The War of the Roses

The House of Lancaster

The War of the Roses was basically a terrible family squabble between royal cousins greedy to snatch the crown and the throne of England for themselves away from other family members. These two royal houses, the symbolic white rose of the Lancasters and the equally symbolic red rose of the Yorks, were each making a claim for the throne and it would end up being a long and bloody battle. Both were powerful families and both could trace their lineage back to the sons of Edward III.

There was still tension with France and Scotland, with skirmishes popping up in varying levels in both countries, while Irish and Welsh kings were gradually losing their power. Powerful men like Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and his son, the future Edward VI, as well as the Earl of Warwick and Richard of Gloucester, would soon emerge to lead uprisings that overlapped but didn't always relate.

These uprisings were dramatic and the dubious logic of revenge worked well for all sides.  In actual fact, it was a power struggle between family members that comes across as blue-blooded gangsterism with the prime antagonists being members of the landed gentry. Many of them controlled huge estates with powerful alliances, all trying to improve their political position and their own personal lot in life.

We can probably blame Edward III for all of this. He and his wife had thirteen children including 5 strong-minded boys who all reached maturity. He arranged solid marriages for all of them with English heiresses and created the first ever Dukedoms of Cornwall, Clarence, Lancaster, York and Gloucester. Their descendants were the ones fighting each other fiercely for the throne.

Like most families, differences and intrigue slowly emerged and it wasn’t until 1455 with the first Battle at St Albans that anyone even knew there were two sides.

This period in time seems to have been an experiment in monarchy as king after king came and went in very quick succession. But as with most rebellions, it left both sides vulnerable since it usually meant that battles were fought ‘to the bitter end’, leaving fewer contenders alive after every battle.

As cracks opened in Henry’s inefficient rule, the first battle of the War of the Roses took place.

Henry IV

1399 - 1413

Old John of Gaunt had been unwell for years. Some said his body was rotting away from syphilis, others said his heart had simply broken. John had not protested when Richard murdered his uncle Thomas of Woodstock, John’s youngest brother, in his prison cell in Calais and John had been forced to stand by and watch as his son and heir Henry Bolingbroke was exiled in the exact same fashion. He fully expected his son to be murdered in France as well by Richard’s men. Richard’s temper was legendary. So was his patience for vengeance. 


John of Gaunt simply gave up. Six months after Henry had left England for France, he never expected to see his son again. He went to bed and died. In France, at his father’s death, Henry Bolingbroke became both the Earl of Lancaster and a powerful, wealthy man who now had lands in Lancashire and the North, with scattered territories all over England. 

The extent of Henry’s new wealth and power terrified Richard. He’d already built up his own personal estate with the previous land grab but the Lancaster estates would make his cousin one of the wealthiest men in England. That Richard couldn’t abide. It left him with only one option: to disinherit Henry and take the Lancaster estates for himself.


This turn of events was hardly a surprise to Henry, as he had known Richard all his life.  What did surprise him was the news that Richard was preparing a second invasion of Ireland and he would be taking his supporters with him. This meant the country would be unguarded for months. Well, not unguarded exactly. Richard left behind a government headed by Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, and he happened to be Henry’s favourite uncle. It was too good to be true.

News of Richard’s departure finally reached Henry. The moment had come, the coast was clear and he didn’t hesitate. He was now fully determined to take the throne and he justified his actions by saying that Richard, through his tyranny and misgovernment, had rendered himself unworthy of being a king. 


In reality, Henry was not really the next in line to the throne. The heir presumptive was Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, whose mother descended from Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp. Henry Bolingbroke’s father had been Edward’s third son.  Nonetheless, Henry argued the point by emphasising his descent in a direct male line solved the problem, whereas Mortimer’s descent was through his grandmother. But it was the same old story of 'might over right' and Henry had the might behind him.


Richard was in the depths of Ireland when Henry landed in Yorkshire, kissing the ground as he landed, surrounded by supporters and declaring he had only come to claim his rights as heir to his father’s estate. It took some time for the news to reach Richard but when he heard, he knew exactly what his cousin was doing. Battling stormy seas, he made a hasty three-week march through North Wales in the attempt to gather forces. 


What he saw when he arrived convinced him that his reign was over. The whole structure of his power, so patiently built, had vanished. 


Henry and Richard met face to face at Flint but it was obvious from the start that Richard had lost. He rode through London as Henry's captive and was imprisoned in the Tower. Later he was transferred to Pontefract Castle, a popular choice it seems for unwanted kings, and after barely four months, probably on St Valentine’s day, he was dead having starved to death in his prison. 


Without an heir, Richard was the last of the Plantagenet kings. In 1386, he overcame his tyrannies. In 1389 he was victorious. In 1398 he was supreme. In 1399 at the age of thirty-three, he was destroyed. 


His cousin Henry Bolingbroke Duke of Lancaster couldn’t have been happier.


