The Wars of the Roses: the 15th-century clash of kings that heralded the dawn of the Tudor dynasty
The Wars of the Roses were the civil wars fought between the Yorkist and Lancastrian dynasties in the 15th century. Explore the conflict in full – from its root causes and who's who, through to the realities of civil war in the Middle Ages and 12 unbelievable incidents that occurred during the wars
Seen as one of the bloodiest episodes in English history, the Wars of the Roses inspired not only the quill of William Shakespeare but also the typewriters and word processors of an army of historical novelists. It was a period that saw the deaths of kings, the extinction of royal dynasties and the brutal slaughter of much of England’s nobility, but they were much more than a simple fight to the death between two royal houses.
Explore who fought, what happened and details some of the ambition, heroism, loyalty, treachery, greed and pure self-interest that lay behind this dramatic period of conflict.
Jump to each section:
- What were the Wars of the Roses?
- Wars of the Roses timeline: the three phases of fighting
- Who’s who in the Wars of the Roses?
- Why is it called the Wars of the Roses?
- When did the Wars of the Roses end?
- Who won the Wars of the Roses: Lancaster or York?
- Wars of the Roses facts: 8 realities about the clashes for England’s throne
- 12 unbelievable incidents in the Wars of the Roses
Although popularly seen as a long, dynastic struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York, the Wars of the Roses were in fact three separate wars, each with different causes, fought in the 15th-century.
Writing for BBC History Revealed, historian and battlefields expert Julian Humphrys recounts the twists and turns in the contest for England's throne...
Phase one: the ire of Richard of York
The initial conflict was caused by the inadequacies and poor mental health of the Lancastrian Henry VI of England, and the ambitions of Richard of York, great-grandson of Edward III, a leading English magnate who demanded a top role in government. This tense situation was exacerbated by rivalries among the country’s aristocratic families.
In May 1455, York and the noble Neville family attacked the royal court at St Albans, killing a number of leading Lancastrian nobles. Conflict broke out again in 1459 and, the following July, York captured the Henry VI at the battle of Northampton and then later claimed the throne for himself.
Eventually, a compromise was agreed, which allowed Henry VI to remain king, but with York installed as his heir. However, Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, refused to accept the disinheritance of her son, Edward 0f Westminster, Prince of Wales, and raised an army to fight for the Lancastrian cause. York was defeated and killed at the battle of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in December. But the crushing victory won by York’s son, Edward IV, at the battle of Towton in March 1461, effectively settled the issue in favour of the Yorkists, although occasional fighting would continue in the North East for a further three years.
Phase two: the defection of the Earl of Warwick
The second war was primarily caused by the discontent of the mighty nobleman Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’, as he’s often known, had been a supporter of Edward IV but, following the king’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Warwick saw his influence slip away. In 1469, he rebelled, briefly taking Edward prisoner. The following year, Warwick made an extraordinary alliance of convenience with his former foe, Margaret of Anjou, forcing Edward IV into exile and temporarily restoring Henry VI to the throne.
In 1471, the exiled Edward returned to England and brought his enemies to battle separately, defeating and killing Warwick at the battle of Barnet, now in Greater London, and beating Margaret at the battle of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, where her son was killed. Edward then had Henry VI quietly done away with and ruled unchallenged as Edward IV until his early death in 1483. He was succeeded by his 12-year-old son, Edward V.
Phase three: the conflict shifts from Yorkists vs Lancastrians, to Tudors vs Royals
Edward IV’s death, on 9 April 1483, took everyone by surprise. His brother Richard of Gloucester was in the north, while his heir, the 12-yearold Edward, Prince of Wales, was at Ludlow, Shropshire, in the care of his mother’s family, the Woodvilles – a house among Richard’s enemies. As the Woodvilles travelled to the capital, they were intercepted by Richard, who took charge of his nephew and arrested members of the Woodville faction. Richard of Gloucester assumed Protectorship of the Realm.
Over the following month, preparations were made for the young King’s coronation but, on 13 June, Edward IV’s old friend William Hastings, who had supported Richard against the Woodvilles, was seized and summarily executed in the Tower. Richard claimed that Hastings had been plotting with the Woodvilles against him, but it may be that Richard had already decided to make himself king and realised that Hastings would never accept the deposition of Edward V.
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On 16 June, the Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded Elizabeth Woodville to hand over her other son Richard, Duke of York, so he could attend his brother’s coronation. The two boys were then housed in the royal apartments in the Tower of London. The coronation never took place. On 22 June, it was declared that, because Edward IV had been pre-contracted to marry another woman before he wed Elizabeth Woodville, his marriage to her was invalid and the boys were illegitimate.
On 26 June, Richard assumed the throne and, ten days later, he and his wife were crowned in a lavish ceremony. But Richard’s support was limited. Many of Edward’s supporters, especially in the South, were alienated by Richard’s actions. They fatally split the old Yorkist establishment and enabled Henry Tudor – a largely unknown exile – to mount a challenge for the throne.
In 1483, many of Edward IV’s former servants rebelled against Richard III. The rising was stamped out, but dissatisfaction was rife. Richard had alienated many by favouring men in his own Northern power bloc. Further grants of confiscated rebel land and property to his supporters only added to his unpopularity. As a result, although few nobles were prepared to openly support Henry Tudor in his bid, few supported Richard, either.
On 22 August 1485, Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth, and Henry seized the throne. Two years later, on 16 June, Henry VII defeated a rebellion by some of Richard III’s former supporters at Stoke, near Newark. After some 30 years of intermittent conflict, the final battle had at last been fought.
Lancaster and York: 7 things you (probably) didn’t know about the rival houses in the Wars of the Roses
Both houses claimed the throne through descent from the sons of Edward III. Kathryn Warner shares seven facts about the families who fought the series of civil wars in England and Wales…
Who are the key figures in the Wars of the Roses?
Henry VI (1421–71)
Henry was nine months old when he succeeded his father Henry V. His adult years were punctuated by periods of insanity. He was overthrown by the Yorkists in 1461, reinstated in 1470, but then murdered in the Tower of London after the Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury.
Margaret of Anjou (1430–82)
The French wife of Henry VI, she ruled in his place during his insanity. A determined woman, she tried to exclude Richard of York from government and fought vigorously to secure the succession of her son, Edward of Westminster, until his death at Tewkesbury in 1471.
Richard, Duke of York (1411–60)
Richard was a descendant, through both his parents, of Edward III. He was the leading opponent of royal policy in the 1450s and claimed the throne himself in 1460. He was killed at the battle of Wakefield that December.
Edward IV (1442–83)
Tall, strong and popular with his men, Edward IV became Yorkist leader after his father Richard’s death at Wakefield. His victory at Towton secured him the throne. Briefly exiled in 1470, he returned to defeat his enemies at Barnet and Tewkesbury and ruled for a further 12 years before unexpectedly dying at the early age of 41.
Elizabeth Woodville (1437–92)
The widow of a Lancastrian knight, Elizabeth married Edward IV in 1464. He favoured her family, thus alienating Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’. Her sons, Edward V and Richard Duke of York, disappeared in mysterious circumstances after her husband’s death in 1483. Her daughter, Elizabeth, later married Henry VII, uniting the warring factions.
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (1428–71)
The most powerful noble in the country, Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’ helped Edward IV attain the crown in 1461. When he saw his influence being eclipsed by the Woodville family, he allied with his former enemy, Margaret of Anjou and restored Henry VI to the throne, only to be killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.
Anne Neville (1456–85)
Anne Neville married Edward of Westiminster, Prince of Wales, to cement an alliance between her father, Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’, and Edward’s mother Margaret of Anjou. After her husband’s death at Tewkesbury she married Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III) and was crowned queen alongside him in 1483.
