As we mentioned yesterday in our discussion of historical inaccuracies in The First Part of Henry the Sixth, the term “the War of the Roses” became popular only in the nineteenth century after its use in Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein, or The Maiden of the Mist (1829); the phrase is said to be have been based on the Rose Briar scene (Act Two, Scene Five) of 1HenryVI, in which Plantagenet and Somerset ask their followers to show their allegiance by their choice of flowers (white for the followers of York, red for Lancaster).
While the War of the Roses does not begin in 1HenryVI, the background is discussed and the dominoes put in place for its launch into open fighting at the Battle of St. Albans in 1455, which takes place in The Second Part of Henry the Sixth. Of course, the roots of the conflict go back to the events surrounding the reign of Richard II (1377-1399), which Shakespeare will take on later in his career as part of his second historical tetralogy (Richard II, The First (and Second) Parts of Henry the Fourth, and Henry the Fifth… which we’ll be covering August-November of next year). Until then, here’s an overview:
Edward III (1312-1377) ruled England for 50 years beginning in 1327. Such a long reign at this point in history (when life expectancy was shorter) can cause some issues, as we’ll see. Edward fathered seven sons (let’s confine ourselves to male offspring at this time):
- Edward, The Black Prince of Wales (b. 1330)
- William of Hatfield (b./d. 1337)
- Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence (b. 1338)
- John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster (b. 1340)
- Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York (b. 1341)
- William of Windsor (b./d. 1348)
- Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester (b. 1355)
Edward was heir to the throne, but died a year before his father and so never assumed the throne. Since Edward had two sons, they were next in the line of succession before Edward’s brothers:
- Edward of Angouleme was born in 1365 (but died at the age of six in 1372)
- Richard of Bordeaux was born in 1367
So, when Edward III died in 1377, Richard of Bordeaux becomes King Richard II at the age of ten.
The next in line for the throne would have been Richard’s uncles Lionel of Antwerp and John of Gaunt. Note the “would have been”… Lionel was dead, and though his only child was a female, Philippa Plantagenet, she had a son, Roger de Mortimer (b. 1374). John of Gaunt, on the other hand, was 37 at the time of Richard’s coronation, and he had a son, Henry Bolingbroke, born in the same year as Richard (1367).
There was a period of political score-settling, during which many of Richard’s political enemies were either executed or exiled, and near the end of it, in 1397, Bolingbroke accused another noble, Thomas de Mowbray, of stating that Bolingbroke and de Mowbray were next for royal retribution. When de Mowbray denied the charges, the two were set to decide the matter in combat, but Richard called off the duel at the last minute and exiled them both. John of Gaunt died in February of 1399, but Richard would not allow Bolingbroke to inherit his father’s titles and lands.
While Richard was in Ireland fighting in a military campaign, Bolingbroke landed on English soil in June 1399, ostensibly to take his father’s inheritance, and for this purpose he was widely supported. When Richard returned to England, he surrendered to Bolingbroke in August. At this point, it became clear that Bolingbroke was now vying for the crown. The problem was that many felt that the next in line was Edmund Mortimer (great-grandson to the third son of Edward III, and son to the presumptive heir Roger de Mortimer, who had died in 1398); Bolingbroke was son to the fourth son of Edward III. Bolingbroke pushed for his rights, however, stating that he was the next in line via a direct male line of succession, and in September, Parliament accepted Richard’s resignation and Bolingbroke was crowned King Henry IV the next month.
When Henry IV died in 1413, he left behind a 27 year-old heir, in Henry Monmouth, who became Henry V without any conflict. When that king died, however, in 1422, leaving behind only a nine month-old heir, even the most historically myopic could see a repeat of Richard II’s rule, only the genealogical arguments between Bolingbroke and Mortimer were straightforward and relatively clear compared to those two generations down the line.
Edmund Mortimer died in 1425 without any offspring. His sister, Anne Mortimer, married Richard of Conisburgh, Earl of Cambridge, and they had two children, the male being Richard Plantagenet (b. 1411). During the Henry VI’s rule, for those still attempting to find a way to have Lionel’s line assume the throne, their best bet was this young Duke of York. The only problem was the one Bolingbroke had used to diffuse Edmund Mortimer’s claims: the female line of succession, only now there wasn’t just one female in the path (Philippa Plantagenet), but two (Anne Mortimer). There was also the tricky issue of Plantagenet’s father, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, who had been executed for the Southampton Plot against Henry V.
Thus, by the end of the events of The First Part of Henry the Sixth, we can see the two parties, the Yorkist followers of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, and the Lancastrian followers of the descendants of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, with symbols chosen–the white rose and the red–heading for war…