top of page
  • Writer's pictureDom

A Concise History of the Wars of the Roses (Part 3)

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 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 continued

In Part 2 of this three-part series on the War of the Roses we examined the decisive battles fought between York and Lancaster from 1455 - 61, starting with the First Battle of St Albans. This period of fighting saw the deaths of Richard, Third Duke of York and his son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland. It also saw the rise of Edward, Earl of March as the new focal point around which the Yorkists rallied. In this last part we'll examine the remaining conflicts of the Wars of the Roses, kicking off appropriately with the Second Battle of St. Albans, fought in 1461. We'll see who ultimately triumphed, and why.

The Second Battle of St. Albans (17th February1461)

Winner: House of Lancaster

Notable casualties: John Grey of Groby

Prelude to the battle: Following their victory at the Battle of Wakefield, the Lancastrian forces led by Margaret of Anjou now turned their attention towards London with the twin aims of re-taking the capital and reclaiming the person of Henry VI from the Yorkists. As the Lancastrian army moved southwards, looting and pillaging as it went, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick moved northwards out of London with his own army to intercept it. With him was the distressed Henry VI. Also accompanying Warwick were his brother John Neville, Lord Montagu and John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk.

Warwick's army camped at St. Albans ahead of the Lancastrian army. Anticipating an attack from the north, Warwick took up defensive positions along Watling Street, laying down cannons, firearms, calthrops, pavises, wires and other defensive devices. The army itself was divided into three divisions, with Warwick himself commanding the centre. Norfolk took up a southwards position on Bernard's Heath alongside Henry VI. Montagu commanded what was meant to be front line contingent situated at Normandsland Common to the north. Warwick's forces were impressive by all accounts. However, they were all pointed northwards (as they expected the Lancastrians to attack from the north) and because of the entrenched defensive positions, quick mobility on the field was limited. It would become a deciding factor in the battle to come.

The Lancastrians were on the move, led by Margaret herself and supported by Henry Beaufort, Duke of the Somerset, alongside the Earl of Northumberland and Lord John Clifford. It appears that Margaret was aware of Warwick's movements through Sir Henry Lovelace, the steward of the Earl of Warwick’s own household. As the Lancastrians approached St. Albans, Margaret suddenly decided to sweep west and into the town of Dunstable. The site suggests that Warwick's scouts informed the earl that the Lancastrian forces had been seen nine miles way on the road to Dunstable, and that Neville did little or nothing to move the army around to face the Lancastrians' position. In any case, the Lancastrian army did not dither at Dunstable, but moved quickly towards St. Albans.

Short description: It appears that the Lancastrians attacked at dawn led by Andrew Trollope, moving up the hill past the abbey and into the town centre. They were met with fierce resistance from Yorkist archers, who shot at them from within the windows of the houses they had been billeted in. That first attack was repulsed, but the Lancastrians regrouped at the ford of the River Ver and made another altogether more successful assault against the Yorkist forces inside the town centre, moving through Folly Lane and Catherine Street and engaging in fierce hand to hand combat on the streets of St. Albans. The Yorkists made a good show of it but were eventually overcome. The town belonged to the Lancastrians.

Having thus secured the town, the Lancastrians turned their attention to Montagu's position at Bernard's Heath. This was meant to have been the rear-guard of the Yorkist's battle forces and therefore the least likely to see actual fighting (which is why Henry VI had gone with him). Fighting they would see, however, with the Lancastrians storming Montagu's position. The cold weather prevented the use of cannons and firearms, and the Yorkist line crumbled under the Lancastrian onslaught. Outflanked and outmanoeuvred and unable to turn his army around quickly or easily, Warwick realised the battle was lost and called for a general retreat; he himself withdrew to Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire with 4000 of his men. Montagu, not so lucky. was captured by the victorious Lancastrians, although his life was spared. John Grey, first husband of Elizabeth Woodville (future Queen of England), was killed in the fighting.

