Last Lady standing: The women of the Wars of the Roses

Margaret of Anjou
An illustration of Margaret of Anjou being presented with the Shrewsbury Book | Public Domain | Wikipedia

The series of bloody civil conflicts known as the Wars of the Roses saw two royal houses vie for the English throne. For thirty years between 1455 and 1485, the red rose of Lancaster went toe-to-toe with the white rose of York. As battles waged and alliances shifted, power continually moved between the two great houses. It’s easy to see how the TV show Game of Thrones was partly inspired by this period of history.

This era is traditionally defined as being shaped by the actions of Kings, dukes and earls but recent attention has turned to the pivotal roles played by the women of the dynastic houses. To them it wasn't the Wars of the Roses; it was The Cousins War, a war between kin that was tearing the English nobility apart. Behind the scenes, the women of the conflict helped shape its outcome as much as the men did on the battlefield.

Margaret Beaufort

A carrier of the Lancastrian bloodline, Beaufort was born into top nobility. She sent her one and only son Henry Tudor away to France in 1471 for his safety after the House of York had claimed the throne. For the next 14 years, she sent money and messages to her son who under her encouragement launched an invasion of England in 1485.

Henry Tudor claimed victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field becoming the last king of England to win his throne on the field of battle. Henry owed his newfound power entirely to his mother, whose political dealings paved his way to the throne.

No one did more to establish the English royal House of Tudor than Margaret Beaufort. Mother to the first Tudor king Henry VII and grandmother to Henry VIII, Margaret was a skilled politician who brokered a secret deal that brought about peace between the two royal houses.

Elizabeth Woodville

The other party involved in the clandestine agreement to bring about peace was Elizabeth Woodville. Known as the ‘Commoner Queen’ due to her family being more gentry than noble, Woodville charmed and married the Yorkist King Edward IV in secret in 1464. Although the union caused a stir, given Elizabeth’s background and Lancastrian blood, her family’s influence was greatly enhanced thereafter.

Even after Edward died in 1483 and the suspected murder of Elizabeth's two sons by Richard III, the Dowager Queen played a crucial political role. She agreed to the conspiracy suggested by Beaufort that would see Beaufort’s son, Henry Tudor, given the full support of Edward IV’s friends to topple Richard III and claim the throne. All he had to do was marry Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth of York. After the Tudor victory at the Battle of Bosworth, the marital arrangement brought the Wars of the Roses to an end. Segments of the two royal houses were finally aligned with a common cause.

Margaret of Anjou

Margaret was of noble French birth and became Queen of England and nominally Queen of France through her marriage with King Henry VI. Under Henry’s rule the country slipped into the Wars of the Roses and as it did the oft-depicted weak-willed king was heavily influenced by his extraordinary wife Margaret.

The king also suffered from bouts of catatonia, leading Margaret to step in and lead the country in his absence. Her strong leadership garnered her a reputation as a courageous and politically savvy Lancastrian ruler. However, her single-mindedness and decision to exclude the Yorkist faction from the Great Council meeting in 1455 led to the country slipping into civil war.

As the two royal houses began to lock horns, Margaret led from the front with legend having it she was even on the battlefield as the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions began their power struggle for the English throne.

After her husband was finally ousted in 1460, Margaret tirelessly campaigned to have him re-instated, which she succeeded in doing after allying with Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick and a former Yorkist. However, Henry's reinstatement in 1470 would prove to be brief and after his death, Margaret left for France where she'd live out the rest of her life.

Anne Neville

The Earl of Warwick was an incredibly powerful and influential noble during this period, so much so that he had the nickname of the ‘kingmaker’. The Earls youngest daughter was Anne who’d eventually become the Queen of England through her marriage to Richard III, the last king of the House of York.

Anne held such political sway that she was honoured with a joint coronation when Richard ascended to the throne. It was the first in England for 175 years and represented the influence of Anne. After inheriting her father’s ancestral lands in the north, she brought the loyalty of the region to her union with Richard, helping to solidify his place as king.

Her only son to Richard died at the age of ten in 1484. Stricken with grief Anne passed away a few months later, likely due to tuberculosis.

Elizabeth of York

Her union with Henry Tudor calmed the seas, ended the civil war and paved the way for the Tudor dynasty. Not only would she give birth to the future Henry VIII, a man who changed the nature of religion in this country, but she’d also be the grandmother of two further queens, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Many modern royals can trace their lineage back through Elizabeth of York.

Before her marriage to Henry Tudor, Elizabeth was of great political importance. Born to Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth started life as the daughter of a king.

After her father’s death, her younger brother, Edward V, ascended to the throne making her a sister to a king and when Richard III claimed the throne for himself, Elizabeth became the niece of a king.

Although Henry Tudor was descended from King Edward III, his claim to the throne was weak. With her family ties and royal blood, Elizabeth helped to solidify Henry’s claim and usher in a new period of dynastic rule in England.