The Wars of the Roses: A Summary

A series of dynastic civil wars fought for the English throne (1455-1487)

Why were they called The Wars of the Roses?

The civil wars were later named as the Wars of the Roses (in C19th) because of the supposed badges of the opposing sides (white rose, York: red rose, Lancaster).

The Divided Branch

From 1216 until 1399 the English throne had been occupied by Kings from the Plantagenet line (Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Richard II).  Richard II was the grandson on Edward III, but after his death/murder in 1399 there were several claimants to the throne.  

The two strongest claims were from two cadet branches of the Plantagenet family – the House of Lancaster and the House of York.

  • The House of Lancaster was descended from Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster).  This line produced three kings between 1399 and 1461 (Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI).  Henry IV took the throne by force in 1399.
  • The House of York was descended from Edward III’s son, Edmund Langley, (Duke of York).  This line produced three kings between1461 and 1485 (Edward IV, Edward V, Richard III).

The Main Causes

Strong Rival Claims: See above.

A Weak Monarchy

The monarchy was also weakened in prestige following the loss of land in France following the Hundred Years War.  Henry experienced several periods of mental illness and incapacity.  This created power vacuums that were exploited by others.  He was also unable to settle disputes between powerful landowners.  The weak Lancastrian king fuelled Yorkist claims.

Factionalism and Revenge

  • Henry VI was only nine months old when he succeeded to the throne in 1422. Before the war the Duke of York (Yorkist) and the Duke of Somerset (Lancastrian) tried to destroy each other as they vied for supremacy over the country. Two noble families in the North were also in dispute: Percys (Lancastrian) and the Nevilles (Yorkist).
  • There were competing factions at court. over whether to pursue the war with France.  
    • Pro-war were Richard, Duke of York (father of the to be Edward IV and Richard III), and the Richard, Duke of Gloucester (brother of the to be Edward IV).
    • Pro-reconciliation with France were John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.
  • The death of key Lancastrian nobles (such as the Duke of Somerset) at the First Battle of St Albans (1455) led to vendettas between the two factions.

Summary of Main Events

  1. Henry VI (1422-1461). Briefly replaced by Richard, Duke of York during periods of poor mental health.
  2. Edward IV (1461-1470). Son of Richard, Duke of York. Defeated Henry VI at Towton to become king.
  3. Henry VI (1470-1471). Received support from the Earl of Warwick to reclaim the throne.
  4. Edward IV (1471-1483). Reclaimed the throne after defeating Henry VI at Tewkesbury.
  5. Edward V (1483-1483). One of the princes in the tower and the son of Edward IV.
  6. Richard III (1483-1485). Uncle of Edward V, became king after Edward V disappeared.
  7. Henry VII (1485-1509). Defeated Richard Ill at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry married Elizabeth of York, uniting the rival families.

The Main Conflicts (Key Battles in Bold)

14551st Battle of St Albans
Yorkist victory
Richard, Duke of York and his allies, the Earl of Salisbury (Richard Neville) and Richard Earl of Warwick (Salisbury’s son), defeated a royal army commanded by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.Somerset killed.
Henry VI captured.
Way cleared for parliament to appoint York Lord Protector.
1460Battle of Northampton
Yorkist victory
Henry VI was defeated by Edward, Earl of March, and the Earl of Warwick.Henry VI captured.
1460Battle of Wakefield
Lancastrian victory
Nobles loyal to Henry VI defeat a force loyal to Richard, Duke of York.Dukes of York and Salisbury were killed.
1461Battle of Mortimer’s Cross
Yorkist victory
Owen and Japer Tudor and nobles loyal to Henry VI were defeated by Edward, Earl of March (the dead Duke of York’s son).Owen Tudor was beheaded.
Henry VI captured.
14612nd Battle of St Albans
Lancastrian victory
Warwick’s force is defeated but the victors failed to take advantage.Prince Edward knighted.
Yorkist lose custody of the King.
Queen Margaret fails to enter London.
Edward of March free to enter London and is proclaimed King Edward IV on 02 March.
1461Battle of Towton
Yorkist victory
The largest and bloodiest battle on English soil.
Edward IV (and the Earl of Warwick) deposed the Lancastrian force and secured the English throne.Henry fled with his wife and son to Scotland.
1464Battle of Hexham
Yorkist victory
Several Lancastrian nobles were captured and executed, as was a  Lancastrian war chest of £2,000.This marked the end of Lancastrian resistance in the north during the early part of Edward’s reign.
Henry VI was kept away from the battle and escaped to the north.
He was captured on 13/07/1465.
1469Battle of Edgecote
Lancastrian victory
Warwick defects (see below) and defeats King Edward.Edward IV was taken into custody and held in Middleham Castle.  
Edward was released in September and resumed the throne.
1471Battle of Barnet
Yorkist victory
Edward returns from exile.  Warwick is killed while fighting for the Lancastrians. 
1471Battle of Tewkesbury
Yorkist victory
A complete defeat for the House of Lancaster.Many Lancastrian nobles killed.
Prince Edward killed.
Henry VI dies after the battle in the Tower (probably murdered).
1485Battle of Bosworth
Henry VII victory
Richard III defeated. 