Richard III (1452–85)
Although as Duke of Gloucester he had loyally served his brother Edward IV, on the latter’s death he ousted his nephew, Edward V, and assumed the throne. Unable to rally much support during his short reign, he was defeated and killed by Henry Tudor at Bosworth in 1485.
Henry VII (1457–1509)
Returning to Britain after years of exile, Henry Tudor won the crown at Bosworth. By marrying Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV, he united the houses of Lancaster and York. He died in 1509 when the throne passed to his surviving son, Henry VIII.
Margaret Beaufort (1443–1509)
A descendant of John of Gaunt, Margaret was married to Edmund Tudor at the age of 12. By 13 she was a widow and a mother – of the future Henry VII. She later married Sir Henry Stafford and finally Thomas Stanley, and was involved in the plot to place her son on the throne.
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The Wars of the Roses: four huge questions answered
Historian Lauren Johnson answers four of the biggest questions surrounding the Wars of the Roses...
This was a civil war fought between two roses – the household of York, which was which now has come to be symbolised by a white rose, and the household of Lancaster, which has come to be symbolised by a red rose – hence the name Wars of the Roses.
Although the title 'Wars of the Roses' only comes into use in the early 19th century, the idea of two different dynasties represented by roses does go all the way back to the 15th century.
Edward IV is initially known as the Rose of Rouen, because he was born in Rouen in Normandy and his family symbol is a white rose. And there are ballads from this time in praise of him that address him as that, and describe England as a garden with the rose being planted in it. And one of the family symbols of the House of Lancaster is the red rose.
The imagery is there, and it's picked up very early on: probably the most important person in terms of creating the idea of the Wars of the Roses is Henry VII, who has a Lancastrian claim. He marries a princess of the House of York called Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the roses, which he demonstrates by placing the Tudor rose – a combined red and white rose – everywhere.
There's a huge amount of written imagery from Henry VII's time, and particularly from when Henry VIII takes the throne, that combines these two rival bloodlines in one peaceful, lovely family.
It was in Henry VII's interests to propagate the concept of a titanic clash of dynasties in the 15th century – and for 500 years we've bought the lie, according to Dan Jones...
To keep things simple, we could say that the Wars of the Roses ended after Bosworth in 1485 when Henry Tudor takes the throne. We can say that with hindsight, because we know the Tudors go on to rule right through until 1603 with the death of Elizabeth I.
At the time, it was probably a lot less clear cut than that. We see two pretenders come and invade England – Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck – and they represent a real threat to Henry VII, which goes on for over a decade after Bosworth.
You could arguably stretch when the Wars of the Roses end right into the reign Henry VIII, because there's still a lot of Yorkists around at that time who have claims to the throne, who represent a potential rival dynasty. But with hindsight, around 1485 is when it ends.
Henry Tudor wins at Bosworth. Now, is he a Lancastrian or a Yorkist? That's the difficult question because through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, he has a Lancastrian claim to the throne. But it's absolute rubbish. It's incredibly distant. It's arguably illegitimate.
Effectively, the reason that he is considered the victor is because he is king by conquest, the same as William the Conqueror, and at the time this is seen as God shining a light on him and choosing him as the future. But Henry chooses to marry Elizabeth, a Yorkist princess, because he knows he needs the support of the Yorkists.
His children all therefore inherit both sides of the dynasty. His son Henry VIII is acclaimed as the union of these two roses, as someone who has the bloodline of the rival families in his veins. His sister Margaret goes on to become queen of Scotland and, ultimately, it's through her dynasty that the Stuarts coming to power in England and in Scotland again. She is a product of both York and Lancaster. So you could say, that ultimately peace wins.
Would the Wars of the Roses have ended in 1471 had Edward IV lived a bit longer?
It depends on your perspective as to 1483, and whether you think that Richard, Duke of Gloucester really believed that he was under threat from the Woodvilles, which is what he said was the reason for him taking control of the Princes in the Tower; whether you think he really believed that the princes were illegitimate, which again is what he said he believed; or whether you think that really it was his personal ambition that was driving things at that point. Or indeed a mixture. It's entirely possible that Richard III was responding to a perceived threat that may actually have been a bit exaggerated.
