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Useful Notes / Wars of the Roses

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Three decades of blood and misery, but at least they got a nifty logo out of it.

"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 "Bolingbroke" of the House of Lancaster stole 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 Rival House 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 Elizabeth of York, 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 Cousins' War, 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 I, 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. To this day, it remains the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil.


For the novel/film, see The War of the Roses.

The Wars contained such tropes as:

  • Aesop Amnesia: Depending on who you ask, forgetting the implications of previous events precipitated the House of York's implosion and vulnerability to Henry Tudor:
    • Squabbling factions at court: the conflict between Queen Elizabeth Woodville and Richard, Duke of Gloucester on who shall handle young Edward V's Regency may as well be a re-run, albeit down-scaled, of Margaret of Anjou and Richard, Duke of York's conflict—the very same politicking that precipitated the Wars in the first place.
    • Taking over through alternate succession: the deposition of young Edward V by Richard III, while probably well-intended (after all, the regency situation under Henry VI gave birth to the factions of the Wars) carried with it the unsavory taint that Henry IV suffered after usurping his cousin Richard II—which pretty much paved the way for rebellion and the Battle of Bosworth.
  • Altar Diplomacy: In spades. Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou, partly because his family really needed the money, and partly to strengthen the English monarchy's ties to France after the dauphin Charles VII challenged his claim to the French throne. At the conclusion of the wars, Henry VII symbolically patched up hostilities between the two warring sides by marrying Elizabeth of York after defeating her uncle Richard III. Subverted by Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which baffled many of Edward's advisors at the time because she had essentially no valuable political connections. note 
  • Cool Uncle: Henry Tudor certainly saw his uncle Jasper Tudor as this, considering he served as his primary political and military advisor for much of the last phase of the wars. Since Henry's father Edmund died in captivity before his birth, Jasper was also the closest thing he had to a father.
  • Cycle of Revenge: The Wars in a nutshell. The Duke of York's rivalry with the Duke of Somerset boiled over into an armed confrontation, and York swore to overthrow the young king for taking his rival's side. Before long, York and Somerset had both died in battle, their children had sworn revenge on the people that killed them, and thousands more people were killed in the crossfire. Even after York's son Edward was crowned king, the young Henry Tudor (Henry VI's nephew) eventually swore revenge on him for the deaths of his father Edmund and his grandfather Owen.
  • Divided We Fall: The ultimate fate of the House of Plantagenet. Despite what you might think, the Houses of York and Lancaster were not two feuding noble families: they were two branches of the House of Plantagenet, which had become divided after years of quarrels between siblings and first cousins. By the 15th century, the distant cousins Henry VI and Richard of York had enough bad blood between them to fuel the most brutal civil war that England had ever seen.
  • End of an Age: The end of the long reign of the House of Plantagenet, and of the old age of chivalrous monarchs who fought alongside their soldiers and ruled by right of combat. Not only was Richard III the last monarch descended from the Plantagenet bloodline on his father's side, the Battle of Bosworth Field made him the last English monarch ever to be killed in battle. After his reign, English monarchs generally ruled through well-developed systems of bureaucracy, and stayed away from the front lines whenever possible.
  • He's Back: Henry Tudor spent much of the Wars as a political prisoner in France, biding his time while the Yorkists held the throne. When he finally won his freedom, his triumphant return to England—to square off with Richard III at Bosworth Field—marked the final chapter of the Wars. This can, however, be deconstructed in that Henry's "biding time", at the time, was seen as pretty much permanent exile—and only became the potential "king-in-waiting scenario" when the Yorkist regime imploded through infighting.
  • History Repeats: The Wars between the Yorkists and Lancastrians in Britain were actually preceded by the somewhat lesser-known wars between the Armagnacs and Burgundians in France, which ended some twenty years before the Wars of the Roses began. Like the later conflict in Britain, France's civil war began when King Charles VI was rendered unfit to rule by his mental instability, leading to an escalating petty quarrel between two of his closest advisors—his brother, the Duke of Orleans and his cousin, the Duke of Burgundy—over which of them would rule the realm in his stead. Interestingly, much of the escalation in the earlier war happened because Henry VI's father decided to back the Duke of Burgundy and play both sides off against each other, correctly recognizing that the chaos would make France much easier to conquer. He probably didn't count on his own son suffering the same fate as Charles.
