An Overview of the Wars of the Roses Part One

by JoHarrington

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).

For thirty years, during the 15th century, a war raged throughout England and Wales. It contained some of the most famous scenes from British history.

Interest in it has undergone somewhat of a resurgence recently. With Philippa Gregory's 'The White Queen' mini-series dramatizing events on BBC One, and Richard III's body being dug up from beneath a Leicestershire car-park, it seems you can't miss references to it.

So what actually happened then?

Choosing the Red and White Roses in the Temple Garden by Henry Payne

The conflict wasn't called the War of the Roses until Shakespeare referred to it as such in Henry VI Part One. This 1910 painting is based on that scene.
Choosing the Red and White Roses in the Temple Garden, 1910

A Little Bit of Context for the Wars of the Roses

Nothing makes too much sense, until you know what happened around it. That's the secret of understanding history.

Every gamer and geek should know the year that Edward III of England refused to pay homage to the French king.  It was 1337.  Let's start there.

In 1337, the Hundred Years War began. It raged for 116 years. (Note that, it'll be a trick question in a pub quiz one day.)  It messed up the succession of many aristocratic families, as heirs died in the conflict. This chaos provided the spark for the Wars of the Roses.

Throw in here the Black Death, which wiped out up to 40% of the population of England (Wales was largely untouched). It caused a massive upheaval in society and signaled the death knoll of the Feudal System.

That would find its greatest expression in the Peasants' Revolt, which kicked off in 1381. This is pretty much the beginning of rights for the common people, though the actual event fizzled into nothing.

Nor should we under-estimate the weather.  The age was slipping swiftly into the Little Ice Age and even the Heavens seemed against them.

In short this was a Britain wherein all of the old hierarchies were in disarray. Yet the monarchy seemed secure.

This was important.  The kings and queens of England were anointed by God.  If anything happened to them, then that was like a divine strike against the whole country.  In the midst of all this upheaval, it would have been somewhat reassuring for the people to look towards the throne. As long as someone was securely sitting there, then God had not given up on the entire nation.

On the eve of the Wars of the Roses, the English monarchy must have seemed very secure indeed. Edward III was popular and commanded much loyal support.

Moreover, he and Queen Philippa of Hainaut had ten children.  Six of them were male, which left not only heirs but plenty of spares too.  Some might say too many spares, given what happened next.

By the time King Edward died, the Hundred Years War was still raging.  The royal family were not excluded from those losing heirs in this conflict.  Their eldest son was Edward, the Black Prince. While he didn't technically die in the conflict, he did contract amoebic dysentery while on his campaigns and this killed him back in England.

This left the English crown sitting on the head of a ten year old boy, Richard II, the only child of the Black Prince.

As Richard II grew up, he was perceived to give too many favors to his favorites (read 'male lovers'), hence a backlash began amongst the Lords Appellant. He moved to exile or execute most of the aristocrats in his realm.

The son of his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was amongst those exiled. Henry Bolingbroke fought back, usurped Richard and had himself crowned Henry IV. This formed a distinct House of Lancaster amongst the Plantagenet family.

Moreover, such a succession by-passed Richard's heir presumptive.  The crown should not have gone to the descendants of Edward III's third son, but to those of his second.

Now the scene is set for the Wars of the Roses.

Ben Whishaw as Richard II in The Hollow Crown

As Shakespeare wrote it, the notion of monarch as appointed by God is all too apparent. By undermining this, the Wars of the Roses could occur.

The Monarchy of the House of Lancaster

One Henry followed another and the throne of England seemed steady.... ish. But it was all about to go belly up.

To say that no-one protested the seizure of the throne by Henry IV would be a lie. But they weren't precisely fighting for Richard II.

People like Henry 'Hotspur' Percy were of the mind that, if Bolingbroke could usurp the rightful king, then why not them?  Then you had people like Owain Glyndŵr successfully breaking up the kingdom, by liberating Wales from English rule.

In short, Henry IV struggled with the whole 'I'm God's anointed monarch' thing, at least as regarded other people buying into it.

His son, Henry V, had better luck.  Having brought Wales back under the thumb and scored great victories at places like Agincourt, he looked and felt more like a proper king. Better still, he managed to lead Britain into the end of the Hundred Years War.