If Edward IV had lived longer, his sons would have been older by the time they were coming to power themselves. They are only 12 and nine when Edward IV dies, which again means the prospect of a child king.
Having lived through Henry VI, people were a bit anxious about that. I wonder if Richard's concern about the Woodvilles and about being supplanted, much in the same way his father the Duke of York had been so anxious about not having a hold on power in the reign of Henry VI, would have overridden everything else almost regardless.
- LISTEN: Lauren Johnson discusses the Wars of the Roses in full in this Everything You Wanted To Know episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
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They were not wars between the regions of Lancaster and York
While the first war had a regional flavour, with Lancastrian forces coming largely from the north and the Yorkists from the south and Midlands, these were not wars between rival regions and certainly not between the cities of York and Lancaster. A noble’s title often did not equate to the area in which he held land, and it's worth noting that, for much of the period, the city of York supported the House of Lancaster.
The Wars of the Roses have been long renowned as a feud between the houses of York and Lancaster – but can the conflict instead be seen as a deadly grudge between York and Beaufort? Nathen Amin invesitgates...
Although men from all over England took part in the wars, much of the country saw virtually no fighting
Rather than trying to conquer swathes of territory, armies would roam the nation gathering recruits, before seeking out their enemies. As a result, many key battles were fought on or near major routes like the Great North Road or outside big towns like York, Ludlow and London.
Sieges were far from common – the only sustained period of siege warfare took place in the northeast, after the battle of Towton in 1461, when fortifications like Alnwick and Bamburgh changed hands with bewildering regularity. The fighting there finally ended in 1464, when Bamburgh surrendered to the Yorkists. In doing so, it became the first English castle to be battered into submission by gunpowder artillery.
There were fewer than 15 months of fighting during the entire 30 years
The image of the Wars of the Roses as one long unbroken period of bitter bloodshed was partly created by later historians, done to exaggerate the evils of the period in order to contrast them with the peace and prosperity of their own age.
In fact, campaigns were usually very short, leading one contemporary writer, Philippe de Comynes, to comment that “If any conflict breaks out in England one or other of the rivals is master within ten days or less”. This may be a overstatement, but the fact remains that in more than 30 years of ‘warfare’ there were fewer than 15 months of actual campaigning in the field.
England was generally spared the destructive scorched-earth tactics employed by its men in the Hundred Years' War
At this time, men of fighting age were often forced to join an army. Towns were occasionally sacked and looted – as troops passed through an area, it was common practice to strip the settlement of supplies and cause a fair degree of destruction. Even so, fighting was more about the elimination of rivals than the conquest of territory; sieges were comparatively rare.
As Philippe de Comynes wrote: “Out of all the countries which I have personally known, England is the one where public affairs are best conducted and regulated with least violence to the people. There neither the countryside nor the people are destroyed, nor are buildings burnt or demolished. Disaster and misfortune fall only on those who make war, the soldiers and the nobles.”
Treachery on the battlefield was relatively common
At Ludford Bridge (1459), Northampton (1460) and Bosworth (1485), leaders changed sides at the last minute with disastrous consequences for their former allies. The Lancastrian armies disintegrated among bitter accusations of treachery at Barnet and Tewkesbury (both 1471), while Henry VII was concerned that he might be undone by treachery at Stoke in 1487.
Not all of those who fought were English
Nobles and knights with their retinues of well-trained and well-equipped men-at-arms formed the backbone of most armies, and both sides bolstered their forces through local levies, notably using Commissions of Array – an ancient way of drafting men for service in times of national emergency. Since the late-13th century, every able-bodied man had to have his own polearm or bow and be ready for duty at a day’s notice.
