“History does not come into convenient segments or small, contained packages, sealed at both ends. Each period or event is a result of what went before and contributes, to a greater or lesser extent, to what follows.”1
The Wars of the Roses were a series of dynastic civil wars in England fought by the rival houses of Lancaster and York between 1455 and 1485.2 There had been many issues that contributed to the main causes of the wars which were mainly the desire to reign, but also due to the incapacity in the monarchy, there were many fights between them for the throne.
In the thirty years, the trouble surrounds a schizophrenic Henry VI, whose ineptitude finally led to war. Henry was also undermined by his queen, Margaret of Anjou, who attempted to rule England. This led to the intervention of Richard, Duke of York in the name of the king and to place the future Edward IV, his son, onto the throne. The conflicts erupted in some of the bloodiest and most dramatic battles in the history of England such as St Albans and the famous Bosworth. The families involved became wrapped up in violence, treachery and deceit as the two sides fought for control. The result was that both Lancaster and York houses suffered downfall, and the Tudor dynasty emerged.
The Hundred Years’ War with France finally ended in 1433, with the English defeated, led by King Henry IV. His predecessors had all tried in their turn, but the French war was finally over, but issues were waiting to be faced back home.3 However, Henry’s reign could be said to be disappointing – now that Parliament had more say in how money was raised in taxes and how the King spent it, he had less power than his predecessors.4 He became powerless to help solve people’s problems and many industries fell due to several bad harvests. He also had to deal with rebellions in Wales and Scotland.
This shows the beginning of weakness in the monarchy in which the failure of the king enabled the country to doubt him from the end of the war with France. However, his reign cannot be said as a complete failure as he had founded a new dynasty and successfully passed his kingdom down to his heir. He had also defeated rebel barons, Scotland and France had been neutralised and the Welsh restored to their allegiance. His title had also never been questioned by the Commons. Although this shows contrast to the disappointing side of his reign, this shows the beginning of failure from the kings.
At the age of 47, Henry IV died at Westminster Palace after being in poor health in the last years of his reign. His son became Henry V, succeeding the throne and ruled for nine years, until the age of 35. He had demanded that the French should hand back lands ruled by the kings of England 200 years earlier and engaged in the Battle of Agincourt following the Hundred Years’ War.5 His famous victory over the French meant that he became known for his reputation as a great king.6 His marriage to the King of France’s daughter, Princess Catherine in 1420 did not end the battles they were still engaged in with France. He was still fighting in France at the same time of his death in 1422, leaving his infant son to become King Henry VI.
Henry V did attempt to solve a conflict by marriage, however, he had failed, but he is known for his famous victory over France and as the ‘hero king’.
“But the first and most striking contrast is that whereas the father had to wait with ill-concealed impatience for his inheritance, the son had this thrust upon him before he was one year old.”7
Henry VI was raised at court by a Protector and Council after his mother, Catherine remarried to a powerful noble called Owen Tudor8, who later becomes the grandfather of the future King Henry VII.9
When Henry was 7 years old, he was placed into the care of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick who was one of Henry V’s most trusted lieutenants. During this time, however, the situation with France went from bad to worse, and there became many struggles between the two powerful families – this was the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. This showed at the lack of power and incapacity of the monarchy from Henry VI, “If Henry VI had been a better king then Richard of York would probably not have opposed him. But Henry was hopeless at war and quite unable to rule the country properly.”10 King Henry gradually was looked upon with disgrace as England lost the lands by 1453 that they had once ruled in France. Henry’s reign not only caused more conflict, it was the match that set off the fire. Becoming king before he was one year old already showed the incapacity and lack of power that he would have. Having barons to look after him and rule until he became old enough, there was already danger in that they would defeat him in claiming the throne for themselves.
It also didn’t help that the king suffered from bouts of insanity that was to recur throughout his life, which reduced him to a state of paralytic melancholia, depriving him of memory, speech and reason. This is another sign that the country would be badly run, by a ‘insane’ king, who would be powerless due to his illness, therefore the country would then again be run by barons. The failure of the monarchy would therefore give opposition a chance to fight for the throne and his deteriorating health would be another advantage.
The wars between the families divided England – the Yorkists had the support of the wealthy families in the southern part of England and the north usually sided with the Lancastrians.
The king’s army was defeated in the first battle of St Albans in 1455 by the Yorkists.11 However, Richard of York declared that he had no desire to be king, but his intention was to make sure that England was governed properly when the king became ill, therefore he was appointed Protector to take over from the king when he was too sick to govern. However, the queen, Margaret resented Richard having power, and with the king sick, she was determined to destroy the Yorkists. Therefore, in the summer of 1460 the war between the two sides become deadly serious and it became known as the Battle of Wakefield, in which the Lancastrians completely defeated the Yorkists and Richard was killed.12
The Yorkists were determined to get revenge for Richard’s death and therefore under the command of the Earl of Warwick, they succeeded at the Battle of Towton, which was probably the bloodiest battle fought.13 Lancastrians were completely defeated, and as many of them tried to escape the battlefield, they fell into the River Towton and drowned. This shows the families’ feud and determination to succeed the crown by eliminating their competition. Henry had been weak and effete, and the authority and prestige of the crown were badly shaken, that although Richard, 3rd Duke of York had been nominated as Lord Protector of the Realm, he soon also wanted the crown. This may have been because he realised that he had a good claim to the throne, considering he, like Henry was a direct descendant of Edward III.14
For a while, the wars seemed to be over. The Yorkists and the Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker15, made Richard’s son, Edward, the new king becoming Edward IV. Queen Margaret and her son escaped abroad, and Henry was sent to the Tower of London after being taken prisoner and paraded through the streets of London.
