A Brief History of the Wars of the Roses

For thirty years after the end of the Hundred Years’ War, England was caught in a period of recurring conflict known as the Wars of the Roses.  So named for the white rose of the House of York and the red rose of the House of Lancaster, it was a struggle for the Crown among rival lines of the Plantagenet family and their supporters.  For those in power, the prospect of such conflict was a nightmare, and fear of a new round of warfare underlies many of the decisions Henry VIII would later take as he struggled to ensure the succession.  The wars had surprisingly little impact on everyday life in the kingdom; of the thirty years from start to finish, scarcely more than one year of actual fighting took place.

This conflict arose within rival wings of the family in the wake of psychological trouble suffered by the king, Henry VI.  Henry had still been a child when his father died, and he did not begin to rule on his own until 1436.  In 1445, he married Margaret of Anjou, but no child was born until 1453.  That same year brought two disasters: defeat in the Hundred Years’ War and the king’s psychological attack.  Trouble had been brewing since 1450 in both political and military spheres, and in 1455, Richard, the Duke of York, insisted on reform.

The dispute led to a battle at St. Albans in May, and the king was injured in that fight.  At this point, the Yorkist side could claim that it was only a matter of policy, and not outright rebellion, that motivated them, but the king fell ever more under the control of his wife, and she was not inclined to forgive.  Yorkist forces took the king prisoner at Northampton in 1460 and compelled him to name the Duke of York his successor; Richard did not have long to enjoy the distinction.  He was killed at the Battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460.

The king’s partisans, who included many foreign mercenaries, behaved ruthlessly on the way back to London.  England did not then have a standing army, so both sides were comprised largely of veterans from the war with France and mercenary soldiers.  The people of London reacted very negatively to the king’s approach, and in response, the queen and her supporters fled the city, rather than welcoming Henry home.

Edward, the son of Richard, came to London instead, and in March he became king with the aid of the Earl of Warwick. Later that same month, Edward IV bought a respite from fighting with a smashing success at Towton.  In 1465, his forces took Henry VI prisoner, and the fugitive king was taken to the Tower of London.  1465 also brought Edward trouble, however.  He contracted a secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, from a Lancastrian-leaning family, and many of his supporters turned against him, above all the Earl of Warwick.

In 1470, Warwick reversed himself and helped to engineer the “Readeption” of Henry VI, which really meant the return of Queen Margaret to power.  This restoration was brief; Edward fought back, winning at Barnet and Tewkesbury, and reclaimed the throne.  Henry VI, the Earl of Warwick, and many supporters died, but Queen Margaret escaped to maintain the conflict.  Another significant escape is that of Jasper Tudor and his nephew Henry, who were relatives of Henry VI; Henry Tudor would later be the Lancastrian champion.

Queen Margaret never managed to get the better of King Edward, who ruled until his death in 1483; this is attributed to poor health, possibly a stroke.  His son, also Edward, was too young to rule, and so power was handed temporarily to the late king’s brother, Richard.

Popular tradition paints Richard as a usurper and murderer.  The first may be partially unfair, and the second may be inaccurate.  It should be remembered that Edward’s wife was from a Lancastrian family, and as he rode south from York, Richard seems to have been informed of their efforts to take advantage of the situation.  He may have been convinced that a direct seizure of power was the only way to do justice to his family, though the act remains a form of usurpation.  It has never been proven that he killed his nephews.  He did, however, engineer to have them proclaimed illegitimate, an indignity that was also extended to his late brother Edward.  In this way, he cleared the path to his own succession.

Henry Tudor had taken refuge in Brittany, and Richard expended much effort in trying to accomplish his capture.  Instead, Richard’s rule turned many Yorkists against him, and Henry Tudor returned to England at the head of a new coalition that met Richard in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485.  The battle was as yet undecided when Richard personally overextended himself: in an effort to attack Henry directly, and kill his last remaining rival, Richard only managed to get himself surrounded and killed.

Technically, the Battle of Stoke in 1487 is the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, but it was Bosworth Field that decided them.  On October 30, 1485, Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII.  Smaller uprisings would continue even after Stoke, with the last one in 1497, but these never had a real chance of success and are not included as part of the Wars of the Roses.

The Wars of the Roses tainted a fairly long period, and engendered much uncertainty and physical danger among ruling circles.  At the same time, the conflict was short and sharp when matters came to blows, in large part because neither side had the resources for a long, drawn-out conflict, and both sides were anxious not to alienate the commoners.  In 1461 Henry VI had done exactly that, with disastrous consequences.  They were not comparable to the English Civil War in their impact on life in England, but the memory of the Wars of the Roses played a significant role in the politics of the Tudor period.


Cannon, John and Ralph Griffiths.  The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy.  Oxford, 1988.

Cowley, Robert and Geoffrey Parker, eds.  The Reader’s Companion to Military History.  Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Gravett, Christopher.  Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets.  Osprey, 1999.


© 2011, 2013.  All rights reserved.