One of the biggest concerns for historians of today is how to get the younger generations interested in history. As the school syllabus becomes increasingly more and more narrow for the periods of history it teaches, some of the most important events are being forgotten. However, over the summer, Warwick Castle was the stage for one of the best ways to get every generation together to celebrate and become involved in history; Wars of the Roses Live!
So, here’s just a little introduction to the castle. Warwick Castle was originally a moat and bailey structure built by William the Conqueror and completed around 1068. During the twelfth century the original wooden castle was rebuilt in stone and then fortified during the Hundred Years War in the fourteenth century. As of the 17th century, the castle belonged to the Greyville family and became a stronghold for James I. The Greyvilles would remain the earls of Warwick until the late 1970’s when it was brought by the Taussauds Company and eventually in 2007 it was made into a Merlin attraction. During the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century the castle was home to one of England’s most influential families, the Neville’s and more specifically Richard Neville the 18th Earl of Warwick, more commonly known as Warwick the Kingmaker. Richard Neville would go on to play an incredibly important political role during the later phase of the Wars of the Roses.
What’s the Wars of the Roses though, I hear you say? The Wars of the Roses is made up of a series of battles and political rivalries between two families as they fought for the throne of England. These two families were the Yorkist’s (white rose) and the Lancastrians (red rose). The Lancastrian family held the throne from 1399 when Henry IV usurped Richard II from the throne, although not many people were too put out by the change in ruler, and held it until the battle of Towton in 1461 where Edward IV would beat Henry VI’s forces and the Yorkist rule began. The start and end date of the Wars is a much deliberated topic amongst historians however I like to place it at the 1452 with the Dartford rebellion, when Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, made his first political move against Henry VI and tensions in England were brought to attention and the end at 1485 when Henry VII won against Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and began the Tudor Dynasty. A lot of other stuff happened before, during and after those dates but that’s another blog post.
So, back to Wars of the Roses Live. The idea of the event was to showcase the battles that happened and to tell the story as to how the Tudor dynasty came to be. Like many other adaptations of historical events, there were a few *sharp intake of breath* moments, especially when you’re a student who’d spent the last year studying the phases in great depth in a module that was written by one of the leading historians on the topic, Michael Hicks, and was taught to you by his colleague and another leading late medieval historian, James Ross. However I don’t want to focus on those…too much anyway. So I’m gonna start with those.
The wars according to them started in 1461 with the Battle of Towton, which is okay because there is lots of controversy to when the wars actually started, however they skipped all the political strife that led up to it and the First Battle of St Albans which was very important indeed. Despite the dates being debated, an issue with them starting this late into the war meant that Richard Duke of York, one of the protagonists of the battles, is completely overlooked at his part which meant his son Edward IV takes centre stage again highlighting the lack of background information they provided. Henry VI, who was king during the first phases of the war and then again in 1471 for a year, was never even mentioned which is interesting considering he was, well king. However this did mean that they could give Margaret of Anjou the credit she deserved for the part that she played in the wars, despite her interesting French accent. Elizabeth of York also starts to play her part very early on into the acts suggesting she was an important part during her father’s first reign when actually she would have been little more than a thought in her parent’s minds and not born until 1466.
The stage was set in a jousting arena where you chose your side, either the white rose of the Yorkist’s or the red rose of the Lancastrians. Once everyone was settled, the show began with a little light background information and an introduction to the two houses. The knights of each houses worked their sides up into a frenzy as the performance started with great equestrian showmanship. They introduced the key players with coloured smoke and flags flying everywhere, and the wars began.
They started with the battle of Towton in 1461 and got in all the violence of the battle whilst still making it something the younger generations would understand and enjoy. Although they took a little poetic license with the events that followed, the timeline ran as the history books said and the next major event was the return of Margaret of Anjou and Richard Neville, who was now fighting for the Lancastrians, as they fought the two battles that followed, Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471. The horsemanship was breath-taking as they rode into mock battle and got many ooh’s and aaaah’s from the audience. As the Yorkist’s emerged victorious there were cheers from the white roses that could be heard throughout the castle grounds.
But the best part of the show was the depiction of the Battle of Bosworth. As they introduced Henry V to the story the great Battle of Bosworth was fought with drama and flair that had both sides cheering until the ultimate winner emerged victorious. With the death of Richard III depicted as him being surrounded by Lancastrian forces, this is an interesting account to have followed. It showed Richard as going down with a fight and with the regality of a king however it showed none of the cowardice that the popular belief was he was killed by a random soldier when attempting to flee the battle. Choosing this path to acting out his death added to the show and provided the end of the wars with its dramatic conclusion.
The closing sequence brought back all the historical figures that played their part in the wars, they also repeated which events they had featured giving the delightful show the historical backup. They displayed even more amazing equestrian prowess as they celebrated the skills of their horses, which personally I loved and all the children beamed as the horses came together.
So overall, the Knights of Middle England, the company behind Wars of the Roses Live, delivered a fun-filled, dramatic and generation friendly show with sword fighting, smoke, gallant knights and strong hearted queens. They only had a half an hour slot, and in that time they got in important battles of English history and kept the whole audience glued to seats as they cheered on their chosen rose. The children’s faces as they watched in awe at the spectacle is enough to fill any historians heart with the hope that events such as these are everything we need to encourage the younger generations to widen their historical knowledge. Wars of the Roses Live is the show to go and see.