David Grummitt is lecturer in British History at the University of Kent. He is the author of The Calais Garrison: War and Military Service in England, 1436-1558 (2008).
How did you become interested in the Wars of the Roses?
Knights in shining armour besieging castles and jousting have fired my imagination since a very early age. I remember being bought some Playmobil knights and a wonderful cardboard castle as a four-year old and later graduating to Timpo and Britain’s knights. Childhood encyclopaedias and the resources of the local travelling library also fuelled my imagination. My love of history was fed by my parents (especially my dad who used to bring me back copies of Look and Learn and World of Knowledge) and also, I think, by being surrounded by remnants of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries during my childhood – my local medieval village church with its wonderful fourteenth-century stained glass window and, as a teenager, our sixteenth-century school library
Why should people want to find out more about the Wars of the Roses?
Principally because it’s a damn good story! England in the fifteenth century has it all – murder, mayhem, romance and court intrigue, and the terrific insights into everyday life afforded us by unique sources such as the Paston Letters. The twists and turns of the Wars of the Roses, and the larger than life characters involved, are better than anything Hollywood could dream up. It’s like the ‘Borgias’ and the ‘Tudors’ all rolled into one! Besides that though, there is a more serious reason. The fifteenth century was a period of immense political, cultural and social reform. English society was rebuilding itself after the catastrophe of the Black Death and doing so under the influence of one of the most powerful cultural movements of all, the great Humanist Renaissance that had begun in Italy and was rapidly spreading throughout Europe. Quite simply, many of the origins of our modern world are to be found in the fifteenth century.
What’s the most common misconception about the Wars of the Roses?
That the great men of the time – the duke of York, Warwick the Kingmaker, even dastardly Richard III – were unsophisticated thugs, bent on self-aggrandisement and willing to murder their erstwhile friends and allies untroubled by any principles. In fact, fifteenth-century kings and nobles were educated, principled and sophisticated, their actions governed by their commitment to a chivalric self-identity and an awareness of their own place in English history and culture. During the course of the fifteenth century more and more of them were touched by Renaissance modes of thinking and behaving which slowly transformed the English elite from medieval barons to early modern citizens.
What are your favourite books?
Two novels by Cynthia Harnett spring to mind – Ring out Bow Bells and The Woolpack. Although these were childrens’ books written in the 1950s they are the most imaginative and thoughtful reconstructions of fifteenth-century England. As a historian of the period I thoroughly enjoyed reading them with my daughter. Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages would also be high on the list. While we might disagree with his conclusions, his ambition and innovation in writing such a sweeping book is inspirational. ■