The War of the Roses: the Historical Facts of the Tudor Myth (Shakespeare’s Histories)

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The English Faculty

The Department of the English Language

Тheory and Teaching Methods of Foreign Languages and Culture

The War of the Roses: the Historical Facts of the Tudor Myth
(Shakespeare’s Histories)

The Course Paper in the History and Culture of Great Britain

Moshikova Ekaterina Yurievna


Pereyashkin V.V.

Novorossiysk 2006



1. The Historical Facts of the Tudor Myth

2. Shakespeare’s Histories



Appendix 1

Appendix 2


The antagonism between the two houses started with the overthrowing of
King Richard II by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, in
1399. Being the issue of Edward III’s third son John of Gaunt,
Bolingbroke had a poor claim to the throne. According to precedent, the
crown should have passed to the male descendants of Lionel of Antwerp,
duke of Clarence (1338-1368), Edward III’s second son, and in fact,
Richard II had named Lionel’s grandson, Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of
March as heir presumptive. However, Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV.
He was tolerated as king since Richard II’s government had been highly
unpopular. Bolingbroke died in 1413. His son and successor, Henry V, was
a great soldier, and his military success against France in the Hundred
Years’ War bolstered his enormous popularity, enabling him to strengthen
the Lancastrian hold on the throne. Henry V’s short reign saw one
conspiracy against him, led by Richard, Earl of Cambridge, a son of
Edmund of Langley, the fifth son of Edward III. Cambridge was executed
in 1415 for treason at the start of the campaign leading up to the
Battle of Agincourt. Cambridge’s wife Anne Mortimer also had a claim to
the throne, being the daughter of Roger Mortimer and thus a descendant
of Lionel of Antwerp. Henry V died in 1422, and Richard, Duke of York,
the son of Richard, Earl of Cambridge and Anne Mortimer, would grow up
to challenge his successor, the feeble King Henry VI, for the crown.

The choice of this theme for our course paper was mostly conditioned by
the idea of learning history of Great Britain. The object matter of the
paper is the compositions of W. Shakespeare meanwhile the subject of our
investigation is the war of the roses which produced a great effect on
the further history of the United Kingdom in general.

The object and purposes of the course paper may be formulated as

– Analytical study of the material on the theme;

– Exposure of the dates and importance of some events for the
Lancastrians and the Yorkists;

– Searching the peculiarities in the background of different things and

– Searching for the conditions which influenced this event;

– Defining of the consequences of the event.

To achieve the set aims we looked through a list of study books, various
references, pieces of press and different sites in Internet. Our paper
consist of the Introduction, 2 Chapters, Conclusion and the list of

1. The Historical Facts of the Tudor Myth

The Wars of the Roses were a series of civil wars fought in medieval
England from 1455 to 1487 between the House of Lancaster and the House
of York. The name Wars of the Roses is based on the badges used by the
two sides, the red rose for the Lancastrians and the white rose for the
Yorkists. Major causes of the conflict include: 1) both houses were
direct descendents of king Edward III; 2) the ruling Lancastrian king,
Henry VI, surrounded himself with unpopular nobles; 3) the civil unrest
of much of the population; 4) the availability of many powerful lords
with their own private armies; and 5) the untimely episodes of mental
illness by king Henry VI. Please see the origins page for more
information on the start of the wars.

Henry VI was troubled all his life by recurring bouts of madness, during
which the country was ruled by regents. The regents didn’t do any better
for England than Henry did, and the long Hundred Years War with France
sputtered to an end with England losing all her possessions in France
except for Calais. In England itself anarchy reigned. Nobles gathered
their own private armies and fought for local supremacy.

The struggle to rule on behalf of an unfit king was one of the surface
reasons for the outbreak of thirty years of warfare that we now call the
Wars of the Roses, fought between the Houses of York (white rose) and
Lancaster (red rose). In reality these squabbles were an indication of
the lawlessness that ran rampant in the land. More squalid than
romantic, the Wars of the Roses decimated both houses in an interminably
long, bloody struggle for the throne. The rose symbols that we name the
wars after were not in general use during the conflict. The House of
Lancaster did not even adopt the red rose as its official symbol until
the next century.

Henry VI was eventually forced to abdicate in 1461 and died ten years
later in prison, possibly murdered. In his place ruled Edward IV of the
house of York who managed to get his dubious claim to the throne
legitimized by Parliament. Edward was the first king to address the
House of Commons, but his reign is notable mostly for the continuing
saga of the wars with the House of Lancaster and unsuccessful wars in
France. When Edward died in 1483 his son, Edward V, aged twelve,
followed him. In light of his youth Edward’s uncle Richard, Duke of
Gloucester, acted as regent.

Traditional history, written by later Tudor historians seeking to
legitimize their masters’ past, has painted Richard as the archetypal
wicked uncle. The truth may not be so clear cut. Some things are known,
or assumed, to be true. Edward and his younger brother were put in the
Tower of London, ostensibly for their own protection. Richard had the
“Princes in the Tower” declared illegitimate, which may possibly have
been true. He then got himself declared king. He may have been in the
right, and certainly England needed a strong and able king. But he was
undone when the princes disappeared and were rumoured to have been
murdered by his orders.

In the 17th century workmen repairing a stairwell at the Tower found the
bones of two boys of about the right ages. Were these the Princes in the
Tower, and were they killed by their wicked uncle? We will probably
never know. The person with the most to gain by killing the princes was
not Richard, however, but Henry, Earl of Richmond. Henry also claimed
the throne, seeking “legitimacy” through descent from John of Gaunt and
his mistress.

Henry defeated and killed Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field
(1485), claiming the crown which was found hanging upon a bush, and
placing it upon his own head. Bosworth marked the end of the Wars of the
Roses. There was no one else left to fight. It also marked the end of
the feudal period of English history. With the death of Richard III the
crown passed from the Plantagenet line to the new House of Tudor, and a
new era of history began.

Kings were gaining the upper hand in the struggle with the barons. They
encouraged the growth of towns and trade. They took more advisors and
officials from the new merchant middle class.

