The Kings of the Wars of The Roses

The Wars of the Roses were fought, on and off, in England from the 1450s to the 1490s, as opposing parties wrestled for control over the throne. Let's take a look at the kings who ruled during the conflict, as well as some that contributed to the unrest of the period long before the first swords were drawn. 

Henry IV

Henry IV, Yale Center of British Art, Public Domain

I know what you're thinking. Henry IV's reign was waaaay before the Wars of the Roses, in the very early fifteenth century. This is true, he reigned from 1399-1413, but some people place the roots of the wars sprouting on his watch. Henry usurped the reigning King Richard II, who was quietly murdered in Pontefract Castle, West Yorkshire in early 1400. This upset the balance of power, as a usurping king interrupting the sequence of what was later considered the legitimate monarchy. This action lead to his son and grandson ruling, as many believed, without right. This was one of the lines of defence used by the Yorkist party when they attempted to take the throne: that they were restoring the rightful line of kings. 

Henry V

Henry V, Yale Center for British Art, Public Domain

Henry V was certainly a heroic and stern king. He was able to put down rebellions swiftly and efficiently, such as the Southampton Plot of 1415. He secured the right of his son to rule France as well as England, after the famous Battle of Agincourt. So how could Henry V have been responsible for one of the causes of the Wars of the Roses? He died, on campaign in France aged just thirty-six years old, of dysentery, leaving one son, a nine-month old baby named Henry. On his father's death, Henry VI became king, and although his father had tried to establish a government to oversee the crown until Henry's maturity, squabbles and fights broke out among them, leading to discord. Henry V then, did not leave the country in a stable position, one of the main factors that contributed to the outbreak of the wars in the mid 1400s. 

Henry VI

Henry VI, Yale Center for British Art, Public Domain

Poor Henry VI. He just wasn't cut out for ruling. He projected an image that was the opposite of his warlike father, preferring to pray and take part in quiet contemplation than overseeing his council or preparing for war. He was concerned with his image as a reasonable and just king, and pardoned a number of people who had committed crimes against the government, such as treason. One of these was Thomas Kerver, in 1444. The people began to see this as a weakness. Henry also struggled to keep his bickering nobility in check, as they circled the throne with increasing influence and power. He ruled from 1422 until 1461 when he was removed by the Yorkist party. He regained control of the throne between 1470 and 1471. However on the Yorkists' return to power it is generally believed that he was then quietly murdered in the Tower of London. He was considered, after his death, a martyr, and responsible for a number of miracles connected with his belongings and his tomb.

Edward IV

Edward IV, Yale Center of British Art, Public Domain

Edward IV was, generally, a popular king with the people. It was said that he remained undefeated in battle and was tall, handsome and charming. His accession restored the Yorkist line of heirs to the throne, and he ruled in his father's place, Richard Duke of York having died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. Edward was known for treating his subjects 'familiarly', putting a reassuring arm around their shoulders, requesting honesty from them and courted powerful nobles from both sides of the wars. He also has a reputation for having taken mistresses. Edward was destined to one day be a Duke of York rather than a king, and so he had perhaps a 'common touch', whereas princes maintained distance with their subjects to create the 'majesty' of royalty. He also tended to create enemies through his sometimes unprofessional or badly thought out actions. One of these was the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville. By alienating him and some say, making him look a fool when he married Elizabeth Woodville while Warwick was negotiating a foreign royal match, he caused the powerful and popular Warwick to turn against him and fight instead for Lancaster, a cause Warwick died fighting for in 1471. Despite this, Edward managed to keep hold of the throne until 1483. 

Edward V

You'd probably better know Edward V as one of the ill-fated Princes in the Tower. He succeeded as king on his father's death, but quickly faced a challenge from his uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester, who declared him and his siblings illegitimate. Edward V was never crowned. No one knows what happened to him and his brother Richard, but they had disappeared by 1485 and were presumed dead, and more specifically, murdered. Edward IV may have felt secure on his deathbed in leaving England with two sons to rule - in theory an heir and a spare - but they were simply too young too young to assert their own power, especially against their ambitious and politically powerful uncle, who would become Richard III.

Richard III

Richard III, Yale Center for British Art, Public Domain

Say what you like about Richard III, he was a brilliant politician. He took just three months to create doubts over the legitimacy of Edward IV's children (and also by the way, Edward himself), put forward his own claim to the throne and solemnly receive the crown and sceptre for himself in July 1483. However Richard's rule became unpopular, especially when word began to spread about the supposed fate of the princes. His motivation in usurping the young prince may have been to actually stabilise the kingdom, which faced another minority rule. However the way he did this upset many key nobles. Without their loyalty as well as their financial and political support, he could not rule effectively. Henry VII, over in Brittany and the next Lancastrian heir to the crown, became the figurehead promising to free England from what the Lancastrians considered Richard's 'tyrannic' rule. Many of Richard's  key nobles switched to Henry's cause and this was one of the main reasons for his defeat at Bosworth. On the morning of the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485 Richard vowed that he would fight for his crown to the death. He died, at the hands of his Lancastrian enemies, on the field. 

Henry VII

Henry VII, Yale Center for British Art, Public Domain

Henry VII was the son of the half-brother of Henry VI, so when he became king, he restored Henry IV's old, Lancastrian line to the throne. In an attempt to secure peace and settle both sides of the conflict, he married the Yorkist princess, Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's daughter. But despite the Tudor propaganda, Henry did not really achieve peace, or a decisive end to the Wars of the Roses. He encountered challenges by Yorkist pretenders, some financed and encouraged by the Yorkist Margaret of Burgundy, planned and funded from overseas. The final battle of the Wars of the Roses, The Battle of Stoke, was fought on Henry's watch in 1487. 

Henry VIII

Henry VIII, Yale Center of British Art, Public Domain

Surely by Henry VIII's time the wars were over, right? Not quite. It's still possible to see the wars' influence in his reign, which started in 1509. Henry became watchful of anyone who he believed might challenge his throne. The executions of subjects with Yorkist blood included Edmund de la Pole, Edward Stafford and the tragic beheading of the elderly Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Margaret was the daughter of Edward IV's brother George Duke of Clarence, and he hunted down her sons, too, on allegations of treason. It is often said that Henry became paranoid, especially during his later years. In truth, he most likely understood that among those who attended banquets and served him on court business, there were some that shared his royal blood and might one day make their own bid for the crown.  

Liked this? You might also like The Medieval and Tudor Archers of Finsbury, London; Sir Richard Neville Earl of Salisbury's Effigy at Burghfield and Visiting the Tomb of Alice Chaucer, Ewelme. 

The kings of the Wars of the Roses were important, but women from all sectors of society had an impact on the conflict too. I explore some of these forgotten women in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. Order your copy here. 

Images: All attributed to Renold Elstrack, 1570–1625(?), British, 1618 or 1628, Line engraving on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of John Hay Whitney, Yale BA 1926, Yale MA (HON.) 1956, transfer from the Yale University Library and the Yale University Art Gallery. All in Public Domain. 

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