The Causes of the Wars of the Roses | The First War of the Roses | The Second War of the Roses | The House of York at Peace | The Third War of the Roses
At the Battle of Tewkesbury, the House of Lancaster appeared to have been destroyed; its line extinct, its supporters dead. Yet the final victor in the Wars of the Roses was that same House of Lancaster. This is the story of how the House of York set about self-destruction, and allowed Lancaster a third attempt at the throne.
The Second Reign of Edward IV
Once Henry VI, Prince Edward of Lancaster and Warwick the Kingmaker were dead, Edward IV's position was far safer than it had ever been in his first reign. An added bonus was that, while in sanctuary during Henry VI's second reign, Queen Elizabeth had given birth to a son and heir for him, Prince Edward of York. And he had his loyal youngest brother, Duke Richard of Gloucester, and reconciled other brother, Duke George of Clarence, to replace Warwick in his government.
Edward was a merciful man who would only be ruthless when he badly needed to. He did not need to, and pardoned most of the Lancastrians and followers of Warwick. Attainder, the legal process by which a rebel noble could be stripped of his lands, was hardly used at all, not even posthumously against Warwick. Actually, this was in part because that would have made it harder for his brothers to get their hands on the Kingmaker's huge domains, which both coveted.
The brothers of the king fell out badly. Clarence, as husband of Warwick's daughter, Isabel, wanted most of the land for himself. Gloucester responded by marrying Warwick's other daughter, Anne, and siding with her mother in her demands for an inheritance. The quarrel nearly ended in a private war. Eventually, Edward divided the Neville inheritance somewhat artificially by geography - the south to Clarence and the north to Gloucester. Gloucester did well in the north, doing much to win over that Lancastrian stronghold. Unfortunately, Clarence proved very inept, and had to be removed from a number of offices. Edward grew increasingly suspicious of the brother who had so massively betrayed him before.
The Last of Clarence
Edward's dispute with Clarence was brought to a head by the death in childbirth, in December 1476, of Duchess Isabel and that of Duke Charles of Burgundy, in January 1477, at the Battle of Nancy. The heir of Burgundy was the unmarried Mary. Could Clarence marry her? Edward vetoed it, as it would violate a treaty he had signed with France. Clarence was furious.
Sulking, Clarence gave a show of his power by executing people without trial for killing Isabel. Edward responded in kind by executing, after a genuine trial, several of Clarence's supporters. Clarence's objections eventually led Edward to arrest him and put him in the Tower. A parliament was called, which decided to try Clarence for treason.
What followed was certainly a show trial. None of the charges could be corroborated, except that connected to the illegal executions, which scarcely constituted treason. Nonetheless, it was quite possible that he was guilty, and certainly he could not be trusted not to commit treason in the future. He was duly convicted, and, on 7 February, 1478, sentenced to death. Edward granted his brother a private execution, which was carried out in the Tower on 18 February1. His body was buried next to Isabel's.
Edward's Last Years
The teenager who first overthrew Henry VI had been tall and strikingly handsome, but secure in his position after the fall of Warwick, and later of Clarence, he gave himself over increasingly to debauchery. A promiscuous womaniser, he grew fatter and fatter as the years passed. But he also kept a grip on the realm, and commentators spoke of a golden age.
Edward ruled through his family and friends as no king ever before. Indeed, Gloucester's north became almost an autonomous country, so great was the Duke's power there. His Woodville in-laws also gained greatly under his rule. Unfortunately, they did not like one another much. For instance, Edward's old friend Lord Hastings was always at daggers drawn with the marquess of Dorset, Edward's stepson, over the Captaincy of Calais. More significantly, Gloucester greatly disliked the Woodvilles. And Gloucester became so powerful in the north that Edward was forced to watch as he invaded Scotland to intervene in a dispute between King James III and the Duke of Albany.
In Spring, 1483, Edward IV suddenly fell ill. He may well have suffered a stroke. It is probable that, whatever the illness, it was caused by his decadent lifestyle. On 9 April, he died, aged forty-two. He left behind a twelve-year old heir in the care of his powerful in-laws, and an overmighty subject in Gloucester, who hated the new king's guardians. The York family was not a united one.
The Usurpation of Richard III
The character of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is one of the most controversial issues in English history. It falls outside the scope of this article, and is well discussed here2. What follows is an account of the known facts of what happened next.
The new king, Edward V, was at his family home in Ludlow when he heard of his father's death. He was not old enough to rule for himself, though his minority would be short, given his age. Still, there was a major dispute. Some wanted Edward V crowned straight away, notably the Woodvilles. An anti-Woodville faction, led in Parliament by Lord Hastings, wanted Gloucester to be Protector3. The young king was currently in the hands of his maternal uncle, Lord Rivers, and the Woodville faction had the upper hand because of this fact. Gloucester began writing to Hastings and the Duke of Buckingham, to arrange a coup.
