The Wars of the Roses: An Aristocratic Gang War

The Wars of the Roses: An Aristocratic Gang War

The Wars of the Roses have largely been forgotten by the general population of England. The only lingering memories of this fascinating period in the country's past are the series of history plays written by William Shakespeare that bring the world of the protagonists to life. Without the legacy of Shakespeare, the second half of the 15th century would be the preserve of historians and very few from outside of the academic community would know, or care, about the decades long conflict that ripped the Royal Family to pieces. Shakespeare's plays, whilst playing fast and lose with historical facts, get the feel of the period correct. From the neuroses of the usurper Henry IV to the heroic charisma of Henry V, to the harsh mediocrity of Henry VI and the seizing of power by Richard III, the Bard has introduced many to the Wars of the Roses. But what were the Wars of the Roses? A civil war between cousins? A clash of intense egos that couldn't be reconciled or was it a form of elitist gang war that was primarily driven by power and prestige.

The origins of the Wars of the Roses can be traced back to 1399. Richard II had been King of England since 1377. He was a vain and arrogant man who believed that Kings were there because of the will of God. To Richard he was God's representative on earth. Unlike his grandfather, Edward III, who believed that the King was a first amongst equals who should rule with the support of the Nobility and the wider community. This belief led Richard to alienate many around him. After the death of his uncle, John of Gaunt, Richard seized his lands for himself. Gaunt's son and heir, was Richard's cousin Henry Bolingbroke who was in exile in France after he fell out with another noble, Thomas Mowbray, over comments that Henry alleged that Mowbray made about Richard's kingship. Both Henry and Mowbray complained to Richard about the other. Richard ordered them to fight a dual, but on the day, Richard changed his mind and ordered Henry to go into exile for ten years and Mowbray for life. After the death of his father Henry should've become the new Duke of Lancaster and inherit vast lands throughout the country. After Richard seized the lands for himself Henry returned to England with a small band of followers claiming he only wanted his rightful inheritance. Due to Richard's unpopularity Henry gained huge support and the idea of taking the throne for himself began to develop in Henry's mind. Richard and his Queen hadn't had children, and his unofficial heirs were the Mortimers who were descendants of Edward III's elder children.

Henry had gathered huge support throughout the country especially the Percy Earls of Northumberland who were his key supporters. Richard had been in Ireland when he was informed of Henry's invasion and hastily tried to get his army back to England. Richard couldn't find a place to land his army on the east coast of England and had no choice but to surrender to Bolingbroke. Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, now decided to make himself King. But how to justify usurping the Crown? Henry set about this by going back to the reign of Edward I. Henry gathered constitutional experts to argue that it was Edward I's younger brother, Edmund, who was the elder brother, but he'd been shunted aside in favour of Edward. No one believed a word of Henry's claim. In truth, the only compelling argument that Henry had for becoming King was he was the man of the moment. He was charismatic, a natural leader and one of the club of noblemen who hadn't done well under Richard II. Henry became King Henry IV in October 1399, but the reality of Richard II never escaped him. Eventually Henry had to act, and Richard was allowed to starve to death in Pontefract Castle. Henry never escaped the taint of usurpation. When he developed a disfiguring skin disease many said it was God's judgement on his usurpation.

As the 15th century rolled on Henry IV's grandson, another Henry, became King. Henry VI had very big shoes to fill. His father, Henry V, has gone down in English history as one of the greatest medieval monarchs. His victory at Agincourt over the French is the stuff of legend and his fame has been immortalised by Shakespeare's play. As Henry VI grew older, it was clear that his character was markedly different from his fathers. Henry V was a natural war leader. By contrast, Henry VI's great passions in life were learning and religion. During his reign he founded Eton College and King's College Cambridge. He was unusually pious and had very little real interest in government. In 1445 Henry married Margaret of Anjou, second daughter of the count of Anjou. Margaret was a determined character who wanted to involve herself in the increasingly factious court politics of England in the 1440's. Since Henry VI was a child, England had been governed by the council as per the terms stipulated in Henry V's will. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had been made Protector of England and John, Duke of Bedford, had been appointed as Regent of France. Both Gloucester and Bedford had been loyal brothers to Henry V and that loyalty had passed onto Henry's son. As Henry reached his maturity his uncle, Humphrey appeared to be a hindrance to the growing court party centred around Queen Margaret, the Duke of Suffolk and the Duke of Somerset. In 1447 King Henry and Queen Margaret summoned Gloucester to answer charges of high treason. Gloucester was imprisoned at Bury St. Edmunds and, after years of decline, Humphrey died. Rumours were instant that he'd been poisoned but it appears more likely he died of a stroke, or a heart attack bought on by his political disgrace.

