Where history happened: the Wars of the Roses

We visit 10 places connected to the Wars of the Roses – a series of conflicts that saw England riven by revolts, murderous coups, financial collapse and full-scale battles

Bamburgh Castle. © Darren Turner | Dreamstime.com

During the second half of the 15th century, the people of England witnessed three regional revolts, 13 full-scale battles, ten coups d’etats, 15 invasions, five usurpations, five kings, seven reigns, and five changes of dynasty. Little wonder then that the Wars of the Roses – the name given to the exceptional period of instability that occurred between 1450 and 1500 – have long been regarded as one of the most compelling and, above all, confusing, periods of British history.

If there’s two facts that people know about the Wars of the Roses, it is that they pitched the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster against the White Rose of the House of York – and that they dragged on for a very long time, taking almost a century to peter out.

Fewer people will be aware that the conflict was sparked by a cataclysmic train of events in 1450 that saw England blighted by a massive slump, a government quite without credit, defeat abroad, a parliamentary revolt and a popular rebellion. It was an inability to resolve these issues over the following ten years that brought the Yorkists and Lancastrians to blows.

The Wars of the Roses are best conceived as three individual conflicts. The First War, from 1459–61, witnessed the Yorkist Edward IV (1461–83) overthrowing the Lancastrian Henry VI (1422–61). The Second War, from 1469–71, led to the restoration of Henry VI in 1470, but ended with Edward IV back on the throne in 1471.

The Third War, from 1483 until at least 1487, saw Edward IV’s son Edward V (1483) deposed by the new king’s uncle, Richard III (1483–5), who was himself defeated at Bosworth in 1485 by the first Tudor king, Henry VII (1485–1509). Enemies of the new Tudor dynasty continued to scheme until 1525 – though, in the eyes of the paranoic Henry VIII (1509–47), the threat remained until 1541.

The three principal wars consisted of lightning campaigns that were resolved quickly on the field of battle. Each of these battles bears a name, and we know roughly where they happened. Modern archaeological surveys have revealed scatterings of artefacts on the fields of Towton and Bosworth, but nothing much to see. There were very few sieges: London was threatened three times and the Tower of London taken twice. For long periods, 1461–69, 1471–83, and after 1485, most of the kingdom – all the south, Midlands, East Anglia and West Country – was at peace.

So how did the wars start? The clash between Henry VI and Richard Duke of York at Ludford Bridge in 1459 is sometimes cited as their opening act. Richard had long opposed the king but was routed at Ludford and died in 1460. However, his allies soon declared Henry – who had suffered mental illness – unfit to rule. In 1461 they replaced him with York’s son, Edward IV, and confined Henry to the Tower.

At first, Edward ruled through his elder cousin, Warwick (the Kingmaker), and then through a series of favourites. Prominent among them was William Herbert, the new ruler of Wales, whose power was soon seen as a threat to Warwick. In fact, it was largely to destroy Herbert that Warwick and Edward’s brother, Clarence, rebelled in 1469, deposing Edward and returning Henry to the throne.

But Edward wasn’t gone for long. He recovered his crown in 1471 – after destroying his enemies at Tewkesbury – and ruled for a further 12, relatively stable years. During this time, he moved between his palaces in the Thames Valley, settled on Windsor for his burial and embarked on the reconstruction of St George’s Chapel as the spiritual heart of the house of York.

He dispatched his eldest son, Edward Prince of Wales, to Ludlow Castle to govern Wales, and saw to it that his brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, became lord of the north.

This period of peace was to come to an abrupt end on Edward’s death in 1483. The king’s son and successor, Edward V, was deposed and consigned to the Tower by the Duke of Gloucester, who was himself to meet a violent death as Richard III two years later.

Richard may not have reigned long but he did have time to transfer Henry VI’s body to St George’s Chapel in a symbolic act of reconciliation with the Lancastrian line. That wasn’t enough to stop the bloodshed. In 1485, at the battle of Bosworth, Richard was killed and Henry VII (nephew of Henry VI) became the first Tudor king.

Shakespeare and almost everybody since has hailed Henry VII as England’s saviour and celebrated the battle as the end of the Wars of the Roses. In doing so, however, they have merely been regurgitating Tudor propaganda, promulgated at once to deter resistance.

In reality, Henry had to contend with a host of plots and a succession of rivals – this despite the fact that he had married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV. Their son, Henry VIII, was thus the heir of Lancaster and York, the red and the white rose.

Yet Henry VII decided not to join in death his father-in-law, Edward IV, and his uncle, Henry VI at Windsor, choosing instead to build a grand new Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey for himself. This splendidly florid structure proclaimed that the Wars of the Roses were over and that the new Tudor dynasty had arrived.

 

Where history happened

1) Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

The medieval history the Crowland Chronicle claims that the Wars of the Roses started with the rout of Ludford in 1459. Faced by Henry VI’s Lancastrian army, the Yorkists deserted their troops and fled abroad.

Ludlow Castle, near to Ludford, was the principal seat of Richard Duke of York. It was here that his elder sons, Edward (the future Edward IV) and Edmund, were brought up. When York fled, his duchess was arrested and the town was sacked.

Ludlow Castle was built by Richard’s Mortimer ancestors to contest the Welsh, and still towers above the river Teme. Wales was governed from here from 1473 in the name of Prince Edward, the future Edward V, by Henry VII’s son, Prince Arthur, and by the Council of Wales.

Ludlow’s walls, keep, chapel and apartments remain intact, but it is entirely roofless. What it also lacks now are the furnishings, hangings and other decorations that made a luxurious 15th-century palace out of a rugged fortress. 

Tel: 01584 873355
www.ludlowcastle.com


Ludlow Castle. © Denis Kelly | Dreamstime.com

 

2) Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

The royal castle at Bamburgh rears up on a rocky outcrop over the North Sea and Holy Island. Built to defend the north against the Scots, Bamburgh was one of the Northumbrian castles that resisted the Yorkists after 1461.

Several times the castles of Alnwick, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Warkworth were held against Edward IV, taken, and seized again by the Lancastrians. When the Earl of Warwick besieged the castle in 1464, his army was left starving, dispirited and sodden by the wintry Northumbrian rain.

After the Lancastrians’ final defeat at Hexham in 1462, Bamburgh fought on. The Yorkists bombarded it with their great guns and the garrison eventually surrendered. Its commander was excavated from the debris and suffered a traitor’s death at York. Only Harlech in north Wales held out.

Most of the buildings of Bamburgh Castle survive, albeit much restored. Visible for many miles around, this remains a glorious memorial both to the Scottish wars and to Northumbrian resistance to the Yorkists.

Tel: 01668 214515
www.bamburghcastle.com

 

3) Raglan Castle, Monmouthshire

Raglan Castle was the seat of William Herbert, the first Welshman to rise into the nobility after the English conquest of the country. He was the right-hand man in Wales both of Richard Duke of York and his son Edward IV. It was Herbert who captured Harlech Castle for the Yorkists and he was created Earl of Pembroke for his efforts.

The new earl made himself the greatest and richest man in Wales. Onto an existing castle, he added a prodigious tower that possessed every conceivable 15th-century mod con. However Herbert’s rise terrified the Earl of Warwick into rebellion in 1469 and, in the subsequent battle, Herbert was killed leading an army of Welshmen.

Herbert’s descendants occupied Raglan until it was slighted in the English Civil War. It now remains a splendid ruin. The great gatehouse still features impressive machicolations (through which objects could be thrown at attackers) and the great tower has large windows opening into what once was the most stately suite of rooms.

Tel: 01291 690228
www.cadw.wales.gov.uk


Raglan Castle, Monmouthshire. © Sandra Richardson | Dreamstime.com

 

4) Gainsborough Old Hall, Lincolnshire

Gainsborough Old Hall was built by Sir Thomas Burgh, master of the horse to Edward IV. He made himself the greatest man in Lincolnshire during the eclipse of the local Lancastrian lords, Welles and Willoughby.

Yet the lords made their peace with Edward and were restored. They found Burgh in their way and late in 1469 they sacked his house at Gainsborough. When an angry Edward IV threatened vengeance, they rebelled in support of the Duke of Clarence. Defeated at Empingham in 1470, Lord Welles and his son were executed, leaving Burgh in charge as the king’s man in Lincolnshire. 

Gainsborough Old Hall is the monument to his wealth, his eminence, and to civilian life at the heart of civil war. Certainly not defensible, it is a huge black-and-white, timber-framed house, now partly fronted with mellow red brick with a stone bay window and a tower.

Tel: 01684 850959
www.gainsborougholdhall.com

 

 

5) Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire

The Benedictine abbey of Tewkesbury, one of the greatest monasteries outside royal hands, was modernised by the Younger Despenser in the 1300s. Warwick the Kingmaker’s mother-in-law, Isabel Despenser, and son-in-law, Clarence, were both laid to rest here.

It was also at Tewkesbury, in 1471, that the Lancastrian army of Queen Margaret of Anjou was caught by Edward IV and decisively defeated in the fields overlooked by the abbey. Henry VI’s son, Prince Edward of Lancaster, was killed in the field or executed immediately afterwards.

The fleeing Lancastrians who took refuge in the abbey emerged when promised their lives, but were slaughtered nevertheless. Many of them were buried with the prince in the abbey church, which had to be reconsecrated.

Of the battle itself, there is little to see, but the abbey church, one of the greatest noble mausolea, was saved at the Reformation. It still contains a semi-circle of burial chapels and the marked graves, both of Prince Edward and Clarence.

Tel: 01455 290429
www.tewkesburyabbey.org.uk


Tewkesbury Abbey. © Chrisp543 | Dreamstime.com

 

6) Middleham Castle, North Yorkshire

Middleham Castle mattered much more in the Wars of the Roses than its modest size suggests. It was originally built for a vassal of the Earl of Richmond at a time when the Scottish border was much closer than it is today. Gradually the lords of Middleham eclipsed those of Richmond and came to dominate the north.

