In English history, the fifteenth century is almost unanimously associated with the Wars of the Roses, a series of bloody battles which were fought predominantly between two royal houses: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Throughout the conflict, which raged on from the 1450s until the 1480s, five different kings sat on the throne of England (two on more than one occasion), and thousands of soldiers and civilians met their deaths on the battlefields.
1. The First Major Battle of the Wars of the Roses: The Battle of St. Albans (22 May 1455)
The first key battle of the Wars of the Roses was the First Battle of St Albans, which was fought on 22 May 1455. It traditionally marks the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, as it was the first pitched battle of the conflict. Although there was a second Battle of St Albans (in 1461), this original battle is much more important as it signified the beginning of the conflict.
The origins of the Battle of St Albans can be traced back to Richard, Duke of York’s expulsion from Henry VI’s Lancastrian court. His ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (known as Warwick the Kingmaker), had also been expelled from court for their bad influence, attempting to steal power for themselves.
Following their expulsion, they gathered their armies in the north of England and marched down to the south to confront Henry VI’s Lancastrian forces. The Yorkist and Lancastrian armies met just north of London, in the town of St Albans. Despite the hours of negotiations, no agreement was made, and the forces clashed, fighting erupting throughout the small town. The Yorkist army was slightly larger than the Lancastrian one (estimates of 3000-6000 Yorkists faced off against 2000 Lancastrians led by the Duke of Buckingham).
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The Yorkists initially faced several heavy losses in the street fighting, but Warwick tactically ordered his men to charge at the Lancastrian reserves, where Henry VI was stationed. Upon realising that they had been flanked on both sides, the Lancastrian defenders fled, while Warwick’s longbowmen rained arrows down upon Henry VI’s bodyguard. Buckingham was killed, and Henry was wounded.
The Yorkists claimed victory, and Henry VI was marched back to London by Warwick and York. The Duke of York re-established himself as Lord Protector of England and effectively ruled instead of Henry. Henry’s wife, Margaret, and their young son, Edward of Westminster, fled into exile. Civil war had well and truly erupted again in England.
2. The Battle of Wakefield (30 December 1460)
Another key battle of the Wars of the Roses was unquestionably the Battle of Wakefield, fought on 30 December 1460 at Wakefield, West Yorkshire. By this point, King Henry VI’s mental state was in terrible decline, and he had transferred the succession of the English crown to Richard, Duke of York, and his heirs. The Act (known as the Act of Settlement, signed in October 1460) recognized York’s stronger hereditary claim to the throne (he was also descended from Edward III), but also stated that Henry VI would remain king until his death, at which point the succession would transfer to York and his heirs.
Naturally, this meant that Edward of Westminster, Henry and Margaret’s son, would be disinherited and would not become king. Margaret could not agree to these terms, and sent an army south under control of the Duke of Somerset. In retaliation, York marched from London with his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland (his eldest son Edward had been sent to put down a rebellion led by Jasper Tudor and other Welsh Lancastrians).
York arrived at Wakefield on 21 December and intended to spend the festive season there, but in one of the strangest moves in military history, he sortied from the castle on 30 December, before any reinforcements had arrived and went to meet the Lancastrians on the battlefield. The Lancastrians flanked York — just as he had done to them at St Albans six years prior — and trapped him. After just 30 minutes, York lay dead. Rutland fled but was captured and then killed.
Following the battle, Margaret had the heads of both York and Rutland impaled on spikes and displayed over Micklegate Bar in York, with a paper crown on York’s head in mockery of him. The Wars of the Roses were far from over yet.
3. The Bloody Battle of Towton (29 March 1461)
The Lancastrians, fresh from victory in York, marched south for further plunder. They defeated Warwick at the Second Battle of St Albans, and recaptured the hapless Henry VI, who had been abandoned on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Edward (who was now the Duke of York following his father’s death) had defeated more Welsh Lancastrians at Mortimer’s Cross, and, due to the Act of Settlement was crowned as King Edward IV of England. England officially had two kings — and there was only one way to sort it out — on the battlefield.
And so the sides met, on 29 March 1461 at Towton, in North Yorkshire. The armies, which numbered between 50,000 – 65,000 between them met on Palm Sunday, during a heavy snowstorm. The battle is reported to have raged on for ten hours, with neither side really gaining a true advantage until late in the day, when the Lancastrian forces crumbled, paving the way for a Yorkist victory. As the Lancastrians had begun to flee, the Yorkists slaughtered them. Death tolls by the end of the day were estimated at around 28,000 men killed — giving Towton the title of not just the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses, but the bloodiest battle in English history.
The death toll was so severe in fact, that the Lancastrians were unable to raise another army for three years. However, the Wars of the Roses was still very much in motion, as Henry, Margaret, and Edward of Westminster had fled to Scotland, and were safe — for the time being.
4. The Battle of Barnet (14 April 1471)
Another key battle of the Wars of the Roses was the Battle of Barnet, fought on 14 April 1471. A notable part of this battle was that Warwick, “the Kingmaker” had defected from the Yorkist to the Lancastrian sides, in one of the most shocking U-turns in history.
Prior to the battle, Warwick had disagreed with Edward IV’s nepotism, as well as his secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, a widow with two sons, who helped her family (the Woodvilles) become big players at Edward’s court. Warwick had had enough, and defected to the Lancastrian side.
In October 1470, a Yorkist army forced Edward to flee to France, while the ever-ailing Henry VI was placed back on the throne temporarily. In order to regain the throne, Edward persuaded Charles I “the Bold,” Duke of Burgundy, to support his cause. He did, and the armies crossed the English channel and met at Barnet, outside London.
The weather conditions on the day were incredibly foggy, and under cover of darkness, Edward’s Yorkists forces had managed to surprise the Lancastrians, and met them in the thick fog at dawn. The Lancastrians began to retreat but were falsely targeted by their own men — who were likely confused by the fog. Shouts of “Treason!” erupted throughout the Lancastrian ranks, further confusing the soldiers, and they broke formation and fled. Warwick himself was killed during the retreat, a huge loss to the Lancastrian cause.
5. The Battle of Tewkesbury (4 May 1471)
The Lancastrian forces were not finished just yet. Less than a month after their defeat at Barnet, the Lancastrians marched west in order to cross the River Severn and join the Welsh Lancastrians under the command of Jasper Tudor. However, they met a Yorkist army at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, in what was to become one of the most decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses.
Edward IV had learned of the Lancastrians’ plan and so met them with a 5,000-strong army — the Lancastrians had about 6,000 men in their ranks.
Due to the terrain, the Yorkists found it difficult to gain any traction, and instead rained arrows down upon the defenders. Eventually, Edward’s forces managed to gain ground, and advanced on the Lancastrian army, who inevitably broke rank and fled. Many were slain in a field still known today as the Bloody Meadow.
Queen Margaret, who had been hiding nearby, was captured and imprisoned, as was Henry VI, and the unfortunate monarch was executed, thus formally ending Lancastrian rule in England. The Wars of the Roses had moved into its Yorkist phase, and the Yorkists would rule England in relative peace for the next fourteen years.
6. The End of the Wars of the Roses: The Battle of Bosworth Field (22 August 1485)
Despite such a huge gap in time between Tewkesbury and Bosworth, no list of key battles of the Wars of the Roses is complete without mentioning the final pitched battle of the conflict. Despite the relative peace, things began to unfurl in 1483, when Edward IV died. The crown passed to his twelve-year-old son, Edward V, who was placed under the protection of his uncle and Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard, the Duke of York.
However, Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, mysteriously went missing, and Richard took the crown for himself, crowning himself as King Richard III of England. This frustrated many people, and when rumors began to circulate that he had murdered the boys himself, his popularity decreased even further.
Over in France, Henry Tudor, an exiled Lancastrian, and relation of Henry VI, began to plot his return to England. Despite his first effort in 1483 failing because of a storm, his second attempt in August 1485 saw him successfully land in his home country of south-west Wales. While on his way to London, Henry attracted numbers and support for his cause. Upon hearing the news that Henry was coming to claim the throne for himself, Richard III hurriedly amassed an army and met Henry’s forces at Bosworth in Leicestershire on 22 August 1485.
The initial fighting saw little advantage sway to either side and eventually Richard decided to lead a counterattack against the Lancastrian side. He was unhorsed, yet continued fighting, before being overwhelmed by Lancastrian forces and killed. Richard III remains the last English monarch to be killed on the battlefield.
The result was of huge significance because Richard was the final Plantagenet king to rule England, and his death formally ended the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII of England, and he established the Tudor Dynasty, which was to rule England for 118 years until the death of his grand-daughter Elizabeth I in 1603.
In addition, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York (the eldest child of Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville), thereby uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster and creating the famous Tudor Rose — with both white and red petals. They would go on to have seven children together, including the next king of England: the infamous King Henry VIII. The end of the Wars of the Roses also signified England’s move from a medieval country to an Early Modern one.