An even worse book? „Battles of the Wars of the Roses“. A book review.
Sometimes you know a book is being published, and you get quite excited about the thought of it. You think „that sounds like exactly the book I want/need“. Then it arrives, and you start to read with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. What if the book isn’t what I expected? That was sort of where I was with Tom Lewis‘ book on medieval combat, which I reviewed here.
Before Mike Ingram died we’d been discussing the next book we’d write together. One of the options was an updated version of Philip Haigh’s „Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses“. Haigh’s book at the time was 25 years old, and with all the research being done, it was about time for a new single volume military history. Then word came through that Pen & Sword had signed up David Cohen, who runs the „Wars of the Rose and Medieval History“ Facebook group to write a book called „Battles of the Wars of the Roses“. As Mike had died by that point it felt like there was now no need for me to try and work out what we would have done.
In the run up to publication I started hearing suggestions that there might be some issues with the book. That it might not deliver on all of the promises made. Still, it can’t be that bad, surely. The guy has been researching the Wars of the Roses for 40 years, and his Facebook group has a following of over 13,000 people. Really well respected writers on the period post on that group, and there’s a lot of good stuff there.
How wrong I was. Trust me, dear reader. This is a bad book. Very bad indeed. It is not just bad, it is utterly pointless. It fills no gap in the market at all. It is another book on the period written by someone with no formal training in how to write or research history. To explain exactly why it is so bad I have broken this review down in to several categories
When writing history it is important that the reader knows where you got your information from. At the top end of scholastic publications this can be by the use of footnotes, often every other sentence. This can be irritating, but when you make a categorical factual statement it is essential that this can be checked. As a maths teacher would put it „show your working“. In books that are less academic then you can cut back on the footnotes and refer to the sources in the body of the text. As you move into avowedly „popular“ history then footnotes often disappear entirely, but you should get a detailed bibliography and list of sources at the back of the book. The best books break these down into general and chapter specific secondary sources, and then have a list of primary sources as well. Now we are in the internet age, you will also get a list of websites consulted, if they have been important in the research. Getting the references right is a real faff, so that’s why popular history mostly doesn’t do it, but at least you know, in theory, that the author has indeed read that book on that battle that everyone says is the most up to date account.
For the general reader this type of historical discipline often isn’t important. They just want a book that tells them what happened, and I can understand that. As I have a history degree I tend to be a bit more sceptical if I can’t see where something has come from. Thanks Professor Luscombe and others. It is also good to check if the writer has actually consulted the source material concerned, or has read a book that quotes it and has passed that quote off as their own research.
It is also important that the writer is aware of the historiography as well as the history. Whilst writers often pride themselves on only using primary sources, understanding why we think what we think is important. Knowing what other historians have written on a subject may colour the writer’s views, so can be presented as a reason for not reading secondary works. However, primary sources aren’t all clear cut. They often won’t tell you why they were written or by who. Earlier historians may have worked that out for you. And if you are trying to be original, then knowing what has gone before is sort of essential.
How does this book match up to these requirements? Well, for a start there are no footnotes, and very few in-text references, except to quote from a few sources. There is no acknowledgement of any other secondary work in the text at all. All illustrations are without attribution, except for one. What that means is that if someone else’s work is used, that’s plagiarism, as you are passing off someone else’s work as your own. I’m not saying this book is plagiarised, but the signs aren’t good, and I’ve noted some examples where it looks like we are sailing close to the wind below. There are a few clear statements of fact which are really interesting if true. But I can’t verify that they are, so they are useless to me. To say that Queen Margaret was in Eccleshall Castle on the 10th July 1460 and not in Northampton when the battle is being fought is really interesting. It’s certainly not what I thought, and if it is true it changes my view on a few things. But I can’t know, and I can’t quote this book as a reference if I want to say that elsewhere.
I’m also not clear on whether the primary sources have been consulted anyway, even where they are quoted in the text. At least one quotation I recognised from another history book. It is the same quotation, but it is listed here as being from a completely different source. I am left with the feeling that the author read the secondary source, and didn’t actually read the primary. That’s quite serious.
In respect of the historiography, except for a discussion about the Princes in the Tower, there is very little acknowledgement of any of the historical debate around the period. The development of our understanding over the last two decades is not covered at all, despite the book claiming that it uses the most recent archaeological and documentary research. Which brings us to my next heading:
What research has been done to produce this book? In the absence of any references, we must turn to the Bibliography and the Primary Sources listed. There are also no websites or internet resources listed, which is odd. I know that many of the matters covered by the book have been discussed on the author’s Facebook group, and I have joined in some of those discussions, but I cannot take that as research, and I don’t think anyone else would do. It’s the modern day equivalent of „this bloke told me down the pub“.
