30 April 2012

Family Feuds: The Wars of the Roses

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson
Long before the 1989 black comedy film “The War of the Roses” depicted a couple of wealth and privilege fighting over the division of their material possessions during a bitter divorce, a similarly named series of battles waged between two royal houses as each sought to claim the throne of England. The stage was set for the decades-long feud between the houses of Lancaster and York known as “The Wars of the Roses” by Edward III, whose ambition to rule both France and England plunged the country into the Hundred Years War when 18 year old Edward claimed the right to rule France in 1328.

House of Lancaster
When Edward III died in 1377, the descendants of the late King could not agree upon whom should rule England, and an ineffectual King in the person of Henry VI prompted rebellion by earning the enmity of both nobility and common folk alike. The reign of Henry VI was characterized by high taxes, stunning military losses, intermittent bouts of mental illness and an ambitious wife, Margaret of Anjou, whose machinations on behalf of her husband helped precipitate his downfall and helped fuel the division between the royal houses of Lancaster and York.

Cade’s Rebellion, a popular rebellion organized and led by Jack Cade in 1450, opened the door for the ambition of Richard, the Duke of York. Henry VI fled the battle, giving up his right to rule in the view of the many who viewed him as a weak ruler. The rebels seized and occupied Kent, although Cade was unable to control his ragtag army and eventually fled. Cade was later executed, his head placed on a spike in London as a warning to all who would act against their king.

House of York
In 1455, the Duke of York decided it was time to act. He amassed an army and marched on London, engaging in the Battle of St. Albans, the first battle in the Wars of the Roses, which resulted in victory for the house of York and the elevation of Richard Duke of York to the position of First Minister, a position of influence within Henry’s court.

When he began to suspect that the Duke of York planned to usurp his throne, Henry had him removed from the office of First Minister and declared a traitor. York again rallied his army and won the Battle of Blore Heath, a victory which was undermined by promises of pardon by the house of Lancaster (Henry VI) to the Yorkist troops who participated in the melee.

The Siege of London
In what is known as the Yorkist Invasion of 1460, the Duke of York came prepared with an army of 2,000 and made his claim to the throne, but soon discovered that Henry VI could not be deposed in his favor. As an alternative solution, the Act of Accord dictated that York or his heirs would inherit the throne upon the death or abdication of Henry VI. Queen Margaret rallied support for her husband and this time, it was the Duke of York who was insufficiently prepared when the Lancaster army of 20,000 confronted York’s army of 12,000. Henry was freed from his captors in London and the Duke of York died in battle in York, his head placed upon a spike, adorned with a paper crown.

The Lancaster force continued to forge south, cutting a wide swath of destruction as it went, the army joined by ruffians bent upon pillaging the houses of the nobles and the monasteries along the route. Compared to a plague of locusts by survivors of the carnage, the allegiances of the common folk began to swing from Lancaster to York as tales of the horrors inflicted by the marauding Lancaster army spread.

Edward IV
The Lancastrian army failed to occupy London and was forced to retreat to the north, while the Duke of York’s eldest son, Edward Earl of March, was proclaimed King Edward IV. Edward, age 18, entered London and declared himself king, backed by Parliament and the common people.

Edward fought to solidify his claim during the Battle of Towton in 1461, the bloodiest battle of the wars considered by many historians to be the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. In a dramatic move to rally his troops, Edward killed his own horse and declared that he would fight on foot alongside his men.

It was a decisive victory, as Henry VI and his wife Margaret were forced to flee to Scotland. The victorious Edward entered York in the shadow of his father’s head displayed on a spike, which he ordered be removed, buried, and replaced with the heads of Lancastrian nobles.

The ensuing years were framed by shifting alliances and repeated attempts by Henry VI and former Queen Margaret to elicit support in an effort to regain the throne. Edward secured his position by signing a treaty with French King Louis XI in 1463, which undermined the support Henry and Margaret had received from the French. By signing a treaty with Scotland that same year, Edward forced Henry and Margaret to leave their safe haven and struggle to remain ahead of Edward’s men, literally moving from house to house, sheltered by their remaining allies.

In 1464, Edward committed a political and personal faux pas by marrying Elizabeth Woodville, who was not only a commoner, but a widow whose first husband had perished while fighting against the Yorkist faction during the Battle of St. Albans. Edward’s choice of wife proved ill-advised for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it resulted in the lost friendship and support of the Duke of Warwick, who was known as “The Kingmaker” after having captured London for the Yorkists, making it possible for Edward IV to become king in the first place. Edward began handing out titles and property to the Woodville family, earning him the enmity of the nobles he passed over in favor of his wife’s relatives.

Henry VI
Henry VI, still unwilling to give up his claim to the throne, raised another army and was defeated again at the Battle of Hexham in 1464. Edward retaliated by executing Lancaster knights and leaders in battle, and Henry VI was captured and placed on public display as he was taken to the Tower of London, pelted by garbage as he was led along the route.

The Woodville family was ambitious, and as their influence rose, the influence of the Duke of Warwick waned. Warwick aligned himself with the house of Lancaster and defeated Edward IV in battle, intending to place his own son-in-law, George Duke of Clarence, on the throne, where Warwick planned to rule the country through a puppet king.

Warwick decided that it was time to either kill Edward or remove him permanently from the throne, and the Battle of Empingham (also known as the Battle of Losecoat Field) followed in March of 1470. Edward responded with propaganda, bluster and bravado, going so far as to execute the father of an opposing rebel army leader in full view of both armies. The rebel army broke and ran after the smoke from a barrage of cannon fire cleared, revealing the King’s army marching toward them. The defeated rebels quickly shed articles of clothing that would identify them as such, hence the name “Losecoat Field.”

Warwick was killed during another coup attempt in 1471, and Queen Margaret was captured during yet another battle at Tewkesbury that same year. Henry VI was executed on May 21, 1471 at the Tower of London.

Edward IV reigned until his death in 1483. Richard III (the younger brother of Edward IV) took Edward’s 12-year-old son Edward V into custody for his “protection” following the death of his father. Richard III had the support of the nobility in his effort to minimize the influence of the Woodville family, who had amassed great wealth and power during the reign of Edward IV. Richard and his collaborators feared what might happen should Edward V be allowed to reach his majority and the Woodvilles came into power again. Edward V and his younger brother were placed in the Tower of London in 1483 and were never seen alive again.

Richard III took London by force of arms and was crowned King in 1483, only to be killed during the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 fighting the man who would become the next king of England: Henry VII, of the House of Tudor, who united the Lancaster and York factions of the royal family by marrying Elizabeth York, the daughter of Edward IV, bringing an end to the Wars of the Roses.

The roses, red for Lancaster and white for York, referenced the emblems worn by the liveried servants of each house.

“Warwick: And here I prophesy: this brawl today,

Grown to this faction in the Temple garden,

Shall send, between the Red Rose and the White,

A thousand souls to death and deadly night.”
-From the 1592 play, Henry VI by William Shakespeare

Lisa Marie Wilkinson is an IPPY Gold Medal winning author of historical adventure-romance. Her latest novel, STOLEN PROMISE, featuring vibrant Gypsy characters and breath-taking romance, is available now.