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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Introduction: Why did the Wars of the Roses happen?


What did give rise to that series of upheavals in the 15th-century known to history as the Wars of the Roses? Why should some disputes, admittedly very bitter, have led to a civil war which, whilst interspersed with long periods of uneasy peace, included no less than 14 great battles and a number of lesser engagements, all within the space of 32 years?

In one sense at any rate that question is easy to answer. The 15th-century was a rough and brutal age where disputes, whether between Kings, Magnates or even common folk were settled, not by Courts or Arbitrators applying a highly developed system of law, but by force because force seemed to be the most natural resort. The degree of force was sometimes extreme, and fearsome battles involving several thousand men on each side were accepted as the natural way to resolve such quarrels, however much these battles and their accompanying slaughter may have been deplored. At a lesser degree, it may have been regarded as execrable to invade a neighbour's lands with a considerable body of armed men, and to ill-treat him and his family and servants in the process, but it was still seen as a natural if deplorable way of resolving a dispute to the ownership of the lands in question. There was a system of Law, and it did occasionally punish such wrong-doing. This system of Law was the Common Law, based on the customs of society established by precedent since Saxon times, supplemented by the 15th-century by the Statutes of Parliament and, within its limitations, it was relatively efficient. It was administered by the King's Justices sitting in London who heard and determined the civil and criminal cases brought before them. At regular intervals they journeyed to the furthermost parts of the Kingdom on Assize for the same purposes. This system had a number of defects, the chief one being that the law was not comprehensive; it was not so far developed that it could provide an answer to every dispute of every nature. Another defect was that the Judges were in no position to enforce their judgements against the mighty of the Land. 0ften, they did not even seem inclined to try; there were all too many cases where they were intimidated, or even bribed, and the weighty influence of a prominent man could decide the outcome of a case regardless of its legal merits. It was not the case that the English despised their Law; on the contrary, they had a great respect for it, and had the reputation of being very litigious, seemingly desirous (at least in some cases), that all quarrels should be settled by its provisions. Today's concept of the 'Rule of Law' however, which is thought to be able to answer any question, which is all-pervasive, and which obliges people to live together harmoniously, to put aside their murderous and acquisitive habits, and to settle their disputes, whatever they may be and of whatever nature in the way that the Law says they must, was totally unknown to the 15th-century.

If we can be reasonably certain why the Wars of the Roses took such a murderous and destructive course, few other answers readily present themselves. What were the causes of the Wars? Were they in truth dynastic, or were they predominately political, or were they a combination of the two which is so intertwined that it defies logical analysis? Where there other factors at work? In a civil war, the motives (altruistic or otherwise), ambitions, greeds,  interests, aspirations, hatreds, suspicions, jealousies, and trust and distrust of a great number of people towards each other all play their part. The moves, counter-moves, the attempts to reach a settlement or to foil it, all need to be studied. Unless this is done, no real understanding will be gained of the civil war or the reasons for undertaking it. The actual fighting in the Wars of the Roses lasted between 1455 (the 1st battle of St Albans) and 1487 (the battle of Stoke), but a simple account of the fighting will not suffice to convey any real understanding why the son took up arms against the father, the brother against the brother, or the uncle against the nephew.

It is for instance very easy to describe the fighting of the American Civil War which lasted from 1861 until 1865. Simply to do this will not win for the reader any real understanding of the conflict, epic though it was. To achieve this, it is also necessary to go farther back into history. Very briefly and without going into detail, the Southern States were becoming alarmed by the anti-slavery sentiment in the Northern States, and feared there might be legislation which outlawed slavery. As they saw things, this spelt their economic ruin. The South therefore proposed to break away and to found its own Confederation. The North wanted to hold the Union together. These were the primary war aims of each side, and it was only later, in 1863, that the abolition of slavery became a principal war aim of the North. To understand the War and what lead to it means going far farther back than 1861, and it is necessary to study the thoughts, sentiments, actions and political moves of each side in a dispute which, over a long period of time, became steadily more acrimonious before it descended to outright fighting.

