The War of the Roses: the Historical Facts of the Tudor Myth (Shakespeare’s Histories)

  E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century (1961); P. M. Kendall, The Yorkist Age (1962, repr. 1965); S. B. Chrimes, Lancastrians,

The War of the Roses: the Historical Facts of the Tudor Myth (Shakespeare’s Histories)

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The Wars were fought largely by the landed aristocracy and armies of feudal retainers. The House of Lancaster found most of its support in the south and west of the country, while support for the House of York came mainly from the north and east. The Wars of the Roses, with their heavy casualties among the nobility, would usher in a period of great social upheaval in feudal England and ironically lead to the fall of the Plantagenet dynasty. The period would see the decline of English influence on the Continent, a weakening of the feudal power of the nobles and by default a strengthening of the merchant classes, and the growth of a strong, centralized monarchy under the Tudors. It arguably heralded the end of the medieval period in England and the movement towards the Renaissance.

The antagonism between the two houses started with the overthrowing of King Richard II by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, in 1399. Being the issue of Edward's III third sonJohn of Gaunt, Bolingbroke had a poor claim to the throne. According to precedent, the crown should have passed to the male descendants of Lionel of Antverp, Duke of Clarence (1338-1368), Edward's III second son, and in fact, Richard II had named Lionel's grandson, Roger Mortimer, 4th earl of March as heir presumptive. However, Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV. He was tolerated as king since Richard II's government had been highly unpopular. Bolingbroke died in 1413. His son and successor, Henry V, was a great soldier, and his military success against France in the Hundred Years War bolstered his enormous popularity, enabling him to strengthen the Lancastrian hold on the throne. Henry V's short reign saw one conspiracy against him, led by Richaed, earl of Cambridge, a son of Edmund of Langley, the fifth son of Edward III. Cambridge was executed in 1415 for treason at the start of the campaign leading up to the Battle o9f Aglicourt. Cambridge's wife, Anne Mortimer, also had a claim to the throne, being the daughter of Roger Mortimer and thus a descendant of Lionel of Antwerp. Henry V died in 1422, and Ricard, Duke of York, the son of Richard, Earl of Cambridge and Anne Mortimer, would grow up to challenge his successor, the feeble King Henry VI, for the crown.

The Lancastrian King Henry VI of England was surrounded by unpopular regents and advisors. The most notable of these were Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset and William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, who were blamed for mismanaging the government and poorly executing the continuing Hundred Years War with France. Under Henry VI virtually all of the English holdings in France, including the lands won by Henry V, had been lost. Henry VI had begun to be seen as a weak, ineffectual king. In addition, he suffered from embarrassing episodes of mental illness. By the 1450s many considered Henry incapable of rule. The short line of Lancastrian kings had already been plagued by questions of legitimacy, and the House of York believed that they had a stronger claim to the throne. Growing civil discontent, the abundance of feuding nobles with private armies, and corruption in Henry's VI court together formed a political climate ripe for civil war.

When, in 1453, King Henry suffered the first of several bouts of mental illness, a Council of Regency was set up, headed in the role of Lord Protector by the powerful and popular Richard Plntagenet, Duke of York, and head of the House of York. Richard soon began to press his claim to the throne with ever-greater boldness, imprisoning Somerset, and backing his allies, Salisbury and Warwick, in a series of minor conflicts with powerful supporters of Henry, like the Dukes of Northumberland. Henry's recovery in 1455th warted Richard's ambitions, and the Duke of York was soon after driven from the royal court by Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou. Since Henry was an ineffectual leader, the powerful and aggressive Queen Margaret emerged as the de facto leader of the Lancastrian faction. Queen Margaret built up an alliance against Richard and conspired with other nobles to reduce his influence. An increasingly thwarted Richard finally resorted to armed hostilities in 1455 at the First Battle of St. Aslbans.

Although armed clashes had broken out previously between supporters of King Henry and Richard, Duke of York, the principal period of armed conflict in the Wars of the Roses took place between 1455 and 1489.

