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Re-thinking The Wars Of The Roses: Civil War In A Later Medieval Polity

John Watts, Corpus Christi College, University Of Oxford


The James Lydon Lectures In Medieval History And Culture
2nd to 5th November 2020
Trinity College Dublin


These lectures explore the causes and dynamics of Civil War through the lens of one particular and well-known conflict: the ‘Wars of the Roses’, which were centred on the kingdom of England in the second half of the fifteenth century. 

While this conflict has generally been treated in an insular fashion, as a notorious episode in the English national story, my aim will be to use it as a case-study for a much wider series of questions – about the workings of power in situations of contested authority, about the ways in which political violence and uncertainty are understood, about the boundaries of political space, and about the processes of political economy.

 Much as this will be a series of historical lectures dealing with specific times and places, my hope is to say something of general and topical importance about political disorder, and certainly to locate the Wars of the Roses in a wider geographical and temporal setting.  People who know about the Wars should find that these lectures intersect with and challenge their understanding of them; my aim though is that the majority, who may not know much about these particular conflicts, will find the lectures interesting at a more general and methodological level.

Provisional titles and topics for the lectures are as follows:

[1] The Civil Wars We Think We Know: Narrativity and Politics
This lecture will explore the dominant ways in which the Wars of the Roses have been understood since the fifteenth century itself, starting out from the implications of the neo-Roman influence under which most of the early narratives and polemics were written, and, by showing the origins of the major textual tropes, opening up the possibility of reading the Wars very differently.

[2] Logics of Political Violence
The aim of this lecture is to consider the patterns of violence and submission, and the causes of those patterns in a period of prolonged political insecurity.  Rather than seeing the succession of feuds, plots, murders, and battles (or of compromises, treaties, rallies and sudden spasms of treachery) as peculiarly medieval, this lecture will consider what they might have owed to social and institutional conditions – and dynamics – that are present in multiple societies, including in our own times.

[3] Political Economy and its Role in Civil Conflict
The Wars of the Roses took place against a background of significant change and disruption in the organisation of society and the institutions of production and exchange.  A number of attempts have been made to draw connections between the political, social and economic disturbances of the times, but these are typically over-schematic.  I want to see if I can produce a more satisfying and convincing treatment of how political economy and political disturbance may have been related, both in the fifteenth century in itself and perhaps more generally.

[4] The Outside World
The Wars of the Roses took place in an archipelagic and European setting, intersecting with other systems and patterns of conflict across a wide area, some of them local, others transnational.  This lecture will look in both a comparative and a connective way at the political conflicts of fifteenth-century Europe, with a view to considering the relationship between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ conflict and exploring our assumptions about the boundedness of political space.


Last updated 12 March 2021 medieval.history@tcd.ie (Email).