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A Concise History of the Wars of the Roses (Part 1)

Updated: Sep 1, 2021


The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles fought between the feuding royal houses of York (symbolised by the white rose) and Lancaster (symbolised by the red rose) between 1455 and 1485. They were characterised by brutality, continuous fighting, family divisions, bloodshed, treachery, tragedy and more. In a sense, the Wars of the Roses were a dynastic feud between cousins, brothers and family members; royal heirs and royal claimants all vying and scheming towards the throne. Consequently, old dynasties fell, new dynasties arose and English history was changed forever.

In this three-part series of articles, we will be exploring the various aspects of the conflict, who was involved, what the major battles were and who ultimately triumphed. We'll also be examining the roots and what led both factions to take up arms against each other. It may surprise some readers to learn that the origin of the conflict goes back decades, so well before 1455, even if actual fighting did not break out until that date. Just how far back the conflict goes we will discover in this series.

Brief History

To understand the origin of the conflict we need to go back to the year 1376. Edward III (widely considered to be one of England's greatest monarchs) had had four sons. The eldest, also called Edward but mainly known to history as "The Black Prince" because of the colour of the armour wore, died that year aged only 46; the cause of death was probably an illness contracted while fighting in Aragon, Spain. In dying so young he preceded his father to the grave (Edward III would follow him just a year later). Consequently, the Black Prince's son, Richard of Bordeaux, ascended the throne as Richard II; he was only 10 years old at the time. As it happened, Richard would have a short and generally unsuccessful reign, devolving into something of a tyrant. In the end he abdicated his throne in favour of his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke.

Henry Bolingbroke was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and another of Edward III's sons. Henry had been sent into exile in 1398 following a dispute, but returned to England the following year after the death of his father. Richard II had been loath to confer on Henry the estates and titles that should have been rightly his upon Gaunt's death. Henry's return then was outwardly an effort to reclaim them. In reality, he was aiming at nothing less than the throne of England. Richard had been campaigning in Ireland when he heard of his cousin's landing. He hurried back to London but made little show of arms. He quickly abdicated in favour of Henry who for his part could say he had rid England of Richard's tyranny. Bolingbroke ascended the throne as Henry IV that very same year, 1399. Richard died in 1400 apparently having starved himself.

The most direct consequence of these events was the breaking of the line of succession that had endured for centuries and the rise of the House of Lancaster as the ruling noble house in England, with Henry IV as the first Lancastrian monarch. Not exactly loved by his subjects or contemporaries, Henry IV died in 1413 aged 46 and was succeeded by his son Henry V, the second Lancastrian monarch. The new king would prove to be much more beloved than his father, scoring several spectacular military victories against the French, the most famous of which is the Battle of Agincourt (fought in 1415). For all his popularity and successes both on and off the battlefield, Henry V would die of dysentery in France in 1422, aged just 35. He was succeeded by his infant son, also called Henry. Henry VI, the third and last Lancastrian king, would prove to be a weak and ineffective ruler, and his reign would spark off the Wars of the Roses.

Dramatis personae

Now that we've covered the background to the conflict, let's examine some of the main players involved, starting with Henry VI himself.

Henry VI

Affiliation: House of Lancaster

Short bio: Born in 1421 to Henry V, King of England and Catherine of Valois, Princess of France, Henry VI's weak and ineffectual rule almost brought the country to its knees and led to the rise of the House of York as a rival royal house. Henry's reign was a tumultuous one, suffering periods of stupefaction, nervous breakdowns, becoming comatose on last least two occasions. The first big breakdown came in 1453, following news of the loss of the last English territory in France bar one, Gascony (England - in the form of Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset - had already surrendered Rouen, Caen and most of Normandy in 1449 - 50). This in turn necessitated his wife Margaret to become an active player in politics, which was resented in some quarters and led to her failed attempt at claiming the regency. At several points during the Wars of the Roses Henry was captured, released, captured again, set free and restored, only to be finally condemned in the Tower of London and executed in 1471.

Margaret of Anjou

Affiliation: House of Lancaster

Short bio: Born in 1430 to Rene of Anjou and Isabella of Lorraine, Margaret married Henry VI in 1445. She is widely considered to be the real power behind the throne and indeed she was leading player in the Wars of the Roses, holding a bitter feud and rivalry with Richard, Third Duke of York (more on him later) that turned into open conflict. She seems to have hated Richard as a potential rival to the throne. Margaret had not yet become pregnant and so Henry VI had no direct descendant; that would change at the start of 1453. Thus, any possibility of Richard one day assuming the throne seemed to have been averted. The triumph appeared to be short-lived, as Richard was appointed Protector of the Realm in 1454, but Margaret got her revenge on York in the end, raising the rebellion that led to his death in 1460. Margaret's main concern during this time was to secure her husband's and then (after she became pregnant) her son's legacy, which ultimately proved fruitless.

Edward of Westminster

Affiliation: House of Lancaster

Short bio: Born in 1453 to Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, Edward would spend most of his short life attempting to secure his legacy. He died aged just 17 at the Battle of Tewkesbury (fought in 1471).

Richard, Third Duke of York

Affiliation: House of York

Short bio: Born in 1411 to Richard, Earl of Cambridge and Anne Mortimer, Richard was descended on his father's side from Edward III's fourth son, Edmund First Duke of York (and hence founder of the House of York). On his mother's side he was descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence and Edward III's third son. So Richard actually had a better claim to the English throne than Henry VI. In fact, the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1447 should have put Richard next in the line of succession. Despite this, Richard served Henry VI loyally for years.

On a personal level, Richard married Cecily Neville in 1429 and had four sons by her, Edmund, the aforementioned Edward (later Edward IV), George and Richard (later Richard III). Militarily, Richard distinguished himself in France, serving as commander twice, first in 1436 and then in1440; he then returned home for good after a period of five years. Politically neutral at first, Richard came to oppose the court faction led by the aforementioned Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, who had a powerful backer in the form of Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's ambitious wife. A tumultuous series of events then took place. Firstly, Richard was appointed lord of Lieutenant of Ireland in1447. Then in 1453 Henry VI suffered his catastrophic nervous breakdown; Margaret tried to have herself declared regent in her husband's name. This proved unpopular and in 1454 Richard was appointed Protector of the Realm (he would be appointed to the same post a year later after the First Battle of St Albans). Eventually, Henry VI recovered and was persuaded to dismiss Richard and restore the disgraced Somerset to favour. Tensions continued to mount and eventually boiled over into armed conflict. Richard was attacked by Lancastrian forces and killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 aged 49 along with his son, Edmund. Any designs he might have had of gaining the throne were later realised by Edward.

Edmund, Earl of Rutland

Affiliation: House of York

Short bio: Born in 1443, Edmund was the second surviving son of Richard, Third Duke of York and Cecily Neville. He was made Earl of Rutland on or around 1454 and not much is known about his short life. We do know he died at or shortly after the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, possibly executed by the Lancastrian Lord Clifford.

Edward IV

Affiliation: House of York

Short bio: Born in 1442 in the town of Rouen, Edward was the first surviving son of Richard, Third Duke of York and Cecily Neville. More able, affable and charismatic than his father, Edward was able to defeat the Lancastrian forces first at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross and then at the Battle of Towton, both in 1461. Edward then declared himself King of England, displacing the hapless Henry VI and sending Margaret and her young son into exile in Scotland.

In 1470 Edward was forced briefly to go into exile himself, and this saw the revival of the previous Lancastrian regime. However, Edward's exile was short-lived; he soon returned to England and was restored to power after the Battles of Barnett and more decisively Tewksbury, both in 1471. England was then able to enjoy 12 years of relative peace and stability that was shattered by the king's untimely death in 1483.

George, Duke of Clarence

Affiliation: House of York

Short bio: Born in 1449 to Richard, Third Duke of York and Cecily Neville, George has the distinction of being the only surviving son not to become King of England. Vain and easily swayed, George was made Duke of Clarence in 1461 upon his brother's accession to the throne; he was also for a time heir presumptive to Edward IV, but this changed in 1470 when Edward's queen Elizabeth Woodville gave birth to the future Edward V.

George increasingly came under the influence of Richard, Earl of Warwick (the so called "King Maker") even marrying his daughter Isabel Neville in 1469, a match Edward IV vehemently opposed. George, who had become disillusioned with Edward's reign, was persuaded to switch sides and support the Lancastrian cause against his brother (Warwick as we shall see had his own reasons for opposing Edward). At some point, George switched his loyalty back to Edward and Warwick was ultimately defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnett. Later on, in 1478, Edward would have his brother George executed in the Tower of London; according to legend he was drowned in a barrel of malmsey wine.

Richard III

Affiliation: House of York

Short bio: Born in 1452 to Richard, Third Duke of York and Cecily Neville and made Duke of Gloucester in 1461 by his brother Edward, Richard would prove to be loyal to his brother until the latter's death in 1483. He then deposed his nephew Edward V and was crowned Richard III that same year. His reign as monarch lasted a little over two years, ending with his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

In 1472 he had married Warwick's younger daughter, Anne, who would become Queen of England alongside her husband. Their son and heir Edward of Middleham (born in 1473) was sickly child who died aged 11. For a more detailed analysis of Richard III, please read my three-part article on him.

Richard, Earl of Warwick

Affiliation: House of York, then House of Lancaster

Short bio: Born in 1428 to Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and Anne Montagu, 5th Countess of Salisbury, Warwick was one of the most important figures in the Wars of the Roses. Ambitious, wealthy, influential and politically savvy, Richard has earned the moniker of "King Maker" after raising or "making" two kings, Edward IV and later Henry VI.

Richard inherited the title Earl of Warwick through his marriage to Anne Beauchamp in 1436 and in doing so added wealth and prestige and even greater influence. He and Anne would go on to have two daughters, Isabel (born 1451) and Anne (born 1456). The former would marry George, Duke of Clarence, and their son and heir would later be executed by Henry VII. The latter would marry the future Richard III.

When conflict broke out between Richard, Third Duke of York and Margaret of Anjou, Warwick faithfully supported the Yorkist cause. After York's death, Warwick continued to do so by transferring his loyalty to his son Edward. Warwick was a key player in gaining Edward the throne, and in the early years of his reign, Edward was heavily dependent on the elder, more experienced Warwick. It was remarked in some quarters that England had two kings, Edward and Warwick. Slowly though, Warwick's influence waned as the Woodville faction gained Edward's ear. The first major strain in the relationship came in 1464. The cause was Edward's secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Warwick had been in France negotiating for the hand of the daughter of the king. When he heard Edward had married someone else, Warwick was furious.

The ultimate consequence was that Warwick switched his loyalty from York to Lancaster, persuading George Duke of Clarence to do the same; this resulted in a brief restoration of Henry VI to the throne. Warwick finally met his end in 1471 at the Battle of Barnett, after which Edward IV was restored to the throne.

Margaret Beaufort

Affiliation: House of Lancaster, then Tudor

Short bio: Born on or around1443 to John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso Castle, Margaret ended up being one of the principal beneficiaries of the Wars of the Roses. The Beaufort family was a legitimised branch of the House of Lancaster: John Beaufort's own parents were John of Gaunt and his mistress Katherine Swynford. Despite being legitimised, however, the Beauforts were barred from the line of succession.

Margaret was married four times during the course of her life. The most significant marriage was the one to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond in 1455; Margaret was a girl of around 12 years of age, he was several years her senior, having been born in 1430, the product of the union of Owen Tudor, a minor Welsh page and Catherine of Valois, Henry V's widow. This made him and his younger sibling Jasper Tudor half-brothers to King Henry VI himself. The brothers were recognised as such at court, and the title of Earl of Richmond was conferred upon Edmund in 1449. Jasper was made Earl of Pembroke in 1452.

The marriage between Margaret and Edmund did not last long; he died of plague while in captivity in 1456, leaving behind a 13-year-old pregnant widow. Henry Tudor, Margaret's one and only son was born the following year in Pembroke Castle. Margaret seems to have had great ambitions for her son (as others have pointed out, Henry was a decidedly kingly name). However, she did not actively seek to promote Henry as a viable alternative candidate to the throne until at least 1483, when she conspired with Edward IV's widow Elizabeth Woodville to have Henry marry her daughter Elizabeth of York and depose Richard III.

Margaret was married two more times, to Sir Henry Stafford in 1458 and more significantly perhaps to Thomas Stanley in 1472. Stanley was nominally a Yorkist and a member of Richard's household. However, he and his brother William Stanley was notorious fence sitters, turning out for either the Yorkist or Lancastrian side when it was expedient to do so. Thomas would go on to betray Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Margaret's son Henry became King of England by right of conquest that year, and her ambitions for her son were fully realised. She died the king's mother in 1509.

Henry Tudor

Affiliation: House of Lancaster, then Tudor

Short bio: Henry Tudor was born in 1457 in Pembroke Castle to the aforementioned Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor. His journey to the throne was a long and arduous one, fraught with danger and conspiracy, and this shaped his later character and demeanour. Indeed, it seemed almost impossible for Henry to gain the throne in any meaningful way. He was descended from the Beauforts on his mother's side, who although legitimised, were actually barred from the line of succession. On his father's side he had a trickle of royal blood from Catherine of Valois. So Henry was not a natural candidate for the throne. The Wars of the Roses and all the turmoil and conflict they caused put Henry firmly in a position where he could aim for it.

Henry spent the first few years of his life at Pembroke Castle under the care of his uncle Jasper Tudor; Henry VI was still on the throne and Lancastrian rule seemed assured. However, that all changed in 1461 after the Battles of Mortimer's Cross and Towton. Edward IV deposed Henry VI and had himself crowned King of England. Pembroke Castle was taken over by the Yorkist Lord Hebert. For the next few years Henry grew up as Lord Hebert's ward. Circumstances changed once again in 1469 when Henry VI was restored to the throne and again in 1471 when the Lancastrian king was deposed for the last time. With so many leading nobles and royal contenders dead, Henry was now the principal Lancastrian heir.

Fearing for his nephew's safety given his newfound status, Jasper Tudor took Henry and together they fled first to Brittany and later on France. They would stay there for over a decade. Then another deciding moment occurred in 1483: Edward IV died and the throne was assumed by his brother Richard who bypassed his nephews in the process. A conspiratorial web soon formed to replace Richard with Henry, who had promised to marry Elizabeth of York and unite both noble houses. Things got off to a rocky start with a failed coup in 1483 that saw Henty flee back to the continent, tail between his legs. A second invasion in 1485 was more successful, with Henry's forces overcoming Richard's at Bosworth that August. The battle signalled the end of Plantagenet rule in England. Henry Tudor became Henry VII, the first of the infamous Tudor monarchs that dominated England over the next several decades.

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