"There are only two ways to feel about the Wars of the Roses. Either the endless violent seizures of the Crown makes you thrill to one of the great English epics, or else it leaves you feeling slightly numbed. If you're in the dazed and confused camp, the temptation is to write off the whole sorry mess as the bloody bickering of overgrown schoolboys whacking each other senseless on the fields of Towton, Barnet and Bosworth."
— Simon Schama, A History of Britain
The Wars of the Roses were a series of dynastic civil wars set in England between 1455 and 1485. They originated in a struggle between descendants of two of King Edward III Plantagenet's eight sons. Henry of the House of Lancasterstole the throne from his cousin, Edward's first grandson Richard II. Although his house had a couple of strong monarchs (see Henry V), Henry VI turned out to be a strange boy with mental issues. He was challenged for the throne by The RivalHouse of York (a cousin line descended from Edward III). After thirty years of conflict, in which almost all of the Lancastrians died, Henry VII from The House Of Tudor was crowned. He was a cousin of the Lancastrian side, and married a daughter of the Yorkist faction, uniting the two sides. However some historians claim this wasn't the end of the Wars, as there were still threats to Henry from Yorkist Pretenders, which a lot of the nobility didn't seem ready to help him against.
On a side note, the "Wars of the Roses" were never called that by contemporaries. While the name does come from the White and Red Rose badges of the Yorkists and Lancastrians, respectively, it wasn't until Shakespeare and Walter Scott that the conflict became known by its now common name. Earlier commentators might have called it the English Civil War (a name later taken by a rather more ideological conflict) or perhaps as the War of the English Succession (which later became a now-disused name for the Nine Years' War). Until World War One, the Battle of Towton was the bloodiest single day for British soldiery; around 28,000 men perished on those snowy fields, a record that would not be surpassed until the opening day of the Battle of the Somme 450 years later.
Wars of the Roses in works of fiction and historical fiction:
Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III. To an extent Richard II and Henry IV also deal with them despite taking place a generation earlier: modern scholars tend to disagree, but Shakespeare portrays Henry Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne from Richard II and crowning of himself as Henry IV as the first move of the wars.
Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series, which covers the period from the perspective of women who were prominent figures at the time but have been largely forgotten by history.
TV miniseries The White Queen shows the period from the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville, a common woman from a traditionally Lancastrian family who married King Edward IV and was the mother of Edward V and his brother Richard ("the princes in the Tower") and Elizabeth of York.
In Terry Pratchett's Nation, it's mentioned that one of Daphne's ancestors fought in the War of the Roses... wearing a pink rose and thus ended up fighting both sides at once. Because everyone thought it was bad luck to kill a madman, he lived through it. Fanshaws may be pigheaded and stupid, but they fight.
The second duology of Arcia Chronicles is a fantasy retelling of the Wars of the Roses, dubbed "War of the Daffodils".
Another fantasy retelling is the "War of the Lions" that drives the plot of the original Final Fantasy Tactics game.
Yu Gi Oh The Duelists Of The Roses has a plot loosely based on this war (changing characters to those from the franchise and turning battles into card games, but following the locations and general conflict.)
The video game War of the Roses by the Swedish indie studio Fatshark.
Tropes invoked during the Wars of the Roses include:
Atop a Mountain of Corpses: Allegedly, so many Lancastrians died at Towton that the terrified, fleeing survivors fled over a mountain of corpses that bridged a river.
Asskicking Equals Authority: Though this was not talked about overmuch at the time lest someone be embarrassed, this was effectively Henry Tudor's chief claim. As everyone was tired of a constant Gambit Pileup, that was considered enough.
Not exactly everybody. Most of the nobles didn't fight on either side during further rebellions against Henry.
This was how Edward IV became king. Both times. It was also how his father, Richard of York, briefly became heir, ahead of the Lancastrians.
Though there's a notable exception in Henry VI, who is mostly known as Henry the Pious. Religious? Yes, oh hell yes. Good with a sword? Not so much.
