The Wars of the Roses
Those attempting to reach an understanding of the Wars of the Roses face a herculean task. Firstly, it is not even agreed by historians when they began and when they ended. Secondly, though it is relatively easy to grasp the outcomes of various battles, the machinations away from the battlefield are hazier. And lastly, we find it easier to comprehend a conflict if its cause is clear; but in the Wars of the Roses no such clarity exists.
To deal with that last point first, there is no simple question of ideology or religion, no one wrong to be righted, at the heart of the conflict. It is easier to think in terms of the conditions for a conflict, and an enduring one at that, existing in the 15th century.
Edward III in the previous century fathered many children, of whom nine lived to maturity, five of them sons. Though Edward himself faced no rebellions by these sons their descendants in future years through marriage into various noble families created a complex web of pseudo-royalty, people with ambitions to gain greater wealth and power. Ostensibly primogeniture determined succession to the throne, but among those in Edward III's line a more Darwinian logic obtained. When Henry VI came to the throne as a child, the demon of political instability was unleashed; when that child grew to a mentally unstable adult that demon was amply nourished. Henry is often written of as weak-willed, but he was a man of strong principles, almost saintly in outlook, and unwilling to fight for moral reasons, a man out of time.
It was Edward's claims to the throne of France, and his and his successors fight to substantiate them, that created a further cause in the mid-15th century, when Henry VI's reign saw hopes there dashed, much to the discontent of the English nobility. That nobility had become skilled in fighting wars on French soil; wars that were to gain territory and wealth. It was easy to transfer such skills and goals to their home country.
Though events from 1453 onwards constitute the central period of the Wars of the Roses, it is reasonable to regard Richard II , Edward III's successor and grandson, as their first victim. Richard, son of Edward's firstborn son, was murdered - starved to death - by Henry Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke, (eventually Henry IV ) his cousin, was the son of Edward's third surviving son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster . The rival house to Lancaster was descended from Edward's fourth surviving son, Edmund Duke of York .
In 1453 or 1454 Henry VI descended into mental illness, and Richard of York was manoeuvred into the position of Regent, much to the annoyance of Henry's Queen, Margaret of Anjou. The following year Henry recovered, and The Duke of Somerset's star rose as Richard of York's fell with the end of his regency. But York had a taste for power, and raised an army to march on London (as he had previously raised one in 1452), seemingly to demand the removal of Somerset from the King's circle.
When Richard's army met Henry's at the battle of St Albans the Wars of the Roses truly began. In what became a street-to-street clash Somerset was killed, Henry captured (and wounded in the process), the victory down to the initiative of Warwick (the future Kingmaker). Richard at a stroke was again Protector.
A central question of the post-St Albans England was who would succeed Henry? For Queen Margaret it must be her son Edward, born in 1453. Richard of York thought otherwise.
When Henry was well again, York was eased out of power, sent to Ireland, but in 1459 he returned contrary to his orders. The Yorkist cause raised an army, and in September Lord Salisbury won a battle for the white rose at Blore Heath in Staffordshire , but both Warwick and Richard were forced out of the country by a subsequent defeat at Ludford Bridge in Shropshire . From their bolt-holes in Ireland (Richard) and Calais (Warwick, Richard's son Edward, and Lord Salisbury), they raided the English coast until they felt able to mount an invasion in 1460. In July that year Warwick defeated the King's army at Northampton , again capturing Henry. Richard landed and proceeded to London, abandoning all pretence when he openly tried to claim the throne. The country was not yet ready for this change. Instead a compromise was offered to and accepted by Richard, who was named Henry's heir.
Queen Margaret, however, could not accept her son Edward being disinherited, so continued conflict was inevitable. At the battle of Wakefield in December 1460 the Lancastrians had their day at last: Richard stupidly failed to wait for support, impetuously attacking a stronger force. He died fighting; his second son Edmund along with Lord Salisbury was captured and executed, leaving Richard's 18-year-old son Edward to lead the Yorkist cause. This he soon did to good effect, winning a significant victory at Mortimer's Cross, though in the second battle of St Albans Margaret's force won out, freeing Henry in to the bargain.
Among some historians the actual impact of the fighting in the Wars of the Roses on England has been down-played, the relatively short periods spent on campaigning cited for this conclusion. But at Towton in North Yorkshire the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil took place on March 29 1461. Armies of perhaps 40,000 on each side fought for many hours, until the Lancastrians were routed, losing 20,000, the Yorkists half that number. Edward ordered the slaughter of most of the Lancastrian nobles captured that day, another massive blow to order in the land. The loss of great swathes of the ruling class at regular intervals cannot have been without effect.
After Towton Henry fled to Scotland and exile. York was crowned Edward IV . Minor revolts in 1464 were easily put down, and in the following year Henry was captured (once more, he made a habit of it). What should have been a peaceful reign, with Henry in the Tower and the strong Edward on the throne in fact degenerated again into conflict: Warwick was hurt by Edward marrying Elizabeth Woodville, even while the Kingmaker was negotiating on his behalf to arrange a marriage in France, and as the Woodvilles displaced Warwick and his supporters in positions of power, his frustration grew. Warwick allied himself to George Duke of Clarence, Edward's brother, and defeated the King at Edgecote Moor , capturing him (a hazard of the trade it seems), but before George could replace Edward using the standard tactic of having him declared illegitimate another brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III ) intervened, and Warwick and Clarence fled to safety in France.
In France an unholy alliance of Warwick and Margaret of Anjou was arranged, leading to yet another invasion of England in late 1470, driving the unprepared Edward out and replacing him with Henry, albeit briefly.
Edward soon returned to triumph at the Battle of Barnet , with his erstwhile ally Warwick dying as he fled. He then secured victory again at Tewkesbury , where Henry's only son and heir Edward was caught and killed. Within days Edward IV had taken the necessary but ruthless step of having Henry murdered in the Tower. Edward had no realistic rivals left.
Such was the solidity of Edward IV's position post-Tewkesbury that the Wars of the Roses seemed to have ended for good: he had cleared the field of challengers; the country, in particular the increasingly powerful merchant class, demanded peace; he was still young and vigorous, just under 30 in 1471 when he regained the throne. Edward did indeed reign largely without incident for a further 13 years, but a life of at best indulgence, at worst debauchery, saw him die suddenly aged just 42.
Edward left two young sons, the first succeeding him as Edward V , but Richard of Gloucester either through naked desire for the throne, or a wish to avoid the devastating power vacuum of Henry VI's reign, grabbed the crown for himself, sweeping aside the Woodville family of Edward's wife Elizabeth in the process. Richard's race from Middleham Castel in Yorkshire to intercept the young King at Northampton on his way from Ludlow to his coronation in London was the act of a desperate man. His execution without trial of Woodville supporters was that of a determined one. His (it is presumed) disposal of the child King and his younger brother the act of an utterly ruthless monster. The mystery of the Princes in the Tower remains a fascinating one, but the simple fact is that Richard could and did seize power.
The last act of the drama was not long in coming. Richard was a decisive leader, but no politician, soon creating a climate of anger in the country and a desire for revenge on the part of many noble families. His answer to opposition was death, creating powerful vendettas in the process.
Early in his reign the Duke of Buckingham , once an ally, raised a rebellion in favour of Henry Tudor, but poor organisation and ill-fortune saw it crushed swiftly, and Buckingham naturally executed.
But on August 7 1485 Henry of Richmond, more readily identifiable as Henry Tudor, landed at Milford Haven with a force that grew on his progress through Wales and England. On August 22 Henry defeated Richard near Market Bosworth in Leicestershire , with Richard conveniently dying in the battle. England at last had a king of intelligence, energy and guile, the first since the death of Edward III in 1377.
The Tudor dynasty is explored in depth in a separate article, but Henry VII 's reign was one dedicated to establishing his dynasty, and strengthening his kingdom. The foreign adventures that had bewitched his predecessors were largely avoided, Henry was content to maintain at Calais England's foothold in France; his marriage to Elizabeth of York united that house with Lancaster; he was that rare thing a monarch who took care of his finances, leaving his son £1.5 million on his death.
Yet even with the accession of Henry VII the Roses conflict still had an episode or two left. The pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck had to be dealt with, and Henry's turncoat ally John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln (who had a claim to the throne easily as valid as Henry's) likewise. At the Battle of Stoke , near Newark , in 1487, the Simnel fiasco ended and Lincoln died. Warbeck was a thorn in Henry's side from 1491 until his capture and execution in 1499; and Edmund de la Pole, Lincoln's brother, was a potential rival until Henry VIII had him executed in 1513 as a brutal safety precaution.
The difficulty in ascribing a particular date as ending the War of the Roses is obvious. It could be said that well into Henry VIII's reign the threat of the Wars remained, a danger always in the mind of the King.
One last point needs to be made about the Wars of the Roses. Though Shakespeare in Henry VI created a picture of roses plucked at the Temple Church to serve as badges for the rival parties, such an event almost certainly never occurred. And it was another great writer, Walter Scott , who popularised the phrase Wars of the Roses in the 19th century. Both authors created a rather romantic view of the lengthy conflict, but as can be seen, the reality was very different: a struggle for power; ruthless disposal of opponents real and potential; and a kingdom ill at ease until at least the last years of Henry VII's rule, or perhaps well into Henry VIII's.
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