Whilst this book is targeted at actual warfare during the Wars of the Rose, in practice it gives a lot of background to explain why things are happening or happened. This is all to the good. The book therefore opens with Edward III’s invasion of France, and runs through, quickly, Richard II, Henry IV, & V, Henry VI, the loss of France and all the other comings and goings that bring us to St Albans in 1455. It ends Stoke Field in 1487. That’s quite a spread of history, so there’s a lot of books covering what is being written about out there. For example, Alison Weir’s book „Lancaster & York“ published in 1995, which covers a similar period, lists about 120 secondary works and 109 Primary Sources. (My own book on Edgcote, which covers about 6 months in 1469 and only really looks at the campaign and battle itself, lists 26 secondary sources, and reprints extracts from 15 primary sources).
So how big is the Bibliography here? It runs to two pages, and lists 12 (yes, twelve) secondary sources and 18 (yes, eighteen) primary sources. It does not list any online resources. This is a small list by any standards for any book wanting to be taken seriously and covering this span of history.
The secondary source books that make the cut are these, together with my comments:
- Ashdown-Hill, John: The Wars of the Roses 2015
An interesting choice for a general history. Lots if ideas in it, but it isn’t the best single volume book on the Wars of the Roses out there. It’s a marmite book. You’ll love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it.
- Ashdown-Hill, John: The Mythology of the Princes in the Tower 2020
Not read this one. Don’t know why you’d need a chapter requiring use of this book in a book about battles. Still, it is probably the most complete Ricardian defence of Richard, so if you are going to write about the Princes, you need to read it.
- Burley, Peter; Elliot, Michael; Watson, Harvey: The Battles of St Albans 2017
Top notch book on both battles. Excellent choice. Mike Elliott is a battlefield guide at St Albans, so he knows the terrain really well. He’s also a long standing wargamer, so likes to get the fighting bits right.
- Gillingham, John: The Wars of the Roses, Peace and Conflict in 15th Century England 2018
Gillingham’s been an influential writer on the period since the 1980s. Good choice.
- Gravett, Chris: Tewkesbury 1471: The last Yorkist victory 2009
The Osprey on the battle. It’s a good Osprey, as far as I can tell. Tewkesbury isn’t a battle I know well enough to criticise it.
- Haigh, Philip: The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses 1997
Ah, yes. The grand daddy of WotR military history studies in the modern age. Badly in need of an update, but as wargamers we’d all be worse off without it.
- Lewis, Matthew: The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy 2016
Not read this. Matt’s other books are usually solid, so I’d expect this to be the same.
- Moorhouse, Dan: On this day in the Wars of the Roses 2021
This book is a bit of fun, really. Excellent as day-by-day trivia, but the format of one day per page means that subjects can’t always be dealt with in the detail you’d need if you were using it for anything other than as a date checker.
- Reedman, J.P: Blood of Roses, Edward IV and Towton 2018
Not read this one. That’s because IT IS A WORK OF FICTION.
- Sadler, John: Towton: The Battle of Palm Sunday Field 1461 2014
On my pile of „to read“ books. A proponent of Towton is the biggest and bloodiest battle school of thought
- Weir, Alison: Lancaster and York; The Wars of the Roses 1998
Not necessarily highly regarded by serious historians, but I have a soft spot for Weir, because she takes Wavrin seriously. It is now over 25 years old.
- Williams, D.T: The Battle of Bosworth 1975
Seriously? A 24 page pamphlet published in 1975? The scholarship on Bosworth has moved on since then, as has the battlefield.
It is a list with serious shortcomings. Only 4 out of the 17 battles covered are covered by a book dedicated to it. What about Barnet? Northampton? Edgcote? Stoke Field? Wakefield? Mortimer’s Cross? Blore Heath? I have books on all of them, and I’m not even trying (okay, so I wrote one of them, but you know what I mean). There may be others I haven’t looked for. There are good monographs missing from this list on the battles which do get a book. Where is Foard & Curry’s book on the Bosworth archaeology? Its omission is odd, given the claim to include the most recent archaeological research. Also missing is Tim Sutherland’s seminal „Killing Time“ paper on Ferrybridge, Ditingdale and Towton, which you can download for free. The author has claimed to have read it, via his Facebook group, which makes its omission from the bibliography odd, even if he disagrees with its findings.
I won’t go through the list of Primary Sources, although I will note that there’s no usage of any of the State Papers / Calendar rolls etc listed. The publications listing the sources also do not include the most recent version of many of them, contained in Embree & Tavormina’s „Contemporary English Chronicles“, which identify a number of problems with the old Victorian era publications.
