An Overview of the Wars of the Roses Part Two

by JoHarrington

The Medieval struggle for the English crown continues. The House of York and the House of Lancaster pitted cousins against each other on the battlefields of Britain.

It seemed that the York branch of the Plantagenet family were winning. The Cousin's War was surely over.

Richard, Duke of York, was king in all but name. His supporters filled every significant position in government, and the people appeared to be with him.

Meanwhile, the House of Lancaster's armies were scattered and toothless. Henry VI may be the ruling monarch, but he was locked helplessly in the Tower of London. By October 1460, it was enshrined in law that his son would not succeed him as king. The Act of Accord officially made Richard's eldest son Henry's heir.

Of course, nobody had reckoned upon the determination of Henry's wife.

The Red and White Roses by Joseph Kronheim

The red rose never symbolized Lancaster during the wars. It was only afterwards, when it was necessary to create the Tudor rose, that it was retrospectively applied.
The Red and White Roses

Need the story so far? It's here...

Known at the time as the Cousins' War, this was a dynastic battle for the English crown. It was the House of Lancaster (red rose) versus the House of York (white rose).

The Battle of Wakefield (1460)

Nobody side-lines Margaret of Anjou's son without a battle on their hands. And if she hasn't got an army to fight you, then she'll damn well find one!

Before the Battle of Northampton, five months previously, Henry's wife and child had been sent north, safely out of the way of the battle.

Queen Margaret of Anjou and seven year old Edward, Prince of Wales, had awaited the outcome in Coventry. As soon as news reached them of the York victory (and the capture of Henry VI), they had fled into Cheshire, then Wales.

While Richard, Duke of York, was installing himself as regent, Margaret was hiding out in Harlech Castle. As it became clear that the Lancastrian cause seemed truly lost, they were smuggled onto a ship heading into the safety of Scotland.

The recently widowed Mary of Guelders was acting as Regent Queen of Scotland, due to the fact that James II had just accidentally blown himself up with a defective piece of artillery. Their son, James III, was only nine.

There must have been a certain empathy between Margaret and Mary. They were both Queen Consorts of British countries, both mothers of young and vulnerable royal children, and they mixed in the same circles as young women back in France.

Moreover, it was in the interests of Scotland to have the English embroiled in a civil war. Particularly if one party was here, cap in hand, looking for aid. 

Mary drove a hard bargain before she would commit troops.  For a start, the border between England and Scotland was about to change again. Berwick upon Tweed was now back on the Scottish side. In return, Margaret secured a safe place for little Edward in the Scottish nursery, and around 18,000 soldiers to take south.

Just to seal the deal, Prince Edward was betrothed to Princess Margaret, sister to the juvenile King James III.

Of course, none of this could occur without whispers of it reaching the York court in London. Richard of York immediately prepared for the on-coming conflict.  His son, Edward, Earl of March, was sent with a large army into Wales, thus to stop the Welsh joining Margaret's Scottish forces.  The Earl of Warwick was dispatched to raise more militia. 

Richard himself, accompanied by the Earl of Salisbury, gathered the rest of the English army and marched north.  They eventually reached Sandal Castle, in Wakefield, and waited for the Lancastrians to reach them.

However, once Margaret arrived, it was very clear that Richard had underestimated the number that would be arrayed against him. The York side was out-numbered two to one.

He instantly sent word to both his son and the Earl of Warwick to hurry to Sandal Castle with their men.

What happened next was one of the most supremely stupid moments in British military history, that historians have fallen over themselves to find explanations for it.  Richard left the castle.  On December 30th 1460, he rode out onto Wakefield Green with only a fraction of his troops.

It's called the Battle of Wakefield.  It was more like a rout. Lancastrians first met, then surrounded the Duke of York.  He tried to retreat, yelling at his army to return to the castle, but that way was blocked.  He tried to push forward, but there was no way out over the River Calder either.

