The sources for writing histories of the Wars of the Roses are wonderfully varied and often hotly debated. This page begins provides an explanation of the different types of source and some advice on how to use them.
In the menu you will find a page with links to online editions of the sources, including the Richard III Society’s Ricardian Resources website which brings together many of the sources edited and published by the Society, such as Richard III’s Register of Grants (BL MS Harley 433). You will also find the first of a series of in depth introductions to the most important sources which we are assembling.
Across this website you will also find quotations from primary and secondary sources on specific topics, particularly in the Key Issues page for A Level History..
Primary sources are pieces of evidence that were created within living memory of the events we are trying to understand. They could be stained glass windows, luxury religious manuscripts, rough drafts of letters, lists of expenses, stone carvings or even jewellery.
Most, of course, are written documents, usually in Latin, Middle English or a form of French (the French written by late medieval Englishmen tended to be rather different from that actually used in France). Very often it is easiest to use these sources in modern translations. It is important to be aware that translators too can be influenced by their opinion of events when they choose between possible interpretations of the original words.
These are especially popular sources among later writers of history because they tell the story of events. However, we can rarely accept the tales they tell completely at face value. Throughout the Middle Ages chroniclers considered their responsibility to educate their readers in morals was just as important as recording what actually happened. In the fifteenth century, particularly, many chroniclers were interested in building support for (or justifying) one cause or another. That cause was most often the Yorkists or, later, the Tudors and this has influenced how histories have been written ever since. Earlier in the middle ages, the majority of chroniclers had been monks but in the fifteenth century far more were laymen.
On state occasions, such as coronations, royal weddings, funerals and christenings, or major tournaments, a herald often wrote descriptions of the events for distribution to the public. As well as details of what happened and who was present, these records reveal establishment ideas about kingship and nobility.
Manifestos, Treatises and Public Bills
People who were unhappy with a ruling regime would sometimes share their grievances in ‘bills’ nailed up in public places or treatises circulated among their acquaintances. Rebels typically drew up manifestos listing specific reforms they wanted the king and government to make, as well as their complaints about current practice. Just like modern propaganda, their criticism of their opponents was often overstated but these are hugely important for examining the motives of the government’s opponents and the justifications that rebels expected the wider public to sympathise with.
Political Poems and Ballads
These were another form of political propaganda, created in a form that was easier to learn by heart and very often to celebrate or commemorate specific events.
Thousands of letters survive for the fifteenth century. Many concern government business and were created in the chancery, such as those recorded in the patent rolls. These help show how government worked and the relationships between the king and his subjects. Queens had separate administrations and many of Margaret of Anjou’s business letters in particular also survive, showing how she supported her husband’s rule. There were some gentry families who kept particularly efficient archives of their family letters, sometimes over many decades. These reveal much about every-day life and society and sometimes touch on political events too. Letters sent by foreign ambassadors to their patrons often provide interesting additional perspectives on events, although being ‘outsiders’ did not make them immune to the propaganda of charismatic noblemen.
Some of our most detailed and closely contemporary descriptions of events were written by foreign visitors reporting back to a patron about their experiences. Writing outside England meant they had the freedom to say things about kings without fear of punishment but this does not necessarily make them ‘neutral’ sources – the reliability of their English informants, the interests of their patrons and the moral commentary they wanted to share were still factors in the stories they told.
Government financial records were created in the exchequer, and most large households kept their account books updated on a daily basis. The details about what people were spending their money on can help us to build up pictures of political relationships or see how people spent their free time. For example, Margaret of Anjou’s annual New Year gift list suggests her changing relationships with key noblemen and Elizabeth of York’s privy purse expenses reveal her heavy gambling debts one Christmas. The accounts for major events such as coronations show who was invited, the clothes and food provided for them or the symbolic pageantry that was enacted.
The parliament rolls are an especially valuable source for understanding politics and governance. With each change of regime the new king’s justification for his accession was presented (the most famous being Richard III’s Titulus Regius). The rolls record the concerns and complaints that the commons brought to the king, the laws that were made and treason trials such as those of the Yorkist lords in 1459 and George Duke of Clarence in 1478.
There were many different types of courts including manor courts (the responsibility of local lords), piepowder courts (dealing with disputes at fairs), various church courts (for matters that came under church law such as questions about legitimate marriage), the King’s Bench (the most senior criminal court) and the Court of Chancery (the senior court for matters like financial disputes). Sometimes very detailed records of the crimes or disputes survive which enable us to piece together relationships that have significance for wider politics. On other occasions, for example, we learn of accusations that someone had criticised the king or queen and this enables us to consider public opinion on matters such as Henry VI’s childlessness.
A surprising number of books owned by the major players in the Wars of the Roses still survive. Sometimes these indicate who gave the books or who they were passed on to. The fact that someone owned a book does not prove that they read it, but it shows what the giver thought the recipient might be interested in. Where we know the owner commissioned or bought the book themselves, we can get a greater sense of their personal interests. Sometimes they added important events from their own lives to the calendars of saints’ lives in their prayer books.
Wills often include rich details about the objects people owned and valued as well as the people or religious houses that mattered to them. We have to be cautious in assessing these since they were semi-public documents and the authors were conscious of that. If someone is not specifically mentioned in a will this does not necessarily mean that they received nothing because testators (the wills’ authors) often gave extra instructions to their executors (the people in charge of carrying out the will) that have not survived.
You will swiftly find there are many more categories!
Using Primary Sources
When considering what a source is telling you, it is essential to start with a series of questions and each answer you arrive at has to be followed with ‘so what are the implications of that?’.
Those questions might include:
Who wrote it?
How close to the events were they?
What might their sources have been?
When was it written?
What had happened since the events described that might affect their account?
Do we know their political affiliation?
Might economic motives have shaped this?
Are they being entirely literal or is there metaphor or symbolism involved?
Who were they writing for and why?
What were the recipients’ political affiliations?
How much was the recipient likely to know already?
These are records produced outside living memory of the events, relying on the sort of primary sources described above. They might be a late sixteenth-century chronicle or play, a nineteenth-century painting, or a twenty-first century TV programme. The creators of secondary sources that were produced a long time ago might have had access to primary sources now lost to us, but may also include much later imaginative material or be re-writing the story as a comment on their own times. A work of ‘historical fiction’ (such as Shakespeare’s plays or a modern novel) can sometimes help us to think about problems from new angles and reconsider how we interpret our sources, but cannot be used as a record of what actually happened. It is important to remember that modern writers can sometimes be as susceptible as their fifteenth-century counterparts to imaginative over interpretation or loyalties and animosities toward particular historical characters which shape the way they present their argument.
There is no such thing as a neutral source (mistrust anyone who claims to be!). We are all shaped by our experiences and bring our ideological outlook to bear in those details of the story we consider significant, and on the types of sources we are most inclined to trust. That is why it is essential to read many different secondary sources, to check their use of primary sources, and to come to conclusions of our own.
Primary Sources Online
If you are examining soures in Middle English, you may find it helpful to refer to an online dictionary of Middle English.
You can find links to many online sources for the Wars of the Roses here.
The copyright of the images on this page belongs to the British Library who have placed them in the public domain. You can find out more about the manuscripts at the library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.