What Doesn’t Kill You Kills Again: A Game of Thrones in the War of the Roses

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger Haunts You Again

In a war, you can only be killed once.
But in politics, many times.

Winston Churchill

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…” Try singing Kelly Clarkson’s hit song to any of the great lords fighting during the War of the Roses, and you would be shown the door if you are extremely lucky, or you would be shown the chopping block in the average case.

“What doesn’t kill you haunts you again” is more like it for the nobility who fought for power – and their lives – during the infamous war that plagued England in the 15th century.

Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about the War of the Roses – that described me with 100% accuracy a mere 24 hours ago (and still with a 95% accuracy rate now). No prerequisite knowledge of history is required.

Think of the War of Roses as a (Super Messy) Game of Thrones

“Wait a second,” some of you may interject, “What happened during the War of the Roses? Actually, what is the War of the Roses? Oh and did I mention I am a very busy person with very little time for a long, dry & boring history textbook.”

For those time-conscious readers, check out this 10-minute video that gives you all the basic facts on the war. No need to panic when you hear a dozen names & titles – just think of the War of Roses as a super messy Game-of-Thrones. As a matter of fact, Game of Thrones was inspired by the War and Medieval politics!

“The War of Roses” in 10-minutes

The Culprit = The King Puppet Who Could / Would Not Make Decisions?

Imagine a king who could not make decisions.

Moreover, imagine a king who would not make decisions – even if given every right to do so. Such was what king Henry VI of England was like: ” What Henry was not…was firm and decisive. In fact, humility and malleability were his defining characteristics. He preferred, whenever possible, to let others make the decision for him.

How did that go? As you would imagine, well, not very well:

This, right here, was the central problem of the English political system: royal government required Henry VI to make decisions. He was categorically, permanently incapable of doing that.
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Henry’s incapability was a poison that seeped outward from his person into the royal household, and from there, into the royal government and the kingdom as a whole. This was a slower and more subtle poison than the tyrannical rule of a bad king…

“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I

England had a dormant king. A sleeping king that cannot and would not be awaken. A king that turned his back on his kingdom.

“The reason for this (war) has to do with the nature of the English government. This was monarchy. And the king ruled. It sounds basic but it is worth repeating: the king ruled. (“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I)” The lack of a royal will was the root cause for the chaos that ensued over legitimacy of decisions and struggles over power allocation. The king’s silence – or more like his inability to make speeches of intellect – sent the country down a slippery slope that culminated in decades of instability.

Royal authority was the basic driving force of medieval government.
The structures & institutions of government…didn’t form a bureaucratic machine that could act of its own accord.
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Government simply channeled and enabled royal authority. It took for granted that there would be a royal will at the center of it.

“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I

Luckily, the Duke of Suffolk stepped in and made decisions on behalf of the king. This was not in itself a bad thing. However, the legitimacy of such decisions was under constant attack, and Suffolk’s actions were seen as ” in and of itself partisan, because he had allies and retainers and people who were connected to him by patronage. Would he pick a side, that was not the king’s impartial justice – it was the political act of a major noble. The result was a series of local conflicts. (“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I )”

War = A Force that Divides or A Propaganda that Unites?

It is common to think of war as a brutal, divisive force – it is the eruption of conflicts that releases its pressure via bloodshed. However, the seemingly contradictory yet deeply logical argument is that war unites otherwise divided parties against a common enemy:

Kings were supposed to make war, and war bounds together the king with his nobles with a common sense of purpose and direction.
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Since war was expensive and had to be paid for, which meant taxation through parliament, this too created a sense of national political community of general investment in the conflict.

“Tides of History” podcast, The War of the Roses I

War is an opportunity for groups that used to oppose one another to find common ground – in their common enemy. Groups that disagree on what to go after could agree on what to fight against. This tactic of diverting attention away from domestic issues internal to a system to foreign problems external to a system is seen throughout history to this day.

Today, the term “diversionary foreign policy” refers to “a war instigated by a country’s leader in order to distract its population from their own domestic strife (Wikipedia)”. Diversionary wars also serve to accentuate the (perceived) importance of a leader, who is seen as the figurehead that unites domestic forces against a foreign enemy. As a consequence, victory out of a diversionary war is effective in solidifying the legitimacy of the leader.

War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.

Carl von Clausewitz

Back to Churchill’s quote at the start on politics kills many times – politics is a never-ending war with no triumph that is constant and with no threat that is fleeting.

The War of Roses is a vivid example of how politics is a Game of Thrones, a House of Cards that each and every one of us plays at a different scale every single day. And let’s play our best hand, hoping that Kelly Clarkson’s song has some truth to it: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger at the end of the day.