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The political turmoil we now call the Wars of the Roses was not given that name until well after the Wars were over, in fact in Shakespeare’s time the name was not yet used. The name became popular after Sir Walter Scott coined it in his work Anne of Geierstein, though he had the Temple Garden scene (2.4) of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI in mind when he created the term. The dates of the wars are in fact up for argument. Some historians see the beginning of the wars at 1399 when Richard II was supplanted by Henry IV. The more accepted date for the beginning of the war is 1455, when Richard duke of York began his campaign to claim the crown from Henry VI.
Where ever historians locate the beginning date of the Wars of the Roses, the origins of the wars begin with Edward III. Edward was a fertile king, he fathered 9 children: Edward “The Black Prince”, Isabella Dame de Coucy, Lady Joan, Lionel of Antwerp Duke of Clarence, John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster, Edmund of Langley, Mary Duchess of Brittany, Margaret Plantagenet Countess of Pembroke, and Thomas of Woodstock Duke of Gloucester. Edward III was an ambitious king, he started the [[[Hundred| Hundred Years War] with France in an attempt to gain the French crown to add to his titles. He also married his children to powerful people all over Europe, most notably John of Gaunt who married the eldest daughter of the King of Castile, and was a claimant for the throne of Castile. Edward the Black Prince died a year before his father, so when Edward III Richard, son of Edward the Black Prince, became king. Richard II became king at age 10; instead of a regency the government was controlled by a series of councils.
Richard faced several issues in his majority, the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, and in 1387 the Lords Appellant. The Lords Appellant was a powerful group of barons who seized political control of England away from Richard II in a single battle at Radcot Bridge. Among these Lords were Thomas of Woodstock the Duke of Gloucester and Henry Bolingbroke Earl of Derby and Northampton. The Lord Appellant kept Richard as a figurehead. When John of Gaunt returned from Spain in 1389 his support allowed Richard to gradually rebuild his power and reassert authority. He eventually moved to punish the barons involved.
In punishing the Barons, Richard imprisoned Thomas Woodstock in Calais to await trail. Woodstock was murdered in the stockade by Nicholas Colfax. Evidence suggests that Thomas Mowbray personally instructed Colfax to murder Woodstock. Bolingbroke and Mowbray later quarreled over the murder of Woodstock, it is this quarrel that opens Shakespeare’s Richard II. The events in Richard II do actually follow the historical accounts. Richard banished both Mowbray and Bolingbroke. When John of Gaunt died Richard seized his lands and disinherited Bolingbroke. At the time John of Gaunt controlled more lands than Richard. Bolingbroke returned from exile and eventually supplanted Richard from the throne. A dispute broke out as Bolingbroke was establishing his legal claim to the throne. Richard’s heir was technically Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March who was descended from Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III’s second son, where as Bolingbroke descended from John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son. The problem was resolved by claiming Bolingbroke was descended through the male line, while Mortimer descended through the female. Richard was deposed on September 30th 1399, Bolingbroke was crowned Henry IV on October 13th. Richard dies on or around February 14th 1400, the cause is in fact unknown, though Henry IV most likely ordered his death.
Henry IV’s claim on the crown was a shaky one, and he had several usurpers to defend against, namely Owain Glyndŵr and Henry Percy (Hotspur). Both supported Mortimer Edmund Mortimer’s claim to the throne. For the most part Mortimer was a minor during Henry IV’s reign and was kept prisoner, though well treated, by Henry IV. When Henry V became king he set Mortimer free, and restored him to his lands. However the Southampton plot, headed by Richard Earl of Cambridge, was another attempt to place Mortimer on the throne. The conspirators took Mortimer into their confidence late in the planning stages. It was in fact Mortimer who informed Henry V of the plot. Mortimer accompanied Henry V to France and fought in several campaigns. He did not fight at Agincourt, being ill that day.
When Henry V died Mortimer became a member of the regency council that ruled for Henry VI. Unlike the Mortimer in 1 Henry VI, the historical Mortimer did not die in the tower, but in freedom, preparing to view his Irish estates. Richard Plantagenet the son of Richard Earl of Cambridge, a member of the Southampton plot against Henry V, became Mortimer’s heir. In fact Richard Plantagenet was a descendant of Edward III on both sides, his mother, Anne de Mortimer, was the heiress of Lionel of Antwerp, the second son of Edward III (Also Mortimer’s older sister), and his father was the son of Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, Edward III’s fourth son.
Henry V died leaving his son, Henry VI, a king at 9 months old. As is custom a regency was established under the Duke of Bedford, and the Duke of Gloucester. When Bedford died in 1435, the remaining regents became increasing unpopular die to mismanagement of the Hundred Years War in France. Somerset and Suffolk, members of the regency council, eventually succeeded in arresting Gloucester for treason and thereby took control of the English government. Due to misfortunes in France Suffolk was stripped of his lands, and murdered on his way to exile, leaving Somerset as the leader of the governmental faction that wanted peace in France. Richard Duke of York was the head of a faction that instead wanted to step up the war in France. York was at one time the regent in France.
Along with the Somerset and York factions other feuds between English noble families were being fought, most notably the Percy-Neville feud in the North. The primary reason for the feud was the appointment of William Percy as the Bishop of Carlisle, a traditional title of the Nevilles. The Neville supporters rallied around Richard Earl of Salisbury (a character in 2 Henry VI) against the Percys lead by Henry Percy Earl of Northumberland (another character in 2 Henry 6 and Hotspur’s son). The feud lead to a skirmish in 1453, the two family armies met at Sheriff Hutton. Little, if any, bloodshed was carried out in the skirmish, but the conflict lead to mutual raids on the estates of the Earl of Northumberland, and a Neville manor.
Around the same time Henry VI suffered a mental collapse, and a Regency council was set up, headed by the Duke of York as Lord Protector. York used his new position to deal with Somerset, whom York believed was undermining the Nation. York imprisoned Somerset. The Neville family, in a bold political move, allied itself with York. This game York the support of Salisbury, and the powerful Earl of Warwick later called the Kingmaker. York supported the Nevilles against the Percys while he reigned. Once Henry VI recovered and York was relieved of power, Somerset was released and allied himself with the Percys.
Margaret of Anjou bolstered the Lancaster factions’ allies, becoming the de facto leader of the Lancastrians. She conspired with other nobles to reduce York’s influence. Backed into a corner York lead an army of 3000 to march on London. Somerset, and the King blocked his march with an army of 2000 at the town of St. Albans. On May 22nd, 1455, the First Battle of St. Albans became the first conflict in the Wars of the Roses. The battle was a complete Yorkist success, the Lancaster forces were surprised by a sneak attack headed by Warwick. Somerset was killed, as was Northumberland. The King was wounded, and became York’s prisoner. York and his faction reestablished themselves as a regency council, and allowed Henry VI to remain king. The factions did their best to reconcile after the battle.
The compromise of 1455 held for a while, but the question of Henry VI’s heir became a problem. Both York and Henry VI’s son Edward were potential heirs, and Margaret would not accept any heir but her son. She only tolerated the situation as long as York help the military superiority. In 1456 Henry went on progress, and Margaret did not allow him to return to London where he was unpopular, be set up court in Coventry, where Henry was popular. The new Duke of Somerset was emerging as a favorite of the court, and Margaret was able to persuade Henry to dismiss appointments York had made as protector. York was forced to return to Ireland as the appointed Lieutenant of Ireland. Warwick remained in London growing in popularity as a champion of the merchants.
York returned from Ireland, without authorization of the King, in September of 1459 and hostilities resumed. At the Battle of Blore Heath a large Lancaster force was unable to prevent Salisbury from joining his army with Yorks at Ludlow castle. Shortly after in the Battle of Ludford Bridge one of Warwick’s lieutenants defected, causing a York rout. The Yorkist leaders fled, York to Ireland, and Salisbury, Warwick and Edward, York’s oldest son, to Calais. The Lancasters were now in total control of England, but could not gain control of Calais. The Yorkists launched raids on the English coast from Calais. In 1460 Warwick launched an invasion of England from Calais, quickly taking Kent. At the Battle of Northampton on July 10th, 1460, the Lancasters were defeated. Warwick’s men found Henry VI alone in his tent abandoned by his retinue suffering from another mental breakdown. With the King as prisoner the Yorkists returned to London.
In London York assumed he would be made King, much like Henry IV was, however the Lords were not in favor of overthrowing the King, just his advisors. An accord was drawn up that made York Henry VI’s heir, and Margaret was ordered to leave London with Edward, Henry’s disinherited son.
