The War of the Roses was a civil war in England that lasted from 1455-1487. These thirty years of warfare were even more destructive to England than the Hundred Years War had been in the previous century. (Most of the fighting in the Hundred Years War took place in France, which meant most of the military damage affected the French peasantry rather than the English. In the War of the Roses, most of the fighting occurred in England, and thus the loss of life and property was much greater for English citizens.) It was a struggle to claim the throne between the families descended from Edward III and the families descended from Henry IV. The last Angevin ruler, King Richard II died without an heir. He had been overthrown and murdered by Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke, who was of the House of Lancaster through his father John of Gaunt). Henry IV's descendants and their supporters were the Lancastrian faction. The other branch, descended from Edward IV, were associated with families in the North of England, particularly the House of York and Richard of York. They are called the Yorkist faction.
What's All This Stuff About Flowers?
The exact image of warring flowers was a late invention, and the general idea of each rose being a factional symbol originates in Shakespeare’s day. In Renaissance literature, writers linked the House of York with a white rose and the House of Lancaster with a red rose. For instance, in Henry VI, Part One, Act II, scene iv, lines 25-135, Shakespeare depicts the minor lords as choosing their factions symbolically by plucking either white or red roses from a garden. The play dates back to 1592 or so. For instance, in lines 124-128, we read the following:
Warwick: And here I prophesy: this brawl today, Grown to this faction in the Temple garden, Shall send, between the Red Rose and the White, A thousand souls to death and deadly night.
Mind you, Shakespeare is being anachronistic. He’s following chroniclers like Holinshed and such who popularized the image of warring roses for Renaissance readers. In actual point of fact, during the medieval War of the Roses, neither faction cared much about the roses. The red and white roses were only insignia worn as part of the household servants for the Houses of Lancaster and York. They were not part of the official coat-of-arms for either aristocratic house. The servants of each house wore emblems with these flowers on their liveries (servant uniforms). The phrase "War of the Roses" is even later.
How Did It Start?
The war began in 1455 when Richard, Duke of York challenged the current king's right to the throne. (This was not the same Richard as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who becomes King Richard III later.) Richard, Duke of York, descended ultimately from the same family as King Richard II, whom Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) deposed. The king at the time was the Lancastrian Henry VI, a pious but weak ruler prone to bouts of insanity. He descended from Henry IV, our "hero" in Shakespeare's play Richard II. Richard, Duke of York, argued that Henry IV's descendants have no right to the throne because Henry IV usurped the position unlawfully. Richard's son Edward becomes King Edward IV in 1461 and Henry VI flees the country for nine years.
What Happened in a Nutshell?
Edward IV ruled for nine years without too much trouble until 1470, when Henry VI returned with an army. Henry VI briefly regained the throne in 1470, but Edward IV ultimately wrestled power away from him again.
On Edward IV's death in 1483, his son Edward V was the next Yorkist ruler slated to ascend to the throne. However, though Edward was unusually precocious and capable, he was still a child. His uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the guy who later becomes King Richard III) set himself up as regent (temporary ruler) until the boy Edward reached adulthood. After doing this, Richard declared martial law under his "protectorate government." Richard of Gloucester sent young Edward and Edward's younger brother into the Tower of London ("for the princes' protection"). There, the two child-princes mysteriously vanished, presumably murdered. Richard then declared himself King Richard III as the next Yorkist in line for the throne. After all, he was brother to Edward IV, and all the male offspring of Edward were now out of the way.
However, King Richard III's rule was troubled by rebellion on the part of the Lancastrian faction. While he had strong support in the northern regions of England, many southerners were outraged by the (presumed) murders of the fine young princes in the tower. The house of Lancaster continued its warfare against Richard III.
The struggle ended abruptly at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 when the Lancastrian faction won a decisive victory. Henry Tudor, an obscure Welsh prince, raised an army to fight Richard III. The Tudors had blood-ties to the House of Lancaster, and Henry Tudor had a strong claim to the throne since most of the major Lancastrian and Yorkist candidates had killed each other during the thirty years of warfare. Henry Tudor declared himself King Henry VII. In the first few years of his reign, he eliminated all his rivals. He then married Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth to strengthen his descendant's claim to the throne. The marriage was a brilliant move politically; Elizabeth carried matrilineally the Yorkist claim to the throne, and Henry carried patrilineally the Lancastrian claim to the throne. Thus, Henry VII's children would have both Yorkist and Lancastrian blood. Their son became Henry VIII, and he in turn fathered Queen Elizabeth I, the illustrious monarch who ruled during Shakespeare's early career.
Outline of Major Events:
This bit is primarily interesting to military buffs and historians. It contains the outline of events, with the two major battles in bold red print. The most important part for Shakespeare students is the Battle of Bosworth Field (see below at year 1485), which is central to Shakespeare's Richard III.
(1454) Richard, Duke of York, is appointed regent during Henry VI's insanity.
(1455) Henry VI recovers his sanity. He fears Richard of York has grown too powerful, and he puts the Duke of Somerset in Richard of York's government position, and he excludes Richard from the Royal Council--at once limiting Richard's political power, but also alienating him from the king.
