A “War of the Roses” sounds like it might not be too bad at all. After all, roses are symbols of love and beauty, right?
Well, don’t forget that roses are also full of sharp, pointy thorns and can be plain nasty if touched the wrong way.
In Medieval English history, the War of the Roses refers to a 22-year period between 1455 and 1487 AD in which rival factions within the English aristocracy fought for control of the Crown.
It marked the transition from the long-lasting Plantagenet dynasty to the Tudor dynasty while also serving as a turning point in English history. This war marked the end of the period known as the Middle Ages and set the stage for the English Renaissance.
The War of the Roses also serves as a perfect example of how power was achieved in Medieval societies and how problematic this could be for average citizens of the realm.
The Plantagenet Dynasty: Two Centuries of Stability
From the middle of the 12th century, 1154 AD to be exact, until the beginning of the 14th century, so around 1315 AD, English politics, and society as a whole, were relatively stable.
This was due in large part to the continuity of its monarchy. One house, aka family, the Plantagenets, was in charge. This consistency helped keep violence down and gave society the chance to grow and prosper.
The other reason why things remained relatively stable was the growth of the power of Parliament. Plantagenet kings oversaw the signing of the Magna Carta, a 1215 AD document that established the first ever meaningful limitations on royal power. Over time, these kings conceded more and more authority to help keep the peace between the monarchy and aristocracy and keep England strong.
But the Plantagenets weren’t against going to war. They were Medieval monarchs, after all. Originally a French house, the Plantagenet family ruled on both sides of the English channel. But in the Early 13th century, they had lost most of their lands in France to the French House of Capet, aka the Capetian dynasty.
So, in the 14th century, they launched a major effort to take back these lands which initiated a century-long conflict known as the 100 Years’ War.
This long-lasting conflict had its own impact on English and French history. But it also serves as an important background to the War of the Roses.
The Death of Edward III and the Beginning of the End for the Plantagenets
When Edward III was crowned in 1327 AD, it was business as usual for the Platanagent house. Yet another monarch to continue their stable line. To make things even better for the Plantagenets, Edwards the III and his wife Phillippa had 13 total children. Yes, you read that right. They fostered a total of five sons and eight daughters, which was nothing short of a miracle for the time.
The first born son, Edward (medieval kings weren’t super creative when it came to naming children) was named heir apparent to the throne.
Good. Done. Easy.
Except he died in 1376 AD while Edward III was still alive. And his next oldest son, Lionel, had died just six years earlier.
So much for miracles.
Therefore, when Edward died, there was some confusion as to who should take over. This launched a decades-long conflict that ultimately led to the end of the Platanagent dynasty and a major shift in the trajectory of Medieval English history.
Civil Wars Between the Houses of York and Lancaster
The War of the Roses was fought between members of two different houses, the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Both houses were formed by sons of Edward III(0r III?), making them a part of the larger Plantagenet house. But by this point in history, each individual house was big enough and powerful enough to basically stand on its own.
Today, these “branches” of a central royal line are known as cadet houses.
The House of York was led by John of Gaunt and the House of Lancaster by Edmund of Langley.
The name of the conflict comes from the symbols of each house. The House of York used a white rose while the House of Lancaster used a red one.
The source of the conflict was Edward III’s death. Members of the House of York claimed that John of Gaunt’s son, Richard, should be made king since he was the son of the oldest living son of Edward III. However, Edmund of Lancaster claimed his son, Henry, should be king because he had married the daughter of Lionel, who was the second oldest son of Edward.
You should be.
Essentially, the house of Lancaster tried to end around the whole thing and claim that their claim was stronger because it descended from one of Edward’s elder original heirs. But the house of York argued their claim was stronger because Richard was a man. Boys in Medieval times were considered more important.
In the end, Richard won the support of the rest of the aristocracy and was named king in 1377 AD as Richard II.
Problem solved, right?
No, not so fast.
Henry would not admit defeat. And Richard’s rule was fraught with chaos.
First, in 1387 AD, a group of powerful aristocrats broke off from the king and declared themselves the true rulers of England. It took Richard II two years to get them back under his control. Then, in 1399 AD, while off in France (fighting that Hundred Years War that was raging this whole time), his cousin, Henry, now calling himself Henry IV, deposed him. This is a fancy word for kicking the king out and taking his job.
This time he had enough support from the rest of the lords and his claim was successful. Richard II, once at the top of the world, was held in captivity where he later died.
