The War of the Roses (1455-1485) was one of the most important historical events in the history of England and took place between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Although the conflict lasted for over 30 years, fighting was sporadic and featured fewer than 20 significant battles. Indeed, the total time spent on the battlefield during this period was only a few months.
Rather than being a war dominated by fighting, this conflict featured more twists, turns, conniving and deception than the Game of Thrones! A number of important battles were won and lost due to treachery as opposed to outstanding tactical skill. Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick and nicknamed the ‘Kingmaker’, was one of the most famous defectors as he switched from the House of York to Lancaster only to be slain at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.
In this piece, I will look at 7 of the key battles in the War of the Roses but first, let’s take a quick look at the background to this conflict.
How did it Begin?
Both houses could trace their lineage to the sons of Edward III who was king until 1377. It is a complex family tree to say the least but it basically meant that both houses could stake a legitimate claim to the throne. That being said, the House of York had a much stronger claim. Although the War of the Roses didn’t start until 1455, it could be argued that the events of 1399 paved the way.
In this year, King Richard II was usurped by Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Lancaster who was to become Henry IV. Henry was Richard’s cousin and returned from exile to take the crown. It is likely that Richard died in captivity the following year. Henry was succeeded by his son, Henry V who died in 1422. His heir was Henry VI who was an infant and Richard, Duke of York, could challenge the Lancastrian right to the throne as the Yorkist had a much stronger claim. I hope this is somewhat clear!
Instead, York became Lieutenant in France in 1436 where he was charged with dealing with England’s main enemy at that time. Henry VI’s conquests in France were unsustainable in their existing form; he either needed further conquests to force the French to become subordinates or give up territory to gain a negotiated settlement so the house of cards was always destined to fall. For his part, York had to pay money out of his own pocket to continue the campaign in France. He did this willingly but was outraged when he replaced as Lieutenant in France by Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset.
Things began to unravel for the English in France and York blamed Somerset for the collapse including the losses of Gascony and Bordeaux in 1451. He decided to arrest Somerset. While York did this partly because of Somerset’s dismal efforts in France, he was more concerned with the fact that Somerset could replace him as Henry VI’s heir. At that time, Henry had no children (his son Edward, Prince of Wales wasn’t born until 1453) so York made a play to become recognised as the rightful heir. In 1452, he marched to London only to find the city gates barred. At Dartford, York was forced to come to an agreement with Henry as his army was outnumbered. The king proceeded to punish those who had sided with York at Dartford.
In 1453, English forces were driven from France after defeat at the Battle of Castillon. Henry had a mental breakdown at this point and though the cause was unknown, the loss of France was perhaps a factor. He was unable to speak and completely unresponsive and in 1454, York was named Protector of the Realm. A number of disputes occurred between the most powerful lords in England and York used his authority to help his family and friends while placing Somerset in prison.
However, Henry VI regained his senses either in late December 1454 or early January 1455 and released Somerset from captivity. York lost the Captaincy of Calais and his title of Protector soon after. He was infuriated and gathered his forces and open fighting was to begin in May 1455