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War of the Roses, Great Britain, 1455-1485

The war in England between the house of York and the house of Lancaster was called the "War of the Roses," because each faction wore for its emblem a roseYork a white rose, and Lancaster a red rose. The rose was a curious emblem for a battle-field, for the rose is a symbol of love.

The War of the Roses was a struggle to claim the throne between the families descended from Edward III and the families descended from Henry IV. The last Angevin ruler, King Richard II, died without an heir. He had been overthrown and murdered by Henry IV (i.e., Henry Bolingbroke, who was of the House of Lancaster through his father John of Gaunt). Henry IV's descendants and their supporters were the Lancastrian faction. The other branch, descended from Edward IV, were associated with families in the North of England, particularly the House of York and Richard of York. They are called the Yorkist faction.

The history of the War of the Roses is clouded with an uncertainty, which neither the diligence of research, nor the sagacity of judgment, have been able to remove. The civil war between the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York is, in every sense, the darkest period of Engloish history within the time in which its outlines are ascertained by documentary evidence. Historians are no longer enlightened, as in otherwise less advanced times, by such excellent writers as Bede, Malmesbury, and Matthew Paris. A few strokes of Comines throw a more clear and agreeable light over the story than the scanty information of meager and unskilful writers of thei time. This defect in historical materials seems to depend in part on peculiar circumstances in the progress of literature and language. The War of the Roses fills an insulated space between the cessation of Latin annalists and the rise of English historians. Men of genius ceased to write in a language of which the employment narrowed their power over the opinions and applauses of their countrymen.

The nature of the civil war itself, which was merely personal; the multiplicity of its obscure and confused incidents; the frequent instances of success without ability, and of calamity befalling the unknown and uninteresting; the monotonous cruelty of every party, which robbed horror itself of its sway over the soul; together with the unsafe and unsteady position of most individuals, which repressed the cultivation of every province of literature, more especially repelled men of letters from relating the inglorious misfortunes of themselves and of their country.

More obvious causes contributed towards the same effect. The general war often broke out in local eruptions and provincial commotions, which no memory could follow. The mind is often perplexed at the sudden changes in the political conduct of chiefs, which arose from momentary impulses of great danger, or of newer and stronger hatred, which act with redoubled force in times of convulsion. The inconstancy is made to appear greater than it really was, by those alterations of name and title, which occasion some difficulties in our most orderly times.

The Plantagenet house began with the accession of King Henry II to the English throne in 1154 with claims to both England and Normandy in France. Henry IIs marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine added large portions of southern France to the English crown. When King Charles IV of France died in 1328 without a male heir, Plantagenet King Edward III laid claim to the French throne, igniting the Hundred Years War between kings in England and France.

Englands gradual defeat in the Hundred Years War destabilized the realm and undermined the authority of the English monarchy. Over a century of war, England lost all of its French territories with the exception of Calais. English nobles who had lost their French holdings bore a staggering economic cost and felt robbed of influence in a system based entirely on feudal holdings.

John of Gaunt, the 1st Duke of Lancaster and Edward IIIs third son, became the founding member of the House of Lancaster, from which future Kings Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI would come. On the other side, Edmund of Langley, the 1st Duke of York and Edward IIIs fourth son, founded the House of York. While both Houses belonged to the Plantagenet dynasty, competing claims to the throne of England formed the basis of the Wars of the Roses.

This terrible war was brought to an end by the defeat and the death of Richard III. on the field of Bosworth. It has been roughly estimated that in the War of the Roses twelve princes, two hundred nobles, and [by one account] one hundred thousand gentry and common people perished. Every individual of two generations of the families of Somerset and Warwick fell on the field, or on the scaffold, a victim of these bloody contests. The union of the two Roses and the two parties was effected in the year 1486 by the marriage of Henry VII with the princess Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV.

The civil wars between the partisans of the hereditary pretensions of the house of York and the adherents to the parliamentary establishment of the house of Lancaster, which followed this event, cannot be understood without some review of the internal administration of the kingdom, the state of the royal family, and the animosities among the counsellors of the king during the first thirty years of his nominal rule. This state of affairs contributed to plunge the nation into convulsions, and conduced also to clothe violent revolutions in the robes of law and of form; thin disguises, indeed, yet serving as some restraint on the rapacity, and as some obstacle to the progress, of an otherwise boundless ambition.

