Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Introduction 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 its first 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.
The decisive battles
In Part I of this three-part series on the War of the Roses we focused on the main players involved in the conflict. In this part we'll examine the decisive battles from 1455 - 61, who was involved, who won and what the ultimate consequences were, starting with the First Battle of St Albans.
The First Battle of St Albans (22nd May 1455)
Winner: House of York
Notable casualties: Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset; Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland; Thomas Clifford, 8th Baron Clifford
Prelude to the battle: Henry VI, prone to stupefactions and nervous breakdowns, suffered a catasphrpohic one in 1453. Margaret of Anjou, aided by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, had hoped to secure the regency in her husband's name. She was unable to do so and Richard, Third Duke of York was named Protector of the Realm instead. One of his first actions was to imprison Somerset, a hated rival and the man York saw as most directly responsible for the loss of the final French territories. In the meantime, Margaret had given birth to a son and Lancastrian heir, Edward. Then in 1454, Henry VI recovered sufficiently and was persuaded to dismiss York. Somerset was restored to favour in his stead.
A council called by Henry VI and consisting of a small group of Lancastrian nobles hostile to York was scheduled to take place in the city of Leicester in mid-1455. That was the straw that broke the camel's back for York. Accompanied by the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick (a father and son duo both called Richard Neville), he marched his forces south to confront the king. Henry VI for his part moved his forces north out of London. Both factions met at St. Albans in May of that year.
Short description: The First Battle of St Albans, generally agreed to be the first act of military aggression of the Wars of the Roses, is notable for a few reasons. It saw the death of several key Lancastrian commanders, including Somerset and Northumberland. Henry VI was captured and taken to London. The Earl of Warwick (aged only 27 at the time) firmly established himself as a military commander, and the death of the aforementioned Northumberland assured the ascendancy of the Neville family in the north of England.
No-one considered the possibility of a battle occurring at first. There had been stand-offs before but no actual fighting had taken place. Negotiations went back and forth between Henry and York. They proved fruitless. The former wanted York to stand down his forces and swear loyalty to the crown; the latter wanted the Duke of Somerset to be stripped of all his offices and posts. Neither side would stand down. The only recourse now was battle.
It started with the Yorkists attacking the two barricades at Shropshire and Sopwell Lanes; the Lancastrians were able to hold them back, however. In the end, the battle was won chiefly due to Warwick's cunning. He took his forces and marched them down back streets and alleyways; in this way they were able to launch a devastating attack on the Lancastrian forces stationed at the barricades and the area around the marketplace. The Lancastrians then routed, allowing the Yorkists to spill into the town centre. Somerset fled first into Castle Inn and then out into the street, presuming to flee the battle. Instead he was hacked down for his troubles. Northumberland suffered a similar fate at the Inn. Baron Clifford died with his men on the barricades.
Warwick then launched an arrow attack on the king's position between St. Peter's Street and Castle Inn an attempt to get him to surrender. Both he and the Duke of Buckingham were injured as a result. Henry fled into the chapel of St. Albans Church but was quickly picked up by York's forces.
The battle won, York was able to take possession of the king and ride down to London with him, a veritable prisoner. York was restored to the Protectorship and the Yorkist party dominated in court. York swore fealty to the king and recognised Edward of Westminster as heir to the throne. This state of affairs lasted until 1456, when Margaret (never one to back down), was able to reverse the gains York had made.
The Battle of Blore Heath (23rd September 1459)
Winner: House of York
Notable casualties: James Tuchet, 5th Baron Audley
Prelude to the battle: Both factions had continued to amass weapons and manpower since the First Battle of St. Albans. Nevertheless, actual fighting did not recommence until September of 1459. The years 1455-56 saw York effectively taking control of the government with Henry VI as the nominal head. That changed in 1456 when Margaret was able to displace York and take back command herself. As recompense, York was made Lieutenant of Ireland, a post he never took up. Instead he took himself to Ludlow Castle. York then sent out summons to the Earls of Salisbury in his estates in Yorkshire and Warwick in Calais (at the time the commander of the garrison in Calais) asking for as many troops as could be spared from either. Salisbury, accompanied by Edward, Earl of March, began to move southwards. His son Warwick crossed over with 5000 men.
