6 – War of the Roses 1455-87
The War of the Roses is a misnomer in almost every aspect of the name. It wasn’t so much of a war as several intermittent and semi-linked wars spread over twenty three years, and the significance of the roses – the White Rose of Yorkshire associated with Richard of York and the Red Rose of Lancashire, associated with Henry of Lancaster – was only attributed hundreds of years after the fact. Since we’re deep diving into the name, it also bears point out that actual symbols of the Yorkists and the Lancastrians were the boar and the dragon respectively, and that Richard’s lands were not really in Yorkshire but rather spread all over England and Wales, and Henry’s fiefdoms were predominantly in Wales, Cheshire and the south west of England rather than in Lancashire.
Still, while the symbols might have been slightly messed up, the war itself was pivotal to the history of England. Naturally, it was a succession crisis – we promise that it’s the last succession crisis on this list – but it was not one in the traditional sense that we have seen before. For starters, it began with the King still alive and well. Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, had reigned since 1422, but his time on the throne had been in severe decline during the course of the so-called Hundred Years’ War. The Hundred Years’ War was exactly what it sounds like: a century long conflict. It was fought between England and France over who was the legitimate king of France – OK, so one more succession crisis – and took in such seminal moments as Agincourt, Crecy, Joan d’Arc. If you think of a stereotypical mediaeval battle scene, with knights on horseback, chivalry and stone castles, you’re probably thinking of something from the Hundred Years’ War. We haven’t got time in five articles to go through it all, but suffice to say that at the start of Henry VI’s reign, it was all going very well for the English, with their influence in France at its absolute height. The trouble for Henry was that he was an infant regent and, by the time he took real power, it had all gone very sour. The war was incredibly expensive, the English had been all but kicked out of France and the common people were in near revolt. Henry himself was a woeful leader, utterly interested in war or violence and now faced with economic collapse.
Lancastrian Henry’s major rival was Richard of York, the leading noble in the land. With Henry’s popularity plummeting, Richard lead calls for reform, particularly regarding the advisors to the King who had failed so spectacularly in France. The nobles hated the King’s court and the King couldn’t bear the strain, suffering a mental breakdown in 1453. This presented a major problem: the next in line to the throne was Prince Edward, a newborn baby, leaving the Lancastrian line of succession to compete with the Yorkist branch for control.
An initial period of fighting lead to Henry VI being captured and imprisoned by Richard, with Richard appointed “Protector” of the King, de facto ruler during his illness. Henry was recaptured and returned to the throne, but the battle lines had been drawn. There was another two years of skirmishes, before again Henry was captured by Richard. This time, they made him sign the Act of Accord, which agreed to name Richard as the legitimate king when Henry died. Of course, things did not turn out as simply as that.
Richard was killed in battle in 1460 and his son, Edward, became the heir to the throne. Edward was crowned in 1461 – despite Henry still being alive – and marched on the Lancastrians, forcing Henry to hide in the mountains of northern England for a year. Yorkist rule would continue through the 1460s, with sporadic uprisings and low-level fighting. The Earl of Warwick, the richest man in England, rose in rebellion and managed to capture Edward and remove him from the throne, briefly leaving England with two kings, or more practically, none at all. Warwick was the most powerful noble, but had no claim to the throne, while Henry was murdered in 1471, leaving Edward as the only possible man to be King.
That was far from the end of the fighting, however. He died suddenly in 1483 and his son, Edward V, was just 12. The King’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was appointed Regent but soon imprisoned the heir to the throne in the Tower of London. Edward V and his brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, the famed Princes in the Tower, disappeared mysteriously in 1483 and the regent became Richard III. He would be the last Plantagenet king. Richard endured a revolt by the Duke of Buckingham before Henry Tudor, head of the House of Lancaster, finally met Richard in battle at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. As any student of Shakespeare knows, Richard lost and was killed, ending the rule of York and ushering the Tudor era.
It was the final act of the Middle Ages in England and, while there were still succession crises, it would be the last major war over the issue. Though, as we are to find out, that might well be because Henry Tudor’s grandson, Henry VIII, was about to bring about an even bigger issue to quarrel over; religion.