The Wars of the Roses Brought to Vibrant, Compelling Life

The Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou, by Conn Iggulden, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 448 pages, release date 16 June, 2015

Conn Iggulden is my new favorite writer of historical fiction, and lucky for me—and you!—he’s in the middle of a particularly rich set of novels. The first volume in The Wars of the Roses, Stormbird, came out last year. At the start of this summer the next volume, Margaret of Anjou, was  published. These books are deliciously long, full of politicking and conflict, and populated with strong, well-painted characters.

I’m imagining that many readers of historical fiction set in the Tudor era are most familiar with works based on the lives of Henry VIII, his six wives, and Elizabeth I. However, the Tudor dynasty has roots that go much further back. The dynasty’s name comes from Owain ap Merredudd ap Tewdwr [Tudor], a Welsh courtier who married Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V. He was the grandfather of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. The period from Henry V’s death through Henry VII’s claiming of the throne was a particularly turbulent one, one we now label the Wars of the Roses.

The non-fiction volumes I’ve read on the Wars of the Roses tend to be dry things, filled with one skirmish after another and peopled by various cardboard-figure noblemen who have that unfortunate British tendency to go by title as well as name, which makes keeping the cast of characters straight in one’s head a daunting task. Iggulden’s characters are, as is the practice, referred to by multiple names, but keeping the cast of characters straight while reading his work is a pleasure, not a chore.

Margaret of Anjou is focused on the titular character, wife of Henry VI (half-brother to the Tudors who were progenitors of Henry VII) and daughter of a sort of mid-level French nobleman. The pair had one son, Edward. Margaret’s Henry (the VI) came to the throne at the age of two. As might be expected, Henry became a prize in others’ struggles. Any man who had the King’s ear (or at least possession of the King’s physical self) would be immensely powerful.

When Margaret married twenty-three year old Henry VI, she was just fifteen. Henry was known as an odd character, and he grew increasingly odd over time. He kept himself up for days on end praying for the nation, convinced that the country would fall if he paused in his prayers. He was often less than fully aware of the people and activities around him and at times lapsed into a catatonia that could last for months. After her marriage, Margaret was subjected to what was, essentially, a brutal on-the-job training in matters of statecraft and courtly strategizing. Her chief opponent was Richard of York, Henry’s cousin, who served as regent during Henry’s early bouts of madness.

These are the years covered in Margaret of Anjou, and they make for compelling reading. Iggulden gives readers a complex, fierce queen Margaret. He also depicts those around her in rich detail. Margaret of Anjou is no shadow-play with cardboard cut-out characters. It’s a feast of a book in which every morsel offered is delicious. If you like immersing yourself in historical fiction, you may want to begin with Stormbird, Iggulden’s first Wars of the Roses novel, but you can also begin with Margaret of Anjou. Iggulden makes the politics of the time clear, easing readers into this dangerous, fascinating world.

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