The rule of the weak Henry VI and the combination of personal rivalries among the great nobles of England, and the military defeats suffered in the last decades of the Hundred Year’s War against France pushed England into a period of thirty years which was marked by Civil War, the War of the Roses.
Historians now believe that a social phenomenon that is called bastard feudalism played a key role in creating the civil wars that marked the second half of the 15th century.
Bastard feudalism in England was born during the 14th century when King Edward III created duchies for his sons, and such was the wealth, power and influence these sons and their descendants had, that they became more than powerful enough to challenge and even depose the ruling monarch of the country. Probably a few of these duchies would have been enough to destabilize the country, but Edward created three of these: in 1337 he made his eldest son Edward, the Black Prince, the Duke of Cornwall, in 1362 he made two more duchies, Clarence and Lancaster for his sons Lionel of Antwerp and John of Gaunt.
The troublesome succession of Edward III
When Edward died in 1377, he was followed on the throne by his grandson Richard II. During his reign two more duchies were created, York and Gloucester, for the two youngest sons of Edward III, Edmund of Langsley and Thomas Woodstock. All these dukes had immense wealth and influence, which was combined with the royal blood that was flowing through their veins.
When Richard succeeded his grandfather, he was only a boy aged 10, while three of his uncles were still alive and were experienced and seasoned politicians and soldiers already. The reign of Richard II was tumultuous, to say the least, as he was challenged by a Peasant Uprising in 1381, had a standoff with Parliament, and by the end of his reign, his relationship with his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, had completely broken down. Bolingbroke deposed the unpopular Richard in 1399 and became the first Lancastrian king of England.
His rule was plagued by instability and rebellions, and although he succeeded in maintaining himself on the throne, the Lancastrian grip on power was far from rock-solid when he died. He was succeeded by his son Henry V, who had to immediately face a plot to depose him. Henry had the leaders of the plot executed. Henry V turned out a real military prodigy and his successful military exploits in France allowed him to conquer most of Northern France and even made his line the successors to the French throne.
All seemed well for the Lancastrians when Henry V suddenly died of dysentery. He was followed on the throne by his infant son Henry VI, whose reign undid all the conquests of Henry V in France and lost the legitimacy the successes of Henry achieved for the Lancastrians. As so often happened in Medieval Europe, the rule of underage rulers was marked by internal tensions as powerful noblemen tried to become the power behind the throne of the young Henry VI.
As the military situation in France deteriorated in the late 1420s and 1430s, two parties emerged in the English court: the „Peace Party” led by the Beauforts( the legitimised bastards of John of Gaunt) and the duke of Suffolk, and a „War Party” led by the duke of York and Gloucester. As the King starved the former two of resources to conduct their war effort in France, bitter resentments built up between the two parties.
The Peace Party won out in the end, Suffolk brokered peace and arranged the marriage of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou, a relative of the Valois kings of France. Gloucester was arrested for treason and died while he was waiting for his trial, while Richard of York was stripped of his command in France and sent in exile to Ireland.
Peace did not last for long though, and as the English position in France deteriorated, Suffolk's position became unstable. He fell from power in 1449 and was executed the same year. He was replaced by Edmund Beaufort, the duke of Somerset, as the leader of the Peace Party, and he became the principal ally of the Queen.
Things did not turn for the better in France, and eventually the English lost all their lands in France but the port of Calais. A peasant uprising also occurred in Kent, and sensing an opportunity to break into the power circle in London, Richard of York returned from Ireland
Start of the conflict
Upon hearing the news of the loss of the English lands in Aquitaine, Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown and became completely unable to make any decisions. As Henry was incapacitated, a Regency Council was set up, and it was headed by the Duke of York. York did not lose the opportunity to remove his rival and had the duke of Somerset imprisoned.
York’s „reign” lasted until Henry made a miraculous recovery in 1455 and ended the Yorkist stranglehold on power. York and his allies were stripped of their power and sent away from Court.
Henry and his supporters were on their way to Leicester, to hold a Great Council when a force of Yorkist supporters intercepted them at St. Albans and a fight erupted. York emerged victoriously, he captured Henry VI and had his most influential allies, and his worst enemies, executed. Back in London, he became Lord Protector of England again, but his ascendency was short-lived as Henry relieved him of his position in early 1456.
