Causes of the Wars of the Roses

What were the causes of the Wars of the Roses? The Wars of the Roses were the results of years of growing tension. The Hundred Years War had gone badly. England had lost all of her mainland European lands except the port of Calais. Ill feeling about the way that the war had been fought caused tension. The appointment of favourites to positions in court led to criticism of the government. Rival hereditary claims to the throne were raised. Combined they led to violence. The Act of Accord was agreed as a compromise. However the Queen refused to accept it, the rival factions then used force.

Margaret of Anjou marriage to Henry VI

Overview: Causes of the Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses were caused by a series of linked factors:

  1. The Wars in France
  2. Economic Depression
  3. Political Upheaval
  4. Societal Change
  5. Weak leadership and Poor Governance
  6. Dynastic Disputes
  7. Factions (Sides)

The Wars in France

On 17th July 1453, the English suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Castillion. It led to the loss of nearly all English possessions on the continent: only Calais remained. This defeat marked the end of the Hundred Years War. Throughout the course of the reign of Henry VI, there had been military reversals in France. Lands won by King Henry V were lost in a French Campaign inspired by Joan of Arc.

In England, this caused political, economic and social problems. At the highest levels of Government, nobles had disagreed over tactics in the French Wars. Some, like Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had argued for a more aggressive policy. One of expansion and taking the war to the French. Crushing them before they could recover fully from the losses that they themselves had suffered at the hands of Henry V. Others such as William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, had adopted a more cautious policy. These nobles saw benefits in diplomacy, including the marriage treaty of the young King Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou. War was expensive, diplomacy could achieve the same.

However, the French were resurgent under the inspired leadership of Joan of Arc, then Charles VII. Gradually, English territories in France and Normandy were reduced. Some victories, such as at Le Mans, were won by English forces. They were soon overcome. Throughout the 1440s and early 1450s, this led to regular requests for additional men at arms, archers, supplies and funding. The burden both financially and in human form was largely placed upon the counties of the South East of England.

The taxation, loss of lives, impact on local economies and the perceived mismanagement of all of these led to political questions being raised at Council. Duke of Royal Blood, Humphrey and Richard, 3rd Duke of York, distanced themselves from proponents of the more cautious approach and began questioning government appointments. In Kentish towns, people grew increasingly disenchanted, resulting in the rebellion in 1450 of Jack Cade.

The ultimate loss of French possessions following the Battle of Castillon appeared to vindicate the arguments made by the likes of Richard, 3rd Duke of York. In doing so, it simply widened the divide between nobles who already had little time for one another.

Economic Depression

The 1440s saw a period of economic depression across Western Europe. This affected English trade with the continent. Exports were affected by changing relationships with European powers. There were changes to the trading agreements that both the English and other nations had. Warfare impacted on trade as well.

Much of European trade was governed by the Hanseatic League. This was a confederation of merchants and guilds, originally centred around Germany. By the 1440s it had ports in modern-day Holland, Brugge, and had gained commercial monopolisation of trade in the Baltic. The Hanseatic League had agents in England. They traded in London and at other ports around the country. However, the league’s monopolisation of Baltic Trade and wars that the League fought (Against the Dutch and Danish) hampered English overseas trade. This added to existing economic issues experienced in England. London merchants called for the expulsion of the League. Though trade could take place, it was increasingly limited to shipping via Calais. This limited opportunities at a time when some emerging industries and the wool trade were struggling.

The economy at home was in crisis as well. As with the rest of Europe, the economy was changing. Towns were growing and older, feudal, roles gradually disappearing. The population had not recovered from the Black Death. Supply and Demand of all sorts of produce were imbalanced. Wages had been limited by the Statute of Labourers. Required levies of Taxation remained at pre-Black Death levels due to ongoing warfare and the running costs of government.

This led to administrators of the Kings Treasury having a complicated situation to deal with. They needed to make the most out of tax that was collected. Efficiency was important in order to maintain effective government and to fund the ongoing wars with France. The counsellors appointed by Henry VI became accused of malpractice and corruption with regard to the management of the treasury. As these counsellors were nobles favoured by the King and his Queen, it contributed to the growth of opposition to the Kings Government.