Aftermath: The Yorkists abandoned Henry VI in their retreat, who was found under an oak tree apparently singing to himself while being guarded by two loyal knights, the elderly Lord Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyriel. Both were summarily executed for their troubles. Andrew Trollope was knighted for his services. Margaret and her son Edward (now 7 years old) were reunited with Henry VI. The army now made its way to London but were denied entry by the citizens: apparently the army's reputation for pillaging and looting preceded it (although in some accounts it's Henry VI who denies his army entry into London). In a rare moment of indecision, Margaret hesitated about what to do next. Eventually, the army moved back towards Dunstable.

Meanwhile, Warwick had joined forces with Edward, Earl of March. hot off his victory at Mortimer's Cross. They both marched down to London and rode through its gates on the 2nd of March. The young, charismatic leader was quickly proclaimed Edward IV of England by Warwick. The country now had two kings.

The Battle of Towton (29th March 1461)

Winner: House of York

Notable casualties: Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland; Sir Andrew Trollope, among many others.

Prelude to the battle: The Lancastrian army had ultimately retreated north to York after failing to enter London. In the meantime, Edward, Earl of March was proclaimed Edward IV of English and this was acclaimed by Parliament. Edward and Warwick then marched north together in pursuit of the fleeing Lancastrians.

While the royal family remained in York, the bulk of the Lancastrian army moved to Tadcaster in Yorkshire under the command of the Duke of Somerset, Henry Beaufort. With him was Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Henry Holland, the Duke of Exeter as well as Sir Andrew Trollope. Trollope had actually been a Yorkist sympathiser until he turned coat at the engagement at Ludford Bridge in 1459. From Tadcaster, Somerset moved the army to a position just south of Towton. The Yorkists moved to meet them.

One of Edward's first actions was to send detachment of troops to secure the river crossing at Ferrybridge, under the command of Lord Robert Fitzwalter. The Yorkists found the bridge demolished and set about restoring it, which they did on March 27th. The following day Fitzwalter and his troops were surprised by Lord John Clifford leading a mounted raiding party. Fitzwalter was killed and the Yorkists scattered. Clifford had the bridge demolished once again. Edward retaliated. He sent a detachment of crossbow men under the command of William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, to deal with Clifford. Fauconberg pursued Clifford and managed to kill him and one of his captains.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the Lancastrian army was deployed in battle order, settling into the plateau between the towns of Towton and Saxton. Some accounts have the Lancastrians concealing a contingent of mounted troops in Castle Hill Wood, near a bend in the Cock Beck river. Towton and Tadcaster were behind the Lancastrian army.

The Yorkist army then deployed along the same plateau, positioning themselves in front of the road to Saxton. Leading the army was of course Edward, newly proclaimed king of England. With him were the Earl of Warwick and his uncle Lord Fauconberg. The Yorkists were outnumbered and missing the Duke of Norfolk's troops. Sources put the Lancastrian and Yorkist forces at 30,000 and 25,000 respectively. The battle itself as been deemed as one of the bloodiest ever on English soil. And on a Palm Sunday to boot.

Short description: The battle started when the Yorkists under Lord Fauconberg fired volleys of arrows into the Lancastrians. The wind was in their favour and the arrows hit their marks. Between each volley the Yorkists would retreat so the retaliatory Lancastrian volleys missed their targets. This was compounded by in the wind flying against them and by the bitter snowstorm that started to rage as the battle commenced. Their visibility thus hindered, the Lancastrians had no idea that their arrows were not hitting their targets, while the Yorkists were able to re-use the discharged Lancastrian arrows when their own run out.

The Lancastrians infantry then started to advance, still hindered by the snowstorm swirling around the battlefield. The Yorkists continued to discharge their arrows, killing many Lancastrians. The Earl of Northumberland and Sir Andrew Trollope fell during this time. The two armies met in the middle of the snowy, bloody field. Soldiers clashed in the quagmire, bodies piled up. The contingent of hidden mounted troops sprung their ambush and attacked the Yorkist left flank; the line was in danger of giving way but Edward was on hand, moving around, rallying the men and inspiring them to keep fighting. The battle lasted for hours and was brutal and hard fought on both sides; both the Lancastrians and the Yorkists had been told not to give any quarter to the other side. Slowly and surely though, the superior Lancastrian numbers were making a difference in the fight. If Norfolk and his troops did not make an appearance soon, the battle would be lost.