But a variety of foreign mercenaries also plied their trade during the Wars of the Roses. These included Swiss, French, Flemish and German pikemen, and specialist troops such as artillerymen and handgunners.
A contingent of Burgundian handgunners fought for the Earl of Warwick in 1461 and, ten years later, 500 Flemish handgunners fought for Edward IV. Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth was, in part, thanks to the French mercenary pikemen in his ranks. And, two years later, a large contingent of fearsome German mercenaries fought vigorously but unsuccessfully against Henry’s army at Stoke.
England’s neighbours frequently took the chance to intervene in the Wars of the Roses
Henry VI, the Earl of Warwick and Henry Tudor all received help from France during the Wars of the Roses. France’s enemies, the Burgundians, favoured the Yorkists, supporting Edward IV and later the Earl of Lincoln in a rebellion against Henry VII. The Scots turned out to help Margaret of Anjou in 1460-61 (and received the town of Berwick in exchange for their support) while the rebel army that was defeated at Stoke (1487) included a large proportion of Irish troops.
England’s neighbours were happy to play host, too: Calais (which was in English hands) was the Earl of Warwick’s base in 1460, Edward IV took refuge in Bruges in 1470 and the young Henry Tudor spent his exile in Brittany.
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Jack Cade’s 1450 rebellion rocked the Lancastrians
In July 1450, a mysterious man known as Jack Cade led a huge force of common men from Kent into London to protest against the ailing government of the Lancastrian king Henry VI. This episode is generally regarded as being outside the bounds of the Wars of the Roses, but those edges are blurred and elastic.
When Jack Cade entered the capital he struck the London Stone, which can still be seen on Cannon Street, and, according to Shakespeare, proclaimed: “Now is Mortimer lord of this city!” After this, Cade openly adopted the provocative name John Mortimer. The Mortimer line was considered by many to be senior to the Lancastrian line, since the Mortimers were heirs apparent to Richard II – so adding weight to the later Yorkist claim to the throne.
In 1460 Richard, Duke of York would trace his lineage from Edward III’s second surviving son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, whose only daughter had married Edmund Mortimer. The House of Lancaster was descended from John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son. The Mortimer Earls of March had been considered the lawful heirs of the childless Richard II before he was deposed, and the Lancastrian kings eyed them with suspicion. Was Jack Cade a son of this deposed line seeking restitution?
Many would later claim that Richard, Duke of York had arranged for Cade to use the name ‘Mortimer’ to measure the response to it. Stow’s Chronicle, a Tudor source, claimed that the object of the uprising was to place York upon the throne, and Baker’s later A Chronicle of the Kings of England called Cade “an instrument of the Duke of York”.
Cade – who was captured and fatally wounded following the failure of his rebellion – is a fascinating, elusive figure. Was he a genuine claimant to the throne, a social campaigner, or a puppet?
The Earl of Wiltshire took to his heels to protect his face
James Butler, 1st Earl of Wiltshire and 5th Earl of Ormond, was a good-looking man. So good-looking, in fact, that it hampered his performance on the battlefield.
Loyal to the Lancastrian cause, Butler rose to prominence under Henry VI and fought for the king at the first battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455. The Lancastrian forces lost to those led by the Duke of York, the Earl of Salisbury and the infamous ‘kingmaker’, the Earl of Warwick. Several Lancastrian leaders were killed and Henry VI was injured and captured, but Butler escaped.
Gregory, a resident of London who kept a detailed chronicle covering the early Wars of the Roses, quipped that Butler, then in his early thirties, “fought mainly with his heels for he was frightened of losing his beauty”. Butler wrote to the Duke of York from Petersfield to ask if he could return to the king’s side and, if not, to be allowed to retire to his estates in Ireland.
Butler was on the losing side once more at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross (February 1461) and again at the battle of Towton (March 1461), after which he was captured and executed – his looks finally lost for the Lancastrian cause.
