Introduction to Wars of the Roses

The years 1455-1487 in England were riven with civil war. Known at the time as the war between Lancaster and York, or, by Shakespeare’s time as the war between the roses, the title the 'Wars of the Roses' has been used since the nineteenth century. The conflict sprang out of rival claims to the throne amongst the many descendants of Edward III. His oldest grandson, Richard II, inherited the throne in 1377 but had no children. He indicated that his preferred heir was his cousin, Philippa of Clarence’s son, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. Philippa was the daughter of Edward III’s second son.

However, Richard became increasingly tyrannical and was overthrown by another cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, son of Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Henry IV had significant support, but there were always those who believed the Mortimer line should have had priority, whilst some questioned whether inheritance through the female line was acceptable.

The argument came to a head in the reign of Henry IV’s grandson, Henry VI. He was an incompetent king, mentally fragile, and not suited to the militaristic cult of the age. Additionally, his wife was unpopular, both because she was French, and for her partisan attitude to politics. Henry VI was challenged by Richard, Duke of York, descended in the maternal line from the Mortimers, and in the paternal line from Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York.

The Lancastrians and Yorkists slugged it out for thirty years. The Yorkists appeared to have a firm grip following the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, but they quarrelled amongst themselves, and in 1483, when Edward IV’s son, Edward V was deposed by his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, many Yorkists supported the Lancastrian claimant instead. This claimant was Henry Tudor, descended in the maternal line from John of Gaunt. It was not a strong claim, but his willingness to marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, to unite the families brought a good deal of support. Henry was victorious at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, and, two years later, at what has been termed the last battle of the war, the Battle of Stoke, when the oldest male of the House of York, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was killed.