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On close inspection, this complex era reveals itself to be a time of duplicity, rivalry and cut-throat ambition

A lthough they’re popularly seen as a dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster, the Wars of the Roses were actually three wars, largely fought between the descendants of King Edward III (reigned 1327-77), each with its own causes and ramifications.


The initial conflict was caused by the inadequacies and poor mental health of the Lancastrian Henry VI of England, and the ambitions of Richard of York, great-grandson of Edward III, a leading English magnate who demanded a top role in government. This tense situation was exacerbated by rivalries among the country’s aristocratic families.

RED V WHITE Shakespeare popularised the idea that the two Houses picked their roses in the 15th century, but there’s little historical basis for the event

In May 1455, York and the noble Neville family attacked the royal court at St Albans, killing a number of leading Lancastrian nobles. Conflict broke out again in 1459 and, the following July, York captured the King at the Battle of Northampton and then later claimed the throne for himself.

Eventually, a compromise was agreed, which allowed Henry VI to remain King, but with York installed as his heir. However, Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, refused to accept the disinheritance of her son, Edward, Prince of Wales, and raised an army to fight for the Lancastrian cause. York was defeated and killed at the Battle of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in December. But the crushing victory won by York’s son, Edward IV, at Towton in March 1461, effectively settled the issue in favour of the Yorkists, although occasional fighting would continue in the North East for a further three years.


The red flower now used as an emblem of Lancashire was only adopted by the Lancastrians at the very end of the Wars.


The second war was primarily caused by the discontent of the mighty nobleman Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’, as he’s often known, had been a supporter of Edward IV but, following the King’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Warwick saw his influence slip away. In 1469, he rebelled, briefly taking Edward prisoner. The following year, Warwick made an extraordinary alliance of convenience with his former foe, Margaret of Anjou, forcing Edward IV into exile and temporarily restoring Henry VI to the throne.

In 1471, the exiled Edward returned to England and brought his enemies to battle separately, defeating and killing Warwick at Barnet, now in Greater London, and beating Margaret at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, where her son was killed. Edward then had Henry VI quietly done away with and ruled unchallenged as Edward IV until his early death in 1483. He was succeeded by his 12-year-old son, Edward V.


The last phase of fighting was triggered by Richard III’s seizure of the throne in 1483, and the disappearance of his nephews, Edward V and Richard – better known as the Princes in the Tower. These actions fatally split the old Yorkist establishment and enabled Henry Tudor – a largely unknown exile – to mount a challenge for the throne.

In 1483, many of Edward IV’s former servants rebelled against Richard III. The rising was stamped out, but dissatisfaction was rife. Richard had alienated many by favouring men in his own Northern power bloc. Further grants of confiscated rebel land and property to his supporters only added to his unpopularity. As a result, although few nobles were prepared to openly support Henry

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The August 2015 issue of History Revealed