It was finally over! Sealed with a marriage between Henry and the daughter of the French Dauphin.

The House of Lancaster could have sat very happily on the throne from this moment on. But for one major hiccup. 

Henry V went and died. His heir was just nine months old. A baby king is no good for any country, especially when you have that 'anointed by God' thing going on.  It looked like God was having a bit of a laugh.

Nevertheless his uncles and the nobility rallied.  They managed to keep the crown on the infant Henry VI's head until he reached his majority. Everything should now have run quite smoothly, but another big obstacle sat in their way.

Henry VI was not one of nature's warrior kings.  He was a peaceable man, who loved poetry and prayer. He was precisely the sort of monarch which the commoners loved, but not the power-hungry aristocracy.

Taken from his mother as a baby, he'd been sheltered and cosseted by a council all his life. Loudest opinion tended to win around him. He made decisions based upon the personal ambition of anyone close enough to intimidate him.

Moreover, he suffered from terrible anxiety.  By the time he was in his thirties, this had escalated into frequent bouts of complete mental collapse.

His queen, Margaret of Anjou, was perfectly capable of running the country in his incapacity (and often did).  But that didn't sit well with the nobility. She may have had the makings of one of Britain's greatest monarchs, but she was a woman and she was French.

The nobility preferred to hand the regency to Richard, Duke of York.  Henry's beloved and loyal cousin just happened to be a descendant of the line skipped over, when Bolingbroke usurped Richard II's throne.

What could possibly go wrong?

The First Battle of St Albans (1455)

The House of York made its first bid for wrestling the British monarchy from the House of Lancaster.

Let's recap here.  Henry's grandfather made himself king, when the next in line to the throne should have been Richard's uncle, followed by his mum. 

By 1455, Richard's uncle and mother are dead.  In some people's eyes that makes him the actual monarch, if you ignore the usurpation by the House of Lancaster two generations before.

Plus Henry is easily led, a bit soppy and now mad. While Richard has a big army and a proven record of leadership. Then Henry's French wife tried to stop Richard ruling as regent.

When viewed in those terms, the wonder of the Battle of St Albans is that it didn't happen sooner.

The fighting, on May 22nd 1455, occurred not on a battlefield, but in the actual streets of the city. These were Medieval streets, narrow, winding and slippery with mud.  Sewerage ran in rivulets, tossed out there from the upper windows of the houses lining it. That was on a good day.

On that May day, it was also treacherously slippy with blood and gore. Horses couldn't press forward in such conditions. There were no mass cavalry charges of the kind which were the hallmark of most battles in the Middle Ages.

Buildings got in the way of posses of archers releasing clouds of arrows.

This was brutal, hand to hand fighting, up close and personal, with civilians rushing to get out of the way.

The unusual nature of the battle was a major contributor to how it was won.  The Lancastrian army of Henry VI would never have predicted that Richard's York forces would have attacked them there. They were waiting for news of a suitable field somewhere.

Instead Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, surprised the Lancastrian leaders in the center of St Albans.  The Duke of Somerset and his fellow commanders were sitting around, chatting, having a drink, when they were suddenly faced with armed and mounted knights.

Needless to say they were all killed.

It was a decisive victory for Richard, Duke of York.  But he didn't attempt to crown himself. Instead he ruled as Protector of England, with Henry IV totally under his control.

The Battle of Blore Heath (1459)

Richard, Duke of York, may have confirmed his place as Lord Protector, but his cousin Henry VI did have that nasty habit of occasionally becoming sane...

By February 1456, Henry VI felt lucid and mentally able enough to run his own country.

This came as a great relief to his wife, Margaret of Anjou, who had been forced to stand by watching her own son become dispossessed.

One of the many decisions set into law under the Protectorate of Richard, Duke of York, was that his own son should succeed Henry as monarch. It was only right, given the Lancastrian line shouldn't even be on the throne.

It was his present to himself after the triumph of St Albans.

Naturally, one of the first things that Henry VI did after regaining his throne (aided and abetted by Margaret) was to reverse that. Now Henry and Margaret's son, Edward of Westminster, would succeed him, as normal.

For the next three years, it seemed that the uneasy peace might just about hold. Richard, Duke of York, was sent over the Irish Sea to become the Lieutenant of Ireland.

