Historians cannot refer to the Wars of the Roses as a ‘civil war’. They were a series of private battles fought between private armies financed by soldierly aristocrats, roughly divided into two factions – the houses of Lancaster and York. They were territorial in that the lords, having chosen which side to join, used the resultant conflicts as a Heaven-sent opportunity to increase their already considerable lands and the castles built on them.
The wars were fought for roughly thirty years between 1455 and 1485. It was supreme power – in the shape of the English throne – that caused the bitter conflict between Edmund Beaufort (1406 – 1405) Duke of Somerset, of the House of Lancaster . . . and Richard, 3rd Duke of York.
Beaufort and York both descended from Edward III, though the Beauforts were issue of Edward III’s once-time mistress, Swynford, who became his third wife. The Lancaster badge (or crest, something to be carried into battle) was a red rose. The badge of York was the white rose.
Beaufort was a follower and supporter of the sickly King VI (son of the winner of Agincourt, Henry V, famous in Shakespeare as ‘Prince Hal) and Margaret of Anjou. The Duke of York, a fine fighter but notoriously unscrupulous, dissatisfied with his vast northern lands, was certain he had a better claim to the throne than Beaufort.
In 1455 Richard Duke of York fought the First Battle of St. Albans, in and around ancient streets (Watling Street) and houses still standing in that attractive, originally Roman city in Hertfordshire. This was merely the beginning of a series of assaults, assassinations, decimations, sieges, open and ‘guerrilla’ type warfare conducted without quarter by either side.
Richard of York was killed during the Battle of Wakefield (1460), and Henry VI’s supporters went on to win another victory at the Second Battle of St. Albans, fought around the famous Abbey, even among the Roman remains at Verulaneum. The distraught citizens of the town thought their homes might go up in smoke, while almost the entire nobility of England fought with lance, sword, dagger, bow and arrow and a consummate quantity of cruelty. It was February, 1461.
Prominent in the fighting was Richard of York’s brave, handsome, tall (6 foot 4 inches) son and heir Edward, who took advantage of Lancastrian hesitancy to gain the throne itself one month later, as King Edward IV, first Yorkist King of England. By now almost all of England had been dragged into the fighting, and the country more resembled Chicago of the 1920s than medieval England. Each great chief (or mobster) had assembled armies of paid followers by making offers that could not be refused: “Either you bring thirty men with you and fight, or I cut your throat and kill your wife and children!” Chivalry, in its Arthurian sense, was not much present in the Wars of the Roses.
In 1470 however, a Lancastrian invasion was successful, using French, German and Flemish mercenaries added to those Englishmen who still propped up the cause, and the weak, pious Henry was restored (briefly) to the throne as Henry VI. Real power, notwithstanding, remained in the hands of one of those knights whose name rings down through the ages, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as The Kingmaker. This clever, ruthless man used his extensive knowledge of war and his machievelian temperament, to rule England through pathetic Henry VI and his fiery wife, Margaret of Anjou. Poor Henry was more interested in books and study than pennants and swords, preferring to found schools (Eton) and colleges (King’s). He was murdered in prison in 1471.
Back from temporary exile came Edward, and won the Battle of Barnet (April, 1471) in a mist. The Earl of Warwick was killed in this appallingly bloody clash. The armies moved west, and met again at Tewkesbury, where thousands of hired mercenaries, most of the Lancastrian leaders (knights, barons, earls etc. and their retainers) were cut down. Some tried to take refuge in the cathedral, but were followed inside by a vengeful Edward accompanied by his brothers Clarence and Richard (later to become that victim of a bad press Richard III), and cut down amid the aisles and pews of that sacred place. Among those killed was a teenaged son of Henry VI, Prince Edward. It was May, 1471.
Thus Edward regained the throne, but his womanising and tremendous appetite for food and drink brought him an early death (1483); he was forty-one. His two sons were kept in the Tower by order of the new King Richard III. They never left the Tower alive, starting the London rumour that ‘their wicked uncle’ had had them murdered. Though no documentary evidence exists for this accusation, moral and popular evidence has promoted Richard III as ‘the murderer of his own nephews’ for most historians ever since. The fact is that the sons of Edward IV disappeared in the Tower. William Shakespeare, Thomas More, the Tudor historians, A.L. Rouse etc. tell us that they were smothered in their pillows. 200 years later two skeletons of youths were found buried under a stairway.
It is up to the intelligent student of History as an exact science to decide for whom it was most beneficial that the two princes (one of them was actually Edward V) should vanish – Richard III or Henry Tudor? A sinister conjecture has it that the Duke of Buckingham was probably not too far away from the Tower when the princes disappeared so conveniently. Richard was confident anyway, as his two nephews had been found to be illegitimate – his brother had been very busy among the ladies of the Court – young Edward and Richard represented no threat to him.
In 1485, after a very short reign, Richard died fighting to the last at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The victor was a Welsh bastard called Tydder, who gained the throne as Henry VII. Thus the dynasty of the Plantagenets came to an end, and the bloody dynasty of the Tudors began. Similarities with the Chicago gangster era became even stronger under the Tudors. First off the mark was Henry VII himself, who set about quietly murdering any remaining scions of the Houses of Lancaster and York, and himself married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York. Tudor founded an effective secret service, and seriously reduced the power and wealth of the barons of England, almost all of whom had chosen one side or the other during the Wars of the Roses, which were now effectively over.
Henry’s son Henry VIII started handsomely and well, but soon became a tyrant only equalled by Ivan the Terrible, and later Josef Stalin. He married six times, and had two of his wives executed with the axe. He died of gout and secondary syphylis. His daughter Mary, known as Bloody Mary, was so deluded by her religion she caused the death (mostly by burning) of thousands of ‘heretics’. His second daughter Elizabeth never married, caused King Felipe II of Spain a lifetime of headaches, and by her death without marriage forced England to accept James VI of Scotland as James I of England (a bisexual with untrustworthy favourites), creating the United Kingdom, and a line of Stuart Kings, none of whom was much better than he should be. In turn these Scotsmen led England to be ruled by a collection of Hanovarians, the first of whom was quite unable to speak English.
None of these disasters would have happened if Richard III had not been usurped by Henry Tydder, and had been allowed at least twenty years occupancy of the throne of England. But, that, as they say, is History.