Saturday, 26 January 2013

Which Rose Are You?

With the potential discovery of Richard III and a new Tudor-esque series called "The White Queen" premiering this fall, the public will be hearing all about The Wars of the Roses. But what exactly is this period of English history? Were there really flowers? What was the outcome?
Most importantly, who's side are you on?

I want to present the houses of Lancaster and York in equal light so that you can walk into the Temple gardens and pick your rose: Red for Lancaster...or White for York? Why yes, that was a Shakespeare reference...
You can always let me know of your loyalties in the comments section below.

First, you must know that the two roses represent noble houses of the same ruling family: the Plantagenets. This family started in England with the reign of Henry II in 1154 and ended with the death of Richard III in 1485. In between, they produced one of England's greatest monarchs: Edward III. He ruled for fifty years and as a consequence had several sons of ruling age at his death. Per the rights of primogeniture, the inheritence falls to the oldest surviving son. This would have been Edward the Black Prince had he outlived his father. The Black Prince, in turn, did leave a son and he became the next king as Richard II.  All is well and good.

Unfortuntely for Richard, the youthful exuberance and skills he displayed at the onset of his reign gave way to bouts of fury that alienated his courtiers. While I cannot speak for his rule, general perception is that his reign was not a pleasant one. In the name of England, someone must stem the tide!

Richard was deposed in 1399 by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke who became Henry IV. He was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and thus another grandson of Edward III. The red rose grows...Historians point to this usurpation as the original rift in the conflict that was to come.

Both Henry IV and V rule and achieve victory in France. Huzzah! Unfortunately, the victor of Agincourt dies early leaving the crown to his only son, Henry VI who was but a few months old. A council ruled in Henry's stead but the French fought back and the English began losing their territory. Even when the king came of age, he was not authoritative. He was weak, easy to influence and succumbed to bouts of depression and insanity. His allies at court, the Dukes of Somerset (Beaufort family, a branch of the Lancastrians), were not much better in maintaining affairs. Nevertheless, Henry was the true and rightful king.

Before we delve into the story, we must know the players. As mentioned, Edward III left several sons. Three are important  (listed in birth order) and I list them with their descendants:
- Lionel, Duke of Clarence who had a great granddaughter named Anne
- John, Duke of Lancaster who's bloodline includes Henrys IV-VI. John married again and this line forms the Beaufort family who are the Dukes of Somerset.
- Edmund, Duke of York who had a son Richard, Earl of Cambridge and through him a grandson Richard, 3rd Duke of York
When I discuss the right to rule, do reference the above. The birth order of the three sons forms an imporant argument as to which descendant gains the throne.

This brings us to the matter at hand: The year is 1450. It is the reign of Henry VI and there is rebellion in the kingdom.

Jack Cade of Kent led a rebellion towards London. His objective wasn't the dismissal of the king but rather to air grievances against the failure of the king's councillors and the sad state that England was in. I must stress that most rebellions never blamed the king and were, in fact, utterly loyal to the crown. To a monarch, an uprising is still an uprising and the rebellion was suppressed. Enter Richard, 3rd Duke of York who just returned from fighting for Henry in France. He too was concerned over the state of the kingdom and pleaded to parliament for change. Since parliament was filled with Henry (Lancastrian) and Somerset (Beaufort) supporters, his pleas fell on deaf ears. Richard was not one to ignore. He inherited the Earldoms of Mortimer, March and Cambridge which made him the second richest and powerful man in England...after the king of course. More importantly, Henry had no heir at the moment and this made Richard heir presumptive.
Because of his rank, he was entitled to high positions in the kingdom. As history shows, he was a good leader and capable of governing. And yet, he was sent to the political outskirts by being made Steward in Ireland. In 1452, York tried to stress his point again, this time with an armed retinue from his house (though he swore on holy relics that he did not seek the crown and just wanted to help his king).  Henry offered to listen and York lowered his arms only to be tricked, arrested and slapped on the wrist.

