The House of York: Family Tree & Overview

Instructor: Mollie Madden
The House of York was one of the two families that fought over the English throne in the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses. The Yorkist claim to the throne was based on being descended from Edward III.

York vs. Lancaster

The House of York fought against the House of Lancaster during the English Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century. This was a dynastic war fought in periodic episodes between 1445 and 1487. Both houses were descended from Edward III of the House of Plantagenet and based their claims to the English throne on this relationship.

Background: The Plantagenet Legacy

Edward III of the House of Plantagenet had five sons who survived to adulthood. The eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, died in 1376, a year before Edward III died. Upon Edward III's death, Edward of Woodstock's ten-year-old son Richard was crowned Richard II. He became increasingly unpopular and was deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, the first of the Lancastrian kings. John of Gaunt, Henry Bolingbroke's father, was the third son of Edward III and the Duke of Lancaster. Thus the English throne passed from the senior line of the Plantagenets to a junior branch of the family, and the House of Lancaster was established as the ruling family.

The House of York: Foundations

House of York
House of York Family Tree

The founder of the House of York was Edmund of Langley, the first Duke of York. He was the fourth surviving son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. Thus the House of York could not base its claim to the throne entirely upon descent from Edmund of Langley, as his branch of the family was 'younger' than the Lancastrian branch. The Yorkist claim was bolstered by the marriage of Edmund's younger son, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, to Anne Mortimer, who was descended from Lionel of Antwerp, the second son of Edward III. Thus, the Yorkists could claim descent from two of Edward III's sons, one of whom was older than John of Gaunt.

The House of York: Richard Plantagenet

The Yorkist claim to the throne attracted supporters during the reign of Henry VI, the third Lancastrian king, who came to the throne in 1422. Some English nobles favored the Yorkist claim because Henry VI was a weak king and suffered from periods of insanity, which allowed his queen, the French Margaret of Anjou, his regents, and his advisors to take over the government. It was a policy to exclude rivals and opponents. Also, in 1453, English forces lost the Battle of Castillion in the Hundred Years War, and with it England's territory in France. This was certainly a blow to national pride, and it hurt England's trade with Bordeaux, which had long been an important market for selling English wheat.

Despite his large estates, administrative experience, and service during the Hundred Years War, one man that was actively excluded was Richard Plantagenet, the third Duke of York. He led the opposition to the king. When Henry VI suffered a serious mental breakdown in 1453, Richard was made Protector of the Realm. Then Henry recovered two years later and set about undoing all of Richard's actions. Richard lost his title of Protector of the Realm and wasted no time in gathering an army to fight the king. Richard was victorious this time.

Over the next five years, there was a series of battles and campaigns. While his initial aim was not the throne, Richard eventually claimed it in 1460. When he was killed in battle, his eldest son inherited and pursued the Yorkist claim to the throne and was crowned Edward IV. Richard's head, wearing a paper crown, was put on a pike.

The House of York: Edward IV

Edward IV, the first Yorkist king
Edward IV, the first Yorkist king

Edward IV, the first of the Yorkist kings, ruled from 1461 to 1470 and from 1471 to 1483. He inherited the claim to the throne, and with the help of the Earl of Warwick successfully defeated the Lancasters. Significantly, the Yorkist army captured London, which gave them a practical and symbolic advantage, and Edward was crowned in 1461.

Edward married Elizabeth Woodville rather than pursue a foreign and politically strategic marriage alliance. The elevation of the Woodvilles created animosity in England, particularly with the Earl of Warwick, who rebelled. This was the last serious opposition to Edward IV, as it resulted in the virtual elimination of the House of Lancaster. Only Henry Tudor remained as a rival, and he lived in exile on the Continent.

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