When did the Wars of the Roses start?
Now that “The White Queen” has ended, there are many viewers who would like to learn more of the history of the period. Historians typically have two distinct points which they say were the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. The first is in the usurpation of Richard II’s throne by Henry IV, and the second was when Richard, Duke of York, rose up against Henry VI. This post explains how the events of 1399 set up 1455.
By removing his cousin, King Richard II, and taking his throne, Henry IV creates a precedent that a king may be removed if he is unpopular or not seen to be fit to rule. The usurpation was a sad end to Richard II, a boy who turned into a tyrant. He was the son of Edward, the “Black Prince,” and his wife Joan, “The Maid,” of Kent, and grandson of Edward III. His reign was seen as a new beginning, a fresh start for a monarchy that be been deteriorating under an elderly king. Richard was a boy-king, and the issue of his minority came to a head with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Those rebels swore that they loved Richard, and that they only wanted to serve him and help to protect him from “evil counsel.” They turned most of their anger and violence against Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt, father of Henry IV, because he seemed to have too much personal power. The rebels’ path of destruction landed at John’s castle The Savoy, which was burned to the ground.
At first it seemed as though Richard was listening to the rebels, but the end of the revolt was cemented into history with one sentence: “Serfs ye are, and serfs ye shall remain!” which the boy-king allegedly yelled at the rebels. The promises he had made to them, namely their freedom from serfdom, proved to be fraudulent, and the opinion of the people turned against Richard. Ironically it was John of Gaunt, the focus of the rebels’ enmity, who proved to be one of Richard’s most true advisors and supporters. Despite having the wealth and manpower to steal the throne from Richard, John never seems to have actually contemplated it. This may have been because John of was too busy attempting to gain the throne of Castile to try to take England from a nephew he had sworn to protect. John seems to have taken his promise of loyalty to Richard very seriously. John was a fascinating person, who will forever be attached in our minds as the romantic man from Anya Seton’s Katherine. That novel also gives us a wonderful depiction of the Peasants’ Revolt. John turned out not to be a threat to Richard; John’s oldest son Henry proved to be the real threat.
Henry of Bolingbroke was the son and heir of John of Gaunt, the third surviving son of King Edward III, from John’s first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. She was the wealthy daughter of Henry, the first Duke of Lancaster. His titles, wealth and property passed to John, as Henry of Lancaster had no male heir. John owned more castles and land, and was wealthier, than the king. He also had a larger number of retainers, or private soldiers than the king. Henry was named for this grandfather, who was the grandson of Edmund Crouchback, and great-grandson of King Henry III. This made Henry of Bolingbroke of royal descent from both of his parents, which he later used as evidence that he should be king. Richard was of royal descent from both of his parents as well, since his mother, Joan, was the daughter of Edmund of Woodstock, a son of King Edward I. Henry would later say that his ancestor, Edmund Crouchback, was the true heir but had been overlooked in favor of Edward I, but there is no actual proof to this story, which may have just been an attempt to legitimate his claim after he deposed Richard.
In 1398, following a dispute with the first Duke of Norfolk Thomas Mowbray, Richard sent Henry into exile. Showing how supportive John was to the king, he agreed with the punishment of his son and heir. John died the following yea, but Richard blocked Henry from gaining his inheritance. This was the fuel that prompted Henry to invade England, presumably to gain his lands and titles, but once there he imprisoned Richard, and had himself crowned King Henry IV on October 13, 1399. Richard was imprisoned in Pontefract Castle, where he died, possibly from starvation. Richard’s jailor was Henry’s step-brother and companion Thomas Swynford, son of John of Gaunt’s third wife and former mistress Katherine Swynford, by her first husband, Sir Hugh.
This single action made the position of king unstable. This was an expansion of the same reasoning used to depose Edward II, who was unpopular and not a very good king, but it is not identical. In that case, the throne passed to his son, Edward III, when he abdicated. But Edward III would have inherited the throne eventually anyway, just not as soon. He also wasn’t fighting to gain the throne for himself. His mother, Isabella “The She-Wolf” of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer, deposed Edward II on his behalf. Richard II had no children, so the question of who his heir would be followed his abdication. Technically, Richard’s heir was Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, who was a descendent of Edward III’s second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence, through his daughter Philippa. This descent becomes questionable, as Mortimer was descended through a female line, while Henry was descended from a male line.
The rules of English succession have not been as clear and a woman could be an heir, though I do not personally believe that at the time this would have been accepted. Because she was not male, the nobles would have rather seen a man with less of a claim get the throne. This has been much debated, because if we follow a male-from-male line from Edward III, Henry IV would have been Richard II’s heir. If we allow for female descent, then Edmund Mortimer was his heir and Henry IV usurped two crowns instead of one. And yes, the Earl of March was a descendent of Roger Mortimer, lover of Isabella of France.
Richard could have still had children, since there was no way to know if he had been infertile. If he had a son, Henry of Bolingbroke would have been further from the crown. Edward III would have always been his father’s heir, unless he predeceased him. The comparison is still valid, but messy.
This should serve as a warning to us today. Precedent can become a nightmare. The roots of the Wars of the Roses come from the centuries before, repeated in the 15th Century. Taking a cue from the mistakes of the past, we can make mistakes in the future.
Spartacus Educational- “Punishment of the Peasants”
Luminarium- “King Henry IV”