Wars of the Roses

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As Rosenkriege ( English Wars of the Roses ), the intermittently from 1455 to 1485 battles fought between the two rival English nobility houses York and Lancaster called. The aristocratic houses were different branches of the Plantagenet family and led their lineage to King Edward III. back, from which they derived their claim to the English royal crown: The Lancasters had come to the throne in 1399, but the House of York was left out. When King Henry VI. fell mental derangement from the House of Lancaster, this eventually sparked open civil warout. The clashes demanded a very high toll in the blood of the British nobility and, among other things, ended the male lines of these two houses.

The wars initially resulted in the victory of the House of York, which in 1461 at the Battle of Towton was able to secure the royal dignity for Edward IV in the years 1461-1470 and 1471-1483. An interim return of the Lancasterians to power in 1470 ended in 1471 with Edward's final victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury and the wiping out of the male line of the Lancasters. After Edward's death in 1483, the wars finally ended in 1485 with a victory by the Lancaster party over the House of York at the Battle of Bosworth , in which Richard III, the last King of the House of Plantagenet, was killed. Henry Tudor , the pretender to the throne of the Lancasters, only distantly connected to the royal family through his mother , was then crowned king as Henry VII and linked the two houses in the House of Tudor through his marriage to Elizabeth of York . One final Yorkist riot, in which the impostor Lambert Simnel posed as Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick , was put down at the Battle of Stoke in 1487 . The real Edward was held captive by Henry VII and beheaded in 1499. The male line of the House of York was also extinguished.

The coats of arms of the two opposing families contained roses (a red rose for Lancaster, a white rose for York), so that the term "Wars of the Roses" was later established for this conflict. However, the assignment of the roses to the respective houses can only be verified to a limited extent in the contemporary sources.


Simplified chronological and kinship table of the English monarchs since William the Conqueror , color-coded according to dynasties.

The original cause of the conflict was already in 1399, but it did not become apparent until 1455. In 1399 the English parliament deposed King Richard II and appointed his cousin Henry as the new king. Henry founded the House of Lancaster after conquering England in a triumphant advance. Richard II was the son of Edward, Prince of Wales , called "The Black Prince". This was the eldest of Edward III's five sons . , the now-crowned Henry IV the son of the third eldest son, John, Duke of Lancaster . Edward III's second eldest son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence , had no direct heir, but his daughter's grandson, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March , was considered to be the heir to his claim to the throne. However, since he was only eight years old in 1399 and thus far too young to be king , he was passed over. Henry IV had him arrested and locked up in an Irish fortress.

In 1413 his successor Henry V. brought Mortimer back to his court, and the latter contented himself with recognizing Henry's rule. When Mortimer's brother-in-law Richard, Earl of Cambridge , initiated a conspiracy against Henry in 1415 and proposed Edmund Mortimer as his successor, the latter notified the king instead, and Cambridge was executed as a treason. After Mortimer's death in 1425, however, his claim to the throne passed to the son of Cambridge and his sister Anne Mortimer , Richard, Duke of York , who also descended through his father in a direct male line from Edmund, Duke of York , the fourth eldest son of Edward III .

Henry VI. Lancaster , the son of the king, who died in 1422, had ascended the throne at the age of only seven. Various parties were formed at his court trying to influence the king. Richard of York joined the party of Humphreys, Duke of Gloucester and uncle of the king, of which he became leader after Gloucester's death in 1447. As Duke of York, Earl of March and Earl of Cambridge, he was the most powerful vassal of Henry VI. When England lost the Hundred Years War against France in 1453 and the king sank into mental derangement in response, York, along with numerous others, was able to use this power vacuum to increase its power. He rallied the numerous opposition to Henry, who personally credited him with the lost war. In their eyes, this defeat made Henry an incompetent ruler - in parts by no means a misjudgment, as Henry had shown little energy even before the outbreak of his mental illness and was responsible for the loss of the English territories in France. Richard von York's main opponent was Edmund Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset , who, together with Henry's wife Margaret of Anjou, ran the affairs of state for the sick king. It was also about money: as long as Somerset's party remained the court party , Richard was threatened with financial ruin because the king was indebted to both of them. In the end, he could only pay one by taking advantage of the other. York was in a precarious position; Somerset had to be eliminated.

