Wars of the Roses

The reign of Henry VI erupted into violent disorder as a contest for the throne of England, named the War of the Roses, developed between the rival families of York and Lancaster. The conflict was finally extinguished when Henry VII became the first Tudor Dynasty king.

Summary of Event

When Henry V, the hero of the 1415 Battle of Agincourt in France, died of battlefield dysentery in 1422, he left as his heir a child who was just nine months old, Henry VI. However, the war in France was going well, England itself was peaceful and well governed, and the memory of Henry IV’s seizure of the throne from Richard II had faded considerably. Roses, Wars of the (1455-1485)
Henry VI (1421- 1471)
Margaret of Anjou
Richard, duke of York
Edward IV
Warwick, Earl of
Richard III
Henry VII
Henry VI (king of England)
Richard (third duke of York)
Margaret of Anjou
Warwick, earl of
Edward of York
Woodville, Elizabeth
George, duke of Clarence
Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy
Richard III (king of England)
Henry VII (king of England)
Shakespeare, William

By the time Henry VI was old enough to exercise royal authority in the late 1430’, the situation was less favorable. The French were successfully regaining territory from the English. Royal rule at home seemed increasingly weak and uncertain, leading to factions among the nobility and to the eventual emergence of a rival claimant to the throne, Richard, duke of York. His descent from both Lionel, duke of Clarence, and Edmund, duke of York, respectively the second and fourth sons of Edward III, provided a stronger claim to the throne than that of Henry himself, who was descended from John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, the third son of Edward III.

Modern scholars have tended to lessen the significance of this dynastic aspect of the conflict, downplaying that there were two hostile groups in the kingdom identified by their respective badges: the red rose of Lancaster Lancastrians and the white rose of York Yorkists . Rather, most historians consider the conflict to come from both political ineptitude at the center and the effects of a severe economic depression in England in mid-century. By 1450, the loss of nearly all English territory in France (after 1453 only Calais remained) and distrust of the king’s close advisers had led to a major rebellion in the southeast. By 1452, Richard, duke of York, had emerged as the leader of those dissatisfied with Henry VI’s kingship, but it is also clear that most of the nobility and gentry were very reluctant to move from grumbling to armed rebellion.

At this point, Henry suffered the first of his attacks of severe mental illness, probably a form of catatonic schizophrenia. Richard was appointed protector of the realm, but the situation changed rapidly when Henry recovered in early 1455. He now had a son (born during his illness) and a queen, Margaret of Anjou, who would devote all of her energies to ensuring the future succession of their son.

In May, an indecisive skirmish among the houses and gardens of St. Albans St. Albans, First Battle of (1455)[Saint Albans, First Battle of (1455)] , just north of London, was the first armed conflict. It was now much clearer that Richard and his supporters were hostile to the court if not to the king. By November, in fact, the king had suffered a relapse and Richard was once more protector, until the spring of the following year.

Despite attempts at reconciliation, however, tensions increased between the two groups. The Lancastrians based themselves in The Midlands of central England, where the king and his main supporters had extensive lands. Richard was on the border with Wales, while his main ally, Richard Neville, the earl of Warwick and captain of Calais, developed Calais into his power base. By 1459, open warfare had begun. Early victories for the Lancastrians (by the forces inspired by Margaret) were followed by the crushing defeat of the Lancastrians by Warwick and the Yorkists at Northampton Northampton, Battle of (1460) . The crown seemed to be within Richard of York’s grasp, but five months later he was killed with many of his followers at the Battle of Wakefield, Wakefield, Battle of (1460) and his severed head was impaled on the gates of York.

Warwick’s attempt to hold London for the Yorkist cause also failed at the second Battle of St. Albans St. Albans, Second Battle of (1461)[Saint Albans, Second Battle of (1461)] in 1461. Richard’s eldest son, Edward of York, however, did not accept defeat. Having beaten a small Lancastrian force at Mortimer’s Cross, he marched on London, proclaimed himself king, and then followed Margaret’s retreating forces north. At Towton, Towton, Battle of (1461) near York, a ferocious and bloody battle took place in a snowstorm on March 29. The result was complete victory for the new king, Edward IV.