For half an hour, Richard fought in the middle of the melee, then a sword flew down and decapitated him where he stood.

(Incidentally, I've been there. Halfway down the lane from Sandal Castle, in the middle of a housing estate, there's a tiny memorial. It's supposed to mark the exact spot where the Duke of York's head stopped rolling downhill.)

While the York army was being demolished in the carnage, Richard of York's seventeen year old son attempted to escape.

Edmund, Earl of Rutland, actually managed to cross to the River Calder.  He must have thought he was approaching safety.  But John Clifford, a local Lancastrian baron, quickly caught up with him.  The teenager was executed. 

The Earl of Salisbury did get away, but Lancastrians tracked him down overnight and decapitated him too.

To seal the victory of Margaret of Anjou, the heads of York, Rutland and Salisbury were dipped in tar and displayed over Micklegate Bar in the city of York.  The Lancastrians were back in power.

Nursery Rhyme: The Grand Old Duke of York

The Yorkist defeat at Wakefield is recalled in the color mnemonic: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, plus this children's rhyme.

Learn More About the Battle of Wakefield

The Battle of Mortimer's Cross (1461)

Edward, Earl of March, was only eighteen years old and mourning the execution of his father and brother. He was obviously in the mood for a fight.

Nobody expected to be fighting at Wigmore that day.  It was February 2nd 1461 and both sides had somewhere else to be.

Edward, Earl of March, had been holed up in Ludlow Castle for the past couple of months. He'd just moved to Croft Castle, slightly further south. Devastated by the loss of his father and brother, he still had work to do.

Margaret of Anjou was slowly moving south towards London, with her Scottish army looting along the route.  Her husband, Henry VI, had been removed from the Tower of London by the Earl of Warwick.

Edward was supposed to be gathering a York army from the Welsh marches, then moving east to reinforce Warwick's troops.  He had the army, at least. But the news that Owen Tudor was marching across South Wales, with soldiers to swell the Lancastrian force, gave Edward pause.

Owen Tudor's army had been fighting with the Earl of Wiltshire over in France. They were exhausted before they even sailed home to Wales.

It was a mixed bag of soldiers.  In addition to Welsh levies from Pembroke and Carmarthenshire, there were mercenaries from France, Brittany and Ireland. While a hard core were battle-hardened, the vast majority were farm-workers, who'd never fought in their lives.

They had marched 110 miles in order to be there at Mortimer's Cross.  They were expecting to keep going, in order to meet Queen Margaret's army in Coventry. But first they would have to ford the River Lugg, and this was where Edward was waiting.

Amongst his levies were the famous Gwent archers.  Therefore it's little wonder that Owen Tudor commanded that his army stop and camp up, while he assessed the situation. This was going to be dangerous.

But, for a moment there, it seemed like divine intervention was going to do his job for him.

A parhelion is a natural phenomenon whereby multiple suns appear in the sky.  We know that it's formed by ice crystals high in the atmosphere, but this was 1461.  It had to be God.

On the morning of February 2nd (some say it was the 3rd), there were three suns hanging over the battle-field. It freaked just about everyone out, but it was the York army which looked ready to flee. The charismatic Edward immediately got creative.

He pointed out that the death of Edmund left three sons of York - himself, George and Richard. Ok, the latter two were just children, but this was still an omen. It was the Trinity shining on the House of York.

Edward apparently persuaded his Welsh levies, because the Gwent archers began reaching for their longbows.  Owen Tudor ordered his army into formation, but the inexperience of most of them quickly began to tell.

It's said that the River Lugg ran red with Welsh blood that day, as their compatriots rained arrows down upon them. 

Owen Tudor was captured and beheaded, though his son Jasper managed to get away. The Battle of Mortimer's Cross became a very decisive York victory, which stopped Margaret of Anjou receiving reinforcements for her push towards London.