But they did, riding into the fray and attacking the Lancastrian left flank and making their ranks disperse and break apart. The soldiers then began to flee, and the escape became a rout became a massacre. Many thought to flee towards Tadcaster and found the way blocked. Instead they made for Castle Hill Wood and the area that later came to be known as Bloody Meadow. Thousands perished, cut down by the pursuing Yorkists. Many more died trying to cross the Cock Beck river, but were either swallowed by it's swollen banks or killed by Yorkist arrows. It's said that a total of 28,000 men died at the Battle of Towton.

Aftermath: The Battle of Towton cemented Edward as King of England; he would go back to London to be formally crowned, which he was on June 29th 1491. Henry, Margaret and their son Edward all fled to Scotland, accompanied by the Dukes of Somerset and Exeter. Edward had seemingly won, but his enemies were still out in the field and Henry VI was still alive. Despite this, a period of peace settled across England that lasted several years. However, it could not - and did not - last.

The Battle of Barnet (14th April 1471)

Winner: House of York

Notable casualties: Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick; John Neville, Lord Montagu

Prelude to the battle: Ten years had passed since Edward IV won the crown of England. A couple of minor battles had been fought and won 1464, first at Hedgeley Moor (25th April) and then Hexham (15th May). The latter battle resulted in the capture and execution of Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Then more good news followed in 1465: Henry VI had once more been captured. He was brought to the capital and placed in the Tower of London.

There was even more good news. The erstwhile Lancastrian royal family in the form of Margaret and her son Edward had been hiding out in Scotland and therefore out of Edward's reach. However, that state of affairs changed after Edward was crowned king. Mother and son were forced to leave Scotland, and the next few years saw them lead a life of exile in France.

It was not all sunshine and roses for Edward though. Warwick had amassed great power, wealth and influence in the intervening years. The source was his marriage, his inheritance and all the honours and lands Edward bestowed upon him as a reward for his service. Moreover, he had the ear of the king, a king he had raised up. So Warwick could be forgiven for thinking he was riding high. But the wheel of fortune kept on turning. And it was turning away from him.

The root of all the trouble that followed between Edward and Warwick was marriage, specifically the king's. Edward was young, charismatic, tall, good looking and had no shortage of mistresses. What he did not have was a wife, and one of the duties of being a king was to marry and have heirs. Warwick thought he had found the perfect bride for Edward: Bona of Savoy, a French princess and sister-in-law to Louis XI, King of France. Marriage between the two, Warwick reckoned, would cement an alliance with France, something he personally favoured. So off Warwick went (with Edward's blessing) to France to negotiate for Bona's hand and thus secure the alliance.

But there was a problem. Edward was already married to Elizabeth Woodville, widow of the late John Grey of Groby who had fallen at the Second Battle of Albans. Elizabeth, who had had two children with Grey, was older than Edward but still beautiful and attractive. By all accounts it was a love match. However, the wedding had been performed in secret and Edward had told no-one at court. When Edward finally openly admitted he was married to Elizabeth Woodville, the court was stunned; the news sent shockwaves. When Warwick found out, he was furious. Edward had made him out to look like a fool. He was humiliated.

The trouble spread from there and their relationship became ever more strained. He hated the king's new bride: she was common, she was a widow with children, she was poor and more besides: not at all suitable for a king of England. Even more unforgiveable, Warwick's influence on Edward dwindled as the Woodville faction's increased. He saw Woodville relatives gain, power, prestige, titles, lands, estates, favourable marriages and more. Meanwhile, his own daughters' prospects of marriage dwindled as eligible bachelors were wedded off to other brides. It could not - and would not - stand. Increasingly alienated and marginalised, Warwick decided to act. He would make Edward see that he was mistaken in his affection and attention towards the Woodvilles: they were not worthy of his praise. Further still, they were a bad influence. And, if he could not make Edward see, well, he could always be replaced by his brother George, Duke of Clarence.

