief chapter on the sources. Then he deals with the general questims one by one: the rules of war, recruitment, supply, artillery, and effects on society at large. Then come chronology, glossary and bibliography.

This is just the job for students with essays to concoct, and it does leave space for nuggets of interesting detail: how the men of Essex marched on London in 1471 dressed in female clothing and cheese cloths, how 40 burghers from Coventry were expected to campaign for Edward IV on one gallon of wine, and how Richard III employed a gunner by the name of Gland Pyroo. On the other hand, students never read narratives, and those who do may find Mr Goodman's too concentrated to digest. There is far too much accurate dating of troop movements and embarcations for the easy reader to follow, and an excessive concentration on purely military events — never helpful in cases of civil war. There are only two maps and no pictures.

The Gillingham way is to set the scene with some care in four introductory chapters, and then plunge ahead with a narrative, if discursive, history to the end of the book. All I can say is that it works. Mr Gillingham has the knack of fluent, effective prose, and it was never put to better use than in unravelling the sequence of war and politics under the Lancastrians and Yorkists. He is convinced that personal quarrels, not economics or social trends lay behind the civil wars, and this of course makes his task of narration somewhat easier. At the same time, he explains why men other than the peers took part in the fighting, and fills in the background of continental politics which often decided the way things went in England. This is a remarkable achievement, and I have no hesitation at all in placing this book among the ten best books entitled The Wars of the Roses likely to appear before next spring. There are six maps and many pictures.

However, both authors are good scholars, and it would be wrong to praise one at the expense of the other. Nobody is going to buy both of their works, and the real question in the midst of this quattrocento glut is whether anyone will buy either. In an ideal world, they would be able to pool the royalties and go halves; but in an ideal world, there would be only one book on the Wars of the Roses every 50 years.