Medieval Battle Re-Enactment at Mortimer's Cross

In 2010, as part of an annual re-enactment schedule, several companies got together to show how the Battle of Mortimer's Cross may have looked.

The Second Battle of St Albans (1461)

While Edward was faffing around on the Welsh border, the Earl of Warwick was left to fend for himself with the main body of Lancastrians closing in.

It can only be imagined what kind of expletives were being uttered by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, when Edward failed to turn up at their rendezvous.

He couldn't have known immediately what had delayed the teenage duke. It wasn't like Edward could call or send him a text.

All Warwick knew was that 18,000 Scots were heading in his direction with Margaret of Anjou at their helm.  He had to intercept them, before they reached London. 

Just to complicate matters further, the Earl had Henry VI in his own personal train. The king wasn't entirely sane again, but Margaret would want her husband back.

Warwick chose a body of ground outside the city of St Albans, in order to stage his battle.  Arriving there early, he had plenty of times to dig entrenchments (even utilizing ancient Celtic earthworks), so that he was ready for the Lancastrian advance.

On the morning of February 17th 1461 - having been tipped off by his scouts that the Lancastrians would reach them that day - Warwick had all of his beautiful defenses manned and the cannons ready for firing. They were all facing north, along the road that Margaret's army would have to travel.

Which is a bit of a shame really, because she actually arrived from the south-east.  Right behind them.

Having also received intelligence about the position of the Yorkists, Margaret had led her troops in a very wide berth around the city of St Albans. 

Two hundred men from the little town of Dunstable, led by a cleaver wielding butcher, had attempted to head them off.  It was a brave, but utterly doomed gesture; and the Lancastrians had over-whelmed the town to stay there overnight.

Now tens of thousands of Scots soldiers appeared on the exposed rear of the York army. It was pretty much a matter of time before Warwick sounded the retreat.  The Yorkists fled, admitting defeat for a total Lancastrian victory.

Behind them, they left Henry VI.  Apparently he spent the entire battle singing softly to himself, while sitting under a tree.  He'd been guarded by two York knights, who'd promised not to hurt him. When Warwick retreated, both knights went with him.

Margaret of Anjou was reunited with her husband the same day.

The Battle of Towton (1461)

Amidst all of the wars of the roses, this clash was something else. To this day, it remains the bloodiest, biggest battle ever fought on British soil.

Even the most dispassionate historian has to pause when contemplating Towton. The statistics just stack up into unimaginable levels.

By Medieval standards, it was a massive clash.  Some said that 270,000 people fought on that Yorkshire battlefield.  That seems wildly exaggerated though.  The more conservative estimates of up to 65,000 men are probably closer to the mark.

At the end of March 29th 1461, over 28,000 people lay dead on the frozen field. 

For comparison, that is more than Gettysburg and Antietam put together. Until the Somme, Towton stood as the greatest loss of English life in a single day.

No battle has come close to matching it, before or since, on British soil.  Not even Bannockburn.

But first we need to get there. 

Margaret of Anjou should have had it all.  Her husband, King Henry VI, was in her possession.  She had a massive army and the road was now clear to London.  But what she hadn't reckoned upon was the Londoners.

From their point of view, the hard won Act of Accord had ended the brutal Wars of the Roses. Then their foreign queen had broken the peace. Moreover, she'd done so with a massive army of Scots!  (England and Scotland had spent several centuries fighting each other by this point.)

Said Scottish army had been looting and pillaging their way south of the River Trent (as per the agreement hashed out between Margaret of Anjou and Mary of Guelders). And now the queen wanted to lead her Scottish army into London.

She found the gates barred against her.  King in tow or not, she was NOT bringing a huge Scottish army into England's capital city.

Margaret didn't have the supplies for this. She could not camp outside London's walls for weeks on end. As she began the withdrawal north, towards the city of York, much of her army realized that the game was up. They broke away and marched back over the border, taking their plunder with them.

