A violent royal soap opera

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:17 pm

Edward IV, Henry VI, Wars of the Roses

Something was wrong with the English monarchy; the only answer seemed to be war

English history in the second half of the 15th century is scarred by civil war – the Wars of the Roses – a label which became popular in Victorian times based on the red and white roses of the rival houses of Lancaster and York.  It did not last as long as TV’s Coronation Street, but it was even more exciting.

The Wars of the Roses was no righteous conflict in a just cause: it was a chain of crude, bloody, dynastic power struggles.  First one side, then the other, gained advantage.  Adversaries switched allegiances, bumped one another off and did deals behind the scenes.  This was the real Game of Thrones, without the dragons and with marginally less gratuitous sex and violence.  Just like the fiction, the story is immensely complicated, with a confusing list of dramatis personae whose members further obfuscate matters by personal feuds, intermarrying, confusing titles and similar names.  What follows is an inadequate summary – but it will give you the general idea.

Red rose, white rose, red and white roses, War of the Roses

The chief protagonists in the Wars of the Roses were the descendents of the sons of Edward III, who had died in 1377.  Hence, the conflict is also sometimes known as the Cousins’ War.  The immediate causes of the war stemmed from dissatisfaction with the administration of the country’s affairs by the principal councillors of the Lancastrian King, Henry VI, a pious and kindly man who was also inclined to be slightly bonkers.  An additional cause of disquiet was the loss of territory in France.

The French set about taking back land won by Henry’s warlike father, Henry V.  Henry VI favoured peace and, to this end, agreed a 20-year truce (the Treaty of Tours) with the French King Charles VII in 1444.  Part of the deal was that Henry would marry Margaret of Anjou – which he duly did the following year – and in return France would receive the provinces of Maine and Anjou.  Knowing how immensely unpopular the agreement over Maine and Anjou would be in England, Henry & Co initially kept that particular aspect of the arrangement secret.  In fact, the truce did not last anyway.  By August 1450, the French had taken Normandy as well – and by 1453 Calais was the only remaining toe-hold England had in France.

Warwick Castle, Wars of the Roses

A further factor in creating, and maintaining, conflict was the bitter rivalry between different factions of the nobility.  The great families of medieval England owned enormous estates, enjoyed immense authority, and also had the ability to raise their own private armies – in fact, successive kings relied on them to do just that, in order to fight England’s wars.  The most powerful families included the Nevilles, earls of Salisbury and Warwick, based in the midlands and the north, and their sworn enemies the Percys, dukes of Northumberland, based in the north east.  To illustrate the extreme animosity between these two families, the Percys launched an unprovoked attack on a perfectly innocent Neville wedding party at Heworth Moor in 1453.  Allied to the Nevilles was Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, an extremely capable commander and administrator.  King Henry VI, Richard of York and Henry’s favourite advisor, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, were all descendants of Edward III and all had, slightly varying, claims to the throne of England.  Probably, neither Somerset nor York coveted Henry’s throne – he was the anointed king – but there was intense rivalry between the two of them and York felt, with some justification, that Somerset was making a mess of things.  The supporters of the “King’s Party” – the Lancastrians – and the “Things Could Be Better Party” – the Yorkists – undoubtedly wanted to exploit every opportunity to pursue old vendettas.

Maladministration, high taxes, high prices and the situation in France fed a turbulent undercurrent of unrest and resentment across the land, which encompassed disaffected ex-soldiers, and which sometimes spilled over into lawlessness and agitation.  One manifestation of this was the rebellion led by the mysterious Jack Cade in 1450, which culminated in an armed band, said to be thousands strong, mainly from Kent, marching on London, where they set out demands for reform and hacked off the heads of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King’s treasurer.  Some believed Cade’s Rebellion was sponsored by York, or his supporters.

Knights in armour, Wars of the Roses

In 1453, poor King Henry entered into some kind of catatonic state, a sort of mental oblivion.  Parliament appointed York as regent and Somerset was dispatched to the Tower.  By all accounts, York ruled wisely in the King’s name.  But then Henry recovered his senses, freed Somerset and dismissed York.  York, his life under threat, summoned his allies Warwick and Salisbury and, in May 1455, marched to St Albans at the head of 3,000 troops.  There, they met the King heading north with about 2,000 men.  It is doubtful that York intended to attack the King – he had been sending him messages of loyalty – but some spark resulted in a scuffle, which grew into what history knows as the First Battle of St Albans – and the first battle of the Wars of the Roses.  It was a victory for York, largely due to the initiative of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who led his men through the backs of houses to attack the Lancastrians in their flank.  Somerset, the Earl of Northumberland and many other Lancastrian nobles were killed.  The King was wounded.  York assured him of his loyalty and established an uneasy peace which lasted four years.

