The Hollow Crown

It is generally not hard to tell whether a writer's sympathies lie with Lancaster or York, but in the case of The Hollow Crown, Jones is even-handed and judicious throughout. His devastating critique of Henry VI as entirely unfit for the inheritance left him by that Plantagenet hero, Henry V, is matched by his incisive portrait of Richard, Duke of York as self-important, partisan, and as lacking in political finesse as Queen Marguerite.

The political theory that underlies the whole work is that, in the late middle ages, having a king of legitimate royal descent was not enough for the realm to function effectively. If the character of the man wearing the Crown was not sufficiently robust, and he failed to wield his power effectively, there was no way of filling the vacuum.

During the minority of Henry VI, his uncles and the other magnates held the realm together reasonably successfully, but there was no prescription for the ills that followed from an adult king who could not step up his responsibilities. Yet, the lords were hamstrung in reacting to the situation. Henry was not a tyrant – rather he was a gentle and kindly man, so there was no excuse for his overthrow. Attempts by others to manage the kingdom on Henry's behalf, were resented and feared by both the nobles excluded from the king's inner circle and the public at large. Jones rehabilitates William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who is often vilified, but, initially, at least, tried to keep Henry's rule on track.

As royal authority disintegrated in the 1440s and 1450s, there was growing discontent, and personal feuds between members of the nobility began to get out of hand – a situation not helped by Henry's wife, Marguerite of Anjou. It is hard not to admire some aspects of Marguerite's character as Jones presents her. She was phenomenally brave, determined and resolute in her attempts to protect the throne for her husband and son, but she was violently partisan, and, rather than rising above Court rivalries, she made the situation far worse.

Jones moves smoothly through the numerous battles that took place up and down the land, and keeps the reader on top of the dizzying changes of loyalties that characterised the period as the Crown became a plaything of the man with the biggest army. It is with a sense of relief that must echo that of the population of 1471, that we read of the triumph of Edward IV at Tewkesbury, bringing a king to the throne who had something of the skill, tenacity and strategic brilliance of Henry V: a man whom the vast majority of Lancastrians were willing to accept as king, with Edward of Lancaster dead. The murder of Henry VI was skated over by most people as a little local difficulty.

But knocking an old and incompetent man on the head was one thing – usurping the throne of a twelve year old boy was quite another. Jones shows clearly how the usurpation of Richard III undermined all of the good work done by Edward IV. Richard may have had good instincts in how he wanted to rule, but nothing could undo the damage of his grab for the throne. Jones is no revisionist – it is perfectly plain to him that Richard had his nephews murdered. This one act, against all odds, united the remnants of Lancaster with the supporters of Edward IV, and brought the obscure Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, to the throne.

Unlike most historians, Jones does not bring the Wars to a close in 1485, or 1487 with Henry VII's victory at Stoke. He goes on to show how the lingering suspicion, the fear that any plausible rogue with an army could emulate the success of Henry in overthrowing an anointed monarch, slowly poisoned Henry's reign and led to the imprisonment and execution of almost anyone with a vague claim to the throne.

A new era appeared to dawn in 1509, with the accession of Henry VIII, heir to both Lancaster and York, but still the old fears ran deep. After an early attempt to bring the extended royal family together to turn the nobility's minds towards that perennial delight, war with France, dissensions from Henry's policies began to emerge. Nevertheless, Jones contends, the main focus was no longer the old one of York v. Lancaster, but, increasingly, families were divided between Catholic and Protestant. The final purge of possible claimants to the throne in 1538 – 1541 when Montagu, Exeter, and the aged Countess of Salisbury were executed was the last effusion of Plantagenet blood.

The Hollow Crown demands concentration – a huge amount of ground is covered – but it is well worth it. I can promise you will not be bored for a moment!