Wars of the Roses: 1455 – 87
A climate ripe for change:
Throughout the middle ages the process of deciding monarchs via dynastic lineage was an adequate if not capricious method. On occasion it could lead to complete social chaos; the Wars of the Roses, also known as the Cousins' war, was such an occasion.
The concept of divine rule, which had been accepted for centuries, meant that people could not question the Kings’ absolute authority without committing blasphemy. Changing such a system could never happen overnight, but a culmination of events in the 14th and 15th Century would bring about that change. Following the Black Death, which swept over Britain in 1348 killing between 30 – 50% of the country’s population, belief in the old social order slowly began to be questioned. Frustrated with the attempts to raise taxes from the penniless, the Peasants Revolt of 1381 forced Barons to concede to their tenant’s demands for higher wages, as the supply of labour fell. The subsequent wage increase led to a redistribution of wealth, economic growth and societal advancement amongst those at the foot of mediaeval society. The feudal system was in its death throes. A panicked nobility vied for influence and leverage.
Not exactly helping matters was the mental health and erratic leadership of the Lancastrian King, Henry VI. After inheriting the throne in 1422, Henry’s reign coincided with disaster in the hundred year’s war and a marginalisation of Yorkist influence in court. With many Barons questioning Henry’s suitability as King and with so many suitable candidates for his replacement, war was inevitable.
The particular problem of succession had emerged from the rule of Edward III. Unusually, Edward had many children that survived to adulthood. The sons inherited titles and the daughters married nobility which created many powerful magnates, each of whom autonomously ruled their own dukedom. Each could also claim to have their own line to the throne.
Prelude to war:
In the late 14th century, the first Grandson of Edward II, Richard II reigned for 22 years but had no children to succeed him. Instead, he nominated his nephew Roger Mortimer as his heir. When Mortimer died before he could become King, the throne was usurped by Richard’s cousin Henry IV. By the time the throne passed to Henry IV’s grandson Henry VI, the young king was just 9 months old! Led by quarrelsome advisors, it was under Henry VI’s unsurprisingly ineffective rule that the French captured most of the English territories in France, during the period that became known as the Hundred Years war. This proved catastrophic for England. Barons lost large amounts of income from the loss of their continental holdings and looking to compensate for the loss of prestige, they enlarged their maintenance with soldiers returning from France. Loyalties and division lines were drawn up between the emerging claims to the throne, with each Baron a powerful micro-army in their own right. On opposite sides of the divide stood the claimants from the House of York and the current King from the Lancastrian House. Despite the names representing the Dukedoms of the North, loyalties were split across the entire country with the nobility jockeying for positions of influence. As discord with the King grew, England fragmented.
The additional complication of Henry VI being victim of bouts of mental illness did not help his cause. During one such bout, a Royal Council was established by Richard of York to rule while the King recovered. With Yorkist power having been stripped away under the Lancastrian king Richard maximised this time to redress this grievance. Yet when Henry recovered in 1455 it was his wife, Margaret of Anjou who emerged as defacto ruler of the Lancastrians. Richard was promptly driven out of court and fearing execution for treason, he fled and readied for hostilities.
Commencement of hostilities:
Looking to remove the King’s inept Lancastrian councillors once and for all, Richard of York marched on London. The first engagement of the war came at St Albans in a relatively small affair. The King’s Lancastrian army suffered a defeat and Henry VI was captured. With defeat, the King had relapsed into mental illness. Once again, Richard of York, Henry’s distant cousin, became Lord Protector.
In the aftermath there were attempts on both sides to reconcile, yet the question of succession once again became an issue. Henry VI and Margaret’s young son Edward was the Lancastrian candidate to inherit the throne whereas Richard was the Yorkist candidate. When Henry recovered he relieved Richard of his position and set about consolidating his own.
Henry’s recovery and intervention in power politics must have been frustrating for the Yorkists for all sorts of reasons but none more so than the matter of the French naval threat in the English Channel. Richard of York’s ally the Earl of Warwick had been particularly capable in dealing with the threat while the Lancastrians fumbled.
By 1459 the Lancastrians were back in full control of affairs in England. Angry at the Lancastrian King’s lack of assistance against the French, Warwick started raiding the English coast. Then, in 1460, Warwick and his army crossed the channel with Papal backing. They engaged Lancastrian forces at the battle of Northampton and won a resounding victory.
The Yorkists again found the King hiding in a state of mental disrepair and with him as their prisoner, travelled back to London. Upon learning the news, Richard of York travelled to London with the intention of claiming the throne. Richard arrived at London and misjudging the situation, headed straight to claim the throne. Warwick was stunned. He had no intention of removing Henry VI from the throne, merely in replacing his councillors. Richard had to make detailed arguments based on genealogy that he and not Henry was the legitimate King. A compromise was reached. Henry would remain King but his son Edward was disinherited. Richard would become monarch upon Henry’s death.
