The Wars of the Roses were a series of bloody battles that engulfed England between 1455 and 1485. Thought between the royal houses of York and Lancaster, the wars represent a dynastic struggle that saw the english throne changing hands no fewer than six times. The civil war that engulfed England resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of men and ultimately brought about the rise of the Tudor dynasty. This is the story of how Englands two most powerful dynasties fell out so spectacularly and the subsequent struggle to control the throne of England. This is the real story that inspired Game of Thrones.
Our story begins in the year 1450. King Henry VI sits on the English throne and is also the disputed King of France. Unlike his warrior father Henry V, Henry VI is a weak man, a poor administrator and financially incompetent. Henry is the head of the Lancastrian dynasty and now at the age of 27 his county is on the verge of civil war.
Henry’s incompetence and lack of interest in Politics has left a vast power vacuum at the very heart of Government and he is very much dominated by ambitious nobles who have used him to gain influence at Court.
Furthermore, the King has massively mismanaged the situation in France and has lost pretty much all of his overseas territories. His marriage to Margaret of Anjou five years previous has done nothing to resolve the situation. The established nobles of England are fed up with Henry. They blame him directly for the loss of France and are tired of him handing out lands and titles to his Lancastrian cronies. A popular peasant uprising has also engulfed England. Stemmed on by government corruption, its leader Jack Cade has demanded the Kings Cousin Richard Duke of York be recalled from his exile in Ireland.
The stage is set for what will become one the most turbulent periods in British History. The white rose of York is about to clash with the red rose of Lancaster.
Whilst Henry can be considered the catalyst for the wars of the Roses, its origins can be traced back to the long and successful reign of King Edward III. Edward was a strong and successful King who had fathered seven sons, five of which survived into adulthood.
1. Edward The Black Prince,
2. Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence,
3. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster,
4. Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, and
5. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.
Edward The Black Prince, being the eldest son should have succeed his father but died a year before him in 1376. As such, it was Edwards 10 year old Son Richard of Bordeaux who became King Richard II in 1377. Unfortunately for the young Richard he developed a talent for falling out with his mates, one such person being his cousin Henry Bollingbrooke who he exiled in 1398. The following year however Henry returned to England intent on seizing the crown. And, with the support of the Nobles, he successfully usurped Richard and had him arrested. Henry was crowned King Henry IV of England and became the first Lancastrian King. By1400 Richard was dead, presumably murdered.
Now Henry’s claim to the throne had not been as strong as that of his cousin Roger Earl of March who was descended from Edward III’s second surviving son Lionel of Antwerp. In order to further consolidate his rule, King Henry had him arrested and seized his estates. With most of his opponents now imprisoned, dead or exiled, the house of Lancaster had been very much established on the throne of England. By 1415 Henry IV was dead and his son Henry V had taken the throne.
Henry V became a mighty King and reignited the war with France. Known for his exceptional success at Agincourt, Henry conquered much of France and was officially named as heir to the French throne. Although he died shortly after, his baby son became King Henry VI of England and, King of France when the French King died several months later. Henry VI then, although just a baby, had become the only King in history to hold the dual crowns of England and France.
During his long minority the Kingdom was ruled by a regency council largely dominated by Henry’s uncles. Although there were many arguments about the direction the county should be taking, the regency was largely successful and often considered the most successful part of Henry’s reign. During this period the Beaufort’s, an illegitimate branch of the family also became prominent members of the council and began to cosy up to the young King. The Beaufort’s quickly became the Kings closest confidants.
Like Henry, his cousin Richard Duke of York was also descended from Edward III. York however was descended from Edwards fourth surviving son Edmund of Langley. He had an ace up his sleeve however as his mother Anne Mortimer was a direct descendent of Lionel of Antwerp, King Edwards second surviving son. This made York a very strong contender for the throne and with King Henry having no children, he was also heir apparent.
