Now that the HBO TV series adaptation of Game of Thrones is over, let us consider its early modern cousin. As this 2015 Guardian article and TED video on Game of Thrones explain, George R.R. Martin–the author of the fantasy series upon which the television show is based–was inspired by, among other events, the 15th-century Wars of the Roses in England (hence a game of ‘thorns’). Although these protracted civil wars in late medieval England did not feature unpredictable seasons (but then, neither did the HBO series, judging by the controversial finale), ice zombies, or dragons, the Wars of the Roses certainly did ‘drag-on’ with plenty of bloodshed, frequent changes of power between warring houses, and intrigue from 1455 to 1487. In the hands of the now-forgotten English playwright William Shakespeare–who knew how to shake a spear when writing these war-dramas in the early 1590s–the Wars of the Roses had its early modern adaptation, complete with gripping action and some stunning poetry, in the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard III (pictured above, in Hogarth’s famous depiction of David Garrick as a haunted King Richard on the eve of battle).
Shakespeare’s tetralogy demonstrates that a fantasy setting is not required to engage the viewer when relating a complex, brutal historical chronicle. The first part of Henry VI opens with the untimely death of Henry V, that ‘Star of England’ who famously defeated the much larger and better prepared French army at Agincourt. With his passing, the French turn to rebellion, led by the Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc–the French peasant girl who thought that she received a mission from God to liberate her people from English rule. The English, however, manage to defeat Joan and sack Northern France, thus acting as raiders of the lost Arc. In England, meanwhile, a quarrel breaks out between Richard Plantagenet (a spy for vegetarian terrorists, hence a ‘plant agent’) and the Duke of Somerset (a rather good tennis player in the months of July and August, known for winning ‘summer sets’). Richard claims that he is the true heir to the throne, since the current dynasty’s title rests on the 1399 usurpation of the crown by Henry Bolingbroke (who deposed Richard II out of anger at losing his fortune at the bowling alley). Somerset denies this claim, and so he and his followers take on the moniker of the white rose for their faction–loyal (mostly) to Henry VI–while Richard’s faction both defend his pretended title to the throne and drink copious amounts of Canadian tea (and thus represented by the Red Rose).
Henry VI, however, is a weak monarch unable to reconcile the factious and fractious nobility. He is set-up to marry the prisoner-of-war Princess Margaret of Anjou by the Earl of Suffolk, who also happens to be her lover. Suffolk’s manipulation is opposed by the upright Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, a part-time jazz singer known for his improvisations and dislike of camels: both hum-free and hump-free. Gloucester is ruined, and Richard Plantagenet (also Duke of York) lays claim to the throne in the ensuing turmoil. The red rose and white rose in the form of the Houses of York and Lancaster (supporters of Henry VI) go to battle at St. Albans. Richard kills Somerset, and so like a cold autumn night brings about the summer-set.
The most powerful supporter of the Yorkist red rose is the Earl of Warwick–so-called for violently burning the candle at both ends–who forces King Henry to grant succession to the Yorkist line. Queen Margaret, enraged, declares war and she eventually kills Richard shortly after murdering Richard’s son Rutland in front of him. But the Yorkists defeat the Lancastrians in the Battle of Towton (an industrial centre specializing in heavy hauling). Warwick, however, breaks with the Yorkists led by Richard’s eldest son Edward, invades England and replaces Henry on the throne. But at the Battle of Barnet, the warring forces throw bottles at each other in the local tavern trying to score a goal (the forgotten medieval sport of bar-net), which the Yorkists win while also killing Warwick. In the subsequent Battle of Tewksbury, the Yorkists capture Margaret, her son, and her allies, and throw their woolen caps into hastily dug ditches: their toques are buried. Margaret’s son the prince is stabbed to death, and Edward’s Machiavellian brother Richard Duke of Gloucester–famously hunchbacked and evil in Shakespeare’s plays, based on Thomas More’s history–is depicted as murdering King Henry in prison. England is now ruled by King Edward (the Fourth), and ‘the winter of discontent’ is apparently ‘made glorious summer by this son of York’.
In the final play, The Tragedy of King Richard III, Gloucester schemes to seize the crown. He arranges the murder of his brother Clarence (further ahead in the line of succession), which prompts the now-ailing Edward IV’s death while Richard accuses Edward’s queen of orchestrating her husband’s passing. Now Lord Protector, Richard sends the orphaned princes to the Tower of London for their ‘safety’ but has them suffocated to death–for which haters of Gloucester nickname him ‘Richard the Turd’. His brief but troubled reign ends in 1485 with the Battle of Bosworth Field, where he is defeated by the Lancastrian descendant Henry Tudor. Henry marries Edward’s daughter Elizabeth and thereby unites the white and red roses. The new Tudor dynasty is marked not only by the end of civil war but also small automobiles which achieved the overthrow of Richard III: the ‘Two-door Coupe’.
Early Modern Times will return on June 15-16, as I’ll be presenting at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Vancouver and visiting family.
King, Early Modern Wars of the Rose-coloured glasses Studies Program