Centuries before the English Civil War, the country was torn apart by another series of bitter conflicts. Driven by fierce family rivalries, this game of thrones saw the deaths of thousands and the toppling of dynasties, and is known to us as the Wars of the Roses.
The mad king
The Wars of the Roses take their name from the heraldic symbols of the rival factions: the red rose of the House of Lancaster and the white rose of the House of York. Both houses were actually off-shoots of the House of Plantagenet, respectively founded by two sons of the 14th Century monarch, Edward III. However, it was during the reign of the Lancastrian King Henry VI nearly a century later that the friction between the houses erupted into bloody violence.
Unlike his father, the famed warrior-king Henry V, Henry VI was weak and ineffectual. What’s more, he was prone to bouts of madness. His breakdowns would cause him to become uncommunicative, even catatonic. All of this meant his reign was marked by civil disorder and power struggles between his advisors – notably Richard, Duke of York and his Lancastrian nemesis, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.
York vs Somerset
As well as being enormously wealthy, the Duke of York also had a strong claim to the throne, being descended from Edward III through both his parents. When, in 1453, Henry succumbed to a protracted bout of mental illness, York was appointed Lord Protector, became the de facto king, and Somerset was imprisoned during this period. However, Henry’s later recovery led to a reversal in York’s fortunes and Somerset’s restoration to a place of influence by the king’s side.
Tensions came to a head in 1455, when York and his forces clashed with Lancastrians at the First Battle of St Albans – the opening salvo of the Wars of the Roses. It was a messy, quick skirmish which saw Somerset himself slain. The victorious York asserted his position in the king’s court, but the bloodshed at St Albans meant the rivalry between the houses was now more bitter and dangerous than ever.
The wars continue
A period of uneasy peace followed. Henry VI’s formidable wife, Margaret of Anjou, schemed against York, whom she rightly saw as a threat to the ascendancy of her son, Prince Edward. The enmity between the sides saw more battles break out and there was a major Yorkist victory at the Battle of Northampton in 1460, which saw Henry himself captured.
However, York was still not in a strong enough position to seize the crown for himself. Instead, he negotiated the Act of Accord, which stipulated that Henry would continue as king, but that he would be succeeded by York. This meant that Henry and Margaret’s own son, Prince Edward, was disinherited.
Margaret and her loyal Lancastrians weren’t about to take this lying down, and mustered her own forces, drawing support from the Scottish monarch. Just two months after securing his future kingship, the Duke of York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield. His head was impaled on a spike, wearing a paper crown.
The rise of Edward IV
The Yorkist cause was now led by Edward, the slain duke’s son and next in line to throne according to the Act of Accord. Despite Yorkist setbacks like their defeat at the Second Battle of St Albans in early 1461, Edward marched into London, where there was a lot of Yorkist support, and was proclaimed king. But his grip on power needed to be secured with a decisive military victory against the Lancastrians, and that would come at the epic Battle of Towton.
Thought to be the single biggest battle ever fought on English soil, it saw troops embroiled in hours of desperate hand-to-hand combat in the midst of a snowstorm, with tens of thousands killed. Henry and Margaret went into exile in Scotland, and the coronation of Edward IV took place later that same year.
The power struggles continue
Edward’s position was seemingly secure at this point, but then came a decisive falling-out with one of his most powerful supporters, the Earl of Warwick. One of the reasons for their break was that Warwick had been trying to orchestrate a politically advantageous marriage between Edward and a French princess, only to discover that Edward had secretly married a commoner, Elizabeth Woodville, for love.
The growing influence of the Woodville family and frustration of Warwick led the latter to rebel against the House of York, and form a union with his former enemy, Margaret of Anjou (who had settled in France). They mustered forces loyal to the Lancastrian cause, leading to Edward being deposed and Henry re-installed as king in 1470.
This was a short-lived triumph, however. After fleeing to the continent, Edward marshalled his own forces and invaded England in 1471. Warwick was killed in battle, and the Lancastrian cause was ultimately crushed at the Battle of Tewkesbury, where Henry and Margaret’s son, Edward, was killed. Henry himself died weeks later in the Tower of London – presumably murdered to extinguish any lingering threats to Edward IV.
The coming of the Tudors
Edward IV’s restoration brought a hiatus in hostilities, but more strife was to come following his death in 1483. He was technically succeeded by his young son, Edward V, but the boy was never crowned. Instead, stories began to swirl that his father’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville has been bigamous, leading to Edward V being abruptly regarded as illegitimate.
As a result, the person who actually came to power was Edward IV’s brother, Richard III. Edward V and his younger brother Richard of Shrewsbury, who had been lodging in the Tower of London in preparation for Edward’s cancelled coronation, mysteriously disappeared. Known to history as the doomed 'Princes in the Tower', they are commonly thought to have been murdered on Richard’s orders.
Richard was regarded by many as a usurper, and his tenure was cut short by the rise of Henry Tudor, a distant member of the Lancastrian line who had been raised in exile in France. Vowing to unite the Lancastrians and Yorkists by marrying Elizabeth of York (Edward IV’s daughter), Henry mounted a bold invasion. At the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, his troops defeated those of Richard III, who became the last English monarch to die in battle.
The Wars of the Roses ended with this confrontation. Henry Tudor became Henry VII, and the red and white roses of the Lancastrians and Yorkists were combined to form a new emblem: the Tudor Rose.