In 1459, the Margaret and Henry had assembled a Lancastrian army in Leicester, which would be used to attack York at Ludlow. At some point Margaret learned that Salisbury's army was marching near hers. She sent Lord Audley to intercept him with a force of 8000 - 14000 men. Her aim was to make sure that the Salisbury never met up with York. Both armies met at Blore Heath, near Market Drayton.
Short description: The Lancastrian forces were arrayed in mounted positions, Lord Audley favouring an offensive cavalry assault. The Yorkists were arrayed in a defensive position, stretched out between Blore Heath Hill and Wemberton Brook.
The battle started with an exchange of arrow fire from both sides that achieved little. Salisbury then feigned a retreat that goaded the Lancastrians to attack on horseback; this they did, led by Lord Audley. They were repelled under a hail of arrow fire. The Lancastrian cavalry rallied and attacked again. The Yorkist arrows flew again, and this time Lord Audley himself was killed. A brief infantry charge followed, the Lancastrians now led by Lord Dudley. However, resistance soon melted away and the Yorkists gained another victory.
Aftermath: The Yorkist army were able to join up with York at Ludlow. Meanwhile, Margaret had assembled another army in Eccleshall in Staffordshire. The Lancastrian faction still held sway at court, at least for the time being. Another battle was inevitable.
The Battle of Northampton (10th July 1460)
Winner: House of York
Notable casualties: Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham; John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury; Thomas Percy, Baron Egremont; Lord John Beaumont.
Prelude to the battle: Victory at Blore Heath in 1459 did not do much for the Yorkist cause. A minor battle fought at Ludford Bridge that same year did not go as well. Richard, Duke of York fled the country and finally took himself to Ireland on a kind of self-imposed exile. Salisbury, Warwick and Edward, Earl of March all retreated to Calais (Warwick was still commanding the garrison there). Attempts by Lancastrian forces to take Calais in 1460 failed. In retaliation, the Yorkists themselves sallied forth and took the Lancastrian fleet anchored at Sandwich, along with Earl Rivers. This enabled Salisbury, Warwick and March to later land at Sandwich in mid-1460. From there they struck out towards London, gaining supporters along the way in places such as Canterbury.
While all this was happening, Lancastrian forces under the command of the Duke of Buckingham had ridden out of London to their way to the Midlands. London was at the time a Yorkist stronghold, so when Salisbury, Warwick, March and Lord Fauconberg reached the capital, its citizens simply opened their gates to them. In London, they were able to attract more men to their cause, among them the Duke of Norfolk and Archbishop Bouchier. Not everyone was ecstatic to see the Yorkists enter London though. A small Lancastrian garrison - led by Lords Hungerford and Scales - holed themselves up in the Tower of London. Salisbury stayed behind to besiege the Tower while the remaining Yorkist forces moved north out of London, accompanied by Bouchier and a contingent of bishops.
The conflict was brewing. Buckingham marched southwards from Coventry to Northampton, there to await the Yorkist army. With him was the hapless Henry VI, weak and ineffectual, merely a puppet in the game of thrones that was playing out. Bouchier and the bishops' had ridden out in advance of the main army in an attempt to see Henry VI, but they were thwarted by Buckingham. The main bulk of the army then arrived. They saw that Lancastrians were waving the Royal Standard. This meant that the king was in the field; taking up take arms against the rightful monarch was dangerously close to treason. The Yorkists, however, did not see it that way. Their quarrel wasn't with the king himself but the ministers that surrounded him. Attempts at negotiations quickly fell apart. The scene was set for the coming battle.
Short description: The Lancastrian forces were arrayed in a single line, entrenched behind a fence and ditch and protected by cannon; Lord Grey's and Shrewsbury's forces made up the flanks; the camp was pressed close the River Nene. The Yorkist forces deployed in the Delapré Abbey Deer Park, Warwick and Fauconberg's forces arrayed on either side of the Delapré Abbey; March's faced Lord Grey's.
