10 Essential Facts About the Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles to secure the throne of England. It was a domestic feud, which enacted between the supporters of two rivaling families of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster and York. The Wars of the Roses were first fought in episodes from 1455 till 1487, but there were also occasional battles before the designated historic period. The first and most important cause of the conflict were the social and financial hardships, which England had to deal with in the aftermath of the Hundred Years’ War. The contemporary ruler of England, Henry VI, had also shown many signs of incompetence. This triggered a spark in Richard, Duke of York, who put forward his claim to the throne.


1. The Wars started with the Battle of St. Albans.

On May 22, 1455 Richard, Duke of York decided to act and confronted King Henry VI and his forces at the First Battle of St. Albans. There were, all in all, two battles at this location during the Wars of the Roses, but the first one marks the formal start of the conflict. The First Battle of St. Albans featured Richard showing up with his allies his allies, the Neville Earls of Salisbury and Warwick. He had a strong force and the royal army commanded by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was soon defeated. King Henry VI also was captured as a result of the battle, and the Government proclaimed Richard of York Lord Protector.

2. Both the Yorks and the Lancasters had a common ancestor.

Although the houses were pitted against one another in a fierce military conflict, it still did not change the fact that they both descended from the same family tree, namely the Plantagenets. Both Yorks and Lancasters could trace their roots back to Edward III of the House of Plantagenets. The Yorks were then descended from the female kin of Edward’s second son and fourth son, whereas the Lancasters were descendants of John of Gaunt, Edward’s third son. Modern historians tend to believe that the Yorkists claim was more legitimate, but of course no one paid much attention to that during the Wars.

Battle of Barnet
Battle of Barnet

3. The Wars might not have happened if it wasn’t for the Hundred Years’ War.

The state of England in the 1450s was far from ideal. The people’s morale was low, the treasury was depleted and scores of unemployed soldiers had nowhere to go. At the same time, King Henry VI, was a weak ruler, not only due to his political indecision, but also due to a severe mental illness, which left him oftentimes in quite a vegetative state, unable to rule at all. All the above factors sparked the will in the Yorks and Lancasters to shake things up and try to fix their country. Of course, power and splendor came along with it. Who would have said no?

4. Rose was not used as a primary symbol by any party.

Today at school we often learn that the Wars of the Roses got their names from the red Lancaster rose and the white York rose, because those were the symbols proudly displayed by the two houses. In fact, both Lancasters and Yorks had their own coat of arms, which they displayed much more often than the alleged rose symbol. It was simply one of the many badges used for identification. The white rose was an earlier symbol as well, because the red rose of Lancaster was apparently not in use until the late 1480s, that is not until the last years of the Wars. It seems also that the historic term ‘Wars of the Roses’ was not invented until the 19th century. The contemporaries simply called them ‘Cousins’ Wars’.

Battle of Stoke Field
Battle of Stoke Field

5. The Lancasters had a gifted strategist, and it was a woman.

This exceptional title has to go to Queen Margaret of Anjou. Although, in theory, it was King Henry VI, who led the party, his deteriorating health stood in the way of effective military planning. This role was then taken over by Queen Margaret of Anjou. Her achievements include commanding an army, which prevailed over Richard of York, subsequently killing the poor old Duke and recovering King Henry from captivity. But, as the tides have turned, Margaret was forced to leave England for France. This, however, did not stop her from further skillful planing against the Lancasters and she even managed to reestablish Henry VI briefly on the throne in 1470. She was also known to execute her enemies asking her 7-year-old son for his opinion on how they should be killed.

6. The Wars of the Roses were pretty much like ‘musical chairs’.

Everyone who knows the game, knows what it’s like. Once you score and once you miss, and the chair gets occupied by someone else. The English throne during the time of the Wars of the Roses was much like such a musical chair. Richard of York nearly managed to secure his position as the King of England in 1460, and later he was killed. Ten years later, Richard’s son, Edward IV, claimed the throne but became deposed almost immediately after. And then he died, in 1483, leaving space for Richard III of Yorks and Henry Tudor of Lancasters to haggle over the throne of England once again. In total, England had five rulers in a span of mere 25 years, and three of them were executed as well. That is your brutal version of the ‘musical chairs’.

Battle of Towton
Battle of Towton

7. The Battle of Towton was the bloodiest battle ever fought in England.

The Wars of the Roses saw a total bloodshed happening on the English territory. In March 1461, the York forces led by Edward IV met the Lancaster forces under the command of Margaret of Anjou near a small village of Towton. What happened next, involved slaying over 40,000 men by means or archery and individual close combat. The Battle of Towton lasted for 10 hours, and the ones whose written records we find today, mention that the ‘river ran red with blood’. Edward IV won the battle, but its cost was significant to both of the combating sides.

8. Treachery was very common during the Wars of the Roses.

In the times of uncertainty as to who the next ruler will be, everyone wants to be close to the prospective King. And some of the York and Lancaster nobles treated the whole conflict much as one would a betting game. They simply became allies with whoever was stronger in a given moment. Such is the case of the Earl of Warwick, who in 1470 suddenly decided to drop his allegiance to Richard, Duke of York. This was more shocking still, due to the fact that he helped Duke’s son Edward IV ascend to the throne. But, apparently the Earl of Warwick wanted to support Edward’s brother, the Duke of Clarence now, instead. When their mutual coup proved unsuccessful, they even teamed up with the Lancasters under Queen Margaret in France. This tribulations however, proved ineffective once Clarence decided to head back to the Yorkists and the Earl of Warwick was killed in battle. They managed to briefly depose Edward off his throne, though.

Battle of Northhampton
Battle of Northhampton

9. The Wars of the Roses contributed to a famous missing persons case.

When Edward IV of York died in 1483, Edward V, his son became the new King of England. By the time of the coronation, Edward V was only 12, and his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was ruling as his regent. Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury were offered to stay at the Tower of London, which by then was not a prison yet. They were both assured that they would be guests, but things escalated quickly and they were soon locked up after the good uncle Richard declared them illegitimate. Richard of Gloucester went even further, crowning himself as Richard III shortly after the incident. As to the boys, both of them vanished from historic records forever. In 1674, a pair of skeletons was found under one of the Tower’s staircases leading many to think that Edward V and his brother shared a cruel fate by their uncle’s orders.

10. The last battle of the Wars of the Roses was the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Richard III’s move might not have been the smartest, as many of his Yorkist allies decided not to support him any more afterwards. Some even decided to turn to Henry Tudor instead. Henry Tudor found himself in England in 1485 and faced Richard on August 22, 1485 in the epic and decisive Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard III suffered a deathly blow to the head, and Henry Tudor was the undisputed winner. He was then crowned to rule as King Henry VII, and the Tudor dynasty held its royal position for some good 200 years. Henry VII also united the York and the Lancaster houses, by marrying Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter. The symbolic end to the Wars of the Roses was the adoption of a new emblem, the Tudor rose, white in the middle and red on the outside.

Battle of Bosworth Field
Battle of Bosworth Field

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