7 things you (probably) didn’t know about the houses of Lancaster and York

In the middle of the 15th century, two rival Plantagenet families – the royal houses of Lancaster and York – began a decades-long struggle for the English throne, known as the Wars of the Roses (1455–85). Both houses claimed the throne through descent from the sons of Edward III. How much do you know about the dynastic claims of the Yorkists and Lancastrians? Here, Kathryn Warner shares seven facts about the families who fought the series of civil wars in England and Wales…

A 20th-century fresco 'Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens' by Henry Payne. It depicts a scene by Shakespeare, showing Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset being challenged by Richard, 3rd Duke of York to choose between the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster. (Photo by Artefact / Alamy Stock Photo)

Writing for History Extra, Kathryn Warner – author of Blood Roses: The Houses of Lancaster and York Before the Wars of the Roses – shares seven facts about the houses of Lancaster and York…

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1

The house of Lancaster is older than the house of York

The house of Lancaster was founded almost 200 years before the Wars of the Roses began, in 1267, when King Henry III (r1216–72) created the earldom of Lancaster for his second son, Edmund (1245–1296).

An 1864 illustration depicts King Henry VI and the Dukes of York and Somerset, after York's return from Ireland in 1450. Artist James William Edmund Doyle. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The house of York was much younger, and was established in 1385 when King Richard II (r1377–99) created the dukedom of York for his uncle, Edmund of Langley (b1341). Edmund of Lancaster, first earl of Lancaster, was earl of Leicester as well, and held the lands of the earldom of Derby. His eldest son and heir, Thomas (c1277–1322), also became earl of Lincoln and Salisbury by marriage to the great heiress Alice de Lacy (1281–1348).

King Henry III (above) created the earldom of Lancaster for his second son, Edmund in 1267. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
King Henry III (above) created the earldom of Lancaster for his second son, Edmund in 1267. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
2

The first earl of Lancaster was not ‘hunchbacked’

Edmund of Lancaster, first earl of Lancaster and founder of the house of Lancaster, is often called ‘Crouchback’, but it is a myth that this means ‘crooked back’ and that Edmund was hunchbacked.

Portrait of Richard III (Getty Images

The nickname dates to sometime in the late 14th century, almost a century after Edmund’s death in 1296, and the legend that he was physically disabled was used by his great-great-grandson and heir Henry IV when claiming the throne in 1399. The story went that Edmund was in fact older than his brother Edward I (r1272–1307), but was passed over by his father, Henry III, in the succession to the throne because of his disability. As everyone (including Henry IV himself) knew perfectly well, this story was nonsense: Edmund of Lancaster (born January 1245) was five and a half years younger than his brother Edward I (born June 1239). The tale, if true, would have made all the kings of England from 1272 onwards – Edward I, Edward II, Edward III and Richard II – usurpers on the throne.

It is also often stated that Edmund of Lancaster was called ‘Crouchback’ because he went on crusade to the Holy Land at the beginning of the 1270s, and that the word ‘crouch’ really means ‘cross’ or ‘crossed’ – a reference to the cross that crusaders wore on their tunics. This seems to be simply a modern myth to explain the name. Edmund did go on crusade, but so did his brother Edward, his cousin Henry of Almain and numerous other English and European noblemen of the era – and none of them gained the name ‘crossed back’ because of it. Edmund was certainly pious and founded a religious house in London in 1293 (the Minoresses without Aldgate), but there seems little reason to suppose that he was more pious than anyone else in a very devout era.

The legend that Edmund, first earl of Lancaster was physically disabled was used by his great-great-grandson and heir Henry IV (above) when claiming the throne in 1399. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
The legend that Edmund, first earl of Lancaster was physically disabled was used by his great-great-grandson and heir Henry IV (above) when claiming the throne in 1399. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
3

A Lancaster heir spent many years at odds with Edward II

Edmund of Lancaster’s eldest son and heir, Thomas – earl of Lancaster, Leicester, Lincoln and Salisbury – spent many years in opposition to his first cousin King Edward II (1284–27), Edward I’s fourth but eldest surviving son. Thomas was chiefly responsible for the death of the king’s beloved companion or lover Piers Gaveston in 1312, and for years the two cousins marched around the kingdom with armed forces and battled for control of the English government. In 1317, Thomas even led his men onto the battlements of his Yorkshire castle of Pontefract to jeer at Edward II as he and his retinue rode past.

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(Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The king finally won their struggle in March 1322 when he had Thomas beheaded for treason outside Pontefract Castle. Thomas of Lancaster was the first English earl to be executed since William the Conqueror had Waltheof, earl of Northumbria, beheaded in 1076 (with the possible exception of Piers Gaveston, who may have been earl of Cornwall when Thomas of Lancaster and others had him killed in 1312). Thomas was treated as an unofficial saint in Yorkshire until the Reformation, more than 200 years later. Thomas fathered two illegitimate sons but had no legitimate children from his marriage to Alice de Lacy, and his heir was his younger brother Henry (c1280–1345), earl of Lancaster, followed by Henry’s son Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster (c1310/12–61).

Richard III's Yorkist troops fight Lancastrians in the battle of Bosworth, during the Wars of the Roses, 22 August 1485. King Richard was killed by Henry of Richmond, who became Henry VII. Engraving after Philip James de Loutherbourg. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

4

The first duchess of Lancaster was the first English duchess in history

Isabella Beaumont (1315/18–c60) was the first duchess of Lancaster, and in fact was the first English duchess in history.

