A couple of days ago, I finished reading a rather lengthy volume that sat for as long as I can remember on my mother’s bookshelves. Entitled The Last Plantagenets (1962), it’s a popular narrative history of the kings of England from the tail end of the reign of Edward III, through a lengthy chronicle of Richard II, followed by accounts of Henry IV, Henry V, both reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, and, right up to his famous defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard III. Among other things, it covers the Wars of the Roses, the bitter and bloody struggles between the houses of Lancaster and York, in great detail.
The author, Thomas B. Costain, was a Canadian-born journalist who, at the age of fifty-seven, became (from 1942 through 1963) an enormously popular writer of historical novels and narrative history. In this book, he is an eloquent and, to my inexpert eyes, a persuasive defender of Richard III, whose portrayal as a remorseless murderer by Shakespeare he believes to have been the product (if not altogether a part of) Tudor propaganda designed to justify Henry VII’s usurpation of Richard’s throne.
What struck me about the accounts of these kings and their wars and their wives was the familiar quality of dynastic politics during the period — the false friends, the misplaced trust, the back stabbings, the intrigues, the secret meetings, the hidden agendas, the treacheries, the alliances, the pretended justifications, the sometimes very personal enmities cloaked in self-righteousness and idealism. Just about anybody who’s ever been injured in office or academic politics or has observed such things from the outside, reading this, would say “Yes, indeed. That’s how it works.” We don’t typically hang, draw, and quarter these days, or put heads on pikes, or burn people at the stake, but still, in remarkable ways, human nature hasn’t changed.
“My symbol for Hell,” C. S. Lewis wrote in the Preface to his Screwtape Letters, “is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” (See his novel That Hideous Strength, the third volume of the Perelandra Trilogy, for a wickedly funny depiction of academic politics — against a much more important background, it must be said, of cosmic battle.)
Posted from Park City, Utah