War of the roses

Intro The 15th century was a time of change for knighthood. Knights no longer fought for their lords in return for land, since the feudal summons had long before given way to a system of contracts. Moreover, many knights now preferred the role of landowner, man-about-town or parliamentary representative.


The 15th century was a time of change for knighthood. Knights no longer fought for their lords in return for land, since the feudal summons had long before given way to a system of contracts. Moreover, many knights now preferred the role of landowner, man-about-town or parliamentary representative. However, this was also the age of the knight in plate armour, of the battle of Agincourt and the conquests of Henry V, and of the Wars of the Roses, the bloody internecine struggle that tore medieval England apart. In this title Christopher Gravett describes the life of a 15th century knight, his equipment and experiences from his earliest days as a squire through to his experiences on the battlefields of England and France

The Wars of the Roses (1455–1489) were a series of civil wars fought over the throne of England between adherents of the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Both houses were branches of the Plantagenet royal house, tracing descent from King Edward III.

The Wars of the Roses were a series of bloody dynastic civil wars between supporters of the rival houses of Lancaster and York, for the throne of England. They are generally accepted to have been fought in several spasmodic episodes between 1455 and 1487 (although there was related fighting both before and after this period.) The war ended with the victory of the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, who founded the House of Tudor which subsequently ruled England and Wales for 116 years.

Henry of Bolingbroke had established the House of Lancaster on the throne in 1399 when he deposed his cousin Richard II, whose rule had prompted widespread opposition among the nobles. Bolingbroke (who was crowned as Henry IV) and his son Henry V maintained their hold on the crown through sound administration and especially through military prowess, but when Henry V died, his heir was the infant Henry VI, who grew up to be mentally unstable, and dominated by quarrelsome regents.

The Lancastrian claim to the throne descended from John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III. Henry's inability to rule the Kingdom ultimately resulted in a challenge to his right to the crown by Richard, Duke of York, who could claim descent from Edward's second and fourth sons, Lionel of Antwerp and Edmund of Langley, and had also proved himself to be an able administrator, holding several important offices of state. York quarrelled with prominent Lancastrians at court and with Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou, who feared that he might later supplant her son, the infant Edward, Prince of Wales.

Although armed clashes had occurred previously between supporters of York and Lancaster, the first open fighting broke out in 1455 at the First Battle of St Albans. Several prominent Lancastrians died but their heirs remained at deadly feud with Richard. Although peace was temporarily restored, the Lancastrians were inspired by Margaret of Anjou to contest York's influence.

Fighting resumed more violently in 1459. York was forced to flee the country, but one of his most prominent supporters, the Earl of Warwick, invaded England from Calais and captured Henry at the Battle of Northampton. York returned to the country and became Protector of England, but was dissuaded from claiming the throne. Margaret and the irreconcilable Lancastrian nobles gathered their forces in the north of England, and when York moved north to suppress them, he was killed in battle at the end of 1460. The Lancastrian army advanced south and recaptured the hapless Henry at the Second Battle of St Albans, but failed to occupy London, and subsequently retreated to the north. York's eldest son was proclaimed King Edward IV. He gathered the Yorkist armies and won a crushing victory at the Battle of Towton early in 1461.

After minor Lancastrian revolts were suppressed in 1464 and Henry was captured once again, Edward fell out with his chief supporter and advisor, the Earl of Warwick (known as the "Kingmaker"), and also alienated many friends and even family members by favouring the upstart family of his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, whom he had married in secret. Warwick tried first to supplant Edward with his jealous younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, and then to restore Henry VI to the throne. This resulted in two years of rapid changes of fortune, before Edward IV once again won a complete victory in 1471. Warwick and the Lancastrian heir Edward, Prince of Wales died in battle and Henry was murdered immediately afterwards.

A period of comparative peace followed, but Edward died unexpectedly in 1483. His surviving brother Richard of Gloucester first moved to prevent the unpopular Woodville family of Edward's widow from participating in government during the minority of Edward's son, Edward V, and then seized the throne for himself, using the suspect legitimacy of Edward IV's marriage as pretext. This usurpation, and suspicions that Richard had murdered Edward V and his younger brother (the "Princes in the Tower"), provoked several revolts. Henry Tudor, a distant relative of the Lancastrian kings who had nevertheless inherited their claim, overcame and killed Richard in battle at Bosworth in 1485.

Yorkist revolts flared up in 1487, resulting in the last pitched battles. Although most of the surviving descendents of York were imprisoned, sporadic rebellions continued to take place until Perkin Warbeck, a fraudulent Yorkist pretender, was executed in 1499.

The name "Wars of the Roses" is not thought to have been used during the time of the wars but has its origins in the badges associated with the two royal houses, the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster. The term came into common use in the nineteenth century, after the publication of Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott. Scott based the name on a fictional scene in William Shakespeare's play Henry VI Part 1, where the opposing sides pick their different-coloured roses at the Temple Church.

