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The Third War of the Roses

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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

With the accession of Richard III, the Wars of the Roses were resumed. This is the story of how an obscure Welsh exile managed to take the English throne and bring the Wars to an end.

The Buckingham Rebellion

Richard III's seizure of the crown took the English aristocracy totally by surprise. As they were temporarily unable to organise an opposition, he was able to set about consolidating his position. Aiming to rule as rightful king and not as a usurper, he continued with Edward IV's policies and personnel - with the obvious exceptions of those he had killed in seizing the crown.

Richard had to win over his new subjects, so - two weeks after his coronation - he set off on a grand tour to meet them. This was quite successful, and he had good grounds for optimism by the time he reached York. He stayed there in some comfort. Still, there had been problems - there had been a plot to free Edward V and his brother from the Tower and another to smuggle their sisters out of sanctuary to another country. Still, these mattered little, and Buckingham was put in charge of an investigation into the plots.

Buckingham himself had left London with Richard, but left him at Gloucester to visit his own lands in Wales. So it was that, on 10 October, 1483, rebellion broke out around England, with Buckingham at its head. These were obviously organised Lancastrian uprisings, but they were badly co-ordinated, and easily put down. Buckingham himself was unpopular in Wales, and found himself unable to rally many followers. He was captured and, on 2 November, executed. Henry Tudor (it now makes sense to use the anglicised spelling of his surname) had landed at Plymouth too late to help, and returned to exile. However, his entourage was expanded by other rebels who also escaped.

Why did Buckingham suddenly rebel? It is possible that he was disappointed by the rewards Richard gave him after taking the throne, or that he had decided that Richard was doomed, and it was better to join the eventual winners - his family had in fact been Lancastrians. Perhaps he was genuinely disgusted by the rumours about the Princes in the Tower - though he seems to have been too ruthless to find it something worth rebelling over. It is even possible that, as a descendant of Edward III's fifth son, he wanted the throne himself. Most likely, perhaps, is that he just thought he'd be more influential under Henry Tudor.

Misfortunes of Richard III

Richard now had to deal with Tudor's mix of Lancastrians, Woodvilles and Edwardian Yorkists. One problem here lay with Elizabeth of York, sister of the Princes in the Tower. Tudor had promised to marry her, winning over the non-Lancastrian elements of his support. Another lay in the pro-Tudor south. Richard's rule in the north, for Edward IV, had been popular, so many northerners liked him - but the south did not. Richard was obliged to bring in northern nobles to run the south, which just made him more unpopular there.

The best way of gaining popularity was by making good laws, which Richard proceeded to do. He notably passed acts through Parliament insisting that petitions of the poor be favoured in commercial cases. He also abolished benevolences, the sale of high offices, and made reforms to the tax laws. Unfortunately, facing threats to his rule, and with a far from full treasury when he mounted the throne, Richard was simply forced to raise money by other means, and nobody cared how the king got his hands on their money.

Richard's foreign policy was centred around isolating Henry Tudor. But again, luck was not on his side, as he had inherited wars with Scotland and France. Still, he could use them to rally the people behind him, and he extended the wars to Brittany, where Tudor was living. He invaded Scotland, with minor successes, but was able to negotiate a truce to secure his northern border. He now turned to Brittany, organising a truce and offering help against France - his aim was to get Tudor in his hands. He got the agreement, but Tudor had learned of it and escaped to France and the French agreed to support him. Therefore, Richard's efforts had only made Tudor more dangerous - a fact which, in turn, encouraged more defections. Even the garrison at Calais went over to him.

Richard also suffered domestic problems. His only legitimate son died in the spring of 1484, and the Queen seemed unable to produce another heir1. In the short term, Richard was forced to acknowledge the young Earl of Warwick, son of his brother Clarence, as heir, a move that drew attention to the fact that, in seizing the throne, Richard had passed the crown over this boy to himself2. Then the Queen herself fell ill, and in March, 1485, she died. Richard seemed unconcerned. The death of Queen Anne freed him to move for a papal dispensation to marry his niece Elizabeth, sister of Edward V, and some said that Richard poisoned Queen Anne to hasten her death. The reasons for marrying Elizabeth were threefold - the practical need for an heir, to re-associate himself with the line of Edward IV, which Elizabeth now represented, and to prevent Tudor from marrying her. But it came to nothing, as his supporters would not allow it. It would threaten their hold on the lands stripped from Elizabeth's brothers. This incestuous plan merely increased Richard's unpopularity still further. His attempts to portray himself as pious had been badly damaged.

