The Wars of the Roses
DefinitionThe Wars of the Roses is a series of civil wars in England that lasted from 1455 until 1485, thus for 30 years and during the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. The name “ Wars of the Roses “ has its origins in the symbols of the two royal, aristocratic houses that fought against each other, the White Rose of the house of York and the Red Rose of the house of Lancaster. You can also see that these symbols are still used on the flags of Yorkshire and the flag of Lancashire.
The purpose of the wars was to gain the crown either for the House of Lancaster or the House of York. The supporters of York were called Yorkists and the supporters of Lancaster Lancastrians. Both of the houses claimed the throne through the descent of the many sons of king Edward III.
„England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself:The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood;The father rashly slaughter’d his own son;The son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire.All this divided York and Lancaster…“William Shakespeare, Richard III
Origins of the conflict:
1) Hundred Years of War (1337-1453): The Hundred Years of War is a name given to the conflicts between France and England, because England, ruled by Edward III, possessed territories in France like Burgundy, Aquitaine, the Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine, Poitou, Gascony and Saintonge. England demanded high feudal duties from the french peasants, so the French, under the rule of Phillipp VI, started to occupy Aquitaine to claim back their land. Edward also claimed the french throne since he’s the grandson of the former french king Phillip IV.
So a war between France and England broke out in 1337 with the french invasion in Guyenne and continued through the reigns of Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. In this war England lost all of their territories in France, except for Calais and the English crown ended completely bankrupt.
2) Dynastic problems: After king Edward III’s death in 1377, not his son, the so-called black prince became king of England, but the prince’s son Richard II. However, Richard’s rule had been tyrannical, he exiled all of his opponents and as well his cousin Henry who would be the following king if Richard died childless. So Henry invaded England in June 1399 joined by the Percies, an aristocratical family, with a small force and Richard was forced to abdicate, so Henry was crowned king Henry IV. After his dead in 1413 Henry IV was succeeded by his son and later his grandson, Henry V and then Henry VI. This was the House of Lancaster. The weak king Henry VI became king of both England and France at the tender age of 9 months in 1422.
For the first 15 years of his life a regent ruled instead of him. When Henry came of age he demonstrated that despite his qualities as a man, he was a hopeless King.
3) Mental illness of King Henry VI: His mother Catherine of Valois had been the daughter of the king of France Charles VI, who died because of insanity as well as Catherine. So HenryVI had the same illness and was a weak and mad man, and a hopeless king, since he was not really interested in ruling. Henry had no children at the time so the Duke York was considered next in line for the throne.
The Duke was a great grandson of Edward III and heir to the throne until Eduard of Lancaster’s birth in 1453, Henry VI’s son. Henry VI, on the advice of his favorites sent Richard of York away to do many foreign duties, but unofficially, he actually intended to keep him in exile and away from England. In 1452 York rebelled, but just two years later Henry VI fell ill anyway and York was elected to rule while Henry was ill. In 1455, after one year, the king was healthy again and York was dismissed from power.
The Battle of St Albans: 22th May 1455 When Henry VI recovered from his illness he took back his thrown and York had been dismissed from ruling. So Richard of York raised an army in the north and marched towards London. King Henry had been alarmed and build up troops as well. The Yorkists and Lancasters met in the town St Albans. York defeated and captured the king and for a short while ruled as “regent” again.
The Battle of Blore Heath: 23th September 1459 After four years of uneasy peace in England, York was again removed from power. Furthermore Henry’s son was born, so he had an heir now as well. Therefore Queen Margaret, in order to protect her son’s birthright for the thrown, became more involved in political matters and removed all Yorkist sympathizers from the royal office.
Moreover she declared these three Yorkist Lords traitors, because it was expected that this would remove York’s power.
York immediately contacted his allies, and they planned to attack Lancastian forces to capture the king again. Margaret ordered her Lancastrian forces to catch the Yorkists and attack their army. On the morning of 23th September 1459 the two armies met a mile north of the village of Blore Heath. But the Lancastrian line soon broke and the battle was lost. The pursuit of fleeing Lancasters lasted until the early morning and they lost about two thousand men, while the Yorkists lost very few men.