(1455) The First Battle of St. Albans: This is the opening battle in the Wars of the Roses. Richard of York leads a force of about 3,000 on a march toward London. Henry VI moves from London to intercept the Yorkist army. Henry halts his march in the town of Saint Albans and waits. Richard attacks and defeats Henry inflicting about 300 casualties. The Queen and her young son Edward flee into exile. The Yorkist faction also kills the Lancastrian ally Somerset, the primary supporter of Henry VI.
(1459) Battle of Blore Heath: After four years of uneasy peace, combat flares up again at the battle of Blore Heath. Over the past three years, Margaret of Anjou has maintained pressure to end Yorkist claims to the throne. Finally, Richard, duke of York decides it is time to act before his forces lose their momentum. He centralizes his forces around Ludlow and then attacks the Lancastrian forces. During the march to the concentration point, a Lancastrian general (Lord Audley) intercepts him; Margaret ordered him to attack the Yorkist army. The Yorkists win a victory.
(1459) Battle of Ludford: After the losing the battle of Blore Heath, the Yorkist faction regroups at Ludford bridge at the town of Ludlow and starts to advance towards Worcester. They quickly fall back when they encounter a larger enemy force led by Henry VI. The Lancastrians take a position opposite the Yorkists across the Teme river. That night, a significant number of the Yorkist army deserts, leading to a full scale retreat the next morning. The catalyst of the defections is Andrew Trollope, captain of the Calais troops. Trollope switches sides after accepting the king's pardon. After the engagement, Richard returns to Ireland and the earl of Salisbury flees back to Calais in France.
(Early 1460) Battle of Northampton: In June 1460, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, his father (Earl of Salisbury), and Edward, Earl of March (the future Edward IV) sail from Calais and land at Sandwich on their way to London. After waiting a few weeks to establish a siege force around a small Lancastrian army defending the Tower of London, Warwick marches north to attack the Lancastrian army that marches south from Coventry. The Lancastrian army learns of the Yorkist plans. They stop at the town of Northampton to build a defensive position. When Warwick arrives, he spends hours trying to contact the King and negotiate a settlement. Finally, around 2:00 p.m., the Yorkist force attacks. During the middle of the battle, Lord Grey, who commands a wing of the King's army, switches sides to the Yorkist cause. This is the deciding action; the Yorkist sweep away the Lancastrians. The king is now under Yorkist control, and in November he agrees that the Yorks are the rightful heirs to the crown. Many think this capitulation would end the civil wars; however, the queen is busily assembling an army in Wales to continue the struggle.
The Earl of Warwick (known as Warwick the Kingmaker) captures London and turns it over to the Yorkist faction.
(Early 1460) Battle of Wakefield (sometimes erroneously listed as "Westfield" in modern sources): Richard, Duke of York, travels north with Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, to meet the threat of a large Lancastrian force assembling near the city of York. Upon reaching the area, Richard takes up a defensive position at Sandal Castle. For some unknown reason, Richard leaves his stronghold and directly attacks the Lancastrian force even though it is twice the size of his army. While Richard holds out for some time, he is eventually overwhelmed and his forces take a sound a thumping. Richard dies during the battle. The Earl of Salisbury along with York's son are captured and executed, marking the beginning of a less chivalrous form of warfare that lasted until the end of the wars.
(1461) Battle of Mortimor's Cross: When Edward, Earl of March, hears of the disaster at Wakefield he decides to move east to link-up with Warwick in London. During his movement, he learns of a Lancastrian force located in central Wales. Edward decides to change direction and engage the enemy. His army of mostly Welshmen routes the Lancastrian army of mercenaries from France and Ireland and Wales. After the battle, Edward continues his march eastward to join Warwick near London; within two months he would be crowned king.
(1461) Second Battle of St. Albans: On February 17, 1461, Warrick "the Kingmaker" positions his army at St. Albans (about 20 miles northwest of London). Here he waits for Edward's army, victorious at Mortimer's Cross, to join him. Before the Yorkists can unite, the Lancastrians attack. Warrick flees and leaves his hostage, King Henry VI, under a tree.
(1461) Battle of Ferrybridge and Towton: On March 28, 1461, Ferrybridge is a small engagement before the larger battle of Towton. After proclaiming himself king, Edward IV gathers together a large force and marches north toward the Lancastrian position behind the Aire River. On March 28, the forces engage and the Yorkist army is pushed back; during the fight, their leader, Lord Fitzwalter, is killed. However, more Yorkist forces arrive later on in the day and beat back the Lancastrians. On March 29, 1461, the day after the battle of Ferrybridge, the Yorkist forces attack the Lancastrians in a driving snowstorm up a sloping hill at Towton. Using the snow and the wind direction as an aid, the Yorkist archers are able to shoot farther than their adversaries. The Lancastrians believe their best strategy is to charge like the knights of old. After many hours of intense fighting, the Yorkist line shows signs of strain. Fortunately, the Duke of Norfolk, John Mowbray, arrives with reinforcements and the Yorkist army defeats the Lancastrians. King Henry VI, the Queen, and their son flee to Scotland for nine years. Edward IV, Richard's son, marches into the city of York. On June 28, he is formally crowned king at Westminster. Edward IV rules England to 1483.
