This lesson will focus on England's Wars of the Roses. It will highlight the key figures from both the Houses of York and Lancaster. It will also identify the importance of the divine right of kings.
Background of Wars
Soap operas are known for their twists and turns. One day people are in love, the next day they're at war. One day the star is an oil tycoon, and the very next day his brother has cheated him out of the family business.
These soap operas are outlandish and their plots, rather unbelievable, causing many of us to scoff and roll our eyes. However, their twists and turns and their villains and heroes are nothing in comparison to the intrigue of England's Wars of the Roses.
The Wars of the Roses is history's name for a series of civil wars that wreaked havoc in England during the second half of the 15th century. It was a fight for power between the two main branches of English royalty, the Houses of York and Lancaster.
Henry IV claimed the throne after overthrowing Richard II
Its pretty sounding name is a bit misleading, since it was a bloody conflict spanning decades. The name, Wars of the Roses, has its origin in the white rose, which was the emblem of the House of York. Although tradition holds the red rose was held by the House of Lancaster, this is probably more fiction than fact, made popular by Shakespeare's Henry V. In his masterpiece of historical fiction, Shakespeare has the nobility of England choosing sides by picking either a white or red rose to show their allegiance. No matter the name, the war was born out of a desire for power and some seriously messed up family dynamics!
Before we jump into the details of the war, let me warn you: they are confusing and twisted, to say the very least. Power traded hands, and people traded sides. All the while, the crown of England was tossed around like a game of hot potato. As we go over the details of this confusing time, I would like you to grasp three main points.
First, the Wars of the Roses was fought between the English Houses of York and Lancaster. Second, the people of England held very tightly to the belief in the divine right of kings, which I'll explain later on. And third, the Wars of the Roses eventually brought about the powerful Tudor dynasty. If you can grab these three main points, we'll be in really good shape.
The Henrys of Lancaster
The first king we will discuss is Henry IV, from the House of Lancaster. Henry IV came to power by overthrowing his cousin Richard II. Although Richard II was pretty much a tyrant, the English had always given credence to the divine right of kings, or the belief that a king is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. Even though Richard II was a cruel despot, he was still the people's king, given the title by God and heredity. When Henry IV deposed him, he ignored the principle of the divine right of kings. This move made him a thief in the eyes of many, causing his rule to never be truly accepted.
Lucky for the House of Lancaster, King Henry IV's son, King Henry V, was a charismatic leader who gave his subjects a common enemy to despise. He found this enemy in the country of France and led the British to a triumphant victory over the French at the Hundred Years' War's Battle of Agincourt in 1415. This, along with his marriage to Princess Katherine of France, made him a national hero. The house of Lancaster had not only given England a military victory, they had also gained a place in French succession through Henry V's politically savvy marriage to Katherine, daughter of the King of France. Finally, the line of Lancaster had gained acceptance as England's ruling house.
Margaret manipulated her weak-minded husband, Henry VI
Unfortunately, the house of Lancaster hit a rough patch when Henry V, the war hero, died suddenly in 1422. He left only an infant son as heir whose name, not surprisingly, was King Henry VI. Unlike his father, King Henry VI was a timid boy who grew into a meek and religious young man with no real hunger for power. During his young life, England was torn apart by powerful warlords trying to fill the power vacuum left by this new Henry who was more of a monk than a king.
In early adulthood, Henry VI was married off to the French Margaret of Anjou, a politically minded woman who had no trouble manipulating her timid husband. Margaret soon rallied those around her who would increase her wealth and power. Under her rule, the English treasury was nearly bankrupted and much of the gains made by the war hero, King Henry V, were lost. Two of her most famous advisors were the Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Suffolk. These men encouraged Margaret to alienate any noble who may have eyes on the throne, especially Richard of York, from, yes, you guessed it, the House of York. Richard, just like Henry VI, was a direct descendant of royal blood who could potentially lay claim to the throne.
The War Begins
In 1453, King Henry VI, the then hen-pecked ruler, suffered from a serious mental disorder and was unable to continue his royal duties. As Margaret held no birthright to the throne, Richard of York, the guy she tried to alienate, was made Protector of the Realm. With this move, Margaret, Somerset, and Suffolk were tossed to the side, and Richard of York became the de facto ruler of England. Score one for the House of York.
Richard, like Margaret, had an advisor of his own, a man named Neville, known as the Kingmaker. History tells us this guy was a real power monger who quickly worked to increase the power of the House of York. However, before he could succeed at making Richard of York the new king, King Henry VI, the mentally-unstable real king, somehow recovered from his mental lapse. Upon his return to the helm, Henry quickly returned Margaret and her posse to power, throwing the Yorks out on their ears and working to strip them of all power and worth.
