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27 Jul

Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1487)

A portrait of Henry VI of England

King Henry VI

The Wars of the Roses was a civil war fought between the House of Lancaster (Red Rose of Lancaster) and the House of York (White Rose of York) for the English throne from 1455 to 1487. Defeat in the Hundred Years’ War which resulted in loss of all English territories on the Continent and weak central authority provoked a struggle between the barons for the influence over weak Lancastrian King Henry VI. By the middle of the 15th century the fractions polarized around Richard Platagenet, 3rd Duke of York and Edmund Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset who was the head of the court fraction and was supported by Henry VI. Richard, Duke of York was named Protector of the Realm when Henry VI became insane in 1453 but Henry VI recovered by the end of 1454 and excluded Richard from the royal council in 1455 which resulted in the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses.

Richard defeated the Lancastrians in the Battle of St Albans (regarded the first battle of the Wars of the Roses) in 1455, while Edmund, Duke of Somerset was killed. Richard was named the Protector of the Realm for the second time but he lost the support within a year and was sent to Ireland as lieutenant. The Lancastrians concentrated on strengthening of their position and very soon arose dissatisfaction with the royal government. On the other hand, the popularity of Richard’s ally Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick was rising which encouraged Duke of York to launch an attack in 1459. He defeated the Lancastrian forces in the Battle of Northampton one year later and hurried to London to assert his claims to the English throne. However, he misjudged the majority of nobles who had no desire to overthrow Henry VI and were not willing to accept a duke on the English throne. Thus the Act of Accord passed by the Parliament in 1460 resulted in a compromise: Henry VI retained the throne, while Richard and his male heirs were designated as his successors.

The Act of Accord was not acceptable for Queen Margaret of Anjou whose son was according to the Act of Accord disinherited. She summoned an army which defeated the Yorkists in the Battle at Wakefield in 1460. Richard was killed in the battle which additionally complicated the situation and resulted in further confusion over the question of succession. Richard Neville and Richard’s eighteen year old son Edward managed to defeat the Lancastrians and Edward assumed the English throne as Edward IV in 1461.

A portrait of Edward IV of England

King Edward IV

Edward additionally strengthened his position by destroying the Lancastrian forces of Margaret of Anjou in the Battle of Towton in 1461. Margaret was forced to flee to Scotland from where he managed to escape to France. However, Margaret of Anjou did not give up the fight for the English throne. She appealed to Louis XI of France to provide military assistance against the Yorkists in return for Calais. To prevent an eventual Lancastrian-French alliance Yorkists had two possibilities. The first foresaw an agreement with Louis’ greatest enemy Duke of Burgundy, while the second possibility was to create a discord between the Lancastrians and the French. Richard Neville favored the second option which would could have been achieved through marriage of Edward IV and Bona of Savoy, sister-in-law of Louis XI. Neville’s plan was not well accepted neither by the English population nor by Edward IV who rejected Neville’s advice and married Elizabeth Woodville. Edward’s marriage with Elizabeth Woodville destroyed all possibilities of an eventual alliance with France as well as Neville’s efforts to gain greater influence over important political questions. Despite that Earl of Warwick continued to strive after reaching an agreement with France. Louis XI of France satisfied with tensed relations between the Earl of Warwick and the English King encouraged Neville with aim to break the alliance between England, Brittany and Burgundy.

Richard Neville accepted Louis’ offer which granted him Burgundian Netherlands (the Low Countries) in return for Edward’s deposition in 1469. He formed an alliance with Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, defeated the royal forces and captured Edward IV in the Battle of Edgecote Moor in 1469. However, the coup provoked an unrest which prevented the convocation of the Parliament and Neville’s plans to implement his provisions. Meanwhile Edward managed to escape from captivity and raised an army forcing Neville to flee to France.

Louis XI of France managed to reconcile Robert Neville and Margaret of Anjou and their alliance was confirmed by marriage of Neville’s daughter Anne Neville and Margaret’s son Edward of Westminster. In autumn 1470, Neville and Edward of Westminster invaded England and restored Henry VI to the English throne and forced Edward IV to flee to Burgundy. Edward IV returned to England in 1471 and captured London within three weeks. In the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury which took place within few days Edward IV finally defeated his rivals. Earl of Warwick was killed at Barnet, Edward of Westminster at Tewkesbury, while Margaret of Anjou was taken captive. Meanwhile Edward’s brother, Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III) repulsed the last attempts of Margaret’s supporters to recapture London. After the murder of Henry VI which was probably ordered by Edward IV latter returned to London and established himself as undisputed ruler of England.

The Wars of the Roses were at standstill from the restoration of Edward IV to the English throne until his death in 1483. Edward IV was succeeded by his young son Edward V but the brother of the deceased king, Richard of Gloucester felt threatened by the Woodvilles: queen mother Elizabeth and her brother Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl of Rivers who was appointed king’s guardian. Richard ordered arrest and execution of Anthony Woodville and seized the guardianship of Edward V shortly after the death of Edward IV. Richard’s next move provoked general unrest. He declared both sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate, imprisoned them in the Tower of London and assumed the English throne as Richard III. Richard’s popularity reached its lowest point when rumors occurred that he had his nephews executed.

Richard’s unpopularity played a major role in his downfall. His rival Lancastrian claimant to the English throne Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) managed to win the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 because of desertion and switching sides of Richard’s key allies. Richard III was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field which is traditionally considered the end of the Wars of the Roses resulting in the accession of Henry Tudor, the first monarch of the Tudor Dynasty to the English throne.

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