Despite the romantic aesthetic of the name that the Victorians came to coin this period with there is very little beauty to be found in this period of English history. It was a grim time of unrest for the country as a whole and would reshape the governing of the kingdom as it was known, it rightfully so takes its place as a highly significant era. However, for that very reason it is a subject of frequent debate among historians for a number of reasons. The role of kingship, the role of nobility, the breaking of old dynastic lines, and the use of propaganda and completely new understandings of what it meant to rule. However, all these factors cannot even come to be considered or validated without first establishing just where the causes for the conflict were coming from. In each case it is important to consider the domestic factors and foreign factors that may have fuelled or extended the explosive events of the conflict. Furthermore, they must be kept in mind as enduring points for the continuation and aftermath of the conflict, being that the management of these affairs and the way the individual may have dealt with them could make or break their survival and reputation both at the time of the events and in the records that were produced by the following regimes.

The environment surrounding the monarchy before the outbreak of the civil war itself was undoubtedly one that was undergoing significant hardships. From the stand points of popularity and political exercise the opportunity for a civil conflict was clearly on the horizon. The critiques against Henry VI’s kingship where widely expressed from all walks of life; common and political. Even diplomatic visitors where increasingly making poor remarks on his character and methods of ruling (Or lack thereof). The main concern that dogged Henry’s reign was the accusations that he leaned far too much on the nobility and parliament, naturally leading to an ever increasing cause for civil unrest. Nobility by nature had their own political following and associations by region and reputation; they were targets for criticism and personal interests unlike the supposedly united interest for the kingdom that the King was supposed to represent. These nobles who formed council where safe targets for critique without fear of being accused of treason. A grievance for the way the kingdom was governed was therefore pinned upon individuals around the king manipulating him for their own agenda.
In the years prior to the outbreak of the War of the Roses itself we can see these themes of civil unrest demonstrated in the Revolt lead by Jack Cade and the grievances held by the commons. This revolt spoke largely toward the feelings held for the nobility, voicing the popular claim that they were increasingly over stepping their limitations of power to such an extent they were infringing royal power. To the mindset of traditional notions of Kingship this was indeed unjust and at its worst practically treasonous. The demands of the rebels made stated it plainly that they believed that though the fault of the manipulative councillors around the king, Henry’s kingship was inherently broken. “We, considering that the king our sovereign lord, by the insatiable, covetous, malicious persons that daily and nightly are about his highness, and daily inform him that good is evil and evil is good.”[1] Despite the fact they do not attack Henry VI himself, they clearly express their lack of faith in his assertion of authority. Therefore the problem becomes less so that of what the nobility is doing but rather who is benefiting and who can win the body of support to their side.

The Yorkist faction quickly attaches themselves to having the interests of the commons in mind, truly representing the country and Henry. But the most dangerous side to the Yorkists rise to power was the claims they began to lay to royal blood. Richard of York claimed royalty on both his mother and fathers side, making him a potential successor for the childless Henry. This coupled with the many attributes of traditional kingship that Henry so desperately lacked made him increasingly popular to the Northern nobles (who felt lack of representation in parliament) and commons. Sharp divisions in the nobility soon snowballed from here. York’s advantage in relating to the commons and representing the country was having the more ‘English’ power base. Richard himself was a seasoned military man who by extension had an arsenal of relationships formed with other noble military. Those who had been the leading political figure prior had been notably leaning towards a settlement of peace with France and betraying the people of England as these choices lead to the abandonment of territorial claims and left many soldiers desperately unemployed. As argued by John Watt’s it is fair to claim that York may have had his personal goals for power leading his actions, far from being a reformer for the commons, he could at the very least pose as one.[2] The illustration of his support is backed up by the chronicles of the time. Notably Yorkist sentiments are present throughout Gregory’s chronically and ‘The English Chronicle’ and suggest that he was a well-known enough to at least gain the support of authorship that was specifically designed with readership in mind and indeed where widely circulated at their time of publication. However, when exploring Lancastrian authorship Watt’s theory gains more gravity. One such chronicler indeed leaned towards the idea that the common people were being manipulated by York for their support, implying they were only pawns in his personal motives. As seen in the Somnium Vigilantes “Hit is a schrewyde consequence: The peple favoureth him ergo thay be good. Who so hathe rede in the olde stories he may be sufficiently informed of the grete varyablenes of the people and of thycertitude of thaire oppynions’.

More unique examples of the power of individuals having a great power from popular domesic support become important in understanding how the conflict was prolonged and shaped though the course of the war come from the increased interest in local nobility. As mentioned previously the significance of representation in court was an increasing matter of domestic unrest. With this came a need for the Yorkists and Lancastrians to develop close relations with particular members of the nobility who could bring with them the support of their own region and the people within it. Former rivals could become allies quickly should the opportunity for power deem it that they were united for a common goal, even if the personal relationship was week. The events surrounding the Earl of Warwick illustrate this more clearly. A former Yorkist loyalist whose relationship with the house became so strained that he defected to previous rivals. The actions taken to solidify their relationships reflect just how valuably the nobility was to the rival royal households. In 1470 a marriage is arranged between Warwick’s daughter and Henry VI’s son on the premises that Warwick invade in their name, though recognized by both parties to be an unorthodox match it was pushed though as something that would ultimately suit their aims. Indeed, the agreement looks more akin to one between Royals then Kings and their nobles; alas the context of the time validates it. Showing just how weak the rights of kingship had become against the personal support the nobility had.[3]

Marriage means a great deal to any royal household; be it for foreign policy or more domestic affairs. In a time of civil discord it becomes even more of vital to the households, marriage and moreover marrying ‘well’ could greatly affect their standing in the wider scope. Therefore when the time came for Richard’s son, Edward, to take a wife it had to be cautiously approached with all of these concessions in mind. However, Edward’s marriage is a matter that continues to baffle observers. Edward was a notable bachelor, well known and respected in Europe and England. He was by no means short of potential brides who held notable status, Warwick in particular had put himself through great pains to try and negotiate a possible marriage into the French royalty. However, despite all of these possible valuable alliances that he could have made, Edward chose to marry a lesser noble and widow from England. Marrying Elizabeth Woodville in secret in 1464 was a striking point in his early reign that sparked a new course of events for the continuing war. Reasons for Edward’s choice are speculated by historians ranging from a desire to assert his own authority away from Warwick’s influence to a choice made in consideration to the problems caused from Henry VI’s marriage to Margret of Anjou. In the case of the later it was no secret that Margret was widely unpopular among the now leading nobility and commons of England; thus leaving a sour taste for foreign queens. Furthermore, marrying into a foreign power could have gone one of two ways for Edward; being that it could add legitimacy to his power base in the European spectrum however perhaps more significantly was the risk it may have posed for his families place in ruling England itself. As a new branch of the monarchy, he had to establish himself firstly in England itself before Europe. Taking a foreign wife, who by all rights and purposes, stood to make himself appear weak in comparison to their accepted lineage. It is likely that this was in Edward’s mind as he had seen the dangers from Margret’s attempt to act upon her own authority. The last thing the domestic audience wanted was their new king to have his priorities twisted by European powers at the cost of his own land as Henry VI was perceived as having done. This is only highlighted more so when we look at the records of the time. Most of the grievances towards the marriage come from the higher-ranking nobles who stood to lose out on their own ambitions or foreign writers who highlighted the poor choice in terms of foreign affairs. One Milanese ambassador is particular scathing going as far as to directly advise “it will be better for King Ferrando not to invite the English to the marriage.”[4] Another vital factor historians put forward for Edward’s choice is the increasing interest personally held in perusing a Burgundian alliance. Burgundy was a rival of France and rising courtly power in Europe so of course taking a French wife was not in his personal interest. This is only supplemented in 1467 when Edward’s sister is married to Charles the Bold, an arrangement heavily led by Charles and Edward themselves.[5] Therefore it can be further observed as Edward asserting his own authority of choice over that external pressure, vital when the Henry was blamed for being led by them.


Later, his attempted war with France would gain much public support and funding being that it was a long-promised goal of the Yorkist faction to reclaim French lands. The outcome however put a strain on home an international affair. Not only had he damaged the relationship with Burgundy when he had abandoned their joint cause to hastily make peace with France, but he also sparked off a chain of discontent with his own nobility. They had invested money, men, reputation, and time in warfare only result in their money being wasted and men now stranded in Europe. “for they were so regarded by the upper ranks in the royal army though there is nothing so holy or proper that it cannot be distorted by ill report. Some, indeed, at once began to blame this action, for which they paid penalties befitting their presumption; others, once home, reverted to theft and pillage in consequence of which no road was safe for merchants or pilgrims throughout England.”[6] All of which led to the dwindling in Yorkist support. Edward’s choices can be summarized as self-made for the most part however not completely for the best reasons. His eagerness to please (such as the case of his French policy) lead to failure to fulfill and overall decision making reflects rash choices that may speak more for a king who was fully aware of how to execute campaigns but overall lacked the charisma and experience to succeed that he had previously leaned so heavily on others for.

It would seem therefore that foreign policy had a greater role in creating and prolonging the conflict in the middle years. However, the Yorkists return to power was not fated to remain, this time their previously strong flare for domestic affairs was the very factor that would lead to their downward spiral. This domestic conflict was all the more tragic as it came almost entirely from the inside. The family members themselves sought personal gain at the cost of their dynastic survival. They therefore sow the seeds of their own demises that the long dormant Lancastrian family members would take advantage of, winning the popular support from the masses and casting a shadow over history’s perception of the last Yorkist kings. To thoroughly understand just where these disputes within the family itself arose from it is best to start by considering it within the scope of Yorkist lineage. As weak as a link it may have been it was generally accepted that Richard of York had proven his own claim to royal inheritance prior to the Yorkist succession and that was to remain unquestioned; however, when it came to his sons and grandchildren it was frequently challenged. Logically such claims against a King where viable grounds for treason and quickly rebuffed by the means of producing family trees and documents of parliament. The problems with the attacks aimed at the lineage of any member of the Yorkist house was that it was still so new to the general public and the legal aspects where still only barely established. Moreover, the source of these claims made it even more serious for genuine questioning to take place. These claims where not coming from councils or rebellious peasants. They were coming from members of the family itself. Both Clarence and Gloucester challenged the legitimacy of Edward IV, their own brother and by association his children. The familiar discourse therefore shaped the political environment, being widely observed an critiqued by contemporise. Many saw it as a frightening illustration of how treacherous the royals where to their own kin; a very unjust thing in terms of traditional values while others commented on it for the inability to form a hierarchy among them. Crowlands’s chronicle in particular focuses on the unstable family ties, suggesting he himself was closer to the court then many other writers of this period. Like many prominent figures in the Yorkist regime, he was becoming dissatisfied with the family itself. Though safely published under the Tudor regime its evident that the dissatisfaction was obvious to those involved even in such detail that suggested plots against Richard III’s kingship are directly tied with the assumption that he was indeed unquestionably guilty in the disappearance of his two infamous nephews “a rumor arose that King Edward’s sons, by some unknown manner of violent destruction, had met their fate. For this reason, all those who had begun this agitation, realizing that if they could not find someone new at their head for their conquest it would soon be all over with them, remembered Henry, earl of Richmond, who had already spent many years in exile in Brittany.”[7]  Validation of Richards poor reputation exists beyond Crowlands’s hindsight as it is further evidenced in Mancini’s reports of his time in court. “On hearing this the lords consulted their own safety, warned by the example of Hastings, and perceiving the alliance of the two dukes, whose power, supported by a multitude of troops, would be difficult and hazardous to resist.”[8] Thereby showing that in the late Yorkist kingship there was a fundamental problem in domestic relations between the government and monarch. Which thereby created an environment that would once again spark debate into just who was right to rule.

The war of the Roses is at its core a civil conflict, quiet clearly originating from the increasing lack of faith in the crown and governing bodies. By extension, the role of domestic unrest seemingly plays the greatest role in the continuation of the conflict. Being that it was the role of the individuals within the country and their personal motives for power in what became a vacuumed for internal power. We have explored time and again the use of domestic complaints such as the regional divides in political representation, popular support for the cults of personality and the pursuit of power from noble individuals. Despite the role that was played by foreign relations such the relationships to France and Burgundy and the desire for a military leader to gain the ever-present wish to regain territories on the continent all of these can be traced back to the enduring domestic concerns that steered the nation on its turbulent conflict.


[1] James Gairdner (ed.), Three Fifteenth-century Chronicles, with historical memoranda by John Stowe. Camden Society, n.s., 28 (1880), pp. 94-98 (English).

[2] Watts, J. (1996) ‘The search for authority, 1450–1461’, in Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship:. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 260–362.

[3] Clarke, PD 2005, ‘English Royal Marriages and the papal peniteniatiary in the fifteenth century’, The English Historical review, no. 488, p. 1020-1022.

[4] Albrico Malleta to the Duke of Milan, Axeto, February 6th 1465, Milan archives.

[5] Clarke, PD 2005, ‘English Royal Marriages and the papal peniteniatiary in the fifteenth century’, The English Historical review, no. 488, p. 1017-1018.

[6] Pronay, N. and Cox, J. (eds.), The Crewland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486 (London: Alan Sutton, 1986), pp. 131-47

[7] Pronay, N. and Cox, J. (eds.), The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486 (London: Alan Sutton, 1986), pp. 151-65

[8] Armstrong, C.A.J., The Usurpation of Richard III 2nd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

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