In the opening battle of England’s War of the Roses, the Yorkists defeat King Henry VI’s Lancastrian forces at St. Albans, 20 miles northwest of London. Many Lancastrian nobles perished, including Edmund Beaufort, the duke of Somerset, and the king was forced to submit to the rule of his cousin, Richard of York. The dynastic struggle between the House of York, whose badge was a white rose, and the House of Lancaster, later associated with a red rose, would stretch on for 30 years.
Both families, closely related, claimed the throne through descent from the sons of Edward III, the king of England from 1327 to 1377. The first Lancastrian king was Henry IV in 1399, and rebellion and lawlessness were rife during his reign. His son, Henry V, was more successful and won major victories in the Hundred Years War against France. His son and successor, Henry VI, had few kingly qualities and lost most of the French land his father had conquered. At home, chaos prevailed and lords with private armies challenged Henry VI’s authority. At times, his ambitious queen, Margaret of Anjou, effectively controlled the crown.
In 1453, Henry lapsed into insanity, and in 1454 Parliament appointed Richard, duke of York, as protector of the realm. Henry and York’s grandfathers were the fourth and third sons of Edward III, respectively. When Henry recovered in late 1454, he dismissed York and restored the authority of Margaret, who saw York as a threat to the succession of their son, Prince Edward. York raised an army of 3,000 men, and in May the Yorkists marched to London. On May 22, 1455, York met Henry’s forces at St. Albans while on the northern road to the capital. The bloody encounter lasted less than an hour, and the Yorkists carried the day. The duke of Somerset, Margaret’s great ally, was killed, and Henry was captured by the Yorkists.
After the battle, Richard again was made English protector, but in 1456 Margaret regained the upper hand. An uneasy peace was broken in 1459, and in 1460 the Lancastrians were defeated, and York was granted the right to ascend to the throne upon Henry’s death. The Lancastrians then gathered forces in northern England and in December 1460 surprised and killed York outside his castle near Wakefield.
York’s son Edward reached London before Margaret and was proclaimed King Edward IV. In March 1461, Edward won a decisive victory against the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest of the war. Henry, Margaret, and their son fled to Scotland, and the first phase of the war was over.
Yorkist rivalry would later lead to the overthrow of Edward in 1470 and the restoration of Henry VI. The next year, Edward returned from exile in the Netherlands, defeated Margaret’s forces, killed her son, and imprisoned Henry in the Tower of London, where he was murdered. Edward IV then ruled uninterrupted until his death in 1483. His eldest son was proclaimed Edward V, but Edward IV’s brother, Richard III, seized the crown and imprisoned Edward and his younger brother in the Tower of London, where they disappeared, probably murdered. In 1485, Richard III was defeated and killed by Lancastrians led by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Henry Tudor was proclaimed King Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Henry was the grandson of Catherine of Valois, the widow of Henry V, and Owen Tudor. In 1486, he married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York, thereby uniting the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims. This event is seen as marking the end of the War of Roses; although some Yorkists supported in 1487 an unsuccessful rebellion against Henry, led by Lambert Simnel. The War of Roses left little mark on the common English people but severely thinned the ranks of the English nobility.