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The Causes of the Wars of the Roses

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Two figures on a chess board facing each other: one representing the House of York; the other the House of Lancaster.

The Causes of the Wars of the Roses | The First War of the Roses | The Second War of the Roses | The House of York at Peace | The Third War of the Roses

Between 1455 and 1499, England was torn apart by a series of civil wars, with two branches of the ruling Plantagenet family fighting over the right to wear the crown of England. Dominance switched between sides regularly as political behaviour broke down, and men and women of either side pursued their own interests. In the end, the Plantagenets themselves fell to a new family, the last hope of one of the factions. These civil wars came to be known as the Wars of the Roses, after what were claimed to be badges used by the two sides - The Red Rose of the House of Lancaster and the White Rose of the House of York1.

The word 'wars' implies more than one, and all historians agree that there were at least two. Some suggest that there were three, and this series of articles works in support of this theory; but, it must be borne in mind that many consider what here are called the first and second wars to have been one and the same. However many there were, it was the first that meant the others were possible, as it made loyalty an almost forgotten concept among the English nobility. However, before we look at the wars, we must first look at the reasons why they occurred.

The 100 Years War

King Henry V of England had been the ideal medieval monarch. An astute politician and a brilliant military tactician, he had brought glory on England by his campaigns in France. Reviving the 100 Years War, an on-off conflict over the throne of France (and, more realistically, England holding French land), he had scored a stunning victory at the Battle of Agincourt. After further campaigning, he appeared to have triumphed - he married a French princess, Katherine of Valois, and was named heir to the French throne. The French, however, rallied around the disinherited dauphin2. There was much still to be done when Henry's campaigning took its toll on him, and he died at the age of 34.

The new king, Henry VI, was just a baby, who, as he grew up, saw the French recovery grow in strength after the turning point at Orleans. England was slowly deserted by its powerful ally, the Duke of Burgundy3. By the time Henry was old enough to rule, Paris had been lost. A natural pacifist, he sent, in 1444, a favourite, the Duke of Suffolk, to hand over the counties of Anjou and Maine, in return for being allowed to keep the duchies of Aquitaine and Normandy. This unpopular move led Henry to prevaricate over its implementation and, in 1448, the French lost patience and invaded the counties. The war was back on, and by the end of 1450, the French had overrun Normandy. All that remained was Aquitaine, English since 1154.

The triumphant French now wanted all of their country. The region of Gascony considered itself part of England, and the French as foreign invaders. Henry sent Lord Talbot to liberate Bordeaux. Talbot was successful, but when he needed reinforcements Henry dithered. The French seized their chance, and triumphed at the Battle of Castillion. Gascony was lost forever. Calais was now England's only toe-hold in mainland Europe.

This humiliation, and divisions over the way the war was fought with Henry constantly favouring incompetents he personally liked over more talented men, greatly damaged the credibility of the English crown. It also meant that many soldiers came back from France with little to show for their efforts. Such men would relish another fight, as they now had little to do but rampage over England - a fact that itself did nothing for Henry's popularity.

Henry VI and Queen Margaret

Henry VI was, in personality, nothing like his father. He was a pious, simple and weak-willed man, easily led. This meant that dishonest courtiers could manipulate him, and he would spend extravagantly on them, diverting money from the French war, and taxing his subjects. Somehow, Henry always managed to be led by the worst of his magnates, whom he greatly favoured, notably the Dukes of Suffolk and Somerset. Others, such as his heir presumptive, the Duke of York, and the powerful Neville family, which included the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, slowly came together in opposition to the court favourites.

In 1445, Henry married Margaret of Valois, a French princess. He adored her - observers agreed she was beautiful - and she had genuine affection for him, but she was very unlike him. She was fierce, passionate and unforgiving. She became the dominant partner in the marriage and, in many ways, the true ruler of England. This England was breaking down, with the troops returning from France, and she became heavily blamed for the French disaster. Her decline in popularity added to that of the court.

It was Suffolk, responsible for arranging the marriage, who became the public scapegoat. By 1447, he had been appointed to many powerful positions, and had tried to get rid of the opposition by exiling York as lieutenant of Ireland. York simply awaited Suffolk's inevitable fall. Sure enough, Parliament met, and the Commons impeached him. However, Henry deliberately fudged things and exiled him for five years. On the way, his ship was intercepted, and his head ended up on the beach at Dover. Margaret blamed York for this, and their enmity mounted.

York also had reason to hate Somerset - not only was he a favourite, he had a claim to the succession, and was pushing to be made heir instead of York. Somerset would help Margaret avenge Suffolk. Before this could happen, though, in 1449, the common people intervened. Kent in particular was ravaged by soldiers from France and by French raids. Led by one Jack Cade, the Kentishmen rose in revolt. Cade wanted York, now seen as the people's champion, recalled from Dublin. Cade's rebels marched on London, and lynched the Sheriff of Kent. Eventually, though, the rebellion collapsed, and Margaret dealt with Cade and the other rebel leaders quite ruthlessly. This merely served to push the southern commons firmly into the Yorkist opposition.

Hearing of the people's mood, York returned from Ireland. In September 1450, he visited the King and demanded reforms - notably the dismissing of Somerset. He deliberately adopted some of Cade's demands, to win public support. Henry pretended to concede, but when Parliament gathered, he made sure that the House of Lords was dominated by his own party. Not only was Somerset not dismissed, he was made Captain of Calais.

York reluctantly resorted to force. Armies were raised, and York marched from his Ludlow headquarters towards London. A royal army was raised to meet him. York found London barred to him, and moved on to Dartford in Kent. This was where the royal army met his. They were evenly matched, and neither wanted to fight. To prevent bloodshed, Henry had Somerset arrested. York then met with Henry and Margaret, who demanded that Somerset, also present, be freed. York realised he himself was now a prisoner. Henry soon pardoned him, but it was clear he had failed. Still, this campaign, in 1452, had been effectively the dry run for the Wars of the Roses.

The Dynastic Issue

York had a better claim to the throne than Somerset. In fact, he had a better claim than Henry himself. The reasons for this went back to 1399, another year of great civil strife.

King Richard II had, in his youth, disputed with the Lords at court. He had apparently allowed bygones be bygones for nine years, when he ruthlessly struck. Henry Bolingbroke, heir to the Duchy of Lancaster, was exiled, and Richard had seized the Duchy when Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, the third son of King Edward III, died. Richard then campaigned in Ireland, and Bolingbroke returned for his inheritance. His army, and people rallying to him, meant that England was already in his hands when Richard returned. The king surrendered. Bolingbroke then had Richard deposed and took the throne himself as King Henry IV. He was Henry VI's grandfather.

A king could be deposed - the precedent had been set by the deposition of Edward II in 1327. However, on that occasion, his son and heir, Edward III, had succeeded him. Richard II had no children. He was the heir of Edward III through that king's eldest son, and Henry IV through the third. But what of the second son? His heir, Edmund Mortimer, was the rightful king after Richard's downfall. Fortunately for Henry IV, Mortimer was a boy at the time, and grew up to be a man without ambition. Still, his claim remained, and by 1450, York was heir to the throne. York saw himself merely as wanting to see Henry rule well, but that could change. It was certainly an issue under the surface of the government's breakdown.

The Madness of King Henry

Henry V's success in France was helped by the insanity of its King, Charles VI. Henry VI was Charles' grandson, through his mother, Queen Katherine. The mental weakness seems to have been hereditary, because, just three weeks after hearing of the defeat at Castillion, Henry VI's health collapsed. His condition is believed to have been catatonic schizophrenia. He became utterly withdrawn, unable to recognise anybody, even his own family.

This brought things to a head. Regency was needed to rule in Henry's name. Things were further complicated by the birth - on the 13 October, 1453 - of Prince Edward, the son of Henry and Margaret. While this put a stop to the succession dispute between York and Somerset, it did nothing to stop their mutual hatred. It also meant that Margaret now had a son to fight for, and she regarded York as a major threat to his inheritance. From now on, she would stop at nothing to defeat him.

Somerset had another notable enemy in Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, due to a dispute over lands in Wales. By inheritance and marriage, Warwick had made himself the richest and most powerful landowner in England. He also had charisma and popularity. Now, he was driven by mutual enmity with Somerset, to become York's principal ally.

Parliament met to discuss the Regency issue, its numbers depleted by intimidation by both sides. Prince Edward was formally recognised as heir, but York had managed to win over enough peers to have him made Protector of the realm. Having won the Regency, he immediately set to work sacking Somerset from all his offices, and then imprisoned him in the Tower of London. That done, he then sent Margaret to Henry's side. She would be Queen as wife only, without power.

York was well into his reform programme when, on Christmas Day, 1454, Henry VI recovered as suddenly as he had fallen ill. York was immediately relieved of the protectorate. However, Henry's recovery was not so complete that Margaret could not exert almost complete control over his actions and decisions. Somerset was freed from his incarceration and began plotting with her to destroy York.

Warwick urged York not to show patience and make every effort to find out what Margaret and Somerset were plotting. Together with the Earl of Salisbury, Warwick's father, York raised an army. Warwick did the same. The Queen and Somerset called a Council - without these three present - to crush the enemies of the King. It was obvious whom this meant. Henry ordered York, Salisbury and Warwick to attend - they did not. Instead, they mobilised their armies against the court faction. The Wars of the Roses had begun.

Further Reading:

1The name, poetic though it is, is rather inaccurate. The White Rose was just one of many Yorkist badges. As for the Red Rose, there is no evidence of the Lancastrians using it at all, except for some instances fairly late in the Wars.2The eldest son of the king of France, at any time from 1349 to 1830.3The ancient Duchy of Burgundy was located in modern Flanders and North-East France. Its Duke paid homage to the King of France for his lands, but only nominally. In reality, Burgundy was an independent state, and a wealthy and powerful one at that, due to its location on the medieval trade routes. Burgundy would play an important role in the Wars of the Roses.

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