The friar’s cannon fooled Queen Margaret’s army
The first battle of St Albans was followed by a period of peace, but it wasn’t to last long. By the autumn of 1459, Yorkist forces were massing at Ludlow in Shropshire, from where they planned to take the fight to King Henry VI’s Lancastrians again. Among those marching south to join them was an army under the Yorkist Earl of Salisbury. Yet Salisbury wasn’t to reach his destination unimpeded. Henry VI’s wife, Queen Margaret, got wind of the movements and sent a force twice the size of Salisbury’s to intercept him at Blore Heath in Staffordshire.
Against the odds, Salisbury won the day but his tired, battered column still needed to reach Ludlow. Thomas, Lord Stanley had a large force in the field within a few miles of Blore Heath, and the Lancastrian army might still have regrouped and pursued their Yorkist foes. Salisbury’s answer, according to Gregory, was to leave one of his cannons behind and pay an Augustinian friar to fire it “all that night in a park that was at the back side of the field”.
In the dark the Lancastrian army and Stanley’s force were disorientated and kept looking for a battle that had ended hours earlier. The clever ploy ensured that Salisbury reached Ludlow safely.
It is one of the most keenly studied periods in British history, and the inspiration for the ever-popular Game of Thrones. But the Wars of the Roses is still full of uncertainty, contention and debate. Dan Jones explores the top five unanswered questions…
Lord Stanley had a lucky escape
When parliament met at Coventry in November 1459 to deliver punishment for those rebels involved in the recent Yorkist uprising, a small piece of business was recorded among the rolls of the session that might have radically altered the course of the Wars of the Roses.
Following the battle of Blore Heath (September 1459) and the subsequent clash at Ludford Bridge at Ludlow (October 1459), Richard, Duke of York and his allies had been forced to flee and were all attainted, stripped of lands and titles for their treason. At the end of the parliament rolls is a call from the commons for Thomas, Lord Stanley to also be attainted for treason. According to the charge, Henry VI had summoned Stanley to Nottingham, but “Lord Stanley, notwithstanding the said command, did not come to you; but William Stanley his brother, with many of the said lord’s servants and tenants, a great number of people, went to the Earl of Salisbury, and they were with the same earl at the attack upon your liege people at Blore Heath”.
Further accusations are levelled, but Henry deferred consideration of them. Given the Stanleys’ later prominence and their part in the battle of Bosworth (1485) – playing a critical role in Henrv Tudor’s victory over the Yorkist Richard III – the landscape of the second half of the 15th century might have been very different had Henry taken umbrage in 1459.
An Italian bishop helped the Yorkist cause
Bishop Francesco Coppini of Terni played a crucial but often overlooked role in the Yorkist seizure of power in 1461. Pope Pius II had sent Coppini to England as a papal legate in 1459 to seek Henry VI’s assistance in a crusade against the Turks. His secondary mission, given him by his patron Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, was to encourage Henry to invade France.
Henry’s French queen sent the legate away with a flea in his ear and Coppini retreated to Burgundy nursing his bruised pride. On the continent, he came into contact with the exiled Yorkists at Calais. The Earl of Warwick’s silver tongue flattered the bishop’s wounded ego, promising that a Yorkist government would see his master’s aims met.
Thus Coppini enthusiastically took up their cause, landing at Sandwich in 1460 when Warwick invaded. When they arrived in London, he preached to the English bishops in York’s support and wrote to Henry VI advising that he grant the Yorkists an audience.
Coppini was present at the battle of Northampton (July 1460) when Henry VI was captured again, but when the tide turned against the Yorkists in late 1460 he was forced to flee to the continent. After defeating an army fighting in the name of, though not led by, Henry VI at the battle of Towton (March 1461) and replacing him as king, the Yorkist Edward IV sought Coppini’s return – only for Coppini to be replaced as legate.
Although Coppini accompanied the new legate, the French and Lancastrians protested against his presence and he was sent back to Rome. He had, however, played a vital role in the establishment of Yorkist government.
