There is a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1, one that never actually occurred, but one that captures the lead-in to the Wars of the Roses perfectly. There is an assembly of lords in a garden, but none are willing to commit openly to either side. So Richard suggests that they let the “dumb significants” speak for them – each shall pick a rose in the colour of the houses they support, white for the House of York and red for the House of Lancaster. In a twist, even though the King is unaware of the byplay, he sees everyone else picking roses and picks a red one, the colour of his house. It’s a nice scene that illustrates the maneuvering before the war actually began, with the various nobles aligning themselves. Of course, it never actually happened – in fact, the red rose was never used as a symbol of the Lancasters during the wars, though it was adopted after the war as part of the Tudor Rose that symbolised the union of the two sides. But it’s from this scene that the popular name of the Wars comes – the Wars of the Roses.
In 1455, the King called a great council at Leicester. However, Richard, Duke of York and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, were not invited. The two men, allies against the “court party” of the Queen and the Beaufort family who controlled the King, realised that this council was almost certainly being called to attaint them as traitors, so they decided to move first. The Yorkists raised an army of 7,000 men and moved to stop the King and his accompanying army of 2,000 men from reaching Leicester. They met them at the town of St Albans. There, there was some negotiation and letters sent back and forth. Eventually, however, the Yorkists tired of negotiation and decided to attack. This caught the Lancastrians by surprise, and they were quickly overwhelmed, with low casualties on both sides. However among those casualties were several prominent members of the court party, including the man who was currently leading it, Edmund the Duke of Somerset. York’s army escorted the King (who had been injured in the fighting) back to London, and York was once again installed as Lord Protector of England – a role normally reserved for regency. In this case, it gave legal force to the idea that the King was incapable of ruling – essentially, Richard was now king in all but name.
The Queen, in fact, soon began to worry that York intended to be King in more than name – putting her infant son at risk. When York went to the north to defend against a threatened invasion from Scotland, the Queen managed to take control of the government. Warwick, too lost power – his family, the Nevilles, were in a feud with the Percy family, and their waning fortunes in the feud sapped York’s power in court. The Queen suffered a setback in 1457 when one of her French allies landed on the English coast. Pierre de Brézé was the leader of 4,000 French soldiers, and it’s unclear whether his goal was to support Margaret or to take advantage of the chaos and try to seize some of England. His men burnt the town of Sandwich and killed the mayor before being driven off. Public outrage was so high that Margaret was forced to give Warwick command of English naval defences in the channel.
Matters continued to deteriorate, and in 1459 both sides were openly recruiting soldiers. The Earl of Salisbury raised a force at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, and the Queen ordered Lord Audley to intercept him. This he did, in the Battle of Blore Heath. Audley laid an ambush with 10,000 men, against Salisbury’s force of 5,000. The ambush failed, as Salisbury’s scouts spotted the Lancastrian banners. Instead, the two sides parlayed for a while, then fired arrows at each other, before the Yorkists baited Audley into a charge. The Yorkists used a feigned retreat to draw them out, then turned and slaughtered them. The Lancastrians charged again, trying to recover their wounded, but were again defeated, this time after a pitched battle in which Audley himself was killed. At his death, around 500 Lancastrians switched sides, and this resulted in the Lancastrians routing. Both sides suffered around 10% casualties, though that translated into a thousand more men dead on the Lancastrian side. Salisbury lost no time in resuming his march, though he paid a local friar to stay at the battle site and fire a cannon all night, to fool the fleeing Lancastrians into thinking battle still raged.
York marched on London, but was blocked by the King’s armies. Reluctant to engage them, he retreated, eventually making a stand in a fortified position at Ludlow. There, York took the temper of his men and realised that few of them were willing to fight against an army led personally by the King. This view was heightened when a troop of six hundred led by Andrew Trollope, a famous mercenary and later notable general, defected to the Lancastrians. Seeing the writing on the wall, York sneaked out of the camp and fled to Wales, and thence to Ireland, while Warwick and York’s eldest son Edward escaped to Calais. The leaderless Yorkist troops surrendered to the King peacefully and were pardoned. York’s wife and younger children were taken prisoner.
After this victory, the Queen had the king call a parliament. At this parliament, later known as the Parliament of Devils, York and Warwick were formally attainted as traitors. It seemed as though the Lancastrians were victorious, but the corruption of the court party soon turned the people against them. The Earl of Wiltshire was appointed the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and the Duke of Somerset was made Captain of Calais, but neither was able to dislodge the current Yorkist occupants. Both sides were back to where they started, but now, hostility was no longer suppressed. The first War of the Roses was far from over.