Henry VI was now King in name and not just indeed following Gloucester's downfall. He sat at the head of his council, and he had control of his Parliament. Henry VI, however, had one seemingly unmanageable problem, France. The English, by the late 1440's, were on the retreat in France. Under the leadership of the Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, England had been pushed out of Normandy. Henry V's legacy was under dire threat. The disasters being inflicted on England in France started to spill over into English domestic politics. Richard, Duke of York, publicly accused Somerset of incompetence in his running of the English war effort in France. It was propaganda on York's part but, like all good propaganda, it was wrapped in truth. Tensions were growing in England and when Richard of York was sent to Ireland, almost a form of exile, the royal party showed their weakness and concern about the strength of York. In 1452 York was recalled from Ireland but the atmosphere in England was mutually hostile and he raised an army to confront the King about his grievances against the Queen and Somerset. York was allowed to air his grievances to the King but, his force was massively outnumbered by the court parties, so he had to swear an oath of allegiance to the King.

Somerset was safe from York if he had the backing from the King and Queen. But what if the King was removed from English politics. England's war effort in France was collapsing. The French were now far more unified than they had been during the reign of Henry V and were winning victories against their enemies. After a series of French victories King Henry received the news that the English army had been routed at the battle of Castillion. The shock was so great to Henry's system that it plunged him into a total mental collapse. Modern psychiatrists have analysed Henry's condition as Catatonic Schizophrenia. To the medieval mind Henry had succumbed to some kind of melancholy. A depressive state to which they had no explanation.

Government in England desperately needed stability after the King's mental breakdown. One man stood out from the crowd. Richard, Duke of York, had the required skills to effectively govern the realm. York was appointed as Lord Protector, and he set about reforming the way that England was governed. He rewarded his supporters such as Salisbury and Warwick and had his great enemy Somerset imprisoned in the Tower of London. Gradually King Henry started to regain his senses and the Royal party took back control of government from York. The mutual hostility between York and the court faction couldn't be heeled and violence was in the air.

After his period as Protector ended York and his allies started to raise troops. The King's aides did the same and the two sides clashed at the Battle of St. Albans. The Battle was a short affair with York securing a decisive victory. York's victory was all the sweeter as his enemy Somerset was killed in battle. York now had possession of King Henry and had himself made Constable of England. York knew that he was distrusted by many in the elites and made a symbolic gesture of submission by handing Henry the Royal crown.

As the 1450's developed, the relationship between York and those around the King, especially Queen Margaret, remained hostile. When York and his allies were summoned to Coventry for a meeting of the Great Council, York refused to attend. Coventry was a Lancastrian stronghold and York feared he was being lured into a trap. After several small battles, the Yorkists were forced to flee. York fled to Ireland, whereas Warwick and York's eldest son Edward fled to Calais. The Yorkists rallied themselves from exile and invaded England defeating the King's army at the battle of Northampton. King Henry was now a prisoner and was held by Warwick and was led to London. York returned from Ireland and officially laid down a claim to the throne. By making a verbal claim to the throne York made himself an even deadlier enemy of many of the English ruling elite. After pressure, the weak King Henry VI agreed to the Act of Accord and named York and his successors the legitimate heirs to the throne of England. By agreeing to this, Henry VI had disinherited his own son Edward. York thought that he'd triumphed by being named as Henry's heir, but Queen Margaret couldn't accept her son's disinheritance.

After being named heir York headed north with his second son Edmund and Salisbury. York went to his stronghold of Sandal Castle where they spent Christmas. As York travelled north, word spread to loyal Lancastrians in the north about York becoming King Henry's heir. Forces were being readied. A number of key Lancastrian commanders in the north were irredeemable enemies of York, especially Edmund Beaufort, 3rd duke of Somerset, whose father had shared a mutual hatred with York. On the 30th of December York left Sandal Castle and engaged the enemy. The Lancastrian forces had divided themselves to make it appear to York that their army was smaller than it really was. York and his son Edmund were killed in what became known as the battle of Wakefield. After York's death the Lancastrians placed York's head on a spike and placed a paper crown on top of it mocking his kingly pretentions. The disasters for the Yorkists didn't stop at the battle of Wakefield. Salisbury had escaped the battle but was captured and beheaded.

