Why is it so difficult to assess the causes of the Wars of the Roses?

My take on one of the longest family feuds to grace the history books…

The Wars of the Roses describes a bloody period of instability within England, that led to numerous battles, the cause of which is said to be difficult to assess. However, when assessing the events, the weakness of Henry VI can be seen as the cause of the Wars, as his inability to control faction within his court led to their outbreak. This can be identified as the root cause of the Wars of the Roses, with the following battles being influenced by dynastic rivalry, which developed out of the faction that Henry could originally not control.

To further understand this, one must examine Henry’s warrior wife Margaret of Anjou. Henry relinquished the English territory of Maine to marry Margaret – which is quite a serious gesture.[1] Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was aware of this trade, and Margaret knew that this information could diminish her support, as people would rather have kept Maine over Margaret.[2] Humphrey was later arrested and taken to the Tower of London, where he died in 1447.[3] It was believed that Margaret had some some shady work behind the scenes, and was actually involved in the Duke’s arrest and death, as Vickers notes that she was “successful indeed.”[4] Patricia Anne-Lee argues, that, through her involvement in Humphrey’s death, Margaret made an enemy of Richard, Duke of York, which led to faction that Henry could not control.[5] Anne-Lee goes on to note that, although Margaret’s actions made an enemy of York, she was not directly responsible for the Wars. This is plausible, as although Margaret’s actions did lead to the development of court faction, Henry’s inability to control such faction led to its escalation and the outbreak of war. Historians such as the chronicler Fabyan note that Henry’s marriage to Margaret was a significant cause of the conflict within court,[6] as agreed by Tudor historian Polydore Vergil, who noted that Margaret’s unpopularity during her reign led to greater animosity amongst those at court.[7] It should be noted that Margaret had to assume control only due to Henry’s illness and poor governance,[8] emphasising that although Margaret had an important role in the events, it was still the weakness of Henry VI that allowed the conflict between Margaret and York to develop, as he did not quash it.

York himself disliked the Duke of Somerset after he replaced York as the “king’s lieutenant general and governor in France,” as noted by Michael K Jones.[9] Jones cites this as the source of their conflict, which was only intensified by Somerset’s alliance with the forever popular Margaret. The rivalry between Somerset and York is an important aspect of the Wars, and also shows that Henry’s weakness, and inability to control faction, led to the outbreak of war. Although Somerset and York could be blamed for the Wars of the Roses, the weakness of Henry cannot be ignored. If Henry was able to control the warring nobles at court, the Wars of the Roses would not have occurred. The actions of Margaret and the rivalry between Somerset and York set the context for the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, due to the development of faction, which leads to an examination of Henry himself.

England’s defeat in the Hundred Years War increased tensions in England, and the populations’ view that Henry was a weak king, as identified by David Grummitt.[10] Henry’s weakness, in comparison to his heroic father Henry V, allowed faction to develop as people began to realise that Henry was not fit to rule. Henry’s lack of control can be seen in the Dartford Incident of 1452. York planned to amass an army to facilitate the removal of Somerset and planned to recruit men in Kent.[11] Despite York’s treasonous intent, after the failing of his coup d’état he was forgiven by Henry in 1453.[12] Henry’s constant forgiveness of those around them led them to believe that such insurrection would go unpunished, which would eventually lead to the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, as people, like York, would continue to rebel. Historian John Guy identifies Henry VI’s illness in 1453 as the direct trigger for the Battle of St Albans, as it allowed York to become Lord Protector in 1454.[13] His subsequent demotion upon Henry’s recovery in 1455, and the reversal of his reforms, caused York to become embittered.[14] Sarah Gristwood identifies a council meeting in 1455 as the direct trigger of the Battle of St Albans, as the Somerset and Yorkist faction quarrelled, leading York to gather forces against the King.[15] If Henry had been more forceful, and had dealt with the rising animosity in a more suitable way, the Battle of St Albans would not have occurred. It was the weakness of Henry, exemplified by his forgiveness of York after the Dartford Incident, that allowed the Wars of the Roses to break out. McFarlane too identifies the weakness of Henry VI as the most significant cause of the Wars of the Roses,[16] as does David Grummitt, who notes that Henry had “neither the inclination nor the ability” to rule effectively.[17] It was Henry’s weakness that led to the Battle of St Albans, and subsequently, the Wars of the Roses, as he was unable to control the developing faction within his court.

