Jasper Tudor: Dynasty Maker
(Amberly Publishing, 2014) 423pp. $20.00
Given the widespread interest in the Tudor dynasty of England and its important figures, it is striking that no one had yet written a book on Jasper Tudor, the paternal uncle of Henry VII, and a man of immense importance in serving as a father figure to the future king, besides an able counselor and a skilled general. The author, in writing this biography, draws heavily from a variety of sources that do not often receive a great deal of attention, from the songs of Welsh bards seeking a removal of their second-hand status to various Parliamentary and royal documents that demonstrate patronage as well as responsibilities, and the complicated diplomatic dispatches between England, Burgundy, France, and Brittany during the period where Jasper and Henry VII were hostages of the Bretons while the Yorkists ruled over England. Although the book is a straightforward biography in the sense that it follows a chronological order, the author spends far more time than most demonstrating the sources that he uses to come to his conclusions and interpretations.
For many readers, this book has a demanding prose style that requires the ability to recognize people by a variety of names, as well as the complicated family and marriage relationships between the high nobility of England, names that vary whether they are written in English or in Welsh, or in Norman French, for people that are known by a variety of titles at different times in the history. For example, Jasper Tudor spent most of his life as the Earl of Pembroke, but during the Yorkist period, when he was attained as a traitor, someone else was also named Earl of Pembroke, while at the beginning of his life, Jasper was known by a variety of names such as Jasper ap Meredith ap Tydier, and at the end of his life, after the success of his nephew at the Battle of Bosworth, he was known as the Duke of Bedford, as well as the nominal Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. All of these titles must be kept in mind by the reader, and while this is an immensely rewarding task in understanding the complexity of identity for the early Tudors and their contemporaries, it places a lot of demands on the concentration and memory of readers.
In pointing out the importance of Jasper Tudor to the success of the cause of his nephew, the author writes in this manner: “Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, must have trained Henry for Battle while they were in Brittany. The young man had never really experienced battle, except at Edgcote when he was not yet thirteen. Jasper, on the other hand, was an experienced soldier, having been at the first Battle of St Albans and having led the army at Mortimer’s Cross.” (212) Likewise, the author is prone to making long quotes of his sources about Jasper Tudor, even including sources about supposed ghost sightings: “The couple also spent time at Thornbury Castle. Its best known ghost is said to be that of Jasper Tudor. In Jasper’s day, the area on the first floor of the castle now occupied by offices was said to be reserved for gentleman only. The castle is now a hotel and restaurant and its website tells us the following: It seems that Jasper is unhappy that today’s office ladies have invaded his space, and makes his presence felt. He turns on the photocopier and pushes object off shelves – once he dropped a first aid box from the top shelf right in front of Julie, former PA to the Baron of Portlethen. A clairvoyant who visited the offices claimed she could see Jasper Tudor, dressed in a long dark coat and a pointed hat, indicating to her to keep her distance. Interestingly, a quieter time was enjoyed by all when there was a man working in the office.” (276) Given that Jasper was unable to marry until a few years before his death, and given the long period of time he spent as a military leader or in exile, largely around the company of men, it is perhaps unsurprising that others would suspect his supposed ghost of being a bit uncomfortable with the presence of ladies.
The paucity of punctuation marks in this book and the justification used to give the book even columns add a bit to the challenge of reading this book, as is the way that the author uses a lot of Welsh names. The use of the Welsh language and Welsh spelling is not without a purpose: the author has previously published works on Welsh leaders against the Plantagenet rulers of England to regain their freedom, and this book shows that part of Jasper’s success as well as that of his nephew was as a result of their identity as part-Welsh descendants of notable Welsh royal houses, including the last independent Lord of Rhys before the conquest of Wales. By showing of the importance of the Welsh and their desire for freedom and dignity to the rise of the Tudors from obscurity and exile to rulership over the British Isles, the author shows appreciation for a people whose history and whose ambitions he clearly treasures and understands.
Among the mysteries that the author wrestles with in this book is how it was possible for Henry VII to gain the support of enough lords to meet Richard III on a fairly even basis at Bosworth, which was largely thanks to the alienation of a large number of lords from Richard III. Over and over again in the book, the author questions and critiques the claims of various Ricardian historians who seek to present Richard III as a popular and noble ruler, while the author points to his likely murder of the young princes in the tower and the resulting alienation of the Woodvilles and other bulwarks of his late brother’s regime, which allowed the Tudors, with their small force, to defeat Richard III and take the crown by force. Throughout most of English history, after all, all but the most unpopular of monarchs were able to successfully manage the turbulent uprisings, except for rulers like Richard II, Henry VI, Richard III, and (not discussed in this book), James II, all of whom were either deeply unpopular or incompetent military leaders, or both. In presenting the essential moderation of Henry VII’s regime, and in portraying Jasper as important as an advisor as well as a general, the author makes a place for Jasper’s importance in the reestablishment of good government to England and Wales after the turbulence of the Wars of the Roses.
Yet, ultimately, the goal of this book is to bring Jasper Tudor, a man of capability as a general and advisor, a man of humanity and decency, and in many ways both an accomplished high noble as well as a friend and associate of Welsh patriots, into the familiarity of audiences who are fond of the Wars of the Roses. Although prolonged periods of war and exile made it impossible for Jasper to bring forth any children, his job as a foster father of his nephew Henry VII ought to be enough, given his accomplishments, to give him a place of honored memory as one of the most important figures of the Wars of the Roses as well as the early Tudor period. By showing how his contemporaries valued him, the author does great work in bringing this history to the attention of current audiences through this comprehensive and detailed book, one that richly rewards those who pay attention to its contents and who reflect on the importance of personal magnetism as well as ethnic and family identity to success for rulers in the early Modern period of Europe. Those students of history with an existing interest in the Wars of the Roses and their impact in the larger European context will find a lot of interest here, especially given the obscurity of the book’s subject matter to most of this audience.