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Roses, Wars of the

Roses, Wars of the, traditional name given to the intermittent struggle (1455–85) for the throne of England between the noble houses of York (whose badge was a white rose) and Lancaster (later associated with the red rose).

About the middle of the 15th cent. Richard, duke of York, came to the fore as leader of the opposition to the faction (William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk; Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset; and the queen, Margaret of Anjou) that controlled the weak Lancastrian king Henry VI. The Yorkists gained popular support as a result of discontent over the failure of English arms in the Hundred Years War and over the corruption of the court, discontent reflected in the rebellion of Jack Cade in 1450. Also in that year Suffolk was murdered, and the duke of York forced the king to recognize his claim as heir to the throne. In 1453 the king became insane, and the birth of a son to Margaret of Anjou displaced York as heir. The duke was appointed protector, but when the king recovered in 1454, York was excluded from the royal council. He resorted to arms.

The opposing factions met (1455) at St. Albans—usually taken as the first battle of the Wars of the Roses. Somerset was killed, leaving Queen Margaret at the head of the defeated royal party, and York again served as protector for a short period (1455–56). By 1459 both parties were once more in arms. The following year the Yorkists defeated and captured the king at the battle of Northampton. The duke of York hurried to London to assert his claims to the throne, which were, by laws of strict inheritance, perhaps better than those of the king himself. A compromise was effected by which Henry remained king and York and his heirs were declared successors.

Queen Margaret, whose son was thus disinherited, raised an army and defeated (1460) the Yorkists at Wakefield. York was killed in this battle, and his claims devolved upon his son Edward, but Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, became the real leader of the Yorkist party. Margaret's army rescued the king from captivity in the second battle of St. Albans (Feb., 1461), but Edward meanwhile secured a Yorkist victory at Mortimer's Cross, marched into London unopposed, and assumed the throne as Edward IV.

The Lancastrians, after their defeat at Towton (Mar., 1461), continued (with Scottish aid) to raise resistance in the north until 1464. The deposed Henry was captured (1465) and put into the Tower of London. Although the Lancastrian cause now seemed hopeless, a quarrel broke out between Warwick and Edward IV after the latter's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Warwick and the king's brother George, duke of Clarence, allied against Edward, fled to France (1470), and there became reconciled with Margaret of Anjou. Supported by Louis XI of France, they crossed to England and restored Henry VI to the throne.

Edward fled, but with the aid of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, returned to England in 1471, regained London, and recaptured Henry. In the ensuing battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury (1471), Warwick and Henry's son, Edward, were killed. Margaret was imprisoned. Soon thereafter Henry VI died, probably slain at the orders of Edward IV. After 12 relatively peaceful years, Edward IV was succeeded (1483) by his young son Edward V, but soon the boy's uncle Richard, duke of Gloucester, usurped the throne as Richard III. Opposition to Richard advanced the fortunes of Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, now the Lancastrian claimant. In 1485, Henry landed from France, defeated and killed Richard at Bosworth Field, and ascended the throne as Henry VII.

Henry VII's marriage to Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth, united the houses of Lancaster and York. Except for various efforts during Henry's reign to place Yorkist pretenders on the throne, the Wars of the Roses were ended. It is generally said that with them ended the era of feudalism in England, since the nobles who participated suffered heavy loss of life and property and were too weak, as a class, to contest the strong monarchy of the Tudors. The middle and lower classes were largely indifferent to the struggle and relatively untouched by it.

See E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century (1961); P. M. Kendall, The Yorkist Age (1962, repr. 1965); S. B. Chrimes, Lancastrians, Yorkists, and Henry VII (1964); J. R. Lander, The Wars of the Roses (1965); C. D. Ross, Wars of the Roses: A Concise History (1976); E. Hallam, ed., Wars of the Roses (1988) and Chronicles of the Wars of the Roses (1988); A. J. Pollard, Wars of the Roses (1995); A. Weir, Wars of the Roses (1995); S. Gristwood, Blood Sisters: The Women behind the War of the Roses (2013).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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