Wars of the Roses: An Overview

A Struggle for the Throne

Battle of Towton. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Fought between 1455 and 1485, the Wars of the Roses were a dynastic struggle for the English crown which pitted the Houses of Lancaster and York against each other.

Initially, the Wars of the Roses centered on fighting for control of the mentally ill Henry VI, but later became a struggle for the throne itself. The fighting ended in 1485 with the ascension of Henry VII to the throne and the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty.

Though not used at the time, the name of the conflict originates from badges associated with the two sides: the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York. 

Dynastic Politics

King Henry IV of England. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The antagonism between the houses of Lancaster and York began in 1399 when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster (left) deposed his unpopular cousin King Richard II. A grandson of Edward III, through John of Gaunt, his claim to the English throne was relatively weak compared to his Yorkist relations.

Reigning until 1413 as Henry IV, he was forced to put down numerous uprisings to maintain the throne.  On his death, the crown passed to his son, Henry V. A great warrior known for his victory at Agincourt, Henry V only survived until 1422 when he was succeeded by his 9-month-old son Henry VI.

For most of his minority, Henry was surrounded by unpopular advisors such as the Duke of Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort, and the Duke of Suffolk. 

Moving to Conflict

Henry VI of England. Photograph Source: Public Domain

During Henry VI's (left) reign, the French gained the upper hand in the Hundred Years' War and began driving English forces from France.

A weak and ineffective ruler, Henry was heavily advised by the Duke of Somerset who desired peace. This position was countered by Richard, Duke of York who wished to continue fighting.

A descendant of Edward III's second and fourth sons, he possessed a strong claim to the throne. By 1450, Henry VI began experiencing bouts of insanity and three years later was judged unfit to rule. This resulted in a Council of Regency being formed with York at its head as Lord Protector.

Imprisoning Somerset, he worked to expand his power but was forced to step down two years later when Henry VI recovered.    

Fighting Begins

Richard, Duke of York. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Forcing York (left) from court, Queen Margaret sought to reduce his power and became the effective head of the Lancastrian cause. Angered, he assembled a small army and marched on London with the stated goal of removing Henry's advisors.

Clashing with royal forces at St. Albans, he and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick won a victory on May 22, 1455. Capturing a mentally detached Henry VI, they arrived in London and York resumed his post as Lord Protector.

Relieved by a recovering Henry the following year, York saw his appointments overturned by Margaret's influence and he was ordered to Ireland. In 1458, the Archbishop of Canterbury attempted to reconcile the two sides and though settlements were reached, they were soon discarded.   

War & Peace

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Photograph Source: Public Domain

A year later, tensions again heightened following improper actions by Warwick (left) during his time as Captain of Calais. Refusing to answer a royal summons to London, he instead met with York and the Earl of Salisbury at Ludlow Castle where the three men elected to take military action.

That September, Salisbury won a victory over the Lancastrians at Blore Heath, but the main Yorkist army was beaten a month later at Ludford Bridge. While York fled to Ireland, his son, Edward, Earl of March, and Salisbury escaped to Calais with Warwick.

Returning in 1460, Warwick defeated and captured Henry VI at the Battle of Northampton. With the king in custody, York arrived in London and announced his claim to the throne.

The Lancastrians Recover

Queen Margaret of Anjou. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Though Parliament rejected York's claim, a compromise was reached in October 1460 through the Act of Accord which stated that the duke would be Henry IV's successor.

Unwilling to see her son, Edward of Westminster, disinherited, Queen Margaret (left) fled to Scotland and raised an army. In December, Lancastrian forces won a decisive victory at Wakefield which resulted in the deaths of York and Salisbury.

Now leading the Yorkists, Edward, Earl of March succeeded in winning a victory at Mortimer's Cross in February 1461, but the cause took another blow later in the month when Warwick was beaten at St. Albans and Henry VI liberated.

Advancing on London, Margaret's army looted the surrounding region and was refused entry into the city.   

Yorkist Victory & Edward IV

Edward IV. Photograph Source: Public Domain

While Margaret retreated north, Edward united with Warwick and entered London. Seeking the crown for himself, he cited the Acts of Accord and was accepted as Edward IV by Parliament.

Marching north, Edward collected a large army and crushed the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton on March 29. Defeated, Henry and Margaret fled north.

Having effectively secured the crown, Edward IV spent the next few years consolidating power. In 1465, his forces captured Henry VI and the deposed king was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

During this period, Warwick's power also grew dramatically and he served as the king's chief advisor. Believing that an alliance with France was needed, he negotiated for Edward to marry a French bride.       

Warwick's Rebellion

Elizabeth Woodville. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Warwick's efforts were undercut when Edward IV secretly married Elizabeth Woodville (left) in 1464. Embarrassed by this, he became increasingly angered as the Woodvilles became court favorites.

Conspiring with the king's brother, the Duke of Clarence, Warwick covertly incited a series of rebellions across England. Announcing their support for the rebels, the two conspirators raised an army and defeated Edward IV at Edgecote in July 1469.

Capturing Edward IV, Warwick took him to London where the two men reconciled. The following year, the king had both Warwick and Clarence declared traitors when he learned they were responsible for the uprisings. Left with no choice, both fled to France where they joined Margaret in exile. 

Warwick & Margaret Invade

Charles the Bold. Photograph Source: Public Domain

In France, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (left) began encouraging Warwick and Margaret to form an alliance. After some hesitation, the two former enemies united under the Lancastrian banner.

In late 1470, Warwick landed at Dartmouth and quickly secured the southern part of the country. Increasingly unpopular, Edward was caught campaigning in the north. As the country rapidly turned against him, he was forced to flee to Burgundy. 

Though he restored Henry VI, Warwick soon overextended himself by allying with France against Charles.  Angered, Charles provided support to Edward IV allowing him to land in Yorkshire with a small force in March 1471. 

Edward Restored & Richard III

Battle of Barnet. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Rallying the Yorkists, Edward IV conducted a brilliant campaign which saw him defeat and kill Warwick at Barnet (left) and rout and kill Edward of Westminster at Tewkesbury.

With the Lancastrian heir dead, Henry VI was murdered at the Tower of London in May 1471.  When Edward IV died suddenly in 1483, his brother, Richard of Gloucester, became Lord Protector for the 12-year-old Edward V.

Placing the young king in the Tower of London with his younger brother, the Duke of York, Richard went before Parliament and claimed that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid making the two boys illegitimate. Agreeing, Parliament passed Titulus Regius which made him Richard III. The two boys vanished during this period.

A New Claimant & Peace

Henry VII. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Richard III's rule was quickly opposed by many nobles, and in October the Duke of Buckingham led an armed revolt to place the Lancastrian heir Henry Tudor (left) on the throne.

Put down by Richard III, its failure saw many of Buckingham's supporters join Tudor in exile. Rallying his forces, Tudor landed in Wales on August 7, 1485.

Quickly building an army, he defeated and killed Richard III at Bosworth Field two weeks later. Crowned Henry VII later that day, he worked to heal the rifts that had led to the three decades of what had been the Wars of the Roses.

In January 1486, he married the leading Yorkist heir, Elizabeth of York, and united the two houses. Though fighting largely ended, Henry VII was forced to put down rebellions in the 1480s and 1490s.     

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Wars of the Roses: An Overview." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/wars-of-the-roses-an-overview-2360762. Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Wars of the Roses: An Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wars-of-the-roses-an-overview-2360762 Hickman, Kennedy. "Wars of the Roses: An Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wars-of-the-roses-an-overview-2360762 (accessed May 29, 2023).