Matthew Lewis Interview
Matthew Lewis is an author and historian with a passion for the Wars of the Roses, the reign of Richard III and the Tudors. He has written several books on Richard III and the Wars of the roses. Lewis has a law degree and currently lives in England. I am very honoured to be able to interview Matthew about his books on the Wars of the Roses and Richard of York and would like to give him a very heartfelt thank you for his time.
What inspired you to write about the Wars of the Roses and England during this period?
I’ve been fascinated by it for years and there is a never ending well of snippets to learn and stories to tell. It is a deeply complex period and so much relies on trying to understand the motives of the vast array of individuals, families and factions, yet their real motives are lost to us. All we can do is try to discern the likely reasons that they behaved the way they did, which leaves room for interpretation and endless debate. Even the duration of the Wars of the Roses is hard to define. Traditionally it has been dated from 1455 to 1485, but this ignores important events years before and decades after these dates, not to mention that the throne was not contested until 1460.
What person or persons do you find most fascinating from the Wars of the Roses?
There are so many fascinating characters. My boring answer would be Richard III, who has held my interest for an age now, and his father Richard, Duke of York, who I think is deeply misunderstood and misrepresented. Margaret Beaufort was an incredible woman who demands admiration, though I can’t quite bring myself to like her. She led a terrible early life, married off, pregnant and a widow at fourteen. Although her life became more settled, she was separated from her son for most of his life until he returned to take the throne aged 28, in no small part because of his mother’s work.
John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford probably deserves more attention too. His father and older brother were executed by Edward IV and he was never reconciled to the Edwardian regime. He appears to have been willing to support Edward’s brother George, so the grudge was very personal. He took to piracy and invaded St Michael’s Mount off the Cornish coast, holding it for over six months before being forced to surrender. After years in prison, he managed to escape and join Henry Tudor and it was Oxford who commanded Tudor’s armies at Bosworth and Stoke Field.
How did you go about researching for your book “The Wars of the Roses”?
I really wanted to try and combine telling a broad story with offering some less well known stories to offer something different. I also wanted to try and use primary sources wherever possible to get back into the confusion of the times and polish off some of the hindsight that has tarnished our view of much of the period and many of the characters. Fortunately, there are plenty of chronicles, parliamentary records and patent rolls that remain to give the views of monks, Londoners and the administration. There are also the Paston Letters which give a unique view of personal lives during the period. From these various sources with all of their bias I tried to wheedle out something as close to the truth as I could get.
The internet has made researching so much easier and more accessible that much of it can be done at home in front of a screen, though sometimes you can’t beat getting out and visiting places to get a feel for what you are studying. I can’t get enough of visiting Ludlow, for example. Walking around the remains of the castle it is a source of constant inspiration to think that Richard, Duke of York, his wife Cecily, Edward IV, Richard III, George, Duke of Clarence, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and his son the famous Kingmaker Earl of Warwick were all there at the same time in 1459, walking the walls and strolling around the inner ward.
Do you believe that Richard, Duke of York ever desired the throne for himself?
I don’t know for sure, since he very rudely forgot to leave his diary somewhere I could find it, but I’ve never really felt that the traditional, ambitious view of him fit the facts and the more I studied his life the more I became convinced. For one thing, if we were to accept the prevailing view of many versions from Victorian armchair historians onwards that Richard coveted the throne on his return from Ireland in 1450, it took until 1460 for him to make any claim on it. That hardly fits the model of an insatiably ambitious man. It is easy to forget, or cynically discount, the notion that Richard believed he had a duty to the realm as a result of his privileged position and that he acted in what he saw as the best interests of the kingdom and even of Henry VI. Only when he was backed into a corner and left with nothing to lose did he make a play for throne. It was an absolute last resort, not a first.
What are your thoughts surrounding the reasons behind King Henry VI’s bouts of ill health?
It’s hard to diagnose anything specific at this distance, especially with mental conditions that were not understood at the time. The closest anyone seems to be able to get is the suggestion of schizophrenic catatonia. Henry’s maternal grandfather was Charles VI of France, known as Charles the Mad. Charles was prone to bouts of violent illness. He killed several courtiers during outbursts and frequently believed that he was made of glass and would shatter if anyone touched him. He would fail to recognise his wife and children and run himself into exhaustion fleeing from imagined enemies. It seems highly likely that Henry inherited his illness from his grandfather and although his variation was usually catatonic rather than violent, he displayed moments of exceptional ruthlessness at points that might be attributable to his illness.
It is worth considering whether this blood line had any further bearing on English history. Henry’s mother was also the mother of Edmund and Jasper Tudor, the line leading to Henry VII, Henry VIII and the other Tudor and Stuart monarchs. Henry VII grew notoriously miserly and paranoid in old age and Henry VIII was certainly less than stable at times.
What is one of the greatest misconceptions you believe some people have regarding the events of the Wars of the Roses?
