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The First War of the Roses

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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 start of the First War of the Roses, the Yorkist faction wanted to rescue Henry VI from bad advisors, and give good government to England. Yet the war finished with that king a deposed prisoner. This is the story of how that came to be.

The First Battle of St Albans

The army led by the Duke of York and the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick met that raised by King Henry and the Dukes of Somerset and Buckingham in the town of St Albans. What happened there was strange - more of a skirmish in the streets than a true open battle. The fighting, which only lasted half an hour, was, however, furious. The victory went unquestionably to the Yorkists. Buckingham and the King were both captured, having both suffered injuries. Best of all, from York's point of view, was that his old enemy, Somerset, had been killed in the fighting. At last, after years of threats, one had finally destroyed the other.

The captive Henry was led back to London, and York was restored as protector. Once again, York set about a reform campaign. Once again, he failed. His plans, coupled with his high-handedness, alienated many powerful men, and, in early 1456, he was again relieved of the protectorate. But he remained powerful enough to have Warwick appointed Captain of Calais. Margaret, meanwhile, had been driven by popular hostility, to leave London with Prince Edward. Henry was later able to join them. This effectively moved the Royal court to Coventry.

But the government was now in stasis, with disorder rising. A French raid was even able to burn the town of Sandwich. Warwick was funding his Calais garrison by piracy. Margaret called him to England, aiming to replace him with the new Duke of Somerset. There was a scuffle at court, and Warwick fled back to Calais. This was in 1458, and Margaret had for some time been raising troops against the Yorkists. War was about to erupt again.

War in Earnest

With Margaret and Somerset conscripting troops, the Yorkists began arming to defend themselves. York was in his Ludlow headquarters, and Salisbury in his at Middleham, some way apart. They had to join forces against the Lancastrians. Warwick managed to get from Calais to Ludlow with his troops, but Salisbury was intercepted by the Lancastrians at Blore Heath on the Welsh border. The resulting battle was one of the surprises of the war. Heavily outnumbered, Salisbury managed, by nothing more than clever tactics, to win. It was not the main Lancastrian Army that he had defeated, but it got him to Ludlow.

This proved a false dawn. The Lancastrians produced a masterstroke - reinforcements led by Henry VI himself. The Yorkists did not wish to fight the king and were heavily outnumbered. Many soldiers would not fight. The Yorkist leaders abandoned them. York fled to Ireland, and Salisbury, Warwick, and York's teenage son, the Earl of March, to Calais. The Lancastrians, meanwhile, marched into Ludlow.

The war now centred around Somerset's attempts to oust Warwick from Calais. He was singularly unsuccessful, so that Warwick was able to visit York in Ireland. Queen Margaret had been ruling England avariciously, and Warwick knew how unpopular she had become. On his return to Calais, Warwick saw off a Lancastrian fleet. The channel was now his. In June 1460, Warwick's followers captured Sandwich. A Yorkist invasion was now inevitable.

Warwick, Salisbury, March and 2000 troops landed on 26 June. Warwick was hugely popular in Kent, and the people flocked to him. By the time he reached London, he had something in the region of 40,000 men. London opened its gates. The Yorkists lords then swore that they would take control of Henry VI, and end the court party once and for all. Salisbury besieged the Tower; Warwick and March headed west, hoping to meet with York.

The Lancastrian army, led by Buckingham, aimed to stop them. The two armies met near Northampton. Young March led the attack on the royal position - apparently a risky move. But Warwick had plotted with the Lancastrian Lord Grey, who turned traitor. The Yorkists thus had no trouble getting behind royal lines and the battle was over before it had started. Buckingham was one of the few killed. Best of all, to the Yorkists, the King was now in their hands.

The Radicalisation of York

Warwick and March took Henry to London, all the time expressing loyalty to him. Soon after they arrived, the Tower fell to Salisbury. York now came back to join them. But something was strange about his progress across Wales and England. He was using the royal standard without any additions.

York had no doubt decided by now that his attempts to control the king would always unravel. He was now emboldened - he would invoke the Mortimer claim, and seek to depose Henry VI. On 7 October, 1460, York arrived in Parliament. There, he formally submitted his claim to the throne.