If this is accepted, then it must also be an error, which some historians have nonetheless made, to ascribe the Wars of the Roses to single, even if complex, causes. Some say that what led to the Wars was the unwise enrichment of the five sons of King Edward 111 (1327-1377), but this does not seem to be a convincing explanation. Bishop Stubbs attributed the Wars to the breach of a compact, which he described as a great constitutional experiment, made between King Henry IV when he became King in 1399, and Parliament. By this compact, the King was supposed to appoint his ministers and his Council only with the consent of Parliament. His grand-son, King Henry VI, broke this compact when, on coming of age in 1436, he appointed his ministers without first consulting Parliament. This,  according to the Bishop, was the main cause of the Wars. Again this does not seem to be a likely reason, even if such a compact ever existed; it is extremely doubtful if it was ever made. [pages ]

There is however another way to tell the story of The Wars of the Roses. There are three general headings within which the complex, convoluted, and intertwined motives, jealousies, rivalries, hatreds, ambitions, greeds, reasons and causes can be grouped, namely the devastating effects of the loss of the War in France which King Henry V began in 1415, and the failure of two Kingships, those of King Richard 11 (1377-1399) and King Henry VI (1422-1471). It is to be hoped that the reader will find this a satisfactory way to unfold the tale of a fascinating period in the rich fabric of England's history.

 The War in France

The 100-years war was, in reality, a series of conflicts which began in 1337 and came to an end in 1453. Long periods of peace interspersed the fighting, and several times it seemed that the 100-years war had come to an end. This work is concerned only with the last phase, the War in France which was started by King Henry V in 1415.

When Henry started his War, he was laying claim to two distinct objects. He was seeking to recover those territories which had formerly belonged to the English Crown but he went further than this. He also laid claim to the Crown of France itself. The territories were Normandy, which had been the Dukedom of William the Conqueror, and large areas of Western France which had formed part of Eleanor of Acquitaine's dowry when she had married King Henry 11 in the 12th-century. All these, apart from Bordeaux, Gascony, Guienne and a part of South-Western France, had been lost to the French Crown in the meantime. Henry wanted them returned. His claim to the Crown itself was based on his French great-grandmother's rights, which he maintained the House of Valois had wrongfully usurped.

If God accepted the sanctity of his claims (on this Henry had no doubt whatever),   then so must the French people. What Henry overlooked, and perhaps did not even understand, was the essentially feudal nature of his claims.

Two hundred years before, they might well have been accepted, the people not caring very much who was their King. By the 15th-century, the French were leaving the feudal age far behind them, perhaps at an even quicker pace than the English themselves, and certainly at a faster rate than the Germans, the Italians and the Spaniards. France was making great strides to becoming a nation, and her people had long since taken to thinking of themselves as the French. Most of the time, the rule of their Kings was abominable, but it was rule by a French King, not an alien Ruler. The Conquest of France, upon which Henry had embarked, may well have succeeded militarily, but it had little chance of lasting. The French were never going to accept alien rule, least of all with the English as the rulers. [This is discussed in greater detail - see page ] The disasterous ending of the War in France in 1453 was unquestionably one of the reasons for the Wars of the Roses. Blame for a military disaster of the first magnitude was freely ascribed, and the chance to score political points off a rival, who stood in the way of ambition, was not overlooked. The prestige of the King and the Crown he wore, the central points of the country's society and government, were made to look inept and weak in the eyes of all. The damage to English society was immense. Crowds of displaced settlers, for whom no provision could be made in their native land, often joined the mass of beggars, already a considerable menace, on the roads. Bands of discharged soldiers, their employment gone and unable or unwilling to abandon the habits of rapine and plunder they had learnt in France, supplemented the brigands who were already a serious nuisance.

The failure of two Kingships

The height of the feudal age can be said to be the 12th- and 13th-centuries. The King on his Throne was the nominal owner of all the land in the Realm, and land was the chief source of wealth. The Great Lords in their castles held their lands of him, and in return owed him the performance of various obligations. Lesser Lords held their lands of them, again in return for various duties, and so on down the social scale to the people, usually bonded to the land on which they were born, who actually did the back-breaking work of tilling the land and wringing from it the necessities of life upon which all depended. There were of course exceptions to the general rule - there were already some lawyers, doctors, churchmen, merchants and artisans who made their livings by other means - but in the main the whole of society was engaged in earning its subsistence from the soil. The contribution of the fortunate minority lay in supervising and directing the less fortunate majority, whose muscles and sweat were dedicated to obliging the land to yield the necessities which all required.

A social structure for such a society was of necessity based on loyalty. A subordinate owed his loyalty to a superior, such as a servant to his master, a wife to her husband, and a landowner to his immedaite Lord. A breach of this loyalty could be petit treason, itself a serious enough offence. In the superlative degree, all owed alliegence to the King, and it was Grand Treason to bear arms against him, to disobey his directions, to thwart his designs, perhaps even to give tongue to words derogatory of him or his state. Feudal society, and indeed that of the later medieval society which succeeded it, resembled nothing so much as a pyramid with the King at its apex. In such a society, disloyalty put the whole of society at risk, was regarded with abhorrence, and was punished most severely.

