War of the Roses

1453 to 1485
Lancastrians — versus — Yorkists

Defeat and Exile of the Lancasters, 1453–1464
Warwick's Rebellion, 1471 , Usurper Richard III vs. Henry Tudor, 1485

The War of the Roses was a terribly destructive, long-lasting, civil war in England between two families with rival claims to the throne, the Yorks and the Lancasters. Its net result was to kill off almost all the direct claimants to the throne on either side of the royal family, wreak havoc and destruction, turn long term resentments into blood-feuds, and bring the entire Plantagenet line, which had ruled England for over 300 years, to an ignominious end. Furthermore, in terms of convoluted plot twists, reversals, treachery, shifting alliances, military setbacks, and 'surprise' endings, it has few parallels in history. In other words, it is not an easy war to follow either in terms of alliances, or military progress.

war of the roses
The war takes its name from the two Roses that symbolized respectively, the houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose), among the English aristocracy. It had its roots in a disputed succession that had occurred two generations previously, when Henry IV (Bolingbroke, a Lancaster), ascended to the throne after Richard II had been deposed. It truth, his cousin Clarence, whose descendents were the Yorks, had a better claim, but Bolingbroke was able to make good his claim because his father, John of Gaunt, had been regent and was very influential. Henry V, who succeeded Bolingbroke was very popular due to his great victories in France, so no one disputed his claim to the throne, or that of his son, as long as he lived. Unfortunately, Henry V died young, and Henry VI proved to be a weak and indecisive king, surrounded by unpopular advisors. In this circumstance, the York family, spurred on by the Earl of Warwick, began to actively reassert their claim.

The political machinations to reclaim the throne for the York line started long before the actual fighting, and when, after the first several years of his marriage to Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI failed to produce an heir, there was great optimism that on his death, the throne would pass peaceably to the Yorks. An official agreement of succession was made, and for a long while, it appeared that the Yorks would prevail without bloodshed. But after seven years of marriage, Henry VI did unexpectedly produce an heir, and his wife Margaret of Anjou, who had all of the strength of character and decision that her husband lacked, abrogated the agreement on Yorkish succession, and insisted on the rights of her son to the throne of England.

In the early years of the war, Margaret of Anjou, rather than her husband was driving force behind the Lancaster cause, and she shrank at nothing, from leading armies herself, to beheading her enemies to promote the cause of her son. On the York side, the driving force was the Earl of Warwick, and the Duke of York, who were cousins by marriage. Warwick was the wealthiest and most influential man in England at the time, but had no male heirs and was therefore, determined that his daughters should marry into the Royal family.

The war itself occurred in three phases. The first phase was the longest and bloodiest, and resulted in a York victory. The second phase involved a rebellion within the York family which provided an opportunity for the Lancaster's to reassert their claim. They briefly succeeded, but the crown soon fell back into the hands of the Yorks. The third phase occurred following the death of the Yorkish King Edward IV, and was fought between Richard III, a usurper, and Henry Tudor a distant cousin on the Lancaster side.

Phase I—Defeat and exile of Lancasters : 1453–1464

war of the roses
The most serious years of fighting between the Yorks and Lancasters occurred between 1459 and 1461, and resulted in a victory for the Yorks—the Lancaster Royal family was sent into exile in France, and Henry VI was imprisoned in England. There were however, very many striking reverses during this period of the fighting, and at times it seemed as though the Yorkish cause was lost. In 1453 at Stamford bridge, and again in 1455 at St. Albans, the conflict between the Lancaster's and Yorks had broken into armed combat, but on both of these occasions, the conflicts were temporarily resolved by compromise. The underlying issues however, and the conflict between the Queen, who was essentially running the country, and the Duke of York worsened over time and again broke into open warfare at the battle of Blore Heath.