Badass Bookworm: Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, was an accomplished poet and translator, and it is said the first book printed in England was his translation of the French work "The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers.'' He was also a Knight of the Garter, a talented commander, and was a Lancastrian who managed to survive Towton.
Badass Family: The House of York. The House of Lancaster suffered serious Badass Decay since the days of Henry IV and V, and managed to win the war by the skin of their teeth, due in large part to last-minute treachery, after almost every member of their house had been wiped out. The Beaufort family made up for Henry VI's lack of battle prowess.
The number of casualties varies wildly, but one number often spouted is 28,000 casualties. If this is true, it would represent almost 1% of England's entire population.
Big Screwed-Up Family: The House of Plantagenet in general. The House of York was a higher-functioning variant, but screwed up nonetheless. The House of Lancaster, on the other hand, suffered enormously from having a lunatic at their head.
Call Back: Edward IV, upon returning to England from his exile, was only able to enter York when he promised he was just there to restore the dukedom in York. Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV of the House of Lancaster) made this claim when he returned to his lands and to England seventy years earlier. Both immediately exploited the weakened position of their rivals to become King of England.
Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: George Plantagenet, the Duke of Clarence was infamous for being a traitorous Smug Snake. His unreliable nature led to him being executed, alleged by being drowned in a barrel of wine.
Colonel Badass: Richard of Gloucester. He commanded the Yorkist vanguard at Tewkesbury, and was, at eighteen, already an experienced commander. On the Lancastrian side, Jasper Tudor and the Earl of Oxford were the preeminent commanders, and were instrumental in defeating the Yorkists at Bosworth Field and Stoke Field.
Curbstomp Battle: Both sides were playing for keeps. Consequently, there are quite a few of these.
For Lancaster: Wakefield, 2nd St. Albans, Bosworth Field, and Stoke Field.
For York: 1st St. Albans, Blore Heath, Mortimer's Cross, Towton, Hexham, Barnet, and Tewkesbury.
Dare to Be Badass: During the Battle of Towton, Warwick allegedly killed his horse and cried, "Let him fly that will, for surely I will tarry with him that will tarry with me!"
Dark Horse Victory: Does King Henry VI end up on the throne? What about his son? Or one of the Yorkists? Nope, it's some distant cousin of the old Lancastrian king who was living in Wales.
Didn't See That Coming: Henry V's death in 1422, when he was at his prime, dramatically reversed Lancastrian fortunes. By the time he had won at Agincourt, very few people in England supported the Mortimer claim to the throne, and those that rebelled against him in the Southampton Plot were executed without further bloodshed (Richard of York's father being one of them). He had quelled the rebellions in Wales, and most of northern and western France was firmly back in English control. Then he died, Clarence died, and Bedford died, leaving only Gloucester, who was imprisoned for "treason" by Cardinal Beaufort and William de la Pole.
Distant Finale: The Battle of Bosworth Field and the overthrow of the House of York took place 14 years after the crushing Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury.
And some don't even consider that the end of the war. Henry finally finished of the male line of the House of York in 1499. Female-line descendents existed during the time of Henry VIII as well, but were executed for unrelated reasons.
Defiant to the End: One story about the Battle of Tewkesbury tells that when Prince Edward, the Lancastrian heir, was captured, he was brought beford Edward IV. When asked why he had taken up arms against the king, he replied, "To reclaim my father's heritage." In response, the King slapped him across the face and he was beheaded shortly thereafter.
Despair Event Horizon: Tewkesbury for Margaret of Anjou, after learning that Edward of Westminster, the Prince of Wales and her only son, was killed in battle. While she had thus far been an unremittingly determined and ambitious woman, after the battle and Lancaster's crushing defeat, her spirit was broken.
Doomsday Device: Gunpowder was just coming into fashion and was probably thought of as something like this.
Dude, Where's My Respect?: Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, had this kind of dynamic with Henry VI. It didn't matter how many services he rendered the Crown, he always ended up being Reassigned to Antarctica or excluded from important meetings of state, despite being the most powerful nobleman in the country. Eventually, he decided military action was necesssary.
