The Wars of the Roses are normally portrayed as a series of battles between two warring houses, York and Lancaster, over who was rightly king of England. However, they were about much more than that. In many ways, the wars were really about standards of government.
Remembered mostly as an English-only affair, on the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury, a key event in the wars, it is worth remembering how the wider politics of late-Medieval Europe, particularly France, shaped this important and often commemorated, part of English history.
The Wars of the Roses were three distinct conflicts. The first phase of the wars ended when the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was usurped by 18-year-old Edward IV, who then cemented his position by winning the Battle of Towton.
Conflict re-emerged a decade later, this time caused by the deteriorating personal relations between the Yorkist king, Edward IV and his closest ally and advisor, the Earl of Warwick, later known as “the Kingmaker”. During this instability, problems in England were drawn into a wider sets of events. Foreign rulers, particularly the French king, Louis XI, and his main adversary, Charles, Duke of Burgundy, were able to exploit these divisions.
The Earl of Warwick started the 1460s as the key figure in government, with key military and diplomatic responsibilities that helped secure Edward’s newly won kingdom. However, as the decade progressed, Warwick’s control over the young king waned as Edward sought his council less and less. The key division between the two men was foreign policy, a key aspect of medieval government.
In 1464, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a knight killed fighting for the Lancastrians three years earlier. This was a scandalous marriage. Kings married to form wider alliances that would benefit the kingdom, never for love. The ceremony also occurred as Warwick was negotiating a union with a French princess, causing the earl much embarrassment.
A connected issue was the different visions that Edward and Warwick had of England’s role within wider European politics.
France was also politically unstable at the time, with Louis XI (nicknamed the “Universal Spider”) clashing with many of his leading subjects, particularly the Duke of Burgundy who had significant independent power.
While Warwick favoured an alliance with Louis, Edward preferred an alliance with the Duke of Burgundy.
The duke was more than simply a subject of the French king as Burgundy ruled over the Low Countries, which constituted much of modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. As such, Edward believed an alliance with Burgundy would provide England with stronger commercial ties with many Flemish and Dutch towns.
It also had the added advantage of avoiding an unpopular alliance with one of England’s traditional enemies, the French. The alliance was cemented when Edward secured the marriage of his sister to the duke in 1468.
Crisis and opportunity
While this was happening, many Lancastrians remained at large. The deposed Henry VI was eventually captured as a fugitive in July 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His French wife (Margaret of Anjou) and their son (Prince Edward) spent much of the 1460s trying to gain foreign allies to support a Lancastrian restoration, particularly the French king.
For Louis XI, however, Margaret’s cause was a lost one until divisions in England meant became beneficial to the French king. Little did he know that the situation in England was turning in such a way.
The fractions between Warwick and Edward were too big to fix. So Warwick allied himself with Edward’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, instigating failed popular rebellions in 1469 and 1470, which caused them to flee to France. It was at this point that Louis XI brokered an unlikely alliance between Warwick and Margaret of Anjou, in which Warwick agreed to restore Margaret’s imprisoned husband as king.
The complex history of the following months can be boiled down to the key events. Warwick, backed by the French, invaded England in September 1470, though Margaret and her son remained in France until England had been secured.
Seeing his support collapse, Edward fled to the Low Countries, and Henry VI was restored as king. The Duke of Burgundy eventually backed Edward privately, giving him 50,000 florins and several Dutch ships. This allowed Edward to invade in spring 1471.
However, rather than facing one enemy, Edward IV faced two: Warwick and Anjou. After returning to England, he rallied enough troops and, on Easter Sunday, defeated an army led by Warwick at Barnet. Warwick was killed fleeing from the battle and his body put on display.
This should have ended the war, but Margaret, her son and many Lancastrians did not arrive in England until two days after the Kingmaker’s death. Margaret’s reluctance to cross the channel with her supporters (no doubt to the annoyance of the French king) meant that opposition to Edward was divided, which gave him the advantage in both battles.
The Yorkists regrouped and gathered more troops, before marching west for a second battle at Tewkesbury. The battle occurred just south of Tewkesbury Abbey, where the Yorkist army was able to overwhelm the Lancastrians led by Margaret of Anjou, whose 16-year-old son was killed in the fighting.
The twists and turns that led to Battle of Tewkesbury are more than just a good story. They tell us a lot about how English and European politics were intricately bound together, even during periods of civil war.
Both sides relied on foreign aid. France and the Low Countries were a places of refuge when the tide was turning against them, and the French were important backers.
In all, this period in one of England’s most famous wars shows that civil wars, even in the middle ages, could be subject to foreign interference and the machinations of wider geopolitical events. Ultimately, the Wars of the Roses were not an exclusively English set of events.
Gordon McKelvie is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Winchester.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.