Stories From English History: II - Alfred J. Church

The Two Roses

The rebellion of Jack Cade lasted but a few weeks only; the Civil War, which is commonly called the "War of the Roses," went on, with times of peace in between, for thirty years and more. The first battle was fought at St. Alban's on May 22, 1455, the last at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485.

The first and most easily described cause of this war was the claim of an elder branch of the royal family of England as against a younger. If you will look back to p. 15 of this volume, you will see how Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, was descended from Lionel of Clarence, third  son of Edward III. It will be enough to say that the Duke of York, son of this Edmund Mortimer's sister Anne, claimed the throne as having a better right to it than Henry VI., who, as the same table shows, was descended from Edward II.'s fourth  son, John of Gaunt.

But this family claim after all did not go for very much. Possibly it might never have been heard of, or would, at least, have come to nothing, if Henry V. had lived, or had left behind him a wiser and more capable son than Henry VI. But things were so badly managed by Henry and his advisers that the nation, or at least a great part of it, looked for a change. Then the Lollards or followers of Wiclif, who had been favoured by John of Gaunt, were persecuted by his descendants, and naturally turned to another branch of the family, which might, they hoped, treat them better. Another cause of the war was that the nobles, not having any longer the French to fight with, began to fight against each other. Lastly, the towns, which were growing richer and stronger, took up the side of the Duke of York, as being one who would try to make certain reforms which were much wanted, and generally to take their part against the nobles and bishops.

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou


The first battle took place, as has been said, at St. Alban's, in 1455. The Duke of York had not then got as far as claiming the crown. He only demanded that the King should dismiss a very weak and worthless adviser that he had, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. In order to see that this was done, he, in company with some other nobles, of whom the Earl of Warwick was one, marched towards London. The King's troops came out to meet him, and the two armies met in the town of St. Alban's. The King's soldiers got into the town first, and made barricades across the streets. These they held for a time, and so kept the Duke of York's men in check, but the Earl of Warwick got in by another way, and took them in the rear. After a short struggle they fled. The battle lasted little more than an hour, and not many were killed on either side, but among these was the Duke of Somerset.

The Duke of York now became the most powerful man in the kingdom, being made "Protector of the Realm." But Queen Margaret, who had far more to do with the government of the country than her husband, never liked him, and did not rest till she had deprived him of his office. For the time the Duke of York made no resistance, but retired to his castle in the north. The next thing was that the Archbishop of Canterbury, with others who were anxious to keep the peace, endeavoured to reconcile the two parties. For a time they succeeded; the chiefs went to St. Paul's Cathedral in London, walking arm-in-arm, while the Duke of York himself gave his hand to the Queen. But the peace did not last very long. The Earl of Warwick was very nearly killed by a mob in a London street, and fled to Calais, of which he was governor. From that time he began to do his best to take the crown from Henry and give it to the Duke of York.

In 1459 the war began again. First the White Rose was victorious, then the Red, then the White again. Lord Salisbury, who was father of the Earl of Warwick, was marching with 5000 men to join the Duke of York, when Lord Audley fell upon him with an army of double the strength. Salisbury was the better general of the two—indeed the leaders of the White Rose or Yorkist party were, on the whole, more skilful than those on the other side—and pretending to fly, drew the enemy into a dangerous position. He then turned upon him and defeated him with heavy loss. Lord Audley and as many as 2000 men were killed, and a great number of prisoners was taken. But in a few weeks all the advantage thus gained was lost. The Queen raised an army and marched to Ludlow, where the Duke of York with the two Nevilles were encamped. For some reason the Duke's army lost heart; one of Warwick's chief officers went over to the Queen with his men; the army dispersed without fighting—its sudden breaking up is called "The Rout of Ludlow,"—and their leaders had to fly for their lives, the Duke of York escaping to Ireland, the Earl of Warwick and his father to Calais.

But Queen Margaret used her victory very badly. Towns which were suspected of favouring the Duke of York were given up to plunder. Many of his friends were deprived of their property; some were put to death. These things made the King unpopular, and Warwick, who had a safe refuge in Calais, came back to England, landing at Sandwich. The men of Kent joined him at once, and he marched to London, which was then, and remained to the end, on the Yorkist side. Queen Margaret had not had time to gather all her forces; what she had were encamped outside the walls of Northampton. Warwick marched north with all the speed that he could use to attack this army before it could be joined by the Queen's friends from other parts of England. He reached Northampton on July 10, and at once stormed the camp. The Duke of Buckingham, who was a great-grandson of Edward III., the Earl of Shrewsbury, and more than three hundred knights were slain. The Queen, with her young son, fled to Wales. The Duke of York now thought that the time was come for him to claim the crown. He went to London, and calling a Parliament, demanded that he should be recognized as the true King of England. But he did not find even his own friends ready to yield. The King was not a little beloved, notwithstanding all his weakness. And then he and his father and his grandfather had been Kings of England for more than forty years. Parliament had solemnly acknowledged their right to rule again and again; there was no one in the kingdom but had taken the oath of allegiance to him. Warwick himself told the Duke that he must not claim to be King; he must be content to be Regent. At last the matter was compromised. Henry was to be King as long as he lived; the Duke of York was to succeed him. As for the claims of the young Prince, they were set aside.

King Henry was content to accept these terms; perhaps we may say that he could not refuse them. But Queen Margaret was not satisfied at all. She hurried to the north, where she had many friends, the great house of Percy being chief among them, and with their help raised another army. The Duke of York marched northward to meet them, and finding them at Sandal Castle, a home of his own, near Wakefield, resolved to attack them. His friends advised him to wait, for his army was not equal to the Queen's, and great forces were on their way to join him under his son, the Earl of March. He would not listen to this prudent advice, but engaged at once. The result was a complete defeat. His army was broken by an attack in front; and in the midst of their confusion some troops who had been lying in ambush attacked them from behind. The Duke himself was killed. All the men of rank who were taken prisoners were executed the next day, the Earl of Salisbury among them. Their heads were stuck on the walls of Wakefield, that of York having a crown of paper put round it. The most shocking thing in the story is the murder of the Duke's second son, the Earl of Rutland, a youth of seventeen. A priest had the lad in his charge, and was taking him to a place of safety, when he was overtaken by some followers of Lord Clifford. The young Earl threw himself on his knees before Lord Clifford and begged for mercy. "No," cried the savage noble, "your father slew my father, and I will slay thee and all thy kin!" and he plunged a dagger into his heart.