The assessment of this prehistory and the entire war is problematic, however, due to the fact that the ultimately victorious Tudors descended from the House of Lancaster. The York house , their opponent in the war, marked them accordingly negatively in their historiography.

Course of war

Outbreak of the war and the first years of the war

The year 1453 was marked by several decisive events: In addition to the already mentioned end of the Hundred Years War and the subsequent nervous breakdown of Henry VI. it was the birth of the heir to the throne Edward on October 13 and the imprisonment of Somerset in November. As a result of the king's continuing mental illness, Richard of York was appointed lord protector in March 1454 .

This prompted Queen Margaret's Lancastrian Party to act. York was forced to give up his office in 1455 and withdrew to his lands in the north. For the May 21, 1455 a Great advice (was Great Council ) in Leicester convened in central England. York, meanwhile, gathered troops with which he marched on London and attacked his opponents on May 22nd at St Albans north of London. The First Battle of St Albans ended in a complete victory for York, which cut off many of his opponents, including Somerset and the Earl of Northumberland , and which brought the king under his control and resumed his previous offices. His most important ally was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick , who went down in history as the "kingmaker" and was related to the House of York through his wife Cecily Neville . The years up to 1459 were marked by political power struggles between Richard of York, now Lord Lieutenant of Ireland , and Queen Margaret.

In 1459 hostilities broke out again between the parties. A victory for the Yorkists at Blore Heath in September was followed by the defeat of Ludlow , after which their army effectively disbanded. Richard of York fled to Ireland with his second eldest son Edmund, Earl of Rutland , and his eldest son Edward, Earl of March , with Warwick to Calais , where Warwick was in command of the troops there. When the two returned to England with the troops from Calais in the following year, they succeeded in re-capturing the king at the Battle of Northampton on July 10, 1460, and again numerous Lancastrian leaders died. As a result, York returned to London in October and entered the Parliament, which was convened at short notice, under the royal banner. But Richard's expectations of immediate kingship were not fulfilled, but in the Act of Accord of October 25th, he was declared King Henry's successor, disinheriting his son Edward . To disperse the rest of the Lancastrian troops, which had withdrawn northwards under the leadership of Queen Margaret and Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset , son and heir to Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of York and his troops also moved there. But Henry Beaufort was ambushing him at Wakefield . In the following battle Richard fell, as did his brother-in-law Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury , and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland.

Richard's eldest son Edward then took over the management of the York house. From Wales, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke and King Henry's half-brother, tried to bring Queen Margaret reinforcements, but he was defeated by Edward in early February 1461 at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross . When the Lancastrian troops won a victory against the Yorkists under Warwick's leadership at St Albans , in which King Henry could also be released from captivity, the city of London denied entry to Margaret of Anjou and her army and they had to flee north. On March 29, 1461, Edward, with Warwick's help, defeated the Queen's Somerset-led army at the Battle of Towton , considered one of the bloodiest in England - 20,000 to 30,000 of the approximately 80,000 soldiers on both sides were killed. When he was crowned Edward IV of England on June 28th and Henry VI. and his wife fled to Scotland , the first phase of the Wars of the Roses came to an end, and the royal rule of the House of York began .

Only in the north near the Scottish border did the Lancastrian troops still offer resistance. In 1462 Henry Beaufort made an apparent reconciliation with Edward IV and was made Duke of Somerset by him again , but the attempt failed, Somerset returned to the Lancastrians after a year and a half and fell in May 1464 at the Battle of Hexham .

