When Edward III died in 1377, he left behind him several sons. In order to care for his brood, he had created the first English dukedoms for them, bestowing unprecedented power upon the royal litter. After the old King’s death, though, it was not a son but a grandson who succeeded him: Richard II, the youth who, in his fourteenth year fared so admirably during the Peasant’s Revolt. Unfortunately Richard never demonstrated such leadership, wisdom and ability again, and later in his reign managed to alienate both his family and the nobility. Inevitable disaster struck in 1399, when his powerful cousin, Henry of Lancaster mounted a successful coup d’état and took the crown. For the next few decades Henry’s heirs ruled England in relative peace, until the early 1450’s when Richard, Duke of York, a descendant of Edward III started making trouble.
The current king of England, Henry VI was a weak and ill man, little suited to the burdens of kingship. Henry had no children at the time so the Duke York was considered next in line for the throne. Unfortunately York had not the power that befitted his status as Henry’s heir; other nobles constantly persuaded Henry to keep him out of politics by giving him overseas duties (in reality exiling him). After some years as Captain of Calais, York had spent thousands of pounds of his own money paying the garrison and providing for their needs (Henry repeatedly failed to send any money). He was then relieved of his post by the Duke of Somerset – the king’s favourite – who had already been advanced tens of thousands of pounds for his services to the crown in France. If this injustice failed to anger York, his own appointment of Captain of Ireland and subsequent exile must have, as he watched Somerset surrender the cities and towns that had belonged to England for decades. After the fall of Rouen Somerset returned to England and to the surprise of everybody was welcomed home by King Henry.
In 1452 York returned secretly to England and marched with several thousand retainers and supporters on London, halting at Blackheath where he found the road blocked by the Royal army. York demanded that Somerset be put on trial for his disastrous conduct in France. After assurances this would be done York disbanded his army, only to be temporarily arrested.
In 1453, York’s relatives by marriage, the Nevilles, found themselves in a deadly feud with their northern neighbours the Percy family. In a great diplomatic move York and the Neville made an alliance and enlisted each other’s help against their enemies. So, when the King was taken ill in 1454 the Nevilles stormed Somerset’s council with a few other Lords and elected York as Protector, even in his absence. York instantly imprisoned the Duke of Somerset in the Tower, while the Percies suffered greatly at the hands of the Nevilles. When the King recovered his health in 1455, Somerset was released and in turn allied himself to the Percies. Shortly after, the Yorkists were publicly dismissed from their government posts. York and his Neville allies the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick fled London and upon Warwick’s advice they wasted no time in raising an army for the purpose of an armed return to power.
The Wars’ opening battle took place on May 22, 1455 at the fortified town of St Albans. In the conflict that followed York and the Nevilles would be known as ‘the Yorkists’, while King Henry, the Duke of Somerset and the Percies would be known as the ‘Lancastrians’.