After that, things got really ugly.  The Queen, Margaret of Anjou, was determined to get rid of York and set about raising an army of ‘gallants’ personally loyal to her.  In 1459, this force intercepted a Yorkist army led by Salisbury at Blore Heath in Staffordshire, which was heading to join York at his castle in Ludlow; again, the Lancastrian forces were trounced.  Next, there was a stand-off outside York’s Ludlow stronghold: reluctant to fight against the king, some of his troops changed sides; York, Salisbury and Warwick went into exile overseas for awhile.  But Margaret engineered Bills of Attainder against York and his supporters – legal devices which effectively declared them guilty of treason and confiscated their estates and revenues; they had no option but to return to England with an army.  The Yorkists won a victory at Northampton in July 1460, where poor, bewildered, Henry was found after the battle in a tent.  Margaret headed to Wales, then Scotland, to gather support and inflicted a dramatic defeat on the Yorkists at Wakefield in December, when York himself was killed.  His second son, Edmund, and Salisbury were both summarily executed.  The heads of all three, with York’s wearing a mocking paper crown, were displayed over Micklegate in the City of York.

Towton, battlefield, Wars of the Roses

There is a dreadful inevitability about the Wars of the Roses as the sons of nobles sought to avenge their dead fathers.  In February 1461, York’s son and heir, the 18-year-old six foot four inch Edward, took terrible revenge on Lancastrian leaders having beaten a Lancastrian army at Mortimer’s Cross.  Margaret’s force, meanwhile, headed for London, looting as it went, and met the Earl of Warwick at St Albans; it was the Lancastrians’ turn to win the day and Henry was reunited with his wife.  Warwick upped the stakes by declaring York’s son, Edward, King Edward IV, in London: so England now had two kings.  The rival sides met again at Towton, in Yorkshire, at the end of March, in one of the most terrible battles in English history.  It was a resounding defeat for the Lancastrians and, really, it all should have ended there.

Of course, it did not.  Margaret wanted to carry on the fight, which she did as best she could in the north.  And Edward upset Warwick’s carefully arranged plan for a diplomatic marriage to a French princess by announcing he was already married to Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful commoner.  When York filled court with Elizabeth’s relatives (who had previously backed the Lancastrians), the humiliated Warwick joined his erstwhile bitter enemy, Margaret.  In 1470, Edward was forced to flee the country and Henry was once again restored to the throne.  Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, is known to history as ‘the Kingmaker’.

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumbria, Wars of the RosesBut, as you expected, York returned.  Gathering a new army, he defeated Warwick’s troops at Barnet in April 1471 and his old friend and mentor was killed in the fighting.  Margaret then headed west, to assemble more troops.  Swiftly, Edward followed and at Tewkesbury on 4 May inflicted a further bloody defeat on the Lancastrians.  The slaughter continued into the nave of Tewkesbury Abby and included Margaret and King Henry’s 17-year old son and heir, Edward of Westminster, the Prince of Wales.  Edward IV returned to London, where King Henry was quietly murdered in the Tower, probably with a blow to the back of the head.

The princes in the Tower, Wars of the RosesFor a while, apart from Edward feeling the need to bump off his treacherous brother the Duke of Clarence (who is meant to have been drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine), that was that.  Edward has a reputation as a fair monarch (relatively speaking) and England prospered.  Then, in 1483, he died, possibly of a stroke, possibly typhoid, aged just 40.  Enter centre stage Edward’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Ambion Hill Farm, Bosworth, battlefield, Wars of the Roses

Of course, Richard had been by Edward’s side for sometime.  He had married one of Warwick’s daughters, Anne Neville, acquiring a huge fortune in the process, and more or less ruled the north of England. Richard seized Edward and Elizabeth’s sons, his nephews, 12-year old Edward – the uncrowned King Edward V – and his 9-year old brother, Richard.  The young princes were taken to the Tower of London ‘for safety’ – and never seen again.  Parliament, at the bidding of Richard’s allies, had the boys declared illegitimate on the grounds that their father was already married before he married Elizabeth Woodville, and ‘called on’ Gloucester to become king.  He was duly crowned King Richard III.

The stage was set for the final chapter in this dreadful, but fascinating, saga.  Forces were gathering against Richard, clustering around a 28-year old Lancastrian, Henry Tudor – another descendant of Edward III – who had been biding his time in exile in Brittany.  Henry landed at Milford Haven in August 1485 with a small force and, gathering support along the way, met the King’s army at Bosworth in the English Midlands on 22 August.  Richard, deserted by his ally Lord Stanley (who happened to be married to Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort), fought bravely, but was cut down.  According to legend, his crown was retrieved from a thorn bush by Stanley and placed on Henry’s head.  Richard’s corpse was stripped, paraded through nearby Leicester and found under a car park 500 or so years later.

Castle Acre Priory, Tudor roses, Wars of the RosesHenry Tudor began a new dynasty as Henry VII.  He married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, thereby uniting Lancaster and York.  The conjoined red and white roses – the Tudor rose – can be seen all over the country even today.  Their son, Henry VIII, changed England – and Britain – for ever.  Nowadays, the rivalry between Lancaster and York is limited to county cricket; and in Tudor Britain we can see the foundations for much of our modern world.

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