Wars of the Roses

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Wars of the Roses, traditional name given to the intermittent struggle (1455–85) for the throne of England between the noble houses of York (whose badge was a white rose) and Lancaster (later associated with the red rose).

About the middle of the 15th cent. Richard, duke of York, came to the fore as leader of the opposition to the faction (William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk; Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset; and the queen, Margaret of Anjou) that controlled the weak Lancastrian king Henry VI. The Yorkists gained popular support as a result of discontent over the failure of English arms in the Hundred Years War and over the corruption of the court, discontent reflected in the rebellion of Jack Cade in 1450. Also in that year Suffolk was murdered, and the duke of York forced the king to recognize his claim as heir to the throne. In 1453 the king became insane, and the birth of a son to Margaret of Anjou displaced York as heir. The duke was appointed protector, but when the king recovered in 1454, York was excluded from the royal council. He resorted to arms.

The opposing factions met (1455) at St. Albans—usually taken as the first battle of the Wars of the Roses. Somerset was killed, leaving Queen Margaret at the head of the defeated royal party, and York again served as protector for a short period (1455–56). By 1459 both parties were once more in arms. The following year the Yorkists defeated and captured the king at the battle of Northampton. The duke of York hurried to London to assert his claims to the throne, which were, by laws of strict inheritance, perhaps better than those of the king himself. A compromise was effected by which Henry remained king and York and his heirs were declared successors.

Queen Margaret, whose son was thus disinherited, raised an army and defeated (1460) the Yorkists at Wakefield. York was killed in this battle, and his claims devolved upon his son Edward, but Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, became the real leader of the Yorkist party. Margaret's army rescued the king from captivity in the second battle of St. Albans (Feb., 1461), but Edward meanwhile secured a Yorkist victory at Mortimer's Cross, marched into London unopposed, and assumed the throne as Edward IV.

The Lancastrians, after their defeat at Towton (Mar., 1461), continued (with Scottish aid) to raise resistance in the north until 1464. The deposed Henry was captured (1465) and put into the Tower of London. Although the Lancastrian cause now seemed hopeless, a quarrel broke out between Warwick and Edward IV after the latter's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Warwick and the king's brother George, duke of Clarence, allied against Edward, fled to France (1470), and there became reconciled with Margaret of Anjou. Supported by Louis XI of France, they crossed to England and restored Henry VI to the throne.

Edward fled, but with the aid of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, returned to England in 1471, regained London, and recaptured Henry. In the ensuing battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury (1471), Warwick and Henry's son, Edward, were killed. Margaret was imprisoned. Soon thereafter Henry VI died, probably slain at the orders of Edward IV. After 12 relatively peaceful years, Edward IV was succeeded (1483) by his young son Edward V, but soon the boy's uncle Richard, duke of Gloucester, usurped the throne as Richard III. Opposition to Richard advanced the fortunes of Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, now the Lancastrian claimant. In 1485, Henry landed from France, defeated and killed Richard at Bosworth Field, and ascended the throne as Henry VII.

Henry VII's marriage to Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth, united the houses of Lancaster and York. Except for various efforts during Henry's reign to place Yorkist pretenders on the throne, the Wars of the Roses were ended. It is generally said that with them ended the era of feudalism in England, since the nobles who participated suffered heavy loss of life and property and were too weak, as a class, to contest the strong monarchy of the Tudors. The middle and lower classes were largely indifferent to the struggle and relatively untouched by it.

See E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century (1961); P. M. Kendall, The Yorkist Age (1962, repr. 1965); S. B. Chrimes, Lancastrians, Yorkists, and Henry VII (1964); J. R. Lander, The Wars of the Roses (1965); C. D. Ross, Wars of the Roses: A Concise History (1976); E. Hallam, ed., Wars of the Roses (1988) and Chronicles of the Wars of the Roses (1988); A. J. Pollard, Wars of the Roses (1995); A. Weir, Wars of the Roses (1995); S. Gristwood, Blood Sisters: The Women behind the War of the Roses (2013); D. Jones, The Wars of the Roses (2014).

