This week I continue my summary of the Wars of the Roses, a civil conflict in 15th century England between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, on which George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is somewhat based.
The First Battles
The first fight of the Wars of the Roses was the First Battle of St Albans (in Hertfordshire, north of London), which occurred on 22 May 1455. Here, Richard, Duke of York, faced the Lancastrian King Henry VI and beat him. The Yorkists found Henry in a tent, wounded and lapsed into his mental illness. Richard set himself up, once again, as regent, and gave Margaret of Anjou care of her royal husband. Richard, of course, wanted himself to succeed Henry; Margaret wanted her and Henry’s son, Edward to succeed.
When Henry recovered the next year, he relieved Richard of his post as regent and sent him back to command English forces in Ireland. The country was beset by various problems. The Archbishop of Canterbury tried to resolve the York/Lancaster feud by holding a Grand Council, but it had little long-term effect.
After an attack on foreign forces by Richard Neville – Earl of Warwick, commander of the English garrison in Calais and a Yorkist – York, Warwick and another noble, the Earl of Salisbury were summoned to London, but didn’t go, fearing arrest. When the Yorkists tried to marshal their forces the Lancastrians intervened, resulting in a series of battles in 1459 and 1460. The upshot of these fights was that York was defeated and the Lancastrians had control of England.
Shortly afterwards, Warwick invaded England from Calais and defeated Henry VI at the Battle of Northampton (in the East Midlands). Richard returned from Ireland and took the throne, to the surprise of even his own supporters. After producing genealogical evidence supporting his claim, Parliament narrowly defeated his attempt to become king, but made him Protector of the Realm and Henry’s heir with piece of legislation called the Act of Accord.
Queen Margaret took her young son, Edward, to Scotland, where she agreed to marry him to James II of Scotland’s daughter in exchange for an army.
The Duke of York returned to northern England to quell Lancastrian resistance, but he was killed at the battle of Wakefield; his son Edmund and the Earl of Salisbury were executed by the Lancastrians afterwards. The Act of Accord meant that the heir to the throne was now York’s eldest son, Edward.
Edward beat Jasper Tudor at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. An atmospheric phenomenon called parhelion or sundogs occurred, where ice crystals in the air made it seem like there were three suns. Edward bolstered his forces’ courage by telling them they were the Holy Trinity.
The Earl of Warwick was defeated at the Second Battle of St Albans by Margaret’s army. The fleeing Yorkists left behind Henry VI, who was found sitting under a tree. Queen Margaret had the seven-year-old Prince Edward decide how to execute Henry’s Yorkist bodyguards. Her forces looted the Home Counties and were denied entrance to London.
Margaret’s army moved north. York’s son, Edward, Earl of March, joined forces with Warwick and entered London, where he was acclaimed by the populace. Parliament declared him King Edward IV. The Yorkists then gathered a huge army and followed the Lancastrians north.
The Battle of Towton, near York, on 29 March 1461 was the largest of the Wars of the Roses. Both sides agreed that it would be decisive battle and 20,000-30,000 men died in the course of the fight. The Yorkists won and Henry and Margaret fled to Scotland.
Edward of March was crowned in June 1461 and ruled for ten years, during which time the last of the Lancaster-supporting nobles were defeated – often after long sieges – Henry was captured once again and held in the Tower of London, and England and Scotland resolved their differences, forcing Margaret to leave for France.
The Last Battles
The Earl of Warwick became increasingly discontented during this period. He had been arguing that the king should marry a French princess to cement an alliance with France, but Edward IV had already married Elizabeth Woodville in secret. When this became public, the Woodvilles became more favoured than the Nevilles (Warwick’s family) at court. Edward would also not allow his brothers the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Gloucester to marry Warwick’s daughters.
In 1469, Warwick, allied with the Duke of Clarence defeated Edward IV at the Battle of Edgecote Moor. Having captured the king, however, Warwick allowed him to return to London, the two men apparently reconciled. After putting down further rebellions, Edward IV declared Warwick and Clarence to be traitors and they fled to France.
