On This Day


On this Day: The Wars of the Roses Begins

May 22, 2009 06:00 AM
by Rachel Balik
On May 22, 1455, the Duke of York attacked King Henry VI’s forces in the town of St. Albans, beginning the Wars of the Roses.

The Battle of St. Albans

The Wars of the Roses encompass 50 years of battles during the second half of the 15th century over the right to rule England. The conflict raged between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, each of whom claimed the right to name a successor to the throne. The two noble houses each had a rose as their official sign. The Lancastrians had a red rose; the Yorkists had a white one.

The battle that began the epic war was a small clash. In fact, the Battle of St. Albans was not intended to provoke the kind of ongoing power struggle that it did, or be a battle at all. The original goal of the Duke of York was merely to wean King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster away from a group of advisors that the duke claimed were hurting the English government.

He began by trying to persuade Henry VI, who was safely fortified in the town of St. Albans, that he did not have bad intentions. During negotiations, the armies of York and the Earl of Warwick attacked. Henry VI’s forces were ill prepared, and were defeated within half an hour.

Although only 300 people died, that first battle ultimately led to Henry VI’s removal from the throne on March 4, 1461. York attempted to restore order to England, and initiated an unsuccessful reform campaign. War and chaos ensued.

Historical Context: The Wars of the Roses

When Edward III died in 1377, the heir to the throne was his 10-year-old son, Richard; his eldest son had died the previous year. The young boy ascended the throne, but he was challenged by his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It was not John himself, but his son Henry who, fighting under the sign of the red rose, would overthrow his cousin. In 1399, Henry IV became the King of England and the House of Lancaster ruled for two generations. Then the throne was finally reclaimed for the House of York.

The Yorkists, led by Richard, Duke of York, were successful in the first battle at St. Albans, but it was six years before Edward, his son, rode to Westminster and became king. He defeated the army of Henry VI at the Battle of Towton.

In 1470, Henry regained the throne, only to die the following year. Edward IV became King again, but when he died, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, put Edward’s two young sons in the Tower of London and took power. He became Richard III, known to modern theater audiences as Shakespeare’s villainous hunchback.

His reign was short-lived, ending with his defeat by Henry Tudor at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Descended from John of Gaunt on his mother’s side, Henry was soon able to end the fighting by marrying Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, and ruling as Henry VII.

Reference: More About the War of the Roses

The Web site WarsOfTheRoses.com provides supplemental information about the ongoing war. The site has maps, family trees and profiles of all the major figures who battled for the throne over the many years of the war. Use the timeline for reference, or read a short, fact-based account of each battle.

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