12 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses were the civil wars fought in England and Wales between the Yorkist and Lancastrian dynasties between 1455 and 1485. Though historians can’t agree on precisely when and where the conflicts concluded, the general consensus is that the Wars of the Roses ended with the battle of Bosworth in 1485, when Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII, the first Tudor king) defeated and killed Richard III...

The battle of Towton during the War of the Roses, 1461. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But, argues historian Matthew Lewis, the roots of these dynastic civil wars went deeper and the branches reached further than this 30-year timeframe suggests. Here, writing for History Extra, Lewis shares 12 lesser-known facts about the Wars of the Roses…


Jack Cade’s 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?


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.

Henry VI, son of Henry V, king of England from 1422 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471, c1450. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Henry VI, son of Henry V, king of England from 1422 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471, c1450. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.


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.

Pope Pius II, who sent Bishop Francesco Coppini of Terni to England as a papal legate in 1459, pictured in c1459. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Pope Pius II, who sent Bishop Francesco Coppini of Terni to England as a papal legate in 1459, pictured in c1459. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

Bamburgh Castle in Bamburgh, Northumberland, c1965. (Photo by Lambert/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

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.

The battle of Barnet, 1471 – the death of Richard Neville, 16th earl of Warwick
The battle of Barnet, 1471 – the death of Richard Neville, 16th earl of Warwick. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

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.

Matthew Lewis is the author of The Wars of The Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy (Amberley Publishing, 2015). To find out more, click here.


This article was first published on History Extra in 2015