The Wars of the Roses were a series of English civil wars for control of the throne of England fought between supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster, associated with a red rose, and the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose. Eventually, the wars eliminated the male lines of both families. The conflict lasted through many sporadic episodes between 1455 and 1487, but there was related fighting before and after this period between the parties. The power struggle ignited around social and financial troubles following the Hundred Years' War, unfolding the structural problems of feudalism, combined with the mental infirmity and weak rule of King Henry VI which revived interest in Richard of York's claim to the throne. Historians disagree on which of these factors to identify as the main reason for the wars.
With the Duke of York's death in 1460, the claim transferred to his heir, Edward. After a series of Yorkist victories from January–February 1461, Edward claimed the throne on 4 March 1461, and the last serious Lancastrian resistance ended at the decisive Battle of Towton. Edward was thus unopposed as the first Yorkist king of England, as Edward IV. Resistance smoldered in the North until 1464, but the early part of his reign remained relatively peaceful.
A new phase of the wars broke out in 1469 after the Earl of Warwick, the most powerful noble in the country, withdrew his support for Edward and threw it behind the Lancastrian cause. Fortunes changed many times as the Yorkist and Lancastrian forces exchanged victories throughout 1469–1470 (and Edward was even captured for a time in 1469). When Edward fled to Flanders in 1470, Henry VI was re-installed as king on 3 October 1470, but his resumption of rule was short lived, and he was deposed again following the defeat of his forces at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and on 21 May 1471, Edward entered London unopposed, resumed the throne, and probably had Henry killed that same day. With all significant Lancastrian leaders now banished or killed, Edward ruled unopposed until his sudden death in 1483. His 12-year-old son reigned for 78 days as Edward V. He was then deposed by his uncle, Edward IV's brother Richard, who became Richard III.
The ascension of Richard III occurred under a cloud of controversy, and shortly after assuming the throne, the wars sparked anew with Buckingham's rebellion, as many die-hard Yorkists abandoned Richard to join Lancastrians. While the rebellions lacked much central coordination, in the chaos the exiled Henry Tudor, son of Henry VI's half-brother Edmund Earl of Richmond, and the leader of the Lancastrian cause, returned to the country from exile in Brittany at the head of an army of combined Breton and English forces. Richard avoided direct conflict with Henry until the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485. After Richard III was killed and his forces defeated at Bosworth Field, Henry assumed the throne as Henry VII and married Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter and heir of Edward IV, thereby uniting the two claims. The House of Tudor ruled the Kingdom of England until 1603, with the death of Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
Shortly after Henry took the throne, the Earl of Lincoln, a Yorkist sympathizer, put forward Lambert Simnel as an imposter Richard of York, younger brother of Edward V. Lincoln's forces were defeated, and he was killed at the Battle of Stoke Field on 16 June 1487, bringing a close to the Wars of the Roses.
Name and symbols
The name "Wars of the Roses" refers to the heraldic badges associated with two rival branches of the same royal house, the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster. Wars of the Roses came into common use in the 19th century after the publication in 1829 of Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott. Scott based the name on a scene in William Shakespeare's play Henry VI, Part 1 (Act 2, Scene 4), set in the gardens of the Temple Church, where a number of noblemen and a lawyer pick red or white roses to show their loyalty to the Lancastrian or Yorkist faction respectively.
The Yorkist faction used the symbol of the white rose from early in the conflict, but the Lancastrian red rose was introduced only after the victory of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, when it was combined with the Yorkist white rose to form the Tudor rose, which symbolised the union of the two houses; the origins of the Rose as a cognizance itself stem from Edward I's use of "a golden rose stalked proper." Often, owing to nobles holding multiple titles, more than one badge was used: Edward IV, for example, used both his sun in splendour as Earl of March, but also his father's falcon and fetterlock as Duke of York. Badges were not always distinct; at the Battle of Barnet, Edward's 'sun' was very similar to the Earl of Oxford's Vere star, which caused fateful confusion.
Most, but not all, of the participants in the wars wore livery badges associated with their immediate lords or patrons under the prevailing system of bastard feudalism; the wearing of livery was by now confined to those in "continuous employ of a lord", thus excluding, for example, mercenaries. Another example: Henry Tudor's forces at Bosworth fought under the banner of a red dragon while the Yorkist army used Richard III's personal device of a white boar.
Although the names of the rival houses derive from the cities of York and Lancaster, the corresponding duchy and dukedom had little to do with these cities. The lands and offices attached to the Duchy of Lancaster were mainly in Gloucestershire, North Wales, Cheshire, and (ironically) in Yorkshire, while the estates and castles of the Duke of York were spread throughout England and Wales, many in the Welsh Marches.