Wars of the Roses 1455-1487

The Wars of the Roses were a dynastic power struggle that took place in 15th century England. Two rival factions of the Plantagenet family fought for the crown. Many of the major personalities of the wars shared the same names, see this family tree to see who is who:

Wars of the Roses Family Tree
Wars of the Roses Family Tree – Source: CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

On one side, King Henry VI and his Queen, Margaret of Anjou, led the Lancastrians.

Opposing them were the Yorkists, led at first by Richard, 3rd Duke of York, then his sons, Edward IV and Richard III.

The Wars of the Roses were fought in three distinct phases.

  1. The first phase saw the crown seized from Henry VI by Edward IV following victory at the Battle of Towton in 1461.

  2. A second phase was fought from 1469-71 as Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, switched allegiances. That phase of the war saw the end of Lancastrian power. Warwick was killed at the Battle of Barnet. Prince Edward was killed at Tewkesbury. King Henry VI died in captivity.

  3. The final phase saw a challenge to Richard III from Henry Tudor. Tudor became King Henry VII following his defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. The Wars of the Roses ended with the defeat of a Yorkist army at the Battle of Stoke Field in 1487. 

Causes of the Wars of the Roses

The causes of the Wars of the Roses were varied. Henry VI ascended to the throne as an infant. His government was controlled by his Uncles until he reached adulthood. This led to some arguments. As an adult, Henry VI proved to be a weak king and he suffered from bouts of catatonia. Favourites were appointed which frustrated senior nobles.

There were arguments over key policies such as the way in which to wage the war in France. The French Wars caused problems due to clashes over appointments. There was disagreement on tactics: aggression or consolidation. Finally, after the loss of Normandy, it led to anger and frustration. Taxation for the wars had been high, the outcomes had not been satisfactory.

Concerns escalated and led to force being used to remove people who were viewed as corrupt advisors to the King from Government. There were also issues surrounding the rule of the country during the illness of King Henry VI. This contributed to the emergence of factions based around the Queen on one hand and the Duke of York on the other.

Continued conflict over the management of Government led to resistance from ‘loyal opposition in the form of the Duke of York. Over time this escalated to the point where a compromise had to be reached. It named Richard, Duke of York as heir to the throne. The Queen refused to accept this and the two factions armed themselves. Ultimately, this led to Richard, 3rd Duke of York claiming the throne and the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. Click here for a detailed analysis of the causes of the Wars of the Roses.

The Battle of Towton
Depiction of the Battle of Towton. The Largest battle in English HIstory.

Battles of the Wars of the Roses

Battles in the Wars of the Roses ranged in size and significance. Some, such as Ludford Bridge, were simple routs, involving no fighting. Others such as The Battle of Towton were incredibly large affairs. There were Sieges, Pitched Battles, Skirmishes, Raids and Attacks from the sea during the Wars of the Roses. It was a time at which warfare was beginning to change in nature. Ordnance made its way onto the Battlefields of England during the wars. So too did the handgun (or handcannon as it was known). Some battles are incredibly famous, the Battle of Bosworth immortalised by Shakespeare for example. The relationship between the battles is important to consider, they were often part of a wider campaign. These battles saw the last Cavalry charge led by an English monarch, Richard III. He was also the last English monarch to die in battle. Other major figures were slain in battle: Richard, 3rd Duke of York at Wakefield and Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, perhaps being the best known of these. Many were quite decisive, ending phases of the wars of the roses, or resulting in regime change. Click here to find a full list of Battles of the Wars of the Roses.

Personalities of the Wars of the Roses

The era of the Wars of the Roses sees some of the most famous personalities of English history. King Henry VI.  became king as an infant. As an adult, he entered a catatonic state on two occasions. Or the dashing Edward IV, Edward V who was one of the lost Princes in the Tower or the last Yorkist king, Richard III. It saw the rise of the Tudor family and the crowning of Henry VII. These Kings had strong women as wives, mothers or sisters. Queen Consorts had a huge influence on events. Margaret of Anjou was instrumental in organising the Lancastrian cause. Elizabeth Woodville and her family grew in stature and influenced policies. These senior Royals had numerous supporters from the nobility. Some, like the Neville family, saw opportunities to consolidate and extend their families power. Others fought to secure land rights in more localised areas. Find out more about Personalities of the Wars of the Roses.

Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Consort to Edward IV

Women in the Wars of the Roses

Women of all social classes played a significant role in the Wars of the Roses. Queen Consorts played a role in politics. They influenced appointments and marriages. At times were involved in the planning and execution of the war. Ladies of the nobility often managed estates as their husbands attended Council, Parliament, or answers a call to arms. This was a vital role and sometimes saw the Ladies having to defend their Manors in local outbursts of violence. Women from the lower classes were part of the support network that accompanied the campaigning armies. Those who remained at home continued to work in professions that kept the country afloat: the Woolen Trade continued to provide income from exports, for example. On a local level, it was often the women who ran important industries and breweries. These roles provided some level of stability during the conflicts. Read more on Women in the Wars of the Roses.

Timeline of the Wars of the Roses

We provide a number of timelines and graphics.

Infographic: Timeline of the Wars of Roses. Covers the most important dates. Designed for use at Key Stage 3 as a visual aid.

Infographic: Events of the Wars of the Roses. Includes important people and visualises locations of key battles.

The Wars of the Roses. An infographic provided by schoolshistory.org.uk
Key facts on the Wars of the Roses.

Primary and Secondary Sources on the Wars of the Roses

Source material for the Wars of the Roses is quite varied. For some aspects of the period, there is an abundance of contemporary material. Other parts of the conflict suffer from a relative lack of eyewitness accounts: including some battles. However, records exist from each of the Parliaments held in the 15th Century. Alongside these, we have letters, wills, court records and chronicles. The participants in the conflict also created documents and visual materials to prove their right to rule, to memorialise the dead or to illustrate their thoughts on events of national importance.

A wealth of Secondary Source material exists. William Shakespeare wrote plays about the wars which heavily influenced public opinion. There are historians such as Edward Hall and Thomas More who wrote early accounts of the events. Records from overseas sometimes refer to events in England. Later histories such as Victorian narratives are also available.

Modern academic histories of the Wars of the Roses assess all of these records before making a considered analysis of events. There are also modern popular histories available that provide an overview of events. Students studying the wars should consult their exam boards reading lists. These will refer you to the most appropriate books for your course.

We keep a record of the Primary and Secondary sources on the Wars of the Roses here.

Articles about the Wars of the Roses

Who should rule England during Henry VI’s Catatonic State?

How did Richard III’s reputation differ regionally during his reign? 

To what extent was Margaret of Anjou to blame for the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses?

Case Study: How did the Battle of Towton affect the Manor of Bolling?

Battle in a Blizzard: How did the weather affect the fighting at the Battle of Towton?