Thirty years of intermittent civil war between 1455 and 1485 created a new kind of monarchy in England. The Wars of the Roses are often portrayed as a sordid, self-interested dynastic struggle between rival factions of English nobles. This is only part of the truth.
Real differences of social support and political orientation divided Lancastrian and Yorkist. Ironically, the Tudors, who claimed Lancastrian legitimacy, followed the model of the centralising Yorkist monarchy.
The Wars of the Roses have also been disparaged as poor military history. Charles Oman, in his great history of warfare in the Middle Ages, regarded late 15th-century England as a benighted backwater. Whereas Continental armies were reinventing war in the early Renaissance, the Lancastrians and Yorkists of the Wars of the Roses remained rooted, he argued, in ‘the archaic English system of bow-and-spear tactics inherited from Edward III’.
This, too, seems one-sided. It was not that English commanders were reactionary and out of touch; rather, grappling with quite particular military problems, they probably adapted to them as best they could in the circumstances of the time.
Like the machine-gun of a later age, the longbow of the 15th century had created a kind of tactical stalemate, effectively precluding mounted shock-action, and compelling men-at-arms to clank around the battlefield in comprehensive armours and to slug it out on foot in rather clumsy frontal collisions.
Our special feature in this issue explores the art of war in late 15th-century England with an article on strategy and tactics, a blow-by-blow analysis of the Battle of Barnet (1471), and a short essay that sets the record straight on the much-maligned Richard III.
1399: USURPATION OF HENRY BOLINGBROKE
Richard II (1377-1399), the last Plantagenet king, was overthrown in a military coup led by Henry Bolingbroke, a leading magnate whom the king had disgraced and dispossessed. The new Lancastrian dynasty was therefore founded by a usurper (crowned Henry IV), which meant its legitimacy would be contested for the next hundred years.
1422: ACCESSION OF HENRY V
1450: JACK CADE’S REBELLION
1453: BATTLE OF CASTILLON
The Hundred Years War ended in a final English defeat. Foreign war had distracted the nobility from the rampant factionalism and corruption in the Lancastrian court of King Henry VI, a weak and ineffectual monarch, and Queen Margaret of Anjou, a powerful figure who dominated the Lancastrian party. The dominant Beaufort faction of the Duke of Somerset exploited its position to advance the interests of its supporters at the expense of other noble families. Opposition crystallised around Richard, Duke of York, who had a strong claim to the throne as a direct descendant of Edward III.
1455: FIRST BATTLE OF ST ALBANS
1460: BATTLE OF WAKEFIELD
Wakefield is chiefly notable for the death of Richard, Duke of York, and the succession to the leadership of the Yorkist party of his son Edward. Edward was to prove a hedonist and a womaniser in the early years of his reign, and his favouritism was to destroy the solidarity of the Yorkist party and trigger a renewal of civil war. However, a giant of a man, a formidable warrior, and a cunning military commander, he was the epitome of a Medieval king. He was, moreover, a moderniser, with a conception of the monarchy that enabled him to rally ‘the middling sort’ to the Yorkist cause and to anticipate the Tudor absolutism of the 16th century.
1461: SECOND BATTLE OF ST ALBANS
1461: BATTLE OF TOWTON
The bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, Towton represented a catastrophic defeat for the Lancastrians, cutting a swathe through the ranks of their noble supporters, and forcing Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, and their son Prince Edward into exile. The rival claimant, Edward of York, had already had himself crowned King Edward IV in London, but it was Towton that made an enduring reality of the Yorkist monarchy.
1471: BATTLE OF BARNET
1471: BATTLE OF TEWKESBURY
1483: ACCESSION OF RICHARD III
When Edward IV died, his elder son was only 12 years old. This was the trigger for a renewal of factionalism, as rival Yorkists competed for power over the infant king, and this in turn risked a fracture in the party and a new opening for the Lancastrians. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Edward’s younger brother and the uncle of the two royal princes, acted swiftly to re-establish a strong monarchy. Within a month, he had taken possession of the king and made himself Protector of the Realm. Parliament was soon after informed that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid, that Edward V was therefore a bastard, and that Richard was the rightful successor. Richard was crowned king. The two royal princes were imprisoned in the Tower, and subsequently murdered.
1487: BATTLE OF STOKE
1499: DEATH OF PERKIN WARBECK
Henry Tudor faced a succession of challenges to his rule. His most persistent enemy was Perkin Warbeck, a citizen of Tournai chosen by Yorkist plotters for his resemblance to Edward IV. He was declared to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two princes murdered in the Tower (neither of whose bodies had ever been found and displayed). Warbeck organised a major rising in 1495-1496, but was defeated and captured. He then plotted with Edward, Duke of Clarence, the last true male heir of the House of Plantagenet, to escape and organise another rebellion. The plot was betrayed, and both Edward and Warbeck were executed, an event which marked the real end of the Wars of the Roses.