It was on 29 April that Gloucester and Buckingham met Rivers at Northampton. The king himself was at the town of Stony Stratford. Rivers had no problems about the two Dukes accompanying them to London, and next day was shocked when the Dukes arrested him. They took him back to Stony Stratford, where they also arrested Sir Richard Grey, the king's half-brother4, and the royal treasurer, Sir Thomas Vaughn. All were accused of plotting against Gloucester, to deny him the protectorate that Edward IV may or may not have willed him, and even of plotting to kill him. They were sent to prisons in the north. Gloucester and Buckingham now took Edward V to London.
On learning of Gloucester's coup, the Queen Mother went into sanctuary with her other children. Hastings welcomed Gloucester, Buckingham and Edward into London soon after. On 10 May, Gloucester was made Protector, and the coronation set for 22 June. Gloucester had triumphed, but had also set the Woodvilles firmly against him. He would be in great danger if they recovered their position.
On 13 June, Gloucester suddenly accused Hastings of treason, and of conspiring to kill him. He then had Hastings executed with no element of trial at all. Clearly, he must have decided to take the throne himself by then. Hastings would support him against the Woodvilles, but not in disinheriting the heir of Edward IV, and could be as dangerous an enemy as he had been a useful ally. Gloucester then forced the Queen Mother, in her sanctuary, to hand over her other son, the Duke of York. The coronation was postponed indefinitely. On the 25th, Gloucester had Rivers, Grey and Vaughn executed without trial.
On 22 June, allegations were read out in London that Edward IV was illegitimate, not the son of Richard of York. Given this, his sons could not rule. Unfortunately for Gloucester, hardly anyone believed it5. Another allegation was advanced soon after, this time that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid, because Edward had been precontracted to another woman. Precontracting was a legal agreement to marry, and was considered legally binding. If there had been a precontract, the marriage was indeed invalid. Whether or not there was, few believed it, given the earlier allegation of Edward IV's illegitimacy, and the convenient timing of the allegation.
None of this mattered in the short term however. On 25 June, Parliament asked Gloucester to take the throne. Next day, he accepted. The reign of Richard III had begun. He was crowned on the 6 July. The deposed Edward V and his brother York were not seen again, and, by September, a rumour was spreading at home and abroad that they had been murdered.
The truth of the fate of the Princes in the Tower is really not the point here. The point is that many believed Richard had had them murdered. This, not surprisingly, made him very unpopular. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind what Richard had definitely done. He had deposed a helpless, innocent, boy. This boy was his own nephew, who was in his care, and he himself had insisted on being Edward V's protector. He had committed crimes in his seizure of the throne, murdering Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughn6. With these acts, Richard had changed everything. Disenchanted Yorkists and Woodvilles began joining up with hardline Lancastrians. The Wars of the Roses were back on.
The Beauforts and the Twdwrs
The Lancastrians may have had a resurgence, but who could be their champion? The royal line of Henry IV was extinct. The only answer was to look at the other marriages of the line's founder, John of Gaunt, and rally behind the heir of one of those lines.
Gaunt had married three times, the old Lancastrian line being descended from the first marriage. The heirs of the second were kings in Spain, and nobody wanted them to rule England. That left the third marriage, which was to a woman called Katherine Swynford. The children of this marriage were, unfortunately, born before their parents had married but they had been legitimised by Parliament with the surname of Beaufort. Henry IV had in fact passed an act barring them from the throne, but this was probably unconstitutional. Henry VI had certainly ignored it when he considered the Duke of Somerset, a Beaufort, for his heir. By 1483, the Beaufort claim lay with a woman called Margaret Beaufort. She, however, was prepared to stand aside for her son, Henry Twdwr.
The Twdwrs were a family who had come out of nowhere to great significance. They were squires from Snowdonia, and claimed descent from a 7th Century king, Cadwallader. Whether or not this is true, it is certain that Owen ap Meredydd ap Twdwr arrived at the court of Henry V early in his reign. A Welshman with no surname, the English at court used his grandfather's first name as a surname for him, and it stuck. This handsome youth fought well on Henry's campaigns in France and entered the King's bodyguard. There, he got to know Queen Katherine. There was said to be an instant bond between the two. When Henry V died, the two eloped, and were secretly married.
The marriage was a scandal, but, after Katherine died, Henry VI looked after his stepfather, and the half-brothers the marriage gave him. Edmund became Earl of Richmond, and Jasper, Earl of Pembroke. From this position, Edmund married Margaret Beaufort. She was 13, and Edmund impregnated her at the first opportunity, to strengthen his hold on her inheritance. Just as well, as he died of plague three months later. Jasper looked after his sister-in-law, and nephew, when he was born. Henry Twdwr, Earl of Richmond, enjoyed his uncle's protection throughout the Wars of the Roses, and became the last hope of the Lancastrians. At the start of 1483, he had been negotiating an honourable surrender to Edward IV. Now, a few months later, he saw his chance.
The Third War of the Roses
eHistory on the Wars of the Roses
The Plantagenets from the British Royal website.
eHistory's map of the Wars of the Roses