Political Upheaval

Political structures in England had changed in the years leading up to the Wars of the Roses. It was a period in which ‘Bastard Feudalism’ existed. In this era, there remained a strong and powerful nobility. They retained large amounts of land. Nobles had rights, such as to attend Parliament. Responsibilities were also in place, such as to ensure law and order. Nobles could be stripped of titles through an attainder, an Act of Parliament that removed titles and property.

New classes were emerging though. Towns were growing and with them, professional classes were emerging. These people were educated and hugely important to the economy locally and nationally. Guilds formed around key trades. In major towns and cities, the role of councils had grown in importance.

The church remained important. It held large amounts of land and was a major lender of funds for important matters such as military campaigns. The bishops of the wealthiest and most important diocese had a huge amount of political influence. They acted as mediators, diplomats and bankers, as well as overseeing the spiritual wellbeing of the nation.

These changes meant that when Henry VI became king, there was a system of Government in place that could rule on his behalf until he became an adult. His uncles, the Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, had responsibilities as guardians and Regents. The Council of major nobles was to rule through collective responsibility. This allowed debate and voting, with a majority decision deciding matters. Parliament could also debate and confirm matters. In theory, it is a system that would allow the management of England to be effective.

The drawback of the system is that it allowed the most powerful men to dominate. Lesser nobles sought favour and so would choose to support people in hope of self-advancement. When there were divisions between the most powerful men at court, this then spread to other nobles. It resulted in opposing sides or factions forming.

  • A power bloc formed around Cardinal Beaufort.
  • Later a rift emerged between those in favour of aggression in France and those wanting to adopt diplomacy.
  • As the King fell into a state of Catatonia the Queen assembled favourites around herself to protect the interests of the young Prince Edward. She was faced with opposition from Richard, 3rd Duke of York and other powerful magnates such as the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick.
  • The largest political upheaval was perhaps the collapse of King Henry VIs health. The structure was not clear on who ought to rule in his stead. This led to a widening of the divide between the factions that had formed around the Queen and Duke of York respectively.

Societal Change

The Rebellion of Jack Cade, noted above, is illustrative of the way in which society had changed in the years leading up to the Wars of the Roses. Many people had broken free of ties to the land. There was more flexibility in the labour market. Towns had grown in size. Education and political awareness had blossomed, at least in some parts of the country.

The changes meant that on a local level a noble could not necessarily just order people to do his bidding. Retainers were in place for the major noble families and at strategic points along the Scottish Borders and in the Welsh Marches. Other roles were beginning to become more private. Wages for Labourers had needed to be determined by law following sharp rises in costs following the devastation of the Black Death. Products from far inland were being traded along river routes around the country and across the Channel or the North Sea into Europe. Though that was not new, it was spreading.

These changes allowed an element of social mobility. Families could rise from relative poverty to relative wealth. The best example of this for which we have significant evidence is the Paston Family of Norfolk. Through education, a sound investment, selective marriages and befriending the right people they were transformed into a family that held several manors, a Castle and the ear of senior nobles.

Such changes meant that as society changed, so did societies expectations of the lawmakers. Preachers spoke of the rights of the working man. The result was raised awareness of issues such as politics and fiscal (tax) matters. When things went wrong or were hotly debated at Government level, the news spread to the people.

Weak leadership and Poor Governance

As suggested above the system of government allowed for a King, Regent or Council to rule quite effectively. Where leadership was strong, law and order would be maintained. Where there was a lack of confidence in the leadership, it could be challenged. That is what happened in England following the death of the Duke of Bedford.

At first, there were simply disagreements about policy. This is most evident in the contrasting views taken about the Wars in France. It developed into questions about the quality and integrity of those governing the country.

Upon assuming control as an adult, Henry VI began appointing younger, inexperienced, nobles to roles within the court. Influenced by his Queen, Margaret of Anjou, these men became viewed as favourites. Closer to the Kings age and eager to advance themselves, they rose to senior positions within the system of Government. Other nobles too were perceived to be receiving favourable treatment from the Royal Couple.