The battle at Ludford Bridge: 12th October 1459 Margaret of Anjou gathered an army to claim her son’s heir back and York, Salisbury and Warwick were forced into flight before her. So the Yorkist troops, that were still withdrawing from the last battle were confronted by a large Lancastrian force. During the battle Yorkist leader and his troops changed sides and fought for the Lancastrians. Furthermore he brought useful information on York’s army and plans. So the Yorkist found themselves outnumbered and the Yorkist leaders had to flee.
The Battle of Northampton: 10th July 1460 In response to the last battle, the Duke of York along with Warwick’s troops marched his forces north to attack the Lancastrian army, that was marching south from Coventry. When Warwick arrived he spent many hours trying to contact the King to come to a peaceful arrangement, but the king refused a conversation. Finally, on 10th July 1460 the Yorkist forces attacked. This time a Lancastrian army changed sides and fought for the Yorkists. So the Yorkist captured a victory and controlled the king. In November 1460 King Henry officially accepted that the Yorks were the rightful heirs to the crown.
The Battle of Wakefield: 30th December 1460 Many thought this would end the civil wars, however Queen Margaret refused to accept the arrangement and raised troops in the north close to the city of York. As the Yorkist reached the area on 30th December, they had to face a Lancastrian force that was twice the size of the Yorkists army. Richard, the Duke of York, and Salisbury were killed during the battle. The head of the Duke of York had been exhibited on the walls of the city of York, wearing a paper crown. So this battle marked an important Lancastrian victory.
The Battle of Mortimer’s Cross: 2nd February 1461York’s eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, took up the position as the new Yorkist leader. Edward received news of the failure of the Yorkist troops at the Battle of Wakefield, and the death of his father. So he joined forces with the Earl of Warwick, in London, to revenge the Duke of York’s death. He had been on his way to attack the Lancastrians, under Queen Margaret of Anjou, when he encountered another Lancastrian force near Mortimer’s Cross. These troops were entering England from South Wales commanded by Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, King Henry VI’s half-brother and the battle ended with a Yorkists victory.
The Second Battle of St Albans: 17th February 1461 Queen Margaret intended to march her troops towards London to regain control of the capital and the king, because both were under the control of the Earl of Warwick. So the Earl of Warwick („the Kingmaker“) positioned his army at St. Albans, which is located 20 miles northwest of London. There he waited for Edward’s army to join him. But before this army could link-up, the Lancastrians attacked. But the citizens of London refused to open the gates for them, because they feared the cruel Lancastrians and saw the Yorkists as their saviours. So the Lancasters had to take their troops back northward. Nevertheless the battle ended with a significant victory for the Lancastrians, since Warwick had left Henry VI, who is supposed to have spent the battle sitting under a tree, singing. Henry took no part in any military decisions any more, but allowed his queen, Margaret of Anjou, complete freedom in it.
The Battle of Towton: 29th March 1461 When Edward, Earl of March, now calling himself Duke of York, entered London, he was welcomed by the Londoners as a hero. On 4 March 1461, in the Great Hall of the Palace of Westminster, Edward was formally proclaimed King of England. Though he still wasn’t in control of the entire country. The pro Lancastrian north is a threat and the Lancastrian army outside of York numbered about 30,000 men. So Edward’s forces followed the Lancastrians up into Yorkshire and attacked the them in a snowstorm up a hill at Towton. On a front of little more than a thousand yards the Lancastrian party had nearly 60,000 men. Edward’s force (less than 50,000) was not all present, the rear „battle“ under Norfolk being still distant. Aided by the wind, the Yorkist archers were able to shoot farther than their enemies, who replied blinded by snow and wind and therefore unable to see the enemy or to judge distances. The arrows soon stung the Lancastrians into wild and disorderly fights, so finally the numerical superiority of the Lancastrians counted for little. It did not become clear who was winning until late in afternoon. The Lancastrians had been pushed back, and at this point the troops sent by the Yorkist Norfolk arrived, and the Lancastrians, realising they had lost, turned and fled. With the Yorkists in pursuit the Lancastrians had no choice but to swim through the icy water to escape. A lot of them drowned in the water and many Lancastrians were chased for miles or they tried to escape over bridges, but several broke under the weight of the armed men, so many of them fell into the freezing water.