The battle began with a Yorkist advance on the Lancastrian position. It seems that rain began to pour as they did so. This meant that the Lancastrians couldn't fire their cannons, as the gunpowder became wet. Even so, the Lancastrians were able to discharge volleys of arrows upon the Yorkist troops, who for their part were unable to take the fence and ditch. It was a hard-fought battle, but finally swung in favour of the Yorkists when Lord Edmund Grey of Ruthin (later made Earl of Kent) defected to their side. The defection (or treachery the Lancastrians might have said) turned the tide.
This was no spur of the moment decision by Grey. That he would defect was known to the Yorkists before the battle; the idea was that Edward and Grey would join forces on the battlefield, so March's soldiers were given strict orders not to attack anyone wearing Grey's signature emblem. Thus, the deception was concealed until a crucial moment in the battle. Grey and March turned on the Lancastrian forces and fought their way into the defensive perimeter. Warwick and Fauconberg joined the fray and the Lancastrians routed, many trying to flee across the river. Buckingham, Shrewsbury Egremont and Lord Beaumont, all died at the king's side.
Aftermath: The battle was a resounding success for the Yorkists after the setback at Ludford Bridge. Many of the Yorkists' opponents were now dead. Henry VI was once again captured and taken (eventually) to London. Eventually the Lancastrian garrison in Tower of London surrendered on amicable terms (although Lord Scales was killed trying to escape). Richard of York returned from Ireland and made a play for the throne. No-one was having it. Instead a comprise was reached. Henry VI would continue his reign as king, and upon his death, York and his descendants would assume the throne. That of course meant that Edward of Westminster was effectively disinherited. Margaret, who was still at large in the country, would not take it lying down. She would make her move, and soon.
Battle of Wakefield (30 December 1460)
Victor: House of Lancaster
Notable casualties: Richard, Third Duke of York; Edmund, Earl of Rutland; Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury
Prelude to the battle: In mid-1460 Richard Duke of York probably felt good about the way things had turned out. Sure, he had not taken the throne, but he had done the next best thing. He had (he thought) ensured that his line would rule England after the death of Henry VI. However, the wheel of fortune turned fast in those days and soon the storm clouds of battle were gathering apace.
Margaret of Anjou was still free out in the country, a fact that was no doubt always in the back of Richard's mind. What was more, she was assembling another army in the north: from Stafford she went to Wales (where she met Jasper Tudor) and then Scotland, gathering troops as she went. She had two goals in mind: getting rid of York once and for all and restoring her disinherited son, Edward of Westminster. Other Lancastrians forces began to gather in strength in the north of England; men who had lost family members to the Yorkists over the years, among them the Earls of Northumberland and Devon, Lord John Clifford and the Duke of Somerset. The coalesced around Pontefract Castle in West Yorkshire and began harrying and raiding estates belonging to the Duke of York. Richard was forced to look north.
Christmas-time 1460 approached. York decided to return to his base at Sandal Castle near Wakefield to see off the Lancastrian raids. He took with him his son, the 17 year old Edmund, Earl of Rutland and the Earl of Salisbury. His other son Edward went to the Welsh marches on a recruiting mission. Warwick remained in London and kept the capital in check. The time seemed right for an attack on the divided Yorkists. Margaret moved her own forces to Pontefract Castle, not far from York's position. On boxing day, the Lancastrian army under the nominal command of John Clifford (son of the Thomas Clifford slain at St. Albans) moved towards Sandal Castle. Meantime, Richard sent word to his son Edward asking him to reinforce his own forces (according to several sources York had anywhere from 5000 - 9000 men). They would not arrive in time.
Short description: On 30th December 1461 Richard sallied forth from Sandal Castle to meet the Lancastrian forces, without waiting to be reinforced and against the advice of his commanders. Debate still rages as to why the duke took this apparent reckless act. Several theories have been proposed:
York was the victim of a ruse perpetrated by one or Lancastrians feigning to be turncoats
York underestimated the sheer numbers of the Lancastrian army arrayed against him
York understood these risks and decided to attack anyway
York left the castle to defend a group of foragers that were caught unawares outside the castle gates and then found himself surrounded by Lancastrians
Some historians believe that there was no deception or foraging party, and this seems to be the case. It's probable that York simply underestimated the number of Lancastrians out in the field. From his vantage point in the castle he could see only a small number of them. The remaining contingents were all hidden out of sight of the castle. It was only when he ventured outside the castle gates that he realised his mistake. By then it was too late.