It can be said to have worked both ways, as the Wars of the Roses and the inner-French conflict between the House of Valois and its younger Burgundian branch influenced each other on a number of occasions. Edward IV was supported with money and ships by his brother-in-law, Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy, while King Louis XI of France supported his relative, Queen Margaret of Anjou, consort of Henry VI, with money when it suited his purposes. He also improved his position vis-à-vis Charles the Bold by concluding the Peace of Picquigny with England in 1475.
Everybody's Dead, Dave: Pretty much the entirety of the House of Plantagenet was killed off during this war. Henry VII later had the rest killed.
The Exile: Many Lancastrians, but Henry Tudor stands out. He spent half his life up until Bosworth hiding in Wales and the other half in France. He consequently wasn't very familiar with the land he was setting out to reconquer.
The Neville-Percy feud was it's own little sub-war that entangled itself into the larger conflict. Hatred between these two families ran so deep that when the Nevilles switched sides from York to Lancaster, the Percies did vice versa.
Flower Motifs: The Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York. It's worth noting that the two sides never used these symbols together to identify their sides during the war. The Lancastrians used various symbols, including the Star of Oxford and the Welsh dragon. The Yorkists under Richard III fought under the white boar, his personal badge, and the Yorkists in general fought under the Sun of York. The white rose was specifically the badge of Edward IV.
Forever War: The man who would become King Henry VII was not even born when this war began. By the end of the war, the original cassus belli, the growing power of powerful magnates and the rivalry between the Dukes of Somerset and York had long since become irrelevant.
Four-Star Badass: Edward IV won his throne on the battlefield, and had a knack for winning extremely decisive victories. The Dukes of Somerset and the Earl of Warwick are other examples.
God Save Us from the Queen!: Margaret of Anjou, consort of Henry VI. She was nicknamed the She-Wolf. The Yorkists eventually came to view Elizabeth Woodville the same way.
The Good Chancellor / Evil Chancellor: Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York and Lord Protector to Henry VI. It was the latter allegation that spurred the Lancastrians (namely, the Beauforts and Margaret of Anjou) to marginalize him at court, and forced him to military action. By all accounts, he was a powerful and ambitious magnate, but whether he was truly evil is debatable.
Hidden Back Up Prince: Henry Tudor, probably one of the trope codifiers in Western culture. Seriously, the guy was descended from an illegitimate child of John of Gaunt whose family was explicitly disinherited when Henry IV took the throne, and the entire House of Lancaster had to die ahead of him for him to even be considered as a possible king.
Historical Hero Upgrade: Henry VII. Despite being mainly thought of as ending the wars, there were still major revolts against him and he became quite tyrannical. His regime ended up very unpopular among the nobility and many were glad to see him go.
Historical Villain Upgrade: Richard III. Though not so much anymore. Modern portrayals of the House of York tend to cast him as the mildest of the York brothers, an interpretation certainly more accurate than Shakespeare's.
Hope Spot: The Readeption of Henry VI seemed like this to the Lancastrians, who had been out of power for a decade. It was not to be, and only a few months later, their cause was nearly extinguished.
How the Mighty Have Fallen: The Neville family were greatly reduced in power and influence after Warwick's death at Barnet, their lands given away and their titles reduced. They never recovered all of their influence. The Houses of Lancaster and Beaufort were completely wiped out, and Margaret of Anjou, once the most powerful woman in England, ended her life living in obscurity in France.
It's All About Me: Warwick's defection to Lancaster was based on largely selfish motivations, and it led to his family becoming pariahs and greatly reduced in power. The irony is that his daughter Anne became Queen anyway, making his betrayal All for Nothing.
Love Ruins the Realm: Subverted. It seemed that Warwick's betrayal of Edward for spurning his daughter would lead to the restoration of Henry VI and the House of Lancaster. Instead, Edward returned to England within a year, killed Warwick at Barnet and Somerset at Tewkesbury, killed Henry's only son at the latter battle, captured Margaret of Anjou, and rode triumphantly into London. Then, for good measure, he had Henry VI killed. By 1471, the Neville family was ruined, the Houses of Lancaster and Beaufort were extinct in the male line, and Edward's rule was solidified.