Clarence was a vain and weak-willed man, so it not take long to convince him to join Warwick's conspiracy. In July1469 he married Warwick's oldest daughter, Isabel. Edward had expressly forbidden such a match, but Clarence went ahead with it anyway, defying his brother. Edward was outraged but seems to have done little. A series of rebellions and uprisings followed, instigated by Clarence and Warwick, and these culminated in the Battle of Edgcote on the 24th July 1469, which Edward lost. He was taken into custody by Warwick and Clarence and held in Warwick Castle. He was released just a few months later (apparently there was no enthusiasm for killing a king at that time). Edward resumed his kingly duties but did not actively seek out reprisals against either Warwick or Clarence.

Warwick had failed to make Edward see sense. So it was time for plan B, replacement. Warwick and Clarence engineered a fresh rebellion, and this one ended in the Battle of Losecoat Field in March 1470. Edward's forces were victorious this time around, and the king found out the extent of Warwick and Clarence's betrayal. They fled to the court of King Louis XI in France, Clarence taking his then pregnant wife with him. Warwick was reconciled with Margaret of Anjou and switched his allegiance to the House of Lancaster. His youngest daughter, Anne, was wed to Edward, Prince of Wales, cementing the new alliance. It's fair to say that Clarence at this time was probably feeling not to happy about how things were proceeding. It seems that Warwick had other plans, plans that did not involve placing Clarence on the throne of England. However, he bided his time for now.

Warwick, now firmly a Lancastrian returned to England in October 1470 at the head of an army. Edward was seemingly caught unawares and fled to Burgundy along with his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. This apparent abdication of the throne led to the brief restoration of Henry VI's troubled reign. However, it did not last. Edward returned to England in March 1471 at the head of his own army. Echoing Henry Bolingbroke almost a century earlier, Edward claimed at first that all he wanted was the restoration of his title of Duke of York. Of course, he wanted much more than that. Edward wanted his kingdom back and was prepared to fight for it.

It all culminated in the Battle of Barnet in April1471, fought on an Easter Sunday.

Short description: Hearing of Edward's advance to meet him (the former having by then dropped all pretence of simply wanting the title of Duke back), Warwick holed himself up in the castle at Coventry. There he waited for his brother Montagu, the Duke of Clarence and reinforcements from the Dukes of Exeter and Oxford. But Clarence had switched his allegiance back to Edward and the House of York. The three brothers York, reunited again, reached Coventry. Edward was prepared to give battle, but the Earl was having none of it; all entreaties fell on deaf ears. Edward decided to move down southwards to London, which willingly opened its gates to him. He took possession of the capital - and the person of Henry VI), and was reunited with his wife and his family (Elizabeth Woodville had taken sanctuary in Westminster Abbey when Edward fled to Burgundy and she had given birth to the future Edward V in his absence). Warwick for his part decided to give chase and followed Edward south. Edward did not tarry long. Moving northwards out of the city with his army, Edward marched all the way to Barnet.

The Lancastrian army under Warwick deployed to the north of Barnet, along Gladmore Heath, close to the area known as Dead Man's Bottom. Edward's army pulled up the night of 13th April, and he stood his forces down in battle order, so they would be ready to fight in the morning. However, in the twilight of the evening, Edward miscalculated how close the Lancastrian army actually was, so he pitched the Yorkist camp closer to the Lancastrian position than he intended. Additionally, and as comments, the two armies weren’t directly opposite each other. Each army’s right flank overlapped its opponent’s left. This misalignment would have a major effect on the course of the battle on the following day.

During the night, Warwick ordered an artillery barrage against the Yorkist position. Again, not realising just how close the Yorkist army was, the artillery shells just flew over the Yorkists' heads. Edward, for his part, did not order an artillery barrage on the Lancastrian camp.

The morning of the battle a heavy fog rolled in that obscured vision on both sides. The Lancastrian army drew up and deployed themselves in battle formation, with Oxford and Exeter on the flanks and Warwick commanding the centre with Montagu. On the Yorkists' side, Edward commanded the centre along with his brother, Clarence. His other brother Richard commanded the right flank. Edward's old friend, William Lord Hastings, commanded the left flank. The scene for the battle was set.

