The first battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought at St Albans on May 22nd 1455 and it was on May 22nd 1471 that the body of the murdered Henry VI was displayed at St Paul's. The war had huge consequences for England and London in particular but was it the 30 years of bloody carnage of popular imagination? This article provides a brief assessment of the nature of this war and summarises the main events which led to the establishment of the Tudor dynasty.
At the end of Shakespeare's Richard III, Henry, duke of Richmond and later Henry VII, stands on Bosworth field to deliver the final speech of the play. During it he sums up the 32 years of the Wars of the Roses as follows:
We will unite the white rose and the red.
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frown'd upon their enmity!
What traitor hears me, and says not amen?
England hath long been mad, and scarr'd herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughter'd his own son,
The son, compell'd, been butcher to the sire:
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire division,
O, now let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together!
This is a wonderful example of how effective Tudor propaganda could be. Here is all the horror and revulsion at thirty years of carnage of fratricide and parricide. And here too is the paean to the new era of peace and prosperity about to descend on England under the new dynasty of which Shakespeare's patron, Elizabeth I was the glorious culmination.
This view of the civil wars popularly known as the War of the Roses has long held sway in the popular imagination. In reality, however, it was merely an intermittent dynastic struggle - bloody and savage at times to be sure - which probably saw no more than a total of thirteen weeks of actual warfare. The effect on England as a whole was negligible, the casualty list is relatively small and rate of extinction of noble lines is below the mediaeval average. Before examining the condition of and events in London during these years it is useful to briefly summarise the major events in the feud.
The origin of the struggle lay in the weakness and incompetence of Henry VI who succeeded his father Henry V at the age of nine months in 1422. During his minority, authority lay with a council of men appointed by his father. Amongst these, the Earl of Warwick was tutor to the young king and subsequently became known as Warwick the Kingmaker. Henry began his personal rule in 1437. He appears to have had no sympathy for the manners and morals of the court and resented it when public business took him away from his devotions. Inevitably, he came to depend on an inner circle of councillors.
By the early 1450s, Henry had been compelled to give up the ancient claim to the throne of France and the polarisation in his council centred on the Dukes of Somerset and York. Then in 1453 Henry went mad. Taken ill at Clarendon Palace, he was transferred to Windsor castle where, for a year and a half he was totally unaware of his surroundings and had to be fed and nursed night and day. The illness then was mysterious but it is now thought to have been a case of catatonic schizophrenia. In February 1454 parliament appointed Richard of York as "Protector of England." York's rule was businesslike and efforts were made to reform the royal finances. However, he made no effort to become reconciled with Somerset who was imprisoned but not otherwise harmed.
The protectorate lasted until December 1454 when Henry recovered. In early January York was removed from office and Somerset was released. The stakes for the opposing factions now became very high. Neither could exercise control of the Council without the nominal authority of the king. York and his followers withdrew to the north in May 1454 and began to gather an army. On May 22nd 1455, they intercepted the king and the court army at St Albans, one day's march out of London. Negotiations for peace failed as York insisted that Somerset should be surrendered for trial. In the ensuing battle, Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford were killed.
The king appears to have been not so much above the battle as unaware of it. York escorted him to London where the former was declared Protector for the second time. In July, parliament pardoned York and his followers for taking up arms against the king. All sides were enjoined to put the battle out of their minds and not to dwell on the events of the last year. But this proved impossible. Henry felt insecure in London and was taken by the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, to Coventry in the heartland of the Lancastrian territories. Government paralysis and an intensification of political factionalism followed.
During the uneasy peace that followed, the Lancastrians gained the upper hand and in October 1459 York and his ally Warwick the Kingmaker prepared to meet the Lancastrians under Margaret of Anjou. When the main Lancastrian army appeared however, York and Warwick were deserted by their men and they were forced to flee into exile. York went to Ireland and Warwick to Calais.
The following year, Warwick returned and captured Henry at Northampton on July 10 1460. The battle lasted a mere half hour before the Lancastrians under Humphrey Stafford duke of Buckingham were routed. York claimed the crown but the magnates shied away from the constitutional implications and only recognised him as the heir. The implied disinheritance of Henry's young son, Prince Edward was too much for Margaret and she began to raise an army in the north. York was determined to frustrate her and marched north with his army. The two met at Wakefield on December 30th 1460 where the superior Lancastrian forces won the day and killed York. Following up her advantage, Margaret repossessed Henry after the second Battle of St Albans in February 1461.
Margaret failed to follow up her advantage and fled north again having failed to take London. The Yorkists now set up the son of Richard of York as King Edward IV and he defeated Margaret at Towton on 29th March 1461. This was perhaps the most decisive battle of the feud and involved up to 50,000 combatants. After a day-long fight in a snowstorm the Lancastrians were thoroughly routed and Edward was effectively master of England.
The war might have now ended were it not for the increasing frustration of Warwick. Seeing his hopes of ruling through Edward become increasingly unrealistic he formed an alliance with the duke of Clarence and fomented a number of rebellions during 1469-70. In October 1470 he defected to the Lancastians and Edward was forced into exile and Henry VI restored to the throne. Six months later, however, Edward returned and outwitting Warwick took London on April 12th. Henry VI effectively became a prisoner and was forced to join Edwards army as it marched to intercept Warwick who was slain t the Battle of Barnet on the 14th April.
On May 4th 1471 Edward intercepted the Lancastrian army, led by Margaret and Prince Edward, at Tewkesbury. Prince Edward was killed and Margaret was captured and taken back to London where she was lodged in the Tower. Edward arrived back in London on May 21 and on that night, between eleven and midnight, Henry VI was executed. Edward was now more firmly established than ever and twelve years of domestic peace followed. However, on his death in 1483, the usurpation of Richard III alienated many of the Yorkist supporters and paved the way for the invasion of the Lancastrian forces led by Henry, duke of Richmond. His decisive victory at Bosworth Field established the long Tudor dynasty. His defence of his crown at the battle of Stoke on June 16th 1487 is seen as the last real battle of the War of the Roses.
Books about the Wars of the Roses:
The Wars of the Roses
The Wars of the Roses (A Royal History...