The Wars of the Roses: Who Really Won?

In the 1450's King Henry VI was happily on the throne of England. The son of the mighty King Henry V, grandson of the conqueror King Henry IV, it is hard to think that this man, related to such extreme royalty and a direct descendant of King Edward III, could have been unseated. It is hard to think that anyone else thought themselves up to the job.

However, Henry's reign over England was to be cut short in the strife which was about to begin. He was unknowing of this fact. Henry had been a boy king, taking the throne from his father after his death when Henry was just 9 months old. The responsibility fell upon a child then to maintain the legacy which Edward III had passed down through several Plantagenet generations. The Hundred Years' War.

Huge investments had gone into keeping this expensive and rather unnecessary war going with France. It was in the sixth Henry’s reign that the English superiority was lost. It was uncommon on such long lasting wars even for medieval kings to take the front line, so it was then expected that the highest of English nobility would take a form of bloody centre stage. The Dukes of York and Somerset were just two of these such figures - and they were two of the higher investors in the war.

Henry had little interest in war and more interest in education, and to many of his contemporaries this was a big problem. Although King Henry VI is known for some stunning achievements (creating Eton college and King's college Cambridge), none were as notable at the time as his dragging the country of England into seemingly unsolvable debt and bringing with it the peers of the realm.

Among these peers was a name any keen historian should know - Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. When Henry began to suffer from a bout of incurable dementia and confusion the Wars of the Roses was about to begin.

At the time, similarly to when a country is ruled by a child, an insane King is in need of a protector in order to see that the country is ruled well and all its needs are served. The argument soon arose as to whom would be best to take this role. Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset (great uncle to the kings close nephew Henry Tudor - a name we will look at more over time) or Richard Duke of York, the supposedly rightful heir to the throne?

A tough call by anyone's standards.. Tougher still when one knows that had Henry's grandfather taken the throne by murdering King Richard II, then Richard Plantagenet would likely have been King of England. Richard had also managed to build a debt of 10,000 pounds (an unimaginable sum today) as he funded the Hundred Years' War. Having said this however, Beaufort was the closer relative to the king and had less motive for causing harm to the royal body. Perhaps it was sensible then - and certainly understandable - that the protectorship originally fell to Somerset.

Except, it didn't end there, unfortunately. The story twists into one more complex. York felt alienated by the decision to make Somerset the leader of England - the King in all but name, really - when he was clearly of higher birth and greater authority. After letting a rift come between York and Somerset (and some other peers, namely Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and Richard Neville Earl of Warwick - for York - and just about everyone else, including Queen Margaret of Anjou herself for Beaufort and Lancaster).

After arguments and exiles, in 1455 it came to bloodshed. Two armies marched toward St Albans where, despite the King's presence, they met with brutal force. For the Lancastrians, several people of notable rank lost their lives among the slaughter: Lord Clifford and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. In spite of York's obvious victory, these two deaths would later return to haunt him. It is here also we must introduce one of our more important figureheads. Among the anarchy of medieval fighting was supposedly the Duke of York's eldest son, the thirteen year old Edward, Earl of March.

March had brought his forces from Shropshire (on the border of England and Wales) and had marched from Ludlow to join his father and Neville kindred at St Albans. The chances of this youth having fought is unthinkable, and exceptionally unlikely even for the time. However, it is almost certain he witnessed the bloody end of his father's enemies and even saw his King wounded among the chaos. Nonetheless, this trauma was not enough to put him off battle.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, York gained his precious protectorship just in time for Henry to regain his wits. It had all been for nothing. I suppose we could call it York's biggest folly but it wasn't. That was yet to come.

Chaos was defeated and peace prevailed for four more years until 1459. It was in this year that York was sheltered in Ludlow castle with his family (Cecily Neville, his wife and some of their children; Edward (e. March) aged 17, Edmund (e. Rutland) aged 16, Margaret aged 13, George aged 10 and Richard aged 7). Also present were the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick. After numerous threats and protests by York, - and some not including the rebellion launched by Jack Cade, who claimed to be a Mortimer, and thus related to York and wanted more authority for that very same Duke - the Lancastrians lost patience. It was now they promised York war or death.

Trapped inside the walls of Ludlow castle with the king's forces outnumbering his own betrayed forces after turncoat Yorkist Andrew Trollope deflected to Lancaster, the Yorkist leaders were left with no choice. The army dispersed and York fled to Ireland with sixteen year old Rutland and Salisbury fled to Calais (under English control) with his son Warwick (captain of Calais) and the seventeen year old Earl of March.

Again, although this may seem like a suitable point to end the story, we must continue. The Calais bound lords returned to England in spring 1460 and were later joined (after the battle of Northampton) by the Duke of York and Rutland. It was now that York pushed the dare too far; he claimed Kingship of England was rightfully his. By legend, this surprised the Earl of Salisbury and Warwick and silenced the young Earl of March (despite the fact that he would be heir to the throne should his father succeed).

But York did not succeed. The support he needed was lacking, instead exchanged by a fierce cry of outrage finally sated in December 1460. It was in snow at Wakefield on the last day of 1460 that the Duke of York, the Earl of Salisbury and the Earl of Rutland were to meet their ends. When the Lancastrians placed their heads upon the walls of York (upon the infamous Micklegate Bar, so it is said) I suppose they thought the job was nearly over, that March and Warwick would be easy.

The could not have been more wrong.