(1464) To offset the political power of the unhappy Lancastrians, Edward IV marries Elizabeth Woodville, whose wealth and family connections make a new powerful alliance--however, his connection to the moneygrubbing Woodvilles also upsets some of his other allies.
(1464) Battle of Hedgeley Moor (April 25, 1464) On his way to the border of Scotland to meet a group of envoys to discuss peace, John Neville (Lord Montague), brother of Warwick, clashes with a Lancastrian force of similar size. During the battle, the Lancastrian wings commanded by Lords Hungerford and Roos flee, leaving Sir Ralph Percy with the only holding force. Percy's troops are crushed miserably. Montague continues north and the Duke of Somerset leads the remaining Lancastrian army south to Hexham.
(1464) Battle of Hexham: On May 15, after completing his mission at the border of Scotland, Lord Montague marches south and engages the Lancastrian forces at Hexham. His army rapidly charges downhill and crushes the Lancastrian forces. The Lancastrian leaders are executed, ending most of the Lancastrian resistance.
(1465) Edward IV imprisons Henry VI.
(1466) The Earl of Warwick begins to quarrel with Edward IV. Warwick feels the king "owes him," especially since Warwick was pivotal in helping him to the throne. He basically wants a puppet king under his own control. When King Edward refuses to obey, Warwick forms a traitorous alliance with Louis XI of France.
(1467) Charles the Bold becomes duke of Burgundy. He is the chief rival to Louis XI. (Louis XI is alllied with Warwick, and Warwick is now enemies with the Yorkist faction, becoming a de facto supporter of the Lancastrians.)
(1468) Margaret of York marries Charles the Bold.
(1469) Battle of Edgecote Moor: After eight years of rule, Edward IV alienates many of the nobles including Warwick because of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and his alliances with Burgundy. In 1469, Edward rallies an army to put down an uprising in Yorkshire. A Lancastrian force intercepts him and swiftly defeats his army on July 26 of 1469 on the plains of Edgecoate. Meanwhile Warwick and Edward's brother, George duke of Clarence, have already landed from Calais and are on their way to join forces with Robin of Redesdale, the field leader of the Lancastrian force. After the battle, Warwick orders his brother, George Neville, the archbishop of York, to intercept and capture King Edward.
(1470) Warwick switches his alliance again. He allies himself with the Lancastrian faction and wages war against the Yorkist faction. He defeats Edward IV, and he restores Henry VI to the throne. Edward IV retreats and begins rallying troops.
Battle of Losecote Field: At the defeat of his forces at the battle of Edgecote Moor, Edward waits for another opportunity to strike. In early 1470, under the guise of putting down an uprising, Edward raises a new army and attacks the rebels at Empingham. On March 12, 1470, the king's forces win and the defeated rebels shed their coats to flee more quickly (hence the name of the battle). Edward was back in control and Warwick and George flee to France to make an alliance with Margaret of Anjou.
(1471) Battle of Barnet. Edward IV defeats and kills Warwick. Henry VI dies, probably murdered..
(1474) In a tangled web of alliances, Louis XI of France (who was allied with Warwick previously and still has connections to the Yorkists) declares war against Charles the Bold in France. The Yorkist faction under Edward IV allies itself with Charles the Bold.
(1475) Edward IV invades France to protect Charles the Bold, the one ally in France who acts as a check on the Lancastrian faction's allies there.
(1483) Death of Edward IV. The child-king, Edward V, is deposed by his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard becomes King Richard III, rules until 1485. Edward V and his brother are murdered in the Tower of London.
(1485) Battle of Bosworth Field: Henry Tudor (soon to be King Henry VII), Earl of Richmond, lands in Wales on August 7, 1485 to challenge Richard III for the crown. Richard moves to meet Henry's army south of the village of Market Bosworth. After the armies engage, Lord Thomas Stanley and his brother Sir William switch sides and fight for Henry. Henry defeats the Yorkist forces, Richard is killed, and Henry ushers in the rule of the house of Tudor effectively ending the Wars of the Roses.
Henry VII spends the next two years wiping out any other claimants to the throne.
(1487) Battle of Stoke: Many historians consider Stoke the final conflict in the Wars of the Roses, even though the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field is the crushing blow against the Yorkists. A group of Yorkist loyalists concoct a scheme in a last-gasp attempt to regain the crown. Richard Simons, a priest, and others instruct a commoner by the name of Lambert Simnel to impersonate the earl of Warwick, grandson of the late Warwick the Kingmaker. Lambert claims he escaped from the Tower of London where the real Warwick is imprisoned. Upon his "escape," he is crowned king in Dublin, Ireland, on May 24, 1487. The new Yorkist group lands in England in June 4 and begins to collect an army of English soldiers and German and Irish mercenaries. Henry VII moves to intercept the force at East Stoke on June 16. He crushes the rebel army. King Henry's forces capture Simon, imprison him, and make him a servant of the king. King Henry's army ruthlessly kills all soldiers who fought for the Yorkist faction.