With him safely out of the way, Henry and Margaret could systematically dismantle all that he'd put into place during his regency.  His supporters maintained a few small skirmishes, mostly inside the city of London. But none of them appeared about to erupt into actual armed conflict.

But no-one was watching Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.  When he began acting without due regard to his sovereign, then action had to be taken.  Henry VI was persuaded by his wife to summon all of the York faction to a court in Coventry. They would be dealt with together.

Except they didn't turn up. 

Sensing trouble, the York forces led by the Earl of Salisbury left Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, aiming to meet up with a huge York army gathering in Ludlow Castle in Shropshire. Margaret of Anjou ordered Lord Audley to intercept them and that clash occurred at Blore Heath in Staffordshire.

It's amazing how many times Medieval battles were decided by a stream in the middle of the battlefield. Horses and infantry alike do tend to get bogged down in the mud and water.

On the morning of September 23rd 1459, that's precisely what happened here. Lord Audley knew about the brook.  He'd positioned his 10,000 strong Lancastrian army to make good use of it.  The idea being that the York men would be forced to cross the boggy patch, where they would be sitting ducks for the Lancastrians firing arrows at them.

However, that's just one angle of a battle-site. For the Earl of Salisbury, turning up with 5,000 men and realizing he was outnumbered, it was quite imperative to have a good look at the terrain. He noticed the brook; he discerned the plan.

Turning those tactics 180 degrees, Salisbury ordered his whole middle section to suddenly retreat. Sensing a rout, the Lancastrians surged forward, straight across the stream. 

Where they became bogged down and were sitting ducks, when the York forces immediately came back and started firing on them. It's said that Lord Audley never gave the order to charge, but he was killed anyway.

It was a very decisive York victory on that morning in Staffordshire.  Two thousand Lancastrians lost their lives to prove it.

Curiosities of Staffordshire - Battle of Blore Heath

YouTuber PotterNo1 takes us right onto the battlefield of the second major conflict in the Wars of the Roses.
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The Battle of Ludford Bridge (1459)

Salisbury's forces had fought their way to joining the main body of the York army in Ludlow. The swelled military began its march on London.

As Medieval battles go, this was one of the more bizarre, not least because it didn't actually happen.

I mean everyone turned up.  The York army was there in force, way before the Lancastrians had mustered their troops. Richard, Duke of York, had ensured that his guns had been entrenched along the River Teme, at Ludford, close to Ludlow.

When the Lancastrian army arrived, it out-numbered the York forces two to one, but they'd been there before at Blore Heath.

Looking across that river, the Yorkists had spotted something much more worrying than that. Amongst the Lancastrian banners was the royal standard. The peace-loving, gentle Henry VI was here in person.

That changed everything.

Let's zoom back to that notion of God's anointed monarch representing the spiritual health of the whole nation. Especially when that sacred office was held by someone as pious as Henry VI. He spent more time in communion with God than he did with his privy council.

Richard, Duke of York, had never tried to take Henry's crown from him. He'd isolated him from his counselors, stripped him of power and ruled in his stead, but never had Richard attempted to name himself king.

He wanted the succession for his children, not himself. That would be going against the holy sacraments endowed upon the monarch during Henry's coronation.

Richard may have engaged in a whispering campaign. Rumor was so very powerful a tool back then (as it probably still is today).  The House of Lancaster had disregarded the kingly anointment of Richard II.  Since then they'd been plagued with civil wars, the loss of Wales, infant kings and madness. Evidence of God's displeasure maybe? Wouldn't it have been better if the monarchy had gone down the correct lines after all?

Such moral high-ground was immediately lost, if Richard of York began a battle in which his own anointed king might get killed.

It was fine to kill Lord Audley (not anointed by God), the Duke of Somerset (not anointed by God), or anyone else sent by Margaret of Anjou (female, French and not anointed by God).  But not Henry VI (very much anointed by God).

Just to underscore this uneasiness, a large body of the York army, under the command of Andrew Trollope, defected overnight to the Lancastrian side. He would not fight against his monarch.

The Duke of York realized that Trollope would probably be the first of many such turn-coats. He also knew that he himself couldn't fight in this battle, nor give the order for it to begin.

Instead he, the Earl of Salisbury and the Earl of Warwick - the three main leaders of the York army - crossed the bridge alone at night.  The Duke of York had his two eldest sons and heir, Edward, Earl of March, and Edmund, Earl of Rutland, with him. Ostensibly they were nipping into Ludlow for a quick bite to eat.

In reality, all five of them fled the battlefield, leaving their armies leaderless behind them. Come morning, there was only one option left.  The York army en masse surrendered to Henry VI and the Battle of Ludford Bridge was over before it began.

Nor were the armies all that were abandoned in Ludlow.  When the Lancastrians surged into the town to loot and pillage (punishment for the citizens favoring York), they discovered a huddled group by the market cross.

It was Cecily Neville, wife of Richard of York. She was shielding her 13 year old daughter,  Margaret, and two youngest sons, nine year old George and six year old Richard (later Richard III).

She was a woman alone with young children. Henry VI was prepared to be chivalrous.  He allowed them to be escorted to London and kept in luxury.  Cecily repaid him by spending the rest of the autumn persuading him to pardon her husband.

Cecily was successful too!  The kind and easily led king promised to pardon Richard, if only he turned up at court within eight days.

Richard of York never came.

Books about the Indomitable Cecily Neville

The Battle of Northampton (1460)

By 'Richard of York never came', I meant to receive his pardon. He naturally did return eventually, with an army behind him.

The Lancastrians may have won the battle, but they were struggling to win the war. 

They may have taken Richard of York's wife and children.  But that's only another way of saying that they'd allowed Cecily close enough to commandeer the king's ear.

Richard and his son Edmund had fled to Dublin.  Henry VI appointed another Lieutenant of Ireland, loyal to the House of Lancaster.  But the Irish refused to recognize him.  They were quite happy with Richard, Duke of York, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, Richard's heir apparent, Edward, Earl of March, had fled to Calais with the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick. 

When a new Lancastrian Captain of Calais sailed across the channel to take up his post, he found those gates firmly closed against him.

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou decided to tackle Calais first.  During the winter of 1459-60, a fleet of ships were assembled in the Kent port of Sandwich.

They were all nicely ready to go, when the Earl of Warwick nipped across in January 1460 and stole every one of them.

With the entire British navy now over in Calais, in Yorkist hands, the Lancastrians could do little more than fortify the coast.  Another attempt was made to quickly build ships, again in Sandwich. They were ready in May 1460, when the Earl of Warwick sailed back across and nicked them too.

A month later, he returned to raid the garrison, capture their commander and defeat the Lancastrian army stationed there. 

Henry VI was in Northampton with his queen, son and a huge Lancastrian force.  They had plenty of notice that Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, was on his way with a York army. With the River Nene behind them, spiked defensive ditches were hastily constructed in front of them.

Margaret of Anjou was sent into the relative safety of the north of England, taking their son with her.

In truth, the York army was even more horribly out-numbered than usual.  Not only the king, but most of his experienced generals were facing Warwick over those seemingly insurmountable ditches.  Moreover, it was tipping it down with rain. The downpour was falling right into the faces of the assembled Yorkists.  It rendered their artillery fire downright useless.

Hence Warwick didn't initially attempt to storm them.

On July 10th 1460, the Earl of Warwick held his army back.  The opening sallies were merely messages passed back and forth over the lines.  They were all variations on a theme of 'I want to see the king!'  'No, and if you try we will kill you.' 

In the end, Warwick appeared to give up playing.  He sent a final message stating, "At 2 o'clock I will speak with the King or I will die". 

The latter seemed fair enough to the Lancastrians.  His final request for an audience was once again denied.  So Warwick ordered the York advance. 

Anyone watching from the sidelines must have prepared themselves to see the York army cut to pieces.  It all seemed downright suicidal.  But Warwick aimed straight at the line held by Lord Grey of Ruthin, who immediately lowered his arms. His entire section instantly placed their weapons on the floor too.

It wasn't fear.  Ruthin was a turn-coat.  The whole thing had been planned in advance and personal ambition over-rode considerations of loyalty to his king.  Lord Grey was awarded the position of Treasurer of England for his trouble.

The fighting was fierce, but Warwick already had the advance. Four of the Lancastrian top generals were killed trying to stop the York army reaching Henry VI.  Their efforts were ultimately doomed to failure.

