The house of York originated in 14th century England as a dukedom. Founded by King Edward III’s fifth son, Edmund, the prince passed on his dukedom to his son, Edward, upon his death in 1402. When Edward died childless, his nephew, Richard, inherited his uncle’s title. Richard later married Anne Mortimer, a descendent of Edward III’s second son, Lionel. This marriage would prove to be pivotal in the following decades.
Through Richard and Anne’s marriage, their son, Richard, became the third duke of York. At the time, the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet royal family had ruled England for decades. In 1399, Henry IV had overthrown Richard II, which brought the Lancastrians to power. Although Henry faced many rebellions during his reign, the king left a stable kingdom to his son, Henry V. Unlike his father; the new king gained English support by re-starting the Hundred Years’ War in France.
During his military campaign, Henry V experienced many victories against the French. In 1415, the king won a crucial victory at the Battle of Agincourt, which crushed the French army. Building upon his success, Henry forced the insane king Charles VI to agree to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Through this treaty, Henry became Charles’ heir and married his daughter, Catherine. Before he could conquer France, the king died from dysentery on August 31, 1422.
Henry VI of England
A few months after Henry V’s death, Queen Catherine gave birth to Henry VI. In turn, the infant quickly became king. Although the English hoped that Henry would become a warrior like his father, they would be disappointed. Over the following decades, the king grew into a gullible and pious man. To his government’s alarm, Henry expressed little interest in ruling and preferred to let others rule for him. As a result, the king surrounded himself with greedy and inept advisors.
Initially, the Yorkist faction accepted the Lancastrians as England’s rightful rulers. Richard, Duke of York, descended from King Edward III’s second and fifth sons, while Henry VI descended from the third son. Although York had a better claim to the throne, he didn’t challenge Henry. However, Richard would begin to reconsider this as the political climate worsen. By the late 1440s, Henry and his advisors’ inept rule had caused a breakdown in the government. As a result, lawlessness and chaos took hold in England.
The War of the Roses
The house of York became more prominent at court as Richard began calling for reforms. In turn, York came into conflict with Queen Margaret. Margaret of Anjou was the niece of King Charles VII of France. Her marriage to Henry VI in 1445 was intended to create peace between England and France. However, this goal proved short-lived. As Charles and the French army slowly reclaimed land from England, the English nobility grew angrier with the Lancastrians.
As the situation in France grew worse, Richard gained more support. Feeling threatened by the duke’s growing power, Margaret and the Lancastrians began actively opposing him. Although he would be sent away from court, Richard eventually returned and kept pressing for reforms. In 1453, Henry VI had a mental breakdown after learning that the French had nearly reclaimed all of France. With the king comatose, a power vacuum occurred.
In response, Richard made a successful bid to become Protector of the Realm. As regent, York sidelined Margaret, imprisoned Lancastrian advisors, and initiated his reforms. Despite his success, it wouldn’t last long. In early 1454, Henry VI regained his senses and would overturn Richard’s progress. To make matters worse, Margaret spitefully barred the duke from participating at court. Fearing for his safety, York raised an army.
Passing the Torch
Over the next five years, the house of York clashed with the house of Lancaster. Led by Richard, the Yorkists initially held the advantage. By July 1460, the duke had captured Henry VI and used him as a puppet ruler. Despite this, a determined Margaret refused to surrender. Rallying the Lancastrians, the queen met York’s army at the Battle of Wakefield on December 30. During the snowstorm, Richard met his end while fighting.
Although Richard had died, his son, Edward, would carry on his cause. As the new duke of York, Edward proved to be a more popular alternative to Henry VI. When Margaret and the Lancastrians attempted to gain entry into London, its citizens refused. However, when Edward and the Yorkists arrived, London opened its gates to them. York had so much support that he would be crowned king on March 4, 1461.
Upon Edward IV‘s accession, the House of York displaced the Lancastrian dynasty. Over the next three years, the new king ruled England with the help of his closest ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Warwick had formerly supported Edward’s father before his death. Despite his loyalty, the relationship between Warwick and the king began to strain. Edward sought to rule independently and grew tired of the earl’s influence. As a result, the Yorkist king became more defiant.
Initially, Richard Neville planned for Edward IV to marry a French princess to build a political alliance. However, the king had other plans. Giving in to his lust, Edward secretly married a beautiful commoner named Elizabeth Woodville. The young widow had formerly been married to a Lancastrian supporter and already had two sons. When Warwick discovered what Edward had done, the earl was humiliated. Due to this event, the two men no longer trusted each other.
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.
Wars of the Roses. (2019, August 30). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Wars-of-the-Roses.