A Few Introductory Points about the Late Middle Ages

<People who are familiar with the Wars of the Roses may want to skip this post.>

I’ve been reading about the Wars of the Roses as a hobby for the past eight years. However, because it is such an intricate period, it has taken me a long time to get even a moderate understanding of the period.

There are several reasons why the Wars of the Roses are confusing:

Multiple Phases and Causes

The wars were not a uniform struggle for the throne—although this was a major part of them. They also stem from feuds of inheritances, economic recessions, a succession/legitimacy crisis, personality conflicts, and quite a few other factors. Likewise, as discussed in my first post, they occurred over thirty or more years in at least four phases.

Way Too Many Players and Names to Remember

Shakespeare’s Richard III, which is only based on the (arguably) last phase of the Wars of the Roses, has 47 characters. (This isn’t including many of the ghosts and the extras.) While Shakespeare’s cast captures many major players, it still (mercifully) omits quite a few important people. (Although compared to the 247 named characters in Game of Thrones Season 3, maybe this isn’t too bad.)

People’s Names are Confusing

Because there was a tradition of honoring people by naming children after them, it seems like medieval nobles only had eight different names: Richard, Elizabeth, Katherine, Anne, Edward, George, Henry, and Margaret. There are other names, of course, but they don’t seem to get used very much. As a result, for example, four of the people closest to Edward IV are named Richard: his father (Richard of York), his mentor (Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick), his brother (Richard III), and his father-in-law (Richard Woodville, Earl Rivers).

To solve this problem, historians and contemporary chroniclers tend to refer to people by their titles or abbreviated versions of them. For example, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, is often called simply “Warwick.” However, this makes things worse, since people’s title shift over time—as they inherit or are granted new ones or they anger the king and lose their titles. For example:

Early Title Later Title
Edward, Earl of March Edward IV
Richard, Duke of Gloucester Richard III
Born Anthony Woodville, became Lord Scales after marriage Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers (after his father died)

Historians tend to refer to people by the title that was used for them in the period under discussion. For example, they’d refer to Richard III, before he became king, as “Gloucester.” If you are reading about Anthony Woodville, he could be called one of three names depending on the date.

People’s Relationships are Confusingly Intertwined

The other thing that makes the Wars of the Roses extremely confusing is that everyone is connected. Philippa Gregory has released some novels about the Wars of the Roses recently; the series is known as “The Cousin’s War series.” This title refers to the War of the Roses’ other moniker, the Cousin’s War, so named because it was fought between the extended family’s of the aristocracy.

In the late middle ages, nobles tended to have very large families of seven or more children. Because nobles cemented alliances between houses with marriage (think: Robert Baratheon telling Ned “We’ll join our houses.”), they often ended up inter-married because there weren’t that many noble families. The result? Many nobles had a cousin, sibling, aunt, or uncle in every major noble house.

You would think with everyone being related that the Wars of the Roses, which was primarily a clash between nobles, would have never happened. However, this was not the case. People were aligned with some parts of their extended families and not with others—according to financial interests like property and inheritances or simply who clicked with whom. If somebody’s sister married into a house with different interests, it did not mean that person would not go to war against his brother-in-law.

Families in that period had a very different emotional landscape than families today. Often noble children would be sent to the houses of other nobles from an early age to gain connections and learn from another household. As a result, they did not necessarily know their brothers and sisters or parents that well. However, they might become extremely close to the other children in the household and the noble family.

For example, Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon are close because they were both raised in the household of Jon Arryn. Likewise, they are close to Jon Arryn, who is described as their “mentor.” (In real life, this isn’t dissimilar to the relationship Richard III may have had with Warwick and his best friend, Francis Lovell, whom he met in Warwick’s household as a boy.)

To a certain extent, medieval parents were discouraged from getting too attached to their children because of the high mortality rate. When it came to emotional investment, they tried to distance themselves a little until they saw they would live. This, of course, doesn’t mean that their children wouldn’t worm their ways into their hearts just the same.

Medieval nobles were also often closer to their households, whom they saw every day and may live with most of their lives, than their families. The great household is a complex topic; however, a few quick examples.

  • For people who are familiar with Elizabeth I, it seems likely that she was closer to Kat Ashley, her governess and lifelong friend, than her brother and sister.
  • The relationship of a noble with his or her household was, in some ways, similar to the emotional relationships between the staff and the family on  Downton Abbey. The death of a member of the household might be more acutely felt than the death of a cousin.

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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