Wars of the Roses  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Wars of the Roses were a series of dynastic wars fought between supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the houses of Lancaster and York (whose heraldic symbols were the red and the white rose, respectively) for the throne of England. They were fought in several sporadic episodes between 1455 and 1485, although there was related fighting both before and after this period. They resulted from the social and financial troubles following the Hundred Years' War. The final victory went to a relatively remote Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, who defeated the last Yorkist king Richard III and married Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth of York to unite the two houses. The House of Tudor subsequently ruled England and Wales for 117 years.

Henry of Bolingbroke had established the House of Lancaster on the throne in 1399 when he deposed his cousin Richard II and was crowned as Henry IV. Bolingbroke's son Henry V maintained the family's hold on the crown, but when Henry V died in 1422, his heir was the infant Henry VI. The Lancastrian claim to the throne descended from John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, the third surviving son of Edward III. Henry VI's right to the crown was challenged by Richard, Duke of York, who could claim descent from Edward's second and fourth surviving sons, Lionel of Antwerp and Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York. Richard of York, who had held several important offices of state, quarrelled with prominent Lancastrians at court and with Henry VI's queen, Margaret of Anjou.

Although armed clashes had occurred previously between supporters of York and Lancaster, the first open fighting broke out in 1455 at the First Battle of St Albans. Several prominent Lancastrians died, but their heirs continued a deadly feud with Richard. Although peace was temporarily restored, the Lancastrians were inspired by Margaret of Anjou to contest York's influence. Fighting resumed more violently in 1459. York and his supporters were forced to flee the country, but one of his most prominent supporters, the Earl of Warwick, invaded England from Calais and captured Henry at the Battle of Northampton. York returned to the country and became Protector of England, but was dissuaded from claiming the throne. Margaret and the irreconcilable Lancastrian nobles gathered their forces in the north of England, and when York moved north to suppress them, he and his second son Edmund were killed at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460. The Lancastrian army advanced south and recaptured Henry at the Second Battle of St Albans, but failed to occupy London, and subsequently retreated to the north. York's eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, was proclaimed King Edward IV. He gathered the Yorkist armies and won a crushing victory at the Battle of Towton in March 1461.

After Lancastrian revolts in the north were suppressed in 1464 and Henry was captured once again, Edward fell out with his chief supporter and advisor, the Earl of Warwick (known as the "Kingmaker"), and also alienated many friends and even family members by favouring the upstart family of his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, whom he had married in secret. Warwick tried first to supplant Edward with his younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, and then to restore Henry VI to the throne. This resulted in two years of rapid changes of fortune, before Edward IV once again won complete victories at Barnet (April 1471), where Warwick was killed, and Tewkesbury (May 1471) where the Lancastrian heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, was executed after the battle. Henry was murdered in the Tower of London several days later, ending the direct Lancastrian line of succession.

A period of comparative peace followed, but King Edward died unexpectedly in 1483. His surviving brother, Richard of Gloucester, first moved to prevent the unpopular Woodville family of Edward's widow from participating in the government during the minority of Edward's son, Edward V, and then seized the throne for himself, using the suspect legitimacy of Edward IV's marriage as pretext. Henry Tudor, a distant relative of the Lancastrian kings who had inherited their claim, defeated Richard at Bosworth in 1485. He was crowned Henry VII, and married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, to unite and reconcile the two houses.

Yorkist revolts, directed by John de la Pole, 1st Earl of Lincoln and others, flared up in 1487 under the banner of the pretender Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be Edward, Earl of Warwick (son of George of Clarence), resulting in the last pitched battles. Although most of the surviving descendants of Richard of York were imprisoned, sporadic rebellions continued until 1497 when Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the younger brother of Edward V, one of the two disappeared Princes in the Tower, was imprisoned and later executed.

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