Mama Bear: Nothing was going to stop Margaret of Anjou from getting her son his inheritance as Henry VI's son. The war would have been over in 1461 if she had just accepted the Act of Accord, which made Richard Plantagenet the heir to Henry.
Marry for Love: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, apparently. It left several Yorkists very upset, Warwick most of all.
Name's the Same: Almost everyone involved was named Edward, Henry, or Richard.
No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Barnet and Tewkesbury were a one-two punch that almost completely exterminated the House of Lancaster. Edward of Westminster was dead, the army was destroyed, and Margaret of Anjou was captured. To add insult to injury, King Edward had the surviving Lancasterian commanders dragged out of sanctuary and executed.
Common soldiers were however, again in contrast with the Hundred Years War, treated more lenient and given the chance to leave the battlefield alive. Sometimes.
Obnoxious In-Laws: Neither George nor Richard particularly liked the Woodville family. Warwick hated them so much he defected to Lancaster, and the Queen was hated because of both her common birth and because she obtained extremely favorable positions in the government, and marriages, for her relatives.
Oireland: A large part of the mercenary army fielded by the Earl of Lincoln at Stoke Field was made up of Irish kerns.
Oop North: Richard III was closely associated with Northern England, both as Duke of Gloucester and as King, and he was very popular there, even after his death. Averted in general; despite the names, York and Lancaster had power bases all over England. The Lancastrians were especially dominant in Wales.
It's even thought a major factor in him losing Bosworth was the fact he used Northerners for powerful positions, which led to the South resenting him.
Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York, after the war ended, uniting the warring houses into the House of Tudor and giving England a single dynasty — after Henry had finished killing all other claimants, and a few pretenders as well.
The Power of the Sun: The Sun of York was actually more commonly used as the Yorkist symbol than the white rose (often the white rose is seen on the sun). This led to friendly fire incidents because it was easily confused with the Star of Oxford and Oxford was aligned with the Lancastrians.
Rule of Symbolism: At the Battle of Mortimer's Cross, Edward IV saw the "Sun in Splendor," an optical illusion where three suns appear in the sky. He took it to represent the three sons of York.
Pyrrhic Victory: The war is considered to have ended with a Lancastrian victory, yet during the course of the war, almost the entire house was killed off.
Reassigned to Antarctica: York's governorship of Ireland. Whenever the Lancastrians needed him gone, he would be sent there.
Rebel Leader: Robin of Redesdale, the pseudonym of an associate of Warwick's, who helped defeat Edward IV at Edgecote Moor.
The Remnant: The House of Lancaster. From 1455-1485, they spent only the first six years and a part of 1471 actually in power. The rest of the time, when Edward IV wasn't butchering them on the battlefield, whoever was still alive was hiding in France, or in Lancastrian strongholds in Wales.
Retcon: After winning the throne, Henry VII's lawyers backdated his reign to have started before the Battle of Bosworth...which meant that all of Richard III's supporters were guilty of treason and the attainder against them was "justified."
Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: A complicated case with Sir William Stanley, step-uncle to Henry VII. He betrayed Richard III at Bosworth, allowing Henry to win, and even crowned Henry. However some years later he turned out to be supporting a Pretender, meaning he was executed.
Then there was the Earl of Northumberland, who despite being supposed to fight for Richard at Bosworth didn't fight at all, which seems to have lost Richard the battle. Later the Earl was sent to Yorkshire to get taxes. The people of York really liked Richard and despite Richard having died 4 years ago they lynched Northumberland.
Rightful King Returns: Three times, depending on who was in power at the time! First, the Readeption of Henry VI saw the Lancastrians back in power for about five months. Then, Edward IV returns, crushes most of his enemies, and retakes the throne, driving Henry Tudor into exile abroad. Then, once Edward has died and Richard is positively beset by political disunity in England, Tudor returns and gains the throne.
The Rival: Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York and Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset were the leaders of opposing factions among Henry VI's councilors, and their initial quarrels over both the war in France as well as the political marginalization of York were the initial conflicts that began the war.