By all accounts the Yorkists made a good show of it at first, attacking the Lancastrians relentlessly and furiously outside the castle walls. In the end, strength of numbers won the day and York was seriously wounded. What's not clear is if he died fighting or whether he was captured and then executed. Given what happened to Rutland and Salisbury, it might be reasonable to assume that he died fighting.
Rutland and Salisbury were captured and then executed, the former (so it's said by John Clifford as an act of revenge for the death of his father at St. Albans. The heads of the three Yorkist leaders were then put on public display in York.
Aftermath: After several Yorkist victories, Margaret of Anjou finally had her revenge on York. Yorkist power in the north was broken. But Warwick still held London and he held Henry VI (although that would soon change). Edward, Earl of March was still at large, and he became new focal point for the Yorkist cause.
Battle of Mortimer's Cross (3rd February1461)
Victor: House of York
Notable casualties: Owen Tudor
Prelude to the battle: After the deaths of York, Rutland and Salisbury at the Battle of Wakefield, Yorkist hopes now rested on Edward, Earl of March, now also the 4th Duke of York. Edward's first priority was securing his power base in Herefordshire against the incursions of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke in South West Wales. The Lancastrians had managed to assemble a large army, and that army had been brought to bear in Wakefield. Jasper Tudor had so far remained in his power base of South West Wales recruiting troops and mercenaries both at home and abroad.
A confrontation between Edward and Jasper was inevitable. Jasper planned to move against Edward's holdings in Herefordshire, Edward need to secure them and break Jasper's power base in Wales thus ensuring he could continue his campaigning elsewhere. While Jasper and his soldiers moved towards Wigmore and Kingsland (possibly on route to Ludlow), Edward moved his own forces to Mortimer's Cross in order to intercept them. There, he and his men witnessed a meteorological event caused by the cold weather called a parhelion, an optical illusion that causes the appearance of three suns in the sky. Edward took it as a good omen and sign of victory to come, which re-assured his men; Edward would later take the image and use it in his emblem, the Sun in Splendour.
Edward's army deployed across the Lugg Valley, between a high ridge on their right and the River Lugg on the left. Some sources (not contemporary) suggest a secret detachment of archers were placed on this high ridge by Edward, who also placed a contingent of cavalry near Buzzard Valley (see map) in order to check a Lancastrian advance. When Jasper's army arrived and saw the Yorkist army, they too deployed in battle order along the Lugg Valley. Commanding the army alongside Jasper was his father, Owen Tudor (now married to Catherine of Valois) and James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire.
Short description: Records of the actual battle are sketchy but it seems that the Lancastrians attacked first. The Earl of Wiltshire attacked Edward's right wing and caused them to flee. Jasper Tudor, commanding the centre, attacked the Yorkists but was repelled. His father, Owen Tudor attempted to out-flank Edward's left-wing but was routed. Jasper Tudor's contingent then broke as well and all the Lancastrian forces routed. Pembroke and Wiltshire were able to flee the battle, pursued by Yorkists all the way to Hereford. They managed to escape, but Owen Tudor was not so lucky: he was captured and summarily executed. Other Lancastrians fled back to Wales.
A slightly different perspective on the battle is offered by britishbattles.com. According to the site, it's likely that Edward surprised the Lancastrians with his hidden horse and archers, who did great damage to them. Edward then attacked the Lancastrians, who were pushed against the banks of the Lugg River. A mini massacre ensued.
Aftermath: The battle was a resounding success for the Yorkists and Edward personally. He had proven himself a capable and decisive military commander. He was able to secure his Hereford holdings and the path to London was now clear. However, the Wars of the Roses were far from over.
Maps of the battles
Maps are by John Fawkes