What Caused the Wars of the Roses?

From 1455 to 1485 England found itself embroiled in utter chaos as the rival factions of the Plantagenet dynasty fought for ultimate control of the kingdom of England. The Wars of the Roses is a modern-day term used for the 30-year period in which two Plantagenet branches – the House of York and the House of Lancaster – fought each other for supreme power in the realm. In this article we examine the dynamics between the two houses and what caused the Wars of the Roses.

The Plantagenet line of the royal family ruled England from 1154 to 1485. The first Plantagenet king was Henry II, son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey who was the Count of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine in France. The name Plantagenet originated with Geoffrey who was known for wearing a sprig of the plant “planta genista” in his hat. Over time “planta genista” turned into “plantagenet” and the name was adopted to describe his branch of the royal family. In all, the House of Plantagenet produced fourteen kings of England, from Henry II to Richard III. The Battle of Bosworth, in which Henry Tudor beat Richard III, was the official end of Plantagenet rule and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty.

The Wars of the Roses was not a continual military campaign but instead it was a series of pitched battles, seventeen in all, that occurred over the 30-year period. It was a bloody back and forth struggle that saw no less than five changes in power over a relatively short period of time among four kings: Henry VI (reigned 1422-1461 and again 1470-1471), Edward IV (reigned 1461-1470 and again 1471-1483), Richard III (1483-1485), and Henry VII (1485-1509).

It is estimated that between 35,000-50,000 people were killed in the battles of the Wars of the Roses, including many men of nobility, thousands of knights, and countless commoners who had answered their lord’s call to arms. What could have happened to spark such a bloody war that made cousins fight and kill cousins? To understand what caused the Wars of the Roses, we must look back a few reigns to understand the tensions that had been boiling for years before they finally erupted in the mid-15th century into the Wars of the Roses.

Edward III’s Succession Problem

In general, the 14th and 15th centuries were a very unsettled time throughout Europe but especially in England and France. The two kingdoms had been in a dispute over French succession since the death of King Charles IV of France in 1328. Charles had one daughter but no sons. This was a problem because according to French Salic Law, daughters could not inherit the throne. Therefore, other male candidates would have to be considered. Among them was no less than the King of England himself, Edward III.

What caused the Wars of the Roses?
Edward III Effigy

Edward III was a Plantagenet king who ruled England for fifty years from 1327 to 1377. He was the nephew of King Charles IV of France through his mother Isabella of France. When Charles IV died, Edward asserted his right to the French throne as Charles’ nearest male relative. The French, citing Salic Law, ruled that inheritance could not be passed through a female line and therefore Edward III was not the next in line of succession. Instead, the throne passed to Philip of Valois, Charles’ cousin through a completely male line.

As if losing his claim to the kingdom of France wasn’t enough of a blow to Edward, Philip also confiscated Edward’s land in France. Edward was not the type of man to take things lying down so he did what any good warrior king would do: he went to war. He initiated what is called the Hundred Years War between England and France which took place between 1337 to 1453.

One of King Edward’s best military commanders was his eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince. The king’s son was raised and educated in preparation to be the next king and he was perfectly suited to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, there was a major problem. During his repeated military expeditions around Europe, he contracted a raging case of dysentery and died in 1376 at the age of 45. He had not outlived his father, therefore he never got the chance to fulfill his destiny as King of England.

What caused the Wars of the Roses?
Richard II

After the death of the Black Prince, King Edward wrote his will and “Act of Entail” in which he named his heir. Rather than naming his eldest living son (John of Gaunt) to be the next king, he did something quite unusual. He named his grandson, Richard of Bordeaux, eldest living son of the Black Prince, as his heir citing a device called “Right of Substitution”. Essentially since the Black Prince died prematurely, his son Richard was accepted as a substitute.

After Richard, he named the next in line for succession to be his third son, John of Gaunt and the male heirs of his body, followed by fourth son, Edmund, duke of York, and fifth son, Thomas, duke of Gloucester. Edward’s second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, had died in 1368 and his only offspring was a daughter, Philippa, which was excluded from the succession for being female.

Interestingly, Edward’s “Act of Entail” document was kept secret from the public. The only people who knew about it were those named in the entail and the king’s closest confidants. It was never introduced to Parliament to put into law. No one knows exactly why he kept it secret but it wasn’t uncommon at the time. Many rulers were hesitant to publicly name their heir because that gave any discontented subjects someone to rally around to rebel and try to overthrow the king.

If King Edward had followed traditional Salic Law, his eldest living son, John of Gaunt, would have been named his heir followed by Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, leaving Richard completely out of the succession. If this would have been the case, the succession would have been strictly through the house of Lancaster, cutting out the house of York entirely. The choice of Richard as his heir unintentionally sowed the seeds of discontent among Edward III’s descendants that would last almost 100 years, culminating in the Wars of the Roses.

