The 15th-century civil war known as the Wars of the Roses is rightly regarded as one of the most complex and unquestionably captivating periods in European history. It was a three-decade long, destructive conflict that tore the upper echelons of the English nobility apart in a manner not witnessed since the Anarchy in the mid-12th century, that equally fierce war of succession between Empress Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois.
Starting with the very first skirmish, fought fiercely through the narrow streets of St Albans on 22 May 1455, through to the bloody battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485, the Wars of the Roses have long become renowned for the deadly feud between the houses of York and Lancaster, the white rose and the red, driven apart by unshakable enmity and unrepentant hatred. On closer inspection, however, it could be argued the conflict largely stemmed from the rivalry between the heads of the houses of York and Beaufort, with Henry VI, the Lancastrian king, just a witless onlooker.
By 1450, several prominent families jostled for supremacy at the apex of English society, including the Nevilles, Percys, Staffords, Bourchiers, Courtenays and Hollands. The two most prominent figures, however, were the heads of the houses of York and Beaufort – Richard, Duke of York, and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. The breakdown in relations between the pair is a story of jealousy and ambition between implacable enemies, one which played a significant role in dragging England into a horrific civil war.
Richard, Duke of York
The respective rises of York and Somerset was surprising, given the differences in both men’s upbringing, but nonetheless the great rivals grew to harbour the same all-encompassing ambitions. Richard of York had an illustrious lineage, descended from Edward III twice over through the great king’s second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence (though in the female line) and fourth son Edmund, Duke of York. It was a pedigree that arguably provided York with a superior claim to the throne than the incumbent Lancastrian dynasty, themselves descended from Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt (albeit crucially in the direct male line).
Born on 21 September 1411, York’s early life was tainted by his father’s execution for treason by Henry IV when he was three, although he subsequently benefited as heir from the demise of his paternal uncle Edward, Duke of York, in 1415 and his maternal uncle Edward Mortimer, Earl of March, in 1425. When he reached 21 in 1432, Richard came into full custody of his inheritance, an array of titles that included the Duchy of York as well as the Earldoms of Cambridge, Ulster and March. Fully expecting a career in front-line politics, York was instead deployed to France in 1436 to serve as lieutenant, a tenure which finally expired in 1445. Having been deprived his lucrative post overseas by the king’s failure to renew his lieutenancy, York returned to England where he soon grew outspoken against the plans of Henry VI and his chief councillor William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, to attempt peace with France. As a result, York was appointed lieutenant of Ireland in 1447, a position intended to remove him from the political scene.
Richard Duke Of York, c 1450. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Departing in June 1449, he wouldn’t remain across the Irish Sea for long. The following year, widespread anger at the loss of Normandy and growing political unrest created a volatile situation in England which manifested itself in the brutal extrajudicial executions of Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, and the Duke of Suffolk. In June 1450, a popular uprising led by a shadowy figure named Jack Cade caused further disarray throughout the land, prompting the celebrated return of York to the mainland in September, assuming the mantle as champion of the common man. It was a return that set him directly against the man who had replaced Suffolk as the king’s second-in-command: Edmund Beaufort.
Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset
Unlike York, Somerset could not boast of a considerable inheritance and a collection of noble titles, but he did share descent from Edward III. The Beauforts were an illegitimate brood born to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and a third son of King Edward. When Gaunt’s eldest legitimate heir, Henry of Bolingbroke usurped the throne in 1399 to become Henry IV – the first Lancastrian sovereign – his Beaufort half-siblings, who had been retrospectively legitimised more than two decades after their birth, rose with him.
Edmund’s father John Beaufort, one of Henry IV’s half-brothers, had been raised to the earldom of Somerset in 1397, a title which passed to his own heir Henry after the first earl’s death in 1410 and consequently to his second son John after Henry’s premature demise in 1418. The younger John Beaufort spent most of his life in French captivity after being caught after the battle of Baugé in 1421, with his younger brother Edmund overseeing the family interests back in England.
