The Wars of the Roses were a series of conflicts between the rival English houses of Lancaster and York, both of which had claims to the throne. They began in 1455 with disagreements over a proposed resolution to the Hundred Years’ War, and ended in 1487 after the Lancastrian Henry VII united the claims with his marriage to Elizabeth of York. The conflict was driven by curious motivations and unanswered questions throughout. These eight facts shed some light on the origins and course of the wars.
The name “Wars of the Roses” originates from the heraldic badges of the two feuding families.
In its time, the protracted conflict was known in England as the Civil Wars; the more flowery name came later. The houses of Lancaster and York were separate cadet branches of the larger House of Plantagenet, a royal family that originated from the Anjou region of France. The House of York represented itself with a white rose, while the house of Lancaster used a red one.
Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 1 depicts a fictional scene in which Richard of York and Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, challenge members of the nobility to choose a side in the conflict by picking white or red roses from a garden. The House of Tudor, which was established with the marriage of Henry VII of the Lancastrian branch to Elizabeth of York, combined the two symbols into the Tudor rose, which has a white center with red outer petals.
King Henry VI’s reign was plagued by his mental illness.
Henry VI took the throne in 1422, at the age of nine months. From the beginning, he was surrounded by advisors who frequently disagreed, especially on the subject of the Hundred Years’ War with France. He first experienced the onset of his illness in 1453, becoming entirely unresponsive to all stimuli, including the birth of his son. His psychiatric symptoms would continue for a year, and return intermittently for the rest of his life. His illness made it easier for the Yorkists to capture him, which they did twice during the course of the wars.
The turncoat Warwick switched sides twice.
Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, originally supported King Henry VI against Richard of York’s claims. In 1449 he entered into a land dispute with Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset. When King Henry granted Somerset the lordship of Glamorgan (which had previously been Warwick’s) and promptly fell ill, Somerset was able to seize much of the king’s power. Warwick then turned to the York side in an attempt to depose his rival.
Somerset died on May 22, 1455, at the First Battle of St. Albans, the first instance of armed conflict between the Yorkists and Lancastrians. Later, Warwick saw rich rewards for his role in getting Richard’s son Edward IV on the throne. Having some sway over the new king, Warwick encouraged him to marry a French princess to secure an alliance. But when Edward chose another wife, Warwick hatched a plot to force the king to submit.
Warwick sparked rebellions to lure him in, then captured him under the guise of offering protection. Warwick’s allies soon pressured him into releasing Edward. Warwick later instigated another revolt; this time, he succeeded in restoring Henry VI to the throne, but it was a short-lived victory. Warwick the Kingmaker, as he came to be known, was killed at the Battle of Barnet and Edward resumed the role of king thereafter.
At the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, Edward of York’s troops witnessed a rare meteorological phenomenon known as a parhelion.
Also known as a sun dog, a parhelion is an optical illusion in which there appear to be two bright lights on either side of the sun. As dawn broke on February 2, 1461, Edward’s army was startled by the unusual sight, which looked like a bad omen. Edward reassured his men, crediting the appearance of three suns to the favor of the Holy Trinity. The 18-year-old Edward, who had recently inherited his father Richard’s claims after the latter’s death at the Battle of Wakefield, managed to stop Jasper Tudor’s army from joining the main force of Lancastrians in the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. When he took the throne as King Edward IV, he adopted the symbol of the "sun in splendour" as his personal emblem.
Low visibility and similar house emblems caused fatal confusion at the Battle of Barnet.
The Battle of Barnet, fought on April 14, 1471, was a decisive clash that helped to legitimize Edward IV’s rule. It was fought between Edward’s army, which was returning from a retreat to Burgundy, and that of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. Marching inland for York, Edward publicly claimed he had no intent of contesting the crown, and wished only to reclaim his father’s title of duke. This rallied others to his side, but once his numbers were sufficient he made for London to challenge the king.
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Warwick, meanwhile, had recruited allies of his own, including the Earl of Oxford and the Marquess of Montagu. He followed Edward toward London, where the aging Henry VI unexpectedly welcomed the Yorkist army. Warwick posted his army outside the nearby town of Barnet, and on the eve of battle, Edward’s army snuck up behind them. They attacked amid the early morning fog. Oxford’s troops split off from the main force, but got lost. When they rejoined the battle, Montagu’s men mistook the star on Oxford’s heraldry for Edward’s sun, and attacked. Oxford cried treachery and returned the strike, causing chaos among the Lancastrians and ultimately allowing Edward to score a victory.
Edward IV’s wife came from a family of lower social standing.
Against the better wishes of his advisors, Edward IV married for love. His wife, Elizabeth Woodville, came from a lower gentry family; though they owned land, they were not noble, and held no political sway. Woodville herself was the daughter of an unequal marriage. Her father, Richard Woodville, served under the Duke of Bedford, secretly marrying Bedford’s wife Jacquetta of Luxembourg after the duke’s death. Elizabeth Woodville’s 1464 marriage to Edward IV was also her second; her first husband, Sir John Grey of Groby, had died three years earlier. In an effort to alleviate the scandal surrounding his marriage, Edward granted titles to members of the Woodville family, and arranged marriages between them and higher ranking nobles. Edward and Elizabeth Woodville ultimately had 10 children together.
The ultimate fates of Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury are unknown.
Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury were the only living sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville at the time of their father’s sudden illness and death in 1483. Edward V was 12 years old, and Richard was nine. Plans were made to crown Edward V king, and he set off for London. A delcaration was soon made claiming his parents’ marriage illegitimate, as Edward IV had originally been betrothed to Lady Eleanor Butler.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the boys’ paternal uncle, met Edward at Stony Stratford, where he had Edward’s retinue arrested, but continued traveling toward London with the boy king. Gloucester brought Edward to the Tower of London, the traditional seat of kings awaiting coronation. His brother joined shortly after. The boys made increasingly rare public appearances, and neither of them were seen again after the summer of 1483. Gloucester was crowned King Richard III on July 6 of that same year. Known as the Princes in the Tower, the boys are widely believed to have been murdered on the orders of their uncle.
Two separate impostors with false claims to the crown appeared during Henry VII’s reign.
Henry VII’s small force of 5,000 was greatly outnumbered, but handily defeated Richard III’s army at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. He declared himself king by right of conquest, but his troubles were far from over. The first pretender to his throne was Lambert Simnel, a boy of unknown origin. His tutor Richard Simon noticed his resemblance to members of the House of York, claimed he was Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick, and had him crowned king at the age of 10. The ensuing rebellion was crushed at Stoke Field in 1487, though Henry pardoned the naive Simnel.
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The second claimant was Perkin Warbeck, who pretended to be Richard of Shrewsbury in 1490. The boy’s fate was unknown since he and his brother Edward V had disappeared in the Tower of London seven years earlier. Warbeck claimed that his brother had been murdered, but that he, being the younger of the two, had been spared. He actually garnered some support in England and Scotland, mostly from embittered Yorkists. Henry captured him in 1497, initially treating him well but executing him after an escape attempt. However, the rebellion brought staggering costs to Henry’s court, which was already struggling financially.