For nearly one hundred years in England’s history, a knot of noble families fought over the royal throne in a giant, messy multi-generational screw-you fest that history has dubbed “The Wars of the Roses”.
This title is a misnomer, of course. The murder, deception, and power mongering went far beyond any battlefield. So not simply a war.
And furthermore, though history tries to explain this era as being a battle between two families–each represented by a rose–that ignores a lot of historical context, and a whole lot of players from other families and other countries. So not really strictly about roses either.
Maybe they should have called it The Great English Stink instead. Eh, guess no poets were on hand to think of it. Shakespeare really dropped the ball on this one, eh?
“You will smell the white rose! Smell it! Smellllll it!”
Anyway, it’s a rotten, stinkin’ historical mess that took forever to play out and is really damn confusing. So to understand this giant historical knot, you really need a proper illustrated guide. Right? And it ought to be irreverently blunt. Right? Yes, yes. Good, good. I think so, too. Please enjoy this tale with the nearest butt of Malmsey wine.
Edward III: Starts Shit With France, Jinxing His Kingdom
Our tale opens in 1377 as Edward III sets his sights on France, and the various territories that England wanted to wrest from the clutches of the wicked land-stealin’, cheese-eatin’ French. Edward’s grudges and battles would eventually explode into what was later dubbed The Hundred Years War–a war that France would eventually win, at a high cost to both sides. So one could posit that perhaps Edward had run afoul of karma in starting this war.
Edward III: “I say, Martin, these men appear to be quite dead. Do we win?”
Yes indeed, Edward had a whole lot of blood on his hands, and as if the battlefield deaths weren’t enough punishment for the monarch, the Black Death ripped through England from 1348-1351, and killed one-third of the country’s population.
And then, just as the cherry on the war-ravaged, disease-infested sundae, Edward III went and croaked from a sudden stroke in 1377. And in a dramatically historical moment, all of his sons, and their sons and daughters inhaled sharply and watched the alley-ooped crown tumble through the air, each of them picturing their own hands snatching it and claiming it.
Shit was about to get real.
Richard II: A Little Prick Takes the Throne
By the time Edward died in 1377, his eldest son, Edward the Black Prince was already wormfood. So the line of succession questionably traveled to the Black Prince’s ten year-old son, Richard to take the throne. No doubt watching the tike ascend like that could not have been easy on Edward III’s other living (grown-ass) sons: John of Gaunt, Edmund, Duke of York, and Thomas, Duke of Gloucester. Kneeling as their father’s crown went to a ten year-old snot-rag nephew had to be just peachy. Three uncles all throwing shade at one small boy.
Nevertheless, the child, Richard II was crowned in 1377 and would go on to reign for 22 years, continuing his grandfather’s conquest of France. The young king was self-obsessed and careful to keep his uncle, John of Gaunt, as a trusted advisor, though neither nephew or uncle cared for each other much. No surprise there.
But after his wife, Anne of Bohemia, passed away in 1394, Richard became gripped with paranoia, given that he had no heir (and, gulp, a brand-new seven year-old bride). He started to distrust all of his uncles and cousins, fearing they were plotting to take his throne.
Which they were. Absolutely. One hundred percent.
In 1397, Richard was likely responsible for the murder of his uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester (two uncles down, two living ones to go). His excuse was probably pretty valid–Uncle Thomas had risen with a band of nobles to weaken Richard’s rule.
Two years later in 1399, Richard’s not-so-trusted advisor, Uncle John of Gaunt died, likely of diease(s). Probably lots of diseases. That left just one uncle left. One to go. King Richie decided, just to be on the safe side, that he’d better exile his dead uncle’s son, Henry Bolingbroke. Oops. Bad idea.
Bolingbroke was all like “Helllllllll no, Richie, I’m comin’ to get ya!” So Bolingbroke strolled back to England with an army at his side, plucked the king off his throne and tossed him in the Tower of London. Shortly after that, Richard II died in prison under mysterious circumstances. Some say starvation. Others say murder. Either way, it was officially the first major blow in The Wars of the Roses (TWOTR).
Richard II in prison: “I was told there’d be pudding. Where’s my pudding?”
Henry IV: Here Come the Lancasters
As of Richard II’s heirless death, there were just two family lines remaining that had sprung from cursed Edward III’s loins. One was called Lancaster, the other called York.
With cousin Richard II out of the way, Henry Bolingbroke of the LANCASTER line was crowned King Henry IV in 1399. And while he continued to spar with France over territory (making Grandpa Edward smile from his wormy grave), his reign was mainly marked by rebellion. Lots of rebellions.
See, seizing the crown against the line of succession and murdering the king, it just puts funny notions in peoples’ heads. Why can’t I do that? I’d look good in a crown! Yes, Henry IV set a very dangerous precedent for the English monarchy.
Nevertheless, he was able to quash the many rebellions that arrived at his doorstep, and had a moderately successful reign, making many babies with his first wife, Mary de Bohun. When he died of, seriously, many diseases (including an unidentified skin disease, ewww) in 1413 at age 45, his eldest son, Henry succeeded him with little ado.
Henry IV: “This scarf on my head? I think it’s very becoming. Why else would I be wearing it? Not to hide some sort of contagious rash, that’s for sure!”
Henry V: Bowl Cuts Won’t Be Denied
Henry V, that handsome devil with the bowl cut, was raised to be king. By the time Papa Skin Rash passed away in 1413, Henry was already a tested battle leader, and was not afraid to make France his bitch on the battlefield and at court. Most notably, Henry V trounced the French at the Battle of Agincourt, and subsequently negotiated the Treaty of Troyes, which knitted him in to the line of succession right behind France’s reigning (and nutty–no really, like, batshit insane) king, Charles VI. The Treaty of Troyes also furnished Henry V with a pretty young new wife–Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine of Valois, whom he married in 1420.
So all he had to do was outlive King Nutbar of France and he could have him a second crown and the King’s babe of a daughter. Score!
The young king and queen were adored on the homefront; people saw him as a just and wise king, under whose rule the nation prospered. Shakespeare no doubt aided in his sparkly reputation in the centuries that have followed. Henry-the-Hair-Bowl even successfully impregnated his new French bride very quickly! She delivered a healthy baby boy, also named Henry. Because everyone from this era is named Henry, Edward, George, or Richard. Just go with it.
Yes, things looked golden for the 35 year-old king (whose famous portrait only mostly resembles the head of a penis).
Henry V: Stand back ladies, he’s already taken! Rawr!
And then…the Siege of Meaux happened. It seems fitting that Henry’s end was from the battlefield. It’s just a shame that, of all things, it was the bloody flux that took him. Yes, Henry V died of pants shitting on August 31, 1422 after reigning for only nine years. He never even met his infant son. And even more cruelly, King Nutbar, Charles VI of France would die just two months later. Isn’t that a kick in the pants? He was just two months away from being King of France. Poor penis head.
Henry VI: So Apparently Crazy Runs in the Family
So it’s 1422, and there are two nations in mourning: England just lost Henry V, and France just lost Charles VI. Who do they both turn to as their new king? A tiny little baby in his cradle. King Henry VI. By the time he was two years old, he was “presiding over parliament at Westminster”.
Which is adorable, if you think about it in a Hollywood way. “I call this session of parliament to order!“, says the young king, banging his rattle on his stuffed bear.
Really, though, Henry’s reign began somewhat successfully, in that he lived and no one usurped him. However, his advisors ill-treated his realm, and the boy grew to be an unpopular man-child with little interest in (or affinity for) ruling. On the plus side, he married 15 year-old Margaret of Anjou and together they had one son, Edward.
And here is where the good news ends for Hank 6, because by 1453, he had lost control over France, and with it, the French crown.
At this point, Henry had a complete mental breakdown, which in modern times has been fashionably attributed to schizophrenia…mainly due to his documented hallucinations and general lack of awareness of his surroundings.
Does this sound familiar? Because the same thing happened to his grandfather, King Nutbar Charles VI of France. ‘Memba him? Yeah, the guy who lost his kingdom to England because he was so batshit, out-to-lunch crazy? Guess he got the last laugh, because his crazy genes passed right through his daughter Catherine of Valois to his grandson.
Mwahaha! Revenge! For Charles! “Suck it England, and eat our crazy genes!”
Henry VI: “I hold in my hands the tiniest toast tiger eye run you have ever seen, but you need to speak invisible monster to wear it muck.”
Since Henry VI was most decidedly out to lunch, Richard, Duke of YORK, stepped up as Lord Protector. And, as Yorks tended to do, he started chatter among nobles that England was in need of a real king. I mean, the dude had a point.
What, Henry’s son, Edward? Nah, too young. And probably illegitimate anyway, right? Right? I mean, that Queen Margaret, she gets arrrrround. That’s what all the nobles are saying.
No, instead Richard, Duke of York made the case that he had the best claim to the throne.
Richard, Duke of York vs. Margaret of Anjou: FIGHT!
Up until now we’ve had almost all LANCASTERS on the throne (except for Richard 2 who was starved in prison…by his Lancaster uncle!). We’ve been focused on them and their penis heads and mental illness.
But there’s another line we haven’t talked much about. Richard II’s other uncle (the one who didn’t overthrow him) made some heirs and they were known as YORK. At this point, Uncle Edmund York had long ago died of old age. His grandson, Richard, was a strong, battle-tested leader who, according to the laws of primogeniture, actually had a stronger claim to the throne than King Drools-in-a-Cup. And he knew it.
Richard [York] had been insulted and snubbed by the Lancastrian line throughout his life, and was shuttled off to Ireland to keep him out of the country. So he went and started some shit. Uprising shit.
The catatonic King’s wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, had a serious interest in keeping her husband on the throne just long enough for her son’s ass to polish it some day. Margaret turned down peace offers to keep King Nutbar on the throne and then shift the line of succession to the Yorks afterward. Nope, she wanted that throne for her awful cruel son, Edward (think Joffrey Baratheon).
So now we have a head-to-head matchup: Richard, Duke of York vs. Margaret of Anjou.
Margaret of Anjou: “I will break these Yorkist bitches, yo”
Richard has a secret weapon, though: A really creepy dude named Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. The namee even sounds a little evil, doesn’t it? Warwick would become known as “The Kingmaker” and had a gift for carving a path to the throne.
Alas, even with Warwick at his side, Richard [York] was unlucky. After several battles for the throne, Richard was felled at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. His head was placed on a spike on the city walls of York, and a paper crown was placed atop his head. Sick burn, Anjou. Sick burn. You can almost here the sad Price is Right horn.
So that should be it for the Yorks, right? Right? Stay tuned for Part II: The York Empire Strikes Back. Which is just below. Just keep reading.
Now if you’re starting to get a little bit lost, that’s natural. So many similar names, so many similar titles. Here’s a handy-dandy, teeny-weeny family tree. See that baby bottle? That’s where we’re at. Try and keep up.
Oops, I should have warned of spoilers, I suppose. Hint: It ends well for no one.
King Nutbar: The Poet in the Tower
If one thing can be said for the Yorks, it is that they are just incorrigible . Even with the original head of their army gone (decapitation pun!), they soldiered on (war pun!) and kept battling the Lancasters, eventually trouncing them at the Battle of Towton in 1461. Crazy King Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou fled to Scotland where they hid out and plotted. So many plots. Okay, Margaret mostly plotted. Henry probably just licked the walls.
In the meantime, Edward, son of the headless Duke of York, decided to take the crown for himself, and became King Edward IV. Eddie’s army was able to capture and imprison Henry VI, shoving him in the the Tower of London where he could sit and write poetry to himself. Really, that happened.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
I think this coconut is haunted,
How about you?
Wife Margaret was exiled to the France from whence she came.
Richard’s son Edward (left in haughty crown): “Oh Edmund Beaufort, I say, this is nothing to lose your head about. Bwa. Bwahahaha.”
Edward IV: York on York Action
And then all was seemingly quiet. The dark and dangerous Earl of Warwick had his pet, King Edward IV, to snuggle with and control. Okay, maybe I made up the snuggling bit.
And Edward had the companionship of his two brothers, George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard of Gloucester. They were like the three amigos. Until Yoko came along to break up the band.
See, Edward IV went and did something very dangerous: He got himself secretly hitched to a commoner named Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Against the advice of Warwick. And then that new wifey had the nerve to demand advantageous marriages for all of her relations. Against the will of Warwick. Warwick probably sat back and twizzled his mustache angrily as all of this was going down, wondering what to do about Edward’s uppity wife. Then it came to him! He could go to one of the brothers–George, Duke of Clarence–and start whispering about how that horrible wife just ruined everything. They could be their own little “He-Man Woman Haters Club”. Warwick and George began secretly plotting to overthrow the young king and his disgustingly common wife. And they probably built a tree fort. I am guessing here.
Warwick: “If I just keep staring at her like I’ve been sucking lemons, she’ll pack up and leave, right? Keep it up, Warry. Staaaaaare.”
Warwick and George failed miserably, however, and both had to flee to France where they greeted Margaret of Anjou in some kind of Losers Club, presumably.
Warwick In, War Without
If there were three people on the planet who really hated King Edward IV, it had to be Warwick, Margaret of Anjou, and the King of France. And all three were huddled and plotting.
