Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Wars of the Roses, (1455–1487)
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): England
DECLARATION: The intrigue and fighting was continuous.
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: These were dynastic conflicts, fought between two factions both to seize immediate control of the kingdom and to achieve an uncontested claim to the throne.
OUTCOME: In effect, the wars led to the founding of a new ruling house, the Tudor family, whose monarchs were to bring strong and relatively stable government to England.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Unknown
CASUALTIES: Unknown, but concentrated in the partisan nobility
Less a series of wars in the traditional sense, the Wars of the Roses were a sequence of intrigues, rebellions, and attacks that took place over the dozen years from 1455 and 1487, in three distinct stages. Between 1455 to 1464, what began as a battle between rival factions under the weak Lancaster king Henry VI (1421–71) became in the end a war for possession of the crown, which settled briefly on the head of House of York candidate Edward IV (1442–83). In the second phase, from 1469 to 1471, renewed factional wrangling led to dynastic war between Edward IV and supporters of Henry VI, who was (also briefly) restored to the throne. The final stage, from 1483 to 1487, consisted of outright dynastic war and led to the accession of Henry VII (1457–1509), the first Tudor king. The wars are familiar to the English reading public as the backdrop and sometimes subject of a number of Shakespeare’s historical plays, best known among them, perhaps, Richard III. They were first called the “Wars of the Roses” many years later by Tudor propagandists—the idea being that the warring houses of Lancaster (represented by a red rose) and York (represented by a white rose) had been reconciled in the Tudor ascendancy, thus replacing an insecure age of upheaval and unrest by orderly times of peace and prosperity.
Although both the Lancasters and the Yorks had some claim to the monarchy through descent from the sons of Edward III (1312–77), a Lancaster had actually sat on the throne since 1399. If it had not been for the near anarchy rampant in England during the middle of the 15th century, the Yorkists might never have made a bid for power. But after the death of Henry V (1387–1422), the Lancasters did not acquit themselves well in France, where the HUNDRED YEARS’ WAR ground to a halt, having done little for the English but bankrupt the government and discredit Lancastrian rule. Great lords with private armies commanded the English countryside, where lawlessness ran rife and taxation hung heavy. The catalysts of struggle between York and Lancaster lay in the long minority of Henry VI. Henry proved to be a simpleton, slouching toward madness, and was from the start under the thumb of his ambitious queen, Margaret of Anjou (c. 1430–82). Her party, the Beauforts, had allowed the English position in France to deteriorate and caused the English themselves to turn to the Yorkists with the fall of Bordeaux in 1453.
That year Henry lapsed into insanity, causing a powerful baronial cabal, backed by Richard Neville (the “Kingmaker”; 1428–71), earl of Warwick, to make its move. The barons invested Richard (1411–60), duke of York, as protector of the realm. When Henry recovered his sanity in 1455, he brought the Beauforts back to court, reestablishing Margaret’s authority. York took up arms, in self-protection as well as ambition. At the battle of St. Albans on May 22, 1455, York proved victorious, and an uneasy truce followed. Civil war broke out again four years later, when York rose once more in rebellion. The Yorkists had some initial success before they scattered following defeat at Ludford Bridge on October 12, 1459. Many fled to France, where Warwick was regrouping the Yorkist forces. In June 1460, they returned to England, where Warwick and Richard’s son and heir Edward (1470–83) decisively defeated the Lancastrian forces at Northampton on July 10. Thereafter, York tried to lay claim to the throne but settled instead for the right to succeed upon the death of Henry. Because this effectively disinherited King Henry’s son, also named Edward, Queen Margaret continued her strident opposition.