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Roses, Wars of the. Once applied to the whole of the 15th cent., the name is now given to the sequence of plots, rebellions, and battles that took place between 1455 and 1487. They are so called because of the notion that, fought between the dynasties of Lancaster and York, Lancaster was represented by a red rose, York by a white. In fact the idea of the warring roses was invented by Henry VII after he seized the throne in 1485. He claimed to be the heir of Lancaster and represented his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the heiress of Edward IV, as the union of the red and white roses, bringing peace and prosperity after the war and ruin of the preceding decades. While the actual phrase ‘Wars of the Roses’ did not appear until the 19th cent., the idea of the warring roses was rooted in Tudor propaganda.

There were three distinct phases of civil war: between 1455 and 1464; 1469 and 1471; and 1483 and 1487. In the first two fighting for the control of royal government led to outright war for possession of the crown; the third was dynastic from the start. There was also a strong element of rivalry for local dominance, especially in northern England between the Percies and the Nevilles. The scale of the fighting and the extent of disorder were much exaggerated by Tudor writers. The most intense period was between July 1460 and March 1461, but as a whole there were barely more than two years' military activity throughout the thirty-year period. Civilian casualties and physical destruction were light; most were able to go about their normal affairs.

Nevertheless, especially in 1459–61 and 1469–71, there was considerable instability as the houses of Lancaster and York competed for the throne. In 1455 the duke of York led his supporters in a successful rebellion against Henry VI. In 1459 they rebelled again, were at first defeated, but were victorious at Northampton in July 1460. Four months later York claimed the throne for himself. Although he was defeated and killed at the battle of Wakefield, his heir Edward seized the throne and won a decisive victory at Towton. In 1469 Edward in his turn faced rebellion from Warwick the Kingmaker. Warwick too endeavoured to rule the kingdom by force, but also found it impossible, and resorted to the restoration of Henry VI. Edward IV, however, had the last word, defeating Warwick at Barnet and a Lancastrian army at Tewkesbury. The virtual destruction of the Lancastrians seemed to have brought the wars to an end. They were reopened when Edward's brother Richard III made himself king in 1483. Henry Tudor then emerged as a claimant to the throne. Leading an alliance of die-hard Lancastrians and supporters of the deposed Edward V, he swept to power at Bosworth in August 1485. He brought the wars effectively to an end when he defeated a Yorkist invasion at Stoke (by Newark, Notts.) in 1487.

In the later 20th cent., historians much debated the origins and causes of the wars. Some, arguing that in 15th-cent. politics everything rested on the fitness of the king to rule, put the entire blame on the shoulders of Henry VI. But there were deeper causes in the social, economic, and political trends of the later Middle Ages, which suggest that any monarch would have faced severe problems. Nevertheless the recovery of royal authority under the Tudors was rapid. No great political or social change resulted: the old feudal nobility did not destroy itself, nor did the Tudors represent a new middle class. The most lasting impact of the Wars of the Roses has been on the historical imagination. Lewis Carroll used his schoolboy knowledge of them as a recurring motif in Alice in Wonderland. And they have come to be a byword for anarchy: the last months of the Callaghan administration in 1979 were dubbed with telling effect ‘the Winter of Discontent’ from the opening line of Shakespeare's Richard III.

Anthony James Pollard


Ross, C. D. , Wars of the Roses (1976).

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Roses, Wars of the (1455–85) English dynastic civil wars. They are named after the badges of the rival royal Houses of York (white rose) and Lancaster (red rose). Both Houses descended from Edward III. Richard, Duke of York, challenged the Lancastrian King Henry VI, and gained brief ascendancy after the Battle of St Albans (1455). The Lancastrians recovered control, but in 1460 Richard, supported by the powerful Earl of Warwick, forced Henry to recognize him as his heir. Richard was killed months later, but the Yorkist victory at Towton (1461) put his son on the throne as Edward IV. In 1469, Warwick changed sides and Edward was deposed, but he returned to win the decisive victory of Tewkesbury (1471). A final phase of the Wars began with the seizure of the throne by Richard III in 1483. He was defeated and killed at Bosworth, when Henry Tudor (Henry VII) became King with support from both Houses.

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Wars of the Roses the 15th-century English civil wars between the Houses of York and Lancaster, represented by white and red roses respectively, during the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III. The struggle was largely ended in 1485 by the defeat and death of the Yorkist king Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and the accession of the Lancastrian Henry Tudor ( Henry VII), who united the two houses by marrying Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV.