The Wars of the Roses (1455–1487) is the name generally given to the intermittent civil war fought over the throne of England between adherents of the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Both houses were branches of the Plantagenet royal house, tracing their descent from King Edward III. The name Wars of the Roses was not used at the time, but has its origins in the badges chosen by the two royal houses, the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York.
Shakespeare's Henry VI
, depicts the wars' beginning with the plucking of two roses in the Temple gardens in London
The Wars were fought largely by armies of mounted knights and their feudal retainers. The House of Lancaster found most of its support in the north and west of the country, while support for the House of York came mainly from the south and east. The Wars of the Roses, with their heavy casualties among the nobility, were a major factor in the weakening of the feudal power of the nobles, leading to the growth of a strong, centralised monarchy under the Tudors.
The disputed succession
The antagonism between the two houses started with the overthrow of King Richard II by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, in 1399. Being the issue of Edward III's third son John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke had a poor claim to the throne. According to precedent, the crown should have passed to the male descendants of Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III's second son. However, Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV. He was tolerated as king since Richard II's government had been highly unpopular. Bolingbroke died in 1413. His son and successor, Henry V, was a great soldier, and his military success against France in the Hundred Years' War, and his enormous popularity, enabled him to strengthen the Lancastrian hold on the reins of power. Henry V's short reign saw one conspiracy against him, led by Richard, Earl of Cambridge, a son of Edmund of Langley, the fourth son of King Edward III. Cambridge was executed in 1415 for treason at the start of the campaign leading up to the Battle of Agincourt. Cambridge's wife, Anne Mortimer, also had a claim to the throne, being descended from Lionel of Antwerp. Henry V died in 1422, and Richard, Duke of York, the son of Richard, Earl of Cambridge and Anne Mortimer, would grow up to challenge his successor, the feeble King Henry VI for the crown.
The Lancastrian King Henry VI of England was surrounded by unpopular regents and advisors. The most notable of these were Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset and William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk - who were blamed for mismanaging the government and poorly executing the continuing Hundred Years War with France. Under Henry VI virtually all of the English holdings in France, including the lands won by Henry V, had been lost. Henry VI had begun to be seen as a weak, ineffectual king. In addition, he suffered from embarrassing episodes of mental illness. By the 1450s many considered Henry incapable of rule. The short line of Lancastrian kings had already been plagued by questions of legitimacy, and the House of York believed that they had a stronger claim to the throne. Growing civil discontent, the abundance of feuding nobles with private armies, and corruption in Henry VI's court made the political climate ready for civil war.
When, in 1453, King Henry suffered the first of several bouts of mental illness, a Council of Regency was set up, headed in the role of Lord Protector by the powerful and popular Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and head of the House of York. Richard soon began to press his claim to the throne with ever greater boldness, imprisoning Somerset, and backing his allies, Salisbury and Warwick in a series of minor conflicts with powerful supporters of Henry like the Dukes of Northumberland. Henry's recovery in 1455 thwarted Richard's ambitions, and the Duke of York was soon after driven from the royal court by Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou. Since Henry was an ineffectual leader, the powerful and aggressive Queen Margaret emerged as the de facto leader of the Lancastrian faction. Queen Margaret built up an alliance against Richard and conspired with other nobles to reduce his influence. An increasingly thwarted Richard finally resorted to armed hostilities in 1455 at the First Battle of St Albans.
The initial phase 1455-60
Although armed clashes had broken out previously between supporters of King Henry and Richard Duke of York, the principal period of armed conflict in the Wars of the Roses took place between 1455 and 1485.
Richard, Duke of York, led a small force toward London, and was met by Henry VI's forces at St Albans, north of London, on May 22 1455. The relatively small First Battle of St Albans was the first open conflict of the civil war. Richard's aim was ostensibly to remove "poor advisors" from King Henry's side. The result was a defeat for the Lancastrians who lost many of their leaders including Somerset. York and his allies regained their position of influence, and for a while both sides seemed shocked that an actual battle had been fought and did their best at reconciliation. When Henry suffered another bout of mental illness, York was again appointed Protector and Margaret was charged with his care, having already been sidelined from decision-taking on the Council.
After the first Battle of St Albans, the compromise of 1455 enjoyed some success, with York remaining the dominant voice on the Council even after Henry's recovery. The problems which had caused conflict soon re-emerged, particularly the issue of whether the Duke of York, or Henry and Margaret's son, Edward, would succeed to the throne. Queen Margaret refused to accept any solution that would disinherit her son, and it became clear that she would only tolerate the situation for as long as the Duke of York and his allies retained the military ascendancy. Henry went on royal progress in the Midlands in 1456, and Margaret did not allow him to return to London -- the king and queen were popular in the Midlands but becoming ever more unpopular in London where merchants were angry at the decline in trade and widespread disorder. The king's court set up at Coventry. By then the new Duke of Somerset was emerging as a favourite of the royal court, filling his father's shoes. Margaret also persuaded Henry to dismiss the appointments York had made as Protector, while York himself was again made to return to his post in Ireland. Disorder in the capital and piracy on the south coast were growing, but the king and queen remained intent on protecting their own positions, with the queen introducing conscription for the first time in England. Meanwhile, York's ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, (later called "The Kingmaker"), was growing in popularity in London as the champion of the merchant classes.
Following the return of York from Ireland, hostilities resumed on September 23 1459 at the Battle of Blore Heath in Staffordshire, when a large Lancastrian army failed to prevent a Yorkist force under Lord Salisbury from marching from Middleham Castle in Yorkshire and linking up with York at Ludlow Castle. After a Lancastrian victory at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Edward the Earl of March (York's eldest son, later Edward IV of England), Salisbury ,and Warwick fled to Calais. The Lancastrians were now back in total control, and Somerset was appointed Governor of Calais. His attempts to evict Warwick were easily repulsed, and the Yorkists even began to launch raids on the English coast from Calais in 1459-60, adding to the sense of chaos and disorder.
By 1460, Warwick and the others were ready to launch an invasion of England, and rapidly established themselves in Kent and London, where they enjoyed wide support. Backed by a papal emissary who had taken their side, they marched north. Henry led an army south to meet them while Margaret remained in the north with Prince Edward. The Battle of Northampton on July 10 1460 proved disastrous for the Lancastrians. The Yorkist army under Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, aided by treachery in the Lancastrian ranks, was able to capture King Henry and take him prisoner to London.
The Act of Accord
In the light of this military success, York now moved to press his own claim to the throne based on the illegitimacy of the Lancastrian line. Landing in north Wales he entered London with his wife Cecily with all the ceremony usually reserved for a monarch. Parliament was assembled, and when York entered he made straight for the throne, which he may have been expecting the lords to encourage him to take for himself as they had Henry IV in 1399. Instead there was stunned silence. He announced his claim to the throne but the Lords, even Warwick and Salisbury, were shocked by his presumption; there was no appetite among them at this stage to overthrow King Henry. Their ambition was still limited to the removal of his bad councillors.
The next day, York produced detailed genealogies to support his claim based on his descent from Lionel of Antwerp and was met with more understanding. Parliament agreed to consider the matter and finally accepted that York's claim was better; but, by a majority of five, they voted that Henry should remain as king. A compromise was reached in the Act of Accord: Henry should remain king and York was recognised as the next in line to the throne after Henry, disinheriting Prince Edward altogether. York had to accept this compromise as the best on offer; it gave him much of what he desired, particularly since he was also made Protector of the Realm and was able to govern in Henry's name. Margaret was ordered out of London with Prince Edward. The Act of Accord proved unacceptable to the Lancastrians who rallied to Margaret, forming a large army in the north.
