The Wars of the Roses was a dynastic civil war fought largely in England and Wales in the second half of the fifteen century. It saw supporters of the Houses of Lancaster and York clash over the throne, with a Tudor claim being successfully made through conquest in 1485. The crown changed hands in 1461, 1470, 1471, and 1485 through force of arms and saw some of England’s biggest, most significant, and famous, battles taking place at places such as Towton, Barnet, Tewkesbury, and Bosworth. The Wars of the Roses in many ways ended the medieval era in England, not only ushering in the Tudor Age, but also being a period in which the relationship between the crown, nobles, parliament, and economy changed.
Causes of the Wars of the Roses
The Wars of the Roses were the result of decades of political and military clashes. Defeats at the hands of the French widened these political divisions, and fuelled discontent amongst some elements of the commons of England. It led to factions emerging at court, firstly around colourful characters such as ‘Good Duke’ Humphrey of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort, latterly around men such as the Duke of York and Duke of Somerset. Cronyism, Corruption, Wastage of Money, Economic Problems, Taxation, Loss of Lives and Livelihoods, and the manner in which justice was meted out all led to social unrest. It was unrest that extended to the nobility, as regional disputes began to turn violent and the state was impotent in terms of addressing the issues. It led, in 1455, to the first clash of what became known as the Wars of the Roses, at St. Albans.
The victorious Yorkists were now in the ascendancy, and altered the political direction of the state under the governance of the duke of York, in the role of Protector. The ascendancy was not to last. King Henry VI was brought out of his isolation and resumed personal rule. With that, the Lancastrian faction regained their influence, and for some, revenge was on their minds. Attempts at mediation were made but by the late 1450’s, all trust between the rivals had disintegrated. In 1459, with both sides arming themselves, it led to what may have seemed the inevitable: war.
The Wars of the Roses
The Wars of the Roses has a plural name as it was fought in phases.
Phase One: Clash of the Factions. House of Lancaster versus the House of York
First Battle of St. Albans. This phase includes violent clashes between rival magnates around the country in the build up to this first battle between the crown and the Yorkist lords.
Phase Two: 1459-1461. The bloodiest part of the Wars of the Roses
This included political moves such as those at the parliament of devils in November 1459 and the 1460 Act of Accord. It was the busiest phase of the Wars of the Roses in terms of Battles, routs, and skirmishes. Including: Battle of Blore Heath – Rout at Ludford Bridge – Raid on Sandwich – Battle of Newnham Bridge – Siege of London (1460) – Battle of Northampton – Battle of Wakefield – Battle of Mortimer’s Cross –Second Battle of St. Albans – Skirmish at Worksop – Battle of Ferrybridge – Skirmish at Dintingdale – Battle of Towton.
1461-1469: An uneasy peace
Generally speaking, historians use battles as the determining points on phases of wars. In this case, it appears as though there was a lull in fighting from March 1461 until the Redesdale Revolt in 1469. This was not entirely the case. Sieges took place in areas of stubborn Lancastrian resistance. These were primarily in the North East, or Wales. These included sieges at Alnwick, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh, Tynemouth in the North East of England. In Wales there were sieges at Conway, Harlech and Rhuddlan. Other clashes did take place but not in such concentrated pockets of resistance.
Phase Three: Rebellions, Readeption, and the Arrival of Edward IV
The third phase of the Wars of the Roses began with uprisings that were organised primarily by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and George, duke of Clarence. These included the Redesdale Revolt and the Lincolnshire Rebellion. Battles fought in this phase of the war include The Battle of Edgcote – Battle of Nibley Green – Duke of Clarence and Earl of Warwick land at Plymouth, 1470 – Battle of Empingham / Losecote Field – Battle of Barnet – Battle of Tewkesbury – Siege of London, 1471
Phase Four: Rebellions and the Battle of Bosworth Field
The fourth phase of fighting in the Wars of the Roses began with the rebellions against King Richard III in 1483. Buckingham’s Rebellion was unsuccessful, and the duke was executed. It was followed by opponents of Richard who came from diverse backgrounds forming an alliance that aimed to place Henry Tudor on the English throne. This led to Henry Tudor sailing from Harfleur in France to Wales. He marched along the Welsh Coastline in a northerly direction before heading inland. The invasion force was allowed to pass the town of Shrewsbury unopposed, opening the route into England for the Tudor army. The King and the challenger met in Battle at Bosworth Field, resulting in the death of King Richard III and the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty.
Phase Five: The Pretenders to the Throne and the end of the Wars of the Roses
Henry Tudor had the crown but it was not secure. Some Yorkists remained highly active and received support from wealthy backers on the continent, from Irish lords who had benefitted from Yorkist rule, and from what remained of the English Yorkists who were unwilling to accept the new Tudor regime. This led in 1487 to an invasion, from Ireland, of a force comprising Swiss and Swabian mercenaries, Irish clans, and men who had loyalty to the Earl of Lincoln or Viscount Lovell. Using a boy named Lambert Simnel as a pretender to the throne, they intended to defeat Henry Tudor and install Simnel as king. They failed. In what is recognised as the last battle of the Wars of the Roses the invasion force was defeated in the Battle of Stoke Field. Lambert Simnel was treated well by the Tudor regime as it was quite clear that he had simply been used. Another pretender emerged after Simnel. Perkin Warbeck also gained support on the continent and from Ireland and Scotland. He presented a threat for several years before eventually being captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Warbeck was eventually executed after an escape plan, that also included the imprisoned Earl of Warwick, was discovered: which may have been a set up…
People of the Wars of the Roses
Biographies of notable men and women of the period can be found here. These largely consist of public domain biographies from the original dictionary of national biography. Over time these will be added to to incorporate more up to date interpretations of the people who shaped life in the second half of the Fifteenth Century. A broader approach on women of the 14th and 15th centuries can be found here. This section is not specific to the Wars of the Roses, nor to the British Isles, as it includes women of note from the Hundred Years War and further afield.
Educational Resources for Teaching about the Wars of the Roses
Available on one of my other websites: Teaching Resources for the Wars of the Roses at A level.
Other excellent activities can be found on thinkinghistory.co.uk