Meanwhile, Henry’s wife Maragret of Anjou fled North with their son Edward. There, she was able to pull together a coalition of supporters. The Yorkists marched north to meet the Lancastrian threat. The resulting battle of Wakefield was a complete rout in favour of the Lancastrians. Richard Duke of York was captured and executed along with his 17 year old son.
Victory for the house of York:
Richard’s eldest son Edward was now the Yorkist candidate for the throne. With Jasper Tudor’s army arriving from Wales to finish the job, Edward raised his army and met the Lancastrians in Herefordshire. The result was a hard won victory for young Edward against wily Jasper. However, a war on two fronts was too much to maintain and at the second battle of St Albans, the Lancastrians won another victory and in doing so, recovered Henry VI. The Yorkist’s retreated to London.
Having made his way to London, Edward was crowned King in an impromptu ceremony; then he and Warwick reorganised their forces and marched north to face the Lancastrians at Towton. It would prove the bloodiest day on English soil with no quarter given. The Yorkists won a decisive victory leaving tens of thousands of dead on the battlefield. The surviving Lancastrians fled to Wales and locked themselves behind their castle walls. Henry and Margaret were forced to flee to Scotland.
Edward IV was officially coronated in 1461. The Yorkists had won. Mopping up operations continued until 1468 with Harlech Castle the last to fall after a seven year siege. In 1465, while he was campaigning in Northern England, Henry VI was captured a third time.
In 1464 Edward IV took his private life into his own hands, an action that his uncle Warwick did not approve of, nor attempt to accept. As far as Warwick was concerned Edward's marriage should have been a strategic International partnership, instead Edward married English-born Elizabeth Woodville in a secret ceremony. The Woodville’s had always been loyal to the Lancastrians and their presence in court caused much resentment. Edward became increasingly authoritarian and by 1469, unable to stomach his old enemies having such influence, Warwick rebelled.
Warwick attacked Edward’s forces at the Battle of Edgecote Moor where he won a sound victory. Edward was captured and for a time Warwick had two kings in his custody. England went into open revolt with old scores being settled everywhere. With few nobles ready to support Warwick’s seizure of power, Edward and Warwick publicly reconciled. It was however, merely for show.
Within days, Edward had declared Warwick a traitor and forced him into exile in France. In desperation, he allied himself with his former mortal enemy Margaret of Anjou and together, they invaded England in 1470. King Edward was away suppressing further rebellion in the North so rapidly securing support enroute, Warwick quickly took London, parading Henry VI around as the return of the rightful King. Warwick’s own brother commanded a large army for Edward and with the news of the fall of London, he switched sides. Edward was shocked and after scattering his army he fled into exile in Burgundy.
Return of the King:
Edward gathered his resources and with the assistance of his brother in law Charles of Burgundy, he landed with his forces in Yorkshire. This time, the initiative would solely be with him. Edward met Warwick at the Battle of Barnet. His victory was overwhelming. Both Warwick and his brother were killed in battle and their heads put on public display.
Meanwhile, Margaret of Anjou had landed in England with her now 17 year old son Edward. Raising support amongst the Lancastrians in Wales she led an army across the Severn River but was met by the Yorkists at the battle of Tewkesbury. The Lancastrians were defeated and young Edward slain. A broken spirited Margaret was led into captivity but she would not join her husband there. With no further heir or claim, Henry VI was murdered in his cell.
The villainy of Richard III:
Edward IV ruled peacefully for the next 12 years until 1483 when unexpectedly, he died. On his deathbed, Edward named his brother Richard as Lord Protector until his eldest son, Edward V came of age. Richard arranged for Edward V and his younger brother to be secured in the Tower of London until he could return to London. While away, Richard organised for many of his enemies to be executed without trial and while touring the North of England, the two young Princes disappeared, in all likelihood murdered. The question of who gave the order to carry out the murders has become one of histories most renowned mysteries.
What is known is that Richard was now cleared to be declared King Richard III. With widespread discontent at Richard’s ascent to the throne, the Lancastrian line now fell to Henry Tudor. On August 1st 1485, Henry sailed to Pembrokeshire with a force of exiles and Frenchmen. Richard’s armies in Wales flocked to Henry Tudor’s banner and marching west, he met Richard in battle at Bosworth Field. Henry's victory was decisive with Richard being slain by Henry's bodyguard, Rhys ap Thomas. Determined to end hostilities, the new Lancastrian King married the oldest daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, effectively uniting the two houses and bringing the Wars of the Roses to an end. For good measure, Henry executed further claimants whenever possible.
The glory of the Tudors:
The end of the Wars signalled the start of the Tudor dynasty but its importance in history goes much deeper than a mere regime change. In the new age of the Tudors, there was greater stability as parliament became the main force used for running the country and the somewhat erratic abuse of power by the nobility was curbed. As such, there was greater centralised government and improved bureaucracy. The emerging merchant class were able to benefit from this new system with the result being a greater political and economic inclusiveness by a larger portion of the population. In effect, the changes heralded an end to mediaeval England and the start of the Renaissance period; as well as being unquestionably, one of the most fascinating periods in British history.