York was not reprimanded for the rebellion, again demonstrating the weakness of Henry as he was unable to control faction. The Yorkists aimed to legitimise their rebellion, stating that they acted for the good of the realm.[18] Following Henry’s illness, York was made Lord Protector again for a short time, which ended in 1456.[19] York’s ascension to power appears odd considering his previous insurrection, reinforcing the fact that Henry’s weakness was the main cause of the Wars of the Roses. York’s frustration, and lack of power, which was hampered by Margaret,[20] led to increasing tensions at court, resulting in York rebelling again at the Battle of Blore Heath in 1459. The direct cause of this battle was the actions of York, and his new ally the Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. And Henry still hired him. If Henry had reprimanded York for his previous rebellion, it is doubtful that York would have rebelled again. Following the battle, York fled to Ireland and Warwick fled to Calais signalling a divide between the houses of York and Lancaster which would not be reconciled. Henry took action to condemn the conspirators, declaring that Warwick and York had committed treason at the Parliament of the Devils a month after Blore Heath.[21] This does demonstrate Henry’s strength, but at too late a point. Perhaps if he had reprimanded them sooner, he could have stopped the development of faction and prevented the Wars of the Roses.

Henry’s weakness is the fundamental cause of the Wars of the Roses, but when examining the development of the Wars, beginning with the Battle of Northampton in 1460, it can be seen that they become focused on dynastic ambition. After York laid his claim to the throne, Parliament formed the Act of Accord, which stated that York and his children would inherit after the death of Henry. This disinherited his son Edward and signals the point at which the Wars became focused on dynastic ambition. John Guy notes this, stating that previously the Wars had been about warring nobles, but now they were about dynastic claim.[22] This incensed Margaret, leading her to rally the Lancastrians and go to war with the Yorkists. The issuing of the Act of Accord marks the change in motivation for going to war as warrior mother Margaret fought to defend her son’s birth right and dynastic claim. She defeated York at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460. York and his eldest son were killed, which intensified each battle of the Wars, as people were no longer held hostage, they were killed.[23] The motivation for this battle demonstrates the importance of dynastic conflict which developed from faction, because of the weakness of Henry VI. The cause of the Wars of the Roses was his weakness, and later on the Wars were propelled by dynastic ambition and conflict.

This motivated the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461, leading to a Yorkist victory.[24] Warwick fought with York’s son Edward, who was welcomed in London due to his victory, as people considered it to be a blessing from God.[25] This was to be important in the Second Battle of St Albans in the same year, as although Margaret led the Lancastrians to victory, and reclaimed her husband,[26] she was barred entry to London as it was a Yorkist stronghold.[27] Margaret’s desperation for her son to be king pushed her to go to London, explaining the lengths she went to for her own dynastic ambition. This shows that, following the weakness of Henry VI, the wars were heavily influenced by dynastic conflict. When Margaret was turned away, Warwick placed Edward, Duke of York on the throne, making him King Edward IV. This particular incident demonstrates that the Wars were driven forward by dynastic ambition and conflict, as Margaret’s desire for her son’s birth right pushed her to battle the Yorkists and march to London, and fight at the Battle of Towton, which, unfortunately for the Lancastrians, secured Yorkist rule.[28]

John Guy argues that the Second War, 1469 to 1471, was triggered by the marriage of Edward to Elizabeth Woodville.[29] This angered Warwick, who lost some of his offices to the Woodville’s.[30] Edward’s rejection of Warwick’s proposal to marry his daughter to Edward’s brother George increased the animosity between them.[31] Warwick’s falling favour too demonstrates how dynastic rivalry dominated the Wars of the Roses, following the weakness of Henry VI. Warwick’s growing frustrations, and declining status within court, caused him to actively rebel against the king he crowned, with the aim of placing Henry back on the throne. Still following? Stay with me! Although the Woodville marriage was the direct trigger for this, Warwick’s ambitions demonstrate the role of dynastic claim in defining the Wars of the Roses.

Warwick and George, Duke of Clarence used the unrest in the North to rebel against Edward, leading to the Battles of Edgecote and Losecote Field.[32] Following their defeat at Losecote, Warwick and Clarence fled abroad to ally with Margaret – she’s back in the game![33] Their alliance with their former enemy demonstrates the dynastic ambition of both parties, and its importance in the Wars. Warwick’s landing in Devon, with 60,000 men, prompted Edward’s fleeing of London, leaving the throne empty for the Readeption of Henry VI.[34] Warwick knew that he could rule England through Henry, emphasising his dynastic ambitions and desire for power, which he knew he could harness through Henry VI.

Edward returned for his crown, highlighting dynastic ambition as an important cause for the continuation of the Wars. Edward killed Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471,[35] and secured his reign by capturing Margaret and killing her son at the Battle of Tewkesbury the following month, thus ending the Lancastrian threat.[36] The Second War was motivated by dynastic ambition, as both the Lancastrians and Yorkists fought to gain power or the crown. This dynastic rivalry developed out of faction that began at the court of Henry VI. His weakness, and inability to control said faction allowed for the outbreak of the Wars, which were later dominated by the dynastic ambition of those involved. Only the Third War left!