The peculiarity of this great civil war lies in the fact that it was essentially a war of nobles, in which the great bulk of the English people had little interest and took little part. Except where the desolating blight of actual battle fell, the peasantry gathered their harvests and the citizens kept their shops in comparative peace. With slight interference they let the nobles of the land cut one another's throats and hack to pieces with furious blade the rotten timbers of Feudalism. Why should they spill their blood for York or Lancaster? Among their humbler dwellings a great work was silently going on, of deeper national and human moment than the fate of a crown or the ascendency of a certain line.

The short-lived rebellion of Jack Cade (1450) formed a little prelude to the bloody drama, whose first act began five years later. On him they bestowed the honorable name of John Mortimer, with manifest allusion to the claims of the house of Mortimer to the succession; which were, however, now indisputably vested in Richard duke of York. In the force assembled by the king were many not untainted by the disaffection of the peasantry. After the defeat of a part of the royal troops at Seven Oaks, the remainder refused to fight Lord Say was committed to the Tower to satisfy the revolters. The king, driven from the field, took shelter in London; and on occasion of a second revolt of the commonalty of Essex, he fled to Kenilworth, lest he and his court should be surrounded. Mortimer saw his motley following melt into fugitive groups, and, being closely pursued into Sussex, was slain there in an orchard by an esquire named Iden. His head blackened on the gateway of London Bridge.

Henry VI relapsing into a dull insanity, it became necessary to give the reins of power to some strong hand, fit to guide the destinies of England. Two men sprang out at once to contend for the splendid prize of the Protectorship. These were the Duke of Somerset and Richard Duke of York; the former backed by the influence of Queen Margaret, the latter supported by some of the most powerful nobles in the land. Henry, wrapt in lethargy, either could or would give no sign of his will in the affair. Somerset went to the Tower, and York received from Parliament the great position which he sought. A lucid interval enabled Henry VI once more to take the sceptre in his feeble hand. York went out of office, and Somerset out of prison. This began the war.

The pretensions of the house of York, which seemed to have been so long forgotten, were now revived by the popular virtues of the duke of York contrasted with the insignificance of Henry; by the arrogance and violence of Margaret, who bore prosperity so ill and adversity so well; by the loss of France; by the long dishonor brought on the English arms; and by the general opinion that a bodily infirmity attended the mental imbecility of Henry, which was likely to render him the last descendant of John of Gaunt.

Ludlow Castle was the nest of the Yorkist rising. Norfolk, Salisbury, and, a greater than either, the Earl of Warwick, whose figure stands out most prominently in this great battle-piece, flocked thither with their men-at-arms, ready to strike for the cause of the late Protector. St. Albans saw the first blood drawn. Surrounding this little town on 22 May 1455, a band of three thousand Yorkists, chiefly from Wales or the adjoining marches, came clamouring for the possession of Somerset. Refusal brought the enemy into the streets, which they swept with a rain of arrows. Henry, wounded in the neck, cowered in a tanner's house, until York discovered him and made him captive.

Richard Neville, known in English history as the Kingmaker, was probably then a little more than thirty years of age, in the full prime of life and vigor. His father wore the coronet of Salisbury; his wife was a Beauchamp ; and through her he had obtained in 1449 the estates of the illustrious family of Warwick, a piece of good luck which caused his elevation to that great earldom. Boundless hospitality, added to his great family connections, so strengthened his hands that he became the foremost noble of his time in England. Fitting and well it was that the last of the great feudal barons should live and die in such a blaze of splendour, for Feudalism in its young strength had done incalculable service to mediaeval England.

The immediate results of the first battle of St. Albans were the elevation of York again to the Protectorship, the appointment of Salisbury as Chancellor, and of Warwick as governor of Calais, the most honourable military command at the disposal of England. Four years passed without actual bloodshed on the leaves of the rival Roses. Intriguing of course went on incessantly. Warwick, raised by Henry, who did not long allow York to enjoy a second holding of the Protectorate, to the command of the Channel Fleet, won a great naval victory over some Liibeck ships in the year 1458. This kept his sword from rusting. The time soon came when English blood again blushed on its cold blue blade.