Even the Yorkist Earls were shocked. How could they support him now, having sworn fealty to Henry VI? The House of Lords discussed the claim earnestly. They largely preferred Yorkist rule to Lancastrian rule, but also preferred Henry to York. Moreover, deposition was just too great a step. Nonetheless, there was no doubting one thing - York did have the strongest claim. Eventually, the Lords put forward a compromise. York would be officially declared Henry's heir, and Henry would remain king for the rest of his life. So weak was Henry that he consented to the disinheritance of his own son. This was not ideal for York - after all, he was ten years older than Henry - but it was the best he was going to get.

A Paper Crown

Queen Margaret would not allow her son to be disinherited. She declared that she would march on London, and the Lancastrian lords, swelled by neutrals outraged at the settlement, gathered an army. York and Salisbury took an army north to meet it, leaving Warwick in charge of the capital. It was winter, so York and Salisbury decided to rest over Christmas in York's Sandal Castle, near Wakefield. While he was there, the greatly superior Lancastrian army gathered around Sandal Castle. York simply decided to wait for reinforcements.

Perhaps they were foraging for food, or maybe it was a trick, but York left Sandal on 30 December, 1460. Somerset's army now fell on them. The Yorkists were surrounded and cut down. York himself was killed in the battle. Salisbury was captured and executed soon after, thus joining his lands with those of his son Warwick, who was now the most powerful landowner in England. York's son, the seventeen-year-old Earl of Rutland, was murdered by the Lancastrian Lord Clifford shortly after. York's head ended up over the gates of the city that shared his name, wearing a mocking paper crown.

The Second Battle of St Albans

The Lancastrians marched south from Wakefield. Warwick, hearing of the Wakefield disaster, gathered a new army, and marched north to meet them. Warwick set up his troops in St Albans, where the Lancastrians attacked. It was clear by now that political behaviour had greatly degenerated, as no attempt was made by either side to avoid battle. And once again, it was treachery that proved decisive. The battle proved long and hard, and Warwick's ally, Lord Lovelace, held back. When he did enter, it was on the Lancastrian side.

Warwick's troops lost heart as night fell. Many fled. When all was dark, Warwick realised that to fight on would just mean getting more of his troops - and perhaps himself - killed. With as many men as he could muster, he retreated into the night. Henry VI himself was found sitting under a tree after the battle. He was now re-united with his family.

The Second Battle of St Albans had opened the road to London for the Lancastrians. It seemed as if the war was won. In fact, there were still two problems to be dealt with - getting in to London, and the fact that March, now Duke of York, was still at large.

From New Duke to New King

The Earl of March had been at his castle in Shrewsbury when he heard of the deaths of his father York and brother Rutland. Now Duke of York himself, he rallied a new army from the Welsh Marches nearby, to make his own move on London. It is just as well he did, as Jasper Twdwr, Earl of Pembroke, and half-brother of Henry VI, was leading an army to join the main Lancastrian forces. York swore to meet it.

The two armies met at a hamlet called Mortimer's Cross on 14 February, 1461. What followed was one of the bloodiest battles of the Wars of the Roses. The Lancastrians tried to attack York's army. They shattered his right wing, but the rest held firm. Eventually, York's archers made the difference. The Lancastrians broke ranks, and Pembroke fled. York captured Pembroke's father Owen Twdwr - Henry VI's stepfather - and put him to death, avenging his own father.

Warwick and his men were meanwhile fleeing from St Albans. The two Yorkist armies met up in the Cotswolds, and turned to try to get to London before Queen Margaret's Lancastrians.

Margaret was having a hard time getting in to London. The citizens feared her army, as it consisted mostly of northerners. Their pillaging in St Albans did nothing to reassure the Londoners, who kept the gates to the city firmly closed. As Margaret's troops pillaged wider, the Londoners' resolve hardened. In the end, Margaret retreated, hoping to persuade the Londoners to trust her.

And so she lost her chance. York and Warwick arrived in London on 27 February. They were allowed straight in, to a heroes' welcome. The nature of the war had changed, and the very idea of Henry remaining king was now anathema to the Yorkists. York and Warwick stated to Parliament that, by joining Margaret, Henry had violated the settlement of the previous year. This time, Parliament and the people of London readily agreed. On 3 March, 1461, the Duke of York was officially proclaimed King Edward IV.

So began the rule of the house of York. But the deposed King Henry and Queen Margaret were at large, with a formidable army. Edward IV swore that he would not be crowned until they had been truly crushed.

The Towton Campaign

On learning of their deposition, Henry and Margaret had fled to their strongholds in the north, and began gathering the biggest army they could. From London, Edward IV did the same. He left for the North on 13 March with a huge army, which grew as he progressed. It is possible that the rival armies at their greatest comprised two percent of the entire English population. The Lancastrians took a position blocking the way to York.

A series of skirmishes followed between detachments of the two armies, in one of which Edward had the pleasure of hearing that Clifford had been painfully killed by a broken arrow. But what Edward wanted was a direct battle between the two armies. On 29 March, he got his wish. On a meadow near the village of Towton, during a blizzard, took place the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil.

The Lancastrian archers opened the battle, but, blinded by snow, they usually missed their targets. The Yorkist archers had no such trouble. Realising their mistake, the Lancastrians charged. The Yorkists responded, and for two hours the carnage mounted. Only at the end of the day did Edward's army appear to be winning, and at that moment it was reinforced by troops from Norfolk. The Lancastrians broke ranks and fled. Many were cut down by pursuing Yorkists, or drowned in the nearby rivers. By the end of the battle, the road from Towton to York was covered in red snow. The death toll could have been as high as 40,000.

Henry and Margaret escaped to fight another day, but were now desperate fugitives. Only the far north remained open to them. Edward had destroyed their army, and could return to London victorious. He was crowned on 28 June, 1461.

The 'Last' of Lancaster

Margaret now set about plotting foreign intervention to fight the war, allying with France and Scotland. The Scots invaded in late May, but were defeated by Warwick. Edward, meanwhile, set about capturing Pembroke's castles in Wales, so that by the end of the Year, only Harlech remained in Lancastrian hands.

In 1462, Margaret had arranged a French invasion. Edward learned of this, and arranged a fleet to meet it. King Louis seemed quite half-hearted in his support, only sending a token army. Margaret landed in Northumberland. At first, she had some success, but Warwick soon retook the castles she seized. The biggest threat was a Scottish invasion, so Warwick had needed the castles intact. It was diplomacy, rather than force, that enabled him to retake them.

Edward adopted a policy of wooing his old enemies, to freeze Margaret out. He certainly appeared to have converted Somerset, who entered London alongside him in February 1463. Edward also arranged meetings with Burgundy and France.

At this point, treachery by Sir Ralph Percy enabled the Lancastrians to retake the northern castles. The Scots invaded. Warwick beat them back, and Edward planned an invasion. Before setting off, though, he changed his mind. He would not bother with the Lancastrian strongholds before he had isolated them diplomatically.

The treaty with France was arranged to last until October 1464. Meanwhile, Lord Montagu was sent north to collect Scottish envoys to take to York. In late April, 1464, in the extreme north of England, he was attacked by forces under the traitors Percy and Somerset. Montagu won, and Percy was killed. By the time Edward arrived in York, Montagu had won again, this time defeating and capturing Somerset at the battle of Hexham on 15 May. Somerset was executed soon after, and a grateful Edward then made Montagu Earl of Northumberland.

The treaty with Scotland was signed on the 1st of June, with a three-year truce. Northumberland was now able to deal with the three Lancastrian castles. By the end of the month, all had fallen. Margaret and Prince Edward escaped back to France. Henry stayed in hiding in safe houses in Northern England, but was betrayed in July 1465, and taken to London, a prisoner in the Tower.

Only Harlech castle, in north-west Wales, remained in Lancastrian hands. A gigantic place, it in fact held out until 1468, but by that stage, things hardly mattered. With the capture of Henry VI, the first War of the Roses was in reality over. By the time Harlech fell, though, clouds of a second war were already gathering.

Further Reading:

eHistory on the Wars of the Roses

The Plantagenets from the British Royal website.

eHistory's map of the Wars of the Roses

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