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The Wars of the Roses: Medieval England's Climactic Conflict

House York and House Lancaster fought a war for the English throne that raged for 30 years. Its conclusion heralded a new dawn for England.

Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field; the climactic battle of the Wars of the Roses.

Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field; the climactic battle of the Wars of the Roses.

The year is 1455. The Hundred Years' War between England and France is over, but it ended with a series of humiliating defeats for the English. They have lost almost all the territory they once held on the continent.

This has severely undermined the authority of King Henry VI, who is already perceived as a weak and paranoid monarch.

He is believed to be under the control of his French wife, Margaret of Anjou. English noblemen chafe at being ruled by a woman, and a foreigner at that.

The situation is ripe for a powerful noble to make a play for power, and Richard, Duke of York, fits the bill. He is a rich and competent commander with plenty of admirers in court. Most worryingly for Margaret, he has a strong claim to the throne.

Tensions mount as Richard and Margarette vie for influence over the king. The rivalry becomes a power struggle, and the power struggle explodes into a civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York that would rage for decades.

King Henry VI  was perceived as a weak and ineffective king. His mental health deteriorated significantly as the conflict progressed.

King Henry VI was perceived as a weak and ineffective king. His mental health deteriorated significantly as the conflict progressed.

The roots of the war

The seeds of the conflict were actually sewn in 1399 when Henry of House Lancaster overthrew King Richard II and ascended the throne as Henry IV.

They were both grandsons of King Edward III (reigned 1327 — 1377), but Richard II was the son of Edward III's eldest son, while Henry was the son of Edward III's third-eldest son.

The line of succession was supposed to run through the eldest living child, but that rule was now broken. Henry IV claimed Richard II was illegitimate to try and justify his usurpation, but the damage had been done.

Now anyone descended from King Edward III could make a play for the throne, if they had the political and military support to back it up. This made things complicated since King Edward III had nine sons, who had sons of their own (including bastard sons).

Despite this, Henry IV managed to retain the throne. His son Henry V was a popular king, so his claim was not called into question.

But Henry VI was an unpopular king, so the actions of his grandfather would come back to haunt him.

Richard of York was descended through his mother's side from Edward III's second-eldest son. Inheriting through the maternal line was not ideal, but it was allowed. This was good enough for the lords seeking an alternative to Henry VI.

Note See an English version of the below family tree at Britannica.

York and Lancaster family tree. (Jindřich is the Czech version of the English name Henry).

York and Lancaster family tree. (Jindřich is the Czech version of the English name Henry).

The romantic appeal of the Wars of the Roses

The twists and turns of the Wars of the Roses can be rather difficult to keep track of. There are lots of key players, many of them with similar titles. If your name was Henry, Edward or Richard, you were likely to sit on the throne at some point during the conflict.

For the purpose of clarity, the war can be divided into five phases:

Phase one Richard of York vs Margaret of Anjou (1455 — 1460)
Phase two
Richard's son Edward vs Margaret of Anjou (1460 — 1461)
Phase three
Edward vs Margaret of Anjou Part II (1470 — 1471)
Phase four
Richard III vs the Woodvilles (1483)
Phase five
Richard III vs Henry Tudor (1485)

The conflict makes for a great story. It has everything. Battles, betrayals, political intrigue, a classic villain in Richard III, and an unlikely hero in Henry Tudor.

William Shakespeare romanticised the conflict with his plays Henry VI and Richard III. The name of the war originates from a scene in Henry VI, where the noble houses of England pledge their allegiance to York or Lancaster by picking a white rose (for York) or red rose (for Lancaster) from the temple garden.

The Wars of the Roses were brutal and decidedly lacking in chivalry. Battles were followed by mass executions, and many noble houses went extinct.

And here I prophesy: this brawl today,
Grown to this faction in the Temple garden,
Shall send, between the red rose and the white,
A thousand souls to death and deadly night

- Henry VI Part 1, Act 2

Henry Payne's painting depicts the scene from Shakespeare's "Henry VI" where the lords of England declare their allegiance to the red or white rose.

Henry Payne's painting depicts the scene from Shakespeare's "Henry VI" where the lords of England declare their allegiance to the red or white rose.

