Wars of the Roses:
NOTE: large sections of this text are
adapted from http://www.ehistory.com.
See it for more details.
The term to refers to a civil
war or series of conflicts in England that lasted from 1455-1487. These thirty years
of warfare were even more destructive to England than the Hundred
Years War had been in the previous century. Most of the fighting
in the Hundred Years War took place in France, which meant most
of the military damage affected the French peasantry rather
than the English. In the Wars of the Roses, most of the fighting
occurred in England, and thus the loss of life and property
was much greater for English citizens.
It was a struggle to claim the throne between
the families descended from Edward III and the families descended
from Henry IV. The last Angevin ruler, King
Richard II, died without an heir. He had been overthrown and
murdered by Henry IV (i.e., Henry Bolingbroke, who was of the House
of Lancaster through his father John of Gaunt). Henry IV's descendants
and their supporters were the Lancastrian faction. The
other branch, descended from Edward IV, were associated with
families in the North of England, particularly the House of
York and Richard of York. They are called the Yorkist faction.
This Stuff About Flowers?
The exact image of warring flowers
was a late invention, and the general idea of each rose being
a factional symbol originates in Shakespeare’s day. In
Renaissance literature, writers linked the House of York with
a white rose and the House of Lancaster with a red rose. For
instance, in Henry VI, Part One, Act II, scene iv,
lines 25-135, Shakespeare depicts the minor lords as choosing
their factions symbolically by plucking either white or red
roses from a garden. The play dates back to 1592 or so. For
instance, in lines 124-128, we read the following:
Warwick: And here I prophesy: this
Grown to this faction in the Temple garden,
Shall send, between the Red Rose and the White,
A thousand souls to death and deadly
Mind you, Shakespeare is being
anachronistic. He’s following chroniclers like Holinshed
and such who popularized the image of warring roses for Renaissance
readers. In actual point of fact, during the late medieval Wars of
the Roses, neither faction cared much about the roses. The red
and white roses were only insignia worn as part of the household
servants for the Houses of Lancaster and York. They were not
part of the official coat-of-arms for either aristocratic house.
The servants of each house wore emblems with these flowers on
their liveries (servant uniforms). The phrase "Wars of the
Roses" is even later.
The conflict began in 1455 when Richard,
Duke of York challenged the current king's right to the throne.
(This was not the same Richard as Richard, Duke of Gloucester,
who becomes King Richard III later.) Richard, Duke of York,
descended ultimately from the same family as King Richard II,
whom Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) deposed. The king at
the time was the Lancastrian Henry VI, a pious but weak ruler
prone to bouts of insanity. He descended from Henry IV, our
"hero" in Shakespeare's play Richard II. Richard,
Duke of York, argued that Henry IV's descendants have no right
to the throne because Henry IV usurped the position unlawfully.
Richard's son Edward becomes King Edward IV in 1461 and Henry
VI flees the country for nine years.
Happened in a Nutshell?
Edward IV ruled for nine years
without too much trouble until 1470, when Henry VI returned
with an army. Henry VI briefly regained the throne in 1470,
but Edward IV ultimately wrestled power away from him again.
On Edward IV's death in 1483,
his son Edward V was the next Yorkist ruler slated to ascend
to the throne. However, though Edward was unusually precocious
and capable, he was still a child. His uncle Richard, Duke of
Gloucester (the guy who later becomes King Richard III) set
himself up as regent (temporary ruler) until the boy Edward
reached adulthood. After doing this, Richard declared martial
law under his "protectorate government." Richard of
Gloucester sent young Edward and Edward's younger brother into
the Tower of London ("for the princes' protection").
There, the two child-princes mysteriously vanished, presumably
murdered. Richard then declared himself King Richard III as
the next Yorkist in line for the throne. After all, he was brother
to Edward IV, and all the male offspring of Edward were now
out of the way.
However, King Richard III's rule
was troubled by rebellion on the part of the Lancastrian faction.
While he had strong support in the northern regions of England,
many southerners were outraged by the (presumed) murders of
the fine young princes in the tower. The house of Lancaster
continued its warfare against Richard III.