King Edward seemed to be popular, but however, as long as Henry was alive, those who supported the Lancastrians wanted him to become King again. It also came to a point in which Edward was due to marry. “When a King married it is usually to unite two important families and perhaps increase the amount of land they owned.”16
Edward’s advisors wanted him to marry the sister of the French queen, which was aimed to keep peace between England and France. However, just as arrangements for the marriage were nearly complete – the King admitted that he was already married – a widow from a family that supported the Lancastrians.
Early in Edward’s reign, he “apparently entered into a marriage contract with the widowed Lady Elenor Butler, a daughter of Old Talbot, ‘the terror of the French’, in order to coax her to bed.”17 However, Elizabeth Woodville refused his proposition until they were married. “With extraordinary lack of foresight the King agreed to her terms and the couple were secretly made man and wife, ‘after which spousals ended, he went to bed and tarried there for four hours’.”18
The Earl of Warwick had negotiated with France King Louis XI for a treaty involved in a marriage between Edward and a French princess, which would then lead to the Earl to receive French lands and titles as his rewards. Edward’s announcement of his marriage therefore gave a blow to the power hungry Earl. This was worse when he learnt that Elizabeth was from a family with a Lancastrian background. Edward then made it clear that he was not going to be under the control of the Earl, which angered the power hungry Earl, who then decided to become the Kingmaker again, in which he set Henry free from the Tower of London and made him king again.19 This show how even the barons wanted charge of the situation, not to become king, but be able to receive rewards from their negotiations such as the Earl and the French King. This is seen as another cause for the Wars of the Roses. The Earl’s swapping sides provoked another war.
Now that Henry was King again, Edward fled to Holland to his brother-in-law, the Duke of Burgundy. This shows that now, desperate, the rival king involved yet another family into the Wars. “Charles was at first reluctant to embroil himself in his brother-in-law’s problems, but he changed him mind when first Louis XI and then Warwick declared war on him.”20 Armed with fleets and around 1,500 troops, Edward set sail for the claim of his kingdom. Just outside of London, the two sides met at the Battle of Barnet. The Kingmaker was killed accidentally by his own men and Margaret landed back in England on the day he died, in which Edward then caught up with her and defeated her army as well as Henry’s only son.. He now became king once again, and sent Henry back to the Tower of London where he died soon after. “There is little doubt that Edward IV ordered his murder.” 21 “On Edward’s return to London from Tewkesbury, he (Henry) was put to death in the Tower of London.”22
The deaths showed how far each side were prepared to go to just to secure their position as king. Edward certainly achieved that and successfully ruled for the following twelve years.
However, when he died in 1483, he left two sons; Edward V aged thirteen and Richard aged eleven. He chose his brother, Richard of Gloucester to rule as Protector until Edward was old enough to become king. This became a great mistake, as unknown to Edward, Richard was ambitious and determined to become king himself. He placed both of Edward’s sons into the Tower of London ‘for their own safety’ which became known as the ‘Two Princes in the Tower’.23 “They were never seen again. No one is quite sure what happened to them but they were almost certainly murdered on the orders of their uncle.”24 Again, this shows how power hungry members of each families became. To murder a member of your own family in order to succeed as King. However, Richard only reigned for two years, until he was rivalled by Henry Tudor25. Although Richard hoped that his son would become king after he died, his son died young after a short illness.
Henry Tudor was the last of the Lancastrians, the grandson of Owen Tudor who became Richard III’s main rival. “No one trusted Richard III and he was always afraid that someone would try tot take the throne away from him.”26 This threat for him became worse after his young son died after a short illness.
In March 1485, the Queen, Anne died – giving another blow to the king – which “gave rise to rumours that he had poisoned her in order to marry Henry Tudor’s intended bride, Elizabeth of York.”27 Thus, this would prevent the ending and removing the causes of conflict.28 It was Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s wife, who had made an agreement with Henry Tudor that he would marry her eldest daughter, “it shows the terms of mutual affection, sympathy and trust that this Lancastrian and this Yorkist were on, and that theirs was a true union. There was never a murmur of any fidelity or unhappiness between them.”29
The Lancastrians had turned to Henry Tudor for leadership, in which he led forces to Bosworth field in August 1485, in which Richard III and Henry Tudor fought the decisive battle, which was the last major encounter of the wars. Treachery comes into the Battle of Bosworth, when barons of King Richard turned on him and joined forces with Henry Tudor. When Lord Stanley was summoned by Richard to Nottingham, he replied that he was ill. However, his son was captured and he confessed that Sir William Stanley and Sir John Savage had joined forces with Henry Tudor. Henry had managed to gain more support from many lords in England, such as Sir Gilbert Talbot.
At the battle, Richard eventually got surrounded and killed. “Richard’s body was treated with great indignity. Perfectly naked, it was trussed over a horse’s back, head and arms dangling on one side, legs on the other. Passing over a bridge the head was bruised against a stone. It was brought to the church of the Grey Friars at Leicester, where it was exposed for two days so that people might see that he was dead. A king’s body would never have been treated in this way if he had not been what he was.”30 It can be said that Henry had won at Bosworth, or that Richard was betrayed and defeated. Whichever it was, Henry became king and reconciled the houses of Lancaster and York through his marriage to Elizabeth of York.