Phase one: Richard of York vs Margaret of Anjou (1455 — 1460)

Margaret of Anjou feared the threat posed by Richard of York, so she tried to sideline him. Richard grew increasingly frustrated with this treatment, and in 1455, decided enough was enough. Supported by powerful nobles such as the Duke of Warwick (later known as Warwick the Kingmaker), he rallied his forces and marched on London.

Things started off well with victory at the Battle of St. Albans, but the tide gradually turned against Richard, and in 1460, Yorkist forces were routed at the Battle of Wakefield. Richard fell in battle, and Margaret ordered that his head be severed and displayed with a paper crown atop it.

Henry Tresham's depiction of Warwick the Kingmaker, a key figure in the Wars of the Roses.

Henry Tresham's depiction of Warwick the Kingmaker, a key figure in the Wars of the Roses.

Phase two: Richard's son Edward takes up the fight (1460 — 1461)

Margaret's victory was short-lived. York's charismatic son and heir Edward, along with younger brothers George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III), rose up to avenge their father's death. They joined forces with Warwick, and pushed back the Lancastrians.

The conflict came to a head at the Battle of Towton; the bloodiest battle ever to occur on English soil. Around 40,000 men fought in bitter snowy conditions, with the death toll numbering 28,000. Edward emerged victorious, ascending the throne as Edward IV, while Henry VI fled into exile with Margaret and their son.

Richard Caton Woodville's depiction of the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.

Richard Caton Woodville's depiction of the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.

Phase three: The Lancastrians Strike Back (1470 — 1471)

Edward IV's reign brought relative peace and stability to the realm. However, all was not well in the royal court.

Warwick the Kingmaker had helped Edward seize the throne, and now sought to influence his decisions, including who he should marry. He planned to form a union with France by wedding Edward to King Louis XI's sister.

As such, Warwick was most displeased when he found out that Edward had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville instead, whose family was perceived as low-born.

This was a politically disastrous decision with profound consequences for the realm.

Edward IV heaped favours on Elizabeth Woodville's family. Warwick grew increasingly frustrated with the situation, as did Edward's younger brothers, George and Richard. Meanwhile, Margaret of Anjou plotted her husband's return to power.

Warwick's betrayal

By 1470, tensions were at boiling point, culminating in a dramatic turn of events. Warwick and George defected to the Lancastrian side, joining forces with Margaret of Anjou (Richard, to his credit, remained loyal to Edward).

Warwick the KIngmaker and George of Clarence launched a two-pronged attack, forcing Edward to abandon London and seek sanctuary in Burgundy. Henry VI was returned to the throne. The Lancastrians were back in power.

But not for long. George of Clarence changed sides again, rejoining his brothers. They marched back into London unopposed and took Henry VI prisoner.

Margaret's forces were still stuck on the continent, their invasion delayed by bad weather. This left Warwick isolated. Edward IV destroyed his army at the Battle of Barnet (Warwick was slain during the battle).

Margaret's forces finally landed in England, only to be defeated at the Battle of Tewksbury. Margaret was captured and her son slain during the battle. Shortly after, Henry VI died in imprisonment (the official cause of death was melancholy, but Edward IV probably ordered him killed).

York was back in power again, and the Lancastrians were well and truly defeated. With Henry VI and his son dead, who was left to take up the Lancastrian cause?

It turns out there was someone after all, but that's a tale for later.

After defecting from York to Lancaster, Warwick the Kingmaker submits to Margaret of Anjou.

After defecting from York to Lancaster, Warwick the Kingmaker submits to Margaret of Anjou.

Phase four: The ascension of Richard III (1483)

Peace was restored to the realm, for a time. Edward IV, who had been a handsome and charismatic warrior in his youth, grew increasingly fat and paranoid.

In 1478, he accused his brother George of conspiring against him (which may have been true, considering George's ever-shifting loyalties). The Duke of Clarence was executed, supposedly by being drowned in a barrel of malmsey wine (an embellishment, no doubt).

Richard of Gloucester, who had been loyal to his brother Edward throughout the conflict, remained on good terms with the king; but his resentment for the Woodvilles festered.

Edward IV's gluttony brought about his premature death in 1483. On his deathbed, he named Richard Protector of the Realm, and regent for his two young sons (also named Edward and Richard).

He was unable (or unwilling) to realise the potential consequences of the rift between Richard and the Woodvilles. This has to go down as an act of criminal negligence on his part. His death sparked a power struggle that reignited the Wars of the Roses.