Richard of York had been one of the most divisive figures of his age. His wealth and his strong claim to the crown made him a danger to the court party. Queen Margaret had rid herself of one of her hated rivals but now York's elder son, Edward, took up the Yorkist sword. Edward of March was now the head of the House of York. He was eighteen years old and was a tall and strong man. He resembled his future grandson, Henry VIII, in appearance. Unlike his father, Edward had a likeable and affable character that made him, and kept him, friends. Edward had been a Yorkist commander at the battle of Northampton but this time he would be the overall general of the Yorkist force. The battle of Mortimer's Cross was a key test for Edward. His father had been a towering figure in English politics for decades could Edward fill a very large pair of shoes.

The battle of Mortimer's Cross was fought in Herefordshire. The Lancastrian forces were led by Owen and Jasper Tudor. Owen Tudor was the grandfather of the future Henry VII and Jasper was his uncle. During the battle the Lancastrians attempted to take the initiative by launching aggressive attacks at Edward's forces. These attacks were repulsed and when Owen Tudor's attack failed the Lancastrian army started to disintegrate. After the battle Owen Tudor was beheaded. This rare act proved to the world that Edward was a sound military commander and was ruthless in dealing with his enemies. Edward's victory at Mortimer's Cross was dampened by Warwick's defeat at the second battle of St. Albans, where the Lancastrians took back possession of King Henry.

After Edward's victory at Mortimer's Cross, he had himself crowned King in March, 1461. England now had two crowned Kings. The Lancastrian Henry VI and the Yorkist Edward IV. This situation couldn't last for long. The two sides met at Towton in North Yorkshire. The two armies combined size was in the region of 60,000 making them amongst the largest that England has ever seen assembled. When the two sides met the stark contrast between the two Royal faction's leaders was striking. Henry VI had never fully recovered from his mental breakdown in 1453 and remained with Queen Margaret in York during the battle. Edward IV, by comparison, was young and energetic. He'd commanded troops in previous battles proving himself a sound military leader. Towton was a decisive defeat for the House of Lancaster. Edward IV was now the unrivalled Yorkist king of England.

Edward was now King after the crushing of Lancaster at Towton. The early years of his reign went well for Edward. But then a Lancastrian widow entered his life that would alter the direction of 15th century England. Elizabeth Woodville was the daughter of Richard Woodville, 1st earl Rivers and Jaquetta of Luxembourg. She was the widow of Sir John Grey, who had been killed fighting for the Lancastrians at the second battle of St. Albans. She first met king Edward when she petitioned him regarding a land dispute. Edward was instantly smitten with Elizabeth. He was lusting for her and wanted her. Elizabeth refused to be his mistress and insisted on marriage. Whilst Edward's infatuation with Elizabeth was playing out, Warwick was negotiating with the French for Edward to marry a French princess. Warwick was left stunned and humiliated when Edward announced that he'd married Elizabeth in secret. The spilt in the house of York had begun.

Throughout the rest of the 1460's the tensions in the Yorkist court were growing. Warwick had been the indispensable champion of Yorkist England during the 1450's but now Edward was king he was increasingly being sidelined in favour of the new Queens relatives. By the turn of the 1470's the tensions spilled over into open revolt. Warwick and Edward's younger brother, George, duke of Clarence, rebelled against Edwards rule. Initially Warwick considered putting Clarence on the throne but instead developed an alliance with his hated enemies. After Warwick and Clarence's rebellion failed, they went into French exile where they met their exiled former Queen, Margaret of Anjou. After swearing an oath of allegiance to Lancaster Margaret agreed that her son, Edward, would marry one of Warwick's daughters and create an alliance to unseat Edward IV. With French backing Warwick invaded England. Edward was taken by surprise by the invasion and, after escaping capture, went into exile in Burgundy with his brother, Richard duke of Gloucester, his friend William, Lord Hastings and Anthony Woodville, the Queen's son from her first marriage. In Burgundian exile Edward sought the support of his sister Margaret and his brother-in-law, Charles the Bold. With limited support from Charles but generous loans from Flemish merchants, Edward invaded England winning battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury. At Barnet Clarence reneged and rejoined Edward and Warwick was killed. At Tewksbury the house of Lancaster suffered the bitter blow as Henry and Margaret's heir, Edward, was killed. Now Prince Edward was dead the life of Henry VI was bought to an end in the Tower of London. Edward had regained his crown.

