The Wars of the Roses is the name given to a series of civil wars that occurred over a space of three decades in England during the Middle Ages.
The Wars of the Roses were fought between two opposing houses, the House of Lancaster (also known as Lancastrians) and the House of York (also known as Yorkists).
Many people that are first becoming familiar with the Wars or the Roses ask why this particular series of civil wars has been given such a glamorous name. The name ‘Wars of the Roses’ was adopted because of the crests (or badges) used by each group.
- The Lancastrians represented themselves with a red rose
- The Yorkists represented themselves with a white rose.
Both the House of Lancaster and the House of York felt that were entitled to hold the title of King of England. There are a number of key individuals involved with the Wars of the Roses.
Key Players Involved with the Wars of the Roses
As the war involved two distinct houses, there are a number of individuals on each side that each played their own part in the Wars of the Roses.
The Lancastrians included:
- Henry IV (1399 – 1413)
- Henry V (son of Henry IV – 1413 – 1422)
- Henry VI (son of Henry V – 1422 – 1461 & 1470 – 1471)
The Yorkists included:
- Edward IV (1461 – 1483)
- Edward V and Richard (sons of Edward IV)
- Richard III (brother of Edward IV – 1483 – 1485)
The civil conflict rose just two years after the end of the Hundred Years War; however there is no doubt that the causes for the Wars of the Roses had been bubbling since well before the war started. In fact the true causes had been in development during the Hundred Years War.
Causes for the Wars of the Roses
Edward III was the king who ruled England during much of the Hundred Years War. Edward III ruled from 1327 to 1377. Both the House of Lancaster and the House of York were factions that were made up of descendents, lords and nobles that each had their own vested interest in gaining the throne. Members of both houses were direct descendents of King Edward III, giving both parties a sense of entitlement for the throne.
The ruling Lancastrian king of the time, Henry VI, often suffered with mental health issues, sometimes rendering him completely unfit to rule. He had also surrounded himself with nobles and individuals that were extremely unpopular, and the Hundred Years War had given rise to a number of powerful lords that had access to considerable resources, such as vast amounts of wealth and their own private armed forces.
Finally, the Hundred Years War had brought about a considerable amount of civil unrest. The long war had been very expensive and it had cost the public dearly. High taxes had been used to fund the war and needless to say that had not gone down well with an impoverished society, especially as the early English victories began giving way to an endless stream of defeats by the French.
England had been left economically devastated and morally damaged, and the last thing the country needed was an unfit king who could not rule. The House of Lancaster and the House of York were determined to make use of the opportunity and to solidify what was rightfully theirs.
Battles Fought During the Wars of the Roses
The first battle in the Wars of the Roses began with the Battle of First at St. Albans in 1455. It ended just over 30 years later with the Battle of Stoke in 1487.
This is a brief overview of the dates and places of the battles, including the name of the victorious party.
- 1455 – St Albans I – Victory to House of York
- 1459 – Blore Heath – Victory to House of York
- 1459 – Ludford Bridge – Victory to House of Lancaster
- 1460 – Northampton – Victory to House of York
- 1460 – Wakefield – Victory to House of Lancaster
- 1461 – Mortimor’s Cross – Victory to House of York
- 1461 – St Albans II – Victory to House of Lancaster
- 1461 – Ferrybridge – Victory to House of York
- 1461 – Towton – Victory to House of York
- 1464 – Hedgley Moor – Victory to House of York
- 1464 – Hexham – Victory to House of York
- 1469 – Edgecote Moor – Victory to House of Lancaster
- 1470 – Losecote Field – Victory to House of York
- 1471 – Barnet – Victory to House of York
- 1471 – Tewkesbury – Victory to House of York
- 1485 – Bosworth – Victory to House of Tudor
- 1487 – Stoke – Victory to House of Tudor
Key Battles and Events
There are a number of key battles and events that played a critical part in the outcome of the Wars of the Roses.
1455 – The First Battle of St. Albans
The first battle in the War of the Roses began with Henry VI as King of the English throne. Richard of York led an army of approximately 3,000 Yorkists towards London. Henry VI had an army of approximately 2,500 soldiers that he moved from London to intercept Richard and his men, and the two clashed at St.Albans. Richard successfully attacked, and Henry’s wife and son fled in exile.
Battles and skirmishes were fought throughout England between the St. Albans battle and the next big battle at Northampton. These battles include:
- Blore Heath (1459 – Yorkist victory)
- Ludford Bridge (1459 – Lancastrian victory)
1460 – The Battle of Northampton
The battle of Northampton included much bigger forces than those seen at St.Albans. Approximately 20,000 Yorkists and 10,000 Lancastrians stood ready to do battle.
In June 1460, Richard Neville (earl of Warwick), his father (earl of Salisbury), and Edward (the future King Edward IV) sailed from France and landed at Sandwich while en-route to London.
Warwick gave the order to march north, in order to attack the Lancastrian army that was marching south from Coventry. The Lancastrian caught wind of the plans and decided to stop at Northampton to build up a defensive position.