The Duke of York left London later that year with Lord Salisbury to consolidate his position in the north, arriving at Sandal Castle near Wakefield at Christmas 1460, but he soon found himself surrounded by a superior Lancastrian force under Queen Margaret. Opting for battle, his army was destroyed in the Battle of Wakefield. York was beheaded along with Salisbury and his son Rutland on December 30. Margaret ordered the placing of the heads of York, Rutland, and Salisbury on the gates of the city of York.
According to the Act of Accord, the events of Wakefield left Edward the Earl of March, York's eldest son, as Duke of York and heir to the throne. Salisbury's death meanwhile left Warwick, his heir, as the biggest landowner in England. Margaret travelled north to Scotland to continue negotiations for Scottish assistance. Queen Mary of Scotland agreed to provide Margaret with an army on condition that England cede the town of Berwick to Scotland and her daughter be betrothed to Prince Edward. Margaret agreed although she had no funds to pay her army with and could only promise unlimited booty from the riches of southern England, as long as no looting took place north of the river Trent. She took her army to Hull, recruiting more men as she went.
Edward of York, meanwhile, met Pembroke's army who were arriving from Wales and defeated them soundly at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in Shropshire. He inspired his men with a "vision" of three suns at dawn (a phenomenon known as "parhelion"), telling them that it was a portent of victory and represented the three surviving York sons -- himself, George and Richard. This led to Edward's later adoption of the sign of the sunne in splendour as his personal emblem.
Margaret was by now moving south, wreaking havoc as she progressed, her army supporting itself by looting the properties it overran as it passed through the prosperous south of England. In London, Warwick used this as propaganda to reinforce Yorkist support throughout the south -- the town of Coventry switching allegiance to the Yorkists. Warwick failed to start raising an army soon enough and was caught off-guard by the Lancastrians' early arrival at St Albans. At the Second Battle of St Albans the queen won the Lancastrians' most decisive victory yet, and recaptured King Henry, who knighted thirty of the Lancastrian soldiers immediately after the battle. As the Lancastrian army advanced southwards, a wave of dread swept London, where rumours were rife about the savage Northerners intent on plundering the city. The people of London shut the city gates and refused to supply food to the queen's army, who were looting the surrounding counties of Hertfordshire and Middlesex.
Edward was meanwhile advancing towards London from the west where he had joined forces with Warwick. Coinciding with the northward retreat by the queen to Dunstable, this allowed Edward and Warwick to enter London with their army. They were welcomed with enthusiasm, money and supplies by the largely Yorkist supporting city. Edward could no longer claim simply to be trying to wrest the king from his bad councillors. With his father and brother having been killed at Wakefield, this had become a battle for the crown itself. Edward now needed authority, and this seemed forthcoming when the Bishop of London asked the people of London their opinion and they replied with shouts of ‘King Edward’. This was quickly confirmed by parliament and Edward was unofficially crowned in a hastily arranged ceremony at Westminster Abbey amidst much jubilation. Edward and Warwick had thus captured London, the rest of the country was to prove less easy and Edward vowed he would not have a formal coronation until Henry and Margaret were executed or exiled. He also announced that Henry had forfeited his right to the crown by allowing his queen to take up arms against his rightful heirs under the Act of Accord, though it was by now becoming widely argued that Edward's victory was simply a restoration of the rightful heir to the throne, which neither Henry nor his Lancastrian predecessors had been. It was this argument which parliament had accepted as true the year before.
Edward and Warwick next marched north, gathering a large army as they went and met an equally impressive Lancastrian army at Towton. The Battle of Towton, near York, was the biggest battle of the Wars of the Roses thus far, and an estimated 80,000 men took part, with over 20,000 men killed, an enormous number for the time. The new King and his army won a decisive victory and the Lancastrians were decimated, most of their leaders being killed. Henry and Margaret who were waiting in York with Edward of Westminster fled north when they heard of the outcome. Many of the surviving Lancastrians nobles now switched allegiances to King Edward, and those who did not were driven back to the northern border areas and a few castles in Wales. Edward advanced to take York where he was confronted with the rotting heads of his father, brother and Salisbury, which were soon replaced with those of defeated Lancastrian Lords like the notorious Lord Clifford of Skipton-Craven who had ordered the execution of Edward's brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland after the Battle of Wakefield.
