By John Ashdown-Hill
Amberely Books, 2015
The Wars of the Roses call to mind bloody battles, treachery and deceit, and a cast of characters known to us through fact and fiction: Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, Richard III, Warwick the Kingmaker, the Princes in the Tower, Henry Tudor. But the whole era also creates a level of bewilderment among even keen readers. John Ashdown-Hill gets right to the heart of this ‘thorny’ subject, dispelling the myths and bringing clarity to a topic often shrouded in confusion. Between 1455 and 1487, a series of dynastic wars for the throne of England were fought. These have become known as the Wars of the Roses. But there never was a red rose of Lancaster … This book sets the record straight on this and many other points, getting behind the traditional mythology and reaching right back into the origins of the conflict to cut an admirably clear path through the thicket.
Read an excerpt: What were ‘The Wars of the Roses’?
The term ‘Wars of the Roses’ is a relatively modern and in many ways rather regrettable invention, which raises a number of quite complex issues. As we shall see, it is debatable whether the conflict which is now commonly so described was really a single war. It may simply have been a series of different battles and other kinds of clash, not all of which were seen, by those who took part in them, as related to one another. Chronologically, some of the battles were widely separated. Also, not all of them had similar objectives. It is also questionable to what extent the conflict overall had anything to do with roses. Although later parts of the contest may have been related to two competing sides, who were popularly associated with different coloured rose emblems, this relates to the period from 1485 until the 1520s – a period when, according to most traditional versions of the story, the ‘Wars of the Roses’ had ended!
The sequence of events popularly known as the ‘Wars of the Roses’ is generally perceived as a kind of civil war. Today, the meaning of ‘civil war’ is normally seen as a dispute involving fighting between two opposing groups within a single nation state. In the Middle Ages, though, when the so-called ‘Wars of the Roses’ took place, the concept of a nation state was only just beginning to evolve. Thus, there was no clear nation state of ‘England’, in the modern sense of the term (indeed, some people may consider it questionable whether a clear nation state of ‘England’ exists even now).
Nevertheless, in the fifteenth century a ‘realm’ certainly existed, which at that period comprised England, Ireland, Wales and a small area of Continental European land in the vicinity of Calais. This realm was ruled by a single king, the realistic parts of whose title were ‘King of England and Lord of Ireland’,1 and whose son and heir traditionally bore the honorary title ‘Prince of Wales’. It is true that the so-called civil war which is now known as the ‘Wars of the Roses’ took place within that realm, and that it basically involved English, Irish and Welsh fighters, together with members of the Calais garrison. Thus, in one sense, the contest was mainly an internal, English, Irish, Welsh and Calais struggle. Nevertheless, foreign rulers, including Kings of France, of Spain, and of Scotland, and also the Dukes (and Duchesses) of the semi-independent state of Burgundy, did sometimes become involved in the conflict on one side or the other.
What is more, foreign military forces sometimes took part. Indeed, they occasionally played a significant role in the fighting. As we shall see, the French government backed anti-Yorkist attempts on the throne of England in the winter of 1470, in 1483, and in 1485, and they considered doing so (though, in the end, with no real commitment) in the 1490s. In addition, the campaigns of 1470, 1483 and 1485 all included French men-at-arms. In fact it is almost certainly the case that Richard III would not have been defeated, and Henry VII would never have become king, if French soldiers had not backed Henry, and opposed Richard. At one level it therefore appears highly misleading to describe the campaign which culminated in the Battle of Bosworth as part of a ‘civil war’.
Likewise, the Burgundian government supported the restoration of Yorkist power in 1471. Later, there was also a kind of Burgundian backing for the Yorkist campaigns of 1487 and in the 1490s. As for the government of Scotland, it was not even consistent in its involvement. For although it backed anti-Yorkist movements in the 1460s, James IV supported the Yorkist campaign of ‘Richard of England’ in the 1490s. This strongly suggests that the prime Scottish motivation focused on the interests of the kingdom of Scotland.
Within the realm of England, Ireland, Wales and Calais, the two opposing sides in the battles were ostensibly focussed around rival members of the late medieval Anglo-Norman royal family – usually referred to as the Plantagenets, though it is questionable how many of them would ever actually have used that surname. Thus the opposing sides are seen as comprising the opposing royal princes, together with their various supporters. In other words, on one level the ‘Wars of the Roses’ was basically a struggle between royal relatives, who were fighting over which of them should sit on the English throne – and/or wield the power behind the throne.
However, in another sense, the conflict clearly centred upon rivalry in the ranks of the aristocracy and gentry. In this second sense the fighting was only superficially linked to what has recently come to be sometimes referred to as ‘the Cousins’ War’ (though the origins of that term are also extremely vague). Indeed, as we shall see, at least two of the battles within the period usually ascribed to the ‘Wars of the Roses’ were entirely private battles, completely unrelated to the contest for the throne. And if the period could be widened slightly, a greater number of private conflicts would be seen to form part of the picture.
As for the use of the term ‘war’ in this context, that also requires some examination. A modern war is normally an armed conflict involving a series of battles which may sometimes be separated in terms of their location and outcome, but which remain fairly closely related in terms of chronology. For example, the First World War lasted for approximately four years and four months (from 28 July 1914 until 11 November 1918). In the Second World War the fighting continued for almost exactly six years. In both cases, although a number of separate battles took place in various locations, the armed conflict was more or less continuous.
But the so-called Wars of the Roses is usually said to have lasted for thirty-two years, from 1455 until 1487. And although, as we shall see, those dates can be disputed, arguably the conflict went on, not for less than thirty-two years, but potentially for a considerably longer period. Moreover, the Wars of the Roses did not simply consist of the continuous fighting of battles, as we would probably expect in the case of modern warfare. In the Wars of the Roses there were sometimes long gaps of time between one battle and the next. Thus, for example, no fewer than four years elapsed between the first battle of St Albans and the battle of Blore Heath.
At some such times there was apparent peace in the realm between the battles. Indeed, it may well have seemed, to those living at that moment, that all conflict had then been resolved. For example, during the five years which elapsed between the battle of Hexham and the battle of Edgecote Moor, it looked as if the crown was now secure upon the head of King Edward IV. However, sometimes, even when there was no fighting of battles and no open warfare, the contest for the throne, or for power within the kingdom, nevertheless continued in other significant ways, despite the lack of military action. For the various people involved, these other ways included a wide and diverse range of activities, from plotting, scheming and changing sides to the making of marriages, legal disputes, the killing (or attempted killing) of rivals, and sometimes witchcraft and magic.