The Wars of the Roses were history’s real life answer to Game of Thrones. For three decades two branches of the same family would battle it out for the crown. It would eventually lead to the end of the Plantagenet dynasty which had dominated the Middle Ages and the creation of a new line – the Tudors.
What caused the conflict?
In the simplest terms, the war began because Richard, Duke of York, believed he had a better claim to the throne than the man sitting on it, Henry VI.
Ever since Henry II, the first Plantagenet, took power, kings struggled to keep a firm grip on the crown and not all of them succeeded. Edward II, for example, was ousted by his wife and replaced by his son Edward III.
Problems occurred in 1399 when 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 family, both of which thought they had the rightful claim.
On the one hand 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.
A dodgy king
However, all this dynastic arguing was something of a smokescreen. What really mattered were more practical issues and in particular the problematic reign of Henry VI.
Thanks to the military successes of his father, Henry V, England held vast swathes of France and Henry VI was the only King of England to be crowned King of France and England. However, it was not a title he could hold onto for long and over the course of his reign he gradually lost almost all England’s possessions in France.
The English nobility was incensed by the loss of power and French land, and factional tensions broke out. Mounting pressures on Henry led to a major breakdown in 1453. Historians believe he suffered from a condition known as catatonic schizophrenia which would see him lapse into catatonic states for long periods of time.
Battle for power
Henry’s weakness created two factions at court. One, led by the Duke of Gloucester and Richard, Duke of York, favoured a more aggressive policy in the war, while the other led by the Dukes of Suffolk and Somerset favoured peace. They were supported by the Queen Margaret of Anjou who was rumoured to be having an affair with Somerset.
With Henry in no fit state to rule, Richard was named Protector of the Realm, naming many of his close associates in important positions. However, on Christmas Day 1444 the king recovered, and he set about undoing York’s appointments. His fatal error was to exclude York and his faction, supported by the Earl of Warwick, from a council to be held in Leicester in May 1455.
The two sides met in the Battle of St Albans. It was only a small encounter, but it saw the death of the Duke of Somerset and several other Lancastrian noblemen. This created sons who were out for revenge and turned a dynastic struggle into an even more poisonous blood feud.
Even then there were chances to turn back. The Act of Accord in 1460 named Richard heir, but there was no turning back. Margaret – perhaps grieving for Somerset – was determined to get her revenge on Richard.
She would have it when he himself was killed in battle, but that only left his son Edward who was even more determined to get his revenge. The Wars of York and Lancaster had begun.