The reason for not reviewing each one individually will be given below.
Accuracy and other bad practice
We all make mistakes when writing, and you can’t include everything. However, some mistakes are easy to avoid, and won’t arise if your research is diligent enough.
I didn’t fact check the entire book. Life is too short for that. But I did where something caught my eye and made me doubt myself or wonder. And some things I didn’t need to fact check because I knew they were wrong.
I’ll start with the Primary Source as listed in the book, Stow’s Annales, which are quoted from in the chapter on St Albans, because it made me seriously doubt the usage of primary sources. Two different sources have John Stow’s name attached to them. One is his publication of the contemporary Yorkist propaganda piece, called „The Relation“ or similar, and the other is his „Annales“, which is his history of England, written at the back end of the 16th century. The Relation isn’t listed in the primary sources, and in the book a quotation from it is erroneously listed as being from the „Annales“. In fact, it looks like the quotation has been lifted directly from the Burley/Elliott/Watson book on the two battles. Mixing up what was contemporary propaganda with a book written as a work of history over 125 years later is an inexcusable error, and shows a lack of understanding of the sources.
He also quotes in English from Whethamstede several times, although the listing in the bibliography is for the Latin version. The translation is identical to that in Burley et al. Of course, as there are no references, I can’t say for sure whether this is plagiarism or not, but I have confirmed with one of the authors that the translations were prepared especially for the book. I haven’t bothered to check any of the other quotations used in the book, as I don’t have all of the works otherwise claimed to have been used, according to the bibliography.
Accusations of plagiarism aside, simply paraphrasing another historians work is nearly as bad. Compare these two paragraphs about the post Empingham period, the first from this book, the second from Alison Weir’s*
p116 Cohen: „On 24 March 1470, King Edward denounced the Earl of Warwick and Clarence as great traitors and rebels, with a bounty placed on their heads, and summoned them to appear before him. Edward then left York on 27 March and marched south to Nottingham and Coventry with the aim of capturing them.“
pp362-3 Weir „On 24 March the King issued a proclamation denouncing both Warwick and Clarence as traitors and „great rebels“ and putting a price on their heads. He then issued a further summons ordering them to appear before him by 28 March at the latest or be dealt with as traitors. On the 27th he left York with his host to hunt them down, marching south via Nottingham and Coventry“.
If you have the two books you can check the next couple of pages for yourself. I’m not going to retype them all here.
My biggest concern, however, is over the accounts of the battles of Northampton and Edgcote, as I hold a watching brief over them as Chair of Northamptonshire Battlefields Society.
The account of Northampton is troublesome in several ways. Cohen has chosen to illustrate it with a map taken from Ramsey’s „Lancaster & York“ published in 1892. The use of Ramsey’s 19th century map places the battle in the wrong place. The location of the battlefield, as given on the English Heritage Register in an entry written by Glenn Foard, the leading battlefield archaeologist in the country at the time, places it between the Abbey and the Eleanor Cross, not on the site of the old railway sidings as indicated on Ramsey’s map. The Register entry was first made in the 1990s. It has been updated since, and the location discussed and refined further at the 550th anniversary conference in 2010. Since then, the Northamptonshire Battlefields Society has published Mike Ingram’s book on the subject in 2015, which fixes the battlefield pretty securely in the grounds of Delapré Abbey. Cohen’s book rolls back nearly three decades of research in less than 6 pages. In terms of the description of the battle the opening skirmishes that led to part of Northampton being burnt down are completely overlooked. He seems to be unaware of the other reason believed to account for the non-firing Lancastrian guns, and the finding of the oldest cannon ball located on a battlefield in England. To round it all off, apparently Queen Margaret wasn’t even in Northampton, but was hiding out in Eccleshall Castle. Presumably still there after the Battle of Blore Heath, but see comment above.
The chapter on Edgcote runs to 7 pages, and doesn’t include a map. The chapter is longer than that on Northampton, but that’s because it covers the period after the battle in July up to the end of December the same year. To be fair, Cohen gets the date right, and also can spell Edgcote too (except on the “battles map”, where it is called “Edgecote Moor”). However, the description is sorely lacking. He claims Sir John Conyers is Robin of Redesdale, and that Redesdale dies in the battle. Which is odd, as Conyers was still alive 21 years later. He places the fighting at the crossing of the River Cherwell. As we now know the battle was fought across a tributary to the river, not the river itself. This was determined by new documentary research into Waurin’s account which identified the tributary location, backed up by the archaeology done as a result of HS2, which found no evidence of fighting at all at the Trafford Bridge site on the River Cherwell. He conflates the arrival of Gates and Parr with that of Clapham and identifies Parr as the leader of Warwick’s cavalry at Edgcote. I would very much like to see the supporting evidence for being that precise.