The two forces once again met and did battle, and it was during this battle that Lord Grey, a commander in the King’s army, switched to the Yorkist cause. This sudden change of allegiance during battle helped the Yorkist army seize the victory.
King Henry VI was captured by the Yorkists during this battle in the summer months. Henry VI suffered with his mental health during his captivity, and he agreed to appoint Richard as Regent of England. Many thought this would end the Wars of the Roses, however, the Queen, Henry’s wife, had been working on her own plan to assemble an army in Wales.
The Battle of Wakefield just a couple of months later would prove to be the undoing of Richard of York.
1460 – The Battle of Wakefield
The Battle of Wakefield is one of the most unusual battles within the Wars of the Roses, in the sense that the tactics are somewhat mystifying.
Richard of York, having captured King Henry VI and practically securing his right the throne, travelled north with Richard Neville, the earl of Salisbury to tackle a large Lancastrian force that had chosen to assemble near the city of York. Richard had accumulated a force of around 8,000 Yorkists to help hem defend against the Lancastrian army.
Richard, upon reaching the area, made the tactical decision to take up a defensive position at Sandal Castle. However, for some unknown reason, Richard then chose to leave his stronghold. He took his forces and directly attacked the Lancastrian force head on, even though at an estimated 18,000 troops the force was more than twice the size of his army.
While Richard did his best and held out for some time, he was eventually overwhelmed and his forces were defeated by the Lancastrians. The battle cost Richard more than his position, it cost him his life. The earl of Salisbury and York’s son were also captured and later executed by the Lancastrian forces.
In February and March of 1461 a number of battles were fought, most of which were won by the Yorkist forces. As Richard of York had died, Edward of York was anointed King of England in March 1461.
The Yorkist king remained in power for the next decade in what was a relatively peaceful time. A number of battles were fought, but the Yorkists were once again able to annihilate the Lancastrians. These battles included:
- Hedgley Moor (1464 – Yorkist victory)
- Hexham (1464 – Yorkist victory)
- Edgecote Moor (1469 – Lancastrian victory)
1470 was the year that saw a turn of events that changed the odds out of the favour in to the Yorkists and back into the favour of the Lancastrians.
Warwick and Clarence were forced to flee to France, where they formed an allegiance with Margaret of Anjou. With the support of the French, this unlikely trio launched their own invasion in England. At the same time, Warwick’s brother, John Neville, changed his allegiance from the Yorkist to the Lancastrian army, forcing the King to flee and abandon his throne.
The last Lancastrian king, Henry VI seized this opportunity to reclaim the throne for both himself and his house, and in October 1470 he took back the throne, albeit for a brief period.
Only one battle was fought during 1470, and that was in early spring at Losecote Field, which proved to be another victory for the Yorkist army.
1471 – The Battle of Barnet
In March King Edward IV returned back to England with his army. In April he then successfully fought the Battle of Barnet was fought. It’s unclear how many soldiers were involved in this fight, however, it is known that Warwick was killed during this battle. Between the Battle of Barnet and the Battle of Tewkesbury King Henry VI is captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
1471 – The Battle of Tewkesbury
With King Henry locked away in the Tower of London Edward IV went on to secure and solidify his power and authority with a decisive battle at Tewkesbury.
Following the defeat at the Battle of Barnet, the Lancastrian forces headed towards the Welsh border, led by the Duke of Somerset, in order to recruit more soldiers to the cause.
Edward IV anticipated this uprising and moved his army towards the border with the intention of intercepting the Lancastrian forces. The Lancastrian army were the first to reach Tewkesbury, and Somerset decided to take advantage of the strong defensive position that the opportunity had afforded him.
Edward IV reached Tewkesbury early in May and he immediately engaged the enemy, preventing the Lancastrians from gaining any more advantage. Somerset made the unfortunate mistake of thinking that he had identified a weakness in the Yorkist forces and gave the order to attack. The Yorkist army held off the attack and then quickly launched a damaging counter-attack. Edward, Prince of Wales died in the battle aged just 18 years old. Somerset was executed by the Yorkists and Queen Margaret was captured.
This battle saw the end of the majority of the male bloodline within the Lancastrian house. Just a month later, King Henry VI’s body was found at the Tower of London.
Through battle and bloodshed the Yorkist forces had managed to gain and retain control of the throne.
In 1483 Edward IV died, leaving his brother Richard, in charge as Protector. It was his duty to ensure that Edward’s son, also Edward, would successfully complete his coronation and become King of England. However, once inside the Tower of London, the two young princes were betrayed by their uncle and Richard became Richard III.
1485 – The Battle of Bosworth Field
The Battle of Bosworth was launched by a new house that wanted access to the throne, the Tudor house. Henry Tudor launched an attack against Richard III and succeeded, killing the king in the process. Henry’s army of approximately 5,000 men managed to overcome an army twice the size of his own, although once again two of Richard’s Yorkist allies lost their loyalty and switched sides during battle, which helped pave the way for Henry’s victory.