The struggle ended abruptly at
the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 when the Lancastrian faction
won a decisive victory. Henry Tudor, an obscure Welsh prince,
raised an army to fight Richard III. The Tudors had blood-ties
to the House of Lancaster, and Henry Tudor had a strong claim
to the throne since most of the major Lancastrian and Yorkist
candidates had killed each other during the thirty years of
warfare. Henry Tudor declared himself King Henry VII. In the
first few years of his reign, he eliminated all his rivals.
He then married Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth to strengthen
his descendant's claim to the throne. The marriage was a brilliant
move politically; Elizabeth carried matrilineally the Yorkist
claim to the throne, and Henry carried patrilineally the Lancastrian
claim to the throne. Thus, Henry VII's children would have both
Yorkist and Lancastrian blood. Their son became Henry VIII,
and he in turn fathered Queen Elizabeth I, the illustrious monarch
who ruled during Shakespeare's early career.
This bit is primarily interesting
to military buffs and historians. It contains the outline of
events, with the two major battles
in bold red print. The most important part for Shakespeare students
is the Battle of Bosworth Field (see below at year 1485), which
is central to Shakespeare's Richard III.
(1454) Richard, Duke of
York, is appointed regent during Henry VI's insanity.
(1455) Henry VI recovers
his sanity. He fears Richard of York has grown too powerful,
and he puts the Duke of Somerset in Richard of York's government
position, and he excludes Richard from the Royal Council--at once
limiting Richard's political power, but also alienating him
from the king.
The First Battle of St. Albans: This is the opening
battle in the Wars of the Roses. Richard of York leads a force
of about 3,000 on a march toward London. Henry VI moves from
London to intercept the Yorkist army. Henry halts his march
in the town of Saint Albans and waits. Richard attacks and defeats
Henry inflicting about 300 casualties. The Queen and her young
son Edward flee into exile. The Yorkist faction also kills the
Lancastrian ally Somerset, the primary supporter of Henry VI.
(1459) Battle of Blore
Heath: After four years of uneasy peace, combat flares up again
at the battle of Blore Heath. Over the past three years, Margaret
of Anjou has maintained pressure to end Yorkist claims to the
throne. Finally, Richard, duke of York decides it is time to
act before his forces lose their momentum. He centralizes his
forces around Ludlow and then attacks the Lancastrian forces.
During the march to the concentration point, a Lancastrian general
(Lord Audley) intercepts him;
Margaret ordered him to attack the Yorkist army. The Yorkists win a victory.
(1459) Battle of Ludford:
After the losing the battle of Blore Heath, the Yorkist faction
regroups at Ludford bridge at the town of Ludlow and starts
to advance towards Worcester. They quickly fall back when they
encounter a larger enemy force led by Henry VI. The Lancastrians
take a position opposite the Yorkists across the Teme river.
That night, a significant number of the Yorkist army deserts,
leading to a full scale retreat the next morning. The catalyst
of the defections is Andrew Trollope, captain of the Calais
troops. Trollope switches sides after accepting the king's pardon.
After the engagement, Richard returns to Ireland and the earl
of Salisbury flees back to Calais in France.
(Early 1460) Battle of
Northampton: In June 1460, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick,
his father (Earl of Salisbury), and Edward, Earl of March (the
future Edward IV) sail from Calais and land at Sandwich on
their way to London. After waiting a few weeks to establish
a siege force around a small Lancastrian army defending the
Tower of London, Warwick marches north to attack the Lancastrian
army that marches south from Coventry. The Lancastrian army
learns of the Yorkist plans. They stop at the
town of Northampton to build a defensive position. When Warwick
arrives, he spends hours trying to contact the King and
negotiate a settlement. Finally, around 2:00 p.m., the Yorkist
force attacks. During the middle of the battle, Lord Grey,
who commands a wing of the King's army, switches sides to the
Yorkist cause. This is the deciding action; the Yorkist sweep
away the Lancastrians. The king is now under Yorkist control,
and in November he agrees that the Yorks are the rightful heirs
to the crown. Many think this capitulation would end the civil wars; however,
the queen is busily assembling an army in Wales to
continue the struggle.