  • Instant Awesome: Just Add Dragons!: Invoked by Henry Tudor, who used a red dragon as his personal banner while rallying his troops. Partly served as a marker of his Welsh heritage (the red dragon being a popular national emblem of Wales), and partly as a sign of his claim that he would bring the English monarchy back to its glory days of medieval chivalry. It's the sort of unabashed romanticism (or, considering the Machiavellian character of Henry, cynical manipulation of unabashed romanticism) that you would expect of an English monarch who named his eldest son "Arthur".
  • It's Personal: In a war that was essentially a long succession of family feuds, a few moments like this were inevitable. For Richard of York, it was probably his rival Edmund of Somerset replacing him as a Commander in France, and later being named the godfather of the infant Prince Edward. For Somerset, it was probably being imprisoned in the Tower of London by York. For Edward of York, his father's death at the Battle of Wakefield strengthened his resolve to crush the Lancastrians at all costs. Similarly, Somerset's death at the Battle of Saint Albans left his son Henry determined to crush the Yorkists, while Henry Tudor was galvanised into becoming a major player in the Wars after his father Edmund and his grandfather Owen were both captured and executed by Yorkist forces.
  • Meaningful Rename: The Welsh of the time did not use surnames no matter how highborn they were, and Owain ap Meredudd ap Tudur (or, as anglicized, "Owen, son of Meredith, son of Theodore") was no exception. When he first came to court he took his father's name as a surname and was referred to as "Owen Meredith", but by the time he entered into a relationship with Katherine of Valois he had renamed himself "Owen Tudor". His much more famous grandson carried on the tradition when he took the throne and called his new royal line "The House of Tudor".
  • Non-Indicative Name: The House of Lancaster wasn't based in the Duchy of Lancaster, and it wasn't a "House" (a clan bearing the common family name "Lancaster") in the traditional sense. The name refers to the fact that the House was established as the reigning branch of the royal family by Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster; the rebel faction was centred around Richard Duke of York and his hereditary claim to the throne. Both Houses' actual surname was Plantagenet.
  • Not So Different: From a certain perspective, there were no "rightful" monarchs in the House of York or the House of Lancaster. The Lancastrian possession of the crown stemmed from Henry Bolingbroke's forcible usurpationnote  of the rightful king, Richard II, while the Yorkist claim was inferior even to the Lancastrians.' The eventual winner, Henry Tudor, had essentially no claim to the throne whatsoever, since his only (English) royal blood came in the female line from a bastard branch of the family which had been formally excluded from the succession by Act of Parliament. Chances were, if you didn't seize the throne of England by force, you inherited it from somebody who did. As you might expect, this made questions of proper rulership considerably more contentious.
  • One Steve Limit: A major aversion, since English nobility tended to recycle names fairly regularly. There was Henry Plantagenet (Henry VI) and his nephew Henry Tudor (Henry VII), Edward Plantagenet of the House of York (Edward IV), Edward Plantagenet of the House of Lancaster (Prince Edward of Lancaster) and the other Edward Plantagenet of the House of York (Edward V). Not to mention Richard Plantagenet (Richard, the Duke of York), his son Richard Plantagenet (Richard III), and the key Yorkist ally Richard Neville (Richard, the Earl of Warwick). Plus Edward IV's wife Elizabeth Woodville, and his daughter Elizabeth Plantagenet (Elizabeth of York). And Edmund Beaufort (Edmund, the Duke of Somerset), and Edmund Tudor (Edmund, the Earl of Richmond).
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The Lancastrians do ultimately "win" as a distant heir of theirs finally claims the throne of England by overthrowing the last major male Yorkist claimant and unites the two warring families by marrying the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth. However, the once prolific Plantagenent dynasty that had ruled England for almost four centuries has all but completely wiped itself out, paranoia over a new outbreak of dynastic civil wars would fuel even more bloodshed under the Tudors (the nadir of which was probably the execution of the elderly Margaret Pole under Henry VIII), and the English monarchy itself would be plagued by problems stemming from a lack of heirs - helped along by accidents of biology and a couple of revolutions but all ultimately springing from the royal bloodbath that was the Wars of the Roses - well into the 17th century, with England ultimately winding up with royals who spoke German as their primary language.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Henry VI became King as a child and was an infamously weak leader, but he was surrounded by a long succession of ambitious advisers who all wanted to play this role. The resulting power struggle was a key cause of the Wars, as everyone realized the potential of being able to use a king as a pawn. As the Wars progressed, Henry's wife Queen Margaret eventually came to dominate the throne, taking a much more active role in fighting the Yorkists than her husband. Even the Yorkist ruler Edward IV was largely at the mercy of his fabulously wealthy lieutenant Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick—at least until Warwick betrayed him (though, to be fair, Warwick had been patiently negotiating for a marriage to a French princess when Edward went behind his back and married beautiful commoner Elizabeth Woodville, putting Warwick in the mother of all awkward positions, so you can see why he might have been upset). They didn't call Warwick "The Kingmaker" for nothing.
  • Rags to Riches: If it hadn't been for Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur traveling to London to seek his fortune, and having a chance love affair with Henry V's widow Catherine, there likely never would have been a House of Tudor. In fact, it was a stroke of monumental good luck that the English crown chose to recognize Owain and Catherine's two children as royalty, considering their marriage was technically illegal. note  But against all odds, their children were christened as Edmund and Jasper Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and the Duke of Bedford. Henry VI eventually came to publicly recognise them as his half-siblings, and accepted them as allies for the Lancastrian cause. Then Edmund's son Henry eventually took the throne for the House of Lancaster, and the rest is history.
    • That said, it's often wrongly said that Owen Tudor was a "low-born squire". He was the scion of an extremely highly placed and powerful family and was a descendant of not just the great Llywelyn Fawr (and thus possibly from John I of England, father of Llywelyn's wife, Joan, meaning a line of descent right back to William the Conqueror... though it is probable that if this was the case, Henry VII would have made more of it) but of virtually every native Welsh prince, often through female lines. His direct male ancestors were the seneschals of Gwynedd.
  • Riches to Rags: The Wars played a key role in the eventual decline and downfall of the once all-powerful Medici Bank. As their power and wealth grew, the Medici eventually opened a branch of their business in London. This branch made the fatal mistake of loaning colossal sums of money to different claimants and their supporters despite the historical tendency of English monarchs to default on loans. When the dust settled, the Medici found to their horror that a great many of their debtors were now dead or ruined and thus unable to repay a penny. On top of that, they'd spent a great deal of money backing Lancastrian nobles, only for the Yorkist Edward IV to end up on the throne. Worse still, Edward was in no position to pay off any of the money he owed either, and was only able to offer the Medici exemption from tariffs on wool exports (English wool being a huge part of the European textile industry). The Medici were forced to close their London branch in 1478, with final losses of 51,533 florins, an astronomical sum for the time.
  • The Rival: Richard, Duke of York to Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, and vice versa. Richard really wanted to be appointed Lord Protector by Henry VI, and his ambitions only grew after Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk wound up dead after losing control of the Protectorate. Understandably, Richard resented Edmund for his closeness to the king, believing that—as a direct descendant of Edward III—he deserved a share of royal power as his birthright. Similarly, Edmund came to resent Richard after he actually did rise to power as Lord Protector, and used his influence to have Edmund imprisoned in the Tower of London.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: While Richard III wasn't a cackling hunchbacked supervillain, it's hard to deny that he and his eldest brother Edward IV were as different as night and day. Edward was very much the traditional English knight, he won much of his support through his prowess on the battlefield, and he was remembered by most of his contemporaries as handsome and charismatic, and he married a commoner, almost certainly for love (although it might have been a case of Take a Third Option). However, he was said to have a fiery temper, and his penchant for feasting and womanizing left a dent in his reputation in his later life. By contrast, Richard was a calculating political strategist who was generally agreed to be far more competent at statecraft than warfare, though his austere personality—coupled with his persistent struggles with scoliosis—made it far harder for him to match his brother in charisma. He was also far more willing to resort to use political intrigue to guard the welfare of the realm, most infamously when he had Prince Edward and his younger brother Richard imprisoned in the Tower of London and seized the throne for himself, possibly even ordering their deaths. (Even leaving aside Tudor propaganda, he is the most obvious candidate, simply because he was the one with the most to gain and the Princes were under guard in the Tower, the most secure fortress in the country, surrounded by his trusted men, under his protection. At the very least, he was guilty of negligence.)
  • Succession Crisis: Richard Plantagenet and Henry VI were cousins, and both of them could rightly claim to be direct descendants of King Edward III (Richard through his great-grandfather Edmund of Langley, Henry through his great-great-grandfather, John of Gaunt). Even the old principal of proper inheritance didn't exactly hold much water at the time, since Henry's grandfather Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) only took the throne by seizing it from his cousin Richard II. This, combined with a general lack of faith in Henry VI's leadership, made the question of determining the "proper" king much more complicated.
  • Take a Third Option: Who won the Wars of the Roses: the House of York or the House of Lancaster? It's a trick question; neither side technically won in the end, as the throne was ultimately inherited by the newly christened House of Tudor. Though Henry VII fought on the Lancastrian side, and he was descended from the same royal line as Henry VI, he set up a new royal house that bore the name of his own father, Edmund Tudor. The sigil of the House of Tudor was made both red and white to emphasize the fact that it was neither York nor Lancaster.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Yes, Richard III broke the law by seizing the throne from his 12 year-old nephew Prince Edward, who was Edward IV's legal heir. He also lived in a time when the disastrous reign of Henry VI — who inherited the throne as an infant, had to learn how to rule a kingdom when he was just a child, and for all his good nature, was extremely bad at it — was still fresh in England's collective memory. Considering the context, it's not hard to imagine that he wanted to prevent history from repeating itself. Prince Edward's mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and her family were also very unpopular, and there was a chance of rebellion if other noble families thought they were ruling through Edward.
  • Who's Your Daddy?: There were persistent rumours that the young Lancastrian heir Edward, Prince of Wales was actually fathered by his godfather Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset. This may have fuelled the Duke of York's resentment of Somerset, as he likely saw it as one more instance of Somerset trying to seize power illegitimately.
  • You Killed My Father: The Wars may have begun over the competing ambitions of Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York and Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset, but they really hit a fever pitch after Richard was killed by Lancastrians in the Battle of St. Albans, leading his son Edward to take up the sword to avenge his slain father. Edward's murderous grudge was enough to catapult him to the throne, eventually making him King Edward IV, the first Yorkist king.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Femme Fatale: How Queen Margaret of Anjou is often portrayed, thanks to the influence of her victorious enemies. To give you a good idea: she (or how she's depicted) the most likely inspiration for Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones.
  • Flower Motifs: A white rose for the House of York, and a red rose for the House of Lancaster. In reality, those symbols were sporadically used (if they were used at all) before Henry Tudor chose the red and white rose as his family's sigil. Monarchs of both houses used feathers for their personal badges as often as they used flowers, and their armies generally marched under animal symbols.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Henry VII. Considering the first and by far the most famous dramatic portrayals of the Wars were patronised by his granddaughter, this one's a no-brainer.
  • 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.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Richard III's ascension to the throne is often portrayed this way, since he technically seized the throne from the lawful heir Prince Edward V (who was just 12 years old at the time). Whether he could justifiably be called a "tyrant", however, is a matter of much debate.

Wars of the Roses in works of fiction and historical fiction:

  • Stormbird, a 2013 novel by Conn Iggulden begins a Historical Fiction series Wars of the Roses. It takes place during the last years of The Hundred Years War and the reign of Henry VI, starting with his marriage to Marguerite d'Anjou, covering Jack Cade's rebellion and ending with Richard of York's appointment as the Protector.
  • 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.
  • Aya Kanno's manga series Requiem of the Rose King takes place during the War of Roses. The series is loosely based off of Henry VI and Richard III.
  • The Hellequin Chronicles short story Infamous Reign is set during the final months of Richard III's reign, ending shortly after Henry VII's victory at Bosworth, and deals heavily with the Princes in the Tower. As it turns out, Richard wasn't such a bad bloke, and was actually a friend of the protagonist, Nathan Garrett a.k.a. Hellequin, but made a bad misjudgement in regards to the Princes—following one of the modern theories, he was having them shipped abroad so they'd no longer be a focus of support for his enemies, but unfortunately, they were descended from Arthur Pendragon, and Mordred (at this point, completely Ax-Crazy) was dead set on keeping any descendant of Arthur's off the throne. In the end, the Princes are spared and end up far away from the throne, but Richard dies at Bosworth and has his reputation tarnished—something that Henry VII (who is entirely unfazed by the enraged Person of Mass Destruction and Living Weapon standing in front of him) actually apologises to Nathan about, noting that Richard didn't deserve his monstrous reputation, but Realpolitik dictates that he needed a convenient scapegoat to smear and bolster his own claim, so he let it happen.
  • The Black Adder's premise is that Richard III actually won the battle of Bosworth Field, but was accidentally beheaded by his incompetent nephew Edmund while trying to take his horse. Subsequently, Edmund's father Richard, one of the Princes In the Tower who were never imprisoned or killed, is crowned king and becomes Richard IV. After a 13-year reign, the entire family line, including Edmund, is wiped out in a botched attempt by Edmund (now calling himself the Black Adder) to seize the throne for himself, with Edmund technically being king for about 30 seconds before succumbing to poisoning. The entire period is erased from history by the House of Tudor, with Henry Tudor claiming the throne and changing the historical records to show that he won the battle, as well as portraying Richard III as a tyrant and kin-slayer.
  • Philippa Gregory's The Cousins' War Series novels cover this period from the perspective of women who were prominent figures at the time, but have been largely forgotten by history.
    • The White Queen TV adaptation follows the life of Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner from a traditionally Lancastrian family who marries Edward IV and is the mother of Edward V and his brother Richard ("the Princes in the Tower") as well as Elizabeth of York. Richard III and his queen consort Anne Neville take center stage in the last few episodes.
  • 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.
  • ... and yet another in A Song of Ice and Fire, with Stark and Lannister Feuding Families being less than subtle clues.
    • And, even more directly, brief mentions are made of the Red and Green "Apple" Fossoways, who appear to have their own squabbles over titles and are two branches of a house.
    • The symbol of House Tyrell, one of the major power players in the series, is depicted in the TV adaptation Game of Thrones as a dead ringer for the Tudor double rose.
    • Still another reference comes in the Blackfyre Rebellions, where the Blackfyre claimants used a house sigil with Targaryen colors inverted.
    • The backstory even further reinforces this as per "the Dance of the Dragons," which saw House Targaryen in a family feud akin to the historical English dynasty of The House of Plantagenet, which will give rise to the Stark vs. Lannister (York vs. Lancaster) conflict later on.
    • The sigil of the Targaryens is a red dragon, rather like Henry Tudor's.
  • Gemfire is best described as "Romance of the Three Kingdoms in a Standard Fantasy Setting version of the Wars of the Roses," down to the king being from House Lankshire. And Ishmeria being shaped like England and Wales (including the Isle of Man) and the king's bastard heading up House Tudoria.
  • Avalon Hill had a game based on the war called Kingmaker.
  • Sharon Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, centered on King Richard III and Anne Neville.
    • Not to be confused with Jean Plaidy's The Sun in Splendour, also about the Wars of the Roses, but about King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.
  • The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson.
  • Subtly referred to in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010).
  • The Battle of Epping Forest: "You ain't seen nothin' like it... not since the Civil War"
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): The Wars Of The Roses


Example of: