The Wars of the Roses
The wars started in the 1450s as noble rivals backed or challenged the weak King Henry VI. Intermittent fighting and plotting lasted into the 1480s, before Henry VII ended open conflict. From battle accounts to claims to the throne, follow the story of the Wars of the Roses through our records.
Account of the first battle of the Wars of the Roses
Date: May 1455
Catalogue reference: View the record C 47/37/3 in the catalogue
Following Henry VI's recovery following illness in 1455, Richard Duke of York, and his followers feared they would soon face treason charges.
On 22 May, they intercepted the royal party travelling to Leicester. In a street fight at St Albans, the Yorkists targeted and killed their personal enemies in the King’s entourage, during which an arrow wounded King Henry in the neck. The Duke of York seized Henry and escorted him back to London. York soon resumed his role in charge of government as Protector of England.
This eyewitness account of the fighting is one of earliest pieces of war reporting in English. It captures the detail of the tactics and killings at St Albans, and sets the scene for the bigger battles and cycle of revenge among political leaders that continued into the 1480s.
Richard Duke of York's claim to the throne
Date: October 1460
Catalogue reference: View the record C 65/105 in the catalogue
A period of uneasy politics followed the Battle of St Albans. Reconciliation failed and at the 1459 Parliament of Devils, Richard the Duke of York and his backers were attainted – stripped of lands and declared traitors. Large scale fighting erupted but indecisive battles changed little other than entrenching support on both sides. Henry VI was captured by the Duke York at Northampton in July 1460, yet remained king.
As this document outlines, on 10 October 1460, York claimed the throne outright. However, when he symbolically grasped the throne at Westminster onlookers were shocked. The Lords rejected York’s assertion and the judges would not decide. A compromise left Henry VI as king for life but required York to replace him – disinheriting Edward, Prince of Wales.
The agreement lasted only three months. Fighting restarted but York died at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460.
Royal proclamation of Edward IV
Date: March 1461
Catalogue reference: View the record C 54/313 in the catalogue
The Duke of York's death allowed Henry VI’s troops to march south. But even after they defeated another Yorkist force at St Albans in February 1461, London locked its gates to them and they returned north. When York’s son, Edward, arrived from the Welsh borderlands, Londoners allowed him into the city. He proclaimed himself King on 4 March.
One of his first acts was to send this proclamation to sheriffs across southern England. Edward inflated the evil intentions of Henry VI’s northern followers. Good government depended on their defeat. The showdown approached.
Perhaps 60,000 soldiers fought in Britain’s largest ever land battle, when Henry VI’s Lancastrians and Edward IV’s Yorkists met in the snow at Towton, Yorkshire on 29 March. There, Edward destroyed the Lancastrian campaign, with around 28,000 men being killed. Henry VI fled to Scotland, and Edward became England’s uncontested king.
Pledge to aid the return of Henry VI
Catalogue reference: View the record KB 27/839 in the catalogue
As the 1460s progressed, Edward IV’s regime encountered increasing difficulties. Lancastrian attacks in the north forced royal armies into battle in 1464. Edward’s choice of the Lancastrian widow Elizabeth Woodville as his new queen, upset plans for a marriage alliance with France. As Edward gave roles to his wife’s family, his great ally Richard Neville, ‘the kingmaker’ Earl of Warwick, found himself frozen out.
This record from 1468, shows some grass roots support for Henry VI remained intact. Thomas Portalen pledged £2 to aid any army that intended to restore the Lancastrian king. His prosecution for such treason was no deterrent to a rebellion in 1469 in which Edward IV’s forces were defeated near Banbury. Soon after, when the Earl of Warwick made his peace with Henry VI, Edward was deposed and escaped to the Netherlands. Henry VI then returned to the throne.
Richard III denounces the Duke of Buckingham
Date: October 1483
Catalogue reference: View the record C 81/1392 in the catalogue
Edward IV returned in spring 1471 defeating Henry VI’s followers at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Soon after, King Henry was killed in the Tower of London. Through support of his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and allies ruling parts of the country Edward's second reign was largely peaceful, but his unexpected death in April 1483 created a power struggle.
Gloucester became Protector and declared Edward IV’s children illegitimate. Edward V and his brother disappeared in the Tower and on 26 June 1483, Gloucester became Richard III.
Within months rebellion came. Richard was travelling without his Great Seal, weakening his authority. In this record he asks for the seal to be sent to him, adding a personal note condemning his former ally the Duke of Buckingham. The failed rebellion provided a blueprint for Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth in August 1485, heralding the final phase of the Wars.