A double-crossing fighter was knighted for his pains
Andrew Trollope was knighted in the aftermath of the Lancastrian victory at the second battle of St Albans (February 1461). Trollope had been the leader of the Calais garrison, the only standing army in the pay of the crown and therefore the closest thing to a professional force in the kingdom. The Earl of Warwick had brought Trollope and his men to Ludlow to bolster the Yorkist force there, but it was Trollope’s midnight flit to the king that destroyed the Yorkists’ hopes at Ludford Bridge (October 1459).
Chronicles record Trollope visiting the Duke of York at Wakefield and tricking him into believing that he was returning to the fold. York’s subsequent foray out of Sandal Castle cost him his life and increased Trollope’s standing at the Lancastrian court.
At the second battle of St Albans, Trollope was prominent once more in the Lancastrian assault on the Yorkists within the town. The newly freed Henry VI had his son, Prince Edward, knight Trollope on the field, even though, Gregory reports, Trollope had trodden on a caltrop (a weapon made of two or more sharp nails or spines, placed in the ground to slow the advance of horses and human troops) during the battle and been unable to move, protesting “I have not deserved it for I slew but 15 men, for I stood still in one place and they came unto me”.
Trollope’s star was soaring, but it would fall at the apocalyptic battle of Towton (March 1461), where he was killed leading the Lancastrian attack.
The siege of Bamburgh cost Sir Ralph Grey his head
By 1464, Edward IV had been king for three years and was establishing himself, but he had not quite eradicated Lancastrian resistance. The battles of Hedgeley Moor (April 1464) and Hexham (May 1464) had seen Lancastrian rebels from over the Scottish border attack Neville envoys from Edward IV heading north. During the incursion, the Lancastrians seized Alnwick, Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh Castles. Two were swiftly surrendered after Lancastrian defeats, but Sir Ralph Grey remained at Bamburgh Castle.
After refusing to leave, Grey was issued with a grisly threat: King Edward did not want to have to damage a vital castle near to the Scottish border, and so promised Grey that the first cannon ball fired at the walls would cost his head. Each subsequent shot that damaged a wall would cost another head, working down the line of command until every man was executed.
Two guns named Newcastle and London pounded the walls. A smaller cannon named Dijon found its range and consistently fired shot directly through Grey’s apartment window. The siege was brief, and in spite of the threat the men within were spared. Sir Ralph, though, was stripped of the honour of being a Knight of the Bath and sentenced to be beheaded.
A Latin scholar became butcher of England
John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester was constable of England, responsible for the administration of the king’s justice. Tiptoft was a widely respected academic, a talented lawyer and a Latin scholar. His early career had been brimming with promise, and his star had continued to rise under the new Yorkist regime.
In 1470, while Edward IV was threatened by his brother George, Duke of Clarence and his cousin the mighty Earl of Warwick, a clutch of Warwick’s men were captured on the south coast trying to escape. Tiptoft oversaw the trials of 20 of what Warkworth’s Chronicle described as “gentlemen and yeomen”, probably representing the highest-status prisoners taken. After what was little more than a show trial, all 20 were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
To drive home the fate of those opposing Edward, all 20 bodies were subjected to further humiliation: Tiptoft ordered each of the dismembered corpses to be hung upside down. Twenty wooden stakes, sharpened at both ends, were then driven through the buttocks of the 20 corpses and the heads stuck on the end protruding from the bodies. Tiptoft was reviled, named the butcher of England, and when the Lancastrians retook the country, he found himself unable to escape their retribution. He was executed on Tower Hill on 18 October 1470.
Nibley Green was the scene of the last private battle in England
On 20 March 1470, two private armies took to the field on Nibley Green at North Nibley in Gloucestershire. One army was led by Thomas Talbot, Viscount Lisle, and the other by William, Lord Berkeley. They had been involved in a long-running dispute over an inheritance that had been stalled in the courts without a resolution for either side.
