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The Wars of the Roses

Edward III and the Wars of the Roses (1377–1461)


Edward III, who inherited the throne from his father, Edward II, in 1327, reigned till 1377 and had fourteen children with his queen, Philippa of Hainault, including five boys who lived into adulthood. They were, Edward (The Black Prince), Lionel of Antwerp, John of Gaunt, Edmund of Langley, and Thomas of Woodstock. To placate his sons, Edward created England’s first ever dukedoms, respectively Cornwall, Clarence, Lancaster, York and Gloucester.

With the Black Prince dead, the Crown eventually fell to his young son, henceforth Richard II. With Lionel of Antwerp also dead, Richard’s main adviser was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The unpopular government of Richard II, notably Gaunt, coupled with England’s loss of what remained of the Angevin Empire, eventually led to the Peasants’ Revolt. Richard exiled Gaunt’s eldest son, Henry Bolingbroke, in 1398 and, following Gaunt’s death in 1399, denied him his birthright. His return and rebellion won him the throne, and Richard died, probably starved to death, in Pontefract Castle.

Following Henry IV’s death in 1413, Henry V ruled for nine years. Following him was his infant son, Henry VI. Despite Henry V’s general popularity, he did have to contend with one plot shortly before Agincourt, by one Richard of Conisburgh, son of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. Conisburgh’s execution left his four-year-old son, Richard, later 3rd Duke of York, fatherless.

Henry V’s younger brothers themselves produced no heirs, apart from Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, leaving the distantly related Beauforts as the next upholders of the House of Lancaster. With this, ineffective meddlers surrounded the young king. When his uncle the Duke of Bedford died in 1435, Henry’s one remaining uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, sought to become protector. Gloucester encountered opposition from the Duke of Suffolk, who had Gloucester arrested for treason. Gloucester died awaiting trial in 1447, while Suffolk was murdered soon after being stripped of office and was replaced by the Lancastrian Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset.
Richard, Duke of York
Richard, Duke of York

At the time, Henry VI’s lieutenant in France was Richard, 3rd Duke of York. With the war in France going badly, York sought a change in policy. In 1452 York returned to England and marched on London, demanding Somerset’s removal. Despite being jailed, York was released in 1453, and as Henry VI’s mental health deteriorated, York became Lord Protector and one of a new council of Regents. Two years later, Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, forced York from court. Soon after, York resorted to hostilities. The Battle of St Albans saw the beginning of the war, and the end of Somerset. York’s victory saw him reinstated. In 1456 Henry then ousted him and, after a brief reconciliation between Yorkists and Lancastrians in 1458, plotting resumed. In 1459 battle occurred at Blore Heath in Staffordshire, and again at Ludford Bridge, forcing York to flee to Ireland. Plotting between York and the powerful Earl of Warwick (later dubbed the Kingmaker) allowed York to return in September 1460, after the Lancastrians were defeated in July at Northampton. While York’s desire to claim the throne was met with mixed response, he was installed by parliament as Henry VI’s successor.
Edward IV
Edward IV

York and his forces left London later in 1460 to counter Margaret of Anjou having sought assistance from the Scots. Richard of York did indeed give battle in vain, and was slain at Wakefield at the end of December. As York’s eldest son was subsequently executed, Richard was succeeded by his next son, Edward, henceforth also heir to the throne. Edward was victorious over Jasper Tudor’s army (Henry Tudor’s uncle) in the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. While the Yorkists lost the second battle of St Albans in 1461, better luck was to follow when a panic-stricken London closed its gates on the Lancastrians, fearing plunder, and later that year Edward was welcomed and unofficially crowned Edward IV. Edward and Warwick marched north with a large army and met the Lancastrians at Towton. The battle was the bloodiest ever recorded, at least 20,000 dying on a single day. Edward’s victory was consolidated by his march to York and later coronation in London.