The war really broke out in 1459, when at Bloreheath [ in Staffordshire, near the Dove, three and a half miles north-west of Ashborne] the victorious Salisbury, wearing a white rose in his helmet, left a field strewn with dead Lancastrians. The rivals fronted each other at Ludlow a little later in the autumn of the same year; but one of Warwick's pet officers, Sir Andrew Trollop, having deserted with most of the Calais men, there was nothing left for York but flight. He went to Ireland, where his former genial rule had made his cause very dear to the impulsive people. It was a serious check, but not a lasting one.

Warwick, the darling of both soldiers and seamen, landed in Kent on 05 June 1460; and, thirty-five days later, fought the great battle of Northampton. Under a rain so heavy that the royal cannon could not be fired, the strong earth-banks of the Lancastrian camp were scaled by the White Roses, who drove the routed foe into the swollen Nen. Many nobles perished. Somerset got away.

So far the Protectorship had been the apple of discord. York now stretched out his hand towards the crown, did actually in the House of Lords at Westminster go forward to the throne and place his hand upon its cushions amid the plaudits of the assembled peers. On 16 October, 1460, the counsel of Richard duke of York brought into the parliament-chamber a writing containing his claim to the crown of England and France, with the lordship of Ireland. The substance of the claim was, that Richard, being the son of Anne Mortimer, daughter of Roger earl of March, the son and heir of Philippa, daughter of Lionel duke of Clarence, the third son of Edward III., is entitled to the crowns of England and France, before any of the progeny of John of Gaunt, who was the fourth son of Edward III. After discussion and argument the Lords decreed that Henry should wear the crown for life, but that it should then go to York or his heir.

Margaret, who with many faults had the heart of a lioness, roused her northern friends in behalf of her disinherited son. Swords leaped from their scabbards at her call. York, who was keeping Christmas in his castle at Sendal, rashly courted a battle with her partisans, was defeated at Wakefield in half an hour, and put to death with many indignities (30 December 1460). Salisbury was beheaded next day; and the heads of both the Dukes, encircled with paper crowns, were stuck upon the gateway of York.

The young Edward, formerly Earl of March but now Duke of York and almost King of England, wielded a weighty sword, which smote his opponents so heavily in the battle of Mortimer's Cross, that it placed the crown of England in his grasp (02 February 1461). Even the defeat of Warwick at St. Albans, a fortnight later, failed to raise the fallen stem of the Red Rose.

Within the same month was fought the bloodiest battle of all the twelve, which redden the story of the war. Bent upon recovering, if possible, by one convulsive effort the kingdom, which had just slipped from her husband's fingers, Margaret caused her captains to face the foe at Towton, eight miles from York, on 29 March 1461. Sixty thousand soldiers followed her banner, under the command of Somerset and Northumberland. To these were opposed almost fifty thousand adherents of the White Rose, the main body under Warwick. Warwick. The first arrows left the string about four o'clock in the afternoon. It was then snowing in the face of the Lancastrians, who, blinded by the flakes, shot short of the opposing lines.

Darkness fell upon the armies locked in deadly fight; dawn broke upon their gapped and ghastly ranks still slaughtering and sinking in the deepening snow. Such a slaughter had never piled an English battle-field before, for more than thirty thousand dead found there no winding-sheet but the silent crystals of the snow. Margaret, bent but not broken by this cruel blow, carried her unhappy husband away to seek hospitality in Scotland. She found it there.

Three years passed without a battle. The rancor of party was exasperated by confinement to narrow circles and petty districts. Feuds began to become hereditary; and the heirs of the lords slaughtered at St. Alban's regarded the pursuit of revenge as essential to the honor of their families, and as a pious office due to the memory of their ancestors.

On Edward's return to London after the victory of Towton, he was crowned on 22 June, 1461. He called together a parliament on the 4th of November in that year, which, by confirming all the judicial acts, creations of nobility, and most other public proceedings in the times of Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI, "late in fact, but not of right, kings of England," branded an establishment of half a century with illegality.

The ever-active Margaret left no resource untried to restore the fallen fortunes of her son of her husband she made small account. After passing two years in suits for aid in France, Margaret returned to Scotland with only 500 French troops, which enabled her to make an inroad into England at the head of Scottish borderers, always easily collected for such a purpose. She measured her new levies with Edward's men once more. Ill luck still pursued her. Lord Montague, Warwick's brother, scattered a large division of her army on Ilegeley Moor (25 April 1464) and then, falling upon the main body at Hexham, broke it with a sudden charge (May 8).

After the battle of Hexham and the capture of Henry (25 May 1464), that prince was led prisoner, no longer with any pretence of state or show of liberty; for Edward's parliament had attainted him, with the queen and prince Edward, for no other crime than that of asserting rights which the whole nation had long recognized.

Edward applied himself to public affairs with his characteristic vigor. According to the maxim of Machiavel, he made a terrific slaughter of his enemies in the first moment of victory; and, in his subsequent administration, treated the vanquished party with a politic parade of seasonable clemency.

The decisive fight at Barnet, eleven miles from London, started before dawn on Easter Sunday morning, 14 April 1471. The battle raged till ten, a thick mist wrapping the common during all the time. The Kingmaker, fighting on foot, struck his last blows on this field, where also fell his brave brother Montague. The dead soldiers lay naked in old St. Paul's, where a crowd of citizens gathered to look their last on the man with whom Feudalism died, whose sharp sword had quelled so many valiant foes, whose fat roast-beef and brimming ale-cups had secured him troops of hungry friends. He was buried at Bisham Priory in Berkshire.

Then indeed brave Margaret found her occupation gone, for the son she loved so well and fought so desperately for died in the victor's tent, first smitten on the mouth by the gauntleted fist of Edward, and then pierced with swords, probably those of Clarence and Gloucester. The White Rose of English story has many an ugly smear of crimson on its snowy leaves.

On Saturday, 14 May 1471, the battle of Tewkesbury concluded this sanguinary war. The defeat of the Lancastrians was complete. Courtenay earl of Devonshire, Sir Edmund Hampden, and about 3000 soldiers, were killed. On the next day, the duke of Somerset and the prior of St. John were beheaded, after a summary trial before the constable and the marshal. Prince Edward was taken prisoner, and brought before the king. He was instantly put to death by the dukes of Clarence and Gloucester, lord Dorset and lord Hastings; a display of barbarous manners among persons of the highest dignity, which it would be hard to match among the most embruted savages.

Thus King Edward cleared the briars from around his throne, but many thorns bristled yet in the royal robes and crown. The murder of his brother Clarence formed the most notable features in the last eleven years of his reign. Clarence, whose alliance with Warwick had never ceased to rankle in his royal brother's mind, so far forgot prudence as to blame the King in public for killing one of his friends, whom a tortured priest had named as a worker of magic. Found guilty by the Lords of necromancy and treason, the Duke passed into the Tower, whence he never came alive. The common story of his drowning in a barrel of wine may possibly be true.

The War of the Roses was closed by the defeat and death of Richard III at Bosworth-field in 1485. "Long live King Henry the Seventh!" resounded from all parts of the battle-field, when it was found that Richard had fallen. Henry ushers in the rule of the house of Tudor, effectively ending the Wars of the Roses. Henry's claim to the crown was his descent from John of Gaunt; but it was a highly defective one, since he came from the issue of that prince's illegitimate family. John Beaufort, earl of Somerset, was natural son of John of Gaunt by Catherine Swinford; his son, John Beaufort, was the first duke of Somerset, and had a daughter Margaret, who married Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, Henry VII's father, son of Sir Owen Tudor, by Katharine, widow of Henry V, and daughter of Charles VI of France.

The period during which the throne of England was occupied by the house of Tudor was one of transition both in politics and religion. The crown, during this period, acquired a degree of strength and influence unknown to the Plantagenets: but the power which was to control it was also secretly growing up. This new power was the commons; for those who had in reality withstood the prerogative of the Edwards and the Henries were the ancient nobility, the feudal aristocracy, beneath whose protection the house of commons acted against the crown. But the war of the Roses, and various natural and political causes, had thinned the ranks and broken the power of the feudal baronage; and the commons, without leaders or support, had become timid and submissive.

Only a small portion of the English nobility, such as the Howards, the Stanleys, the Nevilles, the Percies, and the Courteneys, can trace their honors beyond the time of the Tudors. A new nobility, indebted to royal favor for its honours, and to royal munificence or profusion for its wealth, by degrees sprang up. It was naturally cautious, subservient, and self-seeking.

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Page last modified: 26-02-2016 19:14:49 ZULU