Richard, prompted by Neville, refused to go quietly into the dark night. In a move of self-defense, Richard and his clan took up their arms, thus beginning the first official battle of the Wars of the Roses, The Battle of St. Albans. This battle was a decisive victory for Richard and the House of York. In fact, Somerset, Margaret's advisor, was killed, and King Henry VI was captured. However, Richard did not usurp the throne, but instead listed his grievances to the King. This brought about a very delicate truce that lasted for just a few years.
Richard died at the Battle of Wakefield after being named heir to the throne
Fighting quickly resumed. Although both sides traded victories, the House of York won a decisive victory at the Battle of Northampton in 1460. Tradition states that at this time, Richard made a move to depose Henry VI but smartly realized the divine right of kings still stood in his way. Instead, he settled for being named Henry's heir.
Of course, this really angered Margaret, since it cut her children off from the throne. Not one to sit quietly, Margaret continued her fight against York. In December of 1460, the warring forces met at the Battle of Wakefield. Here Margaret's forces got the better of Richard of York, killing him and defeating Neville the Kingmaker.
The House of York Rules
With Richard dead and gone, this should have spelled victory for the Lancaster brood, but unfortunately for them, Richard had a son who was a very charismatic leader. He soon rallied the House of York and defeated the House of Lancaster at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in 1461. With this defeat, Margaret and Henry of Lancaster were forced into exile, and Richard's son claimed the throne as King Edward IV, yet another score for the House of York.
Now, after all this fighting, you'd think the House of York would be ready to sit back and enjoy the throne. Sadly, this was not the case, for it seems the House of York couldn't even get along with each other. Not long after being crowned, King Edward's own brother, George, began challenging his rule. These challenges soon escalated into full-blown battles, this time between the two brothers of York. Fortunately for King Edward, he was able to maintain his rule and George was forced to flee to France. Listen to this: Ironically, George decided to join forces with none other than Margaret and Henry VI, the exiled troublemakers from Lancaster! Together, these three returned to England, drove Edward into exile, and returned King Henry VI to the throne… Huge, crazy score for the House of Lancaster!
However, the House of Lancaster had very little time to celebrate. Edward IV soon returned to England and regained his throne. During this time, Margaret and Henry were finally imprisoned, and George, the turncoat brother, was eventually killed. Edward of York then reigned until his death in 1483.
Upon the death of Edward IV, his twelve-year-old son became King Edward V. Before Edward V could really cement his rule, his uncle stole his throne, declaring himself King Richard III, and locking the young Edward into a tower where he mysteriously died.
The Tudor King
Edward IV became king after the death of his father, Richard of York
For some reason, this move seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back. The people of England had had enough of this ruthless quest for the throne. Even the nobility from the House of York turned their back on Richard III. Looking to the House of Lancaster, the nobles threw their support behind Henry Tudor, a distant relative from the House of Lancaster. With this support, Henry's forces met the forces of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. During the fighting, Richard himself, the guy who stole the throne from his nephew, was killed, and Henry Tudor took the throne as King Henry VII. He was the first king in the new Tudor dynasty of England, and although he was officially from the House of Lancaster, he pacified the House of York by marrying one of its daughters. This officially ended the very long, very deadly, and very confusing Wars of the Roses.
The coronation of King Henry VII brought to power the great Tudor dynasty, which would include the powerful Henry VIII and the famous Queen Elizabeth, both of whom had the House of York and Lancaster running through their veins.
To wrap up this soap opera-like lesson, let's review our three main points.
First, the Wars of the Roses was fought between the English Houses of York and Lancaster. It was a bloody conflict that spanned decades. Second, the people of England held very tightly to the belief in the divine right of kings. And third, the Wars of the Roses eventually brought the Tudor dynasty to power.
Unlike many conflicts, history doesn't really record a winner for these drama-filled wars. Instead, they are remembered as a bloody feud that wreaked havoc on the lands and people of England. Although they ushered in the powerful Tudor dynasty, this came at a very, very high price.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify the main players in the Wars of the Roses
- Describe the roles of Henry IV, Henry V, Margaret of Anjou, Richard of York, Edward IV, Henry VI, and Richard III in the Wars of the Roses
- Define the divine right of kings and discuss its significance in the Wars of the Roses
- Recall how the Wars of the Roses ended