Lesson #73: The Wars of the Roses

Is there a more awesome name for a series of wars in history? How violent can wars of roses possibly be?*

The War of the Roses was a medieval civil war that officially spanned from 1455 to 1485 and was fought between two opposing families with interests in the throne. It is so called because the Houses of Lancaster and York were said to be represented by badges bearing red and white roses respectively. Interestingly, the idea of the battling flowers is actually derived from Renaissance literature; in reality, the badges were simply markers for household servants. Neither the House of Lancaster nor the House of York is represented by a rose on its official coat of arms. The name “war of the roses” is, in fact, an even later invention than Shakespeare’s references to the flowers in Henry VI.**

Anyway, the whole bit of contention all came about because the royal family was all related to itself and so there were challenges to the throne of England. Richard the II, son of Edward III was deposed by Henry of Lancaster whose heirs ruled for some time…until Henry the VI. Being childless and not really having an heir, Henry VI was encouraged to appoint Richard, Duke of York and direct descendant of Edward III to an “overseas post” (read: exile). Which Richard didn’t so much love and so he amassed an army. And then there was a whole bit with the York family’s cousins having a feud with some other people and then getting together to fight their enemies together and then their enemies amassed armies*** and then the Duke of York and his army ended up fighting their enemies’ armies (the Lancastrians) for thirty years with the House of York taking all but four of the fifteen battles. Over this time there was also the ascension to the throne of Edward IV (House of York), Henry VI (again), Edward IV (again), Edward V and Richard III (also House of York) before an obscure Welsh relation of Henry VI’s called  Henry Tudor marched in with an army of his own, married Edward IV’s daughter, took power as Henry VII and had his family rule over England and Wales for 120 years.****

*Well, given that this took place in the mid- to late 1400s and killed 100,000 – 105,000 people, it was actually pretty violent. Those numbers can be found here, but it should be noted that at least one modern source suggests that the casualty rates were exaggerated by the Tudors and Tudor historians to make themselves look like saviours and since history is written by the victor, this is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

**That bit of information is here.

***I find this hilarious, because it makes it sound like they’re raising chickens. The idea of just deciding to do so one day and then amassing an army in modernity is absurd.

****More information on the wars of the roses here, here and here.

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