The King was however a remote figure to the great majority of his people who seldom if ever saw him. People rarely travelled beyond the land on which they were born and many were even forbidden to do so. He lived in a city called London, itself a strange and remote conception to those who had never seen anything bigger than their village, which lay far beyond the distant horizon where all was strange and sometimes frightening as well. Some had served in the King's armies (or those of their immediate Lord), and returned with strange tales of far-away lands which did little to stimulate curiosity or to re-assure those whose lot was the daily grind of bare existence. They cared little who was their King, provided he did not tax them too heavily, and to them the font of all authority was their own Lord. He ruled over their lives, judged their disputes in his own court, settled their affairs for good or ill as he saw fit, and it was with him that they had the love-hate relationship which is the basis of all authority. G.K.Chesterton may have been writing of a much later age, but he still put it aptly:-

"I know no harm of Buonaparte, and plenty of the Squire."

By the beginning of the 14th-century, great changes were afoot in this simple if far from idyllic society, and the reasons for these changes are so many and so complex that only a few can be mentioned here. They did hoever herald the beginnings of the process which was to weld England into a nation, of which the King was perceived by all to be the head, and which was outward-looking in its nature in place of the numerous inward-looking and essentially insular communities of the feudal system. The feudal system was devoted to, and dependant upon, an intensive agriculture of crop-growing. It required a large labour force but it could support everyone, even if the majority lived only in poverty.

Recent excavations in Dorset and Wiltshire (although the same is probably true of other shires as well), have revealed that enclosures were taking place at the beginning of the 14th-century, well before the cataclysm of the Black Death in 1348 which greatly accelerated the process, with the aim of turning the land over from arable to pasture, particularly for sheep whose wool was intended to fuel the growing and lucrative wool-trade with Flanders. If Sir Thomas More's "Utopia" is to be believed, the ruthlessness of the 14th- and 15th-century landowners rivaled anything that was done in the 18th-century. The number of hands needed to tend animals was far fewer than those required for growing crops; the Landowners simply tore down the cottages and turned the surplus people off their land to find their livings elsewhere as best they may. Some joined the beggars, already a feared nuisance, on the roads. 0thers flocked to the towns, and somehow learnt a new trade. If they swelled the sizes of the towns to accomodate them, there was an increasing demand for the wares they manufactured and the services they provided. The one-time farm labourers became artisans, and increased the numbers who made their livings otherwise than by growing food. They were an articulate class, whose Guilds perused their interests most aggressively.

Besides this influx from the countryside, there were others who sought to make their livings in the towns. The merchants, often men of very humble stock, were increasing in number, and were making huge fortunes in the Flanders wool-trade and in other trades ranging from the Baltic to the Iberian Peninsular. The ancient nobility may have looked down on them, but they could scarcely ignore them particularly when a loan was required. Medicine, the Church and the Law had always enjoyed a firm footing, but now the numbers of doctors, churchmen and lawyers were being swelled by increasing numbers of new recruits coming down from the new colleges being founded in the ancient universities of 0xford and Cambridge. These were men trained to think rather than to dig and, not being in the least minded to subser-vience, they did not take kindly to being told what they must do and say. They had the ability to express themselves, and delighted in any opportunity to do so. In modern language a middle-class, neither aristocrats nor labourers, was rapidly forming. There was no place for such a middle-class in the feudal system, which allowd for aristocrats and serfs only.

More than any other factor it was this new middle-class, withits outward-looking nature and its entreprenurial spirit, which assured it of vast wealth, which blew the feudal bonds asunder.

As has been said, the feudal system tended to a very parochial outlook, but there were other factors at work which encouraged people to think and to see for themselves that government lay not at the parish pump, but in the Court of the King, and these factors, gradually and with agonising slowness, promoted the feeling that England was a nation and the King was at its head. Some of these factors had been at work for some time. The Royal taxes were gathered by the Sheriff, and even if he was a local notable, he was also a Royal official. Taxation itself has a bonding influence with the centre. Since the 12th-century, the King had insisted on a uniform code of law throughout his Realm, and to this end he had dispatched his judges on Assize to the furthermost corners of his land to hear and determine cases. The Law too has a bonding influence. After a hesitant beginning, it had become customary by the second half of the 14th-century to summon Parliaments with two knights from each shire and two burgesses from each town. Whilst the electorate was limited and most people had no say in who should represent them, the very fact of local representation did much to emphasize that it was the affairs of a nation which were being dealt with, not those of a mere local feudal gathering.

There were other, subtler, ways in which the feudal system was fast becoming an anachronism, and there is one which is especially worthy of mention. In military matters too, things had also undergone a fundamental change. The feudal Lord had been looked to for military protection. He knew how to fight, and what must be done to organise his following to repel the thieves, robbers and aggressive neighbouring barons who abounded in a cruel, barbarous and almost lawless age. The stunning victory of Crecy 1346 had to a great extent been won by the English archer. A man from the lower orders of society, who wielded the 6 foot longbow, the most formidable infantry weapon of the time, could bring low the armoured chivalry of France, the most splendid in Europe. If that was so, then who needed a Lord?

If England in the 15th-century was fast breaking away from the stultifying feudal bonds of earlier times, what of her government? The only conclusion which is possible is that her government did far too little to change itself to meet the needs of a society which was daily becoming more developed and more complex when compared with that of earlier times.It was no longer the primitive society of the feudal age. It was more vital, vocal, out-going, expansionist and above all entreprenurial.

The first Norman King, King William 1, made it clear that he intended to rule as his Saxon predeccessors had done, that is by the Royal Prerogative, although he would be assited and advised by his councillors. Some of his councillors, both lay and spiritual noblemen, were constantly at the side of the King. Sometimes, thinking that there was some problem that required wider consultation, he would summon a 'Great Council'. The membership of this body was never defined; it could consist of some or all of the principal noblemen, or some or all of the principal churchmen, or a mixture of the two as the King saw fit. 0n some rare occasions, knights of the shire and burgesses of the towns would also be summoned. There was no fixed membership and no regular meeting dates for the 'Great Council', and the fact that a man was summoned to one did not necessarily mean that he would be summoned to attend the next or any subsequent meeting. It was a successor to the Witanagamot of Saxon times and, although summoned to deal with grave and weighty matters, like its predecessor, it had no formal structure. There were occasions when it even formed itself without a Royal summons, and then it obliged the King to institute reforms, particularly in the widening of the consultation process in the government of the country. Such were the gatherings which forced King John to sign Magna Carta in 1215, and obliged King Henry 111 to accept the Provisions of 0xford in 1258. [It was not very helpful that, on each occasion, the Pope absolved both Kings from the oaths they had taken]

[The reader who wishes to study the Great Council more fully is refered to the leading work on the subject "The House of Lords in the Middle Ages" by J. Enoch Powell & Wallis. It should be read in conjunction with Parry's "Parliaments and Councils of England"]

The 14th-century saw great strides being taken in the constitutional apparatus of England which, by the start of the 15th-century, had cristalized the country's government onto a far more formal basis, and this lasted throughout the period of the Wars of the Roses. The King still ruled by the Royal Prerogative, but now he was assisted by his Council which, in effect, was in permanent session. It consisted of 15 to 20 of the Great Magnates, the principal churchmen, some lesser Lords, and some commoners of whose outstanding abilities the King felt a need. It was a formally constituted body which met regularly, was very hard working, and disposed of an enormous amount of business. It was quite usual for the King, on the Council's advice, to employ other men, who may not have been members of the Council, to discharge various tasks which he and the Council wanted performed. In addition, Parliament was being summoned in the form described in Chapter . Maybe it was not summoned once a year as a 14th-century Statute provided, the King being reluctant to see it acquire too much power and importance, but its meetings were not infrequent.

In such a setting, the Great Council tended to loose its uses and to disappear. It was not however formally abolished. King Henry IV called one Great Council (1400) and two 'Councils'(1403 & 1406), but the records, which are not totally free of confusion, do indicate that no subsequent King called a 'Great Council'. Yet it is hard to accept that Kings Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard 111 never called a 'Great Council', and some of the gatherings of the second half of the 15th-century clearly had this character, such as the love-day in 1458 [page ] and the assembly which met on 25th June 1483 to petition Richard, Duke of Gloucester to ascend the Throne as King Richard 111. [page ] All that can be said is that they were not named as 'Great Councils', and the latter assembly was stigmatised by the 1484 Parliament as 'not being in the fourme of Parliament'; in other words, it had no powers to make law.

Hopefully, enough has been said to avoid the confusion, which otherwise abounds, between the 'Great Council', by the 15th-century an anachronism, and the very active Council of the King, and to turn to the defects of 15th-century government. If the Council was a dedicated and relatively efficient body, it did depend on the King for its very existence. He could appoint and dismiss its members as he alone saw fit. Early in King Henry IV's reign, Parliament did try to have some say in who should be appointed to the Council, but in this it was not very successful and in the event was fought off by the King. The Council can hardly be said to have been a representative body, and it was very narrowly based.

