The Wars Of The Roses

This article is a historical telling of the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) were civil wars arising out of dynastic struggles between the royal houses of Lancaster and York.

The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) is the name commonly applied to a series of civil wars that arose out of a dynastic struggle between two main branches of the English royal house, the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The emblem of the House of York was the white rose. Although tradition has it that the red rose was the badge of Lancaster, that is probably not true. A memorable scene in William Shakespeare's Henry VI has characters from the competing houses challenging each other in a garden and rallying their partisans by plucking a white and a red rose, respectively. This scene has fixed the notion of contrasting rose emblems quite firmly in the popular imagination.

The first king in the Lancastrian line was Henry IV, who had deposed his corrupt and tyrannical cousin, Richard II, and assumed the throne. Medieval notions of hereditary rights and the divine right of kings were such that Henry IV's right to the throne he had gained by usurpation was never entirely accepted, and his reign was troubled by civil unrest and a seemingly endless series of uprisings. His son, Henry V, directed his nobles' hostile energies outward by declaring war on France. His spectacular triumph over a vastly superior French force at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) made him a national hero. As one of the terms of the peace treaty he married the French king's daughter, Princess Katherine, thus giving himself and his heirs a place in the French succession. Henry V was a soldier at heart, and he was soon off to fight again. He died rather suddenly in 1422, leaving as his heir an infant son whom he had never even seen.

During the long period of Henry VI's minority, the country was torn by the power politics of rival factions. Essentially, England was ruled at this time by powerful warlords with private armies. Even after reaching adulthood, Henry was a weak and ineffectual king. Famous for his quiet religiosity and his love of solitude, he would have made a good monk, but as a king he was a disaster.

A marriage was arranged for him with Margaret of Anjou, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the Duke of Anjou. Forceful and ambitious, young Margaret had no trouble controlling her easily led husband. Margaret and her favorites at court comprised a faction that arranged everything to increase their own wealth and power. Under their stewardship, the English treasury was soon bankrupt. In addition to the rampant corruption of Margaret's party, they earned the disfavor of the English people by allowing England's hard-won gains in France to be lost.

Henry, who inherited from his maternal grandfather a tendency toward insanity, lapsed into a state of catatonia in 1453. This provided an opening for a powerful faction led by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (called the "kingmaker") to make Richard, Duke of York, Protector of the Realm. Ironically, Richard of York had a better hereditary claim to the throne than Henry VI did, because York was descended from the second son of King Edward III, while Henry was descended from John of Gaunt, Edward's third son, whose line had gained the throne by means of Henry IV's deposing of Richard II. York's personality was also far better suited to kingship than was Henry's.

Nevertheless, York had never shown the slightest inclination toward asserting a claim to the throne. He might never have made any move toward rebellion had it not been for Queen Margaret's faction, which systematically deprived York of his rights and prerogatives simply because they feared his wealth and power would enable him to challenge them for control of England.



In 1455, when King Henry suddenly recovered from his catatonia, he returned Margaret's party to power. At one point, York was even unofficially taken prisoner by Margaret because, not suspecting the lengths she was prepared to go to, he had come to a meeting with only a light bodyguard. Eventually, he was forced to take up arms in self-defense, for Margaret's faction was a serious threat to him.

The first military action of the Wars of the Roses was the Battle of Saint Alban's (22 May 1455), which resulted in a decisive victory for the Duke of York. York's innocent intentions at this point are shown by the fact that although he had the king in his power, he made no effort to depose him, or even to impose demands on him. Instead, he apologized for having raised arms against his sovereign and presented a list of grievances. They established an uneasy truce that lasted for four years.

Civil war resumed in 1459. Both sides won victories and suffered defeats, but the Earl of Warwick decisively defeated the Lancastrian forces at Northampton (1460). In a dramatic gesture before the assembled lords, York attempted to claim the throne by marching up to it and laying his hand possessively on it. He was rebuffed by the shocked silence that greeted this gesture. Realizing he would lose support if he attempted to depose Henry, York settled for being named Henry's heir. Margaret, of course, refused to accept this compromise, which effectively disinherited her son, Edward.

Gathering her forces, Margaret continued her struggle against York. In 1461, the Lancastrian army surprised York and killed him at Wakefield. Warwick was also defeated at this time, at the Second Battle of St. Alban's.

York's own son Edward, already at eighteen a charismatic military leader, defeated the Lancastrians at Mortimer's Cross (1461), and reached London before Margaret's forces could get there. He assumed the throne as Edward IV in March of 1461. His armies pursued Margaret and completely defeated her forces at Towton, though Henry, Margaret, and their son Edward escaped to Scotland.

In Edward's court factionalism continued to undermine unity. Warwick and Edward's younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, were "hawks," eager to pursue the war with France and to recapture England's French possessions. In the process, both men hoped to strengthen their own standing at court, for neither felt he was receiving the deference and rewards he deserved. They had another point of contention with King Edward, as well. The king had married Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner who was considered by most to be unfit by reason of low birth to be Queen of England. Warwick's own attempts to arrange a French alliance through marriage for the king were foiled by this turn of events, greatly embarrassing Warwick.

Clarence and Warwick stirred up trouble in the north, and Edward's troops were defeated and the king taken prisoner. Edward escaped and rallied his forces, forcing Warwick and Clarence to flee to France, where they joined forces with Margaret and returned to drive Edward into exile. They restored Henry to the throne, but Edward soon returned in force and reconciled with Clarence, who had grown disaffected with Warwick. Edward's forces scored a decisive victory at Tewkesbury (1471), taking Margaret and Henry prisoner. Their son Edward was killed, and Henry died in the Tower under suspicious circumstances, probably on King Edward's orders. Clarence continued to cause trouble for his brother, who eventually had to have him killed.

Edward then reigned peacefully until his death (1483). His twelve-year-old son Edward succeeded him as Edward V, but his uncle, Edward IV's youngest brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, usurped the throne as Richard III. Even the Yorkist supporters were outraged at Richard's bold move, especially as the boy king Edward and his younger brother Richard were imprisoned in the Tower and died mysteriously there.

The alienated nobles threw their support behind Henry Tudor, the claimant from the House of Lancaster. With their aid and that of the French, his forces defeated Richard's army at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485). Richard himself was killed in a bold but futile charge against the rebels, and Henry Tudor then assumed the throne as King Henry VII, the first king in the Tudor dynasty. Thus did the Wars of the Roses end at last. After decades of bloody civil war, the English people were grateful for the peace and prosperity they experienced under Henry VII, who reigned until his death from tuberculosis in 1509.

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