Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Wars of the Roses: A Tudor Construction?

Historian Dan Jones has published an interesting article in the October 2014 edition of BBC History Magazine claiming that the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic conflict between the royal houses of Lancaster and York in the mid-to-late fifteenth century, might have been a Tudor construction invented by that dynasty to consolidate and legitimise their rule. Some historians have supported this approach. K. B. McFarlane argued years before that there was no such thing as the 'Wars of the Roses'. This period of history has become ever more popular with the success of Philippa Gregory's "Cousins' War" novels (and the BBC television adaptation of one novel, The White Queen). But is Jones right to claim that the Wars of the Roses was, effectively, invented by the Tudors to explain their success in attaining the throne? Is the traditional interpretation of the conflict, so vividly described in Shakespeare's plays, 'misleading, distorted, oversimplified and - in parts - deliberately false'?

To start with, the term 'Wars of the Roses' certainly does not date from the time of the conflict. Sir Walter Scott seems to have coined it in his novel Anne of Geierstein, published in 1829. Scott in turn came up with the name having read Shakespeare's play Henry VI Part 1, specifically a scene in which a number of noblemen and a lawyer in the gardens of the Temple Church select red or white roses to demonstrate their loyalty to the Lancaster or York house, respectively. Jones is probably correct in suggesting that the Lancastrians never actually used the red rose as a badge during the period of conflict. As Adrian Ailes comments, Henry VII's decision to combine the red and white roses as a symbol of the end of conflict between Lancaster and York 'was a brilliant piece of simple heraldic propaganda'. 

Leanda de Lisle, however, recently suggested that the term 'Wars of the Roses' actually originated long before the publication of Scott's novel in 1829. She mentions that historian David Hume referred to 'the wars between the two roses' in his work of 1762, while more than a hundred years earlier the conflict was described as 'the quarrel of the two roses'. Lisle interestingly notes that Edward IV made extensive use of the white rose as a badge representing the House of York, for it was believed to have been the badge of Edward's ancestor Roger Mortimer, the supposed 'true' heir of Richard II before his right was 'usurped' by Henry IV. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, Lisle dismisses claims that the conflict should instead be known as 'the Cousins' War'.

Above: did the Wars of the Roses really involve the red rose of Lancaster competing for the throne against the white rose of York?

Jones' argument that the Wars of the Roses was an invention of the victorious Tudors hinges on the suggestion that it is a myth that the wars erupted because 'there were too many men of royal blood clustering around the crown, vying for power and influence over a weak-willed king'. Yet, in histories of the conflict that I have read, it is argued that conflict broke out firstly because of Henry VI's incompetence as a king, and secondly because of military disasters in France. England lost all the territories it had conquered and was left only with Calais (later won back by the French in 1558). Jones argues, fairly, that the 1420s saw no serious unrest and speculates that Henry VI's weak kingship did not ultimately result in dynastic conflict until he experienced insanity in 1453. This is correct. In stating this point, why does Jones seem to imply that historians have traditionally viewed the roots of the conflict as occurring as early as the 1420s/30s? To me, it was Henry VI's madness in 1453 that instigated the conflict. His illness allowed Richard duke of York to seize the reins of government, leading to conflict and rivalry with Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou. Jones speculates that Henry VI's forced decision to disinherit his own son Prince Edward in 1460 in favour of the Yorkists was the point at which 'the wars became dynastic'. Surely this is stating the obvious: beforehand, conflict between York and Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, occurred because both men were fighting for control of the king and the greater power and influence at court. But at some point, York seems to have concluded that he would make a stronger and more efficient king than the incapacitated Henry VI.

Above: Henry VI, house of Lancaster (left).
Edward IV, house of York (right).

In dividing the conflict into four phases, Jones' conclusions do not suggest that the Wars of the Roses was necessarily a Tudor invention. Rather, it indicates that the term 'Wars of the Roses', itself, is not perhaps the most helpful or effective way of characterising this period of dynastic conflict, especially given the fact that neither house probably employed their rose as the most prominent badge to represent their claim. The Tudors' decision to incorporate the red and white roses into what became the Tudor rose - achieved by Henry VII's marriage to Elizabeth of York in 1486 after his victory at Bosworth - was undoubtedly propaganda at its most effective, indicating that they had brought unity, harmony and sound rule to England after thirty years or so of political, governmental and dynastic unrest. But I remain unconvinced by Jones' claim that the Wars of the Roses should be considered a construction of the victorious Tudors. If anything, I came away from his article more convinced than before that it was a period of dynastic conflict, in which rival families sought to obtain the throne. Maybe they were not neatly separated into Lancaster and York, that is fair enough. But after 1460, there was certainly concerted rivalry between those loyal to Henry VI and the Lancastrians, and those who favoured Edward IV and the Yorkists, that blossomed due to increasing determination to obtain the throne and achieve peaceful governance after years of serious unrest.


  1. I learn some new stuff from it too, thanks for sharing your information.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.