Magoosh GRE

Wars of Roses: A Thematic Account

| January 29, 2014

The Wars of the Roses was a dreadfully brutal, prolonged, civil conflict in England among the descendants of two houses namely the Yorks and the Lancasters; with each claiming to be the rightful heir to the throne. The overall result of the brutal war was to slay off all the prospective claimants to the English throne on belonging to either houses, inflict mayhem and devastation, turn hatred into blood-feuds, and force the entire English Royal family that ruled the country for more than 300 years to a disgraceful end. Moreover, the Wars of the Roses has few equivalents in history when it comes to tortuous schemes, turnarounds, treachery and treason, changes allegiance, armed setbacks, and astonishing endings. Wars or Roses is not an easy war to comprehend historically or in terms of military progress.

The war is named after the two Roses that represent the houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose) respectively, among the English nobility. The roots of the war lies in the disputed progression of kingship that existed over the two previous generations when King Henry IV (Bolingbroke), who was a Lancaster, became king succeeding Richard II, who had been deposed off. Many observers and commentators are of the belief that Richard’s cousin Clarence, who was a York, had had a better claim to the throne; however Richard II was in a better position to make a claim as his father, John of Gaunt, was highly influential. Succeeding Richard II, Henry V became a popular king earning great respect for victories in France; hence no one argued against his succession to the throne. Likewise, no one challenged his son’s claim to succession during the life of Henry V. Unfortunately, Henry V died young and his son Henry VI did not prove to be as popular or a strong leader as his predecessor. His kingship was marred by the surrounding of unpopular advisors. Given this situation, the House of York, impelled on by the Earl of Warwick (aka the King Maker), made efforts to claim their righteousness for the throne.[1]

The political maneuverings to by the House of York to reclaim their right for the throne began much earlier than the actual battles. It was when King Henry VI, after several years of his marriage to Margaret of Anjou, failed to produce a male off spring who would succeed him. It was widely opined that after the death of King Henry VI, the throne would smoothly pass on to the Yorks given that Henry had no heir. This opinion turned into a reality when a formal accord of succession was signed between the Lancasters and the Yorks and it seemed as eventually the Yorks would succeed without any bloodshed. However, as the events unfolded, King Henry’s VI wife Margaret of Anjou unexpectedly gave birth to a male child after a long wait of seven years. Margaret of Anjou was a strong lady, with all the strength of characters and leadership qualities lacked by her husband, and thus decided to abolish the previously signed accord of Yorkish succession and insisted upon the right of her son to succeed Kind Henry VI. [2]

Similarly the tensions between the Lancaster and Yorks renewed following the removal of Richard of York from government positions and the Royal council by Henry VI. Henry VI was prone to bouts of insanity and hence he appointed Richard of York as his Regent during one of his bouts in 1454. Upon his recovery, he saw that Richard had become too powerful and thus removed him from all his positions. This ignited the Yorks to attack Henry VI under Richard’s command.[3]

During the early years of the War of Roses, Margaret of Anjou was the one who led the cause of Lancaster rather than her husband King Henry VI. Margaret of Anjou shied away from nothing, from leading her husband’s armies personally, to decapitating her adversaries in order to support the succession of her son. On the other hand, the driving force behind the cause of Yorks was the powerful Earl of Warwick, and the Duke of York. Both Warwick and the Queen were cousins by marriage. At that time, Warwick was considered to be the wealthiest and the most influential English noble. Ironically, he had no male heirs and resultantly he was determined to marry his daughters with the Royal family. [4]

The entire War of Roses can be divided into three phases. The initial phase was the longest and deadliest, and led to the victory of the Yorks. It was followed by a phase of rebellion within the House of York, which subsequently led to Lancaster’s claim to the throne. Their success was very short lived and soon the Yorks regained the throne. The third phase was marked by the death of King Edward IV of York. During this phase, Richard III fought with a usurper Henry Tudor, who was a distant cousin of the Royals from the Lancaster side.