This eroded the power of the land-based nobility. Further, kings
established royal courts to replace local feudal courts and replaced
feudal duties (which had been difficult to collect in any case) with
direct taxation. They created national standing armies instead of
relying on feudal obligations of service from vassals. Feudal kingdoms
moved slowly towards becoming nations.

In the late 1400’s the House of York fought the House of Lancaster for
the English crown. Because Lancaster’s heraldic badge was a red rose and
York’s was a white rose, the long conflict came to be known as the Wars
of the Roses (1455 – 1485).

The wars started when the nobles of York rose against Henry VI of
Lancaster who was a feeble ruler. Edward IV, of York, replaced Henry as
king. Later, Henry again became king, but lost his crown once more to
Edward after the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. The Yorkists held power
until Richard III lost his throne to the Lancastrian Henry Tudor. Henry
Tudor married into the House of York. This personal union ended the
conflict, and a new famous dynasty, the Tudors, emerged.

“And here I prophesy: this brawl today, Grown to this faction in the
Temple garden, Shall send, between the Red Rose and the White, A
thousand souls to death and deadly night.” — Warwick, Henry VI, Part One

The Wars of the Roses (1455–1485) is the name generally given to the
intermittent civil war fought over the throne of England between
adherents of the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Both houses
were branches of the Plantagenet royal house, tracing their descent from
King Edward III. The name Wars of the Roses was not used at the time,
but has its origins in the badges chosen by the two royal houses, the
Red Rose of Lancaster, whose retainers tended to favour red coats or red
roses as their symbol, and the White Rose of York, whose men often
sported white coats, or white rose insignia.

The Wars were fought largely by the landed aristocracy and armies of
feudal retainers. The House of Lancaster found most of its support in
the south and west of the country, while support for the House of York
came mainly from the north and east. The Wars of the Roses, with their
heavy casualties among the nobility, would usher in a period of great
social upheaval in feudal England and ironically lead to the fall of the
Plantagenet dynasty. The period would see the decline of English
influence on the Continent, a weakening of the feudal power of the
nobles and by default a strengthening of the merchant classes, and the
growth of a strong, centralized monarchy under the Tudors. It arguably
heralded the end of the medieval period in England and the movement
towards the Renaissance.

The antagonism between the two houses started with the overthrowing of
King Richard II by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, in
1399. Being the issue of Edward’s III third sonJohn of Gaunt,
Bolingbroke had a poor claim to the throne. According to precedent, the
crown should have passed to the male descendants of Lionel of Antverp,
Duke of Clarence (1338-1368), Edward’s III second son, and in fact,
Richard II had named Lionel’s grandson, Roger Mortimer, 4th earl of
March as heir presumptive. However, Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV.
He was tolerated as king since Richard II’s government had been highly
unpopular. Bolingbroke died in 1413. His son and successor, Henry V, was
a great soldier, and his military success against France in the Hundred
Years’ War bolstered his enormous popularity, enabling him to strengthen
the Lancastrian hold on the throne. Henry V’s short reign saw one
conspiracy against him, led by Richaed, earl of Cambridge, a son of
Edmund of Langley, the fifth son of Edward III. Cambridge was executed
in 1415 for treason at the start of the campaign leading up to the
Battle o9f Aglicourt. Cambridge’s wife, Anne Mortimer, also had a claim
to the throne, being the daughter of Roger Mortimer and thus a
descendant of Lionel of Antwerp. Henry V died in 1422, and Ricard, Duke
of York, the son of Richard, Earl of Cambridge and Anne Mortimer, would
grow up to challenge his successor, the feeble King Henry VI, for the

The Lancastrian King Henry VI of England was surrounded by unpopular
regents and advisors. The most notable of these were Edmund Beaufort,
2nd Duke of Somerset and William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, who
were blamed for mismanaging the government and poorly executing the
continuing Hundred Years’ War with France. Under Henry VI virtually all
of the English holdings in France, including the lands won by Henry V,
had been lost. Henry VI had begun to be seen as a weak, ineffectual
king. In addition, he suffered from embarrassing episodes of mental
illness. By the 1450s many considered Henry incapable of rule. The short
line of Lancastrian kings had already been plagued by questions of
legitimacy, and the House of York believed that they had a stronger
claim to the throne. Growing civil discontent, the abundance of feuding
nobles with private armies, and corruption in Henry’s VI court together
formed a political climate ripe for civil war.

When, in 1453, King Henry suffered the first of several bouts of mental
illness, a Council of Regency was set up, headed in the role of Lord
Protector by the powerful and popular Richard Plntagenet, Duke of York,
and head of the House of York. Richard soon began to press his claim to
the throne with ever-greater boldness, imprisoning Somerset, and backing
his allies, Salisbury and Warwick, in a series of minor conflicts with
powerful supporters of Henry, like the Dukes of Northumberland. Henry’s
recovery in 1455th warted Richard’s ambitions, and the Duke of York was
soon after driven from the royal court by Henry’s queen, Margaret of
Anjou. Since Henry was an ineffectual leader, the powerful and
aggressive Queen Margaret emerged as the de facto leader of the
Lancastrian faction. Queen Margaret built up an alliance against Richard
and conspired with other nobles to reduce his influence. An increasingly
thwarted Richard finally resorted to armed hostilities in 1455 at the
First Battle of St. Aslbans.

Although armed clashes had broken out previously between supporters of
King Henry and Richard, Duke of York, the principal period of armed
conflict in the Wars of the Roses took place between 1455 and 1489.

Richard, Duke of York led a small force toward London and was met by
Henry VI’s forces at ST. Albans, north of London, on May 22,1455. The
relatively small First Battle of St. Albans was the first open conflict
of the civil war. Richard’s aim was ostensibly to remove “poor advisors”
from King Henry’s side. The result was a defeat for the Lancastrians,
who lost many of their leaders including Somerset. York and his allies
regained their position of influence, and for a while both sides seemed
shocked that an actual battle had been fought and did their best at
reconciliation. When Henry suffered another bout of mental illness, York
was again appointed Protector, and Margaret was charged with the king’s
care, having already been sidelined from decision-making on the Council.

