Book Review: The Castle in the Wars of the Roses

Dan Spencer is a medievalist with a particular interest in military history. His previous work includes a scholarly monograph about gunpowder weapons in late medieval England. In this book, he turns his attention to the Wars of the Roses, with a special emphasis on the role of the castle.

The book opens with an introduction to the castle in the Middle Ages, including a brief overview of architectural developments. Spencer reminds us that castles were not only military structures; they also served as administrative centres and high-status homes (as well as much else besides). He also points out that, along with cathedrals, castles were the most imposing man-made structures in the medieval landscape, which meant they held tremendous symbolic value. The first chapter therefore provides a point of reference, as the book then proceeds chronologically (covering the period between 1450 and the early reign of Henry VII). Spencer effectively explains the wider context of the Wars of the Roses, but he never loses sight of his core objective. As the narrative progresses, he presents a convincing and detailed analysis of how castles were used.

Some of the incidents discussed here – such as the dramatic sieges of Bamburgh, Caister and Harlech – are relatively well known. There has been a tendency, however, to see these episodes as isolated or exceptional cases, whereas Spencer argues that the continued significance of castles in this period has been underestimated. In part (as implied above), this is because castles continued to be employed in a wide range of functions, although some aspects of their use in military operations have also been neglected. The sustained focus on the role of the castle does therefore offer a genuinely new perspective.

Spencer has made good use of contemporary chronicles, most of which are now readily available in print, but he has also conducted extensive archival research. His survey of record sources has revealed some fascinating details that were hitherto unknown to modern historians. We now have a tantalising glimpse, for example, of a siege of Skipton Castle in 1461. Overall, Spencer has calculated that at least thirty-six sieges took place between 1455 and 1487 – although it seems likely that there must have been others, for which evidence no longer survives. Elsewhere, he offers new information about the careers of leading personalities. This includes an interesting account of Sir William Stanley’s service to Edward IV in North Wales, where Stanley was responsible for the capture of several Lancastrian strongholds.

Spencer is careful not to overstate his case, as he ultimately reaches a measured and nuanced conclusion. Nevertheless, in describing the consistent flow of activity that took place in and around castles, he has made an important contribution to the ongoing debate about the impact of the Wars of the Roses on English society. I was particularly struck by the insight that late fifteenth-century people continued to recognise the potential of castles (as a source of political and economic power, as well as during warfare), even though military preparations did not always lead to tangible outcomes.

Academic historians will find rich material here, but Spencer has also worked hard to ensure that his book will be accessible to a wider audience. The chronological structure is helpful in this respect, as are the short biographies of key players (which are included as an appendix). Spencer’s prose is clear and concise, and this is a very engaging book. It also features plans and photographs of various castles, as well as some useful maps. In short, this is essential reading for anyone who has a serious interest in the Wars of the Roses.

The Castle in the Wars of the Roses is published by Pen and Sword.

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David Santiuste

David Santiuste is a historian of late medieval Britain. His interests include Anglo-Scottish relations, pilgrimage, and the Wars of the Roses. His most recent book is The Hammer of the Scots: Edward I and the Scottish Wars of Independence.