Running Gag: Henry VI being repeatedly left behind in his tent whenever the side that had him (he was captured numerous times over the course of the wars) was retreating from a lost battle.
In the first battle of St Albans, he was abandoned in a tanner's shop.
Run or Die: This was Margaret of Anjou's strategy in the lead-up to Tewkesbury. London was firmly in Yorkist hands and Warwick was dead. Her army eventually was forced to camp right before it crossed the Severn into Lancastrian Wales. The ensuing battle was a humiliating defeat for Lancaster.
The Siege: Sandal Castle early in the war. Fauconberg's siege of London was a rather anti-climactic one — as soon as he heard of Margaret of Anjou's defeat at Tewkesbury, he lost his nerve and surrendered to the returning Yorkists.
Small Role, Big Impact: Lionel of Antwerp, the 1st Duke of Clarence. Wait, who? This guy was the forgotten second son of Edward III, who ended up having only a daughter. This daughter married into the Mortimer family, and it was her family that produced the Mortimer claimants challenging Henry IV's rule. The Mortimer family, again, had an only daughter, who married Richard of York, combining the claims of Clarence and York, and giving the junior House of York (founded by Edward III's youngest son, Thomas of Langley) a theoretically stronger claim if one believes that Mother Makes You King.
Snow Means Death: The Battle of Towton was fought in a snowstorm that brought with it knee deep drifts and flooded fields. It was the bloodiest single battle of the war, and the bloodiest battle fought on British soil. More people died on the 29th of March 1461 on Towton Dale than died at Antietam.
Spinoff: The Anglo-Hanseatic War (1469-1474) over the privileges of merchants from the Hanseatic League trading in England. Waged mainly as a commercial war and on the diplomatic front, it ended with the treaty of Utrecht, by which England had to restore Hanseatic privileges and their establishments (notably the Steelyard in London) and pay 10,000 pounds in damages. The war did not stop Hanseatic ships from intervening on Edward IV's behalf and helping him to return to the English throne in 1471.
The Wars of the Roses themselves can be seen as a spin-off of the Hundred Years War, since the English military defeat in France and the return of now jobless soldiers to England was conducive to the outbreak of the dynastic war. Note that the Hundred Years War itself was only officially ended by the treaty of Picquigny in 1475.
The Neville-Percy feud kept things going during lulls in the main war.
The Starscream: The House of Lancaster to the senior Plantagenet line, the House of York to the House of Lancaster, and the Nevilles to the Yorks. Yeah, it was that kind of war. The House of York is particularly notable since it produced successive generations of traitors and rebels. Edmund of Langley turned against Richard II, Thomas of Norwich attempted rebellion against Henry IV, Richard of Conisburgh rebelled against Henry V, Richard and Edward of York rebelled against Henry VI, George of Clarence rebelled against Edward IV, and Richard of Gloucester overthrew Edward V. For those counting, every member of the house except for a twelve-year old boy were complicit in some form of usurpation.
Then there were the Stanleys and possibly Northumberland.
Straight for the Commander: The First Battle of St. Albans was a battle between armies of thousands, but ended as a decisive Yorkist victory when the Duke of York's men went straight for the Duke of Somserset and killed him. The total number of casualties was less than 100.
Take Up My Sword: Edward IV took up his father's cause after the latter's death at Wakefield, and won the throne the Duke of York never could.
Took a Level in Badass: The Lancastrians. 99% of this war consisted of them kicked into the dirt until the very end when they finally managed to win the war at Bosworth Field. But by then, only Henry Tudor was left.
And even he won largely due to last-minute treachery.
Undying Loyalty: The House of Beaufort to the House of Lancaster. Pretty much every prominent male member of that house died in the service of the red rose. Richard was also noted for his loyalty to King Edward, and made for a rather sharp contrast to their brother George.
Unfit for Greatness: Henry VI, when he was sane, wasn't a particularly good king, even if he was, by all accounts, a good man personally.