First Phase: This phase is marked by the deadliest and the most violent battles between the two Houses which were fought between 1459 and 1461, and ended in the victory of Yorks— the Lancaster Royals were exiled in France, with Henry VI being imprisoned by the Yorks in England. There were however, several reversals where the Yorks seemed to have lost their way, along with temporary truces between the two sides.[5]

After the opening battles between the two sides, the Yorks were victorious in the early battles. However, the Yorks face massive disaster during the battle of Wakefield, in December of 1460, the Yorks met with disaster. Both the Duke of York and his eldest son were killed. The Yorkish supporters were enraged with this defeat and thus they further attacked the Lanceters with more armies, inflicting heavy losses upon them parallel to the battle of Wakefield. Ultimately in the battle of Towton, the Lanceters were defeated with their Royals narrowly escaping. Edward IV claimed the throne in 1461. It was followed by a cessation of armed battles for almost ten years.

Second Phase: The second phase initiated with a prevailing feeling of discontent among the Yorkish camp. The Earl of Warwick who had orchestrated the Yorkist reclamation to the throne along with Kind Edward’s father, became disheartened with Edward when he decided to marry someone from the rival family contrary to Warwick’s wishes, and ignored his advice on some major issues. Consequently, Warwick along with a brother of Edward named Clarence, deposed Edward and replaced him with Clarence However, this victory was short lived. Soon Warwick, along with help of Queen Margaret, again overthrew Edward. However, with a startling turn of events, both Warwick and Prince Henry (son of Henry VI were killed in the following battles and Edward IV again reclaimed the throne to rule the rest of his life.[6]

Third Phase: Edward IV died while his apparent heir Edward V was too young to rule and therefore, his faithful uncle Richard was appointed as his Regent. However, Richard soon captured young Edward and his brother in the Tower on London, and upon their mysterious disappearance, claimed the throne for himself. Richard was both liked very much by those who despised Edwards IV wife and hated by those who alleged him for killing Edward’s IV two princes. It was in this situation that Henry Tudor of Lancaster asserted his claim to the throne. Henry counted on Richard’s enemies for assistance against him and was duly right. Henry Tudor reconciled with the Yorks by marrying Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV.[7]

According to Hicks[8] there are four factors that led to the War of Roses. These are: the crown’s (Henry VI) weak financial condition; the people’s engagement in politics; the interference of foreign countries; and the consciousness of the nobility that it is legitimate to try to terminate the king. There existed other problems behind the war too. One of those which very prominent was the variety of economic troubles that emerged in around 1440 and lasted till 1470s, to which Hicks refers as the ‘Great Slump’[9].  Problems such as credit crisis, a significant fall in the foreign trade, a drastic fall down in agro-based (agricultural) revenues, rents, wages and other prices are considered to be main features contributing to the first two factors: the revenues which were being obtained through customs were cut down. Furthermore, since the impoverishment influenced all the tax payers – thus a harder task was confronted in drawing out grants of direct taxation from the parliament. Similarly, it is under debate that economic problems gave rise to much of the turbulent situation of this period, contributing in the revolt of 1450 and the reservoir of famous alienation on which nobles like Richard of York and Warwick the Kingmaker eagerly drew. Adding to this, one other problem which caused the nobility to move their boundaries of obedience was the division of dynasty, a core factor prior to 1460, but after that a persistent and easy way of disputing with the authority of the King. These four are the major causes of the War of Roses, and whenever these factors departed, such as throughout 1485-1525, the conflicts ended.

In K.B McFarlane’s[10] view, the inability of Henry VI to manage a basically sound and stable system regarding the relationship between the king (himself) and nobility (his Regent Richard II) caused the war. The war persisted because the series of usurps didn’t guarantee landowners the safety that they required. This explanation efficiently points out the individual’s role in a structural setting; and it is considered to be a valid explanation of the wars generally.