Meanwhile, the two bodies of the Yorkist army, headed by Edward and Warwick respectively, joined forces. When they appeared at London's gates, they found them opened wide.

The Earl of Warwick strode into Westminster and proclaimed his teenage companion to be their rightful monarch.  Though it was only five months since Parliament had refused to support the same declaration from Richard, Duke of York, the nobles were more amenable to the idea this time.

Which gives a measure of just how upset they were over Margaret's actions.

Hurriedly crowned Edward IV, the eighteen year old Plantagenet wasted no time in summoning the full strength of southern England to fight for him.  Fully aware that this was going on, Queen Margaret was doing the same in the north, on behalf of Henry VI.

King Edward led his forces north in terrible weather.  He'd managed to attract around 30,000 men.  Already in Yorkshire, the House of Lancaster got to choose the site of the battle. Approximately 35,000 men turned out for Henry.  They took the high ground near the village of Towton and waited.

What can be said about Towton?  It was not glorious.  There were no tricks.  No special events nor spectacular natural phenomena.  Both armies gave their all and they fought it in a blizzard.

The Lancastrians had to abandon the advantage of their high ground, when the wind and rain turned bitterly against them.  Their arrows were merely hitting the weather and flying back over their own infantry.

In the mire of a plateau, the fighting was indecisive for three long, brutal hours. There were no tactics.  Most of the time no-one would have been able to hear orders given anyway, over the clash of pikes and steel, and the relentless snow storm hammering down. The cry had gone out before the battle started, no quarter was to be given. People were there to kill or be killed, and the bodies were soon piled high.

Then, after three hours, the Duke of Norfolk finally arrived with fresh troops.  They entered the melee and gave the edge to the York side.

That was it, that was all.  By nightfall, most of the fighting had simmered down into isolated pockets battling on across the countryside. It was difficult to tell who precisely had won. Yet a rumor suddenly circulated that the Lancastrians had lost too much ground. Soldiers on the outskirts began to believe it and fled, starting a trickling stampede of deserters.

The later Tudor historian Polydore Vergil stated that the Battle of Towton lasted for ten hours. While I wouldn't generally trust anything that the Tudors said about Towton, there's no alternative timing provided by anyone.  There were certainly small skirmishes continuing well after dark, scattered for miles around.

And the dead and dying, everywhere.

A contemporary newsletter stated that 28,000 people died at Towton.  An eye-witness numbered it closer to 38,000.

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou fled to Scotland, and Edward IV took the throne of England for the House of York.

The Battle of Towton by Christoper Maudsley

This short film was created by the University of York's Department of Theatre, Film and Television. The effects are good, though the history is a little dodgy.

The Battle of Hedgeley Moor (1464)

What was the bird saved at the bosom of Sir Ralph Percy?

It is perhaps understandable that, after Towton, hostilities were somewhat curtailed. 

Many of the Lancastrian generals had been killed there for a start. While England, at least, was largely behind its York king, Edward IV. 

Nevertheless, Wales and the West Country remained nominally Lancastrian and that gave hope to the cause of Henry VI. 

Throughout the early 1460s, skirmishes flared up with depressing regularity, but none of them large enough to be termed a 'battle'.  That is, until the Battle of Hedgeley Moor kicked off on April 25th 1464.

In many ways, this exemplified the relationships in the Wars of the Roses. The series of battles were known at the time - with very good reason - as the Cousins' War.

On Hedgeley Moor, John Neville, Lord Montagu, faced his cousin Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Either man could have been on either side.  They made their choices. 

Eager to make peace with the Scots, Edward IV had invited ambassadors down to a conference in York.  But the Scottish diplomats couldn't make it through Northumbria for fear of the Lancastrian loyalists holding out there.

Montagu (brother of the Earl of Warwick) was sent with a retinue of between 5-6,000 men to escort the representatives back to York.

