wars of the roses, british history, tudors
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The Wars of the Roses (1455-85) marked the struggle for the English throne between the houses of York and Lancaster. After Henry VI attempted to override a power grab by Richard, Duke of York, the fighting began with the 1455 Battle of St. Albans. The Battle of Towton in 1461 helped establish Richard’s son, Edward IV, as king, though Henry eventually returned to power. Edward reclaimed the throne with his victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, but his death in 1483 begat more conflict. Henry Tudor finally stabilized the throne after defeating Richard III in 1485, his marriage to Elizabeth of York the following year uniting both houses.

These occasional, brief civil wars in England commenced in the 1450s with rebellions led by Richard, duke of York, who had been excluded from power at court by Henry VI of the house of Lancaster. From 1461 to 1471, the wars escalated into struggles for the throne between those who supported Henry and those who supported Duke Richard’s son, Edward IV. A badge used by the house of York (the white rose) and the red rose adopted by the first Tudor king, Henry VII (to symbolize his claim to be rightful heir of the house of Lancaster) led to the coining of the phrase “the Wars of the Roses” in the nineteenth century.

The wars included more than sixty weeks of large-scale campaigning in England (with considerable fighting in Wales, and some too at sea, around English-held Calais and in Ireland). The many battles encompassed both skirmishes fought by small numbers (for example, St. Albans, 1455) and large-scale engagements involving heavy casualties (notably Towton, 1461). The principal strategic objectives were London, York, and Calais (which had the Crown’s largest garrison). These places were well-fortified; but most English and Welsh urban fortifications and castles had long been neglected, and so few important sieges occurred.

Kings and elites were unaccustomed to investing financially in fortifications and standing forces for domestic conflict (hitherto a rare occurrence). Their limited personal resources, and concern not to alienate their supporters by imposing taxation and by extortion, molded the character of the wars. Lords’ kinsmen, officials, rural tenants, and clients rallied willingly for short periods; levies raised by cities, boroughs, and shires had a fixed term of service. These forces were sometimes reluctant and ill equipped: large-scale levying was hampered by its unpopularity, shortages of good recruits, and the need for rapid deployment. Both sides relied mainly on elite companies of knights and esquires-the long-term retainers of kings and nobles-and on foreign mercenary companies, such as the French and Scots who formed the backbone of Henry Tudor’s army in 1485.

Tactics were traditional: mounted troops mostly fought on foot. The use by opposing sides of English longbowmen famed for their skill reduced the effectiveness of archery. Field artillery was often deployed, and companies of hand-gunners occasionally, but neither apparently to decisive effect. The social and economic impact of war was reduced by the shortness of campaigns (counted in weeks) and by the general concern of leaders to keep or win the support of civilians: the poor discipline of the Lancastrian army victorious at St. Albans (1455) produced crucial opposition in London to its entry into the city.

As civil conflicts, the Wars of the Roses were notable in that they did not produce widespread destruction and economic recession. The participants lacked the necessary muscle for prolonged warfare and could only have developed it, or resorted to terror tactics, at the expense of alienating public opinion. Attempts to revive dynastic rebellion against Henry VII, after his victory over Edward IV’s brother Richard III at Bosworth Field (1485), were thwarted by the lack of convincing Yorkist candidates for the throne and by Henry’s effective spy service and international diplomacy. Discontent was damped down by his use of revitalized Crown revenues to buy off potential opposition and to run a magnificent court, which attracted service to the monarch and propagandized the ethic of loyalty to the Crown.

The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.