Changing coalitions

In the years that followed, there was an estrangement between Edward and his most important ally, his cousin Richard Neville , the Earl of Warwick . This was because Warwick had been trying hard to find a French bride for the king and to persuade him to form an alliance with France while he was secretly married to Elizabeth Woodville , a widowed ex-Lancastrian. Other factors also played a role, for example King Edward was more likely to forge an alliance with Burgundy, France's archenemy, and listened to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke , whom Warwick hated for that reason. He also loathed the now powerful family of the queen, who were enfeoffed by Edward IV with numerous titles of nobility.

In 1469 it came to a final break and Richard Neville started a rebellion against the king. He allied himself with his brother George, Duke of Clarence , to whom he gave his daughter Isabel as his wife and whom he wanted to see on the throne instead of Edward. He succeeded in eliminating parts of the hated Woodville family, to have the Earl of Pembroke executed and even to take the king prisoner and arrest at Warwick Castle . However, when Edward was freed by his brother Richard, the Duke of Gloucester , their forces defeated Warwick's rebels, and Richard Neville was gradually isolated, he fled to Calais by ship. But when the crew, of which he was still in command, refused to let him go ashore, he suddenly allied himself with Queen Margaret , who had found asylum in France, and the House of Lancaster . The marriage of Warwick's daughter Anne to Edward , heir to the House of Lancaster, sealed the alliance of the former enemies. In mid-1470, the Earl of Warwick led a Lancastrian army to England, expelled Edward IV without having fought a battle, and brought Henry VI. who had been incarcerated in the Tower of London for the past few years , came back to power. Edward fled to the Netherlands to live with his brother-in-law Charles , the Duke of Burgundy.

King Henry was unable to rule because he was mentally confused. The business of government was therefore carried out by Warwick and a privy councilor chosen by him, which is why several of his allies increasingly distrusted him. When Edward landed in Ravenspur with Burgundian troops in March 1471, the Earl of Northumberland, a Lancastrian, defected to him. At Easter he was able to bring the Lancastrian superiority close to St Albans and defeat them at the Battle of Barnet . Richard Neville fell in that battle. Thereupon Queen Margaret and her son, who had remained in France to the end, landed in England, gathered the scattered troops around them and moved to Wales, from where they hoped for support. But before the border, Edward caught up with them and defeated them in the Battle of Tewkesbury . Crown Prince Edward was killed, but the way in which it is is disputed. When shortly afterwards Henry VI. was murdered in the Tower of London, the direct line of the House of Lancaster was obliterated.

The last living Lancastrian pretender to the throne, Henry Tudor , was brought to Brittany in France by his uncle Jasper after Edward IV's accession to the throne again, where he defended his claim for the next few years from exile. He derived this from his mother Margaret (Edward had also inherited his kingship through a woman), who was a great-granddaughter of John, Duke of Lancaster , son of King Edward III. and the progenitor of the House of Lancaster. As a result, she was a second cousin of King Henry and, after the House of Lancaster was almost extinct, the only one who could bequeath the claim to her son.

The end of the York house

In the following years Edward IV was able to rule unchallenged and brought England new prosperity. When he died Easter 1483, he left the throne to his eldest son Edward , who was only 12 years old. After his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester , won the power struggle with the family of the Queen widow Elizabeth Woodville over the guardianship of the little king and had his opponents executed, he brought his nephew and his younger brother Richard to the Tower of London , to prepare the king there for his coronation. In June, Gloucester suddenly had William Hastings , his brother and former ally's most important confidante, executed for allegedly plotting a conspiracy against him. Shortly thereafter, Parliament declared him the only legitimate heir to the throne of Edward IV, his coronation as Richard III. took place on July 6, 1483. This action was justified a few months later by the document Titulus Regius , in which the children of Richard's brother were portrayed as illegitimate. The two princes in the Tower , the legitimate heirs, disappeared without a trace in the following period. Since some of the lords began to think Richard was the murderer of the princes, they fell away from him and defected to Henry Tudor in France. This resistance against Richard was, however, heavily embellished by the historians of the Tudor period.