The Bosworth Campaign

All Richard's problems came to a head when on 7 August, 1485 Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven. He had a reasonable French force with him, and his fellow Welshmen flocked to his cause. Englishmen too came to his aid. Richard set out to meet him, and armies led by Lord Stanley and Sir William Stanley also set out to meet him, but perhaps not to fight him. Lord Stanley was Tudor's stepfather.

The armies clashed in a field near the town of Market Bosworth. It looked like a walkover. Richard had almost twice as many troops as Tudor, and the strategic advantage. But Tudor's men fought well, Richard's ally, the Duke of Northumberland, simply did nothing with his men, and the battle dragged on. Then Richard noticed Tudor himself, away from his army and exposed. He led a personal charge at his rival. He got close - Tudor's standard-bearer was cut down. Then Lord Stanley played his hand on Tudor's side. Richard was pulled from his horse and killed in a ditch by Tudor's pikemen. As news of this spread around the battlefield, Richard's men gave up. The golden band Richard wore on his helmet was found, supposedly in a hawthorn bush, and it was placed on the head of Henry Tudor, henceforth known as King Henry VII.

Henry the Conqueror

Henry VII entered London on 3 September, 1485. He was in a weak position, and he knew it. He had to get rid of possible Yorkist opposition, which he started on straight away, lodging young Warwick in the Tower. He set about placing followers he could trust in powerful positions - his loyal uncle Jasper, Earl of Pembroke, for instance, as Duke of Bedford, was put in charge of Wales. It is notable how many men he gave valuable jobs to who had not been in high office before Bosworth.

Henry's coronation took place on 30 October. When Parliament met in November it was faced with the task of justifying Henry's claim to the throne. Henry had three grounds on which he could base his claim:

  1. The right of blood - the claim to be rightful heir of Lancaster through his mother, Margaret Beaufort.

  2. The right of marriage - he intended to marry Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth, and could claim the throne as her husband-to-be.

  3. The right of conquest - his victory at Bosworth had given him the crown, and he meant to keep it.

The right of marriage was of little use. First, he wanted his marriage to strengthen his claim, not be his claim. It would be no use owing his throne to his wife. Also, when Richard III deposed Edward V, he had also declared Elizabeth illegitimate, and this needed sorting out. Even if she were legitimate, some said that Warwick, being male, was Edward IV's true heir. Henry's claim by descent from Edward III was weak and of doubtful legitimacy. And if he claimed solely by conquest, he could be feared by nobles, who might seek to unseat him. In the end he said he was king by right. Just that. Not 'of' anything, but his right had been confirmed by God at Bosworth. Though he did indeed use his Lancastrian inheritance in his claim, his main claim was by force. He was, ultimately, a conqueror.

Henry married Elizabeth of York on 18 January, 1486. Thus he could claim to have united the warring roses of Lancaster and York, and symbolically created the Tudor Rose, a large red rose with a small white one in the middle. By his marriage, he also prevented Yorkists from using Elizabeth to rally around. But, not wanting to owe the crown to Elizabeth, he did not have her crowned Queen for two years.

Henry had to deal with risings as of spring, 1486. These tended to be in the north, where Richard had been popular, but they mattered little. They were small, and some of Richard's old supporters helped put them down as a gesture of loyalty to Henry. By now in the Wars of the Roses, nobles had learned to swim with the tide. In addition, many were just too sick of civil war to fight.

Simnel and Stoke

Henry's main problems came from abroad. Richard's sister, Margaret, was now duchess of Burgundy, in alliance with the Emperor Maximilian, who ruled the Duchy for his young son, and Margaret hated Henry. She became the source of a major Yorkist rebellion.

Ireland was heavily pro-Yorkist, a tendency that went back to Richard of York's Lieutenantship there for Henry VI. There, in February, 1487, the Earl of Warwick was supposedly crowned King Edward VI, with Burgundian support. An invasion was planned. Henry was able to weaken the plot with one simple weapon - the real Earl of Warwick, let out of the Tower, and paraded around the streets of London, damaging the conspiracy's credibility. The false Earl of Warwick was an Oxford carpenter's son called Lambert Simnel.

Still, the invasion remained a threat. The Yorkists landed on 4 June, 1487. Henry set off to meet them, and the armies clashed at Stoke on 16 June. The battle was over by noon, but most of Simnel's noble supporters were slain3. Simnel himself was put to work in the palace kitchens, and later became the king's trusted falconer. The Battle of Stoke ultimately turned out to be the last true battle of the Wars of the Roses, but the Wars themselves were not yet over.

