This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part I.
When only an infant, King Henry VI of England had inherited England and France from his conquering father, Henry V. Henry VI might have been a good ruler in more peaceful times. He grew up to be a sincere, honest, and faithful man. He was pious and devout. He was also a patron of learning, as seen by his funding of Eton and King’s Colleges at Cambridge University. But Henry VI was not shrewd enough to handle the increasingly powerful Parliament, nor did he have the best advisors to help him to do this.
Henry VI’s difficulties stemmed from the Hundred Years’ War. When the king came of age to rule by himself, he supported a peace plan with France. The plan stated that England could at least keep Gascony and Guienne, though it had to give up the French crown. Among those opposed to this plan was the ambitious Richard, Duke of York, the next in line to the throne after Henry VI. As we have seen, England ended up losing nearly all its territories in France—and one reason for this was that the governor King Henry appointed after the death of the duke of Bedford was incompetent.
But the trouble really began in 1453, when King Henry became mentally deranged. Seeing an opportunity to seize control of the government, Richard of York was able to get Parliament to appoint him protector of the kingdom—which meant he basically ruled England. Richard, however, had a powerful rival—Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou. In 1454, Henry regained his sanity, and Margaret and Edmund Beaufort, the duke of Somerset, replaced Richard of York as the real rulers of England.
Unwilling to accept his loss of power, Richard gathered an army of his supporters and rose in rebellion against the king. On May 22, 1455, Richard’s army defeated the king’s army at St. Alban’s, outside London. This battle was the beginning of a series of civil wars, fought between the Houses of Lancaster and of York over which should control the kingship. The wars are known as the “Wars of the Roses,” because the members of each faction took either a red or a white rose as its emblem. Those supporting the House of York took the white rose, while the House of Lancaster and its supporters took the red.
The adherents of York and the followers of Lancaster fought a war of mutual extermination for no higher aim than power and spoils. The Wars of the Roses destroyed a significant part of England’s feudal nobility by wiping out whole families, whose male heirs had been killed in war. At first, the Yorkists had the advantage. When Richard of York was executed after being captured in battle, his son, Edward, was victorious against the Lancastrians. In 1461, he became king as Edward IV. The unfortunate Henry VI fled England for Scotland. But he was captured in 1471 and murdered in the Tower of London, where he had been imprisoned. Henry’s executioner was probably Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
It was this same duke of Gloucester who became king after Edward’s death in 1483—but by dishonorable means. After his brother’s death, Richard had become the “protector” of Edward’s young son, now King Edward V, and his brother. Richard, however, immediately began plotting against his nephew. Edward V had been king only two months when voices were raised against him, saying he was not Edward IV’s legitimate son. A session of Parliament was called, and on June 25 it was declared that since he was not the former king’s legitimate son, Edward was not the rightful king. Parliament then offered the crown to Richard, who pretended to take it reluctantly. Edward V and his brother were placed in the Tower of London, where they were murdered—some say by Richard’s orders.
Whether Richard murdered his nephews or not, many Englishmen believed he did. Their hearts turned against the new king. Richard III had reigned for about two years when rebellion broke out against him. The leader of this rebellion was Henry Tudor, a grandson of John of Gaunt and thus a scion of the House of Lancaster. Henry had the support of many nobles, including some Yorkists, as well as the king of France.
Setting sail from Brittany, where he had been taken as a child during the reign of Edward IV, Henry Tudor landed his forces at Milford Haven on the coast of Wales. On August 22, 1485, the army of Henry Tudor, the champion of the House of Lancaster, met the army of Richard III,
the Yorkist king, at Bosworth Field. Though outnumbered, Henry’s army defeated Richard’s. Richard III himself, fighting bravely to the end, was slain in the battle.
The Battle of Bosworth Field ended the Wars of the Roses. The following October, Henry Tudor was crowned king at Westminster Abbey in London. Before his coronation, he had promised his Yorkist allies that he would marry Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter and heir. In this way, the House of Tudor, the line of the new king, Henry VII, united the Houses of Lancaster and York. The Red Rose of Lancaster was joined, through matrimony, with its rival the White Rose of York. And peace came to England at last.
A Meeting of the Sacred and Profane
A song called “L’Homme Armé” (“The Armed Man”) was very popular in the late 15th and early 16th centuries—so popular that composers used it as the basis for compositions of the Mass ordinary. Imagine going to Mass and listening if you could detect the tune of your favorite song in the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, or Agnus Dei! This is what people of the time did. Here is a performance of the original song, “L’Homme Armé,” followed by a “Missa L’Homme Armé,” composed by Guillaume Dufay in about 1460. Watch the musical score for the words, “l’homme armé”—that indicates the part with the line from the original song.