Once both sides had settled on open war, the early victories went in favor of the Yorks, but at the battle of Wakefield, in December of 1460, the Yorks met with disaster. The Duke of York and his eldest son were both ambushed and beheaded, and the Yorkish forces were scattered. Far from discouraging the Yorks however, this horrid loss enraged their supporters and over the next few months, the Yorks raised more armies under Edward IV, the second son of the deceased Duke of York. The Yorks prevailed over the Lancasters first at (second) St. Albans, and then at Towton, the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. Towton was as great a disaster for the Lancasters as Wakefield was for the Yorks, and the royal family scarcely escaped with their lives. London had been, from the beginning, a Yorkish stronghold, so with the Royals in exile, in 1461, Edward IV was crowned King of England and assumed control of the government in the south. Lancastrian strongholds in the north continued to hold out, however, and broke out in rebellion in 1464. When Somerset, the military leader of the Lancasters, was killed at the battle of Hexham however, all armed resistance ceased for almost a decade.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Stamford Bridge   drawn battle victory
An encounter between the retainers of Sir Thomas Neville, and those of Lord Egremont, which developed into a pitched battle, in August, 1453. It is considered to be the beginning of the Wars of the Roses.
Battle of St. Alban's   Yorks victory
Two engagements were fought here in the course of the war. On May 22, 1455, 2,000 Lancastrians, under Henry VI, posted in the town, were attacked by 3,000 Yorkists, under the Duke of York. The Duke pierced the Lancastrian centre, and drove them out of St. Alban's with heavy loss, among those who were killed being the Earls of Somerset and Northumberland.
Battle of Bloore Heath   Yorks victory
Fought September 23, 1459, between the Yorkists under the Earl of Salisbury, and the Lancastrians under Henry VI. The former, who were inferior in numbers, were attacked by Henry, who crossed a brook before the assault. As the Lancastrians were reforming after the crossing, the Yorkists charged down upon them, and dispersed them with heavy loss.
Battle of Northampton   Yorks victory
Fought July 10, 1460, between the Lancastrians, under Henry VI, and the Yorkists, under the Earl of Warwick. The king's entrenchments were betrayed by Lord Grey de Ruthyn, and the Lancastrians were defeated with a loss of 300 killed, including Buckingham, Shrewsbury, Egremont, and other prominent men. The King was made prisoner.
Battle of Wakefield   Lancastrians victory
Fought December 30, 1460, between the Lancastrians, under Somerset, and the Yorkists, under Richard, Duke of York. The Lancastrians advanced from Pontefract and offered battle to Richard, who, though weakened by the absence of foraging parties, accepted the challenge. Somerset prepared an ambush, into which the Duke fell as he marched out of Wakefield, and the Yorkists were defeated with heavy loss. The Duke and many other nobles were killed, and Salisbury captured and beheaded.
Battle of Mortimer's Cross   Yorks victory
Fought February 2, 1461, when Edward, Duke of York, defeated the Lancastrians, under the Earls of Pembroke and Wiltshire, and drove them back into Wales, thus preventing a concentration of the Lancastrian forces.
Battle of St. Alban’s   Lancastrians victory
The second battle took place February 17, 1461, when the army of Margaret of Anjou, led by Somerset, Exeter, and others, attacked the Yorkists, under Warwick, Warwick withdrew his main body, leaving his left unsupported to withstand the Lancastrian attacks, and these troops, after a feeble resistance, broke and fled. Henry VI, who was a prisoner in Warwick's camp, escaped and rejoined the Queen, and a rapid advance on London would probably have led to his reinstatement. Warwick, however, took such prompt measures as to render the Lancastrian victory practically fruitless.
Battle of Ferrybridge   Lancastrians victory
Fought 1461, shortly before the battle of Towton, when a force of Lancastrian cavalry, under Lord Clifford, defeated the Yorkists, under Lord Fitzwalter, who was endeavoring to secure the passage of the Aire at Ferrybridge. Lord Fitzwalter was killed.
Battle of Towton   Yorks victory
Fought March 29, 1461, when Edward IV, immediately after his proclamation, marched against the Lancastrians, under Henry VI, and vigorously attacked their entrenched position at Towton. Aided by a heavy snowstorm, blowing in the faces of the defenders, Edward defeated them all along the line, with heavy loss, among the killed being Northumberland, Dacre and de Manley. Henry and Margaret escaped from the field, and fled northward.
Battle of Hedgeley Moor   Yorks victory
Fought April 25, 1464, between the Lancastrians, under Margaret of Anjou and Sir Ralph Percy, and the Yorkists, under Lord Montague. The Lancastrians were totally defeated, Percy falling in the battle.
Battle of Hexham   Yorks victory
Fought May 15, 1464, when the Yorkists, under Montague, surprised the Lancastrians, under Somerset, in their camp at Linnels, near Hexham. The Lancastrians were practically in a trap, and had no option but to surrender. Somerset and many other important leaders were taken, and promptly executed. This success secured Edward IV on the throne.