Parliament did to some extent exercise some restraint upon this system of authoritarian rule. It had taken huge strides in the 14th-century,  when it had been conceded that the Common House alone, and not the King, could authorise the levy of taxation. It did not confine itself to taxation, and had no hesitation in giving its opinion on the burning issues of the day, sometimes even trespassing into matters which belonged to the Royal Prerogative. It was heeded rather than corrected. Parliament however had several fundamental weaknesses. Unlike the Council, it was not in continuous session, and could only be called together by the King. Whilst some people were repeatedly elected to Parliament, its members were not the same from one Parliament to another. It could be prorogued or dissolved as the King alone should decide. Its very existence depended upon him, and he could put an end to its being at any time that he chose to do so. If the King's need of money was his main incentive to summon Parliament and to keep it in being, it is most strange that Parliament should have failed to appreciate this, and that by granting him the customs duties for his life, which it did in 1453 and 1464, it did to a large extent make him financially independant. By doing so, Parliament virtually silenced itself. If it was relying on a 14th-century Statute that Parliament should be summoned at least once a year, it should have known that this Statute was a broken reed; it was habitually disregarded by successive Kings.

So far too much came back to, or depended on, the King. Neither the Council nor Parliament could act until he had appointed the Council or summoned Parliament. The person of the King was sacred as he was the Lord's annointed, but there was a check to his all-powerful status which did not always yield happy results. The Peers were powerful people in their own right, and any combination of them was to be feared. To all intents and purposes they were above the Law, which only rarely could call them to account. The disciplining of such people required a judicious mixture of stick and carrot, and even the strongest King could find that he had to walk on a knife's edge by a series of compromises, which did much to nullify any sensible and beneficent policy that he was minded to persue.

It really came down to this. If the King was a strong and forceful personality, who was well in control of himself,  who knew his own mind and was capable of making it up, who was seen to be fair and just, an intelligent man who could discern and judge the conflicting interests whose demands were often selfishly and stridently made without any regard to the public weal, then even this chaotic and ramshakle method of government could be made to work well, sometimes most successfully. If he was a weak, tyrannical or capricious King without any of these qualities, then there was bound to be trouble. He was the Chief Executive of the country, but if he was unsatisfactory, there was no peaceable method of removing him. As God's chosen, he could not be touched. He was replaced on two occasions, in 1399 and 1461, but this required enormous courage, and ran the risk of penalties of the severest nature, both in this World and the next. [The attitude of the English towards their King could be equivocal, and was frequently inconsistent. [see pages ]

Among other reasons for the Wars of the Roses must be numbered two failures of Kingship, those of King Richard 11 (1377 - 1399) and King Henry VI (1422 - 1471). The pages of this work attempt to explain how they failed, and what their failures led to.

Why were they called the Wars of the Roses?

This appellation was given to the Wars by Tudor historians, and was not used by those who took part in the fourteen great battles and other smaller engagements during the 15th-century. The White Rose was one of the many emblems which were used by King Edward IV, and he is said to have bourne it at the battle of Towton 1461 as a symbol of his father's right to some lands and a castle in the North. Generally he preferred to use the emblem of the sun and its rays, a reference to the three suns which appeared at the dawn of the day of the battle of Mortimer's Cross 1461. [pages ] The White Rose only later became accepted as the symbol of the House of York, particularly when Elizabeth of York married King Henry VII, but before then other emblems were in general use by the Yorkists. [The White Rose did figure in King Richard 111's banner at the battle of Bosworth 1485. It was superimposed over the sun, but with its rays still showing.]

The Lancastrians did not have an emblem of their own; they preferred to emphasize their right to the Throne by the Royal Standard. There was one occasion in 1459 when Queen Margaret issued badges depicting a White Swan (a device which had belonged to Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester who had died in 1447) to her followers, but it only had a limited and never a general use. The Red Rose was the emblem of the House of Tudor, and the Tudors only played a substantial part in the Wars during their final stages; King Henry VII, very tactfully, pricked out the points of the Red Rose in white to symbolise that by his union with Margaret of York, he had united two tempestuous Houses.

The appellation is misleading, because it gives undue prominence to the dynastic factor in the Wars. As the following pages attempt to show, the reasons for the Wars were very much more complex than a dispute between rival dynasties, but we cannot now object to, or seek to change, the name given to these internecine struggles.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003