The accord proved to be unacceptable to the Lancasters, who amassed a large army in the north. York and Salisbury left London late in 1460 to consolidate their power against the Lancaster army. On December 30th at the Battle of Wakefield the Yorks lost in a devastating battle against the Lancasters. Richard of York was slain, and Salisbury and Richard’s youngest son, the 17 year old Rutland were captured and beheaded. Margaret ordered the heads of York, Rutland and Salisbury to be displayed on the gates of York.
The death of York left his son, Edward, the new Duke of York, and heir to the throne of England. Salisbury’s death left Warwick the biggest land owner in England. Margaret fled north to Scotland and there negotiated for Scottish assistance in the wars. The Scottish queen agreed to give Margaret an army in return for the town of Berwick, and the betrothal of the Scottish princess to Edward, Henry VI’s son. To pay the army Margaret promised them booty from the riches in southern England, so long as no looting took place north of the River Trent. Edward of York, meanwhile amassed an army from the pro-Yorkist lands of Marches, and met the Earl of Pembroke’s men at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross and soundly defeated them.
As Margaret moved south her army survived by looting the countryside; making her very unpopular with the common people. Warwick used this as propaganda to bolster support for the Yorkist faction. Margaret met Warwick in the Second Battle of St. Albans where the Yorkists were defeated once again, and the Lancaster’s freed Henry VI from his Yorkist imprisonment. The Victorious Lancasters moved southward toward London, but found London’s gated closed. The people of London refused entrance to Margaret, fearing the army would loot London. The army then turned to looting the counties around London for food.
Margaret eventually retreated to Dunstable, allowing Edward and Warwick to enter London with their army. The Londoners welcomed the York army with enthusiasm, and offered money and food. Edward found he could no longer claim to be ridding the king of bad advisors, he was in fact fighting for the crown itself. Unfortunately Edward needed authority, which came from the people of London. The bishop of London asked the people for their opinion, and shouts of King Edward rang out. Parliament quickly confirmed Edward as King and an unofficial coronation took place at Westminster Abby. Edward announced he would not have an official coronation until both Margaret and Henry were exiled, or executed. He also announced that Heny had forfeited his crown when he allowed his queen to take up arms against the rightful heir to the throne (Richard of York).
Edward and Warwick moved north gathering a large army as they went. At Towton they met an equally impressive Lancaster army. On March 29th, 1461 The Battle of Towton became the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. An estimated 28,000 Englishmen died at Towton. The battle was a complete victory for the Yorkists. Margaret, Henry, and young Edward fled north to Scotland, and other Lancaster leaders followed, or were forced to make peace with Edward of York. Edward replaced the rotting heads of his father and brother with the newly severed heads of Lancaster generals on York’s gates when he arrived. Edward’s official coronation took place in June of 1461 in London. Edward held the throne for ten years of relative peace. In 1464 there were two Lancastrian revolts in the north. Both were lead by the Duke of Somerset, who had been reconciled with Edward. The first revolt was put down at the Battle of Hedgeley Moor, the second was ended at the Battle of Hexham. Warwick’s brother, John Neville lead the York army to victory both times. He captured Somerset, who was later executed for treason. The now deposed Henry VI was captured a year later in 1465, and held prisoner in the Tower of London, though treated reasonably well.
Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville, a widow of a Lancastrian soldier in secret in 1464. At the same time Warwick was negotiating an alliance with France in an attempt to thwart Margaret from brokering an alliance with the French. Part of this alliance included Edward marring a French princess. When news of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville became public, Warwick’s embarrassment became bitterness. Edward also pefered an alliance with Burgundy over France, and was reluctant to let his brothers George and Richard marry Warwick’s daughters, Isabel and Anne. Finally, when the upstart Woodvilles became more favored at court than the Nevilles Warwick formed an alliance with George, Duke of Clarence, now his son-in-law and raised an army which defeated the king at the Battle of Edgecote Moor. Warwick help Edward at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire. At this time Warwick held two kings of England as his prisoners. Warwick had the queen’s father, Richard Woodville executed. He planned on declaring Edward IV illegitimate, and placing George on the throne, however Richard Duke of Gloucester arrived with a large force and liberated the king.
