The "Wars of the Roses" are so called because of the notion that the white rose was the emblem for
the House of York, whilst the red rose represented the House of Lancaster. The wars were not
a dispute between the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire.|
Shakespeare later dramatized the outbreak of war with rivals from the houses of Lancaster and York
plucking roses for their badges from Temple gardens in London. This event is completely fictional,
Though Red and White roses are still grown in Temple Gardens to commemorate the scene.
The phrase "the Wars of the Roses" was coined by Sir Walter Scott in his 1829 novel Anne of
Geierstein, though the concept of a war between two the houses represented by roses had its origins
in the fifteenth century.
The dynasties or houses of Lancaster and York were both descended from Edward III, who had 12
children. Upon Edward's death in 1377 the rules of royal inheritance, or primogeniture,
meant that the throne would have passed to his eldest son, Edward (known as the Black Prince on
account of the armour he wore). However Edward had died before his father, so the law of
primogeniture meant that the throne now passed to Edward's (the Black Prince) son who was crowned
Richard II. Richard's rule suffered mixed fortune, which alienated the nobles and his relatives
alike, such that his throne was usurped by his younger cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, son of his
father's younger brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Bolingbroke took the title of Henry IV,
and his decendents Henry V and Henry VI would rule England as the House of Lancaster for the next 60
The Invincible King
Upon the death of Henry IV in 1413, England was a rich and prosperous nation, and this laid
foundation to a glorious reign for his son Henry V, whom the chroniclers later referred to Henry V
as 'the most victorious, the invincible King'. He won adoration on account of his famous
military victories over the French, who were the hated enemies of the English. Henry V's most
celebrated victory came at Agincourt in 1415, which was followed in later years by the conquest of
many other French regions. By the time of Henry's untimely death in 1422 from dysentry, England's
strength was unprecedented.
The successes and popularity enjoyed by Henry V meant that the new King had a lot to live up to.
Henry VI took the crown of England in 1429. He was a pious and bookish man, and was very keen on
religious and charitable matters, being responsible for the founding of colleges at Eton and
Cambridge. However, his calm nature made him largely a weak and ineffective leader, which led to
growing unrest as the strength of the kingdom began to suffer. An additional problem was that Henry
VI inherited a genetic predisposition to mental illness, which would incapacitate him for months at
a time. The lack of a strong leader at such times was to have dire consequences.
Margaret of Anjou
Throughout the reign of Henry VI, the spectacular gains made in France under the reign of Henry V
began to slip as the English defences were unable to prevent attacks by the French. Towards the
middle of the 15th century England had lost nearly all of its gains in France, which led to fury
amongst nobles and commoners alike. In attempt to pacify the French, marriage was proposed between
Margaret of Anjou, who was a niece of the French King Charles VII. The fact that a French woman
would now have considerable influence in the running of English affairs did little to appease the anger
of the populace. Margaret was an ambitious and driven woman, and was to exert considerable
influence over those supporting the Lancastrian cause.
The House of York
Following the death of Henry V in 1422, other descendents of Edward III emerged and began to assert
a claim to the throne. Edmund of Langley was Edward III's fifth son, which meant he had less of a
claim than his elder brother John of Gaunt. However, his grandson Richard Duke of York, had a
stronger claim to the throne as he also had a connection to Edward III's third son Lionel, Duke of
Clarence (senior to John of Gaunt) through his mother, Anne Mortimer. Such claims as these
illustrate how fuzzy the picture becomes as to who had the valid claim to the throne. An additional
factor complicates matters, in that around this time the issue of 'might over right' came to the
fore. Richard Duke of York was a powerful man, since he had large estates and was well-connected
with other members of the nobility. This meant that his claim to the throne was greater than it
might have been on inheritance alone. So the House of York became an increasingly powerful force,
with ambitions for the throne.
The Advent of Conflict
As the calamitous reign of Henry VI wore on, support for York's cause increased, particularly in the
north of the country where many of his followers were based, and where he was able to present
himself as a 'man of the people' intent on addressing the corruption and mis-management which
accompanied Henry's reign. During an extended period of mental incapacity for the King, York drew
on the support of his followers to have himself declared Protector in 1454, which seemed to pave the
way for a resolute claim to the throne. However, after 18 months of illness, the King recovered,
and York was dramatically stripped of his power. By now, the Lancastrian supporters were convinced
that York and his followers intended to seize the throne come what may, and the King issued a
summons to York and his allies to appear before The King's council to answer these accusations.
York now feared that if he were to attend, the outcome for him personally would be very serious
indeed, so instead of obeying the royal summons he began to muster an army from amongst his
supporters, and march on London to lay his grievances before the King. From now on it was clear
that violent conflict was inevitable, and blood was first shed in the Wars of the Roses at St
Albans, near London, in 1455.
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