The Career of Perkin Warbeck

Following Stoke, Henry joined a campaign to protect Brittany from a French invasion. This failed, but Henry kept up the war, until the frustrated King Charles VII offered a very generous peace, which included a promise not to help any Yorkist conspirators. Henry also agreed treaties with the Spanish kingdoms, Portugal and Denmark. But another Yorkist conspiracy nonetheless emerged.

In 1491, a young man in Ireland claimed to be Richard of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower. He had been proclaimed King as Richard IV and enjoyed French support before Henry's peace treaty forced him to flee. Of course, he was not Richard of York, but a Flemish customs officer's son called Perkin Warbeck.

Warbeck was remarkably successful, getting some in Henry's court to become his spies. But some turned double-agents, perhaps on realising he was an impostor, and Henry was able to liquidate many of the spies. He also learned that Warbeck planned to invade. Henry closed the Scottish border, and guarded the west coast against Irish invasion.

Ireland was happy to rebel again, and Henry responded by sending Lord Poynings to crush the rebels. Poynings was, at first, ineffective, and the rebellion spread. Poynings eventually brought Ireland to heel with a new law, saying Irish parliaments could only meet at the pleasure of the King of England. It could not discuss bills without his permission, and all English laws would apply in Ireland from then on. Irish independence had been dealt a massive blow.

Meanwhile, Warbeck set out. He failed to land in Norfolk, and lost 300 men trying to land in Deal. But the remainder reached Ireland. There, however, they were defeated, and Warbeck fled again - this time to Scotland. In Scotland, he found an eager ally in King James IV. There, 'Richard IV' was able to parade openly, and marry a high Scottish noblewoman. Henry had to cut Scotland off from any would-be allies. The Magnus Intercursus, in February, 1496, finally achieved peace with Burgundy. As it happened, European politics meant that everybody else now wanted England as a friend, so Scotland was indeed isolated.

Still, in September, the Scots invaded. They were easily repulsed, and Henry raised taxes for an invasion. This prompted Cornwall to revolt. Henry was thus forced to turn his attention to the West Country, leaving the north to the Scots again. But James was practical enough to accept a good peace deal. He signed it on 20 September, 1497, having allowed Warbeck to leave.

In the meantime, Warbeck had tried another Irish insurrection, gained no support, and then, in desperation, landed at Land's End. The Cornish rebelled again. Henry was this time able to commit a full army. The Cornish deserted Warbeck, who was finally captured. He was treated similarly to Simnel at first, but in June, 1498, attempted to escape. This time he was locked in the Tower with the Earl of Warwick. Henry was now able to accuse the two prisoners of plotting treason with one another4. Warbeck was hanged on 23 November, 1499 and Warwick beheaded five days later. Warwick's sister, Countess Margaret of Salisbury, was executed by Henry VIII in 1541, but this had little to do with the Wars of the Roses.

Thus, by 1500, Henry VII was secure on his throne. He had troubles to come, with the deaths of Arthur, the Prince of Wales, and of Queen Elizabeth, and with his own declining health, but when he died in 1509, nobody questioned the right of his other son to succeed as Henry VIII, true heir of Lancaster and York5. The Wars of the Roses were over, and the Tudors stayed on the throne for the natural life of their line. But the Wars left a mark on the English consciousness. They were undoubtedly a factor in Henry VIII's determination to have a son to succeed him, a desire that led directly to the English Reformation. When Elizabeth I, the last Tudor, was in old age, there were fears that her death would spark civil war for the throne. But it did not - James I succeeded peacefully in 1603. Forty years after that, though, and Civil War would again tear England apart. But that's another story.

Further Reading:

eHistory on the Wars of the Roses

The Plantagenets from the British Royal website.

eHistory's map of the Wars of the Roses

1This won Richard no sympathy. If anything, it made him less popular, as many saw it as divine punishment for Richard killing his nephews, including many who otherwise might not have believed it.2It is true that Clarence had been attainted, but attainter caused all lands to revert to the crown. It could not, therefore affect the succession, as the crown could not revert to itself.3A bonus for Henry is that one of these was John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. He was a son of Edward IV's sister, and thus a genuine Yorkist claimant. His brother survived Henry's reign, but was executed by Henry VIII in 1513.4In Warbeck's case this could well have been true, given his past actions. Poor Warwick, however, who had grown up starved of education, was almost certainly innocent.5It was, however, lucky that Henry VIII had reached the age of 18 when his father died. Henry VII's health had been slowly failing since 1504, and at that time, many expected a repeat of 1483.

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