Thursday, November 14, 2013

The History of the Wars of the Roses

Henry A. (Harry) Payne: Choosing the Red and White Roses in the Temple Garden, 1910
Of all the incidents that are associated with particular places, none stands out more vividly than the scene told by Shakespeare, of the first beginning to the Wars of the Roses in the Temple Garden. Richard Plantagenet, with the Earls of Somerset, Suffolk, and Warwick, Vernon, and a lawyer, enter the Temple Garden ("Henry VI." Pt. I. Act 2, sc. iv.). Suffolk. Within the Temple Hall we were too loud; The garden here is more convenient. Plantagenet. Then say at once if I maintained the truth, Or else was wrangling Somerset in the error ? The direct answer being evaded, Plantagenet continues- Since you are tongue-tied and so loath to speak, In dumb significants proclaim your thoughts; Let him that is a true-born gentleman, And stands upon the honour of his birth, If he suppose that I have pleaded truth, From off this brier pluck a white rose with me. Somerset. Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer, But dare maintain the party of the truth, Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me. Warwick. I pluck this white rose with Plantagenet. Suffolk. I pluck this red rose with young Somerset. Vernon. I pluck this pale and maiden blossom here, Giving my verdict on the white rose side. Lawyer (to Somerset) ... The argument you held was wrong in you, In sign whereof I pluck a white rose too. Plan. Now, Somerset, where is your argument ? Som. Here, in my scabbard, meditating that Shall dye your white rose in a bloody red. Plan. Hath not thy rose a canker, Somerset ? Som. Hath not thy rose a thorn, Plantagenet ? Plan. Ay, sharp and piercing to maintain his truth; Whiles thy consuming canker eats his falsehood. Som. Well, I'll find friends to wear my bleeding roses, That shall maintain what I have said is true. Warwick. And here I prophesy this brawl to-day, 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.

Since Shakespeare’s day, popular perception of the Wars of the Roses has been confused by the propaganda of partisan supporters of the White or the Red, or by those who see the whole affair as a minor dynastic squabble. It is true that their significance in the history of the art or practice of warfare is small. And while the Wars were not the general bloodbath Shakespeare described for the Elizabethan stage, the royal house of Plantagenet was wiped out...along with other noble dynasties beside. Modern historical research, however, has shown that the era was no better nor worse than those that came before and after.


Edward III had seven sons. Of those who survived infancy the four eldest were: his heir - Edward (the Black Prince), Lionel (Duke of Clarence), John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster), and Edmund Langley (Duke of York). As the Black Prince predeceased his father by a year, it was his son who eventually succeeded to the throne in 1377, becoming Richard II.

Richard's reign witnessed both peasant revolts and aristocratic conspiracies. Successive disputes with the nobility eventually led to his downfall. In 1399, Richard's cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the eldest son of John of Gaunt (Edward III's third son), usurped the throne, had Richard executed and founded the ruling dynasty of Lancaster as Henry IV.

Henry's claim to the throne rested on his being the next surviving male heir. Unfortunately for him, there was a rival claim through the line of Philippa, daughter of Edward III's second son - the Duke of Clarence. Philippa had married Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, by whom she had a son; thus founding the claim of the House of Mortimer.

In 1425, Richard Duke of York, the grandson of Edmund Langley (Edward III's fourth son) was to inherit the Mortimer claim through his maternal uncle. He was to prove a formidable rival to his distant cousin, the weak-minded Henry VI of the House of Lancaster who alienated the Duke by borrowing vast sums of money he never repaid.

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