Short Biography
Earl of Warwick Primary figure in war of the Roses. Changed sides from York to Lancaster. Killed at Barnet.
Margaret of Anjou Ruled in stead of her weak husband, Henry VI. Led armies against Yorks. Deposed after the York victory at Hexham.
Duke of York Aspirant to the throne in the early years of War of the Roses. Killed in action with eldest son.
Henry VI Lancastrian king of England whose weak rule, and loss of much of France, inspired the Yorks to oppose him in the War of the Roses.
Somerset Leading general on the Lancaster side. Killed at the battle of Hexham.

Story Links
Book Links
Anxiety and Trouble in  Margaret of Anjou  by  Jacob Abbott
Margaret a Fugitive  in  Margaret of Anjou  by  Jacob Abbott
Margaret Triumphant in  Margaret of Anjou  by  Jacob Abbott
Margaret an Exile in  Margaret of Anjou  by  Jacob Abbott
Return to England  in  Margaret of Anjou  by  Jacob Abbott
Two Roses  in  Stories From English History, Part Second  by  Alfred J. Church
Warwick the Kingmaker  in  Famous Men of the Middle Ages  by  John H. Haaren
Wars of the Roses (1455-1485)  in  The Story of England  by  Samuel B. Harding
Henry VI of Windsor—The Red Rose and the White in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall
Edward IV—Queen Margaret and the Robbers  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall
Margaret of Anjou  in  Great Englishwomen  by  M. B. Synge

Book Links
Margaret of Anjou  by  Jacob Abbott

Phase II: 1471—Warwick's Rebellion

The second phase of fighting in the War of the Roses broke out because of discontent with Edward IV within the Yorkist camp. The influential Earl of Warwick (a.k.a. Richard Neville) had been allied with the father of Edward, and had orchestrated the Yorkist victories, but he became disillusioned with Edward when the young king married into a rival family against Warwick's wishes, and failed to heed Warwick's advice on other important issues. Warwick allied himself with Clarence, one of Edward's brothers, and attempted to depose Edward and place Clarence on the throne. At the battle of Edgecote, the king's army was defeated and Edward IV himself, was captured. Warwick's victory was short lived however—the tide soon turned again in favor of Edward when his faithful brother Richard came to the rescue, and most of the nobles stayed loyal to the king. Warwick and Clarence were declared traitors and driven out of England.

At this point, the most curious twist of the war occurred. Warwick, approached Queen Margaret, his old arch-rival, and negotiated an agreement by which her son, Prince Henry would marry Warwick's daughter, and Warwick, with the help of the French King, would raise and army and invade England on behalf of the Lancaster's claim to the throne. Edward IV, whose popularity had suffered significantly over the last few years, fled as soon as Warwick landed with his army and King Henry VI, who had been imprisoned for most of the last ten years was briefly restored to the throne. Within a year however, Edward IV raised an army in Burgundy and met Warwick in the Battle of Barnet. Due to an unfortunate series of setbacks, the Lancaster army was defeated and Warwick himself was killed. A few weeks later Prince Henry was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and Henry VI was murdered. With both Lancastrian claimants dead, Warwick dead, and Clarence back in the fold, Edward IV regained the throne and ruled the rest of his life without opposition.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Edgecote Moor   Nevilles victory
Fought July 26, 1469, between the Yorkists under Pembroke, and the troops of the revolted Nevilles under the Earl of Warwick. Neville's army attacked Pembroke, whose troops were chiefly Welshmen, and, notwithstanding a stubborn resistance, defeated them with heavy loss, no less than Welsh knights falling, besides rank and file. Edward IV, who was in the neighborhood, though not present at the battle, was captured soon after.
Battle of Barnet   Yorks victory
Fought April 14, 1471, between the Yorkists under Edward IV, and the Lancastrians under the Earl of Warwick. Warwick prepared to attack the king as he issued from Barnet, but Edward came out during the night and took up a position opposite Warwick unseen. The left of the Yorkists was outflanked and beaten, but their right outflanked and defeated the Lancastrian left, and then fell upon and routed the centre. Warwick was slain. The losses on the two sides are said to have amounted in all to 1,100 killed.
Battle of Tewkesbury   Yorks victory
Fought May 4, 1471, when the Yorkists, under Edward IV, defeated the Lancastrians, under Prince Edward, Somerset and others, with heavy loss. Prince Edward and other leading Lancastrians were killed, and Margaret of Anjou promptly surrendered.