The Princes in the tower

Richard of Gloucester went to collect his two young nephews, but instead of crowning young Edward as Edward V, he ushered them into the Tower of London (supposedly for their protection).

Then, in a dramatic turn of events, he claimed that the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville had never actually occurred, rendering his nephews illegitimate and making himself heir to the throne. Thus began the reign of Richard III.

Then came one of the most notorious events in British history. Edward IV's sons, supposedly imprisoned in the tower, disappeared without a trace.

What became of the princes has been the subject of debate ever since. The obvious explanation is that Richard III ordered their deaths, but some historians insist that he was framed, or that the princes escaped.

Either way, the prevailing belief at the time was that Richard III had murdered his own nephews. Killing children was controversial even by medieval standards; let alone your own flesh and blood.

The realm erupted at the news of this unspeakable crime. Many of Richard III's allies turned against him. He responded in a ruthless fashion, crushing rebellions and ordering mass executions.

The realm was in the grip of a child-murdering tyrant. Who would the people turn to for salvation?

John Everett Millais' depiction of the princes in the tower.

John Everett Millais' depiction of the princes in the tower.

Phase five: Henry Tudor vs Richard III (1485)

Henry Tudor had not even been born yet when the Wars of the Roses began, and no one could have predicted that he would one day be heir to the Lancastrian dynasty.

He was half-Welsh (his father was Owen Tudor, a Welsh squire). His claim was through his mother, who was descended from a bastard brother of King Henry IV. It all seemed rather iffy, at first glance.

But this bastard brother had been legitimised by Henry IV, and Henry IV's own line had ended with the death of Henry VI. Anyone else who might have had a stronger claim than Henry Tudor had also died during the conflict.

Most importantly of all, the realm needed an alternative to Richard III.

Richard III's enemies rallied behind young Henry Tudor. The King of France, who had been sheltering Henry, lent him political and financial support; and Henry sealed the deal by pledging to marry Edward IV's eldest daughter. This brought Yorkists who had rebelled against Richard III to Henry's side.

The Battle of Bosworth Field

Henry Tudor landed his army in Wales and marched on London. The Welsh viewed him as a messianic figure, come to avenge the Celts against their English oppressors. He even took Y Ddraig Goch (the red dragon of Wales) as his banner.

Richard III rushed to confront this upstart, and at Bosworth Field, they met in a battle that would determine the fate of England.

Richard's army was double the size of his opponent, but matters took a turn when one of his key allies, Lord Stanley, betrayed him. As the battle turned against him, he launched a last-ditch charge at Henry Tudor, cutting down his standard-bearer and almost reaching the Lancastrian leader himself. At this point, Lord Stanley entered the fray, slamming into Richard's flank.

Richard III was cut down, the last English king to fall in battle. Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII, the first Tudor king. He married Edward IV's daughter, thereby uniting the houses of York and Lancaster and ending the conflict once and for all.

This pretty lad will prove our country's bliss.
His looks are full of peaceful majesty,
His head by nature framed to wear a crown,
His hand to wield a scepter, and himself
Likely in time to bless a regal throne.

- Henry VI, upon seeing a young Henry Tudor in Shakespeare's Henry VI

Henry Tudor is the last man standing after a war for the throne that raged for 30 years. Following the victory at Bosworth Field, he is crowned by Lord Stanley as Henry VII.

Henry Tudor is the last man standing after a war for the throne that raged for 30 years. Following the victory at Bosworth Field, he is crowned by Lord Stanley as Henry VII.

The legacy of the Wars of the Roses

The war is viewed as a major factor in bringing about the decline of feudalism in England. King Henry VII sought to ensure such chaos would never again ensue by centralising government and tempering the power of the noble class.

The Battle of Bosworth Field is a defining moment in English history. It marked the end of the Plantagenet dynasty (which had ruled England since 1154) and the birth of the Tudor dynasty, which would produce two of England's most influential monarchs (Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth).

The Tudors would guide England out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance Period.

The sigil of House Tudor contains the red and white rose, signifying the unification of York and Lancaster through the marriage between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York.

The sigil of House Tudor contains the red and white rose, signifying the unification of York and Lancaster through the marriage between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York.

References

2009, 9 November. Wars of the Roses (History.com).

2020, 31 July. Did Richard III really kill the Princes in the Tower? (Historyextra.com).