The two armies marched towards each other, not realising in the fog that they weren't directly facing each other. In the centre the two armies found each other and hacking and fighting began. On the right, Richard led his men in an attack on the Lancastrian right flank only to find there was no one there to fight. He swung his troops to the left and finally found and clashed with Exeter's men, having to go up an incline to do so.

On the other flank the same thing happened but in reverse. The Earl of Oxford marched his men towards the Yorkists' left flank only to find no-one waiting for them. They swung to the right and finally encountered Lord Hasting's troops. The Lancastrians fared better here than on the other flank, having no incline to navigate. The Yorkist left flank under Hastings disintegrated; the soldiers scattered and were pursued by Oxford's men, who then set about pillaging and raiding the town of Barnet.

Eventually Oxford's men decided to return to the battle, their appetites for raiding satiated. In the fog they were spotted by Warwick's men and mistaken for Yorkists. Warwick's men fired a volley of arrows and charged Oxford's men, who retaliated in turn. Cries of "Treason!" ruing out across the battlefield and the Lancastrians' morale broke. Edward pressed the advantage, threw his reserves at the Lancastrians and attacked with renewed vigour. The Yorkist left flank may have broken but the centre and right did not: the battle wore on and the casualties mounted. The Lancastrian army beaten, Warwick attempted to flee but was cut down trying to get to his horse (he had earlier decided to dismount and fight on foot). Also dead was his brother, Lord Montagu. Exeter, Somerset (who was also present at the battle) and Oxford all survived, the latter fleeing first to Scotland and then France. There is some controversy among scholar about whether Edmund Beaufort, the new Duke of Somerset was at the battle. In any case, it's estimated that between 1000 - 2000 Lancastrians died compared to 500 on the Yorkist side.

Aftermath: The Battle of Barnet effectively ended Neville hegemony in the north, and most of their assets would eventually be conferred on Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Margaret landed in Weymouth, England on the day of the battle and soon learnt of the disaster that had befallen the Lancastrians at Barnet. Apparently, she contemplated returning to France but resolved in the end to stay and fight to the last, urged on by her son the Prince of Wales. Edward IV for his part returned to London, taking with him the bodies of the two Neville brothers. They were displayed in St. Pauls Cathedral for three days as proof of their death. They were then buried at Bisham Abbey in Berkshire. Edward had little time to rest and prepare. There was one final confrontation with the Lancastrians to be fought, and the time was fast approaching.

The Battle of Tewkesbury (4th May 1471)

Winner: House of York

Notable casualties: Edward, Prince of Wales

Prelude to the battle: On the 14th of April (the same day of the Battle of Barnett) Margaret and her son landed in England. Lancastrian loyalists flocked to their side, including Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. They soon realised that a direct assault on London was impossible given the hostility of the city and the limited number of troops they had. It was decided the best course of action was to meet up with Jasper Tudor in Wales. On the way they could reinforce their army with greater numbers. They headed for Bristol and got there on the 1st of May. However, they did not tarry long there. Speed was of the essence. Edward IV was by then hot in pursuit, having learnt of Margaret's landing only a dew days after the Battle of Barnet. He had quickly assembled an army at Windsor, and that army was now on the move.

The Lancastrians now made a bee line for Gloucester, hoping to cross the River Severn there. They managed to throw Edward off the scent temporarily by feigning a move towards the town of Sodbury. The ruse did not work for long and Edward realised that the Lancastrians were hurrying to Gloucester. He gave orders to the governor there - Sir Richard Beauchamp - not to open the gates to the Lancastrians when they arrived, which they did on the morning of the 3rd of May. He complied, and the army was forced to move further north to Tewkesbury to try and make the crossing at the Lower Lode ford. There was only one problem. The crossing there could only be made by ferry (there was no bridge) and that could take hours, time they did not have, as Edward's army was now fast approaching. Furthermore, the army itself was exhausted and in need of rest. The Duke of Somerset realised there was no choice but to give battle to the Yorkists, and the Lancastrians entrenched themselves in a defensive position just outside the town of Tewksbury. It was now the evening of the 3rd of May.

That same evening, Edward his army rolled up and set up camp at Tredington, about three miles away. The men were exhausted and famished and welcomed the rest after such a brutal, ceaseless march. Battle - the last between Lancastrians and Yorkists - would be given the following day.

