The house of Lancaster originated in the form of a title in 1267. In 1267, King Henry III of England granted his youngest son, Edmund, the earldom of Lancaster. Through Edmund, the title would pass to his sons, Thomas and Henry. After Henry’s death, his son, Henry, would become the first duke of Lancaster. Upon his death in 1361, the duke left behind two daughters: Maud and Blanche. A childless Maud died shortly after her father, which left Blanche as the sole Lancastrian heiress.
Rise in Prominence
Blanche would eventually marry John of Gaunt in 1362. John was the third son of King Edward III. Through their marriage, the dukedom of Lancaster reunited with the Plantagenet royal family. John assumed the title of Duke of Lancaster, which granted him vast estates and wealth. Although Blanche died in 1369, John retained control of the dukedom.
Over the next 30 years, the duke accumulated political power and wealth. By the time he died in February 1399, John had left behind the most powerful dukedom in England. As a result, many envious individuals sought control of Lancaster. This included King Richard II. Although John intended for his son, Henry Bolingbroke, to inherit the dukedom, Richard seized Lancaster. An exiled Henry could only look on from France as his birthright was stolen from him.
Duke to King
As Richard II attended to matters in Ireland, Henry Bolingbroke invaded England with an army. As he traveled, the exile’s army gained support from alienated nobles and peasants. By the time Richard returned, the king quickly realized that he was outnumbered. After surrendering, Henry re-claimed his birthright. However, seeing a bigger opportunity, the duke claimed Richard’s throne too. On September 30, 1399, Richard reluctantly abdicated, and his cousin became King Henry IV.
Upon his accession, Henry IV established an offshoot of the Plantagenets: the Lancastrians. Although successful in seizing the throne, the king was forced to spend his reign putting down rebellions. Henry had unintentionally established a new precedent in England: if you wanted the throne, you could overthrow the current king. Although many viewed Henry as an improvement over Richard II, not everyone approved of him. As a result, Henry faced many domestic rebellions during his 13-year reign. By the time he died, the stress of these conflicts had left Henry a shell of his former self.
While his father had been forced to focus on stabilizing his control over England, Henry V concentrated on other matters. A warrior king, Henry decided that the best way to unite his people was to continue the Hundred Years’ War. Picking up where his great-grandfather, Edward III, left off, Henry attacked France. He achieved many victories while the French fought amongst themselves in a civil war. By May 1420, he became the Mad King Charles VI‘s heir and married his daughter Catherine. Upon his death in August 1422, his 9-month-old son, Henry VI, succeeded him.
At the time of Henry VI‘s birth, the English believed that they could still conquer France. The English hoped that Henry would become another warrior king. Despite these wishes, Henry would prove himself to be anything but. Henry was pious, shy, and uninterested in politics. By 1447, inept and greedy advisors surrounded the king and used him as a puppet ruler. As the government became more corrupt, a faction of the Plantagenet royal family, known as the Yorkists, became more prominent.
The War of the Roses
By 1449, the Lancastrians had ruled England for fifty years. Despite having reigned for decades, Henry VI’s grip on power started to weaken. As opposition began to grow, a member of the Yorkist faction, Richard, Duke of York, became more vocal. Like Henry, Richard also descended from King Edward III. While Henry descended from Edward’s third son, Richard descended from Edward’s second and fourth sons. Due to this lineage, Richard technically had a better claim to the throne than Henry.
Initially, Richard didn’t press his claim to the throne. He had no reason to until England’s political climate began to worsen. As the Lancastrian government broke down and anarchy erupted in the countryside, the duke decided to intervene. In 1452, Richard challenged Lancastrian leadership by introducing reforms. He also insisted that Henry VI’s incompetent advisors be arrested.
Despite Richard’s attempt to stabilize England, the Lancastrians viewed him as a threat. Although Henry VI remained disinterested, his wife, Margaret of Anjou, took a strong stance against Richard. The queen actively worked against York and undermined his efforts. The final breach between the two sides occurred when Margaret stripped Richard of his political power at court. In response, a fearful Richard raised a Yorkist army.
The Lancastrian’s Downfall
On May 12, 1455, the house of Lancaster faced its biggest threat: the start of a civil war known as the War of the Roses. The Lancastrians would be represented by a red rose, while the Yorkists would have a white rose. Over the next five years, each side experienced its share of victories and defeats. Although Richard eventually captured Henry VI, his power proved short-lived. The Lancastrians would gain the advantage after the duke died during the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460. However, the Yorkists threat hadn’t died with Richard.
After his father’s death, Edward became the new duke of York. Upon assuming the title, York also became the leader of the Yorkists. When Queen Margaret and the Lancastrian army attempted to return to London, they would be denied. When Edward and the Yorkists came to London, they would be welcomed. As a sign of the Lancastrian’s decline, Londoners crowned Edward their new king on March 4, 1461.
Edward IV‘s accession signaled the rise of a new house: the Yorkists. On March 29, the Yorkists crushed the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton. Although defeated, the Lancastrians regrouped and made a successful bid to regain the throne in late 1470. However, Henry VI’s restoration proved short-lived. In May 1471, the Lancastrians suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury. As a result, Henry VI and his son Prince Edward were killed, ending over sixty years of Lancastrian rule.
The house of Lancaster began as an earldom in 1267 before becoming a kingship in 1399. Henry IV came to power after deposing his cousin Richard II. Although he had to focus on suppressing rebellions, the king left a secure throne to his son, Henry V. Unlike his father, Henry gained support by re-igniting the Hundred Years’ War and almost conquering France. By the time of his son’s reign, Henry VI began to lose support. Due to their incompetence, the Lancastrians lost the English throne, and their dynasty came to an end in 1471.
Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.
Cheetham, A. (2000). The Wars of the Roses. London: Cassell.
House of Lancaster. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/house-of-Lancaster