Kelly Midgley on ‘Transitions, Fractures, and Fragments’ and the Problem of Periodisation

In a recent blog post, Michael Ovens argued for the continued necessity of delineating our past in order to understand it. On the whole, periodisation does indeed remain a useful tool for historians to deconstruct the transitions, fractures, and fragments that took place throughout history. Nevertheless, it is not an approach which we should rely on entirely. The way in which we define different periods of history, dividing a continuous narrative into a series of epochs, is informed largely by our own sensibilities and interests. I propose that we may see this, to some extent, when looking at the example of the Wars of the Roses.

We already know that the term ‘Wars of the Roses’ is an anachronism, first used by Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth century, but how do we know when this politically tumultuous period started? Many associate the Wars of the Roses with the most turbulent fighting that took place between 1455 and 1461, and again from 1470 to 1471, but it has also been argued that the conflict started with the deposition of Richard II in 1399, two generations earlier. The question of when the Wars of the Roses ended is similarly difficult to answer. Henry VI was deposed for the last time in 1471, and Edward IV had not only secured the throne for himself, but also ensured succession with the birth of his son, Edward.

On the other hand, most history books identify the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 as a decisive date both for the end of the Wars of the Roses and the conclusion of the ‘Middle Ages’. This seems like a reasonable notion, but this battle came after a relatively peaceful period of more than twelve years, and concerned a separate set of issues linked only by ties to the Houses of York and Lancaster, and the English throne. The succession of Henry VII was not free of opposition either. Some scholars consider that the Wars of the Roses did not end decisively until 1487, when the final rebellions were quelled. However, by that same argument it may be said that they did not end until the death of the pretender, Perkin Warbeck in 1499, or even Henry’s own demise a decade later.

The main point that I wish to emphasise is that the way in which we determine when the Wars of the Roses started and ended depends entirely on the issues that we believe are most important. If it is considered specifically as the ongoing conflict between Henry VI and Richard of York, then later his son Edward IV, then we may use 1455-61 and 1470-71. On the other hand, one might consider the Wars of the Roses as a broader period where the nature of kingship evolved dramatically, encompassing all of the underlying issues and continuations, in which case those earlier and later dates would be more appropriate. The key point to remember is, as Michael suggested earlier, the divisions that we construct are only guides to aid our own understanding. As historians, we know that Rome was not built in a day, nor did it fall in a day. We know that on 26 August 1485, most people in England were probably still unaware that there was a new king, much less that they were experiencing the beginning of what we now call the Early Modern period. Historical divisions are indeed a necessary part of studying history, but we must remember that they were not universal, and may therefore serve only to oversimplify the nuances of the past, when not used carefully, with qualification.

CALL FOR PAPERS: Ceræ is currently inviting submissions to its second issue, which is themed ‘Transitions, Fractures, and Fragments’. For further details, visit

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