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The War of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) resulted from a bitter struggle between the Royal houses of York and Lancaster for the throne of England. Essentially it was a conflict of nobles that eventually shattered the feudal system of England.

The battles and damage were limited to those who took a direct part; trading and the industrial classes were little involved and commerce and business went on as before.

The battles were fought by the nobles for their own interests, and men of rank were rarely spared death as their opponents could then confiscate their estates.

At this time the King of England had no reserved (permanent) army and his forces were raised by the feudal system (a system of obligations given by those lower down the social scale to those above them) and by paying foreign mercenary soldiers.

In 1422 Henry VI became King of England, and he continued to reign until 1461. Henry was the great-grandson of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who was the third son of King Edward III. However, many supported Henry's cousin Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, as the claimant to the throne.

Richard Plantagenet was the son of Richard of Cambridge (son of Edmund, Duke of York, who was himself the fourth son of Edward III) and Anne Mortimer, who was a member of the powerful Herefordshire family that owned many estates in the county. The main family seat in Herefordshire was at Wigmore Castle (Historic Environment Record no. 179) in the north of the county.

In 1454 Henry VI suffered a fit of madness and Richard Plantagenet was named Protector of England by Parliament. During this time Richard imprisoned Edmund, Duke of Somerset, a relative and staunch supporter of Henry VI. When Henry recovered, his wife Margaret of Anjou persuaded him to dismiss Richard from his office.

Richard rose in revolt. He returned to Wigmore Castle to gather 4,000 men and marched on London. In a clash at St Albans in 1455 the Duke of Somerset was killed and Henry taken prisoner. Henry later suffered another fit of madness. Richard was made Constable of England, which gave him an almost dictatorial power.

The fighting carried on intermittently for the next five years and in 1459, after the wholesale defeat of the Yorkists by the Lancastrians at Ludford, Richard fled to Ireland.

The Yorkists returned in 1460. At the battle of Northampton in July of that year, Lord Grey de Ruthyn (the commander of the Lancastrian vanguard) had, prior to battle, done a deal with the Yorkists, and he and his men helped them over the ramparts. King Henry was taken prisoner in the ensuing battle. The capture of Henry VI resulted in a compromise, Henry would rule until his death but be succeeded by Richard rather than his own son.

Margaret, Henry's wife, was not happy with this arrangement and lured Richard into battle once more at Wakefield. Richard was defeated, his head cut off and his cause left to be taken up by his son Edward, Earl of March. 

In 1461 Edward defeated Owen Tudor (grandfather of the future Henry VII) at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross, near Leominster. Owen Tudor was beheaded and his head transported to Hereford, where it was placed on the steps of the High Cross at the west end of High Town. One hundred candles are said to have been placed around the cross to illuminate this gruesome scene. A plaque marking the site can still be seen outside the Marks and Spencer store.

After several more battles Edward marched on London and was proclaimed King Edward IV on 3rd March 1461. Wigmore Castle now became a royal demesne.

Margaret of Anjou was still determined that the throne should stay with the House of Lancaster, and four weeks after being proclaimed king, Edward IV was facing the Lancastrian army near Towton in Yorkshire. Edward commanded 15,000 men and Henry, Duke of Somerset (eldest son of the previous duke), who commanded the Lancastrian force, had 20,000. The two forces combined created the largest number of men to meet on an English battlefield.

The Yorkist archers heavily dented the Lancastrian army, and they then fought in close combat. The Lancastrians turned and fled but the Yorkists followed and cut them down.

Edward IV was crowned in June 1461, and in 1464 he secretly married the commoner Elizabeth Woodville, widow of a Lancastrian knight, Sir John Grey. In June of the same year Edward signed a treaty with Scotland, depriving the Lancastrians of refuge and thus making Henry VI a fugitive.
[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]