The Wars of the Roses: The 6 Lancastrian and Yorkist Kings in Order

Matt Lewis

Middle Ages Wars of the Roses
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Edward III died in June 1377, having outlived his son and heir, Edward of Woodstock. By the practices of medieval kingship, the crown thus passed to Edward of Woodstock’s son – the 10 year-old Richard – who became Richard II.

Richard’s reign was beset by problems of ruling in a minority at a time of great social upheaval – particularly caused by economic pressures of the Black Death. Richard was also a capricious king who made powerful enemies, and his appetite for revenge ended with him being deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke – who became Henry IV.

The descendants of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault.

However, Henry’s usurpation made the line of kingship more complex, with the Plantagenet family now in competing cadet branches of ‘Lancaster’ (descended from John of Gaunt) and ‘York’ (descended from Edmund, Duke of York as well as Lionel, Duke of Clarence). This complicated backdrop set the stage for dynastic conflict and open civil war amongst the English nobiity in the mid 15th century. Here are the 3 Lancastrian and 3 Yorkist kings in order.

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Henry IV

As Richard II fell into tyranny through the 1390s, his exiled cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, son of the Duke of Lancaster, returned to England to claim the throne. The childless Richard was forced to abdicate, and Lancastrian rule began on 30 September 1399.

Henry was a famed knight, serving with the Teutonic Knights on crusade in Lithuania and undertaking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Henry faced continual opposition to his rule. In 1400, Owain Glyndŵr declared himself Prince of Wales and launched a prolonged rebellion.

The Earl of Northumberland became disaffected in 1402, and a plot was hatched to carve up the kingdom, replacing Henry with Edmund Mortimer, giving Wales to Glyndŵr, and the north to Northumberland.

The Battle of Shrewsbury on 21 July 1403 brought an end to the threat, but Henry struggled to find security. From 1405 onwards, his health declined, mainly due to a skin condition, possibly leprosy or psoriasis. He eventually died on 20 March 1413 aged 45.

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Henry V

The second Lancastrian king was Henry V. At 27, he had a playboy image. Henry had been at the Battle of Shrewsbury aged 16. He was hit in the face by an arrow that left a deep scar on his cheek. In the instant he became king, Henry set aside the companions of his riotous princely lifestyle in favour of piety and duty.

Aware that he could face the same threats as his father, Henry organised an invasion of France to unite the kingdom behind him. Although he exposed the Southampton Plot as he prepared to leave, another effort to put Edmund Mortimer on the throne, his plan worked.

A common cause and the chance of glory and riches distracted those who questioned his rule. At the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415, Henry wore a crown on top of his helm, and the unexpected victory against overwhelming numbers sealed his position as king, approved by God.

In 1420, Henry secured the Treaty of Troyes which recognised him as Regent of France, heir to Charles VI’s throne, and saw him married to one of Charles’s daughters. He died on campaign on 31 August 1422 of dysentery aged 35, just weeks before Charles passed away. His death sealed his reputation at the very height of his powers.

King Henry V

Henry VI

King Henry VI was 9 months old when his father died. He is the youngest monarch in English and British history, and within weeks he became King of France on the death of his grandfather Charles VI. Child kings were never a good thing, and England faced a long minority government.

Henry was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 6 November 1429 aged 7 and in Paris on 16 December 1431 just after his 10th birthday. He is the only monarch ever to be crowned in both countries, but factions developed and tore at the fabric of England, some favouring war and others championing its end.

Henry grew into a man who craved peace. When he married Margaret of Anjou, a niece of the Queen of France, not only did she bring no dowry, but Henry gave huge parts of his French territories to Charles VII, who had also been crowned King of France.

The rifts in Henry’s kingdoms widened until the Wars of the Roses erupted. Henry was deposed by the Yorkist faction, and although he was briefly restored in 1470, he lost the crown again the following year and was killed within the Tower of London on 21 May 1471, aged 49.

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Edward IV

On 30 December 1460, Edward, son of Richard, Duke of York, was proclaimed king in place of Henry VI. Edward was 18, at 6’4” the tallest monarch in English or British history, charismatic but prone to overindulgence. In 1464, he announced that he had married a Lancastrian widow in secret.

The match outraged the nobility, who had been planning a marriage to a foreign princess, and as the decade progressed he fell out with his cousin Richard, Earl of Warwick, who is remembered as the Kingmaker. Edward’s brother George joined the rebellion, and in 1470 Edward was driven from England into exile in Burgundy.

Henry VI was restored as Warwick took the reins of government, but Edward returned with his youngest brother Richard in 1471. Warwick was defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet, and Henry’s only son died at the subsequent Battle of Tewkesbury.

Henry was done away with when Edward returned to London, and the Yorkist crown seemed secure. Edward’s unexpected death from illness on 9 April 1483, aged 40, led to one of the most controversial years in English history.

Detail of historiated initial of Edward IV. Image credit: British Library / CC

Edward V

Edward’s oldest son was proclaimed King Edward V. His father’s early death when his heir was just 12 raised the spectre of minority government again at a time when France was renewing aggression against England. Edward had been raised in his own household at Ludlow since he was 2 years old in the care of his mother’s family.

Edward IV appointed his brother Richard to act as regent for his son, but the queen’s family tried to bypass this by having Edward V crowned immediately. Richard had some of them arrested and sent north, executing them later.

In London, Richard was recognised as Protector but caused uncertainty when he had Edward IV’s closest friend William, Lord Hastings beheaded on a charge of treason.

A story emerged that Edward IV had already been married when he wed Elizabeth Woodville. The precontract made his marriage bigamous and the children of the union illegitimate and incapable of inheriting the throne.

Edward V and his brother Richard were set aside, and their uncle was offered the crown as Richard III. Remembered as the Princes of the Tower, the boys’ final fates remain the subject of debate.

The Princes in the Tower by Samuel Cousins.

Richard III

Richard, Duke of Gloucester ascended the throne as King Richard III on 26 June 1483. He distanced himself from his brother’s reign, launching a scathing attack on its corruption.

A combination of this, his unpopular policies to reform the realm, the uncertainty surrounding his nephews, and efforts to promote the cause of the exiled Henry Tudor caused problems from the beginning of his reign. By October 1483, there was rebellion in the south.

The most senior rebel was Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who had been at Richard’s right hand since the death of Edward IV. The falling out might have revolved around the Princes in the Tower – Richard or Buckingham having murdered them, outraging the other.

The rebellion was crushed, but Henry Tudor remained at large in Brittany. In 1484, Richard’s parliament passed a set of laws that have been praised for their quality and fairness, but personal tragedy struck.

His only legitimate son died in 1484, and in the early months of 1485, his wife passed away too. Henry Tudor invaded in August 1485, and Richard was killed fighting bravely at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August. The last King of England to die in battle, his reputation suffered during the Tudor era that followed.

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Matt Lewis