Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

  Tudor historians were fond of reminding their readers of the horrors of the Wars of the Roses, recounting how the realm had been plunged into a vicious civil war over a disputed crown that lasted more than thirty years. They spared no efforts to portray this as a grim period of violence, political anarchy and social decay. Edward Hall posed the rhetorical question, ‘What misery, what murder, and what execrable plagues this famous region hath suffered by the division and dissension of the renowned Houses of Lancaster and York, my wit cannot comprehend nor my tongue declare. For what noble man, what gentleman of any ancient stock or progeny, whose lineage hath not been infected and plagued by this unnatural division?’ The Elizabethan antiquarian, John Stow, referred to the Wars of the Roses as ‘all that heaving in and hurling out’, while Shakespeare wrote a cycle of plays about them, saying famously:

  England hath long been mad and scarred herself,

  The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood,

  The father rashly slaughtered his own son,

  The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire:

  All this divided York and Lancaster.

  Croyland, writing in 1486, viewed the Wars of the Roses primarily as a dynastic struggle that had its origins in York’s assertion of his claim to the throne. This became the accepted Tudor view, and proves that the tradition had a very early source. Polydore Vergil, Henry VII’s official historian, traced the origins of the conflict to the usurpation of Henry IV, but this was too simplistic a view and did not take account of the political decline of the 1440s and 1450s. Vergil had no difficulty in believing that God had visited the sins of Henry IV upon his descendant, Henry VI, yet he did not explain how this was to be reconciled with the triumphant career of Henry V.

  Tudor historians were adepts at rewriting history. The dynasty they served had brought peace, firm government and prosperity to England, but its monarchs were still usurpers. A striking contrast had to be drawn, therefore, between the peaceful England of Tudor times and the political anarchy it had suffered under the later Plantagenets, the implication being that if Henry VII had not become king in 1485, the civil wars would probably have dragged on for much longer. More importantly, the subjects of the Tudor kings had to be reminded of what might happen if the crown came into dispute again.

  There is certainly no doubt that violence and lawlessness flourished during the Wars of the Roses. Soldiers brutalised in the French wars behaved with a ferocity which their commanding officers were powerless to control, while some magnates were little better than sadistic ruffians. Thousands of men died horribly in battle, or were mercilessly butchered while trying to escape. Murder was often committed with impunity both on and off the battlefield.

  Yet the wars were by no means continuous, as we have seen, nor did England experience many of the usual horrors of civil war, like those suffered in fifteenth-century France or seventeenth-century Britain. There were, at most, thirteen weeks of fighting in the thirty-two years covered by both of the Wars of the Roses, while the total amount of time spent campaigning amounted to approximately one year. The problems of keeping an army fed and watered meant that individual campaigns lasted for a matter of days or weeks, not months. Some of the battles were very short, and none lasted longer than a day. Most took place in open countryside and hardly affected life in the towns and villages. The conflict had very little effect upon the population at large, except on the rare occasions when a battle resulted in great loss of life that devastated a whole local community, as happened at Towton in 1461. This was why the behaviour of the Scots and men of the north on the Queen’s march south that year provoked such outrage. Relatively few civilians suffered attack or privation, and – with the exception of Stamford, St Albans and Ludlow – no town suffered a siege or a sacking. Nor did the castles, halls and manors of the aristocracy suffer greatly. Only the great defensive castles of the north became targets for military action.

  The accounts of foreign visitors to England give the impression that the country appeared settled and prosperous in the second half of the fifteenth century, not torn by war. The architecture of the period reflects a trend of growing prosperity rather than a need to build defensively. Fortifications were no longer added as a matter of course to castles and manor houses, and moats and crenellations had become merely ornamental. Neither does the literature of the age reflect a preoccupation with the evils of civil war. This was because most of the population did not regard the Wars of the Roses as a civil war as such, but as a dispute between noble factions. Few English people really cared who sat on the throne, so long as he was able to govern effectively and maintain justice. The leaders of the political factions therefore used propaganda to sway public opinion, which was very fickle, and did their best to canvass the support of other magnates who, left to themselves, would have remained strictly neutral. In fact, the majority of peers, both spiritual and temporal, managed to avoid committing themselves wholeheartedly to either party, while some tended to wait and see which way a battle was going, and only went in to assist the winning side. Self-interest usually governed political loyalties.

