The Wars of the Roses is the popular name given to the civil conflict that dominated the late fifteenth century and which represented the claims of the rival descendants of Edward III - the Lancastrians and the Yorkists. This is a comparatively recent descriptor. Although the House of York occasionally used the white rose as an emblem it has been argued that the House of Lancaster did not. What is incontrovertible is that the eventual Lancastrian heir, Henry VII, combined the roses into the Tudor rose emblem having married the Yorkist heiress, Elizabeth.
Choosing the Red and White Roses
by Henry A Payne (1868-1940)
Courtesy of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery The term, Wars of the Roses, appears to have originated with the historian David Hume as late as 1761 and it was taken up in the nineteenth century by Sir Walter Scott. The rose emblems suited the mood of a romantic Victorian age which enthusiastically adopted them in history, art and literature.
The Wars were in fact a sporadic civil struggle that took place between 1455 and 1485. The battles, however, were not the only manifestations of the unrest as uprisings, resistance and rebellions were as much a feature of the times as the military set-piece battles. Foreign policy also intruded and inevitably tensions with neighbouring countries brought England into other military conflicts with Burgundy, France and Scotland.
The Battle of Bosworth, however, did not conclude the wars and throughout his reign Henry VII faced challenges to his kingship. It was not until his son ascended the throne as Henry VIII, the heir of both York and Lancaster, that the fledgling Tudor dynasty found some security.
All this conflict and strife was so entwined with the political history of the period that it is inseparable from the study of the life and times of King Richard III. In order to give context to King Richard's life and the aftermath of his reign, this section of the website examines all these troubling aspects of the late fifteenth century.
by Keith Dockray
The March from Leicester
by Graham Turner
Courtesy of Osprey Publishing LtdThe Wars of the Roses, so English historical tradition has it, were a series of bloody military conflicts dominating several decades during the second half of the fifteenth century. Royal houses of Lancaster and York, dynastic rivals for possession of England's ancient crown, fought each other in battle after battle; the country's ruling elite, especially its powerful landowning aristocracy, split asunder in support of one or the other; and the lives of ordinary folk were turned upside down by endemic civil strife and its appalling political, economic and social consequences.
No wonder William Shakespeare, when writing his Plantagenet history plays for the London stage in the 1590s, eagerly seized on the dramatic potential of so clear and compelling a story. But is it true? Certainly, kings did fight a series of battles between 1455 and 1487 and the crown itself changed hands several times. A high percentage of the nobility, and many gentry, became involved at one time or another; thousands of countryfolk and townsmen made up the rank and file of armies; and hundreds of lives were undoubtedly lost. Yet it is all too easy to exaggerate both the scale and impact of these wars, particularly if comparisons are made with the First and Second World Wars in the twentieth century.
engraving by Martin Broshuut, First Folio 1623
Courtesy Geoffrey WheelerPhases of more or less sustained conflict, such as that between 1459 and 1461, were very much the exception rather than the rule. England's ruling élite, particularly families having royal blood flowing through their veins, bore the brunt of it all, but even they often displayed considerable reluctance to take up arms. Many nobles were either killed in the fighting or faced execution for having backed the wrong side, but few, if any, prominent families became extinct as a direct result of civil strife. Most people probably never became involved in the wars at all; material destruction was both intermittent and localised; agriculture and trade were only minimally disrupted; and the country's religious and cultural life continued to flourish throughout.
Why, at a time when Henry V's spectacular victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 and subsequent conquest of most of northern France were still within living memory, did England dissolve into civil war at all? The main blame must fall on the shoulders of his son, the third Lancastrian king, Henry VI (1422-1461), surely the most inept and incompetent of all rulers of the English realm since the Norman Conquest of 1066. Maybe, given his personal piety and deep religious convictions, he might have made a decent enough monk but he had none of the qualities required for successful kingship in the fifteenth century: he had few political or man-management skills; he had no military prowess or capacity for generalship; and, after he suffered a complete mental collapse in 1453, he probably became little more than a political cipher, all too easily manipulated by those around him. He certainly could not hold a candle to Richard, Duke of York, no political genius himself, but who did have a strong claim to the throne and spearheaded opposition to the Lancastrian regime in the 1450s. Various factors help explain the onset of the Wars of the Roses: Lancastrian/ Yorkist dynastic rivalry and ideological controversy; the loss of virtually all Henry V's empire in France by the autumn of 1453; economic recession in general and the chronic condition of the royal finances in particular; private aristocratic feuds and escalating lawlessness; and growing resentment at the power, wealth and influence of the clique surrounding the king. Even so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, if Henry VI had not been the man he was and if his government had not developed along the lines it did, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened.
As early as February 1450 Henry VI's chief minister, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was impeached for treason and subsequently murdered; Jack Cade's rebellion, the most serious popular uprising since the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, engulfed south-eastern England in May and June; and, in the autumn, Richard of York openly challenged the Lancastrian regime. Early in 1452, having failed to rock the government by constitutional means, Richard of York resorted to armed force. That failed too but, when the king completely lost his marbles in the summer of 1453, York and his new northern aristocratic allies the Nevilles (Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and his son Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick) eventually emerged triumphant and the duke became protector of the realm in March 1454. It was a short-lived victory. Henry Vl recovered at least most of his senses at the end of the year; York's protectorate was terminated soon after; and, now excluded from the magic circle of high politics once more and feeling seriously threatened, York and the Nevilles proceeded to arm and, on 22 May 1455, successfully confronted their rivals at the first battle of St Albans. Although little more than a skirmish in the streets of an English market town between rival lords and their retinues, however, this fight is conventionally regarded as the beginning of the Wars of the Roses.
The First Battle of St Albans
by Graham Turner
Courtesy www.studio88.comAs a result of St Albans the balance of political advantage changed again; Henry VI fell into Yorkist hands; and, when the king suffered another mental breakdown in November 1455, Richard of York again became protector for a few months. Again too, however, Henry's recovery put an end to that, not least as a result of the determination of his formidable queen, Margaret of Anjou. By the autumn of 1456, in fact, not only were York and his allies once more out of office but they had been largely replaced by men close to the queen. Thereafter, Margaret threw herself into factional politics with ever-mounting vigour; by 1459 she was ready for a further showdown; and, in the autumn of that year, civil strife erupted with a vengeance. Indeed, in all probability, only Henry VI's own well-meaning if ultimately futile efforts to promote peace and reconciliation (for instance, the so-called Loveday of March 1458) and the reluctance of the majority of the nobility to take up arms against their anointed king had prevented an earlier renewal of conflict.
When, on 23 September 1459, royal troops intercepted Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, in Staffordshire en route to join his son Warwick and Richard of York at Ludlow in Shropshire, the result was an indecisive engagement fought at Blore Heath near Newcastle-under-Lyme. Salisbury made it to Ludlow but on the night of 12/13 October, when faced by the prospect of fighting a much larger Lancastrian force, the Yorkist lords simply fled: Richard of York took ship for Ireland, while Salisbury, Warwick and York's eldest son Edward, Earl of March (the future Edward lV) escaped to Calais. Soon afterwards the Coventry parliament (or the Parliament of Devils as it was dubbed in Yorkist propaganda) condemned them as traitors and declared their estates confiscated. Only force could now restore their position and so, in June 1460, the Nevilles and Edward, Earl of March, sailed for south-eastern England and secured control of London. On 10 July, battle was joined once more outside Northampton. In another reversal of fortunes victory went to the Yorkist lords, Henry VI fell into their hands (again!) and when, in the autumn, Richard of York at last returned from Ireland, he dramatically claimed the throne for himself. This seems to have taken virtually everyone by surprise. After a prolonged and probably heated debate in parliament, however, a compromise was cobbled together whereby Henry VI would retain the crown during his lifetime but, after his death, his son Edward of Lancaster would be disinherited in favour of the house of York.
LudlowStalwart Lancastrians in general, and Queen Margaret of Anjou in particular, rejected the so-called Act of Accord out of hand and raised a new army. On 30 December 1460 at Wakefield the wheel of fortune turned yet again. Richard of York was killed in the field; Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury was executed the following day; and, in January 1461, the queen and her largely northern army marched south. On 17 February it defeated a force commanded by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, at the second battle of St Albans and Henry Vl was reunited with his wife once more. London, however, baulked at the prospect of hosting so notoriously undisciplined an army. Perhaps foolishly, the queen made no attempt to take the city by force but, instead, retreated back to the north. Meanwhile, Richard of York's eldest son Edward, Earl of March won the battle of Mortimer's Cross in Shropshire on 2 February, joined Warwick and, together, the two earls entered the capital amidst considerable enthusiasm. A few days later, on 4 March 1461, the eighteen-year-old Edward was proclaimed king.