After the First Battle of St Albans, the compromise of 1455 enjoyed some
success, with York remaining the dominant voice on the Council even
after Henry’s recovery. The problems which had caused conflict soon
re-emerged, particularly the issue of whether the Duke of York, or Henry
and Margaret’s infant son, Edward, would succeed to the throne. Queen
Margaret refused to accept any solution that would disinherit her son,
and it became clear that she would only tolerate the situation for as
long as the Duke of York and his allies retained the military
ascendancy. Henry went on royal progress in the Midlands in 1456, and
Margaret did not allow him to return to London—the king and queen were
popular in the Midlands but becoming ever more unpopular in London where
merchants were angry at the decline in trade and widespread disorder.
The king’s court set up at Coventry. By then the new Duke of Somerset
was emerging as a favourite of the royal court, filling his father’s
shoes. Margaret also persuaded Henry to dismiss the appointments York
had made as Protector, while York himself was again made to return to
his post in Ireland. Disorder in the capital and piracy on the south
coast were growing, but the king and queen remained intent on protecting
their own positions, with the queen introducing conscription for the
first time in England. Meanwhile, York’s ally, Richard Neville, Earl of
Warwick (later dubbed “The Kingmaker”), was growing in popularity in
London as the champion of the merchant classes.

Following the return of York from Ireland, hostilities resumed on
September 23, 1459, at the Battle of Blore Heath in Staffordshire, when
a large Lancastrian army failed to prevent a Yorkist force under Lord
Salisbury from marching from Middleham Castle in Yorkshire and linking
up with York at Ludlow Castle. After a Lancastrian victory at the Battle
of Ludford Bridge, Edward the Earl of March (York’s eldest son, later
Edward IV of England), Salisbury, and Warwick fled to Calais. The
Lancastrians were now back in total control, and Somerset was appointed
Governor of Calais. His attempts to evict Warwick were easily repulsed,
and the Yorkists even began to launch raids on the English coast from
Calais in 1459–60, adding to the sense of chaos and disorder.

By 1460, Warwick and the others were ready to launch an invasion of
England, and rapidly established themselves in Kent and London, where
they enjoyed wide support. Backed by a papal emissary who had taken
their side, they marched north. Henry led an army south to meet them
while Margaret remained in the north with Prince Edward. The Battle of
Northampton, on July 10, 1460, proved disastrous for the Lancastrians.
The Yorkist army under Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, aided by
treachery in the Lancastrian ranks, was able to capture King Henry and
take him prisoner to London.

In the light of this military success, York now moved to press his own
claim to the throne based on the illegitimacy of the Lancastrian line.
Landing in north Wales, he and his wife Cecily entered London with all
the ceremony usually reserved for a monarch. Parliament was assembled,
and when York entered he made straight for the throne, which he may have
been expecting the lords to encourage him to take for himself as they
had Henry IV in 1399. Instead there was stunned silence. He announced
his claim to the throne, but the Lords, even Warwick and Salisbury, were
shocked by his presumption; there was no appetite among them at this
stage to overthrow King Henry. Their ambition was still limited to the
removal of his bad councillors.

The next day, York produced detailed genealogies to support his claim
based on his descent from Lionel of Antwerp and was met with more
understanding. Parliament agreed to consider the matter and finally
accepted that York’s claim was better; but, by a majority of five, they
voted that Henry should remain as king. A compromise was struck in
October 1460 with the Act of Accord, which recognised York as Henry’s
successor to the throne, disinheriting Henry’s six year old son Prince
Edward. York had to accept this compromise as the best on offer; it gave
him much of what he desired, particularly since he was also made
Protector of the Realm and was able to govern in Henry’s name. Margaret
was ordered out of London with Prince Edward. The Act of Accord proved
unacceptable to the Lancastrians, who rallied to Margaret, forming a
large army in the north.

The Duke of York left London later that year with Lord Salisbury to
consolidate his position in the north against Queen Margaret’s army,
which was reported to be massing near the city of York. Richard took up
a defensive position at Sandal Castle near Wakefield at Christmas 1460.
Although Margaret’s army outnumbered Richard’s by more than two to one,
on December 30 York ordered his forces to leave the castle and mount an
attack. His army was dealt a devastating defeat at the Battle of
Wakefield. Richard was slain during the battle, and Salisbury and
Richard’s 17 year old son, Edmund, Earl of rutland, were captured and
beheaded. Margaret ordered the heads of all three placed on the gates of

The Act of Accord and the events of Wakefield left the 18 year old
Edward, Earl of March, York’s eldest son, as Duke of York and heir to
the throne. Salisbury’s death meanwhile left Warwick, his heir, as the
biggest landowner in England. Margaret travelled north to Scotland to
continue negotiations for Scottish assistance. Mary of Guelders, Queen
of Scotland agreed to provide Margaret with an army on condition that
England cede the town of Berwick to Scotland and her daughter be
betrothed to Prince Edward. Margaret agreed, although she had no funds
to pay her army with and could only promise unlimited booty from the
riches of southern England, as long as no looting took place north of
the river Trent. She took her army to Hull, recruiting more men as she

Edward of York, meanwhile, met Pembroke’s army, which was arriving from
Wales, and defeated them soundly at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross in
Herefordshire. He inspired his men with a “vision” of three suns at dawn
(a phenomenon known as “parhelion”), telling them that it was a portent
of victory and represented the three surviving York sons—himself, George
and Richard. This led to Edward’s later adoption of the sign of the
sunne in splendour as his personal emblem.

Margaret was by now moving south, wreaking havoc as she progressed, her
army supporting itself by looting the properties it overran as it passed
through the prosperous south of England. In London, Warwick used this as
propaganda to reinforce Yorkist support throughout the south—the town of
Coventry switching allegiance to the Yorkists. Warwick failed to start
raising an army soon enough and, without Edward’s army to reinforce him,
was caught off-guard by the Lancastrians’ early arrival at St Albans. At
the Second Battle of St Albans the queen won the Lancastrians’ most
decisive victory yet, and as the Yorkist forces fled they left behind
King Henry, who was found unharmed under a tree. Henry knighted thirty
of the Lancastrian soldiers immediately after the battle. As the
Lancastrian army advanced southwards, a wave of dread swept London,
where rumours were rife about the savage Northerners intent on
plundering the city. The people of London shut the city gates and
refused to supply food to the queen’s army, which was looting the
surrounding counties of Hertfordshire and Middlesex.

