I’m an American. Although this is probably clear from many of my writings, I still thought I had better lead off to that because it explains some of what will follow.
My understanding of the Wars of the Roses has always been a bit foggy at its best. I knew there were Yorkists and I knew there were Lancasters and I could probably quote a few of the more famous, relevant Shakespearean passages, but I did not have the general sense of the flow of history as England moved, sometimes violently, from the Plantagenets to the Tudors. In fact, I didn’t even know that Richard III’s body had been found beneath a modern car park until I read about it in a review 2018’s Richard III: England’s Most Controversial King, a new analysis of his life and reign. It is sad because, should such a thing have happened a bit closer to home, I would have been knee-deep in the details.
Despite my lack of period knowledge, there was game that occupied a lot of thinking when I was much younger. That game was Kingmaker, the 1974 classic from the Avalon Hill catalog. For this one I will lay the blame for my ignorance on youth – as a teenager I was even less cognizant of history (outside those particular periods that I favored) than I have been as an adult. In fact, I seem to recall that my early impressions of Kingmaker was that it was more of a generic game like Diplomacy or Blitzkrieg – with historical theme but not context. At some point I read enough about it to understand it was a more strictly-themed Wars of the Roses game, but not enough to develop a better understand of what it meant to be “about the Wars of the Roses.” Most embarrassingly, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized that the “Kingmaker” was a person, not a general concept (like “Diplomacy” or “Blitzkrieg”).
As much as I may have drooled over my Avalon Hill catalog for Kingmaker, I never purchased nor played it. In fact, I’ve never did involve myself in Wars of the Roses history, be it by book, game, or big screen. Perhaps because of this, when Richard III: England’s Most Controversial King was published, I quickly added it to my bookshelf. Now, I didn’t read it, at least not straight away, but it sat high on my to-read list. I hoped it might bring me to finally understand this turning point in history for which I, and probably many non-Britons, have only a cartoonish understanding of what really happened.
This is another book that straddles the categories of popular reading and serious academic writing. Compared to other works marketed to the masses that I have read, this leans more toward the academic end. The goal of the book is to attempt to gain a clearer view of the facts of Richard’s ascendancy and reign. In order to do this, it prioritizes contemporary records over those that were created after his death (which would have be entwisted by the politics of their own time). As such, many of the sources are financial records, as these presumably do not lie. One assumes that nobody would go back and falsify accounts for the purposes of political propaganda – at least not in Richard’s time. Today, well, who can say?
The author begins the preface almost defensively. We, the public, tend to be aware that Richard’s legacy was distorted by his political enemies – that he wasn’t among the winners who get to write history. As a result, however, people’s inquiries follow two trains of thought. Did Richard actually kill his nephews, King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York? Secondly, as history has painted Richard as evil, was that in fact accurate? Was he a good king or an evil king? The author explains that, like most of life, reality is messy. In fact (once you’ve read far enough into the book), the author’s position is that it doesn’t really matter what happened to the two Princes in the Tower; what matters is what people thought happened to the Princes in the Tower – and people did assume foul play and that assumption, true or not, de-legitimized Richard’s reign.
For a book that seems to devote a large percentage of the text to reviewing accounting entries, it is a surprisingly easy read. The “story” of Richard III might seem a little thin. England quickly lost interest in his reign and his motivations as the Tudor kings made him into an evil caricature to help legitimize their divine right. Thus narrative, in particular balanced and fair narrative, is in very short supply. The book instead extrapolate Richard’s intent and motivation from the records of his movements, purchases, and grants. The final chapter, on the Battle of Bosworth Field, reads a little differently. For this, there are multiple sources describing the battle and Richard’s fall.
I’m going to read the mind of the author and say the goal of this book is to provide well-documented facts to try to prise additional scholarship and understanding about Richard III’s short and his troubled reign. For me, I was just looking to understand the context of the War of the Roses and the genesis of the Tudor dynasty. As to the former, I wouldn’t know how to judge it, but it looks to be a solid work. For the latter, it succeeded admirably.
Being unable to play Kingmaker without extraordinary efforts on my part, I’ve elected to play as The Kingmaker, loading up the Second Battle of St. Albans in Field of Glory. I take the persona of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, leading the Yorkist forces. What I found was similar to my other experiences with the original Field of Glory. As an official scenario, it is not the epic, sprawling affair that usually characterizes user-made scenarios. It is a small map, one that tightly constrains the scenario. Even though the map is small and kept simple, one of my main complaints is present, although in this case it is not as obvious usual. The Second Battle of St. Albans was characterized by literal house-to-house fighting within the town. Field of Glory does not model urban settings and is, anyway, probably the wrong scale for it. As a result, the portrayal of the fight is constrained by the river and its single crossing with no clear “town” component, even though that was where the battle was. I have to wonder, like before, if the design of the scenario depends on the weak on-the-attack AI to force a Yorkist player to fight a piecemeal battle against a defensively-arrayed AI opponent. This not only might have increased the player’s difficulty, but it would have made for a better approximation of the historical sequence of the battle. Unlike before, I did not play the battle sequentially in both versions.
By the end of the book and the end of the Wars of the Roses, the York faction had lost their place in history. They did so not on the battlefield but among the clash of personalities that played out as an English version of a game of thrones. Richard’s ultimate loss and demise, at the Battle of Bosworth Field (and perhaps I’ll return to this), probably had more to do with the reluctance of Richard’s allies than strategy and tactics. I was not entirely satisfied with my Second Battle of St. Albans, but maybe satisfaction will remain elusive on this one.