The younger John Beaufort, the 3rd Earl, was finally ransomed in 1438 and soon incurred the enduring enmity of Richard of York after he led an army into France in 1443, receiving men, money and resources denied to York, the lieutenant across the Channel. When John, elevated to the dukedom of Somerset that year to rival York’s status, failed to take advantage of the opportunity granted him, he returned to England and died in uncertain circumstances the following year, leaving Edmund to once again pick up the pieces. The seeds of discord between York and the Beauforts had, however, already been sown, a feud which swiftly accelerated over the next decade.
When York’s tenure as lieutenant in France ended in 1445, the lucrative post was handed to John’s younger brother Edmund, who was also raised from earl to duke of Somerset, a sign of his increasing prominence. Somerset’s spell in France, however, proved disastrous and by 1450, he had overseen the complete loss of all English possessions in Normandy, including York’s favoured fortress of Rouen, the mightiest in the region. Somerset’s reputation collapsed amongst some of the nobility in England, particularly York, although he was infallible in the eyes of the man who mattered: Henry VI.
When York returned from Ireland in September 1450, a clash with Somerset was inevitable. Quite simply, both dukes could not coexist peacefully, nor did either have any inclination to do so. York’s intention was to assume command of the government on behalf of the unstable king, replacing the fallen Suffolk and re-establishing good governance and financial probity to the realm. York, however, was politely rebuffed, only to frustratingly see Edmund Beaufort handed such authority.
Rising rivalries between York and Beaufort
In the November 1450 parliament, York’s chamberlain William Oldhall attacked Somerset as speaker of the Commons, alleging the duke was abusing his position to the “grete hurt, and trouble of the liege people of this your Reame”. Oldhall demanded Somerset “be removed from youre most noble presense, persone and estate” by 1 December, and forbidden from coming within 12 miles of the king. King Henry ignored such demands, however, which almost led to Somerset’s lynching in an event which evoked memories of Suffolk’s own extrajudicial execution six months earlier.
On the evening of 1 December 1450, the date by which the Commons had demanded Somerset be removed from the king’s presence, the Beaufort duke was feasting at the Blackfriars Priory in Ludgate when several armed soldiers attempted to break through the doors. The duke fled in panic through the priory until he reached a small boat on the nearby Thames, embarking before he could be seized by his pursuers. Somerset’s flight was so sudden he was “robbyde of alle hys goodys, and hys jewyllys were takyn and borne away”. Ten days later, his family seat at Corfe Castle in Dorset was ransacked by a Yorkist retainer, and for his protection, the duke was placed in the Tower of London. A political rivalry was rapidly descending into a blood-feud.
Matters worsened in early 1452 when York, infuriated by Somerset’s attempts to take revenge on Oldhall, raised an army to counter the “envy, malice and untruth” of his rival, who “ever prevaileth and ruleth about the King’s person”. Persuaded to stand down before he led his men into battle against a royal army, York was humiliated when forced to swear fealty to the king outside St Paul’s like a common traitor, and trudged back to his estates whilst Somerset’s supremacy continued unabated.
In October 1453, Henry VI collapsed into a catatonic stupor probably triggered by the loss of Aquitaine after 300 years in English possession, and York was recalled by parliament. With popular support amongst the commons, York was appointed Protector and Somerset was imprisoned, a state of affairs that remained in place for the next 14 months. Henry regained his senses on Christmas Day 1454, and by February 1455 Somerset had reclaimed his erstwhile position. York, meanwhile, was unceremoniously dismissed from office. His response was decisive. The duke again raised an army, but this time there would be no submission.
On 22 May 1455, as the royal household approached St Albans fronted by the king and his Beaufort right-hand, York was waiting, buoyed by the Neville father-and-son earls of Salisbury and Warwick. When the attack came, it was swift and fierce, with one man above all targeted. Edmund Beaufort was cornered underneath a pub with the sign of a castle (as an old prophecy had allegedly foretold) and despite a valiant resistance, was cut down in his prime. At last, York had emerged victorious against his great rival.
Edward IV and Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset
St Albans didn’t mark the end of the York-Beaufort rivalry. Nor could it, for following generations bore grudges of their own with good reason. Edmund Beaufort’s heir was Henry Beaufort, an impetuous youth wholly preoccupied with avenging his father’s death. In October 1456, the new Duke of Somerset, barely 20-years-old, attempted to ambush York at a council meeting, and over the next few years remained hostile towards the man he understandably held responsible for Edmund’s assassination. Political revenge for young Somerset occurred with York’s flight from England in October 1459, but physical revenge was far more satisfying. On 30 December 1460, Henry Beaufort outmanoeuvred York outside the latter’s Sandal Castle near Wakefield, and the mighty duke was surrounded and killed. York’s head was spiked upon a City of York gateway.
Just as Henry of Somerset sought and achieved vengeance for his father, so too did York’s own son, the 18-year-old force of nature that was Edward of March. Edward wasted little time, and on Palm Sunday in a snowstorm destroyed Somerset’s Lancastrian army at the battle of Towton, scattering his enemies and claiming the throne as Edward IV, the first monarch of the House of York. Somerset was attacked in Edward’s first parliament for acting with “extreme and insatiate malice and violence” in slaying the new king’s father.
After Edward’s Yorkist forces destroyed Somerset’s Lancastrian forces at Towton, he claimed the throne as Edward IV. Portrait by an unkown artist. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Thereafter, the Beaufort duke focused on reclaiming the crown for his Lancastrian kin, and campaigned with considerable vigour in the northern parts of England – capturing, losing, and capturing again, several Northumbrian castles. Edward had successfully quelled resistance throughout England but struggled to fend of his Beaufort foe in the north-east.
In a curious twist to the relentless York-Beaufort rivalry, the king extended an olive branch to the duke, who surprisingly accepted, defecting from the hopeless Lancastrian cause and attaching himself to the ascendant Yorkist regime. Somerset was pardoned, and the two erstwhile enemies became fast friends, riding and hunting together, and even sharing a bed. The king, it was said, “lovyed hym welle”. And yet, Somerset soon defected for a second time. It was a decision that would cost him his life.
On 15 May 1464, another unit of Somerset’s army was routed near Hexham in Northumberland by a Yorkist force led by John Neville, Marquess Montagu, and the Beaufort duke was executed shortly thereafter in the market square. This second-generation Beaufort-York rivalry between the sons of Edmund Beaufort and Richard of York would stumble on for another seven years, with Henry Beaufort’s resistance to Yorkist rule assumed by his two younger brothers, Edmund and John. Both were killed fighting against King Edward at Tewkesbury in 1471.
Richard III and Henry Tudor
Although the male Beaufort line ended at Tewkesbury, there would be one last flurry of activity in the three-decade-long York-Beaufort rivalry, a violent dispute unquestionably at the heart of the wider dynastic conflicts tearing the kingdom apart. This last confrontation would not feature a Beaufort by name, however, but rather one bearing the name Tudor – Henry Tudor.
Richard III controversially assumed kingship in 1783. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Richard III had controversially assumed kingship in the aftermath of the political machinations of 1483, a rise which divided the alienated household of his brother Edward IV. Those who didn’t support Richard’s alleged deposing of Edward’s young namesake heir, the 12-year-old Edward V, and 10-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, elected to flee abroad to Brittany, where they sensationally proposed Henry Tudor as an alternative king, with the added provision he married Edward’s daughter Elizabeth of York. Henry’s claim was slight, and derived from his mother Margaret Beaufort, the niece of Edmund Beaufort and cousin of Henry Beaufort, those erstwhile foes of the Yorks. Although Tudor by name, Henry unquestionably took considerable pride in his Beaufort pedigree. He was successful in wresting the throne from Richard at the battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485, and thereafter liberally employed the Beaufort portcullis as one of his chief royal badges, arguably second only to the red-and-white union rose he devised to symbolise the union of the two warring houses.
Henry VII employed the Beaufort portcullis as one of his chief royal badges, says Nathen Amin. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The Wars of the Roses occurred for a myriad of reasons that have been explored in many histories, from the fallout arising from the deposition of Richard II, to the recriminations after the loss of France and divisive factional feuds which a weak king in Henry VI failed to quell. Throughout the 30 years of brutal warfare, however, from the first battle at St Albans in 1455 to the iconic showdown between Richard III and Henry VII in 1485, one constant remained the driving factor throughout – the deep enmity between the houses of York and Beaufort.
Nathen Amin is the author of The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Crown (Amberley, 2017)