As King Edward IV’s grip on power slipped in the face of rebellion by his cousin, the Earl of Warwick, men of power began to exploit the vacuum of royal authority created by the trouble at the top. Lord Berkeley won the small battle. Lord Lisle was killed and his adversary paid for building work to the church where many of the casualties were buried.
The battle of Nibley Green was the last battle between private armies in English history, but was a symptom of the coming storm. Sieges at Caister Castle and Hornby Castle were further evidence of the breakdown of law and order.
A loyal duke rose from the ‘dead’
Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter was a perfect example of the problems created by the Wars of the Roses. The Holland family had close ties to the Lancastrian royal line. Henry was a great-grandson of John of Gaunt but had married Anne, the eldest surviving child of Richard, Duke of York and his wife, Cecily.
Henry remained loyal to the Lancastrian cause, fighting against his father-in-law and brothers-in-law. At the battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471, Easter Sunday, Holland supported the Earl of Warwick’s attempts to prevent the return of King Edward IV – who Warwick had helped to overthrow the previous year – and to preserve the throne of the newly reinstalled Lancastrian Henry VI.
Early in the fighting, at around 7am, Henry Holland was cut down. At the end of the battle he was stripped of anything of value, as the victorious forces looted the bodies littering the field. At around 4pm, as the battlefield was being cleared, Henry Holland was discovered clinging on to life. His wounds were treated and once he was well enough he took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey.
In 1475 Henry volunteered to serve during Edward IV’s invasion of France. On the return journey he drowned in the Channel amid a storm of rumours that Edward had ordered him to be pushed overboard to rid himself of another with Lancastrian blood.
The Archbishop of York was tricked out of his treasure
George Neville, Archbishop of York was a brother of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (the ‘kingmaker’).
After Edward IV’s triumph at the battle of Barnet (April 1471) – when he won back the throne, killing the ‘kingmaker’ in the process – George hid his vast wealth. He was, after all, uncertain of his future – even though he personally handed London and King Henry VI to the returning king.
In spite of his brother’s role in the expulsion of the Yorkist king, George seemed to continue in favour on Edward’s return. In 1472, George was with the king at Windsor enjoying the hunting when Edward announced that he would honour the archbishop with a visit to his manor at Moore. The excited George hurried to Moore and began recalling all of his hidden plate and finery to prepare to welcome the king, even borrowing large sums of money.
The day before Edward’s visit, a messenger delivered a summons to George to attend the king at Windsor. As soon as he arrived, George was arrested for treason. His property was seized by the king, his mitre broken and the jewels from it used to make Edward a new crown. Men were sent to Moore to recover all of the archbishop’s conveniently gathered goods.
Imprisoned at Hammes near Calais, George was later released but died in 1476 in poverty and disgrace.
A pirate earl created a king
In September 1473, John de Vere, Earl of Oxford captured St Michael’s Mount off the south coast of Cornwall. King Edward IV sent Sir Henry Bodrugan to lay siege to the tidal island fortress. Eventually, word reached Edward that each day at low tide Bodrugan was allowing the earl to leave the fortress and then return unmolested. When Oxford complained that his provisions were running low, Bodrugan had fresh supplies brought to the earl.
The king was furious and sent a squire of the body (a close personal servant of the king), John Fortescu, to replace Bodrugan. Finally, on 15 February 1474, after several engagements and after promises of pardons had lured some of Oxford’s men away, St Michael’s Mount was relinquished. Upon entering the castle, Fortescu found enough supplies to last for many more months.
Oxford was imprisoned at Hammes Castle until his escape during the reign of Richard III, when he joined the exiled Henry Tudor. He would go on to lead Tudor’s army at the battles of Bosworth in 1485 and Stoke Field in 1487 to create and defend the Tudor monarchy.
A soldier, an earl, a pirate, a prisoner, a general and a favourite of the early Tudor regime, John de Vere’s career was a perfect example of the changing fortunes of the Wars of the Roses.
This article is curated from content first published in BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra between 2015 and 2021
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