By Graham Turner
Reproduced by kind permission of the artist
www.studio88.co.uk Edward IV (1461-1483) could hardly have been a more striking contrast to his hapless predecessor: personally, he was tall, handsome, intelligent, vigorous, convivial and worldly-wise; politically, he was more cut out in every way for the tricky task of ruling England; and militarily he was no slouch either. At Towton near York on 29 March 1461, indeed, he fought and won the biggest and bloodiest battle of the entire Wars of the Roses. Even after this great victory and the flight of Henry Vl, Margaret of Anjou and their son, Edward of Lancaster, to Scotland, however, the new king's position on the throne remained far from secure. Lancastrian resistance to Yorkist rule continued, particularly in Wales and the north of England. Only when the Yorkists won a further major victory at Hexham in Northumberland in May 1464, and Henry VI fell into their hands in Lancashire in July 1465, did this phase of the Wars of the Roses come to an end.
During Edward IV's early years Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick was his most powerful supporter: indeed, Warwick's rôle in enabling the new king to seize the throne in the first place later earned him the soubriquet 'Kingmaker'. The earl's mounting discontent in the later 1460s, however, eventually brought a renewal of civil war at the end of the decade. Perhaps the origins of the rift can be found in Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, the rise of the Woodville clan at court and, most particularly, Warwick's preference for an alliance with Louis XI of France rather than Burgundy (scotched by the marriage of the king's sister Margaret to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in 1468). Against Edward's wishes his brother George, Duke of Clarence, married Warwick's daughter Isabel and, on 26 July 1469, a Neville-sponsored northern rebellion culminated in a victory for the king's opponents at the battle of Edgecote and Edward's capture and imprisonment soon afterwards. A few weeks later he was released, or escaped, and resumed his rule; moreover, the failure of another probably Neville-inspired rebellion in Lincolnshire in March 1470 (resulting in the flight of both Warwick and Clarence to France) seemed to mark the end of all the earl's hopes. Yet, improbably, the wily Louis XI managed to engineer a reconciliation between Warwick and the exiled Lancastrian queen Margaret of Anjou in July; a marriage was contracted between Edward of Lancaster and the earl's daughter Anne; and, in September, Warwick crossed to England, forced Edward IV to flee to Burgundy and, in October, restored Henry Vl to the throne: whatever his role in 1461, the earl was certainly a kingmaker in 1470.
Richard at the Battle of Barnet
Challenge in the Mist, by Graham Turner
Reproduced by kind permission of the artist
www.studio88.co.ukClearly, Henry Vl was even less capable of governing now than he had been a decade earlier and the government established in his name was very much dominated by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Over the next six months he struggled to reconcile as many Yorkist supporters as he could, as well as trying to ensure continued Lancastrian backing for his fragile regime but, in practice, he found it almost impossible to satisfy one faction without alienating another. The failure of Margaret of Anjou and Edward of Lancaster to leave France hardly helped. Instead, it was Edward IV who landed in northern England in March 1471; he attracted increasing support as he marched south, including that of a now disgruntled George, Duke of Clarence, received an enthusiastic reception in London (as he had in 1461) and, on 14 April, the extraordinary battle of Barnet was fought in a thick mist. Here Edward won a famous victory and, most importantly, Warwick himself was killed in the field. Ironically, on the very same day as Barnet was fought, Margaret of Anjou set foot on English soil for the first time since 1463; the Lancastrians were forced into battle at Tewkesbury on 4 May; and, once more, Edward IV triumphed. Edward of Lancaster lost his life, his mother was captured and, soon afterwards, Henry Vl was murdered in the Tower of London. Insofar as the fifteenth-century civil wars were dynastic struggles fought between the houses of Lancaster and York, they really ended in 1471.