The title of duke was first given to Edward III’s eldest son, Edward of Woodstock – who was made duke of Cornwall in 1337 – and secondly to Isabella’s husband, Henry of Grosmont, who was made the first duke of Lancaster in 1351. Edward of Woodstock did not marry until 1361, so for ten years Isabella Beaumont was the only duchess in England. Duchess Isabella was the grandmother of the first Lancastrian king of England, Henry IV (b1367, r1399–1413), and was the great-granddaughter of John of Brienne (d1237), emperor of Constantinople, king of Jerusalem and claimant to the throne of Armenia. Even though she was the first duchess in English history, Isabella Beaumont is oddly obscure and even the date of her death is not known for certain. She was still alive when her second daughter, Blanche of Lancaster, married Edward III’s son John of Gaunt in May 1359, but was already dead when her husband, Duke Henry, died in March 1361.

Elizabeth Woodville - Getty Images
5

John of Gaunt was the son, uncle and father of a king

John of Gaunt (1340–99), second duke of Lancaster and earl of Richmond, Lincoln, Leicester and Derby, was the son of a king, uncle of a king, father of a king and grandfather of three kings.

He was the fourth (but third surviving) son of King Edward III (b1312, r1327–77) and Philippa of Hainault (c1314–69), and the son-in-law of Henry of Grosmont and Isabella Beaumont, duke and duchess of Lancaster.

John of Gaunt (1340–99) was the son of a king, uncle of a king, father of a king and grandfather of three kings. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
John of Gaunt (1340–99) was the son of a king, uncle of a king, father of a king and grandfather of three kings. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Richard II, who succeeded to the throne as a 10-year-old on Edward III’s death in June 1377, was the only surviving legitimate son of Gaunt’s eldest brother, Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales (1330–76). Richard was deposed by John of Gaunt’s son and heir Henry of Lancaster (also often called Henry of Bolingbroke) in September 1399, and Henry became King Henry IV. So Gaunt was the grandfather of Henry V, the victor of the battle of Agincourt in 1415, and the great-grandfather of Henry VI.

John of Gaunt’s eldest daughter, Philippa of Lancaster (1360–1415) married João I, king of Portugal, in 1387, and was the mother of Duarte I, king of Portugal. John’s third daughter, Katherine or Catalina of Lancaster (1372/3–1418), his only surviving child from his second marriage to Constanza of Castile, married her cousin Enrique III of Castile in 1388 and was the mother of Juan II, king of Castile (1405–54); the grandmother of Isabel the Catholic, queen of Castile (1451–1504); and the great-grandmother of Henry VIII’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536).

An effigy of Henry III, king of England between 1207 and 1272, on his tomb in Westminster Abbey. (Angelo Hornak/Corbis via Getty Images)
6

The first duchess of York and the third duchess of Lancaster were Spanish sisters

Constanza (b1354) and Isabel (born c1355) were the daughters of Pedro ‘the Cruel’, king of Castile (b1334, r1350­–69) and his mistress Maríade Padilla. Pedro was betrothed to Edward III of England’s second daughter, Joan of Woodstock (b1334), but she died of plague near Bordeaux in the summer of 1348 on her way to marry him, and in 1353 he wed the 14-year-old French noblewoman Blanche de Bourbon instead. Pedro repudiated Blanche within days of their wedding and imprisoned her, and went off with Maríade Padilla.

The White Princess 2017

The unfortunate Blanche de Bourbon, queen of Castile in name only, died in 1361 after eight years in captivity, and Pedro’s daughters with Maríawere legitimised. Pedro was deposed and killed by his half-brother Enrique of Trastámara in 1369, and Constanza and Isabel moved to England and married Edward III’s third and fourth sons, John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley, in 1371 and 1372. Isabel, duchess of York, died in December 1392 and was the great-grandmother of the Yorkist kings Edward IV (b1442, r1461–70 and 1471–83) and Richard III (b1452, r1483–5).

7

Constance of York gave birth to an illegitimate daughter

Constance of York (c1374/6–1416), the only daughter of Isabel of Castile and Edmund of Langley, first duke of York, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter in about 1405.

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Illustration of Isabella of France. From the book ‘Our Queen Mothers’ by Elizabeth Villiers. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Constance was married as a child in 1379 to Thomas Despenser (b1373), heir of the powerful Despenser family and a descendant of King Edward I. Thomas was a staunch ally of Richard II and was summarily beheaded in Bristol in January 1400 after taking part in the Epiphany Rising, a plot intended to restore the deposed Richard II to the throne and to kill the new king, Henry IV. Constance gave birth to her daughter Isabelle Despenser, the Despenser heir, six and a half months after her husband’s death.

Some years later, Constance had an affair with the young earl of Kent, Edmund Holland (1383–1408), which resulted in the birth of an illegitimate daughter, Alianore Holland, in about 1405. In 1431 Alianore, by then married to James Tuchet, Lord Audley, claimed to be the rightful heir of her father, who died in 1408 without legitimate children, a claim firmly rejected by the earl’s sisters and their children. Alianore’s legitimate half-sister Isabelle Despenser (d1439) married firstly the earl of Worcester, and secondly the earl of Warwick; her first husband (c1397–1422) was named Richard Beauchamp, and her second husband (1382–1439) was also named Richard Beauchamp. Via her second marriage, Isabelle Beauchamp née Despenser was the grandmother of Richard III’s queen, Anne Neville (1456–85).

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Kathryn Warner is a historian and the author of Blood Roses: The Houses of Lancaster and York Before the Wars of the Roses (The History Press), out now.