As George R R Martin’s fortunes continue to wax due to the popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV series based on it, Game of Thrones, I thought I’d take a look this week at one of the main inspirations behind the epic fantasy story: the Wars of the Roses.
The Wars of the Roses were a series of conflicts in the late 15th century over the succession to the throne of England. They were fought between the houses of Lancaster and York, the eventual winner being the House of Tudor, a branch of the Lancaster family.
Houses and Roses
The House of Plantagenet was the ruling dynasty of England from the 12th century to the 15th century. It was a French family, originating in Gâtinais and Anjou. Its empire, the Angevin Empire (‘Angevin’ is a Victorian coinage), comprised, at one point, western France, the whole of England and eastern Ireland. There were fifteen Plantagenet monarchs of England, including John (who signed the Magna Carta), Henry V and Richard the Lionheart.
The House of Lancaster was a branch of the Plantagenet family. After the death of the first Duke of Lancaster, Edward III (Plantagenet) made his third surviving son, John of Gaunt – a man whose marriage to Blanche of Lancaster had made him a wealthy landowner – the next Duke of Lancaster. The house provided three kings of England: Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. Although Lancaster is a city in north-west England, Lancastrian land was held in Gloucestershire, North Wales and Cheshire.
The House of York was another branch of the House of Plantagenet and also gave England three kings: Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III. The first Duke of York was another son of Edward III, the fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley. Later Yorks were able to claim a line of descent from Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III’s second surviving son, thus giving the house a legitimate claim to the throne of England. York itself is a city in Yorkshire, but York lands were spread throughout England and the Welsh Marches.
The House of Tudor was descended from the House of Lancaster by the maternal line and illegitimate offspring. Henry Tudor became Henry VII and married Elizabeth of York, uniting the two families of York and Lancaster. His second son succeeded him to the throne, becoming Henry VIII, whose daughter, Elizabeth I was the last Tudor. The house originated from Anglesey in Wales, but also owned Richmondshire located between Lancaster and York in the north of England.
The name ‘the Wars of the Roses’ appears to have been coined by Sir Walter Scott, 19th century novelist. The roses – the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York – are the badges we associate with each family, but they may not have been used often at the time. Livery badges of each soldier’s respective lord would have been used – Richard III’s, for instance was a white boar.
When Henry Tudor ascended to the throne at end of the civil war he adopted the combined red and white of the Tudor Rose to symbolise the union of the two families, which has been used by English monarchs ever since.
Background to the Wars
Edward III, ancestor of all the claimants to the throne of England in the Wars of the Roses, ruled England from 1327 to 1377, making him one of England’s longest-serving monarchs. He was a successful king, overseeing the development of government and initiating the Hundred Years War against France, gaining much French territory in the process. He lived so long that he was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II.
Richard II’s father was Edmund, the Black Prince, who died when Richard was nine. The following year, Edward III also died. Councils of nobles ruled for Richard II in his early years, and his later reliance on certain noblemen caused unhappiness amongst others, who then took control of the government. Later still, Richard, having taken back control, exiled or executed these men.
When his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster died, Richard disinherited John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. Henry invaded England from exile in 1399 and was able quite easily, with growing support amongst the nobles, to seize and depose Richard II, making himself Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king. Henry’s claim to the throne was not cast-iron, as he was descended only from Edward III’s third surviving son. He quickly faced rebellions and died in 1413.
Henry IV was succeeded by his son Henry V, who successfully continued the Hundred Years War (immortalised in Shakespeare’s play bearing his name). Henry faced the Southampton Plot during his reign, aimed at putting Edmund Mortimer, another descendant of Edward III, on the throne; this plot failed when Edmund told Henry about it.
Henry V died suddenly in 1422 and was succeeded by his baby son, Henry VI. Henry’s regents were unpopular, losing a lot of land back to France. Henry also suffered from mental illness that incapacitated him for periods and allowed the nobles to vie against each other to take over the running of the country. These noblemen included the Duke of Gloucester, popular with commoners and who was arrested for treason and died in captivity; also, the Duke of Somerset wanted to sue for peace with France; the Duke of York, lieutenant of the English forces in France, wanted a stronger war effort.
Henry was weak and granted much power and lands to the Lancastrians. After another bout of mental illness, Richard, Duke of York became regent and imprisoned Somerset and other Lancastrians. When the king recovered, his queen, Margaret of Anjou, headed the Lancastrian fight back, forcing York out of the court.
Richard of York, in fearing that he would be arrested for treason, made the suspicion a reality by marching on London with an army in 1455. This resulted in the First Battle of St Albans, the opening battle of the Wars of the Roses.
Next Time, On Elements of Fantasy
Next week I’ll give a summary of the Wars of the Roses themselves and their outcome.