Richard, Duke of York led a small force toward London and was met by Henry VI's forces at ST. Albans, north of London, on May 22,1455. The relatively small First Battle of St. Albans was the first open conflict of the civil war. Richard's aim was ostensibly to remove "poor advisors" from King Henry's side. The result was a defeat for the Lancastrians, who lost many of their leaders including Somerset. York and his allies regained their position of influence, and for a while both sides seemed shocked that an actual battle had been fought and did their best at reconciliation. When Henry suffered another bout of mental illness, York was again appointed Protector, and Margaret was charged with the king's care, having already been sidelined from decision-making on the Council.

After the First Battle of St Albans, the compromise of 1455 enjoyed some success, with York remaining the dominant voice on the Council even after Henry's recovery. The problems which had caused conflict soon re-emerged, particularly the issue of whether the Duke of York, or Henry and Margaret's infant son, Edward, would succeed to the throne. Queen Margaret refused to accept any solution that would disinherit her son, and it became clear that she would only tolerate the situation for as long as the Duke of York and his allies retained the military ascendancy. Henry went on royal progress in the Midlands in 1456, and Margaret did not allow him to return to Londonthe king and queen were popular in the Midlands but becoming ever more unpopular in London where merchants were angry at the decline in trade and widespread disorder. The king's court set up at Coventry. By then the new Duke of Somerset was emerging as a favourite of the royal court, filling his father's shoes. Margaret also persuaded Henry to dismiss the appointments York had made as Protector, while York himself was again made to return to his post in Ireland. Disorder in the capital and piracy on the south coast were growing, but the king and queen remained intent on protecting their own positions, with the queen introducing conscription for the first time in England. Meanwhile, York's ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (later dubbed "The Kingmaker"), was growing in popularity in London as the champion of the merchant classes.

Following the return of York from Ireland, hostilities resumed on September 23, 1459, at the Battle of Blore Heath in Staffordshire, when a large Lancastrian army failed to prevent a Yorkist force under Lord Salisbury from marching from Middleham Castle in Yorkshire and linking up with York at Ludlow Castle. After a Lancastrian victory at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Edward the Earl of March (York's eldest son, later Edward IV of England), Salisbury, and Warwick fled to Calais. The Lancastrians were now back in total control, and Somerset was appointed Governor of Calais. His attempts to evict Warwick were easily repulsed, and the Yorkists even began to launch raids on the English coast from Calais in 145960, adding to the sense of chaos and disorder.

By 1460, Warwick and the others were ready to launch an invasion of England, and rapidly established themselves in Kent and London, where they enjoyed wide support. Backed by a papal emissary who had taken their side, they marched north. Henry led an army south to meet them while Margaret remained in the north with Prince Edward. The Battle of Northampton, on July 10, 1460, proved disastrous for the Lancastrians. The Yorkist army under Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, aided by treachery in the Lancastrian ranks, was able to capture King Henry and take him prisoner to London.

In the light of this military success, York now moved to press his own claim to the throne based on the illegitimacy of the Lancastrian line. Landing in north Wales, he and his wife Cecily entered London with all the ceremony usually reserved for a monarch. Parliament was assembled, and when York entered he made straight for the throne, which he may have been expecting the lords to encourage him to take for himself as they had Henry IV in 1399. Instead there was stunned silence. He announced his claim to the throne, but the Lords, even Warwick and Salisbury, were shocked by his presumption; there was no appetite among them at this stage to overthrow King Henry. Their ambition was still limited to the removal of his bad councillors.

The next day, York produced detailed genealogies to support his claim based on his descent from Lionel of Antwerp and was met with more understanding. Parliament agreed to consider the matter and finally accepted that York's claim was better; but, by a majority of five, they voted that Henry should remain as king. A compromise was struck in October 1460 with the Act of Accord, which recognised York as Henry's successor to the throne, disinheriting Henry's six year old son Prince Edward. York had to accept this compromise as the best on offer; it gave him much of what he desired, particularly since he was also made Protector of the Realm and was able to govern in Henry's name. Margaret was ordered out of London with Prince Edward. The Act of Accord proved unacceptable to the Lancastrians, who rallied to Margaret, forming a large army in the north.

The Duke of York left London later that year with Lord Salisbury to consolidat

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