On Sunday the BBC drama The White Queen concluded in the United States. It will provide a massive boost to the sales of Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of novels. This would be fine by me if it were not for the fact that Gregory, and popular historians such as Alison Weir, are now pushing the term the Cousins’ War as more ‘authentic’ than the Wars of the Roses we all remember.
Philippa Gregory tells us in her non-fiction book, The Women of the Cousins’ War that this was the term “used at the time”. Alison Weir confirms that indeed, this is what “contemporaries” called it, adding that ‘the Wars of the Roses’ was the invention of Sir Walter Scott. But we are not told who these contemporaries were who said it – “Hey, we are living during the Cousins’ War” – or where the term was written down. On the other hand we do know the origins of the term, Wars of the Roses, are much older than the precise formulation of words Scott used.
The historian David Hume was writing in 1762 of “the wars between the two roses”. More than a hundred years earlier it was referred to as “the quarrel of the two roses”. Before then you have Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, part I, with the scene in which Richard, Duke of York, quarrels with the Lancastrian leader, Edmund, Duke of Somerset. The two men ask others to show their respective positions by picking a rose – red for Lancaster and white for York.
The simple five-petal design of the heraldic rose was inspired by the wild dog rose that grows in English hedgerows. As a symbol it had a long association with the Virgin Mary, who is sometimes called the “Mystical Rose of Heaven”. The rose was not just a pretty flower. Edward I had used a golden rose, representing the Glory of the Virgin, while his descendents also sometimes used rose badges of different colours, with different religious meanings.
At the beginning of the dynastic squabble between Lancaster and York there was no very strong association of the red rose with Lancaster or the white rose with York. The French chronicle, Traison et Mort, describes how Henry Bolingbroke – the future Henry IV, and first king of the House of Lancaster – had “rouge fleurs” decorating his pavilion at a joust in 1398. But when the ‘wars’ began in 1455, Henry VI, preferred a spotted panther, an antelope or ostrich feathers, to the red rose, and as far as we know his rival Richard, Duke of York, never used the white rose badge.
York’s son, Edward IV, did, however, use the white rose prominently. It was believed to have been the badge of Edward’s ancestor, Roger Mortimer – the man who was supposedly Richard II’s ‘true’ heir, before his right was ‘usurped’ by Henry IV. As such it was a key symbol of the dynastic rights of the House of York – and a contrast to Henry IV’s rouge fleurs. Richard, Duke of York, may not have used the white rose simply because he was killed only weeks after he first laid claim to the throne.
At the height of the Lancastrian struggle with the House of York, the red rose appears again in a striking context. When the deposed Henry VI was re-adapted briefly as king in 1470, the Grocer’s Company in London ripped up the white roses they had planted for Edward IV, and replaced them with red ones as a mark of their loyalty to Henry VI. Henry VI’s half nephew, Henry Tudor, was then in London. He left within days and only returned in 1485, after having defeated Richard III at Bosworth.
It was now that Henry Tudor chose the red rose as his favoured badge. The religious symbolism was without doubt important to him. Henry Tudor regarded the Virgin Mary as his special protector. The red rose also represented Christ’s Passion – the five petals of the heraldic rose corresponding to the five wounds on Christ’s crucified body. And this too had special meaning for Henry. Twenty-four years later, when the dying king ordered thousands of Masses to be said for his soul, he asked for a quarter of them to be dedicated to the Five Wounds.
Yet Henry still might have chosen other religious symbols. He chose the red rose badge in the knowledge that he was to marry Elizabeth of York, the heir of the white rose dynasty. Within weeks of this marriage the royal mint had issued a coin featuring the double union rose, commonly termed the ‘Tudor rose’, in which the red petals of the Lancastrian rose, surround the white petals of the House of York. It became immensely popular with artists and poets, symbolising as it did, national healing after the civil wars.
Does the term ‘the Cousins’ war’ really have the same meaning or resonance? Does it even have any history predating the novels of Philippa Gregory? In what way is it more authentic than the Wars of the Roses? As royal houses intermarry, and as European nations were ruled by monarchies for most of their history, half the wars in Europe’s past could be described as ‘cousins’ wars’. The Wars of the Roses tells us rather more than that this was a dynastic struggle: it tells us something about the religious values of the past, about how the wars were remembered, and the national gratitude for peace when they ended. The Wars of the Roses seem to me a far more valuable term than the Cousins’ War, and not one to be carelessly replaced.