Some Lancastrian resistance continued, however. Henry VI, Margaret, and their son Edward, prince of Wales, were in exile abroad, but continued to attempt to stir trouble, particularly on the border with Scotland. Edward IV eventually subdued the rebels, and, in 1465, Henry VI fell into his hands as a prisoner. This fortunate turn of events was overshadowed by the growth of new factions at court. Warwick, who believed he was the cause of the young king’s success, was angered by the king favoring others, especially the family of the new queen, Elizabeth Woodville. He intrigued with Edward’s brother, George, duke of Clarence, and, in 1469, attempted to seize power.

Driven into exile in France by Edward, he vowed allegiance to Margaret and her son, who were in exile in France as well. In September, 1470, Warwick led an invasion fleet to Devon. Edward was surprised, and, in his turn, fled for his life across the North Sea to Bruges in the Low Countries. The pathetic Henry VI was released from his imprisonment in the Tower of London and restored to the throne under Warwick’s tutelage.

During the reascension of Henry VI, Edward IV was busy negotiating with Charles the Bold, the duke of Burgundy, for support. In March, 1471, Edward landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire. Despite an initially hostile reception, he pressed south. By the time he reached London, Edward had regained the support of Clarence and also had a considerable army, which met Warwick’s Lancastrian forces at Barnet Barnet, Battle of (1471) in a thick fog April 14. Edward crushed his enemies, and Warwick and other leaders were killed. Final victory came at Tewkesbury Tewkesbury, Battle of (1471) in the Severn Valley in early May. Margaret and her son had landed at Weymouth on the very day of the Battle of Barnet. Edward moved rapidly to the west to counter this new threat, and he caught the Lancastrians before they could muster more forces in Wales and Cheshire. Edward, prince of Wales, was killed; his mother was once more a fugitive and the Lancastrian cause seemed leaderless. Henry VI, sick and old before his time, was probably murdered in the Tower of London shortly after the battle.

Until his death in 1483, Edward IV ruled successfully, although he finally broke with Clarence and ordered Clarence’s execution for treason in 1478. The events of the summer of 1483, however, the deaths of the “princes in the Tower” (Edward V and his young brother, Richard, duke of York), and the seizure of the throne by Richard III reignited the hopes of the few remaining Lancastrians. There was no direct descendant of Henry VI alive, but his distant cousin, Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, was head of the family. With the help of the French, Henry was able to land a small force at Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on August 7, 1485. Richard III gathered his forces near Leicester, and the two armies met at Bosworth Bosworth Field, Battle of (1485) on August 22. This battle, too, was hard fought, but Richard was killed, leaving Henry Tudor the victor to assume the English crown as Henry VII.

To some historians, the Battle of Bosworth marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, with Henry uniting the factions under his leadership by marrying Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV. Others see the Battle of Stoke-on-Trent Stoke-on-Trent, Battle of (1487)[Stoke on Trent, Battle of (1487)] in 1487, where Henry defeated a Yorkist pretender, as the last battle of the wars. Opinions are also divided as to the nature of the wars. Some point out that there were only about three months of actual fighting in a thirty-year period. To others, the whole period was marked by lawlessness, with bands of armed men, in the service of lords, terrorizing their neighbors.


The Wars of the Roses ushered in a new dynasty, the Tudor Tudor Dynasty line, that would rule England for the next century and a half. William Shakespeare provided a very influential view of the whole series of events, ranging from the deposition of King Richard II in 1399 to the death of King Richard III, in a series of history plays that emphasized the role of Henry VII and the Tudors as saviors of the nation. Many recent writers are most interested not in battles but in what the events reveal about the role of royal government and what was expected of a “good” ruler. All agree, however, that an understanding of fifteenth century England would not be complete without some knowledge of the Wars of the Roses.

Further Reading

  • Carpenter, Christine. The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, c. 1437-1509. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Provides a thoughtful interpretation of the political aspect of the Wars and subsequent years.
  • Dockray, Keith. Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, and the Wars of the Roses: A Source Book. Stroud, Sutton, England: 2000. A collection of extracts from primary sources, with helpful introductions.
  • Haigh, Philip. The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses. Stroud, Sutton, England: 1995. Concentrates on the military aspects of the wars, with battle plans and discussion of strategy and tactics.
  • Hicks, Michael. Warwick the Kingmaker. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. A full scholarly account of the life of this crucial figure.
  • Webster, Bruce. The Wars of the Roses. London: UCL Press, 1998. Gives a clear outline of the politics of the period taking full account of recent writing.

Aug. 29, 1475: Peace of Picquigny

1483-1485: Richard III Rules England

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England

Dec. 1, 1494: Poynings’ Law