Tony Pollard[11] explains that the War or Roses was the result of underlying weaknesses in the political system. On one hand it was basically due to the gap between the expectations and the administration of the subjects, while on the other hand it is the capability of the monarchs to carry out what they demanded. Although this gap could and did get extended for several reasons, which are more local to the later 15th century (defeat in France, fiscal and economic problems, a split in the dynasty, an incapable and clumsy ruler in the 1450s and significantly shrewd ones after 1485), it was the cause behind the Wars, as it was also the cause of the problems and issues of 1370-1410 and perhaps 1547-53.

Another modern explanation of War of Roses is contributed by Christine Carpenter[12]. She has contended that, while the political system was totally stable, it is a particular manner of accounting both public and private authorities, predominantly that of aristocracy, describing why the incompetency of Henry VI had such striking and long lasting effects led to the war. According to Carpenter, the king ought to balance and merge the different components in the constitution; if he did not make decisions authoritatively and did not offer an adequate leadership in the field of justice and defense, division and disorder were the fate. And like Edward IV (until 1417), Edward V and Richard III, could similarly not offer that kind of leadership. According to Carpenter, the inappropriate actions of Warwick and the role played by Henry VII in prolonging the conflict, was not needed.

These various themes indicate that there are many reasons which can be attributed as the causal factors for these historic events; with each different theme or factor grounded in sound social, political and economical theories. Some of these justifications may sound more viable than others, while some might be deemed as less influential. A common theme among all of these aforementioned theories is that whenever the subjects of an authority are denied their rightful privileges and justice along with their basic needs, it paves way for the ultimate demise of the authority itself. This can be an important lesson for those who assert their authorities in the current times in any ways; whether they are the heads of governments, powerful business organizations, religious leaders, or even a head of family. After all, it is always better to learn from the example of others rather than become another example ourselves.




Carpenter, C. (1997).The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, c.1437–1509. Cambridge.

Haaren, J. and Poland A. (1904) Famous Men of the Middle Ages. American Book Company

Haigh, P. A. (1995). The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses.

Hatcher, J (1996) ‘The great slump of the mid-15th century’, in Progress and Problems in Medieval England, ed. R. Britnell and J. Hatcher (Cambridge, 1996), 237–72.

Heritage History (2012). War of the Roses. 1453-1485. Lancatrians Vs Yorkists. {online} Available from (cited on 17th December, 2012)

Hicks, M. (2010). The Wars of Roses. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press,

McFarlane, K.B. (1981) ‘The Wars of the Roses’, in idem, England in the 15th Century. London., 231–61

Pollard, J. (2001)The Wars of the Roses, 2nd ed., Basingstoke.

Wheeler, K. (2012) The Wars of the Roses. {online} Available from (cited on 17th December, 2012)


[1] Haaren, J. and Poland A. (1904) Famous Men of the Middle Ages. American Book Company


[2] Heritage History (2012). War of the Roses. 1453-1485. Lancatrians Vs Yorkists

[3]Wheeler, K. (2012) The Wars of the Roses. {online} Available from (cited on 17th December, 2012)

[4] Heritage History (2012). War of the Roses. 1453-1485. Lancatrians Vs Yorkists

[5] Heritage History (2012). War of the Roses. 1453-1485. Lancatrians Vs Yorkists

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8]Hicks, M. (2010). The Wars of Roses. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press,

[9] Hatcher, J (1996) ‘The great slump of the mid-15th century’, in Progress and Problems in Medieval England, ed. R. Britnell and J. Hatcher (Cambridge, 1996), 237–72

[10] McFarlane, K.B. (1981) ‘The Wars of the Roses’, in idem, England in the 15th Century. London., 231–61

[11] Pollard, J. (2001)The Wars of the Roses, 2nd ed., Basingstoke

[12]Carpenter, C. (1997).The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, c.1437–1509. Cambridge.


Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, History Essay Examples