Wars of the Roses and end of the medieval era

Crowning of Henry VII marked the start of the Tudor age

The crowning of Henry VII marked the start of the Tudor age - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Today, we’re going to take a quick crash course on the Wars of the Roses.

In short, the wars were one big power struggle between potential Kings of England on one side, the House of Lancaster (mostly called ‘Henry’) and on the other, the House of York (mostly called ‘Richard’ or ‘Edward’) in the second half of the 15th century.

What does all this have to do with flowers, you might ask? Well, the simple answer is: nothing. Some people like to talk romantically about the roses of Lancaster and York ultimately being united in the Tudor rose. But this is nonsense. The whole idea of both this and the Wars of the Roses name were invented much later. if you had started talking to someone fighting in the conflict at the time about roses they wouldn’t have known what you were blathering on about. The wars were about history, not botany.

The problem really started 50 or so years earlier when Henry Bollingbroke overthrew Richard II in 1399 and became Henry IV. Henry was descended from Richard’s grandfather, Edward III but this did contradict the normal line of succession. However, this wasn’t really a problem for a time as for some years things went well. Henry’s son, Henry V, for example, was successful in the Hundred Years’ War against the French especially at Agincourt in 1415, but then died in 1421 leaving his son, Henry VI to inherit the throne as a baby.

By the time Henry VI was an adult in the 1450s, things had really gone downhill. Part of the problem was that during Henry’s childhood, England had been ruled by nobles as Henry himself was too young to rule and the war with France had subsequently gone really badly. Part of the problem too was Henry VI himself who had grown up to be a good man but also a weak one. He was too dominated by his wife and prone to bouts of mental illness. By the 1450s, we had essentially lost the war with France and Henry owed lots of money to one of his allies, Richard of York, for all the fighting he had done. Richard had a claim to the throne himself and attempted to overthrow Henry. The Wars of the Roses had begun.

We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain.’ In fact, he was killed in battle just as he was on the verge of defeating Henry VI in 1460. His son, Edward became king instead. Henry lost the throne and a new Yorkist regime under Edward IV was established in 1461.

Unfortunately, Edward soon made the same mistake Henry VI had made and antagonised one of his key allies, the Earl of Warwick. Soon Warwick (who is often known as ‘Kingmaker’ although his first name was actually ‘Richard’) was actively colluding with the defeated Lancastrians. In 1470, Warwick overthrew Edward completely and restored King Henry VI. In truth, Henry was largely mad by this point and Warwick was the real power behind the throne. In 1471, Edward IV regained the Crown anyway. Warwick was killed in battle and poor old Henry VI was executed.

All was fine again (pretty much) until Edward IV died suddenly in 1483. In theory, his son, the child Edward V, then became King but he and his young brother (also called ‘Richard’) were placed in the Tower of London by their uncle, Edward IV’s brother, Richard of Gloucester. The exact fate of these two young ‘Princes in the Tower’ remains a mystery. They disappeared and their juvenile skeletons were recovered much later. They were murdered, probably by their uncle Richard of Gloucester or possibly someone else.

At any rate, Richard did become Richard III and ruled from 1483 until 1485 which was when he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth, after then the exiled Lancastrian Henry Tudor claimed the throne and became Henry VII. Henry was married to Elizabeth of York, the daughter of the late Edward IV, so theoretically the two Houses were united. Henry VII faced many more challenges to his rule but on paper it was now the Tudor age. The Wars of the Roses and indeed the medieval era of history were now over.

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