Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Why Did the Wars of the Roses Start?
A watercolour recreation of the Wars of the Roses.
What Caused the War?
In the simplest terms, the war began because Richard, Duke of York, believed he had a better claim to the throne than the man sitting on it, Henry VI.
Ever since Henry II, the first Plantagenet, took power, Kings had been holding onto their crown by the skin of their teeth and not all of them succeeded. Edward II, for example, was ousted by his wife and replaced by his son Edward III, but at least this kept things in the family.
Problems occurred in 1399 when Richard II was deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke who would go on to be the Henry IV. This created two competing lines of the family, both of which thought they had the rightful claim. On the one hand were the descendants of Henry IV – known as the Lancastrians – and on the other the heirs of Richard II. In the 1450s, the leader of this family was Richard of York and his followers would come to be known as the Yorkists.
A Dodgy King However, all this dynastic arguing was something of a smokescreen. What really mattered were more practical issues and in particular the disappointing reign of Henry VI.
A portrait of the ailing Henry VI whose inability to rule effectively due to his illness contributed to the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses
When he became king Henry was in an incredible position. Thanks to the military successes of his father, Henry V, he held vast swathes of France and was the only King of England to be crowned King of France and England. However it was not a title he could hold onto for long and over the course of his reign he gradually lost almost all England’s possessions in France.
Finally, in 1453, defeat at the Battle of Castillion called an end to the hundred years war and left England with only Calais from all their French possessions.
The nobles were not happy, but this was as nothing to Henry’s reaction. He had always had a fragile mind and in 1453 it broke. Historians believe he suffered from a condition known as catatonic Schizophrenia which would see him lapse into catatonic states for long periods of time.
Battle for Power
Henry’s weakness created two factions at court. One, led by the Duke of Gloucester and Richard, Duke of York favoured a more aggressive policy in the war, while the other led by the Dukes of Suffolk and Somerset favoured peace. They were supported by the Queen Margaret of Anjou who was rumoured to be having an affair with Somerset.
With Henry in no fit state to rule, Richard was named Regent. Although he relinquished when Henry recovered it had given him a taste for power and this alerted Margaret. She sensed a threat from Richard and did everything she could to force him out of power.
The two sides met in the Battle of St Albans. It was only a small skirmish, but it saw the death of the Duke of Somerset and several other Lancastrian noblemen. This created sons who were out for revenge and turned a dynastic struggle into an even more poisonous blood feud.
Even then there were chances to turn back. The Act of Accord in 1460 named Richard heir, but there was no turning back. Margaret – perhaps grieving for Somerset – was determined to get her revenge on Richard. She would have it when he himself was killed in battle, but that only left his son Edward who was even more determined to get his revenge. The Wars of York and Lancaster had begun.
By Tom Cropper
Tom is a freelance journalist who studied history at Essex University. His work can be found in many different publications focusing on business and politics.