Fatal Colours by George Goodwin tells the story of the battle of Townton, 1461, and of the events that led up to it.
The focus is on Henry 6th, crowned King of England and France at one year old, and on the political consequences of his early ascent to the throne following the death of his father, Henry 5th, in France. Goodwin gives the historical context to these events, naming Henry 5th as the greatest English king, and explaining how the dead king’s older brother attempted to maintain English holdings in France whilst the younger stayed at home to support the infant Henry.
Henry’s was a long and mainly undistinguished reign, and Goodwin even questions the success of the two achievements he is usually credited with – the foundation of Kings College Cambridge, and of Eton. We are told of the successive phases of his government: the power of Suffolk, who had the King’s confidence and spent his money unwisely, his marriage to the impecunious French princess Margaret of Anjou, the loss of territories in France which led to disturbances in parliament, and the rebellion led by Jack Cade, fomented and supported by Richard, Duke of York, according to Goodwin.
Later Goodwin attempts to unravel the complex political events of the fifteenth century surrounding the conflict between Richard, supported by Warwick the Kingmaker, and the King’s party, led by the queen.
For me this period of English history is a morass of confusing people and events involving anonymous characters with randomly interchangeable names like Edmund, who could also be known as the Duke of Somerset. The fact that it is the story of a family squabble amongst a brood of treacherous and untrustworthy “royal” personages makes it even more confusing: characters and generations swap first names on a regular basis, with only the kings themselves making any attempt at differentiation by the use of numerical suffixes. You can see how hard it is for a writer to avoid confusion – I fell into the trap between the 3rd and 4th paragraphs – assuming you would know who I meant by Richard. But notice – I was careful to place the two references in adjoining sentences, making it a little easier for the reader! It’s not always so simple when the book is a couple of hundred pages long.
So, if my eyes glazed over on occasions during some of the more complicated passages it won’t surprise you. Nevertheless I did come out at the end a little wiser about the distinguished family tree that has led to our current crop of telegenic royals. That wasn’t the most interesting part though. The fact is that the battle of Towton was a bit special – involving more deaths and brutality than any other fought on English soil, according to Goodwin. The battlefield has recently been excavated, and the findings show the brutal treatment of the defeated Lancastrians, and according to Goodwin give quite clear evidence of the shape of the battle, the tactics of the commanders and the influence of the weather. This was all interesting stuff, especially since I used to live within 3 or 4 miles of Towton. Though I had never heard of it then, this familiarity helped me understand something of the geography as well as confirming how the towns of Castleford and Ferrybridge got their names!
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this book from a historical point of view is the claim that Goodwin makes about the King’s state of health. Explanations of Henry 6th’s failures usually focus on his piety, and write him off as lily-livered rather than true and blue blooded. However Goodwin makes the striking claim that the king suffered from schizophrenia, suggesting that he had inherited this condition from his grandfather, Charles 6th of France, also widely criticised as a weak king. I have to say that this is clearly an assertion rather than a diagnosis, but it does have an element of merit.
Well that’s it then. The best part of this book is the last – the battle of Towton itself. I have to say I chose it because I felt I needed to learn more about the confusing period known as the Wars of the Roses, and in that respect too it was helpful, but for me there is still a lot more to learn in that respect.