Henry VI, who had become king as a baby, grew up to be simple-minded and book-loving. He hared the warlike nobles and was an unsuitable king for such a violent society. But he was civilized and gentlemanly. He founded two places of learning that still exist, Eton College not far from London, and King’s College in Cambridge. He could happily have spent his life in such places of learning. But Henry’s simple-mindedness gave way to periods of mental illness. England had lost a war and was ruled by a mentally ill king who was bad at choosing advisers. It was perhaps natural that the nobles began to ask questions about who should be ruling the country. They remembered that Henry’s grandfather Henry of Lancaster had taken the throne when Richard 11 was deposed.
There were no more than sixty noble families controlling England at this time. Most of them were related to each other through marriage. Some of the nobles were extremely powerful. Many of them continued to keep their own private armies after returning from the war in France and used them to frighten local people into obeying them. Some of these armies were large. For example, by 1450 the duke of Buckingham had 2,000 men in his private army. The discontented nobility was divided between those who remained loyal to Henry VI, the “Lancastrians”, and those who supported the duke of York, the “Yorkers”. The duke of York was the heir of the Earl of March, who had lost the competition for the throne when Richard 11 was deposed in 1399. In 1460 the duke of York claimed the throne for himself. After his death in battle, his son Edward took up the struggle and won the throne in 1461.
Edward IV put Henry into the Tower of London, but nine years later a new Lancastrian army rescued Henry and chased Edward out of the country. Like the Lancastrians, Edward was able to raise another army. Edward had the advantage of his popularity with the merchants of London and the southeast of England. This was because the York ists had stro ngly encouraged profitable trade, particularly with Burgundy. Edward returned to Englan d in 1471 and defeated the Lancastrians. At last Edward IV was safe on the throne. Henry VI died in the Tower of London soon after, almost certainly murdered. The war between York and Lan caster would probably have stopped then if Edward’s son had been old enough to rule, and if Edward’s brother, Richard of Gloucester, had not been so ambitious. But when Edward IV died in 1483, his own two sons, the twelve-year-old Edward V, and his younger brother were put in the Tower by Richard of Gloucester. Rich ard took the Crown and became King Rich ard Ill.
A month later the two princes were murdered. William Shakespeare’s play Richard Ill, written a century later, accuses Richard of murder and almost everyone believed it. Richard III had a better reason than most to wish his two nephews dead, but his guilt has never been proved. Richa rd III was not popular. Lancastrians and Yorkists both disliked him. In 1485 a challenger with a very distant claim to royal blood through John of Gaunt landed in England with Breron soldiers to claim the throne. Many discontented lords, both Lancastrians and Yorkists, joined him. His name was Henry Tudor, Duke of Richmond, and he was half Welsh. He met Rich ard III at Bosworth. Half of Richard’s army changed sides, and the battle quickly ended in his defeat and death. Henry Tudor was crowned king immediately, on the battlefield. The war had finally ended, though this could not have been clear at the time.
Much later, in the nineteenth century, the novelist Walter Scott named these wars the “Wars of the Roses”, because York’s symbol was a white rose, and Lancaster’s a red one. The Wars of the Roses nearly destroyed the English idea of kingship forever. After 1460 there had been little respect for anything except the power to take the Crown. Tudor historians made much of these wars and made it seem as if much of England had been destroyed. This was not true. Fighting took place for only a total of fifteen months out of the whole twenty-five-year period. Only the nobles and their armies were involved. It is true, however, that the wars were a disaster for the nobility. For the first time, there had been no purpose in taking prisoners, because no one was interested in the payment of ransom. Everyone was interested in destroying the opposing nobility. T hose captured in battle were usually killed immediately. By the time of the battle of Bosworth in 1485, the old nobility had nearly destroyed itself. Almost half the lords of the sixty noble families had died in the wars. It was this fact which made it possible for the Tudors to build a new nation-state.