It had been a spectacularly successful few weeks for Edward. He'd won two battles and rid himself of his rivals for the crown. Another point for celebration was that whilst he was away fighting Queen Elizabeth had given birth to a son and heir, who they named Edward. But Edward had an oversight in his analysis of his Lancastrian enemies. Henry VI was dead, Prince Edward was killed in battle and Margaret of Anjou was imprisoned. One Lancastrian however, lived. Henry Tudor was born in 1457 to Margaret Beaufort and Henry VI's half brother, Edmund. Edmund died of the plague before Henry was born and his mother Margaret was only 13 when she gave birth to Henry. After the Lancastrian defeats at Barnet and Tewksbury, Margaret knew her son's life was in danger and encouraged him to flee. With his uncle Jasper, Henry fled to Brittany. Henry wouldn't step foot on English soil again for more than a decade.

The 1470's were a relatively quite period in English politics compared to the decades that preceded it. King Edward had two healthy male heirs after Richard joined Edward in 1473. Tensions existed, especially between Edward's Woodville relatives and his closest friend William, Lord Hastings, but the English elite seemed more united than at anytime since Henry V. Edward's youngest brother, Richard, was now firmly in control of the north of the country and even the unruly Clarence had appeared to have changed his ways. But suddenly, Clarence became a hot potato for Edward as the 1470's rolled on. Clarence had never been satisfied just being Edward's loyal younger brother, he wanted more. But after the birth of two royal heirs, he was less and less relevant to the administration of the kingdom. Together with some in his retinue, Clarence started to stir up old rumours about Edward's marriage to his Queen, Elizabeth Woodville. After one of Clarence's Astronomers, John Stacey, was arrested and confessed under torture to imagining the death of the king and his sons, Edward finally snapped with his treacherous brother. Clarence was imprisoned in the Tower and placed on trial. No one dared speak in Clarence's defence. The trial was presided over by Edward himself and Clarence was found guilty. Clarence, it's been rumoured ever since, was drowned in a butt of Malmsey Wine in the Tower of London.

As the 1480's began Edward's relations with Scotland took a sharp turn towards the south. He instructed his brother Richard, as Lord of the North, to confront the Scots and Richard did just that marching an army all the way to Edinburgh. Edward was faced by another problem regarding foreign policy. Since the Lancastrian defeats at Barnet and Tewksbury, Henry Tudor had been in exile in Burgandy. He'd been used as a tool by the Burgundians to force concessions out of the king, especially in areas like the lucrative trade in English wool. Edward had finally, it seemed, decided on a policy of reconciliation. Henry Tudor's mother, Margaret Beaufort, was married to powerful Yorkist Lord William Stanley, who had direct access to King Edward. Through this access Margaret was able to make her case to Edward that her son was no threat to him and should be able to return to England and Wales and claim his rightful title as earl of Richmond. Edward had, by 1483, firmly established himself and his dynasty on the throne. He had two healthy male heirs and a brood of daughters that could be used to secure favourable diplomatic marriages throughout Europe. It's possible that he now viewed pardoning Henry Tudor, whose own claim to the throne was at best distant, as a minor noble who could be put to much better use at Edward's court rather than being used as a pawn against him in northwestern European power politics.

In April, 1483, Yorkist England seemed to be entering a golden age. Edward was still young, just forty, and had two heirs. The north of the country was firmly controlled loyally and efficiently by Richard, duke of Gloucester and the elite, except for the Woodville's and Lord Hastings, were united around a common purpose for government. Then. Disaster. Edward was taken ill whilst fishing on the Thames and it was clear he was dying. Although Edward was only a few weeks away from his forty first birthday, he'd kept an extravagant lifestyle that was finally catching up with him. For years he'd been eating excessively and drinking so much wine that his stomach had rapidly expanded. Gone were the good looks that had defined his youth. Edward died on the 9th of April and, with his death, went the stability of England.

Edward's death shook Richard, duke of Gloucester. Throughout his life he'd been directed by his elder brother and had repaid him with total loyalty. But now Edward was gone so was Richard's security. He barely knew his Woodville in-laws and he'd spent the vast majority of the 1470's in the north far away from court life in London. There's no contemporary evidence to suggest any tension between Richard and the Woodvilles, but the mutual suspicions that engulfed England after the king's premature death meant that past friendships, enmities or familial acquaintances were null and void. In Edward's will, Richard was to become Lord Protector of England and guardian to the young Prince Edward. Edward IV stipulated that Richard should become Lord Protector to stem the conflicts he feared would come after his death between many in the political elites and the Woodvilles. The Woodvilles were hugely resented by many because of the advancement they'd been given by Edward throughout the marriage between Edward and Elizabeth.