He avoided an ambush by Sir Ralph Percy, as he passed by Newcastle, only to meet the combined Lancastrian forces of Percy, Somerset and three local lords on Hedgeley Moor. 

The battle was over quickly.  As soon as Montagu's York army advanced over the moor, the militia belonging to Lords Roos, Hungerford and Sir Ralph Grey just splintered and ran. They numbered about 2,000 all told.

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, realized that his cousin's army was now double the size of his own.  He too turned tail and fled the battlefield.

Only Sir Ralph Percy remained.  Had his grandfather, Henry 'Hotspur' Percy been successful at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, then Sir Ralph might have been king himself by now.  During the Wars of the Roses, he'd changed sides so often that no-one was quite sure which he was on now. But he was fighting under a Lancastrian banner, so that decided it.

Horribly out-numbered, Sir Ralph Percy simply stayed and fought. It was so suicidal that all but his immediate household retainers soon fled. 

As Percy died, he yelled out the words, "I have saved the bird in my bosom."  His meaning is a mystery, which has never been solved.

Percy's Cross, Northumberland

This memorial is said to mark the exact spot where Sir Ralph Percy uttered his cryptic cry and was hacked down.

The Battle of Hexham (1464)

Even the river seemed against the Lancastrians in this final sally in the second Wars of the Roses.

You would think that, after Lord Roos's behavior at the Battle of Hedgeley Moor, he wouldn't be allowed to bring a militia into the next encounter.

Unfortunately, it seemed that the Lancastrians needed every fighting man they could get.  Equally unfortunately, Lord Roos did exactly the same thing again.

John Neville, Lord Montagu, had received intelligence that a Lancastrian army was moving through Northumbria again.  Under the command of his cousin Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, they were camped near Linnels Bridge, in Hexham.

Montagu took a York army of up to 4,000 men to the spot.  He was able to command the high ground overlooking the Lancastrian encampment.

He didn't give the Lancastrians much time to get into formation, before his York army was charging down the hill straight at them.  It was around this time that Lord Roos scarpered.

On this occasion, the desertion proved even more problematic for Somerset, than it had at Hedgeley Moor.  The nature of the terrain meant that his division was now trapped with an exposed right flank, which Montagu quickly exploited.

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was killed.  His men were herded into the aptly named Devil's Water nearby, where they were hacked to death or drowned in the river.  Its banks proved way too high for most to clamber out again.

Those Lancastrians who survived soon surrendered.  It was the last moment of resistance in the second round of the Wars of the Roses.

Incidentally, their royal family were close by.  Henry VI was spirited away as soon as the York army was sighted.  Somerset did not want to risk him being captured again.  For several months, he was on the run, dashing from one Lancastrian safe house to the next.

But, in 1465, he was finally seized in Clitheroe, Lancashire.  Henry VI was transported once more to the Tower of London, under the firm control of Edward IV.

Meanwhile, there is a local legend that Margaret of Anjou was also at Hexham. She hid with her now ten year old son, Edward, in a cave close to Devil's Water. While anxiously awaiting rescue, she was discovered by a robber, who stripped her of her wealth, but spared her life for the begging.

The cave exists.  It's now called Queen's Cave in recognition of the story.

However, it is just a legend.  There's plenty of historical evidence which proves that Margaret and Edward had long since sailed to France.  They sought sanctuary with the Dauphin and were received with open arms.

One last casualty of the Battle of Hexham was the war chest of Henry VI.  This was the money with which he paid his army, which left the battle under the arm of Sir William Tailboys.  He was soon captured and the Lancastrian funds taken by Montagu for York.

The Lancastrians had lost it all.

For those considering the odds, it probably seemed like the Cousins' War was finally over.  But no such luck.  Things were about to kick off into a third bout, through a most surprising turn of events.

The House of York was not as safe as it seemed on the throne of England and Wales.

