The Wars of the Roses began as a power struggle within the royal family. On September 30, 1399, King Richard II abdicated his throne to his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. Upon his ascension as Henry IV, the direct line of the Plantagenets ended. In its place, a cadet branch took over: the house of Lancaster. The Lancastrians were named after the dukedom of Lancaster, a title Henry’s father John held. Upon John’s death in February 1399, Richard had denied Henry his rightful inheritance and got deposed by him in return.
The Lancastrian Kings
When Henry IV became king, he 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 the tyrannical 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 as a shell of his former self. However, he managed to successfully pass on a secure kingdom to his son, Prince Henry.
While his father had been forced to focus on stabilizing his control over England, Henry V focused 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 without Henry V’s leadership. The English hoped that his son 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 royal family, known as the Yorkists, became more prominent.
Beginning of the Civil War
Rise of the Yorkists
Richard, Duke of York, was a member of the royal family. Like Henry VI, he 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. He had no reason too until England’s political climate began to worsen.
By 1450, the Lancastrian government’s incompetent leadership became a serious problem. The king’s advisors manipulated him for their gain, while the war in France rapidly deteriorated. Disturbed by what he saw, Richard sought to use his position to reform the government and imprison Henry VI’s corrupt advisors. Those who supported Richard’s mission became known as Yorkists, which was named after his dukedom.
To better influence Henry VI, Richard desired to gain more political power. Despite his follower’s support, Richard couldn’t get the power that he wanted. Henry made some half-hearted reform attempts to appease him, but it wasn’t enough. By 1452, Richard made another bid for power. This time, it was to become the Protector of the Realm.
Protector of the Realm
After several years of marriage to Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI remained childless. Because of this, his closest heir was Richard. Richard knew this and decided to press his claim. He headed to London with his followers to be acknowledged as the king’s heir. Unfortunately, success again eluded Richard. Stopped at London’s gates and outnumbered by Lancastrian forces, Richard relented.
During the summer of 1453, Richard suffered for his actions. He lost his political offices and got demoted in the line of succession by Margaret’s pregnancy. However, his luck soon changed. In August, Henry VI had a mental breakdown. The king went into a catatonic state after learning that France had expelled the English. Against Margaret’s wishes, Richard became the Protector of the Realm in 1454.
As Protector, Richard had Henry VI’s most inept advisor, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, arrested. All three men were cousins, but Richard and Edmund had an intense hatred of each other. Richard felt disgusted with Somerset’s incompetence, and Somerset resented Richard’s interference. With Somerset imprisoned, Richard enacted his long-desired reforms.
Richard wasn’t protector for long. By January 1455, Henry VI regained his senses and took back control. He overturned many of Richard’s decisions, and Somerset returned to court. Due to this, the Lancastrians took away Richard’s political power. Fearing retaliation from Margaret and Somerset, Richard prepared his Yorkist forces for battle.
On May 12, 1455, the first battle of the Wars of the Roses occurred: the Battle of St. Albans. The Lancastrians were represented by a red rose, while the Yorkists had a white rose. At St. Albans, Richard and his nephew, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, led the Yorkist army. During this fight, Somerset and the Lancastrian army were defeated. As a consequence, the Yorkists killed Somerset. Richard capitalized on his victory by capturing Henry VI and consolidating his support.
In June 1459, conflict renewed. Seeking vengeance against Richard, Margaret raised another Lancastrian army to attack his stronghold in Ludlow. Unlike at St. Albans, the Yorkists suffered defeat. After the battle, Richard fled to Ireland, and Warwick retreated to France with Richard’s son, Edward. Before the battle, Richard had been content with compromising with the Lancastrians to achieve his reforms. However, he realized that more drastic measures were needed to get what he wanted.
In the summer of 1460, Yorkist forces regrouped at Calais, France. They later attacked the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Northampton. This time, the Yorkists emerged victorious over the Lancastrians. Having learned from his past mistakes, Richard resolved to no longer compromise. Instead, he formally submitted his kingship claim to Parliament. The government now had a decision to make.
Parliament was in a similar situation to when Henry IV became king. However, instead of accepting Richard’s claim, the government decided on a compromise. Henry VI would remain king, but Richard became his heir. Henry’s son, Prince Edward, got disinherited in the process. The king reluctantly agreed. When Margaret learned of this, she became furious.
Margaret rapidly prepared her forces for battle. In December 1460, she made her presence known. In response, Richard hastily assembled a small army. Without waiting for reinforcements, the Battle of Wakefield commenced on December 30. Outnumbered by the Lancastrians, Richard met his end. The Yorkist army suffered a brutal defeat and, Richard got beheaded.
Twilight of the Lancastrians
During 1461, the Second Battle of St. Albans occurred. Under the command of Warwick, the Yorkist army suffered another defeat. Henry VI got freed from imprisonment and regained his throne. Margaret hoped to return to London with her forces. However, Londoners feared that the Lancastrian army would pillage their city. After being refused entry, the Lancastrians withdrew.
When the Yorkist army arrived at London’s gates, they were met with enthusiasm. In contrast to the Lancastrians, the Yorkists were allowed into the city. The new Duke of York, Edward, was the slain Richard’s son. Under Warwick’s guidance, Edward became the leader of the Yorkists. His widespread popularity allowed him to be crowned King Edward IV on March 4, 1461.
In Yorkshire, Henry VI and Margaret fought another battle against the Yorkists. On March 29, the Battle of Towton occurred during a blizzard. By the end of the conflict, the Lancastrian army had been destroyed, and the remaining members retreated to Scotland. The Lancastrians had been dethroned, and the Yorkists consolidated their power. For the next nine years, Edward reigned in peace.
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 October 28, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Wars-of-the-Roses.