This post was most recently updated on March 30th, 2018
Everyone’s heard of the Wars of the Roses but most people have only a hazy notion of when they took place, what they were about and who took part in them.
The popular image is of medieval chivalry and romantic knights-in-armour charging courageously into battle – though only a few of the names of the 20 or so battles that took place are now remembered.
The upheaval constitutes an important part of Britain’s historical and cultural legacy, but it’s a complicated story. So let’s keep it simple and try to get to the heart of what happened.
Families at War
The first thing to make clear is that the Wars of the Roses, which began in 1455 and ended in 1485, had nothing to do with any fancied traditional rivalry between the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, which have a red rose and a white rose respectively as their emblem. The source of the trouble was actually a struggle for power between two families, the royal houses of Lancaster and York, which were both descended from Edward III and had rival claims to the throne.
So why are they called the Wars of the Roses? The story goes that when members of the two factions came face to face in a garden one day, the Yorkist leader plucked a white rose as his emblem and the Lancastrian leader plucked a red rose as his.
The rest of the nobles present similarly plucked a white or red rose to indicate their allegiance. The scene is depicted by William Shakespeare in his play Henry VI, Part 1 but is almost certainly fictitious. The reality is that the wars didn’t acquire their modern name until long after they had ended. There are no contemporary records of the phrase and it may have been the Victorian novelist Sir Walter Scott who came up with it.
Both sides wore badges of white and red roses to recognise friend and foe, but other emblems were also employed. As an example, Richard, Duke of York, adopted the white rose emblem from his Mortimer ancestors, but his son Richard III took the white boar as his symbol.
The wars were sometimes referred to by contemporaries as the Cousins’ Wars, and this reflected the dynastic nature of the power struggle that erupted. There were other causes for the unrest, however, including financial trouble resulting from England’s defeat in the Hundred Years’ War with France and years of weak government, which had allowed the nobles to build substantial power bases.
The Outbreak of War
The Lancastrians had held the throne since 1399, when Henry IV was crowned. His grandson Henry VI, however, proved an incompetent ruler who was subject to periodic bouts of insanity, during which Richard, Duke of York, served as protector of the realm.
Rivalry between the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions finally resulted in open warfare in 1455, beginning with the first battle of St Albans. Fighting continued for the next 30 years, although it was not continuous and for much of the period the country existed in an uneasy state of armed peace.
Both sides experienced victories and reverses, which included the demise of several of the leading participants and the emergence of others. The first Yorkist leader, Richard, Duke of York, was killed at Wakefield in 1460. His severed head was adorned with a paper crown and displayed alongside those of some of his chief supporters on spikes on the walls of York.
After defeating the Lancastrians at Mortimer’s Cross a year later, however, his son seized the crown as Edward IV. On 29 March 1461 Edward crushed the Lancastrians at Towton, near Tadcaster, in the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. Lasting ten hours and fought in a snowstorm, the battle cost possibly as many as 40,000 lives and the local river really did run red with blood.
Warwick the Kingmaker, backed by other powerful barons, restored Henry VI to the throne in 1470 but the following year Edward defeated the Lancastrians at Barnet and Tewkesbury, following which the captive Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London, allegedly while at prayer.
There were many other lesser battles, like Hedgeley Moor and Hexham, along the way but their names are mostly forgotten.
War resumed in 1483 with the death of Edward IV. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, assumed power as protector of Edward’s 12-year-old son Edward V and his younger brother.
He promptly declared the young princes illegitimate and had himself crowned in their stead, as Richard III. The ‘princes in the Tower’ disappeared shortly afterwards, presumably murdered on the orders of their uncle (the skeletons of two teenaged boys were found under a staircase at the Tower in 1674 but these have never been authenticated as theirs).
Victory at Bosworth Field
The Lancastrians rose up against Richard III and matters finally reached a head at Bosworth Field near Leicester on 22 August 1485. The Lancastrian leader Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, secured victory over the Yorkists and claimed the throne as Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs.
Richard III himself was killed (he was the last English king to die in battle) and, according to Shakespeare, the crown was found under a gorse bush. The body of the notorious king was taken to Leicester, where it was rediscovered under a car park in 2012 and then moved to Leicester Cathedral.
The Wars of the Roses (and arguably the Middle Ages themselves) were effectively ended by Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth. A few months later, in January 1486, the houses of Lancaster and York were united by Henry’s marriage to Princess Elizabeth of York and the red and white roses of the two families were combined to form the red-and-white Tudor rose. Five different rulers had occupied the throne in just 25 years and three of them had been killed or executed.
The Price of Conflict
Thousands of people, from kings and nobles to ordinary soldiers and civilians caught up in the conflict met their deaths through combat, murder or execution (typically by beheading or hanging).
The battles themselves were gruesome, gory affairs that had little to do with conventional notions of chivalry and were sometimes settled by blatant acts of treachery. They featured bloody hand-to-hand slaughter, and terrible wounds were inflicted by arrows, swords, maces, daggers, pole-arms and other brutal weapons adapted from farming implements.
By the time it was all over, maybe as many as 50,000 people had been killed fighting for one side or the other.
All in all, then, the Wars of the Roses were not nearly as romantic as their name might suggest…