When York returned from Ireland in 1450 he did so as a champion for better government and campaigned to have removed the Kings corrupt councillors. Chief amongst these were Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset. York saw Somerset as the cause of all of Englands problems and blamed him directly for the situation in France. In fact, Somerset held the prestigious title of Lieutenant, an honour held by York himself up until until he was sidelined in 1445 and shipped off to Ireland. Under Somerset’s command most of France had been lost and York wanted his head. He had misjudged the situation however and when he entered London in the Autumn of 1450 he found himself without any real support, his approach seen as being too extreme. York had no option but to scuttle back to his castle in Ludlow.
Although York’s ego had taken a knock, there were further signs that all was not well in the kingdom. With Henry’s Lancastrian administration so weak, some of the countries leading nobles came to blows. Of these were two of Norths most powerful families, the Percy’s of Northumberland and and the Neville’s. The country was moving closer to civil war.
By 1453 Queen Margaret had fallen pregnant but Henry suffered his first bout of insanity and fell into a complete trance. This was excellent news for York who by this point had become friends with the powerful Neville family. With the help of Richard Earl of Warwick and his father the Earl of Salisbury York was able to persuade the council into appointing him Protector of the realm, a position he took up in 1454.
York had only just begun getting the countries finances in order when King Henry suddenly recovered from his illness. Somerset was quickly restored as Henry’s chief advisor and York fled with his Neville allies. Fearing they were to be charged with treason, York Warwick and Salisbury returned to their lands and began mobilising their forces. The days of talking were well and truly over and the wars of the Roses had begun.
The first battle occurred on 22nd May 1455 at St Albans near London. Whilst the Lancastrians had taken up defensive positions in town, the Yorkists took them by surprise and what resulted was bloody close quarters fighting, during which Somerset was hacked to death. With the Lancastrians routing, and King Henry once again falling into a trance, York was declared protector of the realm. This was short lived however as Henry suddenly recovered in February the following year. For Margaret this couldn’t have happened sooner, she despised York and quickly had him and his officials sacked.
Although an unsteady period of peace followed for several years, in 1459 the two houses once again came to blows when Margaret intercepted Sailsbury’s forces at the battle of Blore Heath. Although the Yorkists were initially successful, this victory was reversed three weeks later when the Yorkist army was obliterated at Ludford Bridge. York fled to Ireland, with his son Edward Earl of March and the Neville’s fleeing to Calais.
At this point a controversial Act of Parliament championed by Queen Margaret had York and the Neville’s branded as traitors. Their lands were confiscated and their families disinherited. The Yorkist allies had no choice but to fight back. In June 1460 they did just that. With King Henry away in Northampton, Salisbury entered London unopposed and secured the city. Warwick then marched to Northampton where he encountered the Lancastrian forces. This was a decisive victory for Warwick, with Northampton captured, and King Henry taken into custody. York was then able to return from Ireland and although he failed to seize the throne, he was officially named as Henry’s heir.
Margaret was livid. Her young son and rightful heir to the throne had been disinherited. When she then raised an army, York and Salisbury rode North to meet her but within days they were under siege at Wakefield castle. During this York seems to have been duped into leaving the castle. He was captured and beheaded. In the vicious battle that followed Salisbury and Yorks son Edmund were also killed. Yorks head was subsequently displayed upon a spike at Micklegate Bar in York. Upon his head sat a paper crown.
With Edward Earl of March now flying the flag for the Yorkists, he took his revenge when he obliterated the Lancastrians at the battle of Mortimers Cross in February 1461. Only two weeks later however an army led by Warwick was beaten at the second battle of St Ablans, and worse still King Henry was lost.
With Henry so weak Margaret was very much in charge of the Lancastrian cause. When she rode to London however she was refused entry and subsequently took the decision to march North to York. This left Warwick and Edward free to enter London to an hero’s welcome. Warwick took advantage of the positive mood and declared Edward the new King of England. Richard Neville Earl of Warwick was now Warwick the Kingmaker and Edward was crowned Edward IV of England. He was seen by the people of London as a new start, someone who was capable of ending the wars once and for all.
