The Wars of the Roses is a contemporary name given to a series of civil wars fought by two opposing royal families, the House of York, represented by a white rose, and the House of Lancaster, represented by a red rose. Both families were descendants of Edward III, a Plantagenet King who ruled from 1327 until 1377. The seeds of war were sown when Edward died and his sons and their families starting fighting for the throne.
Origins of the Wars of the Roses
Edward III had five sons who made it to adulthood but unfortunately the eldest two, Edward, the Black Prince and Lionel, Duke of Clarence, died before him.
His 3rd son was John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, and it’s from him that 2 family branches emerge, the House of Lancaster and the Beaufort’s. John’s son from his first marriage, Henry Bolingbroke, would eventually become Henry IV, the first Lancastrian King of England. The Beaufort family are the children John had with his mistress Katherine Swynford who became his 3rd wife in 1396. The four children they had out of wedlock were legitimised by a statute of Richard II in 1397, but Henry VI added an amendment to this statute and barred them from the throne.
Edmund, 1st Duke of York, was Edward’s 4th son and his descendants are the House of York.
When Edward III died in 1377 his successor was his 10 year old grandson, Richard II. Richard had become heir the year before when his father, The Black Prince, had died. During his early years as King the government was run by councils and his uncle, John of Gaunt, exerted a great amount of influence.
When John of Gaunt died in 1399 Richard II disinherited John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, who had already been exiled. Henry invaded England and quickly gained enough power and support to depose the King, who was not very popular. Henry imprisoned Richard II in Pontfract Castle where he died, most probably murdered.
House of Lancaster: Henry IV 1399 – 1413
& Henry V 1413 – 1422
Henry IV had now established the House of Lancaster, however, as he had claimed the crown by force and there were others with a better claim to it than him, he had to fight hard to retain it and spent much of his reign dealing with rebellions. He was succeeded by his son Henry V in 1413 who was a strong leader but died aged only 35 during one of his many French military campaigns. This left his young son to inherit the throne, who became Henry VI.
House of Lancaster: Henry VI 1422 – 1461
Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. She was a passionate and dominant woman who heavily influenced the King and would be a major player in the later wars. For many years they remained childless and questions began to be asked as to who would succeed Henry to the throne and who had the better claim. To put it another way, which of the descendants of Edward III’s sons should rule England? The House of Lancaster or the House of York.
For the House of Lancaster there was Edmund Beaufort, the 2nd Duke of Somerset (and 4th Earl of Somerset), who was the grandson of John of Gaunt, Edward III’s 3rd son. Like all Beaufort’s he was barred from the throne but he was the favourite of Henry VI and Margaret.
For the House of York there was Richard Duke of York, who was the grandson of Edmund Duke of York, Edward III’s 4th son. However, it is through his mother, Anne Mortimer, who was the great granddaughter of Lionel Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s 2nd son, that the House of York based their claim to the throne.
York didn’t openly lay claim to his throne at first and more powerful nobles saw to it that he was out of the country a lot of the time on overseas duties. He spent many years as the Lieutenant of France but Henry VI replaced him in favour of Somerset, and re-appointed York as Lieutenant of Ireland. Somerset failed as a soldier and lost many lands to the French. York secretly returned to England in 1452 with an army and stormed on London demanding for Somerset to be arrested for his failures in France. He was stopped at Blackheath by the kings forces and imprisoned for a short while.
York had allies in the form of the Neville family who he was related to through this wife Cecily Neville. They were Richard Neville, the Earl of Salisbury and his son, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who would later become known as “The Kingmaker” The Neville’s were involved in a long running feud with another powerful northern family, the Percy’s, who held the earldom of Northumberland.
When the King was taken ill in 1453 with what was to be one of many bouts of mental illness, York was made Protector of England. In September 1453 he arrested Somerset on charges of treason and imprisoned him in the Tower. The Neville’s also took this opportunity to re-ignite their feud with the Percy’s over the ownership of lands in Northumberland and Yorkshire.
This started a small series of wars between the two most powerful lords in the country which continued until Henry VI recovered from his illness in January 1455. By this time Henry had also had a son, Edward, the Prince of Wales. Somerset was released and immediately formed an alliance with Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, against York and the Neville’s. The Percy’s, along with his wife Margaret of Anjou, were a big influence on Henry VI and they forced York out of the court. York was particularly resentful of Margaret’s control and he finally decided he should assert his superior claim to the throne.
York led a small force of about 3000 men toward London on 22 May 1455 in what was to be the first real battle in the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of First St Albans. It was a Lancastrian defeat and Somerset and Northumberland were both killed.