Why did Edward III choose an unconventional heir? In England during the Middle Ages there was no law defining the order of succession. Other European kingdoms, such as France, observed Salic Law which prohibited women from being crowned as well as their sons. Germanic kingdoms followed semi-Salic rule which allowed a woman to inherit but only if all the men in the royal bloodline were dead. Since England had never put the order of succession into a legal act, it was basically up to each king to choose his own heir to the throne.

Is it any wonder England had so many disputes over control of the kingdom during the Middle Ages? With no legal rules governing the order of succession, it became open to interpretation and that’s when those who had royal blood in their veins used it to their advantage. It made it much more possible to maneuver their own royal relatives into positions where they might someday have a shot at the throne themselves.


Richard II vs. Henry of Bolingbroke

What caused the Wars of the Roses?
16th century painting of Henry IV

Henry of Bolingbroke would have known about King Edward III’s act of entail and that he had been named third in line for the throne (after Richard and John of Gaunt) rather than second in line after his father John. Even so, being third in line to the throne wasn’t so bad for Henry. He lived a relatively comfortable life as a royal heir and spent his youth preparing to be a successful ruler like his grandfather. Henry became one of the most respected knights in Europe, he traveled abroad on crusades, and most importantly he learned that it was better to work with the nobles and forge alliances rather than trying to control them, like his cousin King Richard II did.

There was only one problem: Richard absolutely hated Henry. Richard was none of the things that Henry was. Richard was not strong and athletic, he did not joust, and he was not an experienced military leader. He was basically the antithesis of Edward III and Henry. Richard was terribly jealous of Henry and felt threatened that Henry or his father might one day try to wrestle the crown from his head. He was determined to make sure neither man ever wore the crown of England.

Richard II’s reign was fraught with trouble from beginning to end. One of the biggest problems for Richard was money. After years of funding Edward III’s military campaigns, the crown of England was broke. Finances didn’t much concern the young Richard so he continued to spend extravagantly despite the crown’s crushing debt. He was especially fond of spending money on fashionable clothes for himself, funded by Parliament through grants of money and, of course, taxes on his English subjects.

When the fourteen-year-old king tried to raise taxes once again in 1381, an angry mob marched to London in what was to become known as the Peasants’ Revolt. The rioters set fires around London, destroyed John of Gaunt’s residence called Savoy Place, took possession of the Tower of London, and even murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king’s Lord Chancellor. After a few weeks of terror, the rebellion was suppressed, and the leaders were executed. Although Parliament seemingly learned a lesson from the rebellion (they immediately discontinued poll taxes), Richard didn’t seem to learn anything at all. For the entirety of his relatively short reign, Richard’s ill-advised actions would irritate and undermine his noblemen and councilors.

Richard’s biggest shortcoming was his inability to take advice or direction from those around him and that was ultimately the cause of his downfall. He whole-heartedly believed that he was God’s divine choice to be ruler of England and this made him a very arrogant and narcissistic man. At times he showed himself to be completely uncooperative with Parliament, going against their rulings whenever it suited him. On several occasions when he was pushed into a corner, he would agree to the terms he was confronted with, but then later would always renege on his promises.

For the first 10 years of Richard’s reign, everyone assumed that Richard would uphold Edward’s Act of Entail regarding succession but during the Parliament sessions of 1386, Richard did something shocking. He threw out his grandfather’s entail and instead declared that his heir would be the twelve-year-old earl of March, Roger Mortimer, great grandson of King Edward III. Roger’s mother Phillipa was the daughter and only child of King Edward’s second-born son Lionel of Antwerp. Even though Lionel was deceased, Richard used the right of substitution in selecting Roger, just as Edward III had done in selecting Richard as the Black Prince’s substitute. It was highly unusual to name an heir through a female line, especially when there were plenty of other male heirs to choose from. But Richard knew it would be much easier for him to control a minor heir than his high and mighty Lancastrian relatives.

What caused the Wars of the Roses?Richard’s declaration was met with great resistance from the lords of his realm who were already disgruntled from enduring years of his tyrannical treatment. They had been terribly unhappy about Richard’s style of kingship, lack of military experience, misguided attempts to negotiate with France, reckless financial spending, attempts to degrade the power of Parliament, and general misrule resulting from Richard’s circle of favorites. In fact, they were so disgruntled that they created a group called the Lords Appellant to bring him to heel.

In November 1387, the Lords Appellant confronted Richard, accusing four of his favorites of treason and demanding they either be exiled or executed. They also pressed Richard to exclude Roger Mortimer from the line of succession and to reinstate John of Gaunt as his heir. King Richard agreed to the lords’ demands but actually he had no intention of keeping his promises. As soon as the Lords Appellant left his presence, he sent his four accused favorites abroad to go into hiding so they could escape punishment.

With the agreement broken, the nobles left London and went north to begin raising an army against the King. Others began joining them, including Henry Bolingbroke. The Lords Appellant army faced the King’s men at Radcot Bridge and quickly overcame them. The king’s favorites abandoned their army and spent the rest of their lives in exile even though the Merciless Parliament of 1388 condemned them for treason and ordered them to be executed. King Richard would never forget this humiliation and would never forgive the nobles who challenged his authority.