Gathering forces in northern England, Margaret led the Lancastrians on a surprise attack and killed York at Wakefield in December. She then marched south toward London, defeating Warwick on the way at the Second Battle of St. Albans on February 17, 1461, which left the Yorkist cause in the hands of the 18-year-old Edward of York. On February 2, he had defeated a Lancastrian force at Mortimer’s Cross, and now he too was marching on London. Arriving before Margaret on February 26, within the week the young duke of York was proclaimed King Edward IV at Westminster, on March 4. Then, with what was left of Warwick’s army, Edward chased Margaret north to Towton, where they would fight the bloodiest battle of the war. At Towton, Edward won a complete victory for the Yorkist cause. Henry, Margaret, and their son Prince Edward fled to Scotland. The first stage of the Wars of the Roses drew to a close as the fighting waned, except for seesaw struggles for the castles of Northumbria between 1461 and 1464 and the reduction of a few pockets of Lancastrian resistance, such as the battles of Hedgeley Moor and Hexham in April–May 1464.
The next round grew from disputes within the Yorkist ranks. Warwick and Edward fell out over foreign policy, and Warwick and his cronies found themselves increasingly passed over at court. Soon Warwick was fomenting rebellion with the king’s ambitious brother George (1449–78), duke of Clarence. By 1469 civil war had broken out once more as Warwick and Clarence backed risings in the north. By July, they had defeated Edward’s supporters at Edgecote (near Banbury), and soon they took the king himself prisoner. However, Edward was rescued by March 1470. He regained control of his government and forced the conspirators to flee to France. There they allied themselves with the French king Louis XI (1423–83) and their former enemy, Margaret of Anjou.
Warwick and Clarence returned to England in September 1470, defeated and deposed Edward, and restored the crown to Henry VI. Edward himself now fled with his supporters to the Netherlands. Securing aid from Burgundia, he returned to England in March 1471. Edward outmaneuvered Warwick long enough to regain the loyalty of his brother, the duke of Clarence. The two joined forces to defeat Warwick at Barnet on April 14. That same day, Margaret landed at Weymouth. When she learned of Warwick’s disastrous defeat, she turned west and rushed toward the safety of Wales. But Edward’s army beat hers to the River Severn; at the battle of Tewkesbury on May 4 Edward captured Margaret, destroyed her forces, and put her son to death. Shortly afterward, he had Henry VI murdered in the Tower of London.
Edward’s throne was safe for the rest of his life, but when he died in 1483 his brother, Richard (1461–83), the duke of Gloucester, disregarded the claims of his nephew, the young Edward V, and had himself crowned Richard III. In doing so, he alienated many Yorkists, his only natural constituency. These men now turned to the House they had so long opposed and to the last hope of the Lancastrians, Henry Tudor (later Henry VII). Backed by the Yorkist defectors, allied with the French, Henry rebelled. As all readers of William Shakespeare know, Henry defeated and killed Richard at Bosworth Field (on August 22, 1485). The next year Henry married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York (1466–1503) thus uniting the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims. There was still some persuading to do, some malcontents to put down. It was only when Henry defeated a Yorkist rising supporting the pretender Lambert Simnel on June 16, 1487, that what Henry’s descendants would call the Wars of the Roses came to a close.
More recent historians have downplayed the significance of these wars, claiming that the Tudor writers and later historians following their lead exaggerated the level of casualties and the extent of the disorder they caused. Most of the fighting was limited not merely to the nobility but to the two factions and those most closely associated with them, so that even at the height of the fighting, most common people continued about their everyday business. The conflicts did not much disrupt the growing prosperity and the rising standard of living of ordinary men and women in England in the second half of the 15th century, though the political crisis they created no doubt had a larger effect. Their most lasting impact was probably to produce the new dynasty of the Tudors—a lusty, expansive, and confident lot who would take England to glories no previous rulers, Lancaster or York, would have imagined possible.
Further reading: Anthony Goodman, The Wars of the Roses (London: Routledge, 1981); A. J. Pollard, The Wars of the Roses (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988); John Gillingham, The Wars of the Roses: Peace and Conflict in Fifteenth Century England (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981); B. Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Random House, 1996).