Henry and Margaret fled to Scotland where they stayed with the royal court of James III, implementing their earlier promise to cede Berwick to Scotland and leading an invasion of Carlisle later in the year. But lacking money, they were easily repulsed by the Edward's men who began rooting out the remaining Lancastrian forces in the northern counties. Edward IV's official coronation took place in June 1461 in London where he received a rapturous welcome from his supporters as the new King of England. Edward was able to rule in relative peace for ten years.
In the North, Edward could never really claim to have complete control until 1464, as apart from rebellions, several castles with their Lancastrian commanders held out for years. Dunstanburgh, Alnwick (the Percy family seat) and Bamburgh were some of the last to fall. The very last Lancastrian stronghold to surrender was the mighty fortress of Harlech (Wales) in 1468 after a seven year long siege. The deposed King Henry was captured in 1465 and held prisoner at the Tower of London where, for the time being, he was reasonably well treated.
There were two further Lancastrian revolts in 1464 the first clash was at the Battle of Hedgeley Moor on the 25 April and the second at the Battle of Hexham, on the 15th of May 1464. Both revolts were put down by Warwick's brother John Neville, 1st Marquess of Montagu.
Resumption of hostilities 1469-71
The period 1467-70 saw a marked and rapid deterioration in the relationship between King Edward and his former mentor, the powerful Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick - "the Kingmaker". This had several causes, but stemmed originally from Edward’s decision to marry Elizabeth Woodville in secret in 1464. Edward later announced the news of his marriage as a fait accompli to the considerable embarrassment of Warwick who had been negotiating a match between Edward and a French bride, convinced as he was of the need for an alliance with France. This embarrassment turned to bitterness when the Woodvilles came to be favoured over the Nevilles at court. Other factors compounded Warwick’s disillusionment: Edward’s preference for an alliance with Burgundy (over France), and Edward’s reluctance to allow his brothers George, Duke of Clarence and Richard, Duke of Gloucester to marry Warwick’s daughters Isabel Neville and Anne Neville. Furthermore, Edward’s general popularity was also on the wane in this period with higher taxes and persistant law and order problems.
By 1469 Warwick had formed an alliance with Edward’s jealous and treacherous brother George. They raised an army which defeated the king at the Battle of Edgecote Moor, and held Edward at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire. Warwick had the queen's father Richard Woodville, 1st Earl Rivers executed and forced Edward to summon a parliament at York at which it was planned that Edward would be declared illegitimate and the crown would thus pass to Clarence as Edward’s heir apparent. However, the country was in turmoil and Edward was able to call on the loyalty of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the majority of the nobles. Gloucester arrived at the head of a large force and liberated the King who was able to resume his position as king in London.
Warwick and Clarence were declared traitors and forced to flee to France, where in 1470 Louis XI of France was coming under pressure from the exiled Margaret of Anjou to help her invade England and regain her captive husband’s throne. It was King Louis who suggested the idea of an alliance between Warwick and Margaret, a notion which neither of the old enemies would at first entertain, but eventually came round to, realising the potential benefits. However, both were undoubtedly hoping for different outcomes: Warwick for a puppet king in the form of Henry or his young son; Margaret to be able to reclaim her family’s realm. In any case, a marriage was arranged between Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville and Margaret’s son, the former Prince of Wales, Edward of Westminster, and Warwick invaded England in the autumn of 1470.