Richard was a very spiteful and vengeful man. He would agree to a deal when he was face-to-face with the nobles, but behind their backs he would plot to punish them for any sign of disloyalty. Over the next 10 years he continually threatened the lords and nobles with arrest, confiscation of lands, titles, goods, and even exile if they didn’t bend to his every whim. Richard again changed the order of succession, throwing out John of Gaunt, Henry, and the Mortimers. He decided that the person who would be the least threatening to his reign would be Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund of Langley, duke of York, who was an arthritic invalid by that time.

Henry of Bolingbroke was always at the top of Richard’s hit list but since he was such a close royal relative, Richard couldn’t afford to outright get rid of him. His reputation would have been destroyed if he used force to get the likable, respected knight out of the picture. So instead of using force, he used a 1397 civil dispute between Henry and Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, as the mechanism to remove him. After ordering the two men to settle their differences via a duel, Richard called it off at the last minute and shockingly announced that both men were guilty and sentenced to exile: Henry for 10 years and Norfolk for life.

After only a few months in exile, Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, died. Instead of showing empathy towards his exiled cousin, King Richard instead harshened the terms of his sentence. He extended Henry’s exile to life and revoked his rightful inheritance from his father, including all his many lands and titles. Furthermore, Richard declared Henry to be a traitor to the kingdom of England. Henry of Bolingbroke had nothing left. To fall so far from being heir to the throne down to a penniless vagabond in exile was untenable for Henry. And there was only one person at fault: his cousin, King Richard II.

The Deposition of Richard II

Richard’s recent actions had proven to be too much for Henry to bear and within a month he was sailing back to England to take a stand. If he were to successfully overthrow his cousin, Bolingbroke would be next in line to the throne. But removing the king of England from his throne was not something Henry could do by himself. Luckily, he had friends in high places who had also been unfairly treated by Richard and were more than willing to help Henry.

Together with several dukes and earls, Henry planned an uprising against Richard to protest his tyrannical rule. Henry landed in England on July 4, 1399 at Ravenspur in Yorkshire with only 300 men. As he traveled towards the safety of the Lancastrian stronghold, Pontefract Castle, his army grew into the thousands. Henry had become the leader of the revolution. He swore to his followers that his only intent was to defend England from Richard’s tyranny and to reclaim his Lancastrian inheritance. He promised that he would not take the throne for himself by force.

Henry’s timing couldn’t have been better. King Richard had just left for an expedition to Ireland, taking with him his army and leaving his kingdom largely unprotected. When King Richard found out about Bolingbroke’s attempted coup, he quickly returned to England with his army. In the meantime, Henry’s army continued to move across the country unchallenged until he came to Conway Castle where King Richard was hiding. Richard was clearly outmanned and outmaneuvered by Henry and his rebel army. He had no choice but to negotiate with his cousin.

Henry’s demands were simple. He wanted to be allowed to return to England and he wanted his rightful inheritance of his father’s lands and titles restored to him. Richard agreed but then shortly thereafter declared he had no intention of keeping his promise. In fact, it only made him more determined to see Henry dead.

This time he would not be able to talk his way out of confrontation. Henry’s army arrested Richard and took him into their possession where he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Seeing no way out this time, Richard agreed to abdicate the throne to his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. Upon his coronation on October 13, 1399, Bolingbroke became known as Henry IV, the first king from the house of Lancaster, a cadet branch of the House of Plantagenet.

Henry IV and beyond

Henry IV’s reign was beleaguered with trouble due to the fact that he deposed his cousin Richard. Although he was an experienced soldier, he was not in any way prepared to manage the challenges to his authority that sprang up repeatedly throughout his fourteen-year reign. Even Charles VI, King of France, refused to acknowledge Henry IV as the rightful king of England and did everything he could to cause trouble for Henry.

When Henry IV passed away in 1413, his son Henry V ascended the throne without controversy. Henry V was cut from the same cloth as Edward III and made major advances in capturing French territories for England. Unfortunately, all of his military campaigning in France took a huge toll on his health and he passed away on August 31, 1422 at only 35 years old. Fortunately, his succession was not questioned or challenged in any way, and his infant son took the throne as Henry VI. At the time of his father’s death, the new king was only nine months old, the youngest person ever to take the English crown.

Henry VI’s reign was a complete and utter disaster. Inheriting the crown at such a young age was a serious disadvantage because he had never seen a good example of a king and he was easily swayed by the people around him. It was a recipe for disaster. His inability to rule the kingdom created a huge power vacuum in which many of his royal relatives rushed to fill, including Richard, Duke of York who could claim descent from Edward III through both his mother and father. Richard of York was treated much the same way as Henry of Bolingbroke was treated by Richard II. Being of such high royal descent, he was intentionally kept away from court in an attempt to limit his power and control in government affairs. But just like Richard II, it would prove to back fire against Henry VI in a big way and ultimately kicked off the 30-year period of fighting among cousins called the Wars of the Roses.

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What caused the Wars of the Roses?