Warwick and Clarence were declared traitors and fled to France. There Warwick and Margaret eventually formed an alliance to return Henry VI to the throne. Warwick’s daughter Anne, originally betrothed to Richard Gloucester, was married to the former Prince of Wales, Edward. Warwick invaded England in the autumn of 1470. Edward IV was forced to flee to Burgundy with Gloucester. Warwick’s brother, John Neville, had turned on Edward to favor Warwick. Warwick quickly marched to London and returned Henry VI to the throne of England.
Warwick moved to fast after his easy victory over Edward IV. He planned to invade Burgundy in alliance with France. This led Charles the Bold of Burgundy to assist Edward in an invasion of England. Edward landed on the Yorkshire coast and soon gained the city of York. George of Clarence turned traitor again, and rallied to support his brother. With Clarence’s help Edward captured London, and at the Battle of Barnet Edward’s forces cut down Warwick. Margaret landed in the West Country within a few days of the Battle of Barnet, and pushed to join the Lancastrian supporters in Wales. Margaret’s army came to the river Severn, but were blocked when the City of Gloucester refused to let her cross the river. Her army was ultimately destroyed in the Battle of Tewkesbury. The fourth Duke of Somerset (the third to fight for the Lancasters) was killed, as was young Edward, Margaret’s son. Days later Henry VI was murdered in the Tower. Popular legend states that Richard of Gloucester killed Edward in the battle of Tewkesbury, and murdered Henry VI in the tower. With the death of Edward and Henry VI, Edward IV was now king of England again.
For the rest of Edward IV’s reign England was at peace. However when he suddenly died in 1483 the political situation deteriorated. Edward IV’s son, Edward V became king at 12 years old. The older established nobility became fearful of the Woodville family, relatives of the Queen who were upstarts. They feared the power the Woodvilles would be able to assert on the young king. Edward IV had named his brother, Richard of Gloucester as Lord Protector on his deathbed, and so Richard became the de facto ruler of the anti-Woodville faction. With the help of William Hastings and Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, Richard captured the young princes and held them under his custody in the tower. Richard then had Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth declared illegal, thereby making Edward V and his brother Richard of York illegitimate. Parliament agreed, and named Richard King. Shortly thereafter the two boys disappeared, and were possibly murdered, though by whom remains a mystery.
Richard III, ruled England for only two years before the Lancasters again rebelled Richard had Hastings arrested and executed for treason, though without reason as far as history knows. Buckingham lead a revolt aimed at installing Henry Tudor as king. Richard defeated Buckingham, and captured his former ally and summarily executed him. However, this was not the last plot against Richard, and with the recent death of his wife, Anne Neville, and his young son the Yorkist claim on the throne was in jeopardy.
The Lancaster hopes for the throne rested on Henry Tudor, whose father, Edmund Tudor was a half-brother of Henry VI. Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne, however, was though his mother, a descendant of Edward III through John of Gaunt. Henry landed in Pembrokeshire in the summer of 1485 and gathered supporters in his march through Wales. Henry defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard is said to have been killed by a Welch man-at-arms, Rhys ap Thomas with a blow to the head from a pollaxe. Henry became Henry VII, and moved to marry Edward VI’s daughter Elizabeth of York to secure his claim to the throne, and to unite the two houses of York and Lancaster. It is at this time that the roses became symbols of the houses of York and Lancaster, as the new Tudor rose was created out of the two symbols. Henry ensured his claim by executing all possible claimants to the throne whenever they appeared.
The Battle of Bosworth Field is considered to be the end of the Wars of the Roses, though some historians place the end at the Battle of Stoke When Henry VII defeated the last of the pretenders to the throne Lambert Simnel.
The impact of the Wars of the Roses altered England forever. The long reigning Plantagenet dynasty was replaced ultimately by the Tudors who dramatically altered England over the following century, including breaking from the Catholic Church, and altering the way Parliament and the Crown worked to govern England. The heavy causualtis among the nobility combined with the Black Death weakened the feudal power of the nobles and strengthened the power of the emerging merchant middle class. The medieval period in England ended with the Wars of the Roses, and the Renaissance finally came to England.
The Wars of the Roses also ensured England would never again be able to reclaim its lost dominions in France. Although several later rules attempted to retake former holdings in France, none were successful.
Henry VII’s reign also ended the tradition of large standing baronial armies. Henry kept his barons on a tight leash, as did his descendants. In fact England would not have a large standing army again until Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army.