Henry VI. was one of the most unfortunate kings who ever sat on a throne. He was truthful, upright, and just, and wished to please everybody. But he had neither the strength of mind nor of body to rule a kingdom, and for long periods he was actually insane.
In 1450, the misgovernment of his ministers led to a rebellion, in southeastern England, under one Jack Cade. The rebels proclaimed that "the King's false Council hath lost his law; his merchandise is lost; France is lost; the King himself is so set that he may not pay for his meat or drink, and he oweth more than ever any King of England owed." The rebellion was easily put down; but it led the Duke of York to put himself at the head of the opposition, and a struggle then began which soon passed into a war for the crown itself.
In order to understand this contest between the houses of York and Lancaster, you will need to look at the table on page 141, and see just how each house was descended from King Edward III. Henry VI., the head of the house of Lancaster, represented the third line of descent; while Richard of York was descended from Edward's second son, Lionel, through his mother, as well as from the fourth son, through his father. If strict rules of succession were regarded, Richard of York had a better right to the throne than King Henry VI. But the claims of the line of Lionel had been passed over in 1399, and had been since disregarded; and it was only the miserable failure of the French war, and the misgovernment at home, which enabled the Yorkists to win any attention for their claims.
At first, the object of York was merely to take the government from incapable persons, and to secure it for himself; but later he claimed the throne itself. His ablest supporter was the Earl of Warwick, who played so important a part that he is called "the King Maker." On the Lancastrian side, the real head of the party was Queen Margaret, a young and beautiful French woman, who fiercely resisted all attempts to disinherit her son, Prince Edward. On both sides, the followers of the different lords were distinguished by the badges which they wore—the swan, the bear and staff, the white hart or deer, and the like. But the Lancastrians regarded the Red Rose as their emblem, and all Yorkists similarly looked upon the White Rose. The wars, which troubled England for thirty years, are thus known as the "Wars of the Roses."
Map of England
The first battle in this struggle was fought in 1455, at St. Albans, where York defeated his enemies, and for a time secured control of the government. Four years later, however, Queen Margaret attacked the Yorkists with superior forces; and York was obliged to flee to Ireland, while his son Edward, and Warwick, fled to Calais, in France. In a Parliament which was unfairly elected, Queen Margaret then had York and his friends "attainted" of treason—that is, they were made outlaws, and their lives and goods declared forfeited.
Next year, York returned from Ireland, and his son and Warwick from Calais. Warwick found the King's army fortified in a meadow near Northampton. But a heavy rain flooded the meadow and made their cannon useless, while some of the Lancastrian forces deserted; so Warwick won an easy victory. King Henry was captured and taken to London; and it is said that the city "gave to God great praise and thanking" for the victory. A new Parliament then repealed the "attainders" of the previous year, and decided that King Henry should keep the crown so long as he lived, but that, after his death, it should go to the Duke of York and his descendants.
After the battle of Northampton, Queen Margaret and the little six year old Prince were in great danger. They fell into the hands of some Yorkists, and were robbed of their goods and insulted and threatened. But a fourteen year old squire took pity on them, and while their captors quarreled over the booty, he said:
"Madam, mount you behind me, and my lord the Prince before me, and I will save you or die."
So they escaped, all three riding on one horse.
At another time, the Queen and her little son took refuge in wood, where they were found by a brigand of fierce and terrible appearance. But the Queen told her rank, and placing her boy in the robber's hands said: "Save the son of your King!"
The man proved faithful, and at length the Queen and the little Prince reached friends and safety.
Richard of York was not left long in enjoyment of his victory over his opponents. On the last day of December, 1460, another battle was fought at Wakefield, in the north of England. York was taken by his enemies "like a fish in a net," and fell fighting at the head of his men. The cruel practice, which Warwick had introduced, of putting to death the leaders of the other party, was now followed by the Lancastrians, and many leading Yorkists were slaughtered. The bloody head of the Duke of York was set over the gate of a near-by town, and was crowned in mockery with a paper crown.
With a large army of rude northerners, Margaret then advanced southward. They came, says a chronicler, "robbing all the country and people, and spoiling abbeys and houses of religion, and churches; and they bare away communion cups, books, and other ornaments, as if they had been pagans and not Christian men." They again defeated the Yorkists, and rescued the captive King, to his great joy. But the citizens of London declared against them, and Margaret's army soon retreated northward, still plundering as they went.
Meanwhile York's eldest son, now nineteen years old, had fought his way from Wales to London, and had joined Warwick. "And there," says a chronicler, "he took upon him the crown of England, by the advice of the Lords spiritual and temporal, and by the election of the Commons." He was crowned as Edward IV.—the first of the Yorkist Kings.
The new King was tall, strong, and handsome; he was a much better general than Warwick, but not so good a statesman. His first task was to pursue Queen Margaret's army, which he overtook at Towton, not far from Wakefield.
As the battle began, a snow-storm set in, which so blinded the Lancastrians that they discharged all their arrows before the Yorkists came within good range. Then Edward's men pressed on—with swords, battle-axes, daggers, and deadly hammers of lead, which even helmets of iron could not withstand. Both sides fought desperately, and no prisoners were taken. In the end, the victory was won by King Edward. King Henry and his Queen escaped to Scotland; but four years later the poor dethroned King was captured and again imprisoned in the Tower. Edward IV. was now recognized by foreign powers as England's ruler.
Plate Armor of the Fifteenth Century
Soon quarrels arose between the new King and the man who had made him King. Warwick was greedy of wealth, influence and power. He kept so many followers that "when he came to London he held such a house that six oxen were eaten at a breakfast, and every tavern was full of his meat, for who had any acquaintance in that house he should have as much boiled and roast as he might carry upon a long dagger." Edward offended Warwick by secretly marrying beneath his rank. Then, to build up a party against Warwick, Edward ennobled and promoted his wife's relatives. Warwick won over to his side Edward's weak brother, the Duke of Clarence. In addition to all else, King Edward and Warwick differed over foreign policy; for Warwick wisely wished England to remain at peace with France, while Edward wanted to renew the French war.
At last, in 1470, Warwick's friends rebelled, and were defeated in a battle, for which they fled so hastily that it was called "Lose-coat Field." Warwick and Clarence took refuge at the court of the King of France, where they found Queen Margaret and her son. The French King caused these former enemies to be friends; and in September, 1470, Warwick returned to England, with an army, to drive Edward from the throne and restore the Lancastrian line.
For a time everything went well with Warwick. Edward's troops deserted him, and he was forced to flee to Flanders.
Henry VI. was then replaced on the throne, and "all his good lovers were glad, and the most part of the people."
But in March, 1471, Edward returned, and his brother, the Duke of Clarence, joined him. At Barnet, a few miles north of London, the battle was fought. Edward was completely successful, and Warwick was slain as he left the field.
On the very day of the battle of Barnet, Queen Margaret and her son landed in the west of England, and soon they were at the head of a considerable army. A few weeks later the Queen's forces met the Yorkist forces at Tewkesbury. There King Edward fought and won the last battle needed to secure his possession of the crown. The Lancastrian Prince, who had become a fine young man of eighteen years, was captured after the battle, and was cruelly put to death. Queen Margaret was allowed to return to France, where she died some years later. As for poor Henry VI., who played so feeble a part in all these struggles, he was murdered in the Tower on the very day that King Edward returned to London.
Tower of London
So long as King Edward lived, there was no renewal of the war. The townsmen and common people were glad to have peace at any price, and willingly submitted to the strong rule of the King. The nobles were so weakened by the wars that they could not resist. To end the troubles within his own family, the King charged his brother—"false, fleeting, perjured Clarence"—with treason, and had him put to death.
This hard, unscrupulous, pleasure-loving King died in 1483, leaving two sons, Edward and Richard, the one twelve years old, and the other ten. The elder of these was at once proclaimed King, as Edward V.; and his uncle, Richard of Gloucester became "Protector," or ruler in the young King's name.
Gloucester was a monster of cunning and cruelty, and set to work to rob his nephew of the crown.
He imprisoned and executed the chief supporters of the young King. Then he had it announced that he was the true heir to the throne, and began to reign in his own name. The little Princes were shut up in the Tower of London, and soon disappeared—murdered by the orders of their cruel uncle. In this way, began the brief reign of Richard III., the last of the Yorkist kings, whom the poet Shakespeare represents with a crooked back, to match his cruel and crooked mind.
But punishment followed fast upon this wicked King. Old Yorkists joined with what was left of the Lancastrian party, and soon a great conspiracy was on foot. They planned to make Henry Tudor (a distant relative of Henry VI.) King, and marry him to Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV.
Henry's first expedition from France failed because of storms and floods; but a second expedition, in 1485, brought him safely to land in Wales.
At Bosworth field he was met by King Richard, and there was fought the last battle of the Wars of the Roses. The Red Rose of Lancaster triumphed over the White Rose of York. Richard's leading officers deserted him, and he died fighting in the front of the battle. His crown was picked up from the field, and set upon the head of Henry Tudor, who was proclaimed King as Henry VII. The marriage with Elizabeth of York followed, and the wise policy of Henry VII. united the interests of both Lancaster and York in the house of Tudor.
The long warfare for the crown was at last ended. The old nobility had suffered grievously through deaths on the field and at the block, and through confiscation of estates, and never again did its power seriously threaten the peace of England. The common people, however, had suffered little in the struggle, and a new era of peace and prosperity now dawned for England. Other forces, too, had for some time been changing the modes of life and thought in Europe. With the close of the Wars of the Roses, we may recognize the complete ending of the Middle Ages in England, and the establishing of the "Renaissance," which begins Modern History.