The foundations for the Wars of the Roses were laid sixty years before, when the highly unpopular King Richard II was deposed by his cousin, Henry IV. While his actions met with little resistance at the time, the consequences were far-reaching. Henry had violated the principle of primogeniture, and the last time someone had challenged that, the Anarchy had been the result. Now, the rules had finally been changed.
Richard II was the son of Edward, “the Black Prince”. Edward was the son of Edward III, and heir to the throne. He was a martial prince, and is regarded as being a pivotal figure in the shift from England being regarded as a part of a greater Norman empire (united, for example, in crusades to the Holy Land), and instead to being a country in its own right, the primary seat of its rulers. He and his father founded The Order of the Garter, the first English knightly order. He spent most of his life fighting the French, in the first two phases of what would become known as The Hundred Years War. His reputation for brutality is one of the possible origins for his sobriquet of “Black Prince”, the other being the colour of his shield or armour. The former is more credible, however, as the title was never used in his lifetime. Ironically for such a notable warrior, he did not die in battle, but instead in Westminster Palace in England. His death in 1376 left his infant son as heir to the throne. His grandfather was already failing, and when he died of a stroke the following year, a ten year old was King of England.
Of course, a child king needs to be ruled for. The obvious candidate for regency was Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt. (The book 1066 And All That asks “Why do you picture John of Gaunt as a rather emaciated grandee?”, but in fact his name is a corruption of Ghent where he was born.) John was rich and powerful (in fact, by some calculations he was the 16th richest man in history), and a leader of men in battle. However, he was not popular – he lacked the flashiness of his elder brother the Black Prince, and his association with the taxes raised to support the war. Moreover, if Richard died he would have a strong claim to the throne, always a dangerous option for a regent to have. So instead the country was ruled by a series of councils. Richard, however, soon asserted his independence, and his key role in the conclusion of the Peasant’s Revolt (which I have to cover eventually) gave him a great deal of freedom to rule. The young king was easily influenced, however, and soon began to play favourites with his courtiers.
In 1386, the situation had deteriorated to the point that several of the lords decided that enough was enough. They first established a commission to rule England on behalf of the King, then raised an army and defeated the King’s forces in the field. Thus he was left as a figurehead, while the three lords who had begun the conspiracy (along with two others who joined them, one of which was Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt) wielded the real power. They set up a parliament, and issued “appeals of treason” for the various favourites of the king. (It is from this legal practice that they gain their name – the “Lords Appellant”.) Most of these favourites were killed or fled the country. In 1389, however, John of Gaunt returned to England from his failed military adventures in Spain. His support for the king defanged the Lords Appellant, ad over the next few years Richard either killed or exiled them. Henry Bolingbroke was one of those exiled, and he was still in exile when his father, John of Gaunt, died in 1399.
John’s death should have meant that Henry inherited his patrimony. His exile was only for ten years, and he was still a subject of the crown, legally entitled to his father’s vast wealth. Whether it was desire for that wealth or dislike of Bolingbroke that drove him though, Richard disinherited Henry and seized John’s estates for himself. He may have felt safe in doing so – Henry was in the court of the King of France, Charles The Mad. Being Mad meant that his court was controlled by politicians, and they had no interest in permitting his “guest” to retaliate. However, Richard underestimated the volatility of the court, and a change in the political landscape freed Henry to return to England. He landed in Northumberland with a small group of followers, but soon most of the country had rallied to his banner. Richard was in Ireland at the time, and when he returned he had no choice but to surrender – the entire country was against him.
Henry had originally stated that he only wished to regain his rightful inheritance, but with the King in his grasp, and the country on his side, the urge to claim the throne proved irresistible. However, the only snag was that he was not actually Richard’s heir – his cousin Edmund Mortimer was. Edmund, however, was only eight, and thus unable to protest when Henry declared that his own direct male descent trumped Edmund’s, which descended through his grandmother. This, of course, contradicted the succession under which Henry II had taken the throne from Stephen. Regardless, Richard “abdicated” in Henry’s failure, and was imprisoned. He was permitted to live for a while, but as is often the case a plot to restore him to the throne sealed his fate, and he starved to death in captivity in 1400.
Henry may have effectively seized the throne by popular acclaim, but his reign was never very stable. Constant rebellions marred it, and his own tenuous justification for taking power exposed a fundamental truth. Now, it was seen, all that was needed to become King of England was force of arms, and royal blood. The seeds had been sown, though it would be his grandson, Henry VI, who would see those Roses blossom.