Short Biography
Earl of Warwick Primary figure in war of the Roses. Changed sides from York to Lancaster. Killed at Barnet.
Edward IV Son of the Duke of York. Became king of England when other aspirants were dead or deposed.
Prince Henry Son of Henry VI and Lancaster heir to the throne. Killed at Tewkesbury.

Story Links
Book Links
Reconciliation with Warwick in  Margaret of Anjou  by  Jacob Abbott
Bitter Disappointment  in  Margaret of Anjou  by  Jacob Abbott
Downfall of York  in  Richard III  by  Jacob Abbott
Downfall of Lancaster  in  Richard III  by  Jacob Abbott
End of the King-Maker  in  Stories From English History, Part Second  by  Alfred J. Church

Phase III: 1485—Usurper Richard III vs. Henry Tudor

War of the roses
Edward IV lived for fifteen years after his victory at the Battle of Barnet, and when he died, Edward V, his eldest son was the heir apparent. Since Edward V was too young to rule for himself, his uncle Richard, who had been a faithful ally of his father was appointed regent. Not content with this honor however, Richard quickly began forming a plan to usurp the throne from his nephews. He first captured the Princes and kept them in the Tower of London for "safe-keeping", and later put forward accusations of illegitimacy based on an alleged previous marriage of Edward IV. No one is quite sure what happened to the Princes, but they were never seen alive again.

The palace politics involved in the elevation of Richard III to the throne of England and the probable murder of the rightful princes was highly contentious at the time, and remains controversial. Richard was enthusiastically supported by the nobles who disliked the Queen Mother's family, and desired a strong, capable and proven leader, and greatly distained by those who felt he had usurped the throne and murdered his nephews. It was into this contentious situation that Henry Tudor, a distant cousin, asserted his claim to the throne on the Lancaster side. Although his own claim was somewhat dubious—all of the direct Lancaster descendents were deceased, and his claim was no greater that of other cousins—Henry believed he could count on Richard's manifold enemies to assist him. In this he was correct. Landing in Wales, Henry gained many followers, and at the Battle of Bosworth Field, several of Richard's generals either deserted to the enemy or held back from battle. Richard was slain in the fiercely fought battle, and the crown passed to Henry Tudor.

Henry Tudor knew that in order to rule England he must reconcile with the Yorks, so his first order of business was to marry Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV. This move assured the York family of continued influence in the government, and the country, weary of war, accepted the new monarch.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Bosworth Field   Tudors victory
Fought August 21, 1485, between Richard III and Henry Duke of Richmond (Henry VII). Richmond had received a promise from Lord Stanley and his uncle that they would desert during the battle, and, after holding aloof for some time, they came over, with their followers, at a critical moment of the engagement, and Richard was routed and slain. He fought to the end, and among others who fell with him were the Duke of Norfolk and Lord Ferrers.

Short Biography
Richard III On death of his brother Edward IV, he killed his nephews and usurped the throne.
Henry VII Descendent of John of Gaunt (a Lancaster) who fought Richard the Usurper for the throne.

Story Links
Book Links
Domestic Troubles  in  Richard III  by  Jacob Abbott
Field of Bosworth  in  Richard III  by  Jacob Abbott
Bosworth Field  in  Stories From English History, Part Second  by  Alfred J. Church
Richard III—Two Little Princes in the Tower  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall

Book Links
Richard III  by  Jacob Abbott

Image Links

My kingdom for a horse!'
 in Fifty Famous People

The Battle of Barnet
 in The Chantry Priest of Barnet

The Battle of Barnet
 in Stories From English History, Part Second

Proclamation of the King
 in Stories From English History, Part Second

Battle in the War of the Roses
 in Historical Tales: English