Wars of the Roses (1455–1485)

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An underlying cause was failure of the sustained effort to hold onto English territories in France during the final phase of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). This was followed by a protracted dynastic dispute between the rival Houses of Lancaster (‘‘Red Rose’’) and York (‘‘White Rose’’), each claiming the throne via descent from Edward III. More immediate grievances included the unpopularity of the Lancastrian, Henry VI (1422–1461), and some nobles at his court; the continuing availability to the barony of small private armies; and complex relations with powerful nobles in Ireland and in exile. Ireland itself was valued for its strategic location and as a ready source of cheap troops.

The Wars of the Roses saw sixteen significant battles and dozens of skirmishes and small sieges, none of which were truly decisive. The opening fight came at First St. Albans (May 22, 1455), where Richard of York’s 3,000 men defeated 2,500 Lancastrians under Henry VI. There followed four years of uneasy peace. At Blore Heath (September 22, 1459), in Staffordshire, this ended when Yorkist knights under the Earl of Salisbury bested a force of the king’s men-at-arms. The rebels then hooked up with a larger Yorkist force at Ludford Bridge and moved against Worcester, but fell back when they met a still larger Lancastrian army. At Ludford they spent a cold night waiting on battle, with the Lancastrians drawn up across the river. But too many Yorkist troops deserted during the night and even more fled or switched sides when they saw the enemy in the cold dawn on October 12. The army scattered and the major Yorkist leaders fled abroad, but only to plot a return to power. At Northampton (July 10, 1460), Yorkists defeated the Royal Army when Lord Grey, who was in command of a Lancastrian wing, switched sides in midbattle. The king was taken prisoner and agreed that the Yorkist claim to the succession should be exercised upon his death. This did not end the fighting: at Wakefield (December 30, 1460) 8,000 Yorkists attacked foolhardily directly into 18,000 waiting Lancastrians only to lose decisively and bloodily. Several leading Yorkists were executed after the battle, signaling that a new seriousness and ruthlessness of purpose and method had entered the conflict, while also clearing the way for a new generation of noble aspirants and rivals to contest for the Plantagenet crown.

At Mortimer’s Cross (February 2, 1461), 11,000 Welsh Yorkists led by the future Edward IV routed a force of 8,000 French, Welsh, and Irish mercenaries fighting for the Red Rose. Edward headed to London where he would be crowned two months later. But first he tried to link with a second Yorkist army. At Second St. Albans (February 17, 1461) the rival armies numbered 25,000 each. The Lancastrians attacked before Edward arrived and joined the Yorkist armies. The commander in his absence was the Earl of Warwick (Richard Neville, ‘‘The Kingmaker’’), who fled at the first hint of danger. Warwick even abandoned his hostage, no less a person than the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, whom he left under a tree! Both sides gathered more forces. At Ferrybridge (March 28, 1461), Edward IV’s advance guard was isolated and destroyed, but the main force carried the bridge. The next day, at Towton, the enlarged main armies met in battle. The Yorkist army of 36,000 attacked a Lancastrian force of 40,000 in the midst of a heavy snow storm. Edward used a favorable wind to increase the range of his archers and limit that of the Lancastrians, who were thus enticed to leave their entrenchments and charge the Yorkist lines. The fight lasted many hours, seesawing at the center during one of the bloodiest days ever seen in England. The arrival of reinforcements gave the blood-soaked day to Edward: Henry’s infantry broke and ran while hundreds of stranded knights floundered and drowned in the River Cock, pulled under by the weight of their armor.

Towton brought three years of peace to England, though the Lancastrians sought and received aid from Scotland and kept the war going in the north. At Hedgely Moor (April 25, 1464), a small Yorkist army of 5,000 men handed a comparable Lancastrian force another sharp defeat, but the Duke of Somerset evaded capture with some survivors and began to raise new levies. Before they were ready, he was attacked at Hexham (May 15, 1464) and his force annihilated. Somerset was captured and beheaded, the first of many Lancastrian nobles to die on the block on Edward’s writ. Henry VI was put in a cell in the Tower of London. Harlech Castle in Wales held out against Edward until 1468 but the White Rose was victorious, and champions of the Red Rose mostly dead or in bitter exile. It was only fratricidal quarreling among the Yorkists that kept Lancastrian hope alive. Edward IV’s choice of wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and his alliance with Charles the Rash of Burgundy displeased even his closest supporters and members of his family. Warwick also resented that the king increasingly appeared to want to rule as well as reign. In early 1469 an uprising against Edward began in Yorkshire stimulated by Warwick, who hoped to replace the king with his brother, George, Duke of Clarence. A major fight took place at Banbury (July 26, 1469), also called ‘‘Edgecote Moor,’’ in Northamptonshire when a Yorkist army led by the Earl of Pembroke ran into a rebel army maneuvering to link up with Warwick. After a close fight more rebels arrived and frightened Pembroke’s men into fleeing the field. Pembroke was captured the next day and executed.

Edward sent another army to repress a small uprising in Lincolnshire. His men surprised the insurgents at Lose-coat Field (March 12, 1470), so-named because of the number of coats discarded as the rebels took to their heels. Some key Lancastrians were implicated in the rising and forced into exile. Warwick now raised an army in France and crossed to England to force Edward from the throne. Edward fled to Burgundy to raise a mercenary army of his own. In his absence, Henry VI was freed and placed on the throne by Warwick, once again playing the role of the ‘‘Kingmaker.’’ The next year Edward landed at Ravenspur with 1,500 Burgundian and German mercenaries, scattered the local defenders (March 14, 1471), and raced for London with Warwick’s army close on his heels. Edward seized Henry VI and locked him back in the Tower. Then he turned to meet Warwick at Barnet (April 14, 1471), 12 miles north of London, where the armies fought in a fog-obscured and confused battle. At its end, Warwick was dead and Edward IV held the field and therefore the crown. However, that same day a Lancastrian army raised abroad landed at Weymouth and rallied the western counties to war, raising fresh troops in Wales. At Tewkesbury (May 4, 1471), Edward led an army of 5,000 against 7,000 dug-in Lancastrians. He immediately engaged the enemy, opening with a bombardment from his artillery. The Lancastrians charged the center of Edward’s line, mistakenly perceiving a weakness there. The assault was repelled and Edward counterattacked, routing and killing 2,000 of his enemies. This ended the war in Edward’s favor.

Upon Edward IV’s death in 1483, his 13-year-old son, Edward V, was left vulnerable on the throne. Civil war broke out again after a 12-year hiatus when the Duke of Gloucester deposed the boy king and imprisoned him along with his younger brother, the Duke of York, in the Tower of London. Gloucester claimed the throne as King Richard III and the ‘‘little princes’’ were soon murdered in the Tower. This provided the pretext for Henry Tudor to land at Milford Haven in Wales on August 7, 1485, with an army of 2,000 men. Within days, 3,000 more rallied to his banner. Gloucester moved to meet him with an army of 10,000. Another 6,000 stood on his flanks led by the brothers Stanley. The armies met at Bosworth on August 22, 1485. Each side opened with artillery and archery showers. At a critical moment one of Gloucester’s lieutenants, the Earl of Northumberland, fled the field. The Stanleys then turned coats on Gloucester and joined their 6,000 men with Henry Tudor’s army. Gloucester (Richard III) died fighting for his crown, which he wore into the battle. A soldier picked it up and handed it to Henry Tudor, who subsequently donned it as Henry VII. The Wars of the Roses were effectively over, even if two years later Yorkist rebels crossed from Ireland with several thousand German mercenaries and Irish kernes to be defeated by Henry at East Stoke ( June 16, 1647). The English gentry henceforth became the solid foundation of the Tudor monarchy. England was at last severed from its long history of continental entanglement (except for Calais), and became more clearly a national kingdom and island realm, increasingly English in its language, culture, and politics. Next would come nationalization of its religion under Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I.

Suggested Reading: Hubert Cole, Wars of the Roses (1973); J. Gillingham, Wars of the Roses (1981); Anthony Goodman, Wars of the Roses (1981).