I mentioned above about attribution for illustrations. All of the maps, and most, if not all, of the illustrations are sourced from the internet, and at least one of the family trees. Several of the maps (only six battles get them) are taken directly from Wikipedia. This means, of course, that the description of the battle has to conform to the maps downloaded. And even Wikipedia has standards and gives the required attribution text. So, JAPPALANG, whoever you are or were in 2011 when you drew the Towton maps, here’s the credit you deserve. And for Barnet too.
The other major omission in a military history book is any discussion at all about how battles were actually fought, and the composition of armies. We are told that armies have archers, billmen and pikemen. I’m not sure about the regular presence of pikemen, especially as he places them at 1st St Albans, which is a small battle, where the armies are all home grown and the pike isn’t really an English weapon at this time. He also puts them at Blore Heath. Modern accounts of the battle do not include pikes, although they do appear in Twemlow’s 1902 account, and Oman is lazy about using the term in his biography of Warwick. In short, you will learn nothing about Wars of the Roses armies and warfare from reading this book. As a wargamer, I can firmly state that there is nothing in this book that illuminates the period for me.
And John Stacy was an astrologer, not an astronomer. And the „bars“ at St Albans are spelt with a capital „B“. They mean „gate“, they don’t mean the beam that blocks the road. If you take the beam away, the area is still a Bar.
This section is highly subjective, so feel free to ignore it.
I leave this to last, as writing styles are very personal, and what one person likes someone else might hate. This book, to me, is excruciating to read. It has many short paragraphs, often starting with On such and such a date, such and such happened. I can’t grasp any form of theme, I don’t know what thesis, if any, the writer is trying to develop around the period. It does look, from time to time, like a number of Facebook posts bolted together, but I can’t prove that one way or the other without trawling back through the FB group concerned, and I’ve spent enough time cross checking information for this post. The text is clumsy. We are told that Warwick „kept a lavish household in London, where he dispensed his lavish hospitality“. The section on Cade’s Rebellion uses „Jack Cade“ at least once in every paragraph. Having established it’s Jack Cade, surely you can drop the Jack thereafter. And its always „William Lord Hastings“. There’s only one other Hastings in the book, and he doesn’t appear until the end. It looks like someone desperately trying to get the word count up. And continued use of „in the land“ or „across the land“ makes it sound like some cod fantasy book („much bloodshed throughout the land“ for example) I’d have been embarrassed to hand any of this in as either an A Level or undergraduate essay (and I can check, because sad that I am, I still have a lot of mine in a file next to my desk).
So, to summarise by giving scores out of 5:
Historical Methodology: 0/5
Writing style: 0/5
He only gets 1 out of 5 for accuracy because the dates I’ve checked are correct.
I’ve been at this post for several hours now, which is more than the book deserves, but if this in anyway stops this nonsense being taken seriously then it is time well spent. I posted what are legitimate concerns about the depiction of Northampton and Edgcote in the book in my capacity as Chair of the Northamptonshire Battlefields Society on our Facebook group. When I shared this to the „Wars of the Roses and Medieval History“ group of which David Cohen is an admin, it was not unsurprisingly blocked. When I asked why, I was told it was because it was a „hatchet job“. As a „hatchet job“ is an unfair attack on a person in the disguise of something else, I think that’s unfair. I have no interest in attacking David Cohen. I don’t know him. I do have an interest in my local battles. Even this post isn’t a hatchet job. I have identified and raised serious concerns about the accuracy and provenance of the contents of the book. It’s publisher’s description and book jacket make statements about the book that are untrue. It does not make use of any up to date archaeological or documentary research. This book adds NOTHING to our understanding of the period. In fact, with the views expressed it rolls back scholarship nearly 30 years if it is taken seriously. Pen and Sword need to look seriously at how this book got to be published.
This book is worse than Tom Lewis‘. At the end of that review I recommended picking his book up when it got remaindered, as there are some interesting ideas in there, for example on the size of Towton and medieval battles generally. This book has no redeeming features. As a military history it tells us nothing new. As a single volume history of the period it adds nothing to the likes of Weir, if you want a popular history. It fails utterly and completely to deliver on sharing new research of any type. It is a bad, bad, book and if anyone read the manuscript before publication and said nothing they should be as ashamed as Pen and Sword. The book needs withdrawing and pulping.
It is truly that bad and pointless.
* I owe this piece of detective work to David Grummitt.
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Autor: Trebian / Wargaming for Grown-ups
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