Okay, so now the problem was solved, right? The English had an uncontested king.
Well, once again, not so fast.
The House of Lancaster Takes Its Turn on the Crown
Henry IV made it about 14 years before dying of dysentery. His son, who went by Henry V (again, not very creative with the names) took over and was probably the most successful of any of the kings who were crowned during this period.
He launched a major offensive into France (also part of the Hundred Years War) and won a number of massive victories. So many in fact that he married the daughter of the French king and was named the heir to the French throne. But, thanks to Medieval-quality medicine and hygiene, he died suddenly in 1421 AD. His son, Henry VI (they really need to think of a new name, no?) took over.
The only problem with this was that he was only 10-months-old.
But despite being a baby, things started off pretty well for Henry VII. His advisors looked after his kingdom, and when he was of age, he was named the King of France, a title his father had won for him.
He was actually the only English king to ever hold this title.
But as Henry VI grew up it became apparent he wasn’t fit to rule. Modern historians think he suffered from severe mental illness, and this proved to be a major drag for the people of England. Combine this with major losses in France that had undone much of the work of his grandfather, and his rivals in England were not happy.
So, in 1455 AD, members of the House of York launched a full-scale rebellion. This marks the beginning of the War of the Roses. For the next six years, the two sides fought battle after battle. The House of York was eventually successful and able to depose Henry VI in 1466 AD. One of their own, Edward IV, was now the King of England.
Back in the driver’s seat, the House of York was ready to make their claim to the throne stick this time. But Edward IV died suddenly in 1483 AD and his son, Edward V (still no creativity here) took over. His reign, however, only lasted two months before he was deposed by his own uncle (who many believe killed him).
Now, Richard III was king of England, yet another member of the House of York.
The civil war between the two houses raged on and Richard III was killed in battle in 1485 AD. He was succeeded by Henry VII, who was technically a member of the House of Lancaster. But at this point, he was so far removed that he was considered part of a new house: the House of Tudor.
Tired of all the bloodshed and back and forth, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, who happened to be the daughter of Edward IV. This brought the two houses together as one and led to the formation of a new house, the Tudor house.
The War of the Roses, after 32 years, was over. The Plantagenet dynasty was over, and the Tudor dynasty had been born.
A New House; A New Nation
The rise of the Tudor house had several impacts on the course of English history. For one, throughout the final century of the Plantagenet dynasty, England had been fighting with France in the Hundred Years War.
This ongoing conflict between the two kingdoms helped create a sense of English identity that hadn’t existed before the fighting began. The two kingdoms had always been so connected, but this conflict pulled them apart and helped them become more distinct from one another.
In addition to the uncertainty from the aristocratic fighting, the 14th century had been defined by death due to the Black Plague and the Great Famine. The rise of the Tudors from the ashes of the War of the Roses helped bring a much needed stability that led to the revival of English society.
For this reason, many point to the ascension of House Tudor as the end of the English Middle Ages and the beginning of the English Renaissance, a period of economic and artistic revival made possible in part by the political stability that came after the end of the War of the Roses.
The Unstable Nature of Medieval Politics
If the story of the War of the Roses sounds like a confusing hodgepodge of lots of people with the same two names, all related to one another, fighting over the right to be king, that’s because that’s basically what it was. And this provides some important insight into how life was back in the Middle Ages.
Power was controlled by a very small percentage of the population known as the aristocracy or nobility. And the rest of society was subjected to their whims and wishes, no matter how violent they might have been.
Imagine being a regular person in the 15th century. Your life would have been defined by war, and it would have been hard to believe in the rule of law with the person in charge changing every five to ten years. The economy and the rest of society relied on stability, and when the ruling class couldn’t provide that, everyone suffered.
This is a big reason why the Middle Ages is often seen as a “backwards” time. It was hard for society to move forward when it could suddenly be thrust into conflict because two brothers or two cousins with way too much money and time on their hands couldn’t agree on who should be in charge.
And if you didn’t agree with the conflict? Too bad! Medieval social customs would have required even the most disinterested peasants to take up arms in support of their local lord. Talk about a raw deal.
What’s more is that this was not a uniquely English phenomenon. This is how things were done all across Europe, which is why life back then was so darn hard.
So, while the War of the Roses played an important role in the story of English history, it also serves as a powerful reminder of what life was actually like for those living in Medieval Europe.
Written by Matthew Jones