The final phases of the Wars of the Roses resulted from divisions within the York family itself, coupled with the emergence of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, as a new contender for the crown. When Edward IV died suddenly and prematurely on 9 April 1483 his eldest son was only a boy; the Yorkist court was split and the Woodvilles, in particular, were unpopular; and, as a result, the dead king's only surviving brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became protector of the realm on 10 May. Within a few weeks, on 26 June 1483, he seized the throne for himself as Richard III. Since 1471, when he fought for Edward IV at both Barnet and Tewkesbury, he had served his brother loyally in the north of England and northerners formed the solid core of his support in 1483. Many in southern England were disgruntled, however, and, as rumours spread that Richard III's nephews (Edward V and Richard, Duke of York) had been murdered in the Tower, a major rebellion broke out in the south and west. The new king responded vigorously and the rising collapsed ignominiously. Yet by then, ominously, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, had emerged as a potentially serious rival, particularly once his marriage to Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth of York was mooted.
The landing of Henry VII at Milford Haven
By Graham Turner
Reproduced by kind permission of Osprey Publishing LtdAlthough Richard III made considerable efforts to widen the basis of his support in the political nation in 1484/5 he met with only limited success and, when Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, mounted an invasion in the summer of 1485, Richard's reliance on his own affinity (especially northerners) remained paramount. Certainly, when Richard III at last faced at Bosworth his rival on the battlefield early on the morning of 22 August, he was largely backed by the same men who had helped bring him to power two years earlier. Many of his supporters probably fought for him with vigour, and his own courage is beyond question, but the king's death in the midst of the action made the fall of the Yorkist dynasty inevitable. Even after the victory was won, however, the virtually unknown Henry VII was by no means secure on the throne; luck rather than good judgement had probably been paramount in his victory at Bosworth; and he had neither the background nor training for kingship. No wonder he became so obsessed with establishing the new Tudor dynasty on the throne, even after he had married Elizabeth of York, and countering threats (both real and imaginary) to his security. Only after a major rebellion had been put down in 1487 did his possession of the crown become increasingly unassailable. For that reason, the battle of Stoke, fought on 16 June 1487, rather than Bosworth, can be regarded as the end of the wars of the Roses.
• Insurrection broke out in this year in various parts of England, directed against the duke of Suffolk and his supporters, governing the country under Henry VI. The duke was impeached by the Commons on January 28, and committed to the Tower. He was later banished and murdered on his way to France. John Cade (calling himself Mortimer), raised an insurrection in Kent, in May, perhaps on behalf of the duke of York. Cade encamped on Blackheath, and plundered London but was later defeated and executed.
• The duke of York took up arms, and demanded that Somerset should be brought to trial for his misdeeds. York was persuaded to lay down his arms, and was imprisoned. Shortly afterwards he was released and retired to his castle of Wigmore (in Herefordshire).
• The king fell mentally ill and was totally incapacitated for government in November. The duke of York came forward again and was admitted into the kings council. He obtained the imprisonment of Somerset in December.
• Parliament met on 14 February. The kings incapacity was agreed and the duke of York was appointed on 3 April protector and defender of the kingdom during the minority of King Henry's heir Prince Edward, born on 15 March.
• The king recovered his health and revoked the duke of Yorks commission as Protector. Somerset was released from the Tower on 5 February. The dukes of York and Somerset entered into bonds of 20,000 marks each (1 mark = 13s 4d = 67p = roughly one euro) to submit their disputes to arbitration on 4 March. Two days later, on the advice of the duke of Somerset, the duke of York was deprived of the Captaincy of Calais and took up arms. The armies met at the first battle of St Albans on 22 May, Somerset was killed and the duke of York gained a complete victory.
• The king recovered and revoked the dukes commission as Protector on 25 February. The duke and his chief supporters retired to their estates.
• The queen and the duke of York were formally reconciled on 25 March.
• The earl of Salisbury marched to join the duke of York. On his way he defeated and killed Lord Audley, a Lancastrian, at Blore Heath in Staffordshire on 23 September. The earl of Warwick now also joined the duke of York at Ludlow and the Lancastrians, commanded by the queen, advanced against them. When the armies met on 13 October at Ludford Bridge the queen offered a pardon, and the duke's army deserted him.
