In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Wars of the Roses

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals and Essay Collections
  • Constitution and Government
  • Relations with France and Burgundy
  • Counties and Towns
  • Victims

Military History Wars of the Roses
Michael Hicks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0066


The Wars of the Roses is the 19th-century name given to the English civil wars fought roughly between 1450 and 1509. The principal conflicts took place in 1459–1461 (First War), 1469–1471 (Second War), and 1483–1485 (Third War). The wars developed during the reign of King Henry VI (1422–1461) and they stemmed from the loss of the Hundred Years’ War, the consequent near-bankruptcy of successive governments, and the deepest point of the economic slump following the Black Death in 1348. Following the acute crisis of 1450, a kaleidoscope of short-term shocks occurred, notably Henry VI’s madness (1453–1455) and the first battle of St. Albans (1455). Starting from reform against what were regarded as corrupt and treasonable evil councilors, Richard, Duke of York (d. 1460), became a dynastic rival in 1460: the Yorkist rival to the Lancastrians. York was killed at the battle of Wakefield. His son Edward IV (r. 1461–1483), the first Yorkist king, decisively defeated the Lancastrians in 1461. His reign was punctuated by a Second War, in which Warwick the Kingmaker (d. 1471) made Henry VI briefly king again (the Readeption, 1470–1471). Edward recovered his throne at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury. Following Edward IV’s death and the succession of his son Edward V, in 1483, the throne was usurped by Edward’s uncle, Richard III (r. 1483–1485), who was overthrown at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 by Henry Tudor, who reigned as Henry VII (r. 1485–1509). Yorkist contenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck threatened Henry VII’s hold on the throne until 1499 and others did so beyond that date. The wars constituted a period of exceptional instability marked by dozens of violent episodes. The political and financial weaknesses of the Crown were compounded by the political activism of the Commons, who rebelled in 1460 and 1470 in numbers beyond those that any monarch proved capable of resisting. Opponents of each regime repeatedly sheltered in Calais, France, and/or in Ireland, or they were given shelter by the rulers of Burgundy, France, or Scotland. They launched a series of invasions against England, four of which were successful. The wars played a part in the power struggles of France and Burgundy. From 1460, all monarchs had rivals with competing claims to the Crown. Rivals weakened all kings, who were unable to command the allegiance that all monarchs needed. The most influential commentator was Chief Justice Fortescue, who blamed a flawed political system. Tudor historians today credit Henry VII with ending the wars by means of his ruthless social control. However, it is also true that economic recovery made the Crown solvent once again and, in so doing, removed many of the grievances of the people at the same time that the great continental powers lost interest in destabilizing English governments.

General Overviews and Textbooks

The Wars of the Roses has attracted a series of top-flight historians. Most influential among later contributors has been McFarlane’s brief paper (McFarlane 1981). Harriss 2005 and Pollard 2000 are contrasting detailed narratives, respectively, up to 1461 and of the whole 15th century. Goodman 1981 is still the best military history of the wars. Pollard 2001 and Carpenter 1997 are favorite textbooks and offer contrasting interpretations. Royle 2009 recycles the traditional story, which the author traces back to 1399. Hicks 2010 seeks to explain the entire era. Ross 1976 takes a broader and less narrative approach.

  • Carpenter, Christine. The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, c. 1437–1509. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    The most thorough and up-to-date survey that is the standard student textbook. Follows Watts 1996 (cited under The First War and Its Lengthy Preamble) in discounting Henry VI and takes a very favorable view of Edward IV.

  • Goodman, Anthony. The Wars of the Roses: Military Activity and English Society, 1452–97. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

    The best military history that deals thoroughly with recruitment, manpower, and logistics.

  • Harriss, Gerald L. Shaping the Nation: England 1360–1461. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Now the standard history for the preliminaries. Especially strong on the period before 1447, but has much of value to say regarding the preamble to, and the outbreak of, the Wars of the Roses.

  • Hicks, Michael. The Wars of the Roses. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

    Full-length survey that explains why the wars began, why they kept recurring, and why they ceased in terms of wider economic context. Less unfavorable than most to Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou; skeptical of Henry VII.

  • McFarlane, Kenneth B. “The Wars of the Roses.” In England in the Fifteenth Century. By Kenneth B. McFarlane, 231–268. London: Hambledon Press, 1981.

    Brilliant and superbly researched lecture by the inspirer of all modern studies.

  • Pollard, Anthony J. Late Medieval England 1399–1509. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000.

    A very full account of political history before and during the Wars of the Roses that comprehensively reviews all the relevant literature. Does tend to sit on the fence.

  • Pollard, Anthony J. The Wars of the Roses. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 2001.

    First published in 1988. Concise, accessible, reliable, and comprehensive survey of the whole sequence of wars. A student favorite.

  • Ross, Charles D. The Wars of the Roses. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976.

    Succinct and well-illustrated account of most aspects of the wars.

  • Royle, Trevor. The Road to Bosworth Field: A New History of the Wars of the Roses. London: Little, Brown, 2009.

    Takes a very long view and offers a highly accessible traditional interpretation.

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