The next few years were spent in an atmosphere of Cold War as the two sides were scheming against one another, but the open military conflict was rare and small in scale. Things changed when the ally of York, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, was summoned to London to answer for his attacks against Castillian and German shipping.
Warwick refused, and together with York and Warwick’s father, the Earl of Salisbury, they rebelled once again. At first, they were defeated and forced to flee the country for Ireland( York) and Calais( the Nevilles), but they made their comeback in 1460, defeated the Lancastrians, captured King Henry again and took London.
Act of Accord
Richard of York shocked Parliament by eyeing the crown for himself, but not even his staunchest supporters gave their support to the usurpation of Henry. Instead, a compromise was made, the Act of Accord. This act disinherited the son of Henry VI, and upon the death of Henry, he would have been followed on the throne by Richard and his sons.
Margaret of Anjou, however, was not prepared to just sit by watching his son being disinherited. She rallied support around herself. She was backed by the new duke of Somerset, the half brothers of Henry VI, among them Jasper Tudor, the Percy family who had a long-running feud with the Nevilles and many other important noblemen of England.
York marched north to defeat Margaret, but he underestimated the support the Lancastrians gathered.
He was defeated at the Battle of Workshop and retreated into Sandal Castle. For unknown reasons he sallied out of the castle on December 30, 1460, and was once again defeated at the Battle of Wakefield. York, one of his sons and the Earl of Salisbury were all killed during and after the battle.
With his death, the eldest son of Richard of Yorke, Edward, inherited his claim to the throne and allied with the Earl of Warwick the two continued the fight.
The Battle of Towton
In the aftermath of the Lancastrian victory, Edward of York marched against the Lancastrian army that was gathering in Wales. Edward succeeded in defeating this force, thus the Lancastrians did not receive further reinforcements from the host of Owen Tudor, who himself was killed.
The Lancastrian army that was victorious at Wakefield marched south and defeated the Earl of Warwick at the Second Battle of St. Albans. Warwick escaped, but he lost King Henry, who was recaptured by the Lancastrians. The Lancastrians plundered their way South, and when they arrived under London, they were refused entrance. News of London’s defiance reached Edward and Warwick( who joined Edward), and the two marched on London. With supplies running low and surrounded by an unfriendly population, the Lancastrians decided to retreat North.
The Yorkists received a better reception, and on the advice of Warwick, the young Edward was proclaimed the King of England on March 4, 1461.
With the proclamation of Edward as king, England had two kings, and both sides knew that a showdown was inevitable.
Warwick and Edward marched north to confront the Lancastrians. Warwick led the vanguard of the Yorkist force. Warwick clashed with the Lancastrians in an indecisive battle at Ferrybridge, where the Yorkists wanted to cross the bridge but were beaten back by the Lancastrians. Still, the Yorkists found a crossing point north of Ferrybridge and managed to cross the river and were on their way towards York.
The Lancastrians decided to block their route south of a village called Towton. Somerset lined up his men on high ground, with marshes protecting one of his flanks. The Lancastrian position was strong, and they had the advantage of numbers on their side also.
The Yorkists lined up on a smaller ridge opposite the Lancastrians, but unbeknownst to them, the Lancastrians had hidden troops in the forest to one of their flanks. The Yorkist force was also lacking in some men, as the contingent of lord Suffolk was still on its way to the battle.
Edward sent forward his archers to begin the battle, and luck was on the side of the Yorkists. The wind was blowing towards the Lancastrians, who were decimated by the volleys of Yorkist archers, while they were unable to hit their enemies.
Somerset had no choice but to leave the high ground and attack the Yorkist line. The two armies clashed, and shortly afterwards, the hidden Lancastrian cavalry emerged from the forest and took the Yorkist from the side. King Edward personally lead the reserves and succeeded in avoiding a rout. The battle then turned into a slogging brawl until the man of Norfolk arrived and took the Lancastrians in the flank, which caused a rout and decided the battle.
The Lancastrians suffered a crushing defeat and lost perhaps as many as 20,000 men during the rout. The defeat crippled their power and forced Henry and Margaret to flee to Scotland.
The reign of Edward stabilized after Towton, and it was only after the fallout between Edward and Warwick that led to the renewal of clashes in England.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler