The Wars of the Roses were a series of bloody battles for the throne of England that took place between 1455 and 1487. Fought between the rival Plantagenet houses of Lancaster and York, the wars are notorious for their many moments of treachery and for the sheer amount of blood they spilled on English soil.
The wars ended when Richard III, the last Yorkist king, was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by Henry Tudor – founder of the house of Tudor.
Here are 30 facts about the Wars:
1. The seeds of war were sown as far back as 1399
That year Richard II was deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke who would go on to be the Henry IV. This created two competing lines of the Plantagenet family, both of which thought they had the rightful claim.
On the one side there were the descendants of Henry IV – known as the Lancastrians – and on the other the heirs of Richard II. In the 1450s, the leader of this family was Richard of York; his followers would come to be known as the Yorkists.
2. When Henry VI came to power he was in an incredible position…
Thanks to the military successes of his father, Henry V, Henry VI held vast swathes of France and was the only King of England to be crowned King of France and England.
3. …but his foreign policy soon proved disastrous
Over the course of his reign Henry gradually lost almost all England’s possessions in France.
It culminated in the disastrous defeat at Castillon in 1453 – the battle signalled the end of the Hundred Years War and left England with only Calais from all their French possessions.
4. King Henry VI had favourites who manipulated him and made him unpopular with others
The King’s simple mind and trusting nature left him fatally vulnerable to grasping favourites and unscrupulous ministers.
5. His mental health also affected his ability to rule
Henry VI was prone to bouts of insanity. Once he had suffered from a complete mental breakdown in 1453, from which he never fully recovered, his reign morphed from concerning to catastrophic.
He was certainly incapable of containing the mounting baronial rivalries that eventually culminated in out-and-out civil war.
6. One baronial rivalry outshone all others
This was the rivalry between Richard, 3rd Duke of York and Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset. York deemed Somerset responsible for the recent military failures in France.
Both nobles made several attempts to destroy each other as they vied for supremacy. In the end their rivalry was only settled through blood and battle.
7. The first battle of the civil war occurred on 22 May 1455 at St Albans
Troops commanded by Richard, Duke of York, resoundingly defeated a Lancastrian royal army commanded by the Duke of Somerset, who was killed in the fighting. King Henry VI was captured, leading to a subsequent parliament appointing Richard of York Lord Protector.
It was the day that launched the bloody, three decades long, Wars of the Roses.
8. A surprise attack paved the way for a Yorkist victory
It was a small force led by the Earl of Warwick that marked the turning point in the battle. They picked their way through small back lanes and rear gardens, then burst into the town’s market square where the Lancastrian forces were relaxing and chatting.
The Lancastrian defenders, realising they were outflanked, abandoned their barricades and fled the town.
9. Henry VI was captured by Richard’s army at the Battle of St Albans
During the battle, Yorkist longbowmen rained arrows onto Henry’s bodyguard, killing Buckingham and several other influential Lancastrian nobles and wounding the king. Henry was later escorted back to London by York and Warwick.
10. An Act of Settlement in 1460 handed the line of succession to Henry VI’s cousin, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York
It recognised York’s strong hereditary claim to the throne and agreed that the crown would pass to him and his heirs after Henry’s death, thereby disinheriting Henry’s young son, Edward, Prince of Wales.
11. But Henry VI’s wife had something to say about it
Henry’s strong willed wife, Margaret of Anjou, refused to accept the act and continued fighting for the rights of her son.
12. Margaret of Anjou was famously bloodthirsty
After the Battle of Wakefield, she had the heads of York, Rutland and Salisbury impaled on spikes and displayed over Micklegate Bar, the western gate through the York city walls. York’s head had a paper crown as a mark of derision.
On another occasion, she allegedly asked her 7-year-old son Edward how their Yorkist prisoners should be put to death – he replied they should be beheaded.
13. Richard, Duke of York, was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460
The Battle of Wakefield (1460) was a calculated attempt by the Lancastrians to eliminate Richard, Duke of York, who was a rival of Henry VI’s for the throne.
Little is known about the action, but the Duke was successfully enticed out from the safety of Sandal Castle and ambushed. In the subsequent skirmish his forces were massacred, and both the Duke and his second eldest son were killed.
14. No one is sure why York sortied from Sandal Castle on 30 December
This inexplicable move resulted in his death. One theory says that some of the Lancastrian troops advanced openly towards Sandal Castle, while others hid in the surrounding woods. York may have been low on provisions and, believing that the Lancastrian force was no larger than his own, decided to go out and fight rather than withstand a siege.
Other accounts suggest that York was deceived by John Neville of Raby’s forces displaying false colours, which tricked him into thinking that the Earl of Warwick had arrived with aid.
15. And there are a lot of rumours about how he was killed
He was either killed in battle or captured and immediately executed.
Some works support the folklore that he suffered a crippling wound to the knee and was unhorsed, and that he and his closest followers then fought to the death at the spot; others relate that he was taken prisoner, mocked by his captors and beheaded.
16. Richard Neville became known as the Kingmaker
Richard Neville, better known as the Earl of Warwick, was famously known as the Kingmaker for his actions in deposing two kings. He was the wealthiest and most powerful man in England, with his fingers in every pie. He would end up fighting on all sides before his death in battle, supporting whoever could further his own career.
17. Yorkshire Yorkists?
The people in the county of Yorkshire were actually mostly on the Lancastrian side.
18. The biggest battle was…
The Battle of Towton, where 50,000-80,000 soldiers fought and an estimated 28,000 were killed. It was also the biggest battle ever fought on English soil. Allegedly, the number of casualties caused a nearby river to run with blood.
19. The Battle of Tewkesbury resulted in the violent death of Henry VI
After the decisive Yorkist victory against Queen Margaret’s Lancastrian force on 4 May 1471 at Tewkesbury, within three weeks the imprisoned Henry was killed in the Tower of London.
The execution was likely ordered by King Edward IV, son of Richard Duke of York.
20. A field on which part of the Battle of Tewkesbury was fought is to this day known as the “Bloody Meadow”
Fleeing members of the Lancastrian army attempted to cross the River Severn but most were cut down by the Yorkists before they could get there. The meadow in question – which leads down to the river – was the location of the slaughter.
21. The War of the Roses inspired Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones’s author, was heavily inspired by the War of the Roses, with the noble north pitted against the cunning south. King Joffrey is Edward of Lancaster.
22. The rose was not the primary symbol for either house
In fact, both Lancasters and Yorks had their own coat of arms, which they displayed much more often than the alleged rose symbol. It was simply one of the many badges used for identification.
The white rose was an earlier symbol as well, because the red rose of Lancaster was apparently not in use until the late 1480s, that is not until the last years of the Wars.
23. In fact, the symbol is taken directly from literature…
The term The Wars of the Roses only came into common use in the 19th century after the publication in 1829 of Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott.
Scott based the name on a scene in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 1 (Act 2, Scene 4), set in the gardens of the Temple Church, where a number of noblemen and a lawyer pick red or white roses to show their loyalty to the Lancastrian or Yorkist house.
24. Treachery happened all the time…
Some of the nobles treated the War of the Roses a bit like a game of musical chairs, and simply became friends with whoever was most likely to be in power in a given moment. The Earl of Warwick, for example, suddenly dropped his allegiance to York in 1470.
25. …but Edward IV had a relatively secure rule
Aside from his treacherous brother George, who was executed in 1478 for stirring up trouble again, Edward IV’s family and friends were loyal to him. Upon his death, in 1483, he named his brother, Richard, as Protector of England until his own sons came of age.
26. Though he did cause quite a stir when he got married
Despite the fact that Warwick was organising a match with the French, Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville – a woman whose family were gentry not noble, and who was supposed to be the most beautiful woman in England.
27. It resulted in the famous case of the Princes in the Tower
Edward V, King of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York were the two sons of Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville surviving at the time of their father’s death in 1483.
When they were 12 and 9 years old they were taken to the Tower of London to be looked after by their uncle, the Lord Protector: Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
This was supposedly in preparation for Edward’s upcoming coronation. However, Richard took the throne for himself and the boys disappeared – the bones of two skeletons were found under a staircase in the tower in 1674, which many assume were the skeletons of the princes.
28. The last battle in the War of the Roses was the Battle of Bosworth Field
After the boys disappeared, many nobles turned on Richard. Some even decided to swear allegiance to Henry Tudor. He faced Richard on 22 August 1485 in the epic and decisive Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard III suffered a deathly blow to the head, and Henry Tudor was the undisputed winner.
29. The Tudor rose comes from the symbols of the war
The symbolic end to the Wars of the Roses was the adoption of a new emblem, the Tudor rose, white in the middle and red on the outside.
30. Two more smaller clashes occurred after Bosworth
During Henry VII’s reign, two pretenders to the English crown emerged to threaten his rule: Lambert Simnel in 1487 and Perkin Warbeck in the 1490s.
Simnel claimed to be Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick; meanwhile Warbeck claimed to be Richard, Duke of York – one of the two ‘Princes in the Tower’.
Simnel’s rebellion was quashed after Henry defeated the pretender’s forces at the Battle of Stoke Field on 16 June 1487. Some consider this battle, and not Bosworth, to be the final battle of the Wars of the Roses.
Eight years later, Warbeck’s supporters were similarly defeated in a small clash in the port town of Deal in Kent. The fighting took place on the steeply sloping beach and is the only time in history – apart from Julius Caesar’s first landing on the island in 55 BC – that English forces resisted an invader on Britain’s coastline.