Henry was injured in the battle and was found by the Yorkist’s in his tent suffering another bout of mental illness. York was again made protector and Margaret was pushed to the side to care for the King. It didn’t take long for old conflicts to re-emerge especially on the subject of whether Richard of York or Henry’s young son Edward would succeed to the throne. Maragaret in particular was adamant that nothing would disinherit her son and refused any compromises offered by York.
Henry recovered in February 1456 and York was again relieved of his post of protector. There were four uneasy years of peace before fighting began again more violently in 1459. Margaret had continued to contest the Yorkist claims to the throne and York knew he had to take action. York attacked the Lancastrians in the Battle of Blore Heath on 23 September 1459 and won a major victory. On 12 October the Yorkist’s were beaten by a much bigger Lancastrian army in the Battle of Ludford Bridge. York returned to Ireland and his eldest son Edward (the future Edward IV), Warwick and Salisbury went to Calais.
In June 1460 Warwick and York’s son Edward invaded England from Calais. Upon hearing this news the Lancastrians stopped in Northampton to build up their defence. On 10 July 1460 the Yorkist army attacked in what was the Battle of Northampton and they captured Henry. Shortly afterwards the Act of Accord was drawn up which named York as Henry VI’s successor and disinherited Henry’s son Edward.
Unfortunately this wasn’t to put an end to the fighting. In north Wales Margaret and her Lancastrian nobles were busy building up an army. York heard that the Lancastrian army was amassing in York and along with Salisbury he took up a defensive position in Wakefield over the Christmas of 1460. On 30 December he attacked the Lancastrian forces, despite being outnumbered, and was killed in the Battle of Wakfield. His second son Edmund and Salisbury were both captured and executed. All three heads were placed on spikes at the gates of York.
York’s eldest son Edward, who was now heir to his claim on the throne, heard of the disaster at Wakefield and decided to join forces with Warwick in London. On the way he heard about a Lancastrian army in central Wales so changed direction and fought them in the Battle of Mortimers Cross on 2 February 1461. Owen Tudor, father of Henry VII, was killed in this battle. After his victory Edward continued on to join Warwick who was waiting for him in St Albans. Before Edward could reach him the Lancastrian’s attacked Warwick and recaptured Henry in the Battle of Second St Albans on 17 February 1461.
The Lancastrians continued to head south but failed to take London and retreated back up North, just as the combined forces of Edward and Warwick were advancing into London from the west. They were able to enter the city with their army and were welcomed by the largely Yorkist supporting city. Edward IV was unofficially crowned in Westminster Abbey and announced that Henry had forfeited his right to the throne by allowing Margaret to raise an army against the House of York, the rightful heirs as stated in the Act of Accord.
House of York: Edward IV 1461 – 1470
Edward and Warwick marched north, gathering an ever expanding army as they went. They met an equally large Lancastrian army in Towton. The Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461 was the biggest battle in the Wars of the Roses. After hours of fighting the Yorkist’s looked to be losing until the Duke of Norfolk arrived with his men and the combined forces manage to defeat the Lancastrians. Henry VI, Margaret and their young son Edward fled to Scotland and Edward IV was officially crowned on June 1461 in Westminster Abbey.
There were further Lancastrian rebellions in the North led by Henry Beaufort in 1464, who was the new Duke of Somerset, but they were defeated in the Battle of Hedgely Moor on 25 April and the Battle of Hexham on 15 April. Somerset was captured and executed. Henry VI was captured again in Lancashire in 1465 and was held in the Tower of London. Margaret and her son Edward were forced to leave Scotland and spent a few years in exile in France.
Unfortunately following this success Edward fell out with his chief supporter and advisor Warwick. Edward had married his wife Elizabeth Woodville, who was not of noble blood, in secret in 1464. It is was a very unpopular marriage and it greatly angered Warwick because he already had a marriage planned for Edward with a French bride. He, along with many other nobles, were also unhappy with the rise to power of the Woodville family, who, it seemed, were being given all the available lands, titles and marriages available at the time. Further conflict ensued between Warwick and Edward when Edward refused to allow his brothers, George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III) to marry Warwick’s daughters Isabel and Anne. By 1469 an alliance had been formed between Warwick and Clarence, who married Warwick’s daughter Isabel against the Kings wishes. Together they raised an army and defeated Edward on 26 July 1469 in the Battle of Edgecote Moor. Edward was captured and imprisoned in Middleham Castle in Yorkshire and Warwick callously executed Elizabeth’s father, Earl Rivers, and her brother without a trial. Finally, on 30 October 1470, Warwick restored Henry VI to the throne.
