Civil War is one of the focus areas of the site. In the first in a series, and following our article on the Bloody Tower Plot, here we introduce the Wars of the Roses.

King Richard III at the Battle of Boswoth Field by James Doyle

King Richard III at the Battle of Boswoth Field by James Doyle

The term ‘War of the Roses’ usually brings up Alice in Wonderland-like images of cards fighting for the Red Queen’s approval. The beautiful name does not do justice to the brutality that existed in England from 1455-1485. The Wars of the Roses were a series of gruesome battles fought for the ultimate prize – the throne of England.

The name was only coined in Victorian England when most were taking a heated interest in days gone by. Its original name was, ‘The Cousin’s War’. Blood relatives fought and killed each other, sold their daughters into slave-marriages to form unholy alliances, and moved in moonlight to suffocate a mad king locked away in a tower.

The wars were fought between two rival houses, the Lancasters and the Yorks. Both houses had roses for their emblems – red for the Lancasters and white for the Yorks.  Both houses were direct descendants of a King who had ruled nearly 200 years before. The Lancasters, who had held the throne since 1399, would probably have continued to reign in relative peace had they not had the misfortune of their strong Arthur-like King prematurely dying and leaving a baby on the throne. This baby then grew to be a feeble-minded king who lost French territory, allowed his Queen to rule and suffered bouts of insanity to the point of paralysis and amnesia.

The house of York seized their chance to fight for the throne. The battle of St. Albans was short but brutal and left the Yorks with the mad king hostage and the right to rule. This didn’t last long, as four years later, in the battle of Ludford Bridge, the Lancasters fought for and won their crown back.

And so it went on and on; battle after battle, just like games of checkers – Lancasters win, Yorks win, Lancasters win, Yorks win.

Wars are made by clever soldiers and none was more deserving of that title than Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. The Earl was nicknamed, “The Kingmaker”. His alliance with the house of York put a young Edward IV on the throne and his amazing battle strategies and ruling mind crippled the Lancastrian force and strengthened the York claim to the throne.

With the Kingmaker backing the ruling house, England settled down to Edward’s rule and assumed the mighty York dynasty would lead the war-torn kingdom to peace and prosperity.  Well, it would have, if young Edward had not gone against the Kingmaker’s orders and married a gold-digging commoner, disrupted the government, and angered the very men who fought to put him on the throne.

The Yorks would have continued to rule without trouble had the Kingmaker not changed sides, married his daughter to the Lancastrian heir and fought the King he had put on the throne. If only the king had listened to the kingmaker, then the Wars of the Roses – the Cousin’s war – would not have continued. Nor would the king have been forced to order his brother’s execution; nor would he have broken all trust in him; or torn his Kingdom apart after fighting to unite it. The Princes would never have been in the tower and met certain death. The Lancasters would never have grown stronger. More unholy alliances formed, murder, poison, deceit – none of that would have happened. If only Edward had listened to the Kingmaker.

One would assume that the Lancasters, with their new alliance with the Earl of Warwick, were on their way to glory. One would assume wrong. For you see, the Kingmaker forgot one crucial point in this plot. He had trained the York brothers… They were his protégés. The Kingmaker’s skills weren’t so special when pitted against themselves. Not to mention, the armies were tired, the numbers were dwindling. The best soldiers had already been lost in former battles. The towns were by then almost empty of able-bodied men thanks to those battles. The leaders had to recruit what was left of the men at a run as flustered armies marched long and hard to meet other distraught armies. And England herself seemed sick of this war as she flooded the river Severn, stopping the Lancasters from crossing and forcing the exhausted armies to meet unprepared.

Both sides, the cousins – Lancasters and Yorks, both possessing the skills of the Kingmaker, both willing to fight to the death… Both unprepared, tired, starving, at the mercy of themselves and each other, both Yorks and Lancasters marched to certain doom.


By M.L. King, a history enthusiast and part-time blogger.

The next article in the series is on Edward III's descendants and the chaos that emerged in England - available here.


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones