An Easy Intro to the Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses (~1455-~1485+) was a thirty-year period of civil wars filled with bloodshed and betrayal; it marked some of the most violent and dramatic events in English history. There were four different kings on the throne – all except one of whom had overthrown another king in violent battle or subterfuge.

However, even if you don’t like war or military history – I didn’t before – the period captures the imagination. Plus the period is a kissing cousin of the ever popular Tudor England. If you want to know why Henry VIII was so paranoid, the Wars of the Roses is the reason.

For people familiar with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, one of the key players in the Wars of the Roses was Edward IV, the grandfather of Henry VIII. Like Henry, Edward was tall (6’4”), exceptionally handsome in youth, and charismatic. Edward was irresistible to women – allegedly, he partially funded one of his wars with contributions from rich widows. However, unlike Henry, Edward was known to be exceptionally promiscuous.

Henry VIII by Joos van Cleve

Henry VIII by Joos van Cleve

portrait of Edward IV

Edward IV

Drinking, feasting, wenching (aka going to brothels), and hunting were Edward’s favorite activities. Like Henry, Edward married for love – with catastrophic results. However, unlike Henry, Edward was a true military hero – Edward was never once defeated in battle.

Edward seized the throne at just 18 years of age. After the humiliating execution of Edward’s father and brother by enemy (Lancastrian) forces, Edward swore vengeance. It was just over two months from the time his father’s head was stuck on the York city gates until Edward was crowned king of England. However, to solidify his rule, this 18-year-old boy had to lead tens of thousands of men in the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, the Battle of Towton, and overthrow a “mad” king (Henry VI).

Edward won Towton, but at considerable cost. Both sides were so fiercely determined that they stated they would not take any prisoners-of-war – in other words, anyone left alive on the losing side would be executed. The result: Towton was a slaughter house. The snowy fields of Towton ran red with the blood of 28,000 men killed in ten hours.

However, despite Edward’s victory at Towton and his incredible popularity with his subjects, his rule was not secure. Furious over Edward’s marriage to a commoner (Elizabeth Woodville) and feeling discarded, the man who helped put Edward on the throne, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (“Warwick the Kingmaker”) rebelled against him in 1469.

Both women allegedly won their man’s heart by saying “no”:

Portrait of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn by Unknown artist. NPG 668. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth Woodville

Elizabeth Woodville, Henry VIII’s grandmother. The woman whose marriage may have brought down the House of York.

Amazingly, Warwick succeeded in overthrowing Edward. Edward’s wife, Elizabeth, had to flee in sanctuary and have a baby there while Edward fled the country. However, Warwick’s rule did not last; he was captured in battle and killed, and Edward was back on the throne by 1471.

You would think Edward’s problems would be over. However, a feud between his two brothers (think: the Baratheons) and intrigue by a foreign king, Louis XI, who had a spy network to rival Varys (“the spider”), kept Edward busy.

Edward had one particularly troublesome brother, George, Duke of Clarence (“Clarence”), whom Edward executed for treason in 1478. However, Edward’s youngest brother, the famous Richard III (then Richard, Duke of Gloucester) may have blamed Edward’s wife Elizabeth for Clarence’s death. From that time onward, some historians argue, this created especially bitter factions.

When Edward died at only 41 with a 12-year-old heir, Richard and Elizabeth fought over who, if anyone, would be the boy’s regent. Sound familiar? Unlike in Game of Thrones, Richard “kidnapped” the heir and put him in the Tower of London for safekeeping. (The boy would never emerge from the Tower again in what has become one of the biggest mysteries in English history, which is known as “the Princes in the Tower.”)

With the heir under his control, Richard had himself crowned king. However, this was not to last. Henry VIII’s father invaded England using mercenary soldiers in 1483 and overthrew Richard at Bosworth Field.

This is an extremely high-level and greatly simplified overview of the period. I have deliberately omitted the events that led up to Edward’s family rebelling against the “mad king” for simplicity. Likewise, this period is very controversial and not everyone would agree with my analysis. However, this overview is just meant to give you a starting point.

I am hoping that when you start delving into the events and emotions of the Wars of the Roses, you will find the period just as intriguing as Game of Thrones.

Learn More, Explore More

“Towton was our worst ever battle, so why have we forgotten this bloodbath in the snow?” in The Daily Mail
Marrying for Love: The Experience of Edward IV and Henry VIII” in History Today Volume: 50 Issue: 12 2000
The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir
The Wars of the Roses by Michael Hicks
Overview of the Wars of the Roses: http://www.warsoftheroses.com/index.htm

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Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

2 Comments

  • […] crisis, personality conflicts, and quite a few other factors. Likewise, as discussed in my first post, they occurred over thirty or more years in at least four […]

  • Reply June 29, 2014

    M.E. Lawrence

    “The boy would never emerge from the Tower again in what has become one of the biggest mysteries in English history, which is known as ‘the Princes in the Tower.'”

    Well, maybe, maybe not. That’s why it’s a mystery; we don’t know for sure what happened to the boys. Very good article about this matter at an HBGoT ally: http://nerdalicious.com.au/author/ajcarson/

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