Louix XI suggested that Margaret and Warwick – formerly mortal enemies – ally with each other. Margaret once again betrothed Prince Edward – this time to Warwick’s daughter Anne – and Warwick invaded England in 1470. As Edward IV was in northern England quelling rebellions, Warwick was able to easily enter London and parade Henry VI as the restored king. Warwick’s brother, the Marquess of Montagu, turned sides and turned on Edward IV – forcing Edward to flee to Holland. The Yorkists were declared traitors and Lancastrians returned from exile.
At the behest of Louis XI, King of France, Warwick declared war on Burgundy; Charles, Duke of Burgundy and brother of king Edward, lent his support to Edward IV in another invasion of England. Clarence changed sides again and Edward captured London. At the Battle of Barnet, north of London, Warwick and Montagu were killed.
Queen Margaret attempted to join her supporters in Wales, but was defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. In the fight, Prince Edward was also killed; as a result, Henry VI was murdered shortly afterwards. Edward IV was restored to the throne on 11 April 1471.
Edward died suddenly in 1483, but on his deathbed he named Richard of Gloucester Protector of England. Thus began a period of intrigue between Gloucester and Edward’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth took refuge with her younger children. Meanwhile, Edward V, the 12-year-old heir, was taken from his stewards (who were later executed) and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded Elizabeth to also give up her younger son, the 9-year-old Richard.
Richard of Gloucester had Parliament agree that Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage had been illegal and that therefore the two young princes were illegitimate. Gloucester was named King Richard III. The two boys subsequently disappeared – their fate being one of the most famous controversies in English history.
The Duke of Buckingham, who had previously supported Richard, rebelled, declaring his support for the claim of Henry Tudor to the throne. The Lancastrian Henry’s claim was tenuous, but he was descended from Edward III. Buckingham’s rebellion ultimately failed.
Buckingham’s supporters rallied to Henry Tudor’s cause. Henry invaded England from France, by way of Wales, where he was unopposed, and fought Richard III’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth Field in the East Midlands. Richard was killed during the battle and Henry became Henry VII.
He married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, and had many of his remaining rival executed – a policy that was continued by his heir Henry VIII. During Henry VII’s reign there were further uprisings, a couple involving pretenders who claimed to be heirs who were either dead or in custody, such as Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two princes of the Tower. None of them succeeded.
The Tudor period saw the end of the Medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance. The power of the nobility in England was much curtailed as rebels and claimants continued to be killed off and their military powers stripped from them. Even Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church was tied into the Wars of the Roses and their effects.
The Wars of the Roses were a period of complex intrigues, battles, claims, counter-claims, alliances and betrayals – all of which are some of the best features of A Song of Ice and Fire. There are few direct analogues between the history and the fiction. However, some incidents seem like direct parallels.
Queen Margaret’s promising of her young’s hand in marriage in exchange for military aid has obvious similarities to Catelyn Stark’s betrothal of her son Robb to one of Walder Frey’s daughters. Catelyn’s rather deranged sister and nephew, Lysa Arryn and Robert, also bear some resemblance to Margaret of Anjou and Prince Edward – especially the episode where Margaret makes the young boy decide how some Yorkist knights should be executed.
The ruthlessness of the civil war and the various executions of captured nobles is well reflected in scenes from the books such as the beheading of Eddard Stark (whose first name is surely no coincidence) by the boy king, Joffrey.
On the other hand, the land of Westeros is more monolithic than England. The Seven Kingdoms is a unique place in its world – the lands to the east, dubbed Essos, are exotic and alien; the lands to the north of the Wall are even more forbidding and strange. England, by contrast, was surrounded by various nations with similar cultures, histories and interests as itself – France and Burgundy to the south, Ireland to the west, Scotland to the north.
And, of course, there were no dragons in Late Medieval Europe.
What are your thoughts on the Wars of the Roses and their reflection in A Song of Ice and Fire? What do you think of the relationship between history and fantasy literature? Post your comments for the whole world to see.