And so when Edward and around 36000 men faced up to around 42000 Lancastrians at the battle of Towton in March 1461, he knew this could be the battle to end all battles. Although outnumbered favourable wind conditions gave Edward the Edge and his archers unleashed hell on his enemy. The savage hand to hand fighting that followed resulted in around 28000 deaths, making this the bloodiest single day battle ever though on British soil. Edward, was victorious.
Queen Margaret gave one last push in May 1464 at the battle of Hexham. This was a disaster however with key nobles being slaughtered and Henry once again in the custody of the Yorkists. This was the final nail in the coffin for the Lancastrians. At least for now.
Edward had consolidated his position as King but it was Warwick who was the real power behind the Crown. Warwick was one of the richest and most influential nobles in the land and it it was he who pulled the strings. Warwick was at the height of his power.
By the end of the year it was clear that King Edwards relationship with Warwick had turned sour. Whilst Warwick had been in France trying to secure a political marriage for the King, Edward had secretly married the commoner Elizabeth Woodville. Warwick was also sidelined in place of the Woodville family who were showered with lands and titles. Furthermore the King refused to marry his brothers to Warwick’s daughters.
Warwick threw his teddy out and defected. He even managed to persuade Edwards treacherous brother George Duke of Clarence to join him, with promises of making him King. At the battle of Edgecote in in July 1469 the Kings army was destroyed, with his father in law Earl Rivers and Brother in Law John Woodville being captured and subsequently executed on Wawick’s orders. King Edward was also captured but Warwick was later forced to release him due to the unpopularity of Clarence. The two traitors headed to France and forged an unlikely alliance with their old adversary Queen Margaret.
In September 1470, Warwick and Clarence arrived back in England, marched on London, released Henry from the tower and Warwick did his Kingmakery thing and proclaimed Henry King once again. Edward however who had fled to France, returned to England, reunited with his turncoat brother Clarence, Marched on London, seized Henry and returned him to the tower. To Warwick’s frustration, Edward was once again king.
Warwick’s days were numbered however. He lost his life at the battle of Barnet on 14th April 1471, and Edward went on to destroy Queen Margarets forces at Teweksbury the following month. Here Margaret was captured, her son Edward was killed and the Lancastrian cause was well and truly over. Shortly after King henry was also dead, in all likelyhood murdered.
As for George Duke of Clarence, having previously married Warwick’s daughter Isabella against his brothers wishes, when she died, he secretly devised a plan to marry the Duke of Burgundies daughter. When Edward found out there was all hell to pay. Clarence was executed for treason. Allegedly he was drowned in a barrel of wine.
What followed was a long period of peace but when Edward died suddenly on 9th April 1483, England was once again thrown into civil war. Whilst treachery had been commonplace in the wars of the roses, it may have come as some surprise when Edwards seemingly loyal brother Richard Duke of Gloucester had his nephews and rightful heirs to the throne imprisoned in the tower of London and disinherited. Its still a huge mystery as to what happened to the young princes but in all likelihood they were murdered. Richard thus claimed the throne and on 26th June 1483 became Richard III of England. He would be the last Yorkist king.
In the summer of 1485 Henry Tudor Duke of Richmond landed in England with a small army or mercenaries. Since Richard had seized the throne in 1483 Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort had been actively promoting Henry as a real alternative to the king. Henry’s claim derived from his mother who was a direct descendent of Edward III’s Fourth son John of Gaunt. His paternal grandfather Henry Tudor was also the second wife of Henry V’s widow Catherine of Valois.
Although Henry only landed with a small army in 1485, he quickly rallied support and confronted King Richard at the battle of Bostworth on 22nd August 1485. Henry was hugely outnumbered but when his step-father Lord Stanley turned coat and charged into battle on his side, the tide of battle changed in his favour and King Richard was killed. Lord Stanley picked up Richard’s crown and placed it on his step-sons head, declaring him Henry VII of England.
Henry became the first Tudor King and with his subsequent marriage to Elizabeth of York had successfully united the white rose of York with the red rose of Lancaster. The wars of the Roses were finally over.
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