Telegraph Great Reads: The Hollow Crown

Telegraph Great Reads: The Hollow Crown

“The Hollow Crown is exhilarating, epic, blood-and-roses history. There are battles fought in snowstorms, beheadings, jousts, clandestine marriages, spurious genealogies, flashes of chivalry and streaks of pure malevolence.” – The Telegraph

In the below piece, Dan Jones tells us more about what we can expect from The Hollow Crown and the process of bringing the events together into a story.

When I published The Plantagenets a few years ago, I ended the book on a cliff-hanger. It was 1399. Henry Bolingbroke had deposed Richard II and claimed the throne of England. I wrote: ‘A new age of English kingship had begun’. In fact, I remember vividly writing that last sentence, and the sense of relief that came from knowing that I didn’t have to finish the book by trying to deal with the story of the wars of the roses.

Why? Well, at that point I regarded the wars that ripped England apart in the fifteenth century as a sort of historical quicksand: alive with danger and quite capable of swallowing up far better writers than me. All those kings, endlessly usurping, warring, scheming and murdering one another. All those families, kingmaking and double-dealing, trying to dig their claws into the fabric of power. This was the real Game of Thrones – only more complicated. When I finished Plantagenets, I felt relieved to be giving the fifteenth century the swerve.

But obviously, I didn’t stay away long. Partly that was for all the reasons I have just described. Yes, the wars of the roses is a fiendish period to get your head around. But if I could make sense of it, and give it the same treatment that had worked so well in The Plantagenets, then I would have created something worth celebrating – a rolling, epic, acutely researched narrative history that made sense of something generally thought to be quite incomprehensible. Not quite climbing the Eiger, but a challenge all the same. I signed a deal and wrote the book.

I’m pretty proud of The Hollow Crown. My idea was to put the wars of the roses properly into historical context, to cut through the layers of myth and legend that have grown up around some of the events and the key players, while also writing a book that would grip you like a novel. It took a lot of careful planning, but I think that’s what it does.

The first half of the book answers some fairly searching questions about why the incompetent rule of Henry VI took so long – nearly three decades – to collapse. To do that, it begins not in the 1450s, where most books on the subject begin, but at a very specific point, much earlier: the marriage of Henry V to Catherine de Valois in Troyes in 1420.

That was a key editorial decision, because in rolling back the story to that point, I was subsequently able to unpack several narratives at the same time. I could deal with the slow and disastrous collapse of Henry VI’s polity; but by introducing Catherine de Valois on the first page of the book, I could also set another plate spinning. I knew that ultimately, the book had to end with the rise of the Tudor dynasty. Everyone knows they’re coming to sweep the Plantagenets from power at Bosworth in 1485 – but where the hell did they come from? Well, they came from Catherine’s second marriage, to her Welsh squire Owen Tudor. That’s a pretty understudied story, but in my book it is a vital narrative thread.

The other big decision was about where to end the book. Normally we think the wars of the roses finished at Bosworth in 1485 – or at the battle of Stoke in 1487. They didn’t. In fact, the wars were haunting Henry VIII as late as the 1520s, when he was forced to deal with the French king entertaining a rival claimant to the crown, Richard de la Pole.

That dynastic paranoia – and the viciousness with which successive Tudor monarchs addressed it – helps to explain why today we understand the fifteenth century’s wars in simple, binary terms of Lancaster v York, red rose v white rose. That’s a mode of thinking that is not at all helpful to understanding most of the action of the wars themselves. In fact, it is one that was spun deliberately throughout the sixteenth century to help shore up the idea of the Tudors as a providential family, sent to redeem England from its own sins of usurpation earlier in the century. When Shakespeare based his cycle of History Plays around that very idea, he locked it into popular consciousness, where it remains today. By studying the later rumblings of the wars of the roses, I found I could start unpicking the bases for that ‘Tudor’ interpretation. As a historian I thought that felt pretty cool.

I won’t say that it was easy to write the Hollow Crown, but it was a hugely rewarding exercise in what I consider my core historical skill: storytelling. There’s a sweet spot in writing history in which meticulous research – the facts – are marshaled according to some of the structural techniques wielded every day by the world’s best novelists and screenwriters. I insist that you can write accurate and research-based history which still keeps the reader turning the pages twenty minutes past their usual bedtime. When I finished The Hollow Crown I felt instinctively that I had come somewhere close to doing that. I hope you agree.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones is available to buy online today as a Paperback and eBook.

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