England's Wars of the Roses

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  • 0:05 Background of Wars
  • 2:33 The Henrys of Lancaster
  • 5:34 The War Begins
  • 8:11 The House of York Rules
  • 10:27 The Tudor King
  • 11:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

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
Henry IV 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
Henry VI Margaret of Anjou

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
Richard of York

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