This time it was Edward who was forced to flee the country when John Neville changed loyalties to support his brother Warwick. Edward was unprepared for the arrival of Neville's large force from the north and had to order his army to scatter. Edward and Gloucester fled from Doncaster to the coast and thence to Holland and exile in Burgundy. Warwick had already invaded from France and his plans to liberate and restore Henry VI to the throne came quickly to fruitition. Henry VI was paraded through the streets of London as the restored king in October and Edward and Richard were proclaimed traitors. Warwick's success was short-lived, however. He overreached himself with his plan to invade Burgundy with the King of France, tempted by King Louis' promise of territory in the Netherlands as a reward. This led Charles the Bold of Burgundy to assist Edward. He provided funds and an army to launch an invasion of England in 1471. Edward defeated Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. The remaining Lancastrian forces were destroyed at the Battle of Tewkesbury and Edward of Westminster, the Lancastrian heir to the throne, was killed. Henry VI was murdered shortly afterwards (14 May 1471), to strengthen the Yorkist hold on the throne.
The restoration of Edward IV in 1471 is sometimes seen as marking the end of the Wars of the Roses. Peace was restored for the remainder of Edward's reign, but the Yorkist king died suddenly in 1483, and political and dynastic turmoil erupted again. Under Edward IV, factions had developed between the queen's Woodville relatives (Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers and Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset) and others who resented the Woodvilles' new-found status at court and saw them as power-hungry upstarts and parvenus. At the time of Edward's sudden and premature death, his heir, Edward V, was only 12 years old. The Woodvilles were in position to influence the young king's future government since Edward V had been brought up under the stewardship of Earl Rivers in Ludlow. This was too much for many of the anti-Woodville faction to stomach, and in the struggle for the protectorship of the young king and control of the council the Duke of Gloucester, who had been named by Edward IV on his deathbed as Protector of England, came to be de facto leader of the anti-Woodville faction.
With the help of William Hastings and Henry Stafford, Gloucester captured the young king from the Woodvilles at Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire. Thereafter Edward V was kept under Gloucester's custody in the Tower of London, where he was later joined by his younger brother Richard. Having secured the boys, Richard then alleged that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been illegal, and that the two boys were therefore illegitimate. Parliament gave the throne to Richard III and the two princes in the tower disappeared and were possibly murdered; by whom and under whose orders remains one of the most controversial subjects in English history.
Since Richard was the finest general on the Yorkist side, many accepted him as a ruler better able to keep the Yorkists in power than a boy who would have had to rule through a committee of regents. Lancastrian hopes, on the other hand, now centred on Henry Tudor, whose father, Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond, had been an illegitimate half-brother of Henry VI. Henry's claim to the throne however was through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of Edward III, derived from John Beaufort, a grandson of Edward III's who was also the illegitimate son of John of Gaunt.
Henry Tudor's forces defeated Richard's at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and Henry Tudor became King Henry VII of England. Henry then strengthened his position by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and the best surviving Yorkist claimant. He thus reunited the two royal houses, merging the rival symbols of the red and white roses into the new emblem of the red and white Tudor Rose. Henry shored up his position by executing all other possible claimants whenever he could lay hands on them, a policy his son Henry VIII continued.
Many historians consider the accession of Henry VII to mark the end of the Wars of the Roses. Others argue that the Wars of the Roses concluded only with the Battle of Stoke in 1487, which arose from the appearance of a pretender to the throne, a boy named Lambert Simnel who bore a close physical resemblance to the young Earl of Warwick, the best surviving male claimant of the House of York. The pretender's plan was doomed from the start, because the young earl was still alive and in King Henry's custody, so no one could seriously doubt Simnel was an imposter. At Stoke, Henry defeated forces led by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln - who had been named by Richard III as his heir, but had been reconciled with Henry after Bosworth— thus effectively removing the remaining Yorkist opposition. Simnel was pardoned for his part in the rebellion and sent to work in the royal kitchens. maybe.
The following is a simplified family tree including members of the English royal family.
- Haigh, Philip A (1995). The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses. ISBN 0-75-090904-8
- Worth, Sandra (2003) "The Rose of York: Love & War" ISBN 0-9751264-0-7 A richly portrayed and extremely readable novelized account of the Wars of the Roses. See Sandra Worth
- Weir, Alison (1998). Lancaster and York: the Wars of the Roses. ISBN 0-71-266674-5
Last updated: 08-07-2005 22:13:37