Although the roses were occasionally used as symbols during the wars, most of the participants wore badges associated with their immediate feudal lords or protectors. For example, Henry's forces at Bosworth fought under the banner of a red dragon, while the Yorkist army used Richard III's personal symbol of a white boar. Evidence of the importance of the rose symbols at the time, however, includes the fact that King Henry VII chose at the end of the wars to combine the red and white roses into a single red and white Tudor Rose.

The names of the rival houses have little to do with the cities of York and Lancaster, or the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire, even though cricket or rugby matches between these two counties are often described by the cliché, the "Wars of the Roses". In fact, the lands and offices attached to the Duchy of Lancaster were mainly in Gloucestershire, North Wales and Cheshire, while the estates and castles which were part of the Dukedom of York were widespread throughout England, although there were many in the Welsh Marches.

Armies and contestants

The wars were fought largely by the landed aristocracy and armies of feudal retainers, with some foreign mercenaries. Support for each house largely depended upon dynastic factors, such as blood relationships, marriages within the nobility, and the grants or confiscations of feudal titles and lands.

The unofficial system of livery and maintenance, by which powerful nobles would offer protection to followers who would sport their colours and badges (livery), and controlled large numbers of paid men-at-arms (maintenance) was one of the effects of the breakdown of royal authority which preceded and partly caused the wars. Another aspect of the decline in respect to the crown was the development of what was called bastard feudalism by later historians, although the term and definition were disputed. Service to a lord in return for title to lands and the gift of offices remained important, but the service was given in support of a faction rather than as part of a strict heirarchical system in which all ultimately owed their loyalty to the monarch.

Given the conflicting loyalties of blood, marriage and ambition, it was not uncommon for nobles to switch sides and several battles were decided by treachery.

The armies consisted of nobles' contingents of men-at-arms, with companies of archers and foot-soldiers (such as billmen). There were also sometimes contingents of foreign mercenaries, armed with cannon or handguns. The horsemen were generally restricted to "prickers" and "scourers"; i.e. scouting and foraging parties. Most armies fought entirely on foot. In several cases, the magnates dismounted and fought among the common foot-soldiers, to inspire them and to dispel the notion that in the case of defeat they might be ransomed while the common soldiers, being of little value, faced death.

Initial phase 1455–60

The Duke of York led a small force toward London and was met by Henry's forces at St Albans, north of London, on May 22, 1455. The relatively small First Battle of St Albans was the first open conflict of the civil war. Richard's aim was ostensibly to remove "poor advisors" from King Henry's side. The result was a Lancastrian defeat. Several prominent Lancastrian leaders, including Somerset and Northumberland, were killed. After the battle, the Yorkists found Henry sitting quietly in his tent, abandoned by his advisors and servants, apparently having suffered another bout of mental illness. (He had also been slightly wounded in the neck by an arrow.)[3] York and his allies regained their position of influence, and for a while both sides seemed shocked that an actual battle had been fought and did their best to reconcile their differences. With the king indisposed, York was again appointed Protector, and Margaret was shunted aside, charged with the king's care.

The compromise of 1455 enjoyed some success, with York remaining the dominant voice on the Council even after Henry's recovery. The problems which had caused conflict soon re-emerged, particularly the issue of whether the Duke of York, or Henry and Margaret's infant son Edward, would succeed to the throne. Margaret refused to accept any solution that would disinherit her son, and it became clear that she would only tolerate the situation for as long as the Duke of York and his allies retained the military ascendancy.

In 1456, Henry went on royal progress in the Midlands, where the king and queen were popular. Margaret did not allow him to return to London where the merchants were angry at the decline in trade and widespread disorder. The king's court was set up at Coventry. By then, the new Duke of Somerset was emerging as a favourite of the royal court. Margaret persuaded Henry to dismiss the appointments York had made as Protector, while York was made to return to his post as lieutenant in Ireland. Disorder in the capital and piracy on the south coast were growing, but the king and queen remained intent on protecting their own positions, with the queen introducing conscription for the first time in England. Meanwhile, York's ally, Warwick (later dubbed "The Kingmaker"), was growing in popularity in London as the champion of the merchants.

Following York's unauthorised return from Ireland, hostilities resumed. On September 23, 1459, at the Battle of Blore Heath in Staffordshire, a large Lancastrian army failed to prevent a Yorkist force under the Earl of Salisbury from marching from Middleham Castle in Yorkshire to link up with York at Ludlow Castle. Shortly afterwards the combined Yorkist armies confronted the much larger Lancastrian force at the Battle of Ludford Bridge. One of Warwick's lieutenants, the experienced captain Andrew Trollope, defected to the Lancastrians and the Yorkist leaders fled. York returned to Ireland, and Edward, Earl of March (York's eldest son), Salisbury, and Warwick fled to Calais. The Lancastrians were back in total control, and Somerset was despatched to be Governor of Calais. His attempts to evict Warwick were easily repulsed, and the Yorkists even began to launch raids on the English coast from Calais in 1459–60, adding to the sense of chaos and disorder.

