The Wars of the Roses were a struggle for the crown between two competing branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty. The Houses of Lancaster and York became embroiled in this conflict between 1455 and 1487. The causes for the outbreak of civil war are complex but relate to King Henry VI’s ability as a King, the legitimacy of his claim and the desires of other senior royals. At Towton, the war saw the bloodiest battle to have happened on English soil at which roughly 1% of the English population perished. The Wars of the Roses saw long periods of relative peace. It ended with Henry Tudor establishing his Kingship, first by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, then through both diplomacy and defeating the remaining opposition at the Battle of Stoke in June 1487.
Long term causes of the Wars of the Roses
The origins of the conflict between the different branches of the Plantagenet family dates back to the final days of the 14th century. Richard II was usurped and killed in 1399. His successor was Henry IV. The problem with Henry taking the crown was that he had been disinherited by Richard II and usurping a rightful king wasn’t the way to do things.
Later, as Henry V dies leaving an infant heir, this matter of legitimacy becomes more significant. The right to govern as regent, to be on the council, to lead men, is based largely on seniority. In Richard, 3rd Duke of York there is a noble who could have been king if Henry IV’s disinheritance had stood.
France and finances
The signs of discontent become apparent as the Hundred Years War continues. Despite victories such as that at Agincourt in 1415, things were not going according to plan for the English. In Henry VI’s minority the French rise up under Joan of Arc. Though Joan is captured and executed it comes at a price for the English.
The war was costing too much. Land was now being lost. The nobles were not in agreement over how best to proceed. This sees the development of obvious friction between different factions at court.
Short term causes of the Wars of the Roses
Henry VI had come to power as an infant. His government was run by a council until his majority (coming of age). The council was dominated by a few powerful men. When Henry came of age these men lost some of their importance as Henry appointed his friends and took less notice of the senior courtiers than they wanted. This led to friction and Richard of York was given a job that meant he could be useful but far from the court. The government wasn’t very effective though. Richard had to be called back and he immediately challenged others over their influence and work. Henry VI became very ill. He lost his mental capacity. Richard, Duke of York, was the senior Royal. He was made defender and protector of the realm, ruling in Henry’s place. Richard moved elements of the factions that he disapproved of from the court. This allowed him to govern in a way that he thought was best for the country. After a year, Henry VI suddenly recovered. Richard’s policies quickly began to be withdrawn and all of Henry’s favourites returned to positions of significance.
Furious arguments broke out among the king’s councillors. Richard demanded the throne for himself. He had an army and was willing to use it to ensure that the country was run in an orderly manner. Many of the senior nobles on the council supported Richard. They were also reminded that Richard actually had a claim to the throne. A compromise was reached. Richard, Duke of York, was named as heir to the throne. Henry’s own son was to be overlooked and the right of inheritance was passed to Richard and his sons.
This position was soon challenged. There were people, such as Margaret of Anjou, who did not want Richard as heir. Things were put in place to frustrate his attempts to govern. The situation became untenable. Eventually, Richard had had enough. He once again gathered his army. This time, war did break out.
Historical Fiction: Number 1 Best Seller!
Key individuals in the Wars of the Roses
Alphabetical by forename. Where there are numerous, Monarchs have been placed first in chronological order.
This list of significant individuals is far from extensive. At the moment the links will take you to general biographies. Pages about their role in the War of the Roses will be coming soon.
Henry Percy. In fact 3 of them. The 2nd Earl of Northumberland was killed fighting at the first battle of St. Albans. His son, the 3rd Earl of Northumberland died at Towton. The 4th Earl survived the fighting but was killed by peasants in 1489.
George, Duke of Clarence. Brother of Edward IV. George is not loyal to his brothers cause throughout the course of the wars of the roses. His defection altered the political landscape and his reconciliation contributed to the balance of military power changing in 1471. This had a major impact on the way in which the wars of the roses were fought out at that time.
Margaret of Anjou. Henry VI’s Queen. She was a dominant force in the court. In times of Yorkist supremacy it was Margaret who organised and led much of the opposition, raising armies herself on several occasions.
Richard, 3rd Duke of York. Lord Protector in Henry VI’s first bout of incapability. Upon Henry’s return to ruling it was Richard who instigated the war. He died in the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. His son, Edward, took up the cause and became Edward IV. He was also the father of Richard III. Richard’s political decisions and ambitions contributed to factionalism and the start of the Wars of the Roses.
Richard Neville (Warwick the Kingmaker). The most powerful non-royal in the country with wealth to rival that of the competing factions. Known as the Kingmaker due to the lengths he went to to get Edward IV onto the throne. Played a pivotal role in winning the Battle of Northampton. Eventually changed allegiances to support the Lancastrians and was killed fighting at the Battle of Barnet.
Battles in the Wars of the Roses
First Battle of St. Albans
Battle of Blore Heath
Battle of Ludford Bridge
Battle of Northampton
Battle of Wakefield
Battle of Mortimer’s Cross
Second Battle of St. Albans
Battle of Ferrybridge
Battle of Towton
Battle of Hedgeley Moor
Battle of Hexham
Battle of Edgecote Moor
Battle of Losecote Field
Battle of Barnet
Battle of Tewkesbury
Battle of Bosworth
Battle of Stoke Field
Documents, Maps and Evidence
History Today articles on the Wars on the Roses.