DVDs about the Wars of the Roses | DVDs about the Cousins' War

The Wars of the Roses: A Bloody Crown

Using historically-accurate, battle-filled re-enactments and interviews with expert historians and noted authors, this definitive documentary brings to life the captivating true...

View on Amazon

The History of Warfare: Wars of the Roses - Blood, Treachery and Cold Steel

Fifteenth century England saw the turmoil of a bloody struggle for power between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. It would culminate in a ferocious encounter on Bos...

View on Amazon

Medieval Warfare - Wars of the Roses

THE BATTLES Fifteenth century England saw the turmoil of a bloody struggle for power between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The Wars of The Roses would culminate ...

View on Amazon

Medieval Warfare Boxed Set - The Crusades, Agincourt, Wars of the Roses

This informative and entertaining military history series features an in-depth look at three key events in the history of medieval warfare. Featuring large scale medieval battle...

View on Amazon

War of the Roses (ep1) The Two Roses

The bitter civil wars that raged in fifteenth-century England are known to history by the emblems of the two rival factions in the House of Plantagenet - the white rose of York ...

View on Amazon

The White Queen: Season One

View on Amazon

Updated: 07/25/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
JoHarrington on 09/21/2013

Thank you for reading it, and I'm glad that you liked it. I did hesitate about where to top. Sticking Towton in the middle there just seemed wrong. But there are natural stopping points, when whizzing through all of the Wars of the Roses. I went with the history, not the sentiment.

Yes, I plan to have another two in this series. The next round will be the challenge of the Duke of Clarence, with Warwick.

AlexandriaIngham on 09/21/2013

I've finally had the chance to read this through all the way and I'm glad I didn't rush it. It's a perfect second part to the story. I wondered whether you'd stop at Edward becoming Edward IV so was really glad you didn't.

Are you planning on writing anymore about the subsequent battles? I'd love to read a piece by you on Richard Neville's betrayal and his death, along with the Battle of Tewksbury (why can I not spell that right now?)

JoHarrington on 09/14/2013

Of course! This wild ride is all inclusive, jump on!

Thank you very much. <3

cmoneyspinner on 09/14/2013

500 Wizzles! Woo hoo! GO GIRLFRIEND!!! Can I come along for the ride?
PLLLEEEAAASSEEE!! Take me with you!!! :)

JoHarrington on 09/14/2013

Thank you very much! *blush*

KathleenDuffy on 09/14/2013

Brilliant article - you really make it come alive! Well done on the EA! You worked so hard. Thanks for this. :)

JoHarrington on 09/14/2013

Gettysburg is the most famous US battle; Antietam was the most deadly. The amount of Americans who died in Maryland that day is truly staggering. Yet still doesn't come close to Towton.

I've seen a parhelion! Ironically, it was while my friend and I were walking around the site of the Battle of Shrewsbury. It's a really, really weird thing to spot. It makes the hair on your arms stick up with sheer weirdness.

I felt that knowing what it was. Imagine those poor Welsh archers at Mortimer's Cross...

Thank you very much for reading my article. <3

Ember on 09/14/2013

A fantastic 500th article! I have almost zero focus today, I'm a bit hyper at the moment so it took me a minute to get through it all >.> But I did!

I found the three suns bit really interesting, I didn't know that could even happen!

The battle of Gettysburg is one of the deadliest in the US right? You used in in comparison with another which I don't think I am familiar with, when talking about the battle Towton.

Congrats on the Editor's Choice!!! And congrats on 500 articles and all of your hard work! <3

JoHarrington on 09/13/2013

Thank you very much. I've been celebrating with a couple of tipples. I nearly choked on it, when I saw the Editor's Choice Award. :)

HollieT on 09/13/2013

Congrats Jo, so very well deserved :)

You might also like

An Overview of the Wars of the Roses Part One

Known at the time as the Cousins' War, this was a dynastic battle for the Eng...

The Genealogy of the Wars of the Roses

It was known at the time as the Cousins War. The family tree grew very tangl...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...