Henry VII (1457 – 1509) was the first Tudor monarch. His claim to the throne was not strong and he became king after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Henry’s success on the battlefield ended the Wars of the Roses that had begun in 1455. The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles that were fought between the supporters of the House of Lancaster (Lancastrians) and the supporters of the House of York (Yorkists).
The wars were called the Wars of the Roses because the Yorkists were represented by a white rose and the Lancastrians by a red rose.
Background to the Wars of the Roses
Although there were no battles fought until 1455, the cause of the wars dates back to the reign of Edward III and the power struggle between his sons after his death.
The four eldest sons of Edward III (1312 – 1377) were Edward the Black Prince (heir to the throne), Lionel of Antwerp (Duke of Clarence) John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) and Edmund of Langley (Duke of York)
Edward III died in 1377. His eldest son, Edward, the Black Prince had died of the plague in 1376 and so his grandson, Richard, aged ten and son of the Black Prince, became king. Because Richard II was only ten years old, his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, ruled the country. As Richard grew older he rebelled against his uncle and made decisions that were not popular with the most powerful men in the country.
In 1399 John of Gaunt died and Richard II confiscated the land he had owned. John of Gaunt’s son, Henry, raised an army and when Richard surrendered took the throne as Henry IV. Richard was imprisoned in Pontefract castle and mysteriously died in February 1400.
Henry IV faced a number of challenges to his place on the throne because he was not the natural successor to Richard II. With the death of Richard II, the crown should have passed to Edmund Earl of March, great grandson of Lionel Duke of Clarence. However, Henry managed to keep his place on the throne and when he died in 1413, the country was at peace and his son, Henry V, succeeded without problem.
Henry V was a strong leader and after ordering the execution of Richard, Earl of Cambridge for plotting to put the Yorkists on the throne, invaded France. He won many battles, including the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and conquered Normandy and Rouen for England. In 1420, Henry married the daughter of the king of France and it was agreed that their children would be the heirs of both England and France. When Henry V died in 1422 from dysentery, his son, Henry VI became the only king to be crowned king of England and France.
Henry VI was four months old when he became king and his father’s brothers ruled England and France in his place. France was soon lost when Joan of Arc raised an army against the English and restored the French monarchy. As Henry grew older it became apparent that he was a weak king, totally dominated by his French wife Margaret of Anjou. He was also prone to bouts of insanity and the Yorkists began plotting to take his place on the throne.
The first battle of the Wars of the Roses took place at St Albans on 22nd May 1455. The Yorkists led by Richard Duke of York easily defeated the King’s army. Henry VI was injured and taken prisoner. In 1455, Henry suffered another bout of insanity and Richard Duke of York was made protector of England. In 1456, Henry recovered and retook the throne. There were further battles and in 1459 Richard was killed at the Battle of Wakefield.
In 1461, Richard’s son Edward, Earl of March, defeated the King’s army, took the King prisoner and made himself King Edward IV. Queen Margaret took her son and fled to Wales where they were taken in by the king’s half-brother Jaspar Tudor. In 1470, Henry regained the throne but in 1471 was defeated by Edward’s army at the Battle of Tewkesbury and taken prisoner. Henry’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales was killed during the battle. With no other Lancastrian heir to challenge him, Edward IV remained king until his sudden death in 1483.
Edward IV had two sons, Edward and Richard, both of whom were too young to rule and so their uncle Richard Duke of Gloucester ruled England. The two princes were taken to the Tower of London and in the summer of 1483 mysteriously disappeared. It is believed that their uncle murdered them. Richard was crowned Richard III. He was not a popular king and faced many challenges to his place on the throne, notably from Henry Tudor, grandson of Owen Tudor who had been second husband to Henry V’s wife Katherine of Valois.
Henry Tudor raised a Lancastrian army against Richard Iii and at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Richard was killed and the Yorkists defeated. It is told that Henry found Richard’s crown on the battlefield and placed it on his head. Henry VII was crowned king and married Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York a move that was to end the Wars of the Roses.