Short description: The morning of the 4th of May was spent reconnoitring the battlefield and the Lancastrian army. The Yorkists saw that the army had deployed into the usual three divisions. The centre was nominally commanded by the Prince of Wales but really led by Lord John Wenlock. John Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, had the left flank. The right was commanded by the Duke of Somerset himself.

Edward then similarly deployed his army into three divisions. He would command the centre with Clarence, while Gloucester took charge of the vanguard. Hastings brought up the rear division. Unbeknownst to the Lancastrians, Edward also hid 200 mounted troops (possibly spear men) in the area of Tewksbury Park. The idea was to be able to hit Somerset's division in the flank when he least expected it. In terms of numbers, it's estimated that the Lancastrians had between 6000 - 7000 men to the Yorkists' 5000 - 6000.

It's generally agreed that the battle began with an exchange of artillery and arrow fire on both sides that continued even as the two armies began moving towards each other. The difficult terrain, made up of ditches, trenches, hedges, trees and other hazards, made this very awkward and cumbersome. Meanwhile, the Yorkists were having the better of the artillery and arrow file, having more modern equipment than their counterparts. The Lancastrians would have to find a way to break the barrage before it overwhelmed them. Somerset thought he had found the way.

Somerset thought he saw a weakness in Gloucester's division and decided to exploit it. He flanked and attacked Gloucester's division, directing Lord Wenlock to do the same in the centre. Gloucester in turn wheeled about his troops to meet Somerset's assault. The 200 mounted men Edward had hidden in Tewksbury Park now thundered out and charged Somerset's men as well. Somerset's men then also came under attack by the Yorkist centre led by Edward himself. Surrounded and outfought, Somerset's division broke. Wenlock, who had not followed Somerset's directive, was nowhere to be seen. Leaderless and with morale crumbling under the twin assaults of Edward and Hastings, the rest of the army began a disorderly retreat. A slaughter of Lancastrians now ensued as they made their way through the area later called the "Bloody Meadow" and as they tried to cross the River Severn. It's said that Somerset found Wenlock as the latter was fleeing the field and cleaved his head in two with a battle axe for not complying with Somerset's directive.

Aftermath: It seems that around 2000 Lancastrians and around 500 Yorkists died that day. Among the Lancastrian casualties was the 17-year-old Prince of Wales. Conflicting accounts exist about how he met his end. He either died in the field, or found later by the Duke of Clarence and run through or he was taken to Edward IV's tent and hacked to death by the Yorkist leaders. Whatever the case, the Prince of Wales and main Lancastrian hope was dead. Also dead was the Earl of Devon, among many others. Several Lancastrian leaders, including Somerset fled and sought sanctuary at Tewksbury Abbey. It did them no good. They were summarily dragged out of the abbey, given show trials and executed. Other Lancastrians such as the tenacious Jasper Tudor fled into exile to the continent. With the Earl of Pembroke was the young Henry Tudor.

Margaret herself was captured the day after the battle after trying to cross the River Severn. Defeat at Tewksbury and the death of her son had completely broken her spirit, and she submitted to Edward's authority. She was taken to London and placed in the Tower, where was briefly reunited with her husband. Eventually she was ransomed to her father, King Louis XI of France. She lived the remaining years of her life in an impoverished state, a far cry from the ruthless, ambitious and proud queen she had once been. Henry VI was quietly put to death in the Tower of London on the 21st of May on Edward's orders. Thus was the Lancastrian line extinguished. Edward IV, triumphant on all scores, enjoyed a relatively peaceful reign until his untimely death in 1483 aged just 40. Then all hell broke loose once again. The Wars of the Roses would see one final battle.