In 1470, Margaret and Warwick led a Lancastrian army to invade England. (George was presumably sitting about drinking French wine.) They successfully sent King Edward on the run, chasing him and his brother Richard out of the country all the way to the Netherlands. Except, Eddie left behind his family (rude!). Elizabeth hustled her children and very pregnant belly (so, maybe more of a waddle than a hustle) into the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, where they hid out, and Lizzie popped out a new rugrat.
Edward IV: “Now, Richard, when we were packing for our Netherlands trip, I remembered my hat, my ring, my frilly orange coat. Yes. But have I forgotten something….oh, where did I put that family of mine?”
Warwick and George triumphantly yanked ol’ crazy-face Henry VI out of the Tower of London and plopped the crown back on his head. Sadly, the years of imprisonment and insanity had taken their toll, and Warwick and George essentially pulled a Weekend at Bernie’s with the older king.
The Pro-York Fog
Poor Warwick and George didn’t last long. Only 6 months or so later, Edward IV came back from the Netherlands with a Burgundy army to help him whomp the Lancaster king again. It all came down to the Battle of Barnet on April 14, 1471.
The battle was initially leaning toward Warwick’s Lancastrian forces. But then the fog attacked like something out of a bad Stephen King story. Really, there was some seriously thick fog that day. It was so bad, that the Lancaster army had looped around on itself, and they began attacking their own men. Dumbasses. I mean, I get that there was some confusion over sigils, stars versus suns. But still.
Battle of Barnet: “Say, why is that other army over there laughing at us?”
When it was clear that the Yorks were winning (mainly thanks to the Lancasters’ own efforts), Warwick tried to flee the battlefield. As he did so, he was struck from his horse and killed. Poor Warry.
Margaret of Anjou wasn’t dissuaded though, and she personally led the Lancaster army into battle at Tewkesbury just a couple weeks later. And again, they lost. This time, Margaret’s nasty son, Prince Edward was killed on the battlefield. She was jailed in the Tower of London until France ransomed her out. She was mostly not heard from again. Buh-bye.
And as for that daft king sitting in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses on the throne? He was instantly returned to the Tower of London, where he was very quickly dispatched on the orders of the restored King Edward IV in 1471.
This is the end of the Lancasters sitting on the English throne. Our story isn’t done, however, as the Yorks continued to battle each other for control.
George’s Death Pairs Well With Cheese and Crackers
Perhaps most amazingly, the newly restored King Edward IV, who had just gotten his family out of that dank church (and damn well prayed they wouldn’t pull a Flowers in the Attic ending on him), welcomed back his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, and offered him full favor at court. Just like that. Dude was waaaaay more forgiving than I would be.
And his mercy was totally misplaced. See, George kept growing more and more unhinged. When his wife, Isabel, died in the birthing bed, he became convinced she was poisoned and had a lady-in-waiting hanged for the crime. He also was said to be behind at least one additional small uprising.
Finally, that was enough for Edward. He had George locked up in the Tower of London, but hesitated in his sentencing, as Edward and Richard still had lingering affection for their dumbass brother. Legend has it that George was given his choice of how he wanted to die and he opted to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. Supposedly, the giant barrel was rolled to the Tower, and George died a very grapey death in 1478.
This is a probably roughly realistic portrayal of George’s execution…
…but somehow I prefer this Dutch version of how he went down.
Yes, cheers to you, George.
And Now an Intermission for a Little Peace and Quiet in the Realm
The second part of Edward IV’s reign was really uneventful and peaceful. Phew! Then in spring, 1483, Edward croaked from unidentified illness(es).
Uncle Richard Gets Murdery
Immediately upon the death of his father, Edward IV’s eldest son became King Edward V at the age of twelve. Seems pretty standard right? His Uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was set to act as Protector until young Eddie came of age. But Yorks don’t play well with others…even other Yorks.
Almost immediately, Uncle Richard had Eddie 5’s close guardians, his half-brother Richard Grey, and his uncle Anthony (on his mom’s side) executed. Elizabeth Woodville had to be buggin’, that’s for sure. Her husband was dead, and her brother and one of her sons had just been killed by Richard. This wasn’t looking good for her boy king or any of her other children.
A short time later, King Edward and his only brother, 9 year-old Richard, were placed in the Tower of London by Uncle Richard “for safe keeping” while awaiting Edward’s coronation ceremony. But somehow, Uncle Richard kept postponing the ceremony over and over. Weird, huh?
“So they’re bringing my crown and some room service, right?”
Then, for good measure, a priest up and declared out of nowhere (uh-huh, sure, Richard) that the two boys were illegitimate, because their father had been betrothed to someone else before he married their mother. That seems pretty damn flimsy, but apparently it was enough to make Richard the rightful king, and he quickly crowned himself King Richard III in June, 1483.
The Boys in the Tower
The two boys were reportedly seen and heard in the spring of that year, but by summer all reports of them had evaporated. They were never seen again.
What happened to them? They could’ve been rescued and spirited away. History has presumed the two boys were murdered, which is likely. Seriously, there are a few pairs of skeletons that could maybe be the deceased boys…or not. Buckingham Palace won’t permit DNA tests. Were the boys murdered? Or were those peasant boys planted as decoys who were murdered? Or did King Richard just want to hush it up that they’d escaped.
If they were, in fact, murdered, then we subsequently wonder who the culprit was. Uncle Richard is the obvious villain with the motive of securing his throne. But there was another emerging figure who might well have wanted them dead even more…
The boys’ story remains one of history’s greatest mysteries.
Hey, Hey, Hey! Here Come the Tudors
In order to understand the downfall of Richard III and the end of the Wars of the Roses, you must first re-examine the family tree to see how the Tudors sneak into this whole mess. Remember Nutbar King Henry VI? Well, his mother, Catherine of Valois (the same woman who brought the French crazy genes to the English throne), was remarried after papa’s poop death. She married a young man named Owen Tudor.
That meant that King Crazypants had a half-brother named Edmund Tudor. Edmund married a woman named Margaret Beaufort, who was already genetically linked to the Lancaster side (yikes). Edmund and Margaret produced a young lad named Henry Tudor, half-nephew to King Crazypants.
Henry Tudor: “Hey baby, if it seems like my left eye is a little high, it’s because I’ve set my sights on the crown.”
With all the crazy York-on-York fighting going on, Margaret Beaufort started to put forth the idea that her son, Henry, actually had a better claim to the throne than Richie III. After all, he came from John of Gaunt’s line, which was stronger than younger son, Edmund of York’s line. I guess. It was all political bullshit at this point. The family of Elizabeth Woodville (aka, she who was so badly scorned by her husband’s family, the Yorks) even took up for the Tudor lad.
Of course, in doing so, Elizabeth may have unknowingly aligned with the very man who ordered the murder of her sons in the Tower. See, the Tudors also wouldn’t want a little princeling and kingling undoing all of their difficult warring and overthrowing. And they didn’t have familial love for the boys like Richard would have. Henry Tudor has been considered a significant suspect in the boys’ deaths.
Back to the war, Henry Tudor’s army was able to best King Richard III’s, and the latter was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August, 1845. History states that Richard fought well and was in the thick of enemies before he was struck down. Apparently a sword was so severely driven through his head that his helmet was crushed in and the back of his head was nearly taken off. This matches a modern-day autopsy of his skeleton, which identified eight skull wounds. Well, poor Richie was stripped naked, flung over a horse, and sent back to Leicester. Ewww. That had to be one messy, unpleasant ride.
Richard III’s naked death ride: “Lift from the buttocks! No, no, don’t grab him there! Why is he so slippery?”
The End of the Wars of the Roses: Just Rip Out the Damn Shrubs Already!
Henry Tudor crowned himself King Henry VII in 1485, making him the fourth king in two years. Though he technically was a partial product of the Lancaster line, the young man seemed to be more reasonable and practical than his relations before him. He almost immediately wed Elizabeth of York (daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, older sister to the murdered boys in the Tower, and niece of the chopped-up Richard III), melding together the families of Lancaster and York.
The couple went on to have many children. Lots of humping, lots of babies.
Elizabeth of York: “So you’re telling me…I have to…with the man with the wonky left eye? More than once?”
Their first child, Arthur, Prince of Wales was married off to Catherine of Aragon to sow peace between England and Spain. And then after that they recycled the same bride for their next son, Henry VIII. Henry VII brokered peace with Scotland by marrying off his eldest daughter Margaret to become Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots. Fifth child, Mary, was wed to King Louis XII of France, making her Mary Tudor, Queen of France. Quite the international family, eh? They spread that seed globally, that’s for sure.
And thus, the Wars of the Roses came to a close.
Of course, maybe King Henry VII’s use of marriage as a political tool was a little too tempting to the gods of irony and fate, given how his second son, King Henry VIII fared with marriages. But that’s a whole different story…