September 2013: Wars of the Roses

Over the last few weeks I’ve been watching “The White Queen”, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. Critics have complained that it’s not historically accurate which raises an interesting question of how much dramatic licence it is appropriate to take in a historical novel. I’ve just sat back to enjoy the story and have been suitably entertained but watching it I’ve been struck by how little I know about the Wars of the Roses. I knew that it was a period of civil war in England with lots of different people claiming to be King, lots of battles and that it went on for a long time but I didn’t know much more. To amend this deficiency I have done a bit of reading and have tried to understand what was going on.

The problem started with Edward the Third (1312-1377) who had five sons (who survived infancy): Edward the Black Prince, Lionel Duke of Clarence, John Duke of Lancaster, Edmund Duke of York, and Thomas Duke of Gloucester. Thomas is the only one of these sons that doesn’t come into the story so it’s already a bit complicated (and that’s before everyone starts having the same name: you should be warned, there are a lot of people called Edward and Richard in this story).

When Edward III died, the first son Edward (the Black Prince) was already dead and so his son became Richard II. The problem at this point was that Richard was too young to rule (he was about ten) and so a council led by his uncles ruled for him. His uncle Lionel was already dead and so the council was led by uncle John (also known as John of Gaunt). When Richard grew up he resented John of Gaunt and exiled his son (Henry Bolingbroke) and when John died Richard took the Lancaster inheritance for himself. Henry invaded, became king and (probably) murdered Richard.

At this point we get the key question of the Wars of the Roses: on what basis should someone be King? There were three main answers to this question. The first answer (and, as far as I can tell, the key one) is that the King is the one whose army runs the country. This may sound rather primitive but it was part of international law until the twentieth century: it is technically called “right of conquest”. On this basis Henry Bolingbroke was now Henry IV. The second answer concerns the male line: the King (and at this point nobody was considering the possibility of ruling Queens) should be the first man whose ancestry can be traced back, through men, to the previous King. On this basis the line gets traced through the Black Prince to Richard who had no surviving children and then goes to Lionel who only had a daughter and was, by now, dead. It then goes to John of Gaunt (also dead) and then to Henry who would then be Henry IV. This idea had no legal basis even in the middle ages but it was used by Henry to legitimise his claim. The third answer is that the royal line should be traced through all children – sons first, but then daughters. On this basis Lionel’s daughter Philippa would carry the royal line. When Richard II died in 1400, Philippa was already dead as was her son Roger Mortimer. Roger’s son Edmund would then have a claim to the throne. As he was only eight at the time he didn’t make too much of a fuss about it.

There are another sixty years before we even get to the beginning of what I’ve seen in the White Queen but maybe this is a good opportunity to pause. We have reached the beginning of a new century (1400) and England has a new king (Henry IV) so we can hope for a time of peace (except for the war with France, of course: the Hundred Years war happened at approximately the same time as the War of the Roses): time to sketch out a family tree and see where we’ve got to.

Click here for the family tree

To be continued...


Previously in the Wars of the Roses…

The story had reached 1400 with Richard II dead and Henry IV on the throne. The “legal” heir (depending on how you work these things out) was Edmund Mortimer but was too young to fight for his rights. Things then went on in a relatively uncomplicated way until 1461: in 1413 Henry IV died and his eldest son became Henry V and in 1422 when Henry V died his son became Henry VI. There were a number of plots and schemes to make other people King (including Edmund Mortimer) but none of them came to much. Henry VI was apparently a weak king and suffered from mental illness which gave the plotters a chance. At this point the main plot came from Richard, the Duke of York. He was killed in 1460 but in 1461 his son Edward captured London with the help of his brothers George and Richard and their cousin Richard Neville of Warwick (known as the Kingmaker). We then reach the question of who should be King again (and, not entirely coincidentally, the beginning of The White Queen). Edward became King Edward IV because his army ran the country (the battle of Towton in 1461 was decisive) but Henry VI had the claim of male descent (from Henry V and, through John of Gaunt, from Edward III). Edward’s claim to the throne involved Lionel’s line. Edmund Mortimer had died without any children but his sister, Anne, was Richard of York’s mother and so Edward’s grandmother. On this basis Edward IV claimed a better line of descent from Edward III.

The next ten years were rather complicated with Edward IV and Henry VI fighting over the throne and Warwick the Kingmaker changing sides in the middle of it but in 1471 Edward won the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury and both Henry VI (murdered) and his son Edward (slain in battle) were killed. Edward now ruled peacefully until his death in 1483. Edward’s son now became king as Edward V but was too young to rule and so Edward IV’s brother Richard (George had already been executed for his part in a plot) governed the country. Richard passed a law saying that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate and so couldn’t be Kings and so took the throne himself as Richard III. At some point around now Edward V and his younger brother Richard were killed as Princes in the Tower. This led to another plot in which Henry Tudor invaded in 1485, won the battle of Bosworth Field, killed Richard III and became Henry VII.

Henry’s claim to the throne rested primarily (as far as I can tell) on his army but he was descended from Edward III – his mother was Margaret Beaufort whose grandfather, John Beaufort, was an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt. Henry, however, effectively put an end to the Wars of the Roses by marrying someone with a much better claim to the throne than himself. He married Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Edward IV (and his heir now that her brothers were dead). Elizabeth was the legitimate heir of both Lionel and Edmund (the second and fourth sons of Edward III) and since the Black Prince’s line had long since died out and Henry was accepted as John of Gaunt’s heir (there were better candidates but they didn’t have armies in London) the wars over who should become King had come to an end. Henry VII was the last English King to win the throne by right of conquest and Richard III was the last King to die on the battlefield. To this day the succession to the throne is of public interest (as was clear from the newspaper coverage of the birth of Prince George this summer) but at least it seems unlikely to lead to war.

Click here for the updated family tree