The Earl of Warwick (known as
Warwick the Kingmaker) captures London and turns it over to
the Yorkist faction.
(Early 1460) Battle of
Wakefield (sometimes erroneously listed as "Westfield"
in modern sources): Richard, Duke of York, travels north with
Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, to meet the threat of a large
Lancastrian force assembling near the city of York. Upon reaching
the area, Richard takes up a defensive position at Sandal Castle.
For some unknown reason, Richard leaves his stronghold and directly
attacks the Lancastrian force even though it is twice the size
of his army. While Richard holds out for some time, he is eventually
overwhelmed and his forces take a sound a thumping. Richard
dies during the battle. The Earl of Salisbury along with York's
son are captured and executed, marking the beginning of a less
chivalrous form of warfare that lasted until the end of the
(1461) Battle of Mortimor's
Cross: When Edward, Earl of March, hears of the disaster at
Wakefield he decides to move east to link-up with Warwick in
London. During his movement, he learns of a Lancastrian force
located in central Wales. Edward decides to change direction
and engage the enemy. His army of mostly Welshmen routes the
Lancastrian army of mercenaries from France and Ireland and
Wales. After the battle, Edward continues his march eastward
to join Warwick near London; within two months he would be crowned
(1461) Second Battle of
St. Albans: On February 17, 1461, Warrick "the Kingmaker" positions
his army at St. Albans (about 20 miles northwest of London).
Here he waits for Edward's army, victorious at Mortimer's Cross,
to join him. Before the Yorkists can unite, the Lancastrians
attack. Warrick flees and leaves his hostage, King Henry VI, under
(1461) Battle of Ferrybridge
and Towton: On March 28, 1461, Ferrybridge is a small engagement
before the larger battle of Towton. After proclaiming himself
king, Edward IV gathers together a large force and marches north
toward the Lancastrian position behind the Aire River. On March
28, the forces engage and the Yorkist army is pushed back; during the fight, their leader, Lord Fitzwalter, is killed. However, more Yorkist
forces arrive later on in the day and beat back the Lancastrians.
On March 29, 1461, the day after the battle of Ferrybridge,
the Yorkist forces attack the Lancastrians in a driving snowstorm
up a sloping hill at Towton. Using the snow and the wind direction
as an aid, the Yorkist archers are able to shoot farther than
their adversaries. The Lancastrians believe their best strategy
is to charge like the knights of old. After many hours of intense
fighting, the Yorkist line shows signs of strain. Fortunately,
the Duke of Norfolk, John Mowbray, arrives with reinforcements
and the Yorkist army defeats the Lancastrians. King Henry VI,
the Queen, and their son flee to Scotland for nine years. Edward
IV, Richard's son, marches into the city of York. On June 28,
he is formally crowned king at Westminster. Edward IV rules
England to 1483.
(1464) To offset the political
power of the unhappy Lancastrians, Edward IV marries Elizabeth
Woodville, whose wealth and family connections make a new powerful
alliance--however, his connection to the moneygrubbing Woodvilles
also upsets some of his other allies.
(1464) Battle of Hedgeley
Moor (April 25, 1464) On his way to the border of Scotland
meet a group of envoys to discuss peace, John Neville (Lord
Montague), brother of Warwick, clashes with a Lancastrian
of similar size. During the battle, the Lancastrian wings commanded
by Lords Hungerford and Roos flee, leaving Sir Ralph Percy
the only holding force. Percy's troops are crushed miserably.
Montague continues north and the Duke of Somerset leads
remaining Lancastrian army south to Hexham.
(1464) Battle of Hexham:
On May 15, after completing his mission at the border of Scotland,
Lord Montague marches south and engages the Lancastrian forces
at Hexham. His army rapidly charges downhill and crushes the
Lancastrian forces. The Lancastrian leaders are executed, ending
most of the Lancastrian resistance.
(1465) Edward IV imprisons
(1466) The Earl of Warwick
begins to quarrel with Edward IV. Warwick feels the king "owes
him," especially since Warwick was pivotal in helping him to the throne.
He basically wants a puppet king under his own control. When
King Edward refuses to obey, Warwick forms a traitorous alliance
with Louis XI of France.
(1467) Charles the Bold
becomes duke of Burgundy. He is the chief rival to Louis XI.
(Louis XI is alllied with Warwick, and Warwick is now enemies
with the Yorkist faction, becoming a de facto supporter
of the Lancastrians.)
(1468) Margaret of York
marries Charles the Bold.
(1469) Battle of Edgecote
Moor: After eight years of rule, Edward IV alienates many of
the nobles including Warwick because of his marriage to Elizabeth
Woodville and his alliances with Burgundy. In 1469, Edward rallies
an army to put down an uprising in Yorkshire. A Lancastrian
force intercepts him and swiftly defeats his army on July 26
of 1469 on the plains of Edgecoate. Meanwhile Warwick and Edward's
brother, George duke of Clarence, have already landed from Calais
and are on their way to join forces with Robin of Redesdale,
the field leader of the Lancastrian force. After the battle, Warwick
orders his brother, George Neville, the archbishop of York,
to intercept and capture King Edward.
(1470) Warwick switches
his alliance again. He allies himself with the Lancastrian
and wages war against the Yorkist faction. He defeats Edward
IV, and he restores Henry VI to the throne. Edward IV retreats
and begins rallying troops.
Battle of Losecote Field: At
the defeat of his forces at the battle of Edgecote Moor,
waits for another opportunity to strike. In early 1470, under
the guise of putting down an uprising, Edward raises a new
and attacks the rebels at Empingham. On March 12, 1470, the
king's forces win and the defeated rebels shed their coats
flee more quickly (hence the name of the battle). Edward was
back in control and Warwick and George flee to France to
an alliance with Margaret of Anjou.
(1471) Battle of Barnet.
Edward IV defeats and kills Warwick. Henry VI dies, probably
(1474) In a tangled web
of alliances, Louis XI of France (who was allied with Warwick
previously and still has connections to the Yorkists) declares
war against Charles the Bold in France. The Yorkist faction
under Edward IV allies itself with Charles the Bold.
(1475) Edward IV invades
France to protect Charles the Bold, the one ally in France
who acts as a check on the Lancastrian faction's allies there.
(1483) Death of Edward
IV. The child-king, Edward V, is deposed by his uncle Richard,
Duke of Gloucester. Richard becomes King Richard III, rules
until 1485. Edward V and his brother are murdered in the Tower
Battle of Bosworth Field: Henry Tudor (soon
to be King Henry VII), Earl of Richmond, lands in Wales
7, 1485 to challenge Richard III for the crown. Richard moves
to meet Henry's army south of the village of Market
After the armies engage, Lord Thomas Stanley and his brother
Sir William switch sides and fight for Henry. Henry
the Yorkist forces, Richard is killed, and Henry ushers in
the rule of the house of Tudor effectively ending the
Wars of the
Henry VII spends the next two
years wiping out any other claimants to the throne.
(1487) Battle of Stoke:
Many historians consider Stoke the final conflict in
the Wars of the Roses, even though the 1485 Battle of Bosworth
Field is the crushing blow against the Yorkists. A group of
Yorkist loyalists concoct a scheme in a last-gasp attempt to
regain the crown. Richard Simons, a priest, and others instruct
a commoner by the name of Lambert Simnel to impersonate the
earl of Warwick, grandson of the late Warwick the Kingmaker.
Lambert claims he escaped from the Tower of London where the
real Warwick is imprisoned. Upon his "escape," he is crowned
king in Dublin, Ireland, on May 24, 1487. The new Yorkist group
lands in England in June 4 and begins to collect an army of
English soldiers and German and Irish mercenaries. Henry VII
moves to intercept the force at East Stoke on June 16. He crushes
the rebel army. King Henry's forces capture Simon, imprison
him, and make him a servant of the king. King Henry's army ruthlessly
kills all soldiers who fought for the Yorkist faction.