The War of the Roses


  • The war of the Roses was series of civil wars fought in medieval England from 1455 to 1487
  • War between the House of Lancaster and the House of York
  • Name based on the badges used by the two sides, red rose for the Lancastrians and white rose for the Yorkists

Major causes of the conflict include:

  • Both houses were direct descendents of king Edward III
  • The ruling Lancastrian king, Henry VI, surrounded himself with unpopular nobles
  • Civil unrest of much of the population
  • Availability of many powerful lords with their own private armies
  • Untimely episodes of mental illness by king Henry VI

In Richard III outlines events at the end of the wars and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty with Henry VII

The rules of succession

  • In England, kings were selected based on a political and religious concept called the Divine Right of Kings.
  • Divine Right was based on the premise that the monarch was anointed, or chosen to rule, by God.
  • Strict rules of succession ensured that only members of the king’s royal bloodline could become the next monarch, so that the country would continue to be ruled by God-given authority.
  • When a king died, the crown passed to his eldest son.
  • If his eldest son died and had no children, the crown passed to the king’s next oldest son, and so on through the sons.
  • If the king had no children, the crown would go to his oldest brother.
  • If the oldest brother died and had no children, the crown passed to the king’s next oldest brother, and so on.
  • The order of succession stretched far beyond siblings and children to guarantee an undisputed heir to the throne, even if the king’s entire immediate family died before him.
  • According to Divine Right, any attempt to remove a proper monarch from the throne was an act against God.

The dispute over succession

  • The conflict began with the death of King Edward III in 1377 CE.
  • Edward III outlived his eldest son—also named Edward and called the Black Prince—who, according to Divine Right, should have succeeded Edward III.
  • The Black Prince had a son, Richard, who was the next in line for the crown. However, Richard was only 10 years old; and Edward III had two other living sons, the Dukes of Lancaster and York, who both believed that they would make better candidates than their nephew, the young Richard.
  • Upon King Edward III’s death, his privy council (his advisory group of wealthy, powerful lords) decided that the boy should be crowned King Richard II and his uncles should act as regents, or primary advisors, until the boy came of age.
  • The Dukes of York and Lancaster accepted the decision, but used their power to maintain regent status well into Richard II’s adulthood.
  • In his 30s, King Richard II finally began ruling England on his own, but he proved an ineffective ruler and failed to appease the frequently feuding English lords.
  • Eventually even Richard II’s own privy council thought he was a bad king. The negative opinions of the king led the houses of Lancaster and York to consider asserting their right to the throne.
  • The Duke of Lancaster’s eldest son, Henry Bolingbroke, claimed that he had more of a right to be king than Richard II as a descendent of the eldest surviving son of Edward III.
  • In 1399, with the support of friends and noblemen angry with Richard’s rule, Bolingbroke demanded that Richard II renounce the throne and crowned himself King Henry IV.
  • He threw Richard II into jail, where the former king died with no heirs.
  • England was now under Lancastrian rule, but with a monarch many felt had violated Divine Right. (Shakespeare dramatizes these events in the play Richard II.)

The battle of the War of the Roses

  • King Henry IV ruled for 14years and his son succeeded him without dispute.
  • King Henry V was a competent and powerful leader, and his wars to reclaim the French lands once held by Edward III made him popular with his subjects. (Shakespeare dramatizes Henry V’s adolescence, rise to power and reign in the plays Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V.)
  • Henry V’s untimely death in 1422 again raised questions about succession when his infant son was crowned King Henry VI.
  • Older relatives acted as regents until Henry VI came of age.
  • During his reign, Henry VI lost all French lands gained by his father and struggled with mental illness.
  • He was made even more unpopular by a poor attempt to make peace with France by marrying the French king’s daughter, Margaret of Anjou.
  • Viewed as a weak king, Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown in 1453, rendering him incapable of ruling the country.
  • The powerful and popular Richard, Duke of York (grandson of the first Duke of York), was named Protector of the Realm and ruled in Henry’s stead.
  • A stronger ruler, the Duke of York felt he had a valid claim to the throne because of his direct descent from Edward III’s son.
  • He began to assert his authority in minor clashes with powerful supporters of Henry VI.
  • When Henry recovered in 1455 and took back control of the crown, Queen Margaret built up an alliance against Richard, Duke of York, to attempt to diminish his influence.

The first battle of the Wars of the Roses

  • The first battle of the Wars of the Roses broke out in 1455 when the thwarted Richard, Duke of York, raised a small army and marched on London, meeting Henry VI’s forces at St. Albans.
  • Richard battled bitterly with the king’s army, commanded by Margaret. The battle was a Yorkist victory, regaining some influence for Richard.
  • The Yorkists and Lancastrians compromised to maintain the peace for four years.
  • Disputes over who would be heir to the throne continued—Henry VI had a young son, but many powerful nobles believed Richard, Duke of York, should be the successor.
  • The dispute broke out into violence again in 1459, and Richard was killed in the Battle of Wakefield in 1460.
  • Richard’s eldest son, Edward of York, prevailed at the Battle of Towton and was crowned King Edward IV in 1461.
  • Edward banished Margaret and her son to France and imprisoned the former king Henry.
  • (These events are dramatized in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3.)

The Yorks in power

  • The crown stayed with the Yorks until the wars’ end.
  • Edward IV had controversially married the widowed commoner Elizabeth Woodville and, at her request, granted her large extended family titles and favours.
  • The King’s younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and many other nobles resented this.
  • In 1483, King Edward IV died from natural causes, and Richard was appointed regent for Edward IV’s 13-year-old son, against the wishes of the Queen’s relatives.
  • With this position of power, Richard punished the Woodvilles by delaying Prince Edward’s coronation.
  • Word broke out that Edward IV had married Elizabeth Woodville while betrothed to another woman, voiding their marriage and making their son illegitimate.
  • Just crowned King Edward V, the English no longer considered the boy of royal blood.
  • At the request of several nobles, including the Duke of Buckingham, Richard was crowned King Richard III.
  • Full of turmoil and unhappiness, Richard III’s two year reign concluded the York’s hold on the throne.
  • Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, a noble distantly descended from the House of Lancaster, raised a rebellion and took the crown in 1485 after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richmond solidified his claim to the throne by marrying young Elizabeth, King Edward IV’s daughter, and uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster. (These events are depicted in Richard III.)


So who won the war?

The Tudor family ended up holding the crown for five generations. Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was crowned King Henry VII and ruled from 14851509. His successors were Henry VIII (r.15091547), Edward VI (r.15471553), Mary I (r.15531558) and Elizabeth I (r.15581603), who ruled during Shakespeare’s time.

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Richard III: © An English Website unit developed and designed by George Marotous. 19 July 2010. English Faculty, Melbourne High School.