Wars of the Roses, 1455–85, a struggle for the throne of England fought between the royal families of Lancaster and York. The name comes from the family symbols—a red rose for Lancaster, a white one for York. Much of the fighting was merely local, between the private armies of England's nobles.
Before this conflict, the king had been largely dependent on the nobility. During the wars many of the powerful nobles were killed. This weakened the feudal system and strengthened the crown. Firm royal control was welcomed by the rising commercial classes because it provided a strong central government under which commerce could flourish.
The wars began as a struggle for power between Richard, Duke of York, and Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI of Lancaster. York was heir to the throne until Margaret gave birth to a boy in 1453. Many doubted, however, that the baby was Henry's son and continued to give their support to York. In 1454, Henry suffered a mental breakdown—the first of many—and York briefly served as his protector (regent). When the king recovered, Margaret persuaded him to appoint one of her supporters chief minister and York revolted. He defeated the Lancastrian forces at St. Albans in 1455, and when Henry suffered another breakdown, York again became protector. Henry recovered the following year, and York was relieved as protector.
Fighting broke out again in 1459 and Henry was captured by the Yorkists in 1460. He was allowed to retain the throne in exchange for naming York heir and protector. Margaret opposed the settlement and organized a Lancastrian army, which defeated the Yorkists in the Battle of Wakefield (1460), where York was killed. York's son Edward, however, won the Battle of Towton in 1461 with the support of the Earl of Warwick, "the kingmaker," and became Edward IV. Henry and his family fled to Scotland.
In 1470, the wars resumed after Edward IV had quarreled with Warwick. Warwick joined the Lancastrians and Edward fled. Henry VI again was king. In 1471 Edward regained the crown by defeating Warwick at Barnet and Queen Margaret's forces at Tewkesbury. Margaret's son was killed and Henry died in the Tower of London the same year, presumably murdered.
Edward IV reigned until his death in 1483. His 12-year-old son became Edward V, and the boy's uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was named his protector. Before Edward V could be crowned, however, Parliament, under Richard's influence, proclaimed him illegitimate. Gloucester became Richard III.
Henry Tudor, of the house of Lancaster, defeated and killed Richard at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. This battle is traditionally considered the last of the Wars of the Roses because it marked the end of Yorkist power. Tudor became Henry VII. He married Elizabeth of York hoping to forestall further rebellion, but dissension continued. The last revolt in which Yorkists figured—an attempt to put a pretender on the throne—was in 1497.
Fictional accounts of the Wars of the Roses are in Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III , and in Robert Louis Stevenson's Black Arrow.