In 1460, Warwick and the others launched an invasion of England and rapidly established themselves in Kent and London, where they enjoyed wide support. Backed by a papal emissary who had taken their side, they marched north. Henry led an army south to meet them while Margaret remained in the north with Prince Edward. At the Battle of Northampton on 10 July, the Yorkist army under the Earl of Warwick defeated the Lancastrians, aided by treachery in the king's ranks. For the second time in the war, King Henry was found by the Yorkists in a tent, abandoned by his retinue, having apparently suffered another breakdown. With the king in their possession, the Yorkists returned to London.

Act of Accord

In the light of this military success, Richard of York moved to press his claim to the throne based on the illegitimacy of the Lancastrian line. Landing in north Wales, he and his wife Cecily entered London with all the ceremony usually reserved for a monarch. Parliament was assembled, and when York entered he made straight for the throne, which he may have been expecting the Lords to encourage him to take for himself as they had Henry IV in 1399. Instead, there was stunned silence. He announced his claim to the throne, but the Lords, even Warwick and Salisbury, were shocked by his presumption; they had no desire at this stage to overthrow King Henry. Their ambition was still limited to the removal of his bad councillors.

The next day, York produced detailed genealogies to support his claim based on his descent from Lionel of Antwerp and was met with more understanding. Parliament agreed to consider the matter and accepted that York's claim was better, but by a majority of five, they voted that Henry VI should remain as king. A compromise was struck in October 1460 with the Act of Accord, which recognised York as Henry's successor, disinheriting Henry's six year old son, Edward. York accepted this compromise as the best on offer. It gave him much of what he wanted, particularly since he was also made Protector of the Realm and was able to govern in Henry's name.

Lancastrian counter-attack

Queen Margaret had fled to north Wales, which was still in Lancastrian hands, while many Lancastrian nobles were gathering armies in the north of England. The Duke of York left London later that year with the Earl of Salisbury to consolidate his position in the north against the Lancastrians who were reported to be massing near the city of York. He took up a defensive position at Sandal Castle near Wakefield over Christmas 1460. Then on 30 December, his forces left the castle and attacked the Lancastrians in the open, although outnumbered. The ensuing Battle of Wakefield was a complete Lancastrian victory. Richard of York was slain in the battle, and both Salisbury and York's 17-year-old second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were captured and executed. Margaret ordered the heads of all three placed on the gates of York.

Margaret had meanwhile travelled to Scotland to negotiate for Scottish assistance. Mary of Gueldres, Queen Consort to James II of Scotland, agreed to give Margaret an army on condition that she cede the town of Berwick to Scotland and Mary's daughter be betrothed to Prince Edward. Margaret agreed, although she had no funds to pay her army and could only promise booty from the riches of southern England, as long as no looting took place north of the River Trent.

The Act of Accord and the events of Wakefield left the 18-year-old Edward, Earl of March, York's eldest son, as Duke of York and heir to his claim to the throne. With an army from the pro-Yorkist Marches (the border area between England and Wales), he met Jasper Tudor's Lancastrian army arriving from Wales, and he defeated them soundly at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in Herefordshire. He inspired his men with a "vision" of three suns at dawn (a phenomenon known as "parhelion"), telling them that it was a portent of victory and represented the three surviving York sons; himself, George and Richard. This led to Edward's later adoption of the sign of the sunne in splendour as his personal emblem.

Margaret's army was moving south, supporting itself by looting as it passed through the prosperous south of England. In London, Warwick used this as propaganda to reinforce Yorkist support throughout the south — the town of Coventry switched allegiance to the Yorkists. Warwick's army established fortified positions north of the town of St Albans to block the main road from the north but was outmanoeuvred by Margaret's army which swerved to the west and then attacked Warwick's positions from behind. At the Second Battle of St Albans, the Lancastrians won another decisive victory. As the Yorkist forces fled they left behind King Henry, who was found unharmed, sitting quietly beneath a tree.

Henry knighted thirty Lancastrian soldiers immediately after the battle. In an illustration of the increasing bitterness of the war, Queen Margaret instructed her seven-year-old son Edward of Westminster to determine the manner of execution of the Yorkist knights who had been charged with keeping Henry safe and had stayed at his side throughout the battle.

As the Lancastrian army advanced southwards, a wave of dread swept London, where rumours were rife about savage northerners intent on plundering the city. The people of London shut the city gates and refused to supply food to the queen's army, which was looting the surrounding counties of Hertfordshire and Middlesex.

Yorkist triumph

Meanwhile, Edward of March advanced towards London from the west where he had joined forces with Warwick's surviving forces. This coincided with the northward retreat by the queen to Dunstable, allowing Edward and Warwick to enter London with their army. They were welcomed with enthusiasm, money and supplies by the largely Yorkist-supporting city. Edward could no longer claim simply to be trying to free the king from bad councillors; it had become a battle for the crown. Edward needed authority, and this seemed forthcoming when Thomas Kempe, the Bishop of London, asked the people of London their opinion and they replied with shouts of "King Edward". This was quickly confirmed by Parliament, and Edward was unofficially crowned in a hastily arranged ceremony at Westminster Abbey amidst much jubilation, although Edward vowed he would not have a formal coronation until Henry and Margaret were executed or exiled. He also announced that Henry had forfeited his right to the crown by allowing his queen to take up arms against his rightful heirs under the Act of Accord, though it was being widely argued that Edward's victory was simply a restoration of the rightful heir to the throne, which neither Henry nor his Lancastrian predecessors had been. It was this argument which Parliament had accepted the year before.

Edward and Warwick marched north, gathering a large army as they went, and met an equally impressive Lancastrian army at Towton. The Battle of Towton, near York, was the biggest battle of the Wars of the Roses. Both sides agreed beforehand that the issue was to be settled that day, with no quarter asked or given. An estimated 40,000—80,000 men took part, with over 20,000 men being killed during (and after) the battle, an enormous number for the time and the greatest recorded single day's loss of life on English soil. Edward and his army won a decisive victory and the Lancastrians were routed, with most of their leaders slain. Henry and Margaret, who were waiting in York with their son Edward, fled north when they heard the outcome. Many of the surviving Lancastrian nobles switched allegiance to King Edward, and those who did not were driven back to the northern border areas and a few castles in Wales. Edward advanced to take York where he replaced the rotting heads of his father, his brother, and Salisbury with those of defeated Lancastrian lords such as the notorious John Clifford, 9th Baron de Clifford of Skipton-Craven, who was blamed for the execution of Edward's brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland, after the Battle of Wakefield.


Although historians still debate the true extent of the conflict's impact on medieval English life, there is little doubt that the Wars of the Roses resulted in political upheaval and changes to the established balance of power. The most obvious effect was the collapse of the Plantagenet dynasty and its replacement with the new Tudor rulers who changed England dramatically over the following years. In the following Henrician and post-Henrician times, the remnant Plantagenet factions with no direct line to the throne were disabused of their independent positions, as monarchs continually played them against each other.

With their heavy casualties among the nobility, the wars are thought to have continued the changes in feudal English society caused by the effects of the Black Death, including a weakening of the feudal power of the nobles and a corresponding strengthening of the merchant classes, and the growth of a strong, centralized monarchy under the Tudors. It heralded the end of the medieval period in England and the movement towards the Renaissance.

On the other hand, it has also been suggested that the traumatic impact of the wars was exaggerated by Henry VII to magnify his achievement in quelling them and bringing peace. Certainly, the effect of the wars on the merchant and labouring classes was far less than in the long drawn-out wars of siege and pillage in France and elsewhere in Europe, which were carried out by mercenaries who profited from the prolonging of the war. Although there were some lengthy sieges, such as at Harlech Castle and Bamburgh Castle, these were in comparatively remote and sparsely-inhabited regions. In the populated areas, both factions had much to lose by the ruin of the country and sought quick resolution of the conflict by pitched battle.

The war was disastrous for England's already declining influence in France, and by the end of the struggle none of the gains made over the course of the Hundred Years' War remained, apart from Calais which eventually fell during the reign of Mary I. Although later English rulers continued to campaign on the continent, England's territories were never reclaimed. Indeed, various duchies and kingdoms in Europe played a pivotal role in the outcome of the war; in particular the kings of France and the dukes of Burgundy played the two factions off each other, pledging military and financial aid and offering asylum to defeated nobles and pretenders, to prevent a strong and unified England making war on them.

The post-war period was also the death knell for the large standing baronial armies, which had helped fuel the conflict. Henry VII, wary of any further fighting, kept the barons on a very tight leash, removing their right to raise, arm, and supply armies of retainers so that they could not make war on each other or the king. As a result the military power of individual barons declined, and the Tudor court became a place where baronial squabbles were decided with the influence of the monarch.

Few noble houses were actually exterminated during the wars. For example, in the period from 1425 to 1449, before the outbreak of the war, there were as many extinctions of noble lines (25) as occurred during the period of fighting (24) from 1450 to 1474.[10] However, the most openly ambitious nobles died, and by the later period of the wars, fewer nobles were prepared to risk their lives and titles in an uncertain struggle.