  Henry VI’s reign had been one of the most catastrophic in England’s history, yet after his death his reputation grew steadily. Tales of his piety and holy life spread rapidly, and were just as rapidly embellished. Within weeks of his death, pilgrims were hastening from all over the kingdom to pray at his tomb, many from the north of England where Lancastrian sympathies were still strong. It was said in those parts that Henry had died a martyr. Soon he was venerated as a saint, and 155 miracles were said to have taken place at his tomb, most of them cures for the sick. Croyland says that ‘the miracles which God worked in response to the prayers of those devoutly seeking his intercession are witness to his blameless life, the extent of his love for God and the Church, of his patience in adversity and his other outstanding virtues’. People forgot that Henry had failed them in nearly every way that mattered – as king, as warlord, and as the fount of justice – and remembered only his virtuous life and the fact that he had bequeathed to them two enduring monuments to his piety and love of learning – Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge.

  In 1484, Richard III, apparently with the aim of making reparation for Henry’s murder, ordered his reburial to the south of the high altar in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Rous says that when the King’s body was exhumed after lying for thirteen years at Chertsey it was found to be virtually incorrupt. The face was skeletal and sweet-smelling – ‘certainly not from spices, since he was buried by his enemies and tormentors’ – a sure sign of sanctity. The body was reverently laid to rest in a vault beneath a plain stone slab near the tomb of Henry’s great adversary, Edward IV. In recognition of the common people’s devotion to ‘Saint’ Henry, King Richard ordered that his armour, robes and other possessions be displayed near the tomb as relics; Stow records that his crimson velvet cap was considered an effective cure for headaches. An iron alms box bearing a gothic ‘H’ was set up for pilgrims, and still remains in place today.

  By Tudor times, Henry VI’s saintly reputation had grown immensely, and people forgot that he had been a weak king who was responsible for decades of misrule and the loss of England’s possessions in France. John Blacman’s memoir was written in this climate, and for centuries was accepted as a reliable account of Henry’s life. Only recently has its veracity been called into question. It was in fact written to support Henry VII’s campaign to have his uncle formally canonised; it would have been beneficial to the image of the new dynasty to have a Lancastrian saint among its forbears, but despite strenuous efforts on the part of Henry Tudor, the campaign was unsuccessful. In England, however, up until the Reformation, people continued to venerate Henry VI. As his cult spread, the room in the Tower in which he had met his end was converted into a shrine, and was also visited by pilgrims. The shrine was dismantled by Henry VIII’s commissioners in the 1530s, but ever since then, each year on the night of 21 May, the governors of Eton College have
placed a sheaf of lilies and red roses on the traditional site of Henry’s murder.

  Margaret of Anjou did not remain long in the Tower. Elizabeth Wydville pleaded with her husband to mitigate the severity of the former queen’s imprisonment, and Edward IV, who could never resist his wife’s importunings, soon ordered Margaret’s removal to the more congenial surroundings of Windsor Castle, where she remained under house arrest until 8 July 1471, when she moved to Wallingford Castle. This was an act of kindness on Edward’s part, for Wallingford was near Ewelme, the Oxfordshire home of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk, one of Margaret’s closest friends. Alice was appointed by the King to be her guardian and was paid five marks a week for her expenses.

  In 1476, after the Duchess’s death, Margaret was ransomed by Louis XI and returned to France, where she was maintained by her father. After René’s death in 1480, she lived in very reduced circumstances, subsisting on a meagre pension provided by King Louis. She died in great poverty after a short unspecified illness on 25 August 1482 and was buried in Angers Cathedral.

  Anne Neville became, in 1472, the wife of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to whom she bore one son, Edward of Middleham, who died in childhood. Two years after Richard became King, Anne herself died, possibly of tuberculosis or cancer, in 1485, at the age of twenty-nine.

  George, Duke of Clarence was executed for treason in 1478; he died privately, in the Tower of London, probably – at his own request – by drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine. His wife, Isabel, had died in childbed in 1476.