Upper-Class Twit: Surprisingly rare in this war. The Hundred Years War had produced a pedigree of experienced commanders and cunning power brokers. Both sides were led by intelligent politicians and brave commanders. However, Henry VI, in his lucid moments, was this. He was totally out of depth, and was a pious, peaceful king in a time when England really needed a warrior. An alternative interpretation of Margaret of Anjou casts her as this, a woman totally out of depth in the English court, not understanding how much of a powder keg it was .
The Usurper: A label thrown around to so many kings during this time period that the term starts to lose its impact — Edward, Richard, and Henry Tudor all toppled reigning monarchs to gain their throne, but whether the incumbent was more deserving of kingship was a major point of contention. In Tudor's case, he actually had to kill off several people with better claims than him after he had defeated Richard.
Villainous Valor: Richard III was described in Henry VII's personal account of Bosworth as having died "in the thickest press of his enemies," fighting bravely for his kingdom and his crown. What makes this notable is that usurper kings (Henry VII included) generally slandered their predecessors to add legitimacy to their reign.
Warrior Prince: Edward of Westminster, who remains the only Prince of Wales to have died in battle.
We Are Struggling Together: Neither family was really able to solidify their rule because internal divisions led to a resumption of war. Another notable example is the lack of military cooperation between Warwick and Margaret of Anjou. By the time Margaret had finally landed in England, Warwick had already died at the Battle of Barnet, forcing the Lancastrians to flee, leading to the disastrous Battle of Tewkesbury.
Henry VI arguably counts as well. He was pretty much little more than a feeble-minded puppet who was captured and re-captured during various points of the wars, suffered from frequent bouts of (likely hereditary) mental illness, and really had little stomach for war, being more interested in religion and learning when he was actually of sound mind. Henry was less a king than he was The President's Daughter, a pawn to be used in the machinations of the Duke of York and Margaret of Anjou. To top it all off, he was likely murdered while in captivity, a few weeks after his only son and presumptive heir had already been killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Sometimes, it just sucks to be the king.
Edward, Earl of Warwick. His father is executed for treachery and at the age of 10 he is imprisoned in the Tower by Henry VII, as he had a better claim. He ends up being executed after 14 years of imprisonment in the Tower. So it is certain Henry killed Yorkist Prince Edward in the Tower.
Won the War, Lost the Peace: The House of York was pretty much unbeatable on the battlefield for 90% of this war, but in times of peace, internal divisions only helped start more conflicts that reignited the war.
Wretched Hive: Calais had a very bad reputation for being a den of rebels and traitors during this war. Due to its location in France, whenever one side was in disfavor, they could use the port as a staging ground for a new round of invasions and muster armies and mercenaries from mainland Europe there.
The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: There was a case for every king and heir of this period being this. Either they were a usurper (Edward IV, Richard III), allegedly illegitimate (Edward of Westminster, Edward V, Richard of Shrewsbury), descended from a usurper (Henry VI), or insane (Henry VI again). Henry VII was only able to avoid this label for a time because, being descended from John of Gaunt, and married to Elizabeth of York, descendant of Edmund of Langley and Lionel of Antwerp, the House of Tudor was descended from all three of Edward III's surviving children.
Though Henry VII was descended from the Beauforts, children of John of Gaunt who it was agreed had no claim to the throne.
Xanatos Gambit: The Stanley's at the Battle of Bosworth. Aware that both Henry Tudor and Richard III were fairly evenly matched, and that they had the strength to swing the tide of battle in either direction, they elected to remain neutral. They waited until one side was clearly winning before commiting their forces. The Stanley's had historically played both sides before with great success, and were well aware that whatever the outcome of the battle, they could reconcile their previous neutrality with the victor.
Richard III had Thomas Stanley's son hostage, and threatened to execute him if the Stanleys did not support him. Thomas Stanley's reply was apparently: "Sire. I have other sons." Thomas Stanley was apparently a man who was not going to let mere sentiment get in the way of a well devised Xanatos Gambit.
You Have Failed Me: Played straight by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, during the Battle of Tewkesbury 1471. He killed his subordinate commander, Baron Wenlock, who had failed to support him, by smashing his head with a warhammer in the midst of the battle. In this case, it was probably well-deserved. Wenlock had an infamous reputation for Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.