The trigger for the Third War, 1485 to 1487, too was influenced by dynastic ambition and occurred due the usurpation of Richard III, as argued by David Grummitt.[37] Upon the sudden death of Edward IV in 1483, faction began to develop due to the youth of his son Edward V.[38] After gathering support and forcing the hand of Parliament, Richard was declared Lord Protector,[39] and later the King as instructed by the Titulus Regius, which disinherited Edward IV’s sons and placed them in the Tower.[40] Richard stole the throne and was driven by his own dynastic ambition for power, demonstrating that at this point, the Wars of the Roses were driven by such aims.

The emergence of Henry Tudor was also due to dynastic claim. As well as receiving aid from his mother, Margaret Beaufort, Henry also received aid from Brittany, as they assembled two flotillas for him in 1483 and 1484.[41] Outrage at Richard’s usurpation, as well as the stories of the Princes in the Tower[42] act as a direct cause for the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, but again, the main cause of Henry’s rebellion was his dynastic ambition and claim to the throne. Following Richard’s death, Henry secured this claim at the Battle of Stoke in 1487, by defeating Lambert Simnel, who was pretending to be the son of George, Duke of Clarence.[43] Guy notes that this battle marked the end of the third war, and the Wars of the Roses as a whole.[44]

In conclusion, one could argue that it is difficult to assess the causes of the Wars due to their length. However, on close interrogation, it was the weakness of Henry VI that allowed for court faction to develop and war to begin. Henry’s illness, and recovery allowed for the alienation of Richard, Duke of York, as power was constantly given to him and then taken away, due to the intervention of mother-of-the-year Margaret. This formed the two distinct groups of York and Lancaster. After the Act of Accord, the overarching theme of each battle was dynastic ambition, as each group sought power and the crown, pushing them to go to war.

Thanks for reading!


[1] K. Vickers, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester: A Biography, (London, 2015), p. 288.

[2] Ibid, p. 288.

[3] Ibid, p. 293.

[4] Ibid, p. 290.

[5] P-A. Lee, ‘Reflections of Power: Margaret of Anjou and the Dark Side of Queenship’, Renaissance Quarterly, 39 (1986), p. 201.

[6] Ibid, p. 202.

[7] Ibid, p. 204.

[8] Ibid, p. 204.

[9] M-K. Jones, ‘Somerset, York and the Wars of the Roses’, The English Historical Review, 104 (1989), p. 209.

[10] D. Grummitt, A Short History of the Wars of the Roses, (London, 2012), p. xiv.

[11] M. Hicks, The Wars of the Roses, (Yale, 2012), p. 102.

[12] Ibid, p. 103.

[13] J. Guy, Tudor England, (Oxford, 2000), p. 2.

[14] Hicks, The Wars of the Roses, p. 107.

[15] S. Gristwood, Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, (London, 2013), p. 41.

[16] Hicks, The Wars of the Roses, p. 77.

[17] The Faculties, Why were there Wars between Lancastrians & Yorkists? Pt1 Dr. David Grummitt (online video recording), YouTube, 6 January 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vKRLZhL4jw> [accessed 6 December 2018].

[18] Hicks, The Wars of the Roses, p. 113.

[19] Ibid, p. 116.

[20] Ibid, p. 123.

[21] Ibid, p. 145.

[22] Guy, Tudor England, p. 2.

[23] Hicks, The Wars of the Roses, p. 160.

[24] Ibid, p. 160.

[25] Ibid, p. 161.

[26] Ibid, p. 161.

[27] Ibid, p. 161.

[28] Ibid, p. 163.

[29] Guy, Tudor England, p. 2.

[30] Hicks, The Wars of the Roses, p. 188.

[31] Ibid, p. 186.

[32] Britain’s Bloody Crown, Series 1 Episode 2: The Kingmaker Must Die (Channel 5, 14 January 2016).

[33] Hicks, The Wars of the Roses, p. 199.

[34] Ibid, p. 201.

[35] Ibid, p. 203.

[36] Ibid, p. 204.

[37] Grummitt, A Short History of the Wars of the Roses, p. xii.

[38] Hicks, The Wars of the Roses, p. 215.

[39] Ibid, p. 216.

[40] Ibid, p. 222.

[41] Ibid, p. 228.

[42] Hicks, The Wars of the Roses, p. 230.

[43] Ibid, p. 244.

[44] Guy, Tudor England, p. 3.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a second year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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