Were Other Nations Involved?

The Yorkists received some support from the Duke of Burgundy.  The  Lancastrians received occasional support from the French and from the Scots.

Other Significant Events

  • In 1453 the English army in France, led by Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, was routed in the Battle of Castillon. This marked the end of the Hundred Years War and completed the loss of English territory in France (apart from Calais).  Henry suffered a complete mental breakdown and it led to the recall of the Duke of York from Ireland to be Lord Protector of the country.
  • The Act of Accord (25/10/1460).  It was agreed that Henry VI would retain the crown for life, but York and his heirs were to succeed him.  This disenfranchised Henry’s son (Prince Edward), but Henry was forced to agree.
  • Despite the ineffectiveness of her husband, Margaret of Anjou played an incredible role throughout the wars in seeking to rally Lancastrian support (including while in France and Scotland), and in asserting the rights of her son to the throne.
  • The defection of Warwick (see below).

Why did Warwick Defect to the Lancastrians?

Several nobles changed sides during the wars, but the defection of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, must have been particularly galling for Edward IV.  There are three possible reasons behind this move:

  • In 1464 Warwick had been negotiating peace with France and trying to arrange a marriage for Edward.  He had been sent to arrange a potential match with King Louis XI’s sister-in-law, Bona of Savoy, but in September Edward announced to his court that he had already married Elizabeth Woodville.  Not only did courtiers see Elizabeth as a match unworthy of the king’s status, but the marriage also undid Warwick’s efforts for a better long-term relationship with France.
  • Edward felt an understandable obligation to provide for the Woodville family members and Warwick would have felt jealous of the lands and titles that were given to them.
  • Edward blocked a key marriage that initially impacted Warwick.  Edward’s younger brother and heir, Clarence, wanted to marry Warwick’s eldest daughter, Isabel.  Edward forbade this and both Clarence and Warwick resented the decision.  Clarence and Isabel were eventually married in France by Warwick’s brother George, Archbishop of York.  In July 1469 Warwick marches north to join the rebels against the king.

One of the consequences of Warwick’s defection was that he was compelled to reach an accommodation with his former enemy, Margaret of Anjou.  It was difficult for both sides to meet and agree to work together.

Relevance for Lynn

Edward IV

In 1470 rebels started approaching Edward IV from the north.  He didn’t have sufficient troops and realised that he would be executed if captured again, so, on 2 October, he fled to the court of Burgundy from the port of Lynn.  During his crossing he was pursued by a small fleet from the Hanseatic League.  Edward’s ship went aground off the island of Texel, but local inhabitants were able to rescue him before the Hansards could reach him.

Charles of Burgundy gave Edward £2000, and on 2 March 1471 Edward sailed back to England from Flanders.  His fleet comprised 36 ships.  Ironically 15 of those ships were hired from the Hanseatic League on the promise of favourable concessions to the League if Edward succeeded in regaining power.

After the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471 Edward regained power.  He honoured the promise to the League and after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1474, amongst other things, the Hanseatic League were able to open a steelyard inside the town walls of Lynn.

© James Rye 2024

See also: Hanseatic League and King’s Lynn 1 of 3


  • Ashdown-Hill, J. (2015) The Wars of the Roses, Amberley
  • BBC Bitesize.
  • Jones, D. (2014) The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenents and the Rise of the Tudors, Penguin
  • Pollard, A.J. (2016) Edward IV, Penguin
  • Santiuste, D. (2010) Edward IV and Wars of the Roses, Pen & Sword 
  • Spencer, D. (2020) The Castle in the Wars of the Roses, Pen & Sword
  • Turvey, R. (2021) Lancastrians, Yorkists and the Wars of the Roses, 1399 -1509, Hodder Education
  • Weir, A. (2009) Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses, Vintage

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