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 factions were direct descendants of King Edward III and the turbulent 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 of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

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) …and Richard III (1483-85). 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 and the two bodies supposedly buried at the Tower of London.

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 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

But King Henry was soon deposed by the late Duke’s son Edward, the new Duke of York and on 4th March 1461, Edward took the throne as King Edward IV, shortly after which he put down the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Towton Moor, near Tadcaster.

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, was appointed to the stewardship of Wakefield and played an important role in the government of the area during Edward’s reign. When Edward IV died in 1483, his brother, Richard, was named Lord Protector of the Realm for Edward’s eldest son and successor, the 12-year-old Edward V. Arrangements were made for Edward’s coronation on 22 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.

Soon afterwards, Richard III was crowned King in his place and the young Edward and his 9 year old younger brother (also a Richard) disappeared from public view. Accusations were made that King Richard had murdered his nephews. 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 this has not been proven.

Richard III and his Queen, Elizabeth of York

The Wars of the Roses ended when Richard III, the last Yorkist king, was defeated at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 by Henry Tudor. In 1485, Henry 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 killed and Henry was crowned King Henry VII at the top of Crown Hill, near the village of Stoke Golding.

Henry married Elizabeth of York, uniting the House of Lancaster and the House of York. He 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”.

Richard III’s remains

After the battle of Bosworth Field, 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.

© Christine Widdall 2018

© Christine Widdall