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Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles over the throne of England between adherents of the House of Lancaster and House of York, two different branches of the Plantagenet family descended from King Edward III. The badges of the two houses: a red rose for Lancaster and a white rose for York, account for the name of the struggle (which was not given to this particular war until many years later).

Dukes of York and Lancaster choose roses
in the Temple Gardens, London

Opinions may vary as to when the Wars of the Roses began and ended, but the armed conflict was concentrated in the period 1455-1485. The antagonism between the two houses, however, originated with the overthrow of King Richard II of England by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, in 1399. Bolingbroke, crowned as Henry IV, had a poor claim to the throne and was tolerated as king only because Richard had been unpopular. Henry's heir, Henry V of England, was a great soldier and gained a firm hold on the reins of power but did not lack enemies. One of these was Richard, Earl of Cambridge, a son of Edmund of Langley and thus grandson of King Edward III of England. Cambridge was executed (1415) for treason at the start of the campaign leading up to the Battle of Agincourt.

Cambridge's wife, Anne Mortimer, also had a claim to the throne, being descended from Lionel of Antwerp, an older son of Edward III. Their son, Richard, Duke of York, grew up to challenge the feeble King Henry VI of England for the crown. At first appointed "Protector", he grew more ambitious and was at loggerheads with Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou, especially after the birth of her son, Edward of Westminster. The first battle of the civil war was that of St Alban's on May 22, 1455. York regained his position as protector, and was promised the succession by Henry, much to Margaret's disgust.

When York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, his claim was taken forward by his eldest son, an outstanding warrior who prevailed over the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461 to become King Edward IV of England. Edward's mentor Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick - "the Kingmaker" - later changed sides after being slighted by the young king, and transferred his allegiance to Henry VI's queen, Margaret of Anjou, triumphing over Edward and restoring Henry briefly to the throne in 1470.

Warwick's success was short-lived. With assistance from Burgundy, Edward returned and defeated Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. The remaining Lancastrian forces were destroyed at the Battle of Tewkesbury and the Lancastrian heir to the throne was killed. Henry VI was murdered shortly afterwards (14 May 1471), to strengthen the Yorkist hold on the throne.

Peace was restored for the remainder of Edward's reign, but he died suddenly, in 1483, when his heir was a mere 12-year-old boy, Edward V. It then came out that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been illegal, so Parliament gave the throne to Edward IV's brother Richard III, the finest general on the Yorkist side at the time and so better able to keep the Yorkists in power than a boy who would have to rule through a committee of regents. Lancastrian hopes now centered on Henry Tudor, whose father, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, had been an illegitimate half-brother of Henry VI. It was through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of Edward III, that Henry's claim to the throne rested, however, and it was derived from a grandson of Edward III's who was illegitimate. Henry's forces defeated Richard's at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and Henry Tudor became King Henry VII of England. Henry then strengthened his position by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, who was the best surviving Yorkist claimant (thus uniting the two houses), and then executing the rest of the possible claimants whenever he could lay hands on them, a policy his son Henry VIII continued.

Some would argue that the Wars of the Roses concluded only with the Battle of Stoke in 1487, which arose from the appearance of a pretender to the throne, a boy named Lambert Simnel who had been selected for his close physical resemblance to the young Earl of Warwick, York's best surviving male claimant. (The plan was doomed from the start, because the young earl was still alive and in King Henry's custody, so no one could seriously doubt Simnel was an imposter.) It was at this Battle of Stoke that Henry defeated forces led by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln - who had been named by Richard III as his heir, but had been reconciled with Henry after Bosworth - thus effectively removing the remaining Yorkist opposition. Simnel was pardoned for his part in the rebellion and sent to work in the royal kitchens.


For the U.S. film starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, see The War of the Roses.



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