York had control of the country again, and Henry VI was held firmly in the Tower of London.

King Richard of York?

The Duke of York had control of his monarch and the country. The Lancastrian forces were scattered. Its generals were dead. Now what?

When Richard, Duke of York entered London, it was with all the pomp and ceremony usually reserved for a king.  His wife had ridden out to meet him and she looked like a queen alongside him.

However, no-one actually saw coming what happened next.

Richard had obviously had time in Ireland to think things through.  He'd worked through his qualms about deposing an anointed monarch, on the basis that Henry VI's throne had been stolen to begin with.

His coronation had been a sham.  Just as his father and grandfather's before him.

Henry Bolingbroke had seized the crown from its ordained owner, Richard II.  England had been cursed ever since. Things needed to be reversed, right back to when things were right between nation and God.

In short, Richard, Duke of York, was the country's rightful monarch. 

This time he was determined that there would be no faffing around with protectorates and regencies. He called together his Parliament and, before all of the assembled lords and dignitaries, Richard of York headed straight to the throne.

Shock filled the halls.  Even Salisbury and Warwick stood with their mouths gaping.

Richard awaited the acclaim, which he'd convinced himself was his due.  When it didn't come, he called another Parliament for the next day.  This time he was armed with genealogies proving his foremost claim to the throne.

Nobody could argue with that.  But neither would anyone agree to toppling a king anointed by God. This was not what anyone had fought for. They wanted power and positions in government, personal wealth and, most of all, the removal of all those 'evil' councilors who surrounded and misled Henry VI.

Without the support of his nobility, Richard, Duke of York, had to back down.  He agreed instead to the reverting of the laws of succession once more.

In October 1460, the Act of Accord enshrined in law the fact that Henry VI would be succeeded by Richard's son Edward, Earl of March.  The Duke himself was made Protector of the Realm, which rendered him monarch in all but name.

Those signing the agreement must have thought that it was the end of things. After all, there was no longer a Lancastrian army to defend the lineage of Henry VI.

However, they'd all missed one key fact. Margaret of Anjou had been sent north before the Battle of Northampton.  She may have been female and she may have been French, but she was not about to sit back and let her son be dispossessed.

She was about to hit back a lot harder than anyone could have anticipated. The Wars of the Roses was not over. It had hardly even begun.

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.

Horrible Histories: Wars of the Roses Report

Got a bit lost in all of that? Have an overview from the brilliant cast of Horrible Histories. (Spoiler alert for the rest of the Wars of the Roses. Stop at 2.16, if you want to wait.)

History Books About the Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses

Lancaster and York. For much of the fifteenth century, these two families were locked in battle for control of the English throne. Kings were murdered and deposed. Armies marche...

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Wars of the Roses

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Military Campaigns Of The Wars Of The Roses

Two branches of England's Royal family fought each other for supremacy over a period of thirty years from 1455 to 1485, in a series of campaigns known as the Wars of the Roses. ...

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Lancaster Against York: The Wars of the Roses and the Foundation of Modern Britain

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Wars of the Roses

With the help of magnificent illustrations, the turbulent civil wars of medieval England are recreated through the lives of five larger-than-life people of the times, from soldi...

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Updated: 07/25/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 09/17/2013

Thank you very much! There are some parts of history that I can't touch either, because I couldn't be impartial, like the Miners' Strike.

AlexandriaIngham on 09/17/2013

Great telling of the first part. Bang from 'Yorkshire I've always been on Yorks' side. I don't think I could have created something impartial so I'm really glad you have. This was the first part of history that I loved and still can't get enough of it.

JoHarrington on 09/12/2013

You originally had ours! Then went and kicked us out in the American War of Independence. Poor tea... *mourns in memory of Boston Harbour*

ologsinquito on 09/12/2013

Reading this reminds me that there are big cultural differences between American and Britain. We've never had a monarchy. Great article.

JoHarrington on 09/09/2013

I'm very pleased to hear it! History is fascinating, if it's not butchered by teachers.

jptanabe on 09/09/2013

Great job recounting this history. I remember hating my history studies in school, who could care which Richard or Henry became king next and which years did they reign.... But you make it much more interesting!

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