The Wars of the Roses

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Part 1: Roots and Causes

Many struggles for power through the years have had to do with succession. The Wars of the Roses were no exception. Pitting two warring houses in a bloody civil war, the struggle for supremacy in England began in the 14th Century and extended well into the 15th.

Edward III in all had four sons:

Sons of King Edward III
  • Edward the Black Prince, who was heir to the throne
  • Lionel of Antwerp, who was Duke of Clarence
  • John of Gaunt, who was Duke of Lancaster
  • Edmund of Langley, who was Duke of York.

Edward III ruled from 1312 to 1377. Edward the Black Prince had died the year before and so wouldn't be succeeding his father as king. Lionel of Antwerp had died in 1368. Rather than the next in line, John of Gaunt, to be the rightful successor, a royal council bestowed that right on Richard, the son of Edward the Black Prince. Thus, Edward III was succeeded on the throne by his grandson, who became King Richard II.

The Lancastrians claimed that their standard-bearer, Henry VI, had a legitimate claim to succeed Edward III because Henry VI was a descendant of Edward's third son, John of Gaunt. The Yorkists claimed that their standard-bearer, Richard of York, had a legitimate claim to succeed Edward III because Richard was a descendant of Edward's fourth son, Edmund of Langley. According to some historians, Richard II, who succeeded Edward III as king, had named Edmund of Langley as his successor. This was part of the Yorkists' claim to the throne.

Richard was 10 when his grandfather died; and so even though he was crowned king, his early reign was more in the regency vein, with his uncle John of Gaunt running the country. Richard decided to run things for himself after awhile and made some decisions that his uncle and other powerful people did not like. John of Gaunt died in 1399, and Richard confiscated his uncle's lands and resources, refusing to allow them to transfer to the son of John of Gaunt, Henry Bolingbroke. Henry proved resourceful and popular enough to raise an army and depose Richard. The victorious Bolingbroke was crowned King Henry IV and then had Richard imprisoned in Pontefract Castle, where he died in 1400 under mysterious circumstances.

Henry IV passed the throne on to his eldest son, who became Henry V. That king did the same, and his eldest son became King Henry VI when only 9 months old.

England and France were still fighting the Hundred Years War, and Henry's representative to run the English war effort in the early years was his uncle, John Duke of Bedford. Named as Lord Protector and in charge of the royal council was another uncle, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester.

Bedford found initial success with a devastating victory at Verneuil, and the English army moved on and in 1428 laid siege to Orléans. It was here that one of the most famous names in French history entered the picture. Joan of Arc, a teenage girl claiming to have had religious visions, convinced the Dauphin to allow her to go to Orléans and join the troops defending the city. She succeeded in rallying the troops and led them in turning the tables on the English, taking the fight to them; as a result, the English army broke off the siege. That trend continued, as the suddenly inspired French pursued the retreating English, winning a smashing victory near the village of Patay; in the rout, French troops captured the English commander, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury.

France eventually turned the tide in their favor and, after the Battle of Castillon in 1453, persuaded England to sign a treaty ending the war. England still controlled Calais, but that was the extent of its French possessions.

Next page > Violence and Devastation > Page 1, 2, 3

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David White