The value of understanding feuding families

After completing my MA in History, I have continued my attempts to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, although for every little bit learned I discover even more still to learn. One of the topics I am interested in is the Wars of the Roses, which confounds me with the complex relationships, and twists and turns of the various families who competed with each other for power.

Nathen Amin’s ‘The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Crown’ has clarified a number of these relationships for me by following the development and demise of the Beaufort family, not necessarily the greatest family, but one that at times wielded considerable influence.

The four bastard children of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine Swinford, might not have expected to see a descendant of their blood sit on the English throne, but the eventual marriage of their parents and their legitimisation made this possible for Henry VII, son of Margaret Beaufort who was daughter of John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset, second son of John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset, first son of John of Gaunt, whose father was Edward III.

When a brother died, such as Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset (son of Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset), a younger sibling would inherit the title, as did Henry’s brother Edmund, who became 4th Duke of Somerset. Just remembering which Somerset is being referenced is certainly a challenge to me and when you add all the dukes and earls, from Exeter to Gloucester, Suffolk and York, family trees become a necessity. Amin provides a basic family tree of the Beauforts as an essential reference and trees of Gaunt’s other children and other relevant families would have been useful, although this book’s focus is on the Beauforts.

While following a timeline of events in the order that they occurred is not necessarily the best way to learn about a historical topic, Amin’s well-researched book applies this approach effectively. Much of the writing on this period focuses on the motivations of the primary figures, especially the monarchs and individuals who opposed and wrenched the crown from each other, such as Henry Bolingbroke and Richard III, and Amin’s different viewpoint helps to provide a broader, deeper understanding of events and the motivations behind them.

After Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, was hacked down by the Yorkists at St Albans, his son Henry, the 3rd Duke, was in his minority and assigned the ward of the family’s deadly enemy, Warwick, described by Amin as the “instrument of his father’s death”. It’s no surprise that family feuds festered in such circumstances and that son after son of the affected families met their deaths in pursuit of revenge.

Amin’s readable style makes the topic accessible, although I would recommend this book for those seeking a deeper understanding of the Wars of the Roses rather than an introduction to it. It has awoken in me the curiosity to learn more about the other families whose members participated in these events.

Writing this review has made me appreciate the importance of making notes when reading history. After completing my formal studies, I was relieved not to have to note down every thought that occurred to me, as I imagined the pleasure of reading would be sufficient gratification. Now I’ve decided to resume making notes as I read about history.

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