Wars of the Roses

Wars of the Roses 1455-1487

The Wars of the Roses, between rival factions of the Plantagenets, the Houses of Lancaster and York, took place between 1455 and 1487. 

Both claimants to the throne were direct descendants of King Edward III and the thirty two years of war saw the crown pass back and forth between the rival houses of Lancaster and York. In reality, the wars were never about the counties or people of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The period is also known as “The Cousins’ Wars”. The end of the wars marked the end of the Plantagenets and beginning of the House of Tudor.

The Yorkists

The Yorkists were Richard, Duke of York and his descendants, whose sons ruled as Edward IV from 1461-1470 and again from 1471-1483 (separated by part of the reign of Henry VI) …Edward IV’s son, Edward V, reigned for only 78 days in 1483, when he disappeared at the age of 12 and was allegedly murdered along with his younger brother. The last Yorkist King was Richard III (1483-85).

The Lancastrians

The Lancastrians took their name from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, whose descendants ruled as Henry IV (1399-1413), Henry V (1413-1422), and Henry VI (1422-1461 and again in 1470-1471, in 2 reigns separated by that of Edward IV).

The Battle of Wakefield

The Wars of the Roses were fought over a period of 32 years. In December 1460, during the first reign of Henry VI, a major battle occurred at Sandal Magna, Wakefield, when the Yorkists under the Lord Protector, the Duke of York, were destroyed by forces of the Lancastrians under Henry VI’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou.

The bloody conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster had now commenced, and Yorkshire was doomed to experience that scourge of nations, “civil war”, in its greatest horrors. After Henry VI had been taken prisoner at the battle of Northampton, his masculine and warlike queen, Margaret of Anjou, repaired to the north, where she soon drew together 20,000 men.

The Duke of York, hearing of her appearance in Yorkshire, hastened to Wakefield, and being informed that the enemy’s forces were greatly superior to his own, he resolved to shut him-self up in the neighbouring Castle of Sandal, till his eldest son, the Earl of March, should arrive with a reinforcement; but the bold queen soon appeared before the walls of the fortress, with the main body of her army, led by the Dukes of Somerset and Exeter, and by calling on him as a coward, who durst not encounter a woman, she forced him to lead out his troops to Wakefield Green, where he offered battle to the Lancastrians, though he had only 5,000 men.

The inequality of numbers was of itself sufficient to decide the victory, but the queen having placed a body of troops in ambush, under Lord Clifford and the Earl of Wiltshire, they fell upon the duke’s rear, while he was attacked in front by the main body, and in less than half an hour himself was slain, and his little army nearly annihilated. His body was soon recognized among the slain; his head was cut off by Margaret’s order, and fixed upon the gates of York, with a paper crown upon it, in derision of his pretended title.

The Earl of Rutland, the second son of the Duke of York, was forced into the presence of Lord Clifford, who basely murdered the youth in cold blood. This battle of Wakefield was fought December 24th, 1460.

Mayall; The Annals of Yorkshire, from the earliest period to the present time
SIR JOHN SAVILE of Thornhill (near Dewsbury) was High Sheriff of Yorkshire 1455 and 1461; Member of Parliament for Yorkshire 1450, 1467; chief steward of the manor of Wakefield, which gave him custody of Sandal Castle. He died at Sandal Castle on the feast of St. Basil (January 2nd) in 1482. He was carried in procession through Wakefield and was buried at Thornhill Parish Church.

Gallery – ruins of Sandal Castle 2020

Battle of Towton Moor

King Henry was soon deposed by the late Duke of York’s son Edward. He became the new Duke of York and on 4th March 1461, Edward took the throne as King Edward IV.

Shortly afterwards he put down the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Towton Moor, near Tadcaster in North Yorkshire. An estimated 50,000 soldiers fought in hand to hand battle in a snowstorm. The Yorkists were heavily outnumbered but put their archers to good use, taking advantage of a wind that was in their favour. The Lancastrians were routed…survivors turned and fled, only to be trampled or killed in retreat and many drowned in the nearby brook, which was said to run red with blood for days afterwards….Towton was the bloodiest battle fought on English soil.

In the West Riding of Yorkshire, as in other shires, Edward IV could now put his own men in charge. Consequently, Sir John Savile of Thornhill, an influential Yorkist, played an important role in the government of the area during Edward’s reign.

The Princes in the Tower and King Richard III

Richard III and his Queen, Elizabeth of York

When Edward IV died suddenly, aged 40, in 1483, his brother Richard was named Lord Protector of the Realm on behalf of Edward’s eldest son and heir, the 12-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales.

Having been informed of his father’s death, the new young King left Ludlow Castle on 24th April. On the 19th May, Edward took up residence in the Tower of London, accompanied by his younger brother, another Richard. At that time, the Tower of London was not only a stronghold but also a fine palace and royal residence, not the notorious prison that it was to become.

Arrangements were being made for Edward Vth’s coronation to take place on 22nd June 1483 but, before the young King could be crowned, the marriage of his parents was declared bigamous and therefore invalid, making their children officially illegitimate and thus barring them from inheriting the throne.