The Battle of Bosworth (22nd August 1485)

Winner: House of Tudor

Notable casualties: Richard III, formerly Duke of Gloucester: John Howard, Duke of Norfolk

Prelude to the battle: Edward IV enjoyed 12 years of relative peace following the Battle of Tewksbury in 1471. However, he died suddenly on the 9th of April 1483 of unknown causes. Several theories have been proposed, including poison, pneumonia or malaria. Probably the most likely cause is an apoplexy brought on by excessive eating and gorging. It's well documented that Edward, who had grown fat and indulgent in later years, used emetics to induce vomiting; this in turn allowed him to keep on eating and gorge himself even more. Whatever the case, Edward died relatively young, leaving behind his wife Elizabeth and two sons, Edward (born in November 1470) and Richard (born in August 1473). The eldest succeeded his father as Edward V. However, he would never be crowned. His uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester usurped the throne and had himself crowned Richard III on 6th of July. His wife Anne Neville (youngest daughter of the late Earl of Warwick whom Richard married in 1472) became Queen of England at his side. His nephews, who had been kept in the Tower of London for their "safe-keeping" eventually disappeared and were seen no more. Richard's usurpation and apparent murder of his nephews created shockwaves that split the Yorkist base.

Opposition to Richard's rule started early in the reign, resulting in a number of uprisings on the part of disaffected portions of the nobility and gentry in October of that year. They were led by Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, cousin and erstwhile ally to Richard. The uprisings may have been part of the conspiracy between the Woodvilles and Beauforts to have Henry Tudor take the throne and marry Elizabeth of York, older sister of the Princes in the Tower, who were assumed to be dead at that point. In any case, the uprisings failed and Buckingham was put to death in Salisbury in November of 1483. Henry Tudor, who had sailed out of Brittany in an attempt to meet up with Buckingham, was forced to return to the continent after a number of ships were wrecked in a storm and he himself was almost caught in Plymouth. He retreated back to Brittany.

Buckingham's rebellion may have failed but the conspiracies against Richard continued. The plan was the same: have Henry Tudor assume the throne and marry Elizabeth of York to unite the two royal houses. On Christmas Day of 1483, Henry Tudor promised to do just that. It was hoped this gesture would attract Yorkist sympathisers who were on the fence or at least ambivalent about Richard's reign, and who might be persuaded to support Elizabeth, now Edward IV's heir, and by extension Henry Tudor. And some Yorkists did go over to Tudor's side. An attempt to have Henry extradited from Brittany to England failed and he fled to France, where he was given money and men to mount another invasion in 1485. This one would be more successful than the one of two years previously.

Richard had been warned of an impending invasion force led by Tudor and had moved to Nottingham in anticipation of its landing. Henry landed in Milford Haven on 7th of August 1485, accompanied by around 2000 French mercenaries. Also with him were his uncle Jasper Tudor and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford along with other disaffected Lancastrians and Yorkists. As Tudor moved from Wales to Shrewsbury and then down towards London, he was able to gather more supporters, troops and even some artillery. He also asked - and expected - the Stanley brothers William and Thomas to firmly come over to his side. Thomas Stanley, nominally a Yorkist was married to Margaret Beaufort, Henry's mother, which might persuade him to support his step-son. However, perhaps because Richard was keeping his son Lord Strange as a hostage in exchange for his loyalty, or perhaps because the brothers wanted to sit on the fence and see how things would play out, they made no firm commitment to Tudor. The Stanleys could just as easily fall in with Richard. As usual, the brothers were playing both sides.

When Richard heard of Tudor's landing, he immediately sent word out for the royal army to assemble at Leicester. Whether from reluctance or lack or commitment or interest or even disloyalty, troops tricked in, and some nobles did not bother to send any men at all. Richard himself arrived in Leicester on the 20th of August and was reunited with his old companion, the redoubtable John Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, arrived the next day. That day, both sides marched to the place of battle at Bosworth Field, Tudor from Atherstone in Warwickshire (where he'd had his last meeting with the Stanleys) and Richard from Leicester. Richard's army numbered between 8000 -10,000 at this point, and they camped along the crest of Ambion Hill. Henry's army, comprising of around 5000 men, camped a short distance away. Also camping on the area with their respective retainers were the two Stanley brothers. The stage of battle was set once more.