In the autumn of 1483, a revolt under the Duke of Buckingham , in which Tudor was involved, failed. When the defectors from England became more numerous two years later, Tudor crossed over to England again and landed in Milford Haven in Wales . On his march through England his armed forces continued to grow, and on August 22, 1485, with the help of his stepfather Thomas Stanley , who fell in the back of the king at the decisive moment, in the battle of Bosworth Field Richard III, who was slain in combat .

Tudor succeeded Henry VII, married Edward IV's eldest daughter , Elizabeth of York , and thus united the two noble houses of Lancaster and York in the House of Tudor . This is generally considered to be the end of the bitter Wars of the Roses and the beginning of an era of peace. Henry had to assert himself against real as well as fake Yorkist pretenders , so that some historians date the end of the Wars of the Roses a few years later. In 1487, for example, Lambert Simnel gave himself out as Edward, Earl of Warwick , the nephews of Edwards IV and Richards III. He set out with a mercenary army from Ireland, a stronghold of the House of York, to England. He won there the support of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln , Richard III. as his heir to the throne. King Henry defeated his army on June 16, 1487 at the Battle of Stoke , north of Nottingham. Simnel was captured and Lincoln fell. In the 1490s, Perkin Warbeck appeared as a pretender.

The Wars of the Roses in Fiction

One of the classics is Robert Louis Stevenson's Der Schwarze Pfeil (original title: The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses ) from 1883.

More recently, inter alia. the following authors on this topic accepted:

  • Toby Clements, War of the Roses: Winter Pilgrims (Bastei Lübbe); Original title: Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims (Century 2014). England in the winter of 1460. Ends with the Battle of Towton, 1461.

The Wars of the Roses were, according to George RR Martin, an inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire and the series Game of Thrones based on it .


  • Christine Carpenter: The Wars of the Roses. Politics and the Constitution in England, c. 1437-1509. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1997, ISBN 0-521-26800-1 .
  • Keith Dockray: Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses. A source book. Sutton, Stroud 2000, ISBN 0-7509-2163-3 .
  • David Grummitt: The Wars of the Roses. IB Tauris, London 2013. [current introduction with overview of older literature]
  • Michael Hicks: The Wars of the Roses. Yale University Press, New Haven CT et al. 2010, ISBN 978-0-300-11423-2 .
  • Michael Hicks: The Wars of the Roses 1455-1487 (= Essential Histories. A multi-volume History of War seen from political, strategic, tactical, cultural and individual Perspectives. Vol. 54). Osprey, Oxford 2003, ISBN 1-84176-491-4 [Introduction].
  • Ernest F. Jacob: The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485 (= Oxford History of England. Vol. 6). Clarendon Press et al., Oxford et al. 1961.
  • Matthew Lewis: The Wars of the Roses. The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy. Amberley Publishing, Stroud 2015, ISBN 978-1-4456-4635-0 .
  • Charles Ross: Edward IV. Methuen, London 1974, ISBN 0-413-28680-0 (several NDe).
  • Charles Ross: The Wars of the Roses. A concise history. Thames and Hudson, London 1976, ISBN 0-500-25049-9 .
  • Jürgen Sarnowsky : England in the Middle Ages. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2002, ISBN 3-534-14719-7 .

Web links

Commons : Wars of the Roses  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. The white rose was a symbol preferred by Edward IV, but the red rose for the House of Lancaster seems to have hardly been used before 1485, see John A. Wagner: Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara CA et al. 2001, ISBN 1-85109-358-3 , p. 294 f.
  2. See Michael Hicks: The Wars of the Roses. New Haven 2010, p. 233 ff.
  3. ^ Elio M. García and Linda Antonsson: The Citadel: So Spake Martin - Influence of the Wars of the Roses. Retrieved November 19, 2017 .