In the 13th century, the castle came under the control of the Neville family.
Middleham was home to Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury – who took part in the battles of St Albans (1455) and Ludford (1459) – and his son, Warwick the Kingmaker.

Neville’s son-in-law, Richard Duke of Gloucester ruled the north from here before usurping the throne in 1483. Richard’s only son, Prince Edward, was born at Middleham. Although Henry VII confiscated the castle, he feared rebellions from this area in 1485–9 and probably later too.

The market town of Middleham has dwindled into a village and the parish church never became the college that Richard III planned. The ancient walls and keep remain as ruins, but Warwick of Gloucester’s 15th‑century additions – at least one storey of stately apartments and domestic buildings – have disappeared.

Tel: 01455 290429
www.middlehamonline.com

 

7) St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, Berkshire

St George’s Chapel has links with four kings who ruled and fought during the Wars of the Roses. Edward IV set out to build a splendid new chapel here both for the Order of Garter and for his own burial. He completed the east end, railed off the north chancel chapel for himself, and awarded some of his favourites – including his friend and brother-in-arms, William Lord Hastings – burial here too.

Edward died before it was all finished but Richard III made use of it as well, having the saintly Henry VI moved to Windsor. Henry VII’s financial genius, Reginald Bray, completed the works and Henry himself was originally intended to be buried here.

Located within the lower castle ward, St George’s is a masterpiece of late perpendicular architecture, distinguished especially by fan vaulting throughout, plus Tudor arches, and huge windows. The choir stalls feature the coats of arms of almost every knight of the Garter.

www.stgeorges-windsor.org


St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. © Emotionart | Dreamstime.com

 

8) The Tower of London, London

William I’s great tower was built to overawe London and was the royal palace from which coronation processions progressed to Westminster. Three times during the Wars of the Roses it was besieged: by Jack Cade (leader of a popular revolt) in 1450; by the Yorkists in 1460; and by the Lancastrians under Thomas Neville (known as ‘the bastard of Fauconberg’) in 1471.

It was during the wars that the Tower acquired its sinister reputation. Henry VI perished here in 1471 – a fate shared by Clarence in 1478, Edward IV’s ally Lord Hastings (1483) and Clarence’s daughter, Margaret (in 1541).

The pretender to Henry VII’s throne Perkin Warbeck was also imprisoned here. Most famously, it was here that Richard III lodged his nephews, the two Princes in the Tower, and here surely that they perished, probably in 1483.

The Tower of London is a great concentric castle around the Norman keep fronting the river Thames. What we can see now was already there in the 15th century, and almost no buildings have been lost. Because it continued in use, however, the furnishings and decorations are of later eras.

Tel: 0844 482 7777
www.hrp.org.uk

 

9) Bosworth Field, Leicestershire

The battle of Bosworth, where Richard III was killed and Henry Tudor became King Henry VII, is traditionally hailed as the last act of the Wars of the Roses and the Middle Ages.

It was here in Leicestershire that Henry’s Franco-Scottish army, which had landed at Milford Haven in Wales, destroyed the forces of the ruling king. Probably both wanted the battle for fear that the enemy would grow stronger with time. The clash appears to have taken a decisive turn when Richard led an assault on Henry’s lines. The attackers were destroyed by troops under Sir William Stanley and the king’s fate sealed.

Yet the Wars of the Roses didn’t die with Richard – invasions, battles and executions continued for more than 60 years. The course of the battle and even its precise location is obscure. Fifteenth-century clashes leave little impression on the landscape, and for centuries historians mistakenly believed that the battle was fought at Ambion Hill.

In 2009, archaeological investigations identified numerous small finds that suggest it was fought between Dadlington, Shenton, Upton and Stoke Golding.

Tel: 01455 290429
www.bosworthbattlefield.com

 

10) Westminster Abbey, London

The great Benedictine abbey of Westminster beside the royal palace has been the setting for the coronations and burials of monarchs since Edward the Confessor. Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII were all crowned here, and Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth, took sanctuary within these walls in 1470-1 and 1483-4.

No space remained for royal burials, so Edward IV and Richard III rest elsewhere. However, Henry VII made room for himself by replacing the eastern chapel with his own great Lady Chapel. Within it he built his tomb: a mausoleum for his new Tudor dynasty separate from that of York.

The abbey church is a masterpiece of the Decorated style. The huge Henry VII Chapel develops the Perpendicular style into something distinctively Tudor, characterised by its strange pendant vaults and casement windows, unprecedented but also without sequence. The brazen effigies of Henry, his queen and mother by Torrigiano are almost the first English examples of the new Italian Renaissance art.

Tel: 020 7222 5152
www.westminster-abbey.org

Michael Hicks is professor of medieval history at the University of Winchester and author of The Wars of the Roses (Yale University Press).

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