Déjà vu: How The Conflicts in the Wars of the Roses Were Similar Yet Slightly Different

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018.


The English conflicts occurring in 1459-1461 and 1469-1471 had several differences between the two. The main way these conflicts were different were the personalities of the two kings who ruled during this time. Henry VI and Edward IV could not be any more different from each other in personality, appearance, how they became king, and how they acted as king. Despite this, the conflicts in 1459-1461 and 1469-1471 during the Wars of the Roses have more similarities than differences.



Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens (based on a scene in William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI) | Painting by Henry Payne | Source: Wikipedia Commons


One way the conflicts were similar was the state of the economy before each rebellion happened. Throughout Henry VI’s reign, the economy of England gradually fell into increasingly terrible shape (Carpenter 32). England had been fighting a war with France since 1337, which England eventually lost during Henry VI’s reign. Needless to say, “the financial burden imposed by the Hundred Years War had had an effect upon the economic framework surrounding the position of the Crown” (Sadler 18). Due to the losses of English territories in France, taxpayers understandably did not want to give money to a war they knew they would no longer win (Carpenter 105). It also did not help that “despite [Henry VI’s] financial difficulties” and the setbacks the queen had when collecting her own income, “Margaret of Anjou’s household was larger and more lavish than that of any other medieval queen, save only Isabella of France” (Crawford 120). It should be noted that the state of the economy was not the primary cause of the Wars of the Roses. However, the economy was “one of the causes of [Henry VI’s] political weaknesses” (Britnell 56).

Before the second conflict occurred, Edward IV was tasked with trying to improve the economic disaster Henry VI left behind. This included paying off Henry VI’s massive debts. Unfortunately for Edward IV, he “had no solution to the economic crisis, which was still largely shaped by external factors” (Hicks 173). And like Henry VI’s government, anger with Edward IV’s government “coincided with a crisis in the export economy and involved clothmaking [sic] centres [sic] in the West of England” (Britnell 57). Also like Henry VI, Edward IV lived outside of his means. Michael Hicks reports that “Edward was urged…to reserve enough lands to cover his ordinary charges without recourse to his ‘…commons and subjects’” (175). Edward IV did not do this. Instead, he claimed that England would go back to war with France to regain their lost territories, collected his people’s taxes, and never actually went to war (Grummitt 221).

Another way the conflicts were similar was the way Henry VI and Edward IV punished those who tried to/eventually did overthrow them, especially those who were the leaders of the rebellion against their kingship. During the 1450s, Henry VI pardoned Richard, Duke of York several times after York attempted to overthrow the government while claiming he was doing so to protect the king from “the corrupt government of…traitors” (Grummitt 197). But York’s so-called protests looked very much like “treasonable rebellion” (Hicks 102). York was aware of this so “he formally swore allegiance to the king on the sacraments before witnesses…had his oath publicly certified, and dispatched the record to the king” (Hicks 102). While Henry VI did summon York to talk about his concerns, York refused to meet with the king (Hicks 102). Instead, York kept insisting “their lives were endangered by traitors about the king, they were marching for justice, both for themselves and for the commonwealth” (Grummitt 196).



Henry VI sits while Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, have an argument. | Caption from Wikipedia | Source: Wikipedia Commons


Apparently, this explanation was enough for Henry VI and the nobility to think York was not a traitor the first few times he led rebellions. Or at the very least, he was not legally considered a traitor. Even so, York was obviously a threat that Henry VI and the nobility repeatedly chose to ignore. And not only did they ignore the threat York posed, in March of 1454, “it was agreed in parliament that [York] should assume the title and duties of ‘protector and governor of the realm’ during the king’s incapacity” (Grummitt 173)! It should have been clear to everyone that York wanted the throne, or at the very least, York wanted a new king after he tried to rebel the second time. Even though “Lords were unwilling to convict noblemen like themselves” (Hicks 101), it makes one wonder exactly why Henry VI did not execute York after he went back on his word to the king, if not the second time, then the times after that.

Edward IV also forgave those who betrayed him. The major two traitors were Edward IV’s kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick and his brother, George Duke of Clarence. However we must keep in mind, unlike Henry VI who did not really do anything to actively frustrate his supporters—it was mostly his inaction—Edward IV’s actions did. Edward IV made the severe mistake of alienating his kingmaker and his brother. Hicks makes the observation that before Warwick’s coup in 1469, “Edward had to negotiate with Warwick like a separate potentate, just as had Henry VI with the Duke of York a decade earlier” (189). Warwick also used York’s arguments to say why his 1469 coup was not really a coup (Hicks 191). Despite all this, in February 1470 Edward IV pardoned the Earl of Warwick and his brother, Duke of Clarence for their coup. Unfortunately for Edward IV, Warwick still was not happy and rebelled again, this time overthrowing Edward IV and reinstating Henry VI as king. However, Edward IV managed to take back his throne and apparently before the Battle of Barnet, “the duke of Clarence, King Edward’s brother, was quietly reconciled with the king” (Crowland Chronicles125). Warwick was killed during this battle.

Another similarity between the conflicts is how each king got captured by the enemy. In the 1459-1461 conflict, Henry VI was captured and held in the Tower of London “where he was kept as a