House of Lancaster: Henry VI 1470 – 1471
The country had been thrown into chaos by Warwick’s actions and most of the nobles didn’t agree with his seizure of power. Edward was escorted back to London by the archbishop of York, who was also Warwick’s brother, and it appeared that Warwick and Edward had resolved their differences.
Edward was able to suppress a further rebellion at the Battle of Losecote Fields on 12 March 1470 but when he interrogated the leaders he discovered that Warwick and Clarence were the driving forces behind it. Declared traitors, Warwick and Clarence were forced to flee to France where they formed an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, who was also in exile there. To cement this allegiance Warwick’s daughter Anne was married to Margaret’s son Edward, the Prince of Wales.
Not long after, Edward was forced up north to defend against another rebellion so Warwick seized his opportunity to invade England from the south and take London. In October 1470 Warwick paraded Henry VI around London as the newly restored king and received extra support in the form of his brother John Neville. Unprepared for this, Edward and his brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, fled to exile in Burgandy.
Edward’s brother in law, the Duke of Burgandy, helped him to invade England again in 1471. Edward gained some supporters in York and was joined again by his brother Clarence who had abandoned Warwick. Edward re-captured London and met Warwick’s forces on 14 April at the Battle of Barnet where Warwick was killed and Henry was taken prisoner.
With Henry now held captive Margaret was in charge, she returned from France with her army and attempted to join her Lancastrian supporters in Wales. She was denied passage through Gloucester and her troops were forced to fight Edward’s forces at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May. It was the House of York’s final decisive victory and one of the bloodiest moments of the entire war. The Lancastrian army fled and sought refuge in Tewkesbury Abbey but Edward dragged out the leading commanders and beheaded them. Margaret’s 17 year old son Edward was among those killed and she herself was captured. Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower of London where he was murdered on 21 May to help strengthen the House of York’s claim to the throne. Edward’s aim was to leave no Lancastrian claimant alive and for this reason Henry Tudor, son of Margaret Beaufort, was sent into exile in France, as by now he could claim to be the last surviving Lancastrian heir.
House of York: Edward IV 1471 – 1483
For the rest of Edward’s reign peace was restored to England. His brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, was rewarded for his loyalty and support with lands but his other brother, the Duke of Clarence, became increasingly estranged and was executed for treason in 1478. He had tried to say that Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was unlawful meaning their children were illegitimate, this had such dangerous implications that George had to go. Legend has it that he was allowed to choose his own method of execution as an act of mercy, and was drowned in a barrel of Malmsey wine! All would have been well had Edward not died unexpectedly on 9 April 1483 after catching a chill whilst out boating. The country was once again plunged into turmoil, especially as the nobles were still hugely resentful about the amount power the Woodville’s held at court.
When Edward died his eldest son, the future Edward V, was only 12 and under the stewardship of his uncle Earl Rivers (Elizabeth Woodville’s brother) in Ludlow, Wales. Richard had been appointed Protector of the Realm on Edward IV’s deathbed (and was already the Constable of England) and when he died Richard, who was up north at the time, was immediately advised by the Lord Chamberlain to send an army to London to suppress any potential Woodville forces. At the same time the young Edward V was also being escorted down to London by Earl Rivers, under orders from Elizabeth who quite rightly feared for his safety. They were intercepted by Richard at Stony Stratford and Rivers was taken prisoner (he was later executed) Richard continued on to London with Edward where, on the 4th May 1483, he placed him in the Tower and began making plans for him to be crowned on the 22nd May.
Elizabeth Woodville meanwhile had taken sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her other children as she feared for her safety. Somehow, the Archbishop of Canterbury was able to persuade her a little later to allow her other son, Richard, to join Edward in the Tower. Some people believe that Elizabeth managed to smuggle her son to safety and actually sent a look a like servant boy to the Tower in his place, but there is no real evidence for this theory. However, once the boys were secured in the Tower evidence was presented to the Royal Council by a Bishop named Shillington that Edward IV had actually been pre-contracted to marry a Lady Eleanor Butler. As this was a legally binding contract it invalidated his marriage to Elizabeth and made all their children illegitimate, which in turn barred them from the throne. The children of Richard’s older brother George had also been barred from the throne due to his execution and attainder, which meant Richard was the legitimate heir. As a result Parliament proclaimed him King on the 25th June 1483 and officially confirmed everything the following year in an act called the Titilus Regius. “The Princes in the Tower” as they became known were never seen again and were quite possibly murdered, although by who remains a mystery. The theory that Richard III was behind it first came up during the reign of the Tudors and could well have been propaganda to strengthen their cause. In 1674 bones were found in the Tower that are believed to be those of princes and they were given a proper burial in Westminster Abbey in 1678.
House of York: Richard III 1483 – 1485
At first Elizabeth tried to free her sons and restore Edward V to the throne but after she was told by the Duke of Buckingham that they were murdered she joined forces with him and made an alliance with Margaret Beaufort who was the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt and the niece of Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset. Together they sought to push the cause of Margaret’s son Henry Tudor who was by now the closest male Lancastrian heir.
Henry was descended from the Beaufort family who, although they were legitimised, had been forbidden from succeeding to the throne. For this reason Edward IV had not seen him as a great threat but his mother Margaret had always protested his claim. Margaret and Elizabeth Woodville made an arrangement for Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth of York, who was the York heiress on account of her brothers deaths, to marry Margaret’s son Henry and unite the House of York and the House of Lancaster.
Margaret and Elizabeth’s ally, The Duke of Buckingham, failed in a rebellion against Richard and was executed. Margaret was saved from the executioners block but was put under house arrest with her husband, Thomas Lord Stanley, acting as her jailer. On the face of it he was a Yorkist supporter but the reality was he put his family’s interests first and was happy to back whatever side was winning at the time. With him and Margaret on supposedly opposing sides they were in a strong position to negotiate if either were found to be backing the losing side. The plots against Richard continued and he could never really feel secure on the throne especially when he also lost his young son in 1484 which put the future of the House of York in further jeopardy. With his wife Anne Neville sick, possibly with TB, Richard began to look for a new wife who could produce a much needed heir and his attentions soon turned to his own niece, Elizabeth of York!
The Battle of Bosworth Field 1485 – Where the Tudors Begin
The rebellion had effectively split the house of York. The Yorkist dissidents who were against Richard III and believed him to be a usurper now went to support Henry Tudor who was in exile in France. Confident he would gain enough support once back in England Henry gathered up his troops, made up of exiles and French mercenaries, and set sail for England on 1 August 1485. He landed in Pembrokeshire on 7 August and gathered supporters as he marched through Wales, where he met Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August. Margaret’s husband, Lord Stanley, cunningly stood at half way point on the battlefield and then switched his allegiance to Henry at a pivotal moment. Richard was killed valiantly in battle by Henry’s troops and he was able to lay claim to the throne of England by “right of conquest”, paving the way for him to begin his new dynasty, The Tudors. He was crowned Henry VII in Westminster Abbey on 30th October 1485 and subsequently married Elizabeth of York on 18th January 1486, uniting the House of York with the House of Lancaster. The famous Tudor symbol of a red and white rose is a combination of the red and white roses of Lancaster and York.
It is important to note that before marrying Elizabeth Henry had made her legitimate again by ordering his first Parliament to repeal the Titilus Regius. All copies were supposed to have been destroyed and it may well have been lost to history had the Croyland Chronicler not kept a secret copy. Also, the delay between Henry’s ascent to the throne and his marriage emphasised the fact that the throne was his by ”right of conquest” and not through his union with Elizabeth of York. Incidentally he had also dated his reign from the day before the Battle of Bosworth!
The Battle of Stoke – The end of The Wars of the Roses
Although the marriage was supposed to have united the Houses of York and Lancaster, The Wars of the Roses didn’t quite end there. Before Richard III was killed he had named his nephew, John de la Pole, 1st Earl of Lincoln, as his heir. Lincoln appeared to have reconciled with Henry but when the pretender Lambert Simnel appeared on the scene, pretending to be the Duke of Clarence’s son, Edward, 17th Earl of Warwick (who Henry had already imprisoned in the Tower) Lincoln saw an opportunity for revenge. He fled to the Court of his aunt, Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy and with her financial backing plus the support of other loyal Yorkists, he planned an invasion. The Battle of Stoke was fought on the 16th June 1487 and was to be the last battle in the Wars of the Roses, the last time York would fight against Lancaster. It was a decisive victory for Henry and Lincoln was killed but the House of York was to see tragedy for many more years to come. The Tudors always knew that their claim to the throne was weak and they could never feel secure on the throne whilst so many of the House of York were still alive so they spent the next 80 years or so trying to eliminate their line. It wasn’t just the House of York either, the Tudors were a ruthless and tough bunch who dealt brutally with anyone they saw as a threat to their dynasty!
It is perhaps due to their precarious claim to the throne that the Tudors were also to become one of the most magnificent and successful of all the royal houses as they sought to compensate for their shortcomings by showing off their wealth and and majesty, building magnificent palaces and commissioning wonderful pieces of art. Not only that, the end of the Wars of the Roses also marked the end of medieval England as the Tudors moved us towards a more modern and prosperous state, paving the way for the England we see today.
If you want to find out more about the Wars of the Roses, a selection of books are recommended below.