Richard decided to head south and claim his rights as Protector before any other forces could usurp his rights as declared by Edward's will. Richard and Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, met the Queen's brother Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, the Queen's son from her first marriage, Sir Richard Grey and a Welsh diplomat, Sir Thomas Vaughan, at Northampton. The young King Edward had gone on further south towards London. For reasons that are unclear, Richard had the three arrested and imprisoned. Richard's motives for the arrests are contested by historians. To Ricardians, Richard was acting in self defence against Woodville plots to seize power, to Richard's critics, it's a clear indication that Richard was attempting to remove any competing power block in England.

After the arrests Richard and Buckingham moved on to Stony Stratford and had to inform the young King Edward of the arrests of his uncle, half brother and advisor. Edward was distrustful of Richard's explanations. He couldn't believe that his uncle and brother were any threat to Richard as Protector. Richard had crossed a line by arresting the King's closest relatives. When Queen Elizabeth heard of the arrests she fled into sanctuary with her other children, including Richard of York. Richard was now heading in a direction that would lead to usurpation. Richard was now Protector of England. But his power wasn't assured. One obstacle for Richard was Lord Hastings. Whilst Hastings hated the Woodvilles he would never countenance the idea of disinheriting the children of Edward IV. Richard acted against Hastings having him arrested during a meeting of the Council and beheaded in the courtyard of the Tower. After Hasting's downfall, Richard and Buckingham began circulating rumours that the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was illegitimate as Edward was already precontracted to another woman before he met Elizabeth. With Edward's notorious way with women, the story had some believability to it. Richard exploited the rumours and had himself crowned King on the 6th of July, 1483.

Richard had bitterly divided the House of York by usurping the throne. As summer went on both Edward V and his younger brother were kept up in confinement in the Tower, after Elizabeth was convinced by Richard to give up her other son to his safe keeping. The Princes were seen less and less as the months rolled past until they disappeared from public view all together. Suspicion that they'd been murdered spread and Richard became the chief suspect. In October, 1483, Richard faced a major rebellion against his crown. His ally, the Duke of Buckingham, joined in a plot hatched by Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville to remove Richard and place Henry Tudor on the throne. The plot failed, and Buckingham was captured and beheaded. Henry Tudor was unable to land because of bad weather. Richard had survived the conspiracy.

By summer, 1485, Richard seemed safe on the throne. His son and heir Edward had died but he was young enough to have more children. But the threat of Henry Tudor in exile was still a thorn in Richard's side. Richard was getting close to having Henry Tudor bought back to England by offering the Burgundians generous concessions for his deportation. Tudor was tipped of about the negotiations and fled to France. He'd slipped through the Yorkists grasp again.

Henry Tudor from his French exile had little more to lose. He'd spent over a decade being hunted by the Yorkists and now he was ready for a final showdown with his enemies. The plot was hatched, and Elizabeth Woodville agreed that if Henry defeated Richard her elder daughter Elizabeth would marry Henry. Henry, with an army mainly consisting of French mercenaries, landed in Wales at the beginning of August. Richard was in Nottingham when he heard the news and was exultant. He viewed it as an opportunity to deal with his enemies once and for all. The two armies met at Bosworth in Leicestershire. Richard took the initiative and charged down the hill with his household knights when he spotted Henry was exposed. The charge failed. Richard was unhorsed and ran through by Henry's Welsh pikemen. The last Yorkists King of England was dead.

Henry Tudor was now King of England. He married Elizabeth of York as their mothers had planned and she soon gave birth to a son and heir, Arthur. Henry had gotten of to a fine start as King, but the remaining Yorkists were soon plotting against him. John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was the nephew of Richard III and had been named as Richard's heir after the death of his son. Lincoln fought for his uncle at Bosworth but was reconciled to Tudor after the battle. Lincoln decided to rebel against the King with the help of his aunt, Margaret, in Burgundy. Lincoln used an imposter, Lambert Simnel, who was pretending to be the son of the late Duke of Clarence, Edward of Warwick. The two armies met at the battle of Stoke. The Yorkist army was defeated after hours of bitter fighting with Lincoln being killed during the battle. Henry Tudor had survived.

The battle of Stoke was the last battle of the Wars of the Roses. The Houses of York and Lancaster had battled it out for the crown of England for more than thirty years. But what drove the conflict? Ideology? Differing values? The Wars of the Roses were a conflict driven by power. A conflict between egotistical and powerful nobles who wanted more and more of the national pie for themselves. Following England's defeat in France in the 1440's and 1450's, the avarice of the nobles came back across the Channel into English domestic politics. Throughout the conflict many sides were changed. Many battles fought. These battles were fought for power. They were fought for greed.