Edward was meanwhile advancing towards London from the west where he had
joined forces with Warwick. Coinciding with the northward retreat by the
queen to Dunstable, this allowed Edward and Warwick to enter London with
their army. They were welcomed with enthusiasm, money and supplies by
the largely Yorkist-supporting city. Edward could no longer claim simply
to be trying to wrest the king from his bad councillors. With his father
and brother having been killed at Wakefield, this had become a battle
for the crown itself. Edward now needed authority, and this seemed
forthcoming when the Bishop of London asked the people of London their
opinion and they replied with shouts of “King Edward”. This was quickly
confirmed by Parliament and Edward was unofficially crowned in a hastily
arranged ceremony at Westminster Abbey amidst much jubilation. Edward
and Warwick had thus captured London, although Edward vowed he would not
have a formal coronation until Henry and Margaret were executed or
exiled. He also announced that Henry had forfeited his right to the
crown by allowing his queen to take up arms against his rightful heirs
under the Act of Accord; though it was by now becoming widely argued
that Edward’s victory was simply a restoration of the rightful heir to
the throne, which neither Henry nor his Lancastrian predecessors had
been. It was this argument which Parliament had accepted the year

Edward and Warwick next marched north, gathering a large army as they
went, and met an equally impressive Lancastrian army at Towton. The
Battle of Towton, near York, was the biggest battle of the Wars of the
Roses thus far. Both sides had agreed beforehand that the issue was to
be settled that day, with no quarter asked or given. An estimated
40-80,000 men took part with over 20,000 men being killed during (and
after) the battle, an enormous number for the time and the greatest
recorded single day’s loss of life on English soil. The new king and his
army won a decisive victory, and the Lancastrians were decimated, with
most of their leaders slain. Henry and Margaret, who were waiting in
York with their son Edward, fled north when they heard of the outcome.
Many of the surviving Lancastrian nobles now switched allegiances to
King Edward, and those who did not were driven back to the northern
border areas and a few castles in Wales. Edward advanced to take York
where he was confronted with the rotting heads of his father, brother
and Salisbury, which were soon replaced with those of defeated
Lancastrian lords like the notorious Lord Clifford of Skipton-Craven,
who had ordered the execution of Edward’s brother Edmund, Earl of
Rutland, after the Battle of Wakefield.

Henry and Margaret fled to Scotland where they stayed with the royal
court of James III, implementing their earlier promise to cede Berwick
to Scotland and leading an invasion of Carlise later in the year. But
lacking money, they were easily repulsed by Edward’s men who were
rooting out the remaining Lancastrian forces in the northern counties.

Edward IV’s official coronation took place in June 1461 in London where
he received a rapturous welcome from his supporters as the new king of
England. Edward was able to rule in relative peace for ten years.

In the North, Edward could never really claim to have complete control
until 1464, as apart from rebellions, several castles with their
Lancastrian commanders held out for years. Dunstanburgh, Alnwick (the
Percy family seat) and Bamburgh were some of the last to fall. Last to
surrender was the mighty fortress of Harlech (Wales) in 1468 after a
seven-year-long siege. The deposed King Henry was captured in 1465 and
held prisoner at the Tower of London where, for the time being, he was
reasonably well treated.

There were two further Lancastrian revolts in 1464. The first clash was
at the Battle of Hedgeley Moor on April 25 and the second at the Battle
of Haxham on May 15. Both revolts were put down by Warwick’s brother,
John Neville, 1st Maquess of Montagu.

The period 1467–70 saw a marked and rapid deterioration in the
relationship between King Edward and his former mentor, the powerful
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick—”the Kingmaker”. This had several
causes, but stemmed originally from Edward’s decision to marry Elizabeth
Woodville in secret in 1464. Edward later announced the news of his
marriage as fait accompli, to the considerable embarrassment of Warwick,
who had been negotiating a match between Edward and a French bride,
convinced as he was of the need for an alliance with France. This
embarrassment turned to bitterness when the Woodvilles came to be
favoured over the Nevilles at court. Other factors compounded Warwick’s
disillusionment: Edward’s preference for an alliance with Burgundy (over
France), and Edward’s reluctance to allow his brothers George, Duke of
Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to marry Warwick’s daughters,
Isabel Neville and Anne Neville, respectively. Furthermore, Edward’s
general popularity was also on the wane in this period with higher taxes
and persistent disruptions of law and order.

By 1469 Warwick had formed an alliance with Edward’s jealous and
treacherous brother George. They raised an army which defeated the King
at the Battle of Edgecote Moor, and held Edward at Middleham Castle in
Yorkshire. Warwick had the queen’s father, Richard Woodville, 1st Earl
Rivers, executed. He forced Edward to summon a parliament at York at
which it was planned that Edward would be declared illegitimate and the
crown would thus pass to Clarence as Edward’s heir apparent. However,
the country was in turmoil, and Edward was able to call on the loyalty
of his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the majority of the
nobles. Gloucester arrived at the head of a large force and liberated
the king.

Warwick and Clarence were declared traitors and forced to flee to
France, where in 1470 Louis XI of France was coming under pressure from
the exiled Margaret of Anjou to help her invade England and regain her
captive husband’s throne. It was King Louis who suggested the idea of an
alliance between Warwick and Margaret, a notion which neither of the old
enemies would at first entertain but eventually came round to, realising
the potential benefits. However, both were undoubtedly hoping for
different outcomes: Warwick for a puppet king in the form of Henry or
his young son; Margaret to be able to reclaim her family’s realm. In any
case, a marriage was arranged between Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville
and Margaret’s son, the former Prince of Wales, Edward of Westminster,
and Warwick invaded England in the autumn of 1470.

This time it was Edward IV who was forced to flee the country when John
Neville changed loyalties to support his brother Warwick. Edward was
unprepared for the arrival of Neville’s large force from the north and
had to order his army to scatter. Edward and Gloucester fled from
Doncaster to the coast and thence to Holland and exile in Burgundy.
Warwick had already invaded from France, and his plans to liberate and
restore Henry VI to the throne came quickly to fruition. Henry VI was
paraded through the streets of London as the restored king in October
and Edward and Richard were proclaimed traitors. Warwick’s success was
short-lived, however. He overreached himself with his plan to invade
Burgundy with the king of France, tempted by King Louis’ promise of
territory in the Netherlands as a reward. This led Charles the Bold of
Burgundy to assist Edward. He provided funds and an army to launch an
invasion of England in 1471. Edward defeated Warwick at the Battle of
Barnet in 1471. The remaining Lancastrian forces were destroyed at the
Battle of Tewkesbury, and Prince Edward of Westminster, the Lancastrian
heir to the throne, was killed. Henry VI was murdered shortly afterwards
(May 14, 1471), to strengthen the Yorkist hold on the throne.

The restoration of Edward IV in 1471 is sometimes seen as marking the
end of the Wars of the Roses. Peace was restored for the remainder of
Edward’s reign, but when he died suddenly in 1483, political and
dynastic turmoil erupted again. Under Edward IV, factions had developed
between the Queen’s Woodville relatives (Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl
Rivers and Thomas Grey, 1st Marguess of Dorset) and others who resented
the Woodvilles’ new-found status at court and saw them as power-hungry
upstarts and parvenus. At the time of Edward’s premature death, his
heir, Edward V, was only 12 years old. The Woodvilles were in a position
to influence the young king’s future government, since Edward V had been
brought up under the stewardship of Earl Rivers in Ludlow. This was too
much for many of the anti-Woodville faction to stomach, and in the
struggle for the protectorship of the young king and control of the
council, Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who had been
named by Edward IV on his deathbed as Protector of England, came to be
de facto leader of the anti-Woodville faction.

With the help of William Hastings and Henry Stafford, Gloucester
captured the young king from the Woodvilles at Stony Stratford in
Buckinghamshire. Thereafter Edward V was kept under Gloucester’s custody
in the Tower of London, where he was later joined by his younger
brother, the 9-year-old Richard, Duke of York. Having secured the boys,
Richard then alleged that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville
had been illegal, and that the two boys were therefore illegitimate.
Parliament agreed and enacted the Titulus Regius, which officially named
Gloucester as King Richard III. The two imprisoned boys, known as the
“Princes in the Tower”, disappeared and were possibly murdered; by whom
and under whose orders remains one of the most controversial subjects in
English history.

Since Richard was the finest general on the Yorkist side, many accepted
him as a ruler better able to keep the Yorkists in power than a boy who
would have had to rule through a committee of regents. Lancastrian
hopes, on the other hand, now centred on Henry Tudor, whose father,
Edmund tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond, had been an illegitimate
half-brother of Henry VI. However, Henry’s claim to the throne was
through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of Edward III,
derived from John Beaufort, a grandson of Edward’s III who was also the
illegitimate son of John of Gaunt.

Henry Tudor’s forces defeated Richard’s at the Battle of Bosworth Field
in 1485 and Henry Tudor became King Henry VII of England. Henry then
strengthened his position by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of
Edward IV and the best surviving Yorkist claimant. He thus reunited the
two royal houses, merging the rival symbols of the red and white roses
into the new emblem of the red and white Tudor Rose. Henry shored up his
position by executing all other possible claimants whenever he could lay
hands on them, a policy his son, Henry VIII, continued.

Many historians consider the accession of Henry VII to mark the end of
the Wars of the Roses. Others argue that the Wars of the Roses concluded
only with the Battle of Stoke in 1487, which arose from the appearance
of a pretender to the throne, a boy named Lambert Simnel who bore a
close physical resemblance to the young Earl of Warwick, the best
surviving male claimant of the House of York. The pretender’s plan was
doomed from the start, because the young earl was still alive and in
King Henry’s custody, so no one could seriously doubt Simnel was
anything but an imposter. At Stoke, Henry defeated forces led by John de
la Pole, Earl of Lincoln—who had been named by Richard III as his heir,
but had been reconciled with Henry after Bosworth—thus effectively
removing the remaining Yorkist opposition. Simnel was pardoned for his
part in the rebellion and sent to work in the royal kitchens.

2. Shakespeare’s histories Richard III

“The Life and Death of King Richard III” is William Shakespeare’s
version of the short career of Richard III of England, who receives a
singularly unflattering depiction. The play is sometimes interpreted as
a tragedy; however, it more correctly belongs among the histories. It
picks up the story from “Henry VI”, Part III and is the conclusion of
the series that stretches back to Richard II. It is the second longest
of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, after Hamlet. The length is generally seen as
a drawback and the play is rarely performed unabridged often cutting out
various characters peripheral to the main plot.


The play begins with Richard eulogizing his brother, King Edward IV of
England, the eldest son of the late Richard, Duke of York.

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of

The speech reveals Richard’s jealousy and ambition, as his brother
Edward rules the country successfully. Richard is an ugly hunchback,
describing himself as “rudely stamp’d” and “deformed, unfinish’d”, who
cannot “strut before a wanton ambling nymph.” He responds to the anguish
of his condition with an outcast’s credo: “I am determined to prove a
villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” With little
attempt at chronological accuracy (which he professes to despise),
Richard plots to have his brother Clarence, who stands before him in the
line of succession, conducted to the Tower of London as a suspected
assassin; having bribed a soothsayer to confuse the suspicious king.

Richard next ingratiates himself with “the Lady Anne” – Anne Neville,
widow of the Lancastrian Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. Richard
confides to the audience, “I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter. What
though I kill’d her husband and her father?” Despite her prejudice
against him, Anne is won over by his pleas and agrees to marry him.

The atmosphere at court is poisonous: the established nobles are at odds
with the upwardly-mobile relatives of Queen Elizabeth, a hostility
fueled by Richard’s machinations. Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow,
returns in defiance of her banishment and warns the squabbling nobles
about Richard. The nobles, Yorkists all, reflexively unite against this
last Lancastrian, and the warning falls on deaf ears.

Edward IV, weakened by a reign dominated by physical excess, soon dies,
leaving as Protector his brother Richard, who sets about removing the
final obstacles to his ascension. He meets his nephew, the young Edward
V, who is en route to London for his coronation accompanied by relatives
of Edward’s widow. These Richard arrests and (eventually) beheads, and
the young prince and his brother are coaxed into an extended stay at the
Tower of London.

Assisted by his cousin Buckingham (Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of
Buckingham), Richard mounts a PR campaign to present himself as a
preferable candidate to the throne, appearing as a modest, devout man
with no pretensions to greatness. Lord Hastings, who objects to
Richard’s ascension, is arrested and executed on a trumped-up charge.
The other lords are cajoled into accepting Richard as king, in spite of
the continued survival of his nephews (the Princes in the Tower).

His new status leaves Richard sufficiently confident to dispose of his
nephews. Buckingham conditions his consent for the princes’ deaths on
receiving a land grant, which Richard rejects, leaving Buckingham
fearful for his life. As the body count rises, the increasingly paranoid
Richard loses what popularity he had; he soon faces rebellions led first
by Buckingham and subsequently by the invading Earl of Richmond (Henry
VII of England). Both sides arrive for a final battle at Bosworth Field.
Prior to the battle, Richard is visited by the ghosts of those whose
deaths he has caused, all of whom tell him to: “Despair and die!” He
awakes screaming for “Jesu” (Jesus) to help him, slowly realizing that
he is all alone in the world and that even he hates himself. Richard’s
language and undertones of self-remorse seem to indicate that, in the
final hour, he is repentant for his evil deeds, however, it is too late.

As the battle commences, Richard gives arguably the least motivational
pep-talk in English literature (“Let not our babbling dreams affright
our souls; Conscience is but a word that cowards use… March on, join
bravely, let us to’t pell mell; If not to heaven, then hand in hand to
hell….”). Lord Stanley (who happens to be Richmond’s step-father) and
his followers desert, leaving Richard at a disadvantage. Richard is soon
unhorsed on the field at the climax of the battle, and utters the
often-quoted line: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” He is
defeated in the final “hunting of the boar”, so to speak, and Richmond
succeeds as Henry VII, even going so far as to marry a York, effectively
ending the War of the Roses (to the evident relief of everyone

In dramatic terms, perhaps the most important (and, arguably, the most
entertaining) feature of the play is the sudden alteration in Richard’s
character. For the first ‘half’ of the play, we see him as something of
an anti-hero, causing mayhem and enjoying himself hugely in the process:

I do mistake my person all this while;

Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,

Myself to be a marvellous proper man.

I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass;

Almost immediately after he is crowned, however, his personality and
actions take a darker turn. He turns against loyal Buckingham (“I am not
in the giving vein”), he falls prey to self-doubt (“I am in so far in
blood, that sin will pluck on sin;”); now he sees shadows where none
exist and visions of his doom to come (“Despair and die”).

Depiction of Richard

Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard and his “reign of terror” is
unflattering, and modern historians find it a distortion of historical
truth. Shakespeare’s “history” plays were not, of course, intended to be
historically accurate, but were designed for entertainment. As with
“Macbeth”, Richard’s supposed villainy is depicted as extreme in order
to achieve maximum dramatic effect. In addition, many previous writers
had depicted Richard as a villain, and Shakespeare was thus following

Nevertheless, it is important to question why this particular king
became a symbol of villainy during the Elizabeth’s period. Critics have
argued that this dark depiction of Richard developed because the ruling
monarch of Shakespeare’s time, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of
Henry VII of England, the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond, who had defeated
the last Yorkist king and started the Tudor dynasty, and Shakespeare’s
play thus presents the version of Richard that the ruling family would
have wanted to see.

Shakespeare’s main source for his play was the chronicle of Raphael
Holinshed but it also seems likely that he drew on the work of Sir
Thomas More, author of the unfinished “History of King Richard III”
published by John Rastell after More’s death. Rastell, More’s
brother-in-law, compiled the text from two work-in-progress manuscripts,
one in English and one in Latin in different stages of composition.
More’s work is not a history in the modern sense. It is a highly
coloured and literary account which contains accurate and invented
details in (arguably) roughly equal portions. More had many sources
available for his account (most of whom, like his patron Cardinal John
Morton, were extremely hostile to the old regime) but like Shakespeare
his main source is his own imagination: over a third of the text
consists of invented speeches.

Richard III is the culmination of the cycle of “Wars of Roses” plays. In
“Henry VI”, part II and part III, Shakespeare had already begun the
process of building Richard’s character into that of a ruthless villain,
even though Richard could not possibly have been involved in some of the
events depicted. He participates in battles in which historically he
would still have been a boy. From an overview of the cycle, it can be
seen that Shakespeare’s inaccuracy works both ways.

Historical context

Shakespeare is not famous for his historical accuracy; this play is
representative of his work in that respect. Queen Margaret did not in
fact survive to see Richard’s accession to the throne; her inclusion in
the play is purely dramatic, providing first a warning to the other
characters about Richard’s true nature (which they of course ignore to
their cost) and then a chorus-like commentary on how the various
tragedies affecting the House of York reflect justice for the wrongs the
Yorkists performed against the Lancastrians (“I had an Edward, till a
Richard killed him; I had a Henry, till a Richard kill’d him. Thou hadst
an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him; Thou hadst a Richard, till a
Richard kill’d him…”).

It is perhaps strange that in presenting the cycle of vengeance
Shakespeare omitted the fact that the real-life Richard himself had a
son who died prematurely, which some contemporary historians viewed as
divine retribution for the fate of Edward’s sons – which of course
Margaret would claim as retribution for the fate of her son.
Shakespeare’s Tudor patrons might have welcomed this additional
demonstration of Richard’s wickedness.