In 1453, England loses all territories but Calais in France. The shock of the loss puts Henry into a year of depressed stupor and the king is unable to rule. The loss is blamed on Somerset and the Lancastrians. In their defense, the maintenance of France was quite untenable. Had Agincourt been a loss, the Hundred Years War would have ended much sooner.
The queen, Margaret of Anjou, gave birth to Prince Edward. With his coming, Richard was no longer the heir and was on the same level as his arch rival Edmund, Duke of Somerset. It is worth mentioning that Queen Margaret hated York and collaborated with Somerset to put him away. She was Henry's backbone and much of the following wars saw her in command of her faction. She was a strong woman and fully believed in her and Henry's right to rule. As mentioned before, the English typically supported the monarch and the Lancastrian ranks were filled with staunch loyalists (including my Earls of Shrewsbury).

Richard had seen enough and marched into London with armed support. The Lancastrians were in no position to fight and scattered. Richard did not claim the crown as it was rightfully Henry's. But with the latter's incapacity, Richard became Protector of England and began appointing Yorkists to prominent roles in government.

When Henry regained his mind, he dismissed Richard and promptly undid all of his efforts. This led to the first battle in the Wars known as the First Battle of St. Albans (1455). It was a streetfight which saw victory for Richard and the capture of Henry VI. Despite Richard having all the cards, he entered London as a subject to Henry who again slipped into delirium. Richard became Protector again but only for four months. At the behest of Queen Margaret, Parliament reduced Richard's power and Henry dismissed him...again.

In 1459 a Great Council to discuss affairs of state was set up by the Lancastrians and Richard and the Yorkists were invited. Sensing a trap, Richard assembled his army. Somerset (now the son of Edmund who died at St Albans) did the same and they fought at Northampton in 1460. Due to betrayal in the ranks, it was another victory for York. Henry VI was again recaptured.

When Richard entered parliament, he bore the arms of England and not his own. He had lost his patience and now proceeded to usurp the throne. Parliament, after a long political debate, satisfied Richard by making him heir to Henry VI (instead of Henry's son Edward).

With the Battle of Wakefield (see my article on Sandal Castle) at the end of 1460, Richard was killed (see my article on York) in a victory for Lancaster. He left his sons Edward and Richard (both future kings) to fight on. It is at this point that the Wars of the Roses truly became a fight for the throne. Edward, now Duke of York, was a cousin to Henry VI and subsequent battles would continue to decide the game for either house.


The usurpation of the throne in 1399 by Henry IV was "justified" with the idea that evil council can be forcibly removed if it negatively affected the kingdom. This set a dangerous precedent and we have echoes of it with the Pilgrimage of Grace during the reign of Henry VIII.
Still, with John, Duke of Lancaster's line having the next closest male in Henry, it was his right to rule.

Let us look at the argument. What I just stated above is called Agnatic Primogeniture. Bascially, the throne is obtained by seniority of birth in the male line. While John was not the first of Edward III's sons, he was the first to have surviving male descendants. This was Henry VI, the rightful king.

Yorkists used another argument called Cognatic Primogeniture to justify their claim. The throne is claimed due to a combination of male and female lines. Remember the players from before? Anne came from the first born son Lionel, Duke of Clarence. She married the son of Edmund, Duke of York. Their offspring was Richard, 3rd Duke of York. Because Richard was the kin of two of Edward's sons, he had a higher claim than Henry (or so this justification goes).

While Henry wasn't a good king, he was the rightful king. Removing the 1399 usurpation from the equation, Lancaster was in the right. York was initially loyal to their cousins. With England declining and their figurehead constantly being ostracized, York mobilized. With a victory at Towton in 1461, Richard's son Edward becomes Edward IV, the first Yorkist king. Was it usurpation again or does cognatic primogeniture legalize his right?

For those wondering, Henry VII defeats Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. Henry was a Lancastrian via his descent from the Beaufort line. Nevertheless, his claim to the throne was quite weak. He married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and thus united the two houses into the new house of Tudor. This is how we get the Tudor rose.

Speaking of roses, were these powerful symbols even present? Sadly, the flowers had little contemporary prominence. Insteady, they were established for posterity by Shakespeare and it wasn't until the 19th century when Sir Walter Scott first coined "The Wars of the Roses". The roses, however, did exist as minor badges of each house. Given how prominent the unified Tudor rose is in architecture and material culture, I would argue that the flowers did hold some recognized significance at the time. It did not just become the main symbol of the new dynasty for no reason whatsoever!
The struggle iteself was actually called "The Cousin's War" since Henry VI and Edward IV were first cousins.