Wars of the Roses

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This is an overview of the Wars of the Roses. For the immediate causes and further narrative details see the following entries and their links:

The Wars of the Roses were a series of intermittent conflicts that occurred in England between 1455 and 1487. The wars themselves are considered to have begun with the first battle of St. Albans in 1455, and ended when the Yorkist pretender, Lambert Simnel, was defeated by Henry VII at Stoke in 1487. Whilst usually thought of as a struggle between two dynastic houses – an idea fostered by the Tudor beneficiaries of the conflict – some consider that it was as much about the desire for good governance brought on initially by Henry VI’s ineptitude and the arrogance of his wife, Margaret of Anjou and her clique. It must be remembered that the protagonists – York and Lancaster – were branches of the same Plantagenet dynasty, and that during the 32 years between St. Albans and Stoke the actual period of open conflict totalled well less than ten years and that many of the “battles”- including the curtain raiser - were hardly more than skirmishes.

The term itself was coined in the nineteenth century, based on Henry VII’s description of his marriage to Elizabeth of York as a union of the two English roses, representing peace and prosperity after disunity and strife. (Actually, Lancastrian supporters wore a double “S” on their collar – Yorkists, suns and roses.) Indeed, the history of much of the conflict, especially the final stages, has to be viewed through the fog of Tudor propaganda – epitomised by Shakespeare’s portrayal of the evil, misshapen Richard III.

The events can be divided into five stages:

  • Armed conflict began with the first attack by Richard of York on the king’s army at St. Albans in 1455. There were successes for both sides during this stage, but the Yorkist victory in the particularly savage battle of Towton in 1461 led to Richard of York’s son, Edward IV, assuming the throne and Henry exiled to Scotland. (Richard had been killed at the battle of Wakefield the previous year.)
  • A short period in 1464, in the north of the country - two Yorkist victories (Edgeley Moor and Hexham) consolidated Edward’s position. (The capture of Henry the next year when he ventured south from exile in Scotland and his incarceration in the Tower of London seems only a footnote.)
  • Richard Neville’s rebellion against Edward in 1470 was initially successful with Edward forced into exile in Holland and Henry restored to the throne. Edward returned the following year and defeated the Lancastrian forces in battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury. The deaths of Neville and the young Prince of Wales, the Lancastrian heir to the throne, gave Edward back the throne. The death of the Prince of Wales opened the way for the murder of Henry VI in the Tower.
  • The next stage – immediately following the death of Edward IV in 1483 – started as a purely Yorkist affair when the new (uncrowned) king’s paternal uncle, Richard, kidnapped the boy, had his and his younger brother’s legitimacy questioned, his maternal relations and their supporters killed, imprisoned or exiled, and had himself crowned as Richard III. He put down a rebellion by his erstwhile friend and ally, the Duke of Buckingham 4 months later, then was forced to withstand a protracted campaign of rumour and innuendo about the deaths of the princes and other alleged misdeeds before the Lancastrian Henry Tudor’s invasion and victory at Bosworth Field in 1485.
  • Yorkist agitation and plotting (mainly from abroad) was an annoyance during the first two years of the new Tudor king Henry VII’s reign. It reached a climax when a child, Lambert Simnel, was put forward as a nephew of Richard III, and sent with a Yorkist invasion force to claim his “rightful place”. Henry’s victory at the Battle of Stoke secured his position as king, and ended the so-called “Wars of the Roses”.

The Wars of the Roses cannot be called a true civil war. There was no deliberate wholesale laying waste to opponents’ lands and crops; no widespread fire, rape and pillage. Unless one of the battles or skirmishes took place across your turnip fields, you, as a farmer, were pretty-well left alone by the combatants. Town people were even less affected – perhaps their greatest cause for complaint came from the inability or unwillingness of the combatants to pay their bills – normal everyday household expenses were being sacrificed to the costs of war; mainly hiring and equipping the armed and liveried retainers each baron maintained in numbers according to his wealth, status and perceived need. Uniquely in later medieval and early modern history, there were few sieges. As a series of contests about who would better govern the realm, it was in no one’s interest to wreck the country in the process.

It was, however, an age of bullies. The progress of land enclosure across the countryside which, since the 13th century, had begun replacing the old communal (and feudal) open-field system of agricultural land-use with private ownership, had created a system of land tenure not matched by appropriate advances in the law, and the management of courts meant to arbitrate within the system. By the mid 15th century a situation had arisen where most disputes over property were settled with the use of armed retainers; and even if taken to court, were accompanied by the harrying – frequently to death – of witnesses. Increasingly, the country was being run by the use of small private armies and the Wars of the Roses have been seen as a natural extension of this.

It may seem strange in a time of armed unrest that more and more buildings were being built of brick instead of stone and that whilst powerful men were still building their castles, the fortified residence with its chimneys and large south-facing windows was beginning to replace the traditional castle throughout south and central England. Many of the first stone bridges were built during this period – a sure sign of a belief in permanence. The grammar school, which once had been strictly for the benefit of the clergy, was becoming a secular institution and Cambridge was beginning to rival Oxford as a great university (although the completion of some of the more famous colleges endowed during that time was held up by the wartime lack of funds.) William Caxton introduced the printing press and books, not only in Latin but in English – and importantly standardised English – began appearing in great numbers. Feudalism was finally all but extinguished and the rise of an educated middle-class – either based on the land, or engaged in commerce - accelerated. More and more, the commoner became the capitalist – replacing the magnate who was busy concentrating on things military. The roots of the dramatic rise of England as a commercial power during the later Tudor years can be traced to this period. The prosperity of the capital, London, increased markedly during the wars – its leaders wisely stayed clear of favouritism but accepted the business and patronage of all with equal commercial zeal.

For all that, for the noble protagonists these contests were vicious affairs, and for the first time in English history it became common for the losing commanders, if captured, to be executed, either on the field of battle or shortly after. There was none of the holding in sociable incarceration the captured noble whilst his family organised a ransom, as had been the norm during the wars in France. The flower of England’s chivalry was pruned dramatically; which in the short term assisted Henry VII in his efforts at establishing a power-base from which to stabilise the country, but also did away with an active counterbalance to the powers of the monarch, thus contributing to the rise of royal absolutism that would only end with another bout of far worse country-wide blood-letting nearly two centuries later.