It’s obvious that the Wars of the Roses had a massive impact on English royalty and nobility. However, what was its impact on religion and the Church during the time the Wars occurred? The Wars of the Roses must have had some sort of effect, even if it was only a subtle one. After all, religion was a major factor in the lives of medieval people. The Church had a massive influence on society and it shaped every aspect of a person’s life either directly or indirectly. So how exactly did religion cause the Wars of the Roses to change and vise versa?
One way religion factored into the Wars of the Roses was with the idea of divine right. Nobility often used the clergy to justify their claims to the crown (Davies 137). This could be in the form of sermons or official documents. One such document was a letter that was signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as the bishop of Exeter (Storey 83). In 1461 “the archbishop…and…the bishop of Salisbury…[decided] that Edward of York should assume the crown” (Storey 83). After all, bishops and priests were considered to be voices for God. If they were saying that a certain nobleman should be king, that meant God wanted him to be king.
However, if you ignore divine right, the Wars of the Roses had a very small impact on the Church’s hierarchy and vise versa. Of course clergymen, especially higher up clergymen, supported different sides of the conflicts but very rarely did these men seem to be severely punished for doing so. Most of the time, “in terms of personal hurt, the episcopate was afflicted surprisingly little” (Davies 141). However, when bishops and other clergymen were punished their punishments were usually the equivalent of being gently slapped on the wrist and told what they did was bad and they should feel bad.
Of course, there were harsher punishments, but the clergyman usually had to push his luck a lot. For example, Archbishop George Neville “after Edward [IV] had bided his time, was seriously punished” (Davies 141) by being imprisoned. However, “the archbishop was released quite quickly…and in theory restored to full authority” (Davies 141). And just because clergymen were involved in politics, it did not mean they had enough experience to know what they were doing. In Edward IV’s case, he “could not use many of [the clergy] in public life, not for their lack of loyalty but for lack of the right skills” (Davies 138).
Davies, Richard G.. “The Church and the Wars of the Roses”. The Wars of the Roses, edited by A.J. Pollard, MacMillan Press, 1995, pp. 134-161.
Storey, R.L.. “Episcopal King-Makers in the Fifteenth Century”. The Church, Politics and Patronage In the Fifteenth Century, edited by R.B. Dobson, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1984, pp. 82-98.
Shinners, J.R., editor. Medieval Popular Religion, 1000-1500: A Reader, University of Toronto Press, 2007.