Henry V

1413 - 1422

After the decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt, serious negotiations began with Charles VI of France for the next six months. What Henry didn’t know was that over the past ten years, Charles had been showing definite signs of mental instability. His hair and nails had fallen out and he had occasional bouts of fever when he behaved incoherently. Sometimes he ran from room to room until he collapsed from exhaustion and eventually he was kept in closed shuttered apartments while his voice could be heard wailing and screaming through the walls of the castle. On many occasions, he forgot who he was and at times refused to wash or change his clothes, which resulted in a nasty skin complaint and lice. One time, he insisted he was made of glass and would break if anyone approached him.

Despite Henry's victories in battle, things didn’t go all his way and it seems that Charles must have been in one of his lucid periods. He said he would sign a treaty that would effectively disinherit his own son in favour of Henry as the heir of France on one condition: Henry was to marry Charles’s youngest daughter, Catherine of Valois, without a dowry. Catherine’s elder sister, by the way, had been Isabella of Valois, who had been Richard II’s six-year-old bride.

With Charles standing firm, Henry could only agree to the marriage and the conditions. After all, he already had the throne of England and one day he would also have the French throne plus a beautiful bride to juice it up. It seemed like a win win situation to Henry.


The carrot Charles was dangling was a delicious one but perhaps Henry should have looked a little closer at his future father-in-law’s ‘instability’ before rushing Catherine to the altar. Beneath her beauty lay a unstable gene that would affect British monarchy for many generations.

At eighteen, Catherine was indeed a beautiful bride with auburn hair, delicate features, a small prim mouth and round eyes above high cheekbones. Her slender neck was bent a little to one side as she stood ready to marry the battle-hardened warrior beside her. Henry’s dark protruding eyes stared at his bride from a face that was clean-shaven, showing scars including one deep one that dated back to when an arrowhead had lodge deep in his cheek and had to be cut out by a battlefield surgeon when he was sixteen.

For Catherine, there would be no fairy tale ending and if England thought things had been bad before, they were in for a terrible shock.

Henry VI

1422 - 1461

1471 - 1471

Henry VI was not a mentally strong man. He was weak and indecisive but he did have an abundance of uncles and cousins all with different ideas of how to rule the kingdom. Two uncles, John of Bedford and Humphrey of Gloucester fought bitterly over everything as Henry’s cousin Richard of York stood by and watched. The only thing the uncles could agree on was that at twenty-three Henry needed an heir to put an end to Richard’s idea of claiming the throne, once and for all. And to do that Henry needed a wife. Then they began bickering endlessly over which Lancastrian would be the best bride. 


Henry’s cousins Edmund Beaufort and William Earl of Suffolk had had enough of the squabbles and   convinced Henry to look to France. Ideally a marriage to one of Charles VII many daughters would soothe ruffled French feathers and in one swoop, strained relations with France could be appeased and a truce could be arranged. But then someone mentioned the close family link. Any daughter of Charles would have been Henry’s cousin and as they already knew, mental issues were already poking through the think veneer. England already had enough problems in that respect without introducing more.


That’s when they found Charles’ niece. This fifteen-year-old beauty possessed an intellect and a dauntless spirit, rare for women in her times, and since Henry needed someone strong by his side, it was a perfect union, they thought, for their feeble-minded king. 


Henry wholeheartedly agreed, especially when he heard reports of Margaret’s stunning beauty, and Suffolk was sent to negotiate with Charles. Charles, knowing his full worth and knowing England’s 

desperation for an heir, agreed on two conditions: there would be no customary dowry and the lands of Maine and Anjou would revert back to him. Once he had the lands, a twenty-year truce would come into effect – but only after the marriage. 


The unspoken truth was all English people living in Maine and Anjou would have to evacuate their homes immediately after the marriage as the territories would now belong to the French. Almost immediately, problems began. 


When hearing of the plan, Richard Duke of York was shocked. Everything Henry’s father had fought for with English blood would be gone. Did they realise that it would all revert straight back to the French? And what of the people who had trusted the crown and set up their lives in France, sure that England would protect them? 


During the righteous tirade, Suffolk stood firm.  Henry wanted a truce between the French and the English, he said, and this was the only way. Like a bad omen, York predicted that the people in both territories would absolutely resist. They would not give up their homes without a fight, truce or not. And he didn’t blame them.


The day of the wedding dawned magnificent. The eastern sky gradually lightened long before the sun rose over a clear horizon with a promise of a gloriously warm day. As soon as Margaret had finished saying her vows in halting English, all the assembled French soldiers turned their horses towards Main and Anjou to fulfil King Charles’ orders. The English could find somewhere else to live. Maine and Anjou belonged to France, as of now.


Of course, it was inevitable that the French would find English resistance in Maine and Anjou, just as York had predicted. Every farmer and noble, who in the past would not have given the time of day to each other, joined forces to fight and protect the land they had worked for decades. With resistance, came anger. And with that anger came France’s declaration. The truce was over and war was on. 


Back in England, Richard Duke of York watched in fury as Henry and his new bride rode happily down the streets of London, waving merrily to the crowds, oblivious of the hideous slaughter the marriage had caused in France.