This caused discontent among the more established noble families and for the likes of the Duke of York who was of royal blood himself. The management of the treasury, trade, pay for the garrison at Calais, the Lieutenancy of Calais, Normandy and other overseas lands were all at one point held by one of these favourites. Each of these areas suffered serious deficiencies in the 1440s and 1450s.

Senior nobles felt both disenfranchised and despair in the manner in which the administration went about its business. It led to friction, argument and the factionalism that is discussed below.

The wider population was also concerned at these issues. Not only were there revolts, most famously the Cade Rebellion but also growing support for those nobles who spoke out about the maladministration that was taking place.

Weak leadership also had another effect. Where there was no strength at the heart of government, there was no strength in the justice system that held the nobility to account. Localised arguments began to be settled by force, rather than through arbitration.

Dynastic Disputes

The legitimate right to be the king was incredibly important in the late medieval world. Kings were anointed and viewed as being chosen by god. Many people, including nobles, simply would not countenance the thought of challenging a crowned monarch. Yet if that monarch was not the rightful king, some would.

In the case of the Wars of the Roses this was an issue.

From the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester until the birth of Prince Edward, the heir to the throne by primogeniture was Richard, 3rd Duke of York. However, he also had a claim to be the legitimate monarch in his own right. Henry VI was monarch as a result of his grandfather, Henry IV, usurping the throne. It then passed to Henry V then to the infant Henry VI.

Henry IV had overthrown Richard II.

The rightful heir to Richard II was his cousin, Philippa. She was the daughter of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the second eldest son of Edward III. Though women themselves did not inherit titles as a matter of course at this time, their husbands did. Philippa married Edmund Mortimer. Richard, 3rd Duke of York was a great-grandson of Philippa and heir to the Mortimer line. By right, he could claim to be the legitimate king through that family line.

Richard also had a claim through his paternal line. His grandfather was Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. Edmund was the 5th son of King Edward III. As the Beaufort line had been disinherited, this made Richard the next in line to the throne whilst Henry VI was King, prior to the birth of Prince Edward.

Richard did not press a dynastic claim to the throne for quite some time. He didn’t particularly need to, he was heir to the throne and the most powerful magnate in the country. The dynastic claim is brought to the fore when factionalism isolates him. The urgency to assert his and his lines claim is magnified by the birth of Prince Edward.

Consequently, as political divisions are more apparent, so too is the need to press the dynastic claims to the throne. It resulted in the Act of Accord. The Act of Accord saw Prince Edward overlooked for inheritance in favour of Richard and his descendants.

Queen Margaret was incensed by the disinheriting of her son. It led to an already tense situation turning violent.

Factions (Sides)

Throughout any study of the causes of the Wars of the Roses, you will find references to factions. Typically, this refers to the two sides in the events immediately prior to the outbreak of the wars. They had been formed prior to the First Battle of St. Albans and became cemented in the period between this battle and the Battle of Blore Heath.

One faction formed around the Duke of York. It portrayed itself at first as a loyal opposition. They claimed to want to force reform and remove inept or corrupt officials. This faction gained support from the Earl of Warwick, one of the wealthiest men in the country. Warwick’s father, the Earl of Salisbury, also supported York.

The second faction was centred around the court of Queen Margaret. She had influenced many appointments to the court. Her intention was to secure her position and, following the birth of Prince Edward, to make sure that he, not Richard, was the heir to the throne.

The factions clashed over the governance of England during Henry VI’s periods of mental incapacity. Margaret wanted to rule in her husband’s place. The Council and Parliament appointed the Duke of York.

Following the return to health of Henry VI, the Queen’s favourites were returned to positions of authority. They replaced men loyal to the Duke of York. This pattern was the same in both of Henry’s periods of prolonged ill-health. To the ‘loyal opposition’ is simply demonstrated the corrupt nature of the Kings Government.

Factionalism combined with the Dynastic disputes led to the Parliament of Devils. At this Coventry Parliament, the ‘loyal opposition’ was attained in their absence. This left little choice for the Duke of York and Earls of Warwick and Salisbury but to fight for their titles, lands and rights.

Long and Short Term Causes: putting it into perspective

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.

Minority regency

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. The 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 cour

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.

Armed camps

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.

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