I think most people simplify it as a 30 year struggle between York and Lancaster for the throne. The feud between the royal houses was only a small part of the story and fuel was poured onto the smouldering embers to suit the designs of other families. The feud in the north between the Percy and Neville families and that in the south west between the Courtenay and Bonville families was far more bitter and long running and each had much to gain by their side winning. Smaller feuds like the Stanley and Harrington fight over Hornby Castle and the Paston clan being bombarded inside Caister Castle sprang up everywhere and those with scores to settle used the civil unrest to do it, giving those struggling to get their way in the courts a vested interest in its perpetuation. This was a long-brewing and long-running series of disputes throughout every layer of gentry, nobility and royalty as feudal society, already corrupted into bastard feudalism, crumbled once and for all. The nobility of England had been at odds with the crown in varying degrees for 300 years by the time the Wars of the Roses saw the final, bloody conflict.
Can you give us your thoughts on King Edward VI’s alleged pre contract and how this affected his son’s legitimate claim to the throne?
That really is the six-million-dollar question! If there was a pre-contract, Richard III was the rightful, legitimate king. If there wasn’t, he unseated the rightful, legitimate king. That also leaves room for the possibility that he was tricked into believing in the pre-contract and taking the throne. There is one question that we can answer with confidence: is it likely that Edward IV would have married in secret? Well, yes. That’s precisely what he did with Elizabeth Woodville. Is it feasible that he did it more than once? Yes. It would’ve been reckless in the extreme, but he was a young king, created in war by the death of his father and brother. Perhaps he made a mistake. Perhaps he made more than one. It certainly appears that the pre-contract story was believable enough in June 1483 to see Richard widely backed as king. The high attendance at his coronation demonstrates that much.
It may well be that the lack of appetite for a minority contributed to Edward V’s failure to be crowned too. Although he was older than previous child kings such as Henry III, Richard II and Henry VI, the problems of a minority government were stark. Factionalism was rife even before Richard arrived in London, with the Woodvilles making a grab for power and attempting to exclude Richard as Protector. Add to that the fact the Louis XI had just recently reneged on the Treaty of Picquigny, which not only cost a large portion of the income Edward IV had relied on for years but also signalled the potential for war with France, and a child king with squabbling factions orbiting him was not what the country needed. I’m not suggesting that this was a legitimate reason to remove Edward V, only that there were many factors at work which contributed to what happened and Edward’s age and his mother’s family’s grip on him may have made him a less than attractive prospect to many.
It is often said that the timing of the revelation about the pre-contract is too convenient. I would argue that it was anything but. It put Richard in the difficult position of unseating a twelve-year-old boy and if it was Bishop Stillington who revealed it, would he have been able to do so while Edward IV was alive and vengeful? I would imagine that if someone like Stillington had the secret it required Edward IV’s death for it to be revealed and perhaps the impending coronation of an illegitimate child to prick the conscience of an aging clergyman.
It seems likely, though, that we may never know the truth.
Can you describe your ‘writing area’?
I have an office where I’m lucky enough to be able to spread out a bit. I tend to start with a nice, neat tidy desk and it gradually gets messier and messier with books, notes and bits of paper until I can’t stand the mess anymore and have to tidy it up again. That’s kind of my cycle of researching and writing – mess, tidy, repeat.
What advice do you have for up and coming authors?
Be brave and be persistent. The first rounds of criticism, which are inevitable, will hurt. It’s impossible not to take it personally when it’s work that you’ve put so much of yourself into, but you have to find a way to process it, learn from it if you can, and move on. Sometimes when my fiction gets bad reviews I console myself by going on Amazon and looking at the reviews of the Harry Potter books. That proves you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
I started off by self-publishing my fiction books on Amazon because I thought no one would like them. Some people didn’t, but apparently more people did. I started a blog and made an effort to create a presence on Twitter and Facebook. I kept myself to those three mediums so that it was manageable and in the end a publisher contacted me through my blog. If you want to get noticed, you have to keep at it; not just writing books but creating a presence.
The only way to improve your writing is practise and in the process you’ll make mistakes and your mistakes will attract the attention of those perhaps less charitable than you might like. You have to take it and grow stronger from it. In the end, it will improve you.
What’s next for Matthew Lewis?
I’m starting a book next on the theories surrounding the survival of the Princes in the Tower. I thought it would be fun to court a bit of controversy (for fun, read terrifying and for bit, read loads and loads!). I’ve got a couple of ideas for fictional novels I’d like to write and I’ve been asked to give a few talks later this year and next year, so I’ve got lots of prep to do for those.
I’d like to tackle something in the Tudor period too soon. It’s a period that fascinates me and there are so many characters and events to look at. It follows on nicely from the Wars of the Roses so would be a natural progression and I could apply what I’ve learned about the period before the Tudors to try and understand how it influenced their dynasty’s time in power.
Does it count as any kind of exclusive news if no one is interested? I doubt it, but here goes anyway. I’ve just handed in my notice at work so that I can have a stab at writing full time. I hope it will work out, but only time will tell. At least I’ll be able to say I gave it my best shot.
Again I would like to say a very big THANK YOU to Matthew Lewis for taking part in this interview. His books on The Wars of the Roses and Richard, Duke of York are absolutely brilliant and I would strongly recommend adding them do your book shelf! If you’d like to find out more about Matthew or purchase any of his books please follow the links below: