Author: Lily Pad
The Wars of the Roses were a complex set of civil wars which tore apart England in the 15th Century. The conflict pitched two sides of the royal family – the House of Plantagenet – against each other in a bid for the English throne. These two warring factions were known as the Houses of Lancaster and York.
Following decades of unrest, the Wars of the Roses would eventually see the rise of a new dynasty which sought to unify the two sides; that of the Tudors.
The Origins of the Wars of the Roses
The Wars of the Roses derived its name from the symbols of the two houses that battled each other in this famous conflict – the red rose of Lancaster and the white of York. Beginning in the latter part of the 14th century, the Wars of the Roses saw these two houses, each a branch of the royal House of Plantagenet, fight for the throne.
It all began in 1399, when Henry of Bolingbroke, the exiled Duke of Lancaster deposed King Richard II. As a result, Henry was crowned Henry IV and the House of Lancaster was in the ascendancy.
Whilst rumblings of discontent were sounded at this coup, Henry IV remained king and passed the crown to his son, King Henry V, whose short reign saw great military success over France and general acclaim for the King. However, it was when Henry V died unexpectedly that things began to unravel, as his son and heir was only nine months old.
The Wars of the Roses: He Who Controls the King Controls the Crown
Henry’s son – King Henry VI – was crowned while still a baby. Unable to rule in his own right, Henry VI was controlled by advisers who many believed were corrupt, and the child-king grew to become a mentally unstable and unpopular monarch. Thus it was that, even as an adult, Henry VI was an ineffectual and weak leader who was seen to be easily manipulated by his partisan advisers.
In amidst the dissatisfaction with this Lancastrian king, Richard, Duke of York, came to the fore. Disliking what he saw as negative influences on the king, he planned to gain control of the king’s decisions. Richard, who in fact had a better claim to the throne than the king himself, raised an army. His initial aim was not to become king himself, but to control the actions of the existing monarch.
The Duke of York would find many obstacles in his way. The king’s courtiers wanted to maintain their position of supremacy, his formidable wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou wanted to ensure her son’s place as heir and these forces were determined to stop the Duke of York from ruling through the king. The stage was set.
A Tug of War: The First War of the Wars of the Roses (1455–61)
The Wars of the Roses is often divided into three wars, the first of which would end in a bittersweet victory for the Yorkists.
Although it began with a decisive Yorkist victory at the First Battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455, this initial part of the Wars of the Roses was characterized by the fluctuating fortunes of both houses. Henry VI would be a Yorkist prisoner on more than one occasion while the Lancastrians would deal the Yorkists a great blow at the Battle of Wakefield.
There, on 30 December 1460, the Duke of York and his son, Edmund were killed in battle, their heads placed on the gates of the city of York with a paper crown on the Duke’s head.
The Lancastrians seemed to be close to victory, yet like on so many other occasions, this was fleeting. Richard’s surviving son, Edward of March took on his father’s mantle and, after a frantic race to London, was officially declared King Edward IV.
This was confirmed at the Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461 where, in the largest battle of the Wars of the Roses, Edward achieved a decisive victory. The Yorkists had won this round.
Another Yorkist Victory: The Second War of the Wars of the Roses (1469–71)
This period of the Wars of the Roses started and ended with Yorkist Edward IV as king. Yet, typically of the Wars of the Roses, was filled with turmoil in-between. It started when the relationship of Edward and his top advisor, the Earl of Warwick, began to sour.
Alienated and angry, Warwick switched sides. He made several attempts to oust Edward from the throne, including with the king’s own brother in 1470 before finally overthrowing him and reinstating Henry VI. This led to Warwick being known as the “Kingmaker”. Yet, this victory would be short-lived.
First the Kingmaker died at the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471. That same year, the Lancastrians lost their heir, Edward, Prince of Wales at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Henry VI‘s execution soon followed, ending -at least at that time – any hopes for a Lancastrian revival. Edward IV was once again king.
The Tudors Prevail: The Third War of The Wars of the Roses
The final period of the Wars of the Roses came in 1483, when Edward IV died without warning. His son became King Edward V, yet, at the tender age of twelve, was not strong enough to hold onto the throne. Within two months he was deposed by his own uncle – the Duke of Gloucester – the man who became King Richard III.
Richard III would remain king for around three years, yet he was very unpopular, generating increasing discontent which soon erupted into the reigniting of the Wars of the Roses. Richard III finally met his end on 22 August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field. With his demise came the rise of a new king, the victor of the battle, Henry Tudor. This fairly obscure Lancastrian with a tenuous claim to the throne was crowned Henry VII on 30 October 1485, heralding the birth of the new royal dynasty of the House of Tudor.
The Tudor Period: The Wars of the Roses end
Henry VII was now king, a position strengthened on 18 January 1486 by his marriage to Elizabeth of York, this union between Lancastrian and Yorkist seemingly tying things together nicely. There were some further Yorkist uprisings – including the battle of Stoke on 16 June 1487, seen by some as the last battle of the Wars of the Roses. Yet, this new king brought with him the end of the Wars of the Roses and a dynasty which would reign for 117 years. The Tudor period had begun.
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