On June 25th, members of the Lords and Commons declared Richard Duke of York to be the legitimate heir and he was crowned King Richard III in place of his nephew, on June 26th 1483.

By the end of that summer, twelve year old Edward and his nine year old younger brother Richard disappeared from public view and were never seen in public again.

In 1674, workmen at the Tower of London dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. The bones were found in the ground near the White Tower, which is close to one reported site of their burial. The bones were widely accepted at the time as those of the princes, but again there has been much doubt cast on this in recent years (see below).

Who really killed the Princes in the Tower?

End of the Cousins’ War – the Battle of Bosworth – King Henry VII

The Wars of the Roses ended when Henry Tudor (Henry VII) defeated Richard III, the last Yorkist king, at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, only two years into Richard’s reign.

Henry Tudor had landed at Milford Haven. He marched across Wales and England to meet Richard III’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. In the battle, Richard III was brutally killed and Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII at the top of Crown Hill, near the village of Stoke Golding.

Henry VII’s marriage to Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, united the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Henry adopted the Tudor rose as the emblem of England, combining the white rose of York with the red rose of Lancaster to symbolise an end to the dynastic “cousins’ war”.

The House of Tudor was born.

Richard III’s remains

After the battle of Bosworth Field, King Richard’s body was quickly interred near the battlefield, in a crude grave at Greyfriars Friory in Leicester. When the friary was dissolved by Henry VIII, and subsequently demolished, Richard’s grave was lost…of course Henry VIII was a Tudor so would not have cared to preserve a Yorkist grave.

A search for Richard’s body began in August 2012 with the support of the Richard III Society. The archaeological excavation of a Leicester car park was led by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, working in partnership with Leicester City Council. On the first day, a human skeleton,showing signs of severe injuries and belonging to a man in his thirties, was uncovered inside the east part of the church, possibly the choir. The skeleton, which had several unusual physical features, most notably “Scoliosis” a severe curvature of the back, was exhumed to allow scientific analysis.

Examination showed that the man had probably been killed either by a blow from a large bladed weapon, probably a halberd, which cut off the back of his skull and exposed the brain, or by a sword thrust that penetrated all the way through the brain. Other wounds on the skeleton had probably occurred after death as “humiliation injuries”, inflicted as a form of posthumous revenge.(Wikipedia) The skeleton’s DNA was extracted and compared with two descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, and the conclusion was that the skeleton was, without doubt, that of Richard III.

It had been agreed that, if Richard were found, his remains would be reburied in Leicester Cathedral. This was contrary to the wishes of many, who would have preferred him to be taken “home” to York Minster. However, re-interment took place in Leicester on 26th March 2015.

Who Really Killed the Princes in the Tower?

Sir James Tyrell (1455-1502) was a trusted servant of King Richard III and was arrested for treason in 1501 accused of supporting a new Yorkist claim to the throne from the Duke of Suffolk. Tyrell is reported to have confessed, under torture, to smothering the princes with pillows with accomplices John Dighton and Miles Forest…but after all, almost any confession could be extracted under torture…and he wasn’t able to say where the bodies were buried…then he was executed so could not withdraw the confession. Meanwhile, no original document of Tyrrell’s alleged confession was ever found and other accounts from the time failed to support it.

However, the suspicion that King Richard had given the order for the murder of his nephews became the accepted theory over the decades (perpetuated by William Shakespeare)…until more recent historians have questioned the truth of it, some instead pointing the finger at Henry Tudor (Henry VII), Richard III’s successor.

The young princes’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, widow of King Edward IV, allowed her daughters to be placed in the care of King Richard the year after he became King…would she have done this if she thought he had killed her sons? Surely, if she believed Richard was their murderer, she would have fled with the girls to a safe place or even abroad? No harm came to the girls in Richard’s care. Also, no harm came to the sons of Richard’s other brother George and they also had a strong claim to the throne as they had not been declared illegitimate like their cousins.

So, maybe the Princes were still alive then? In fact, Elizabeth Woodville lived on until 1492, long after King Richard’s death, but still she never made an accusation of murder against him, even after he died.

After Richard’s death, Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, was married to King Henry VII…uniting the houses of York and Lancaster and ensuring that future heirs would descend from both lines. This gave Elizabeth Woodville a good reason to remain silent if she believed that King Henry had been the murderer of her sons (could she have even privately used suspicions or knowledge of Henry as the murderer to arrange that advantageous marriage between her daughter Elizabeth and the new Tudor King?).

Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York, lived until 1503 and she also remained silent about the death of her young brothers, never accusing her uncle Richard…so I wonder did she think her husband Henry VII had ordered them killed?

I think that King Henry still remains a credible alternative candidate for the murder of the two princes. They had been declared illegitimate but that decision might be overturned and they could become a threat to him as legitimate heirs to the throne…leading to more bloody civil war battles. In fact, Henry was not averse to murdering his rivals…after King Richard’s death in 1485, Richard’s nephew, Edward Earl of Warwick, only ten years old at the time, was imprisoned at Henry’s order. After he tried to escape fourteen years later, Henry had Richard of Warwick beheaded.

The latest news is that jury is still out…and a recently published paper now puts suspicion firmly back on Richard III. Here’s the link.

© Christine Widdall 2021