  After learning of Henry VI’s murder, Jasper Tudor fled to Henry Tudor in France, to begin fourteen years of exile. After Henry became King in 1485, Jasper was created Duke of Bedford and married Katherine Wydville, dying in 1495.

  Sir John Fortescue was pardoned after he had written a treatise upholding Edward IV’s claim to the throne and abjuring his former writings; he was made a member of Edward’s Council and died around 1477-9. King Edward also pardoned Dr John Morton, the Earl of Ormonde, Sir Richard Tunstall, young Lord Clifford and Sir Henry Vernon.

  From 1471 to 1483 Edward IV ruled England firmly and well, unchallenged by any. In 1473, the birth of another son, Richard, to Elizabeth Wydville made the House of York seem almost invincible. But when Edward died suddenly, in 1483, and his twelve-year-old son Edward V succeeded him, a power struggle erupted between the Duke of Gloucester, whom Edward had designated Protector of England, and the Wydville faction. Gloucester emerged the victor from this, imprisoned the boy king, deposed him, and had himself crowned Richard III, all within three months. He then almost certainly arranged for young Edward and his brother to be murdered in the Tower of London. This made him so unpopular that within two years both he and the House of York had been overthrown by Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII after winning the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

  ‘Time has his revolutions,’ wrote a seventeenth-century Lord Chief Justice, Sir Ranulph Crew,

  there must be a period and an end to all temporal things, finis rerum, an end of names and dignities and whatsoever is of this earth. Where is Bohun? Where is Mowbray? Where is Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality.

  Simplified Genealogical Tables


  To return to the corresponding text, click on the asterisk and reference number

  1. The Riches of England

  *1 1450 values may be roughly related to 1995 values by multiplying by 234. Thus the Duke of York’s income would be equivalent to approximately £702,000 in 1995 prices. The multiplier of 234 is derived from the following calculation:

  1 The price of a quarter of wheat in 1450 compared to 1914, which gives a multiplier of 4.68.

  2 The change in the price level between 1914 and 1995, which gives a multiplier of 50. After 1914 wheat is not a very useful indicator of prices (food expenditure dropped with rising incomes and the 1930s tariffs on wheat distort prices). Reference may therefore be made to the retail price index for 1914 to 1995, which rises 50 fold: 4.68 x 50 = 234. For this calculation I am indebted to Dr R. B. Weir, Provost of Derwent College at the University of York and lecturer in economic history.

  2. A Race of Magnates

  *2 Their tomb was lost in the Great Fire of London.

  8. The Daisy Flower

  *3 The Spitalfields silk industry was still flourishing in the early nineteenth century.

  9. Murder at Sea

  *4 Baynard’s Castle was again rebuilt after the Wars of the Roses, but was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. In 1972, during excavations for an office block, its foundations were discovered. These showed that the castle had been built around an irregular quadrangle. Surviving engravings depict a rectangular-shaped house with a double courtyard, above which soared a hexagonal tower. On the river side, the walls rose straight up from the water, while houses either side were built on stilts.

  *5 Geoffrey had been called Plantagenet after his emblem the broom flower (planta genista), a sprig of which he wore in his hat. Although his son and successive kings until the mid fifteenth century are now referred to as the Plantagenets, none of them had actually used the name.

  10. John Amend-All

  *6 A Roman monument, thought by historians to have marked the centre point of their road system.

  20. Fugitives

  *7 The practice whereby great lords would enter into contracts with men who were willing to fight for them and wear their livery in return for a pension, or wage, known as ‘maintenance’.

  21. ‘Now Take Heed What Love May Do’

  *8 Now called Brungerly.


  I am indebted, as usual, to my editor, Jill Black, for her invaluable assistance and support, and also to Pascal Cariss of Jonathan Cape for all his hard work on a difficult manuscript. Thanks are also due to Cathie Arrington for her excellent picture research, and to my literary agent, Julian Alexander, for his constant encouragement.

  I would also like to acknowledge, with grateful thanks, the help given me by my brother-in-law, Dr Ronald Weir of the University of York, in estimating monetary values in the fifteenth century. Lastly, I must once again thank my husband, Rankin, my children, John and Kate, and my parents, Doreen and James Cullen, for their forbearance, help and enthusiasm over the last two years.


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