King Henry VI, the Queen, and their son fled to Scotland. On June 28 Edward IV was formally crowned king at Westminster. 25 000 Lancastrian and 8 000 Yorkist died. The Battle of Towton was the bloodiest ever fought on British soil. It was perhaps the only one, where the fighting was so violent that the front lines were forced to stop and remove the dead bodies to be able to get at each other again.
The Battle of Edgecote Moor: 26th July 1469 After eight years of rule, Edward IV began to alienate many of the nobles, including Warwick. No one would have ever thought that there would be a conflict between Warwick and the new king Edward. But Warwick had tried to persuade France of a marriage with the Yorkist king and the French princess. This would be important for making peace, because France used to support the Lancastrians before and this marriage could stop that and this would finally make peace between France and England, since the 100 Years of War. So Warwick told Louis XI that Edward would be delighted to marry the French princess, but soon afterwards he was informed that Edward had secretly been married to Elizabeth Woodville, just a commoner. Later on, Elizabeth’s brothers and sisters were married off to ladies and nobles of importance, throughout the land. Most of these marriages offended Warwick and other nobles in some way. Small rebellions against Henrys, forced the king to march northward in 1469. In the North, one of Warwick’s most loyal captains, Sir William Conyers, started another rebellion against Edward.
But he believed these rebellions would easily be put down and mustered just a small army. He soon learned that the rebels in fact outnumbered his own force. Warwick and Clarence declared their support for the rebels and joined Conyers and the other rebells in fighting against the royal troops on 26th July 1469. After their victory, Warwick ordered to capture the king Edward.
The Battle of Losecote Field: 12th March 1470 The absence of royal authority led to chaos and Warwick realized that he was losing control and that England needed the king’s authority back, so he released king Edward. In order to revenge his imprisonment, Edward IV raised an army in 1470 and attacked Warwick’s forces at Losecote Field. The king was victorious and Warwick and Clarence fled to France.
The Battle of Barnet: 14th April 1471 In France Louis persuaded Warwick to reinstate the Lancastrian King Henry. He accepted, because he considered that if he could not rule England through Edward then he would do it through the weak Henry. Louis financed the invasion and Warwick led it with Henry’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou. So this time Warwick led the Lancastrian army against the king. The battle took place at Barnet, north of London. London was captured, Edward fled into exile, and Henry VI was reinstated as king.
The Battle of Tewkesbury: 4th May 1471 The battle continued at Tewkesbury on 4th May 1471, because Edward wanted to have his thrown back. The Yorkist defeated the Lancastrians, Warwick and prince Edouard, Margarets son and heir to the thrown were killed.
The Battle of Bosworth: 22th August 1485 14 years later in 1485, Edward IV died. His son, Edward V, was only twelve years old, so Edward IV had declared his brother Richard of Gloucester as Protector. Richard maintained that Edward’s marriage was invalid and his children were illegitimate. It is not sure if this is true and not just made up by Gloucester, so he took Edward’s two sons to the Tower of London and most likely they were killed there. This made Richard of Gloucester to Edward’s only heir and Parliament declared Gloucester king of England, called Richard III. King Richard III had ruled the land for only two years and one month when he found his claim to the throne challenged by Henry, Earl of Richmond. His mother was king Henry V’s wife, Queen Catherine of Valois. After king Henry’s death she married the welsh man Owen Tudor. So Henry, Earl of Richmond, was born as the half brother of the princes and belonged to the Lancastrians.
King Richard III had exiled him to France, since the age of 14. At 28 he was encouraged by his Lancastrian family and friends to fight for the chance to become England’s King. Henry gathered allies abroad, so he sailed to Milford Haven in Wales with a small army of English exiles, Lancastrian lords and knights, and with about 2.000 French soldiers. Due to the fact that he had been born in Wales he used this connection to gain more support of Welsh forces. His army finally numbered around 5.000 men. They met at Bosworth on 22th August 1485 and the battle lasted only two hours. Richard was killed and Henry was crowned Henry VII on a nearby hill. He was the first king of the Tudor dynasty, and a new era began in English history.
King Henry married Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York. Henry Vll (representing the Lancaster family) married Elizabeth of York (representing the York family). This marriage united the two families and brought the Civil Wars to an end. Henry created the Tudor rose, as he united the emblems of both families, the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster. The Wars of the Roses was effectively an argument between two lines of the same family. They were marked by a ferocity and brutality which are practically unknown in the history of English wars before and since.