Comedic elements

Despite the high violence of the play and the villainous nature of the
title character, Shakespeare manages to infuse this play with a
surprising amount of comic material. Much of the humor rises from the
dichotomy between what we know Richard’s character to be and how Richard
tries to appear. The prime example is perhaps the portion of Act III,
Scene 1, where Richard is forced to “play nice” with the young and
mocking Duke of York. Other examples appear in Richard’s attempts at
acting, first in the matter of justifying Hastings’s death and later in
his coy response to being offered the crown.

Richard himself also provides some dry remarks in evaluating the
situation, as when his plan to marry the Queen Elizabeth’s daughter:
“Murder her brothers, then marry her; Uncertain way of gain….”

Other examples of humor in this play include Clarence’s ham-fisted and
half-hearted murderers, and the Duke of Buckingham’s report on his
attempt to persuade the Londoners to accept Richard (“…I bid them that
did love their country’s good cry, God save Richard, England’s royal
king!” Richard: “And did they so?” Buckingham: “No, so God help me, they
spake not a word….”)

Puns, a Shakespearean staple, are especially well-represented in the
scene where Richard tries to persuade Queen Elizabeth to woo her
daughter on his behalf.

Film versions

The most famous player of the part in recent times was Laurence Olivier
in his 1955 film version. His inimitable rendition has been satirized by
many comedians including Peter Cook and Peter Sellers (who had
aspirations to do the role straight). Sellers’ version of “A Hard Day’s
Night” was delivered in the style of Olivier as Richard III. The first
series of the BBC television comedy Blackadder in part parodies the
Olivier film, visually (as in the crown motif), Peter Cook’s performance
as a Richard who is a jolly, loving monarch but nevertheless oddly
reminiscent of Olivier’s rendition, and by mangling Shakespearean text
(“Now is the summer of our sweet content made o’ercast winter by these
Tudor clouds…”)

More recently, Richard III has been brought to the screen by Sir Ian
McKellen (1995) in an abbreviated version set in a 1930s fascist
England, and by Al Pacino in the 1996 documentary “Looking for Richard”.
In the 1976 film “ The Goodbye Girl”, Richard Dreyfuss’s character, an
actor, gives a memorable performance as a homosexual Richard in a gay
stage production of the play.


The war of the Roses (also called the war of the two Roses) is a very
important period for the British culture and history. It has been a
turning point in the history of the United Kingdom : a very large part
of the aristocracy was killed (some noble families even disappeared) and
the royal dynasty changed. It has also been a vast source of inspiration
for English authors, such as Shakespeare.

The history of the war of the two Roses is really propitious to literary
narration : you have a Queen with a strong personality (Marguerite), a
mad King, traitors, multiple reversal of situation, … But the myth is
different from the reality : what is disappointing is that the version
of Shakespeare is a bit far from the reality whereas it needed not to be
thrilling. For instance, Richard III was not the ‘‘nice’’ King of
Shakespeare’s play. However we must not forget that he could not
question the foundation of the Tudor dynasty ands its legitimity !

This period will remain one of the most epic in the English history,
even if it concerned principally the aristocracy (the armies were small
and one implicit rule was to kill the nobles, not the simple peasants).


1. E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century (1961);

2. P. M. Kendall, The Yorkist Age (1962, repr. 1965);

3. S. B. Chrimes, Lancastrians, Yorkists, and Henry VII (1964);

4. J. R. Lander, The Wars of the Roses (1965);

5. C. D. Ross, Wars of the Roses: A Concise History (1976);

6. E. Hallam, Wars of the Roses and Chronicles of the Wars of the Roses

7. J A.J. Pollard. Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

8. Alison Weir. The Princes in the Tower.

9. Anne Sutton, Livia Visser-Fuchs. Richard III’s Books.

10. Anne Sutton, Peter Hammond. The Coronation of Richard III.

11. Bertram Fields. Royal Blood.

12. Charles Ross. Richard III. Methuen, 1981

13. Charles Wood. Joan of Arc and Richard III.

14. Desmond Seward. Richard III: England’s Black Legend.

15. Jeremy Potter. Good King Richard?

16. Keith Dockray. Richard III: A Reader in History, Sutton, 1988

17. Michael Hicks. Richard the Third, Tempus, 2001.

18. Paul Murray Kendall. Richard III: The Great Debate.

19. Paul Murray Kendall. Richard the Third.

20. Peter Hammond and Anne Sutton. Richard III: The Road to Bosworth

21. Richard Drewett & Mark Redhead. The Trial of Richard III.

22. Rosemary Horrox. Richard III: A Study in Service.

23. Rosemary Horrox. Richard III and the North.

24. V.B. Lamb. The Betrayal of Richard III.

25. Winston Churchill. History of the English Speaking Peoples. The
Birth of Britain, Vol. 1.

26. Pollard, Wars of the Roses (1995); A. Weir, Wars of the Roses

Appendix 1

King Henry VI (1421-1471)

He ruled England from 1422-1461 and then again from 1470-1471. Henry may
fairly be said to have been a very good man, but a very bad king. He was
pious and devoted to education, but lacked either the governing or the
military skills to run 15th Century Britain. In 1445, Henry married
Margaret of Anjou. Her favorites, such as Somerset and Buckingham ruled
the court in all but name. In 1453, however, a mental breakdown by Henry
allowed Richard, Duke of York, to step in as “Protector”. When Henry
regained his sanity, he was urged by his wife and her favorites to throw
York and his allies out of the Government. On May 22nd of that year,
York and his allies began to take that Government back. (Trivia: Henry
VI was the first King of England to never personally command an Army
against a foreign foe.)

King Edward IV (1442-1483)

He ruled England from 1461-1470 and again from 1471-1483. Upon the death
of his father, the Duke of York, in the battle of Wakefield on December
31, 1460, Edward took up both the position and the quarrel of his sire.
In 1461, He was taken to Parliament by “The Kingmaker”, Richard Neville,
and crowned king. The two of them then headed north and engaged with the
Lancastrian army in the battle of Towton; a Yorkist victory. This
spelled the beginning of the end for the Lancastrians. Edward ruled for
the next 9 years and it would take the influence of the Kingmaker to
bring the Lancastrians to power again. (Trivia: The battle of Towton was
the largest battle ever fought on English soil. Contemporary sources
reported the numbers of men in the hundreds of thousands, though they
were prone to spice up amounts (the big fish syndrome) and the actual
number was probably nearer to 40,000 individuals.)

Queen Margaret of Anjou (1429-1482)

Margaret was married to Henry VI in 1445. Despite the King’s inate
shyness and fear of women, they appear to have had a good marriage. With
Henry’s mental failings, however, it was left to Margaret and her
favorites to try and hold the kingdom. Until the death of her son (at
Tewkesbury in 1471), she was truly the backbone of the Lancastrian
cause. At Tewkesbury in 1471, her son was defeated and killed and she
was imprisoned. She was eventually ransomed by Louis of France in
exchange for her French lands.

King Edward V (1470-1483

Duke Somerset

Edmund Beaufort (Somerset) supported Henry and the Queen during the
King’s breakdown. Unfortunately for him, he also had a private feud in
the north with the Nevilles. When York became Protector, Somerset found
himself thrown out of court and into the Tower of London. In a reversal
of fortunes, however, the King regained his sanity and Somerset was
freed. This too was shortlived, however, as the Yorkists returned with
an army that met with the Lancastrians at St Albans in the first battle
of the Wars. The Yorkists were victorious (in great part due to the
efforts of the Kingmaker who would begin to gain his personal fame at
this time) and Somerset was hacked to death in front of the Castle Inn;
May 22, 1455.

He reigned from 1483 until his death in 1485. One of the most
controversial rulers in the history of the British Isles, Richard
remains something of an enigma to historians. Histories surrounding him
range from Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare portraying him as evil
incarnate, to some modern revisionists who would clear him of all
possible guilt and proclaim him to be the greatest of the English
monarchs. As with all things the truth is probably somewhere in between.
Opposing views on the subject are readily available even on the Web (see
my intro page) and so I will refrain from pursuing the debate to any
degree. Richard came to power in 1483 probably fearing for his power and
perhaps his life under a Woodville Monarchy. He seems to have been
content under his brother’s rule (Edward IV), but when Edward died and
Edward V was too young to rule for himself, Richard became Protector. He
seems to have been a successful administrator, but his rule was wracked
with as much controversy then as it is today and many in power
mistrusted him. In 1485, at the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard was
defeated and killed by the army of Henry Tudor (King Henry VII).
(Trivia: Richard III was the last English Monarch to personally battle
beside his troops in war.)

Richard Neville (Earl of Warwick)(1428-1471)

Also known as the Kingmaker, this figure has been called the last of the
English Barons. He was central to the Wars and could even be considered
to be the third party in them (ie. Lancastrians, Yorkists, and
Nevilles). (Trivia: Richard Neville once held two Kings of England
captive at the same time. Henry VI and Edward IV both feel under his
control in 1469. For those of you who are vampire buffs, you might be
interested in learning that the Kingmaker was born in the same year as
Vlad Dracula; 1428.(There are others, including Rand McNally who put the
Impaler’s birth at 1431 which would make this trivia pointless, but I
thought I’d mention it in order to be fair.)

Henry Stafford, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1454-1483)

Stafford became duke in 1460 with the death of his father. When Edward
IV died, Buckingham supported Richard III’s claim to the throne and was
rewarded with the high constableship of England. In the same year,
however, he led a rebellion against Richard and was captured and
executed for treason.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (1411-1460)

Father of Edward IV and Richard III, Richard was the namesake of the
Yorkist side of the Wars. His claim to the throne was considered strong
enough so that he was heir to Henry VI, until Henry produced a son.
After the Battle of St Albans, Richard was again made heir to Henry
disinheriting Edward of Lancaster. Queen Margaret would have none of
that and by 1459 the two sides were in outright war with one another. In
1461 in Wakefield, York was tricked into leaving his castle and his
forces were slaughtered by the Lancastrians. He, his son, and Salisbury
were killed.

Henry Tudor (1457-1509)

The first of the Tudor kings, Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth
Fields on 22 August 1485. Henry was born to Edmund Tudor and Margaret
Beaufort, though his father was killed before his birth and his mother
was only 13. He spent 14 years in Wales and then another 14 in exile in
France before making his bid for the throne. Early in 1486 he married
Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter and ostensibly united the two
houses of York and Lancaster. His reign lasted from 1485 to 1509 when
the crown passed to his more famous son, Henry VIII. (Trivia: Henry VII
was something of a Mama’s boy. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, had
tremendous political influence during his reign as well as controlling
the household. She even went to France to order them to pay up on War

Richard Neville (Earl of Salisbury)(Abt 1400 – 1460)

Father of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, Salisbury was the oldest of
the Yorkists. He was a capable warleader and often seems to have been
the voice of reason. Successful in the early part of the war, he was
captured and beheaded just after the battle of Wakefield.

Louis XI

The King of France from 1461 until his death in 1483. Known as the
“Spider King”, Louis ran a game of serious international intrigue in
order to rebuild his country which had been plagued with a century of
war. In his 22 year reign, he showed a great understanding of changing
politics and reclaimed the duchies of Burgundy and Brittany.

Charles the Bold (1433-1477)

The Duke of Burgundy. When his father, Philip the Good, died in 1467,
Charles began his dream of expanding his Dukedom. In 1468 he married
Margaret of York, the sister of Edward IV, and formed an alliance with
England. He fought intermittant battles with France before being
defeated and killed by Switzerland at the battle of Nancy on 5 January
1477. (Trivia: Fantastically wealthy, lavish, ambitious and tenacious,
Charles had an abominable war record. In his war with Switzerland, his
forces were defeated soundly at Grandson and later even more soundly at
Morat. Despite the fact that he was a losing agressor, he nevertheless
ignored peace attempts and laid siege to Nancy.)

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