6 Key Figures From the Wars of the Roses

The 15th century Wars of the Roses were a series of brutal and deadly battles. Find out which events shaped Britain’s bloodiest civil conflict.

May 27, 2022By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

portraits of richard iii henry vii and henry vi


The Wars of the Roses were fought in England between 1455-87. Two branches of the Plantagenet family fought for the English throne: York and Lancaster. The civil conflict took the lives of over 105,000 people, ranging from soldiers and nobility to peasants. The Wars of the Roses completely transformed English history as a whole, ending the male lineage of the Plantagenet family through both the York and Lancaster lines, as the Tudor family established their dynasty which was to last for over 100 years changing English history forever.


1. Henry VI: Sparking the Wars of the Roses

henry vi wars of the roses
Henry VI, attributed to the Bristol School, c.1618, via Dulwich Gallery


King Henry VI (r. 1422-61; 1470-71) was the ruler of England for two different periods during the fifteenth century. The son of legendary English King Henry V, he was a Lancastrian king whose reign was characterized by his mental illnesses and inability to rule as a result. He came to the throne aged less than one year old after his father’s untimely death. As a result, his early reign was dominated by a regency government — the most notable members were his uncle (his father’s brother) Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Henry Beaufort (his uncle’s half-uncle).


While Henry’s early reign was dominated by his failure in France and the culmination of the Hundred Years’ War, his later reign was dominated by his madness. In August 1453, he had a mental breakdown, and was unable to process anything around him for a year. It was during this time that his son Edward was born, and he was unable to acknowledge this. It is thought that he inherited this condition from his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France (r. 1380-1422, also known as Charles the Mad), who also suffered from psychiatric problems.


charles vi wars of the roses
Charles VI of France, by Master of Boucicaut, 1412, via Wikimedia Commons


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

In the meantime, the Duke of York had returned from Ireland to restore peace in the government while the King was ill and he was named Protector of the Realm in 1454. Henry regained his senses around Christmas Day 1454, but the nobles who had come to power during Henry’s madness took matters into their own hands. They backed the claims to the throne of the House of York over Henry’s Lancastrian heritage, and despite Henry’s attempts to reconcile the warring factions, civil war broke out in England.


Henry was captured at the Battle of Northampton on 10 July 1460, but his wife, Queen Margaret, had managed to escape with their son, Edward, to Scotland, and gathered forces for the Lancastrian cause north of the border. It was at the Battle of Towton on 29th March 1461 that Edward, son of the Duke of York (who had died at the Battle of Wakefield on 30th December 1460) defeated the Lancastrian army, deposed Henry VI, and was crowned Edward IV of England.


Henry and Margaret once more managed to escape to Scotland but returned to England in 1464. It was then that Henry was in hiding in Waddington Hall in Lancashire, where he was betrayed and captured by the Yorkists, and held as a prisoner in the Tower of London.


However, Edward IV soon fell out with two of his main supporters: George, Duke of Clarence (his younger brother), and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. They formed a secret alliance with Margaret at the urging of King Louis XI of France (r. 1461-83), and Warwick married his daughter Anne to Henry and Margaret’s son, Edward. Warwick returned to England, deposed Edward IV, and reinstated Henry VI on the throne.


george plantagenet wars of the roses
George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, by Lucas Cornelisz De Kock, 16th century, via the Philip Mould Gallery


Unfortunately for Henry, his years in hiding, captivity, and mental health issues had taken their toll: he was king for less than six months (during which Warwick and Clarence ruled in his name). Edward IV then returned to England and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4th May 1471, where Henry’s son and heir Edward was killed.


Henry was imprisoned once more in the Tower of London and died on the night of 21st May 1471. Some sources suggest that he died of melancholy after hearing of his son’s death, while others suggest that Edward IV had him murdered. Either way, it was a sad end to a pitiful life. He was just 49 years old.


2. Richard, Duke of York

richard duke of york
Talbot Master, Richard, Duke of York, , 1444-45, via Talbot Shrewsbury Book, via HistoryHit.com


Richard, Duke of York was born on 21 September 1411. He was the great-grandson of Edward III of England through his father, and great-great-great grandson through his mother. His paternal grandfather was Edmund, Duke of York (founder of the House of York), while his mother was great-granddaughter of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s second son. As a result, Richard arguably had a better claim to the throne than the House of Lancaster, who were descended from John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son, rather than his second.