• The Yorkist lords at Calais, invited by the people of Kent, landed at Sandwich, about mid-summer. They entered London with a large army on 2 July. The queen raised a force, which was totally defeated by the Yorkists at Northampton on 10 July. The duke of Buckingham, the queen's general, was killed and the king taken prisoner. The queen and her son fled to Scotland.
• Duke Richard's eldest son Edward, now duke of York (and afterwards Edward IV) defeated Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, at the battle of Mortimer's Cross, near Wigmore, on 2 February. The earl's father, Owen Tudor, and several other prisoners were beheaded on the field of battle. The queen advanced southward, defeated the earl of Warwick at the second battle of St Albans on 17 February, and rescued the king. London closed its gates against her and she was obliged to retire to the north.
• The duke of Somerset, Henry Beaufort, and many other Lancastrians abandoned Henry and made terms with King Edward.
• Queen Margaret marched into England and captured several northern castles. She was again joined by Somerset and other supporters. John, Marquess of Montague, brother of the earl of Warwick, defeated the Lancastrians at a battle on Hedgley Moor, near Wooller, Northumberland, on 25 April, and again at Hexham, also in Northumberland, on 15 May. Henry found refuge in Lancashire; the queen and the prince retired to Flanders. The Duke of Somerset and many other prisoners were executed.
• Henry VI was captured in Lancashire in July, conducted to London and imprisoned in the Tower.
• Edward IV took the seals of office from the Chancellor, George Neville, Archbishop of York, on 9 June, a first blow against the power and influence of the Nevilles.
• The king went on pilgrimage into Norfolk in June, accompanied by his brother Richard. Insurrections against the Woodvilles were raised by the earl of Warwick and Edward's brother Clarence. On 11 July Clarence married Isabel Neville, daughter of the earl of Warwick against the wishes of his brother. On 26 July the king's troops were defeated at Edgecote, near Banbury. The queen's father, Richard, Earl Rivers, and her brother John Woodville, together with other supporters of the king were captured and executed. The king was arrested by Warwick and imprisoned in Middleham Castle but he was free again by late September. Warwick and the king apparently reconciled.
• The Lancastrians rose in Lincolnshire under Sir Robert Welles, but were quickly suppressed in March. The earl of Warwick and the duke of Clarence were denounced as traitors by the King on 31 March, and fled to Calais. They were refused admission and retired to France, where they were received by Louis XI. Warwick was reconciled to Queen Margaret and agreed to assist in the restoration of King Henry. Warwick's daughter Anne was married to the young prince Edward, son of Henry VI and Margaret, in August.
• A parliament was held at Westminster which repealed the attainder of the Lancastrians, attainted the Yorkists and settled the crown again on King Henry and his son Edward.
• Edward IV tried to persuade the duke of Brittany to surrender to him Henry and Jasper Tudor (the earls of Richmond and Pembroke).
• George, Duke of Clarence, tried for treason before Parliament and found guilty on 7 February. He was found dead in the Tower on 18 February.
• Death of Edward IV and the reign of Richard III began.
• Parliament held 23 January to 20 February. Henry Tudor was attainted.
• 7 August, Henry Tudor landed in Wales with an invasion army. On 22 August the battle of Bosworth was joined and King Richard was killed. Henry Tudor victorious and proclaimed King Henry VII.
• Insurrection in the spring led by Francis Lovell who tried to capture King Henry at York.
• The earl of Lincoln, nephew and presumed heir of Richard III, supported an uprising by Lambert Simnel, who called himself Edward, Earl of Warwick (son of George, Duke of Clarence). Lincoln landed in Ireland with any army on 5 May, and Simnel was crowned in the cathedral at Dublin as Edward VI on 14 May.
• Rebellion in Yorkshire and the earl of Northumberland was murdered on 28 April.
• In November the pretender Perkin Warbeck arrives in Dublin.
• Warbeck visits France and Burgundy.
• Warbeck visits Emperor Maximilian in Vienna.
• On 16 February Sir William Stanley is executed in connection with the activities of Perkin Warbeck.
• James IV and Warbeck invade England.
• In May the Cornishmen rebel against Henry VII and are defeated at Blackheath on 17 June.
• Warbeck attempts to escape from London and is arrested at Sheen on 9 June.
• On 29 November Warbeck is executed.
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