Short description: The next morning, the 22nd August, Richard deployed his troops along the crest of the hill. Leading the vanguard was the Duke of Norfolk and his son, Lord Surrey. The Earl of Northumberland was put in charge of the rear division and reserves. Richard himself commanded the centre division. Tudor deployed his troops in a single block to face Richard's, with the Earl of Oxford in nominal command. Their right flank going up the hill was protected by a boggy area and in fact, the whole battle area was covered in boggy marshlands. The Stanleys watched the battle from their vantage points in the north and south respectively. Both Henry and Richard had asked them to join the battle on their side, but they refused.

The battle started with the Earl of Oxford leading his men up the hill. However, the advance was slow and tough in such marshy conditions, which enabled Richard's troops to open fire with artillery and arrows. Tudor's forces hit back with their own projectile file, and after a brief exchange between the two sides, Richard ordered the Duke of Norfolk to move down the hill with his men to meet Tudor's, and the two armies clashed in hand to hand combat. By all accounts this state of affairs lasted around 2 - 3 hours, and eventually Oxford's men started getting the better of Norfolk's. Seeing the line buckle under the pressure, Richard ordered Northumberland to move in and reinforce Norfolk. However, Northumberland didn't budge. Whether the Earl had switched sides or held a grudge against Richard, or was simply unable to move his troops in such marshy conditions, he was unable to reinforce Norfolk, who then got an arrow in the face. The battle was at its tipping point, with Tudor's forces poised to turn the tide.

Then Richard made his big gamble. From his vantage point on top of the hill, he spotted Henry Tudor exposed and in a position away from the rest of the army. He was surrounded by only a few retainers. If he could move across to where Tudor lay exposed and cut him down, he would win the battle. He spurred on his horse, and charged Henry's position alongside his band of loyal retainers. He hacked away at the men surrounding and protecting Tudor. He cut down Henry's standard bearer, Sir William Brandon, and was merely inches away from Tudor himself. At that moment, the Stanleys entered the fray on Tudor's side. One by one Richard's retainers fell. The king himself was either unhorsed or dismounted, and continued to hack away at those around him. But it was in vain. He was cut down and killed "fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies", the last king of England to die in battle. He also died the last Plantagenet king of England.

Aftermath: Richard's body was abused and humiliated in death, stripped naked and strapped to the back of a pack animal. He was taken to Leicester and buried in Greyfriars Church. His body would then be lost for five centuries.

Against all the odds, Henry Tudor had triumphed and became Henry VII of England. He married Elizabeth of York as he had promised; the union gave rise to the colourful and controversial Tudor dynasty that was two rule England for the next two centuries or so.

Richard had lost both his wife and only child before the Battle of Bosworth, so his heir designate was his nephew, the Earl of Lincoln, John de la Pole. Lincoln would challenge Henry VII's right to supremacy at the Battle of Stoke Field in 1487, but that is a story for another time.

Maps of the battles

Maps by John Fawkes


So what caused the Wars of the Roses? In essence, a series of events impinged upon each other to create the circumstances that made the Wars of the Roses possible: the untimely death of Edward the Black Prince, the tyrannical rule of Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne, the weak and ineffective rule of Henry VI. This last was ultimately the fuse that sparked the conflict. This is because despite the fact that Bolingbroke usurped the throne as Henry IV, the crown then passed to two subsequent generations without incident or rebellion, first to his son Henry V and then his grandson Henry VI.

Had Henry VI been even a somewhat competent ruler, it's conceivable that the break between York and Lancaster would never have happened, which means that the Wars of the Roses would not have taken place. Richard, Third Duke of York served Henry faithfully for years, despite having a better claim to the throne. It was only when Henry VI's rule degenerated to such an extent, that York even thought about taking the throne for himself (an idea he might well have found attractive and hard to resist once it entered his head, hence why he pursued it). It's equally possible that York thought it a matter of principle and duty that he should be the one to provide the country with strong leadership. After all, weak rulers were more than likely to be deposed and no-one really mourned the end of such rulers; to hammer this point home, two recent examples already existed in the forms of Edward II and Richard II, and neither reign was missed or looked back upon with fondness. The exact same thing happened to Henry VI, but not before 30 years of conflict and one of the bloodiest and brutal series of battles that England had ever seen took place. Even the most cynical of observers in the mid-1450s, when the break between York and Lancaster was taking place, would not have predicted this shocking turn of events.

Select bibliography

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page