The year 1461 saw outrageous levels of bloody revenge, led almost purely by the Yorkist forces and March's anger. Edward, now Duke of York, found much responsibility after his father died. Now the best claimant to the throne and wronged by his brother’s death and Lancastrian butchery, he walked almost purely in his father’s boots. After the battles of Mortimers Cross (York’s victory) and St Albans II (Lancastrian victory), Edward was proclaimed King in London in February 1461. He would remain uncrowned until that summer.

In March 1461 the Yorkists marched north in high spirits, engaging in two battles in North Yorkshire: Ferrybridge, where Lord Clifford’s son, John Clifford, the new Baron of Skipton Craven and the cause of Rutland's death was to meet his end, and Towton, the bloodiest battle ever recorded on English soil. Towton was the ultimatum; when York emerged from the blood-soaked snow with victory grasped in his palm, he was officially England's first Yorkist King.

He would remain irremovably King until 1470. It was in this year when Edward (after several battles and betrayals by these important names: John Neville, Warwick's brother and previously Earl of Northumberland, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence and the King's own brother) fled to Burgundy with close friend William Hastings, brother-in-law Anthony Woodville and his youngest and supposedly most loyal brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. It was in Burgundy they sought the support of the Duke of Burgundy, playing on familial ties, for Margaret Plantagenet had married Charles the Bold, the present Duke of Burgundy, in 1470.

It took a while, and surely at many moments the cause seemed lost for York, and Warwick and Clarence restored England to the rule of 'Mad King Henry' and his 'She Wolf' (Queen Margaret). Despite everything working so well for Lancaster in these few months, they could have completely secured England for themselves and prevented the then attained 'Yorkist traitors and their usurping King' returning at all, under pain of death.

Queen Margaret must have been a paranoid woman - which could be understandable - for she kept her son, Edward of Lancaster, and his wife, Anne Neville, in France. This was probably her fatal mistake, for in the spring of 1471, Edward returned with his loyal nobles and an army. Landing in Yorkshire and stopping in York to reclaim his Duchy he marched south, regaining Clarence as a supporter before they went on to London, reclaiming his crown from under Warwick's nose before meeting his old friend and mentor at Barnet.

It was dawn when they met for battle, with the skirmish lasting a little over two hour before York won. Warwick and John Neville were dead. With that threat eliminated, they marched north west to Tewkesbury where Queen Margaret and her son, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, had rested their army. The next day war broke out once more and victory fell into Yorkist hands once more. It was then that Edward, had he known, would have been able to say he had never lost in battle, for the Lancastrian prince was dead, soon Somerset would join him and Queen Margaret was captured and imprisoned in The Tower of London where her husband would die just days after Tewkesbury.

With the exception of a few betrayals and the execution of his brother, Edward became undisputed King and was not removed again until his death in 1483. He had certainly gone along way, and had achieved much, from Earl of March to a King of England who reached great and still lasting wonders (bringing the printing press from Burgundy with William Caxton, building St George's chapel in Windsor Castle, clearing the English debt and completing King's college at Cambridge).

However, Edward's mistake was his early death. When he died at 40 in April 1483 he left six children, all in their minorities:

  • Elizabeth
  • Cecily
  • Edward
  • Richard
  • Catherine
  • Bridget

Prince Edward would take the throne, but he would never be crowned. He and young Prince Richard, the supposedly most powerful people in England would disappear in 1483 and their supporters, William Hastings, Anthony Woodville and Richard Grey (their half brother through their mother Elizabeth Woodville) would die at the hands of Richard III's executioners. Then Richard, Duke of Gloucester would proclaim himself King of England.

It lasted until 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated him - and called him a murderer of innocents and unrightfully King of England - at Bosworth field. Thus, the last Yorkist King was dead.

It is here then that many people say that Lancaster prevailed and won. However, the question is, did they? Both York and Lancaster had relatively sound claims to the throne, both descended from Edward III, both had similarly strong claims, albeit if Edward of York's (not Richard's) was considerably stronger when counting maternal lineage as well as paternal. But Tudor had no claim to the throne of England according to his lineage, and the last Lancastrian (Edward of Lancaster) had died fourteen years previously.

Tudor was descended from Queen Catherine of England, wife of King Henry V, through her second and forbidden marriage to Owen Tudor. They produced two children, Edmund and Jasper. It was Edmund who was to marry Margaret Beaufort and together, they would produce Henry. Given that Owen Tudor was a Welsh squire and Catherine was a dowager queen engaging in a sceptical marriage, it would seem that through his paternal roots, he had no claim to the throne. Even less by his mother, who was a Beaufort and so granted, a descendant of Edward III like both the Houses of York and Lancaster, but the Beauforts had been proclaimed illegitimate and thus were not allowed to rule, despite being legitimised by Richard II. Adding this to the fact that a mother's lineage was not to be considered except in desperation, only then was Tudor able to claim the throne successfully, and thus changing English history forever, by marrying Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth of York.

The conclusion is then relatively obvious, that only one victor could be found, and this is in the form of the House of York, for it must be. Tudor was neither a Lancastrian or able to claim the throne rightfully for himself, thus it was only by joining the House of York by marriage, not spirit, that he was able to claim the throne at all. He clearly knew this, emphasised by his treatment toward the legendary Perkin Warbeck, who was executed for treason when he claimed to be the younger of the two York princes (the Princes in the Tower). He obviously knew that if such a return was true, his position was less than safe, and a Yorkist opponent would cleanly win.

It is why I, and many others would conclude that the House of York prevailed and were indeed victorious. However, any arguments are more than welcome, I have written this article for the purpose of debate and would love to hear any other opinions on the matter.

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