York’s conflicts with Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s wife, were a major cause of unrest in England and undoubtedly contributed to the Wars of the Roses. In 1455, not long after Henry’s initial recovery from his madness, Richard led a force of between 3,000-7,000 troops to London, where they met Lancastrian forces at St Albans on 22nd May 1455, which resulted in a decisive Yorkist victory. Henry was taken prisoner. With Henry imprisoned, Richard took up position of Lord Protector once more.


margaret of anjou
Margaret of Anjou, by the Talbot Master, 1444-45, via HistoryHit.com


Following the Battle of Northampton, York returned from Ireland to England and acted as king while Henry was effectively in custody. On 10th October 1460, York entered Parliament with his sword upright before him and placed his hand on the empty throne, as if he was signaling that he wanted to occupy it, which did not impress the Lords. After weeks of negotiation, with York asserting his hereditary right to the throne, Parliament settled on the Act of Accord, passed on 25th October 1460. It was the Act of Accord that stated that York and his heirs were indeed the successors of Henry VI, and that he would be king upon Henry’s death. Parliament also made York Lord Protector and Prince of Wales.


However, Lancastrian forces were arming in northern England, and eventually met York and his forces at Sandal Castle near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. The battle was a decisive one in the Wars of the Roses, and York himself was killed, thus shifting the power balance back into the hands of the Lancastrians.


3. Edward IV

edward iv wars of the roses
Edward IV, artist unknown, c. 1540, via the Smithsonian Magazine


Edward IV (r. 1461-70; 1471-83) was King of England in two separate stints: once during Henry VI’s lifetime, and the second time, after Henry VI’s death. He was the first Yorkist king of England, coming to the throne in 1461 following the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Northampton.


Edward was abnormally tall for the age, standing at 6 feet 4 inches (1.93m), and was always seen to be dressed in fine clothing which complimented his size — this was done deliberately to undermine Henry VI, who was much shorter.


Following his accession to the throne, Edward had to heavily rely on the support of the Neville family, as most Lancastrians stayed loyal to Henry VI’s cause. However, in 1464, Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, a widow of the former Lancastrian knight, John Grey of Groby who had died at the Battle of Towton. Moreover, Elizabeth already had two sons. The nobility disapproved of Elizabeth Woodville, as although her mother was from nobility, her father had been a middle-ranking provincial knight.


woodville elizabeth tudor
Elizabeth Woodville, via Westminister Abbey Library


After falling out with Edward over the Woodville family, Warwick and Clarence staged a full-scale revolt against Edward, which was known as the Lincolnshire Rebellion. When the two rebels were defeated, they fled to France for refuge. Sensing a good chance for the French, Louis XI persuaded Warwick to negotiate with his long-time enemy Margaret of Anjou, and she agreed in the end. With French support, Warwick landed in England on 9th September 1470 and announced his intention to restore Henry VI to the throne.


At this point, the Yorkist regime was hugely unpopular, and Neville switched sides. Edward fled, and sought refuge in Flanders. However, following Henry’s failure as king, Edward returned to England and was restored as King on 11th April 1471.


Incredibly, after the years of turmoil during the Wars of the Roses, Edward’s second reign was relatively peaceful, despite a continuous threat from Henry Tudor, who would later become Henry VII and the first Tudor king. Although he was a tall and healthy young man, Edward became obese in his later life, and his health declined rapidly. He died on 9th April 1483, aged 40. His son Edward V succeeded him, but he was never crowned, and instead, his brother took the crown, and became the infamous King Richard III of England.


4. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick

richard neville wars of the roses
John Rous, Richard Neville, , 15th century, via themedievalist.net


Richard Neville, better known as Warwick the Kingmaker, was born on 22nd November 1428. He was instrumental during the Wars of the Roses, and arguably the most important character in the conflict. At the time, he was the most powerful nobleman in England and had connections that stretched from Scotland to France. Originally a Yorkist, he switched sides and supported the Lancastrian cause, and as a result deposed two different kings, which gave him the epithet “the Kingmaker”.


Thanks to his connections and marriage to Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick, he emerged as a key political figure during the 1450s in England. After a quarrel with Edmund Beaufort over the lordship of Glamorgan, Warwick joined Richard Neville (a long-time enemy of Beaufort’s), and thus opposed the king.


However, at the Battle of Wakefield, York was slain, as was Warwick’s father. Nevertheless, York’s son, with Warwick’s assistance, triumphed and was crowned King Edward IV, England’s first Yorkist king.


Edward IV initially ruled with Warwick’s support, but the two fell out over Edward’s marriage into the Woodville family, whom many nobles — including Warwick — disliked. Warwick was exiled to France, and after a failed plot to put George, Duke of Clarence (Edward IV’s brother) on the throne, tensions rose once more. Warwick changed his allegiance again, and restored Henry VI to the throne. Unfortunately for him, though, this victory was short-lived: Henry died less than a year later, and on 14th April 1471 at the Battle of Barnet, Warwick was defeated by Edward IV, and killed.


5. Richard III

richard iii wars of the roses
Unknown artist, Richard III, , 1520, via the New York Review of Books


Richard III (r. 1483-85) is one of England’s most notorious kings. Often held in the same stead as King Stephen and King John as a stony-faced, authoritarian ruler, he is another central figure during the Wars of the Roses.


Richard was the final Yorkist king of England, and his defeat at the final battle of the Wars of the Roses (the Battle of Bosworth Field) signaled the end of the Middle Ages in England, and the start of the Early Modern period with the rise of the Tudors.


Richard was created Duke of Gloucester in 1461 following his brother’s accession to the English throne as Edward IV. He also married Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, Warwick the Kingmaker. He helped to govern northern England during Edward IV’s reign.


Upon Edward IV’s death in 1483, he was named as Lord Protector of the Realm for Edward’s eldest surviving son, Edward V, who was only 12 at the time. However, before Edward V’s coronation in June 1483, Richard declared Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville as bigamous, stating that she had been married at the time and thus their children were illegitimate, so could not inherit the throne. Parliament agreed with Richard, and instead he was crowned King of England on 6th July 1483.


Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, were held in the Tower of London. Initially, they could be seen playing in the yard, but after August there were no reports of them having been seen. It is often presumed that the two “Princes in the Tower” had been murdered either by their uncle, Richard III, or on his orders.


princes paul delaroche painting
Edward V, Minor King of England, and Richard, Duke of York, his younger brother, by Paul Delaroche, 1830, via Historyextra.com


In October 1483, an unsuccessful revolt was led against Richard by supporters of Edward IV, but this was put down. Then, in 1485, the Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor along with his uncle Jasper Tudor landed in Wales and recruited soldiers. They met Richard’s Yorkist forces at Bosworth, near Leicester and engaged in what was to become the final battle of the Wars of the Roses.


At the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485, Richard III was slain, and thus became the last English king to die in battle. Henry Tudor claimed the throne and was proclaimed Henry VII of England. His accession started the Tudor dynasty.


6. Henry VII Tudor: Ending the War of the Roses

henry vii tudor
Henry VII, by Herman Rink, 1505, the National Portrait Gallery, London


A key figure of the later Wars of the Roses and father of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII (r. 1485-1509) deserves a mention. His mother was Margaret Beaufort, a Lancastrian descendant of the Plantagenets, while his father was Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, Henry VI’s half-brother. He was also a descendant of the Welsh Tudors of Penmynydd.


When Edward IV took the throne from his uncle Henry VI in 1461, Henry Tudor was exiled to Brittany — and spent almost 14 years there. Upon Richard III’s accession, Henry’s mother Margaret promoted Henry Tudor as an alternative king. On Christmas Day 1483 at Rennes Cathedral, Henry pledged to marry Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, (Richard III’s niece). She was also Edward’s heir, since the death of the Princes in the Tower.


Henry had the support of Brittany behind him, as well as the support of the Woodvilles, as Edward IV had been married to Elizabeth Woodville. He landed near Pembrokeshire and amassed more forces on his way through Wales. His army numbered between 5,000-6,000 soldiers.


Henry’s smaller force defeated Richard’s army at the Battle of Bosworth field, and Henry became Henry VII of England. He upheld his promise and married Elizabeth of York, and as a result, united the Lancastrian and Yorkist houses. This is why the Tudor Rose is both white (York) and red (Lancaster).


Not only did Henry VII end the Wars of the Roses, but he also united a disunited country with his marriage to a Yorkist princess. Perhaps Henry VII’s most famous legacy though, is his infamous son who became king upon his death in 1509: Henry VIII.

Author Image

By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.