The Red Rose of Lancaster + The White Rose of York = The Red and White Tudor Rose
In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, launched a coup that overthrew King Richard II. Richard himself did not survive the coup and he left no heir, so, perhaps inevitably, the takeover sparked off a power struggle between Bolingbroke and other claimants to the throne, many of whose claims were stronger. Nevertheless, Bolingbroke, who had taken the title King Henry IV, was able to defeat his rivals and secure his dynasty on the throne: when he died his son succeeded him as King Henry V. Henry V also faced plots to overthrow him, though he too was able to defeat them. Henry V established himself as a popular figure by ruling very effectively within England and through great victories in France, the most famous of which was the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The resulting peace treaty, the Treaty of Troyes of 1420, laid down that Henry should marry a French princess, Catherine de Valois, and that their son should inherit the French, as well as the English, crown.
In 1421 a son was born to the couple and christened Henry. Only nine months later, however, Henry V died and the infant became King Henry VI. A king succeeding at such a young age inevitably meant a long period of regency. In Henry VI’s case a Council of Regency was set up under the chairmanship of the king’s uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. Such a situation was bound to provoke jostling for power at court, but the situation might have been containable had the situation in France not suddenly collapsed. The French rose in rebellion against English dominance, under the inspiring leadership of Joan of Arc. The disastrous news from France kindled deep feelings of bitterness at court in England, which came to a head in 1450, when Normandy was lost. England’s proud French empire was now reduced to the area around Calais.
The situation might have been different had Henry VI himself been a stronger character after the model of his father and grandfather. In fact, however, Henry was a non-entity, easily persuaded to do whatever those about told him to do. He also suffered repeated bouts of a crippling mental condition. Although the nobility attempted to cover up the king's inadequacies by presenting government as normal, they were unable to agree on critical decisions, like what to do about the threat to English possessions in France. And so, by 1450 France had been lost and Henry VI's greatest lords could no longer pretend that the king was actually ruling.
Two main groups soon emerged with different views on how the realm should be governed in the absence of an effective king. One was associated with the court and centred around the Duke of Somerset, who advocated others ruling in the king's name informally; the other, led by the Duke of York, favoured setting up an official council to rule in the king's stead. As time went on, the disputes between these groups and between individual nobles over land became worse and worse. At the same time, the queen, Margaret of Anjou, took the side of one of the parties; with her she took the king. This meant that the other party was, despite attempts to avoid this, fighting the king himself. The intense political in-fighting finally came to blows in a pitched battle at St Albans in 1455 which York won. York hoped simply to take over the running of the king’s government, but the queen and the court party did not stop their opposition and finally in 1460, taking advantage of his royal descent (he had a better dynastic claim to the throne than Henry VI, he argued), the Duke of York formally claimed the throne. York’s action immediately sparked off war between his followers, the House of York, also known as Yorkists, and the court party, led by Queen Margaret and known as the House of Lancaster or Lancastrians. The Duke of York himself was killed early in the war, when he was defeated by Queen Margaret in battle at Wakefield and executed for treason. However his claim to the throne passed to the eldest of his three sons, Edward, earl of March. After a period of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre, Edward heavily defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton, still the bloodiest battle ever to have been fought on English soil, and had himself crowned King Edward VI.
However, once one seizure of the throne based on a better dynastic claim had been made, others followed, and in the 1480s, Richard of Gloucester similarly took the throne from Edward IV's son to become Richard III. He was then ousted by Henry Tudor in 1485, who became Henry VII, founding the Tudor dynasty. The war between the two houses of Lancaster and York became known later as the Wars of the Roses, from two heraldic badges, a white rose for the House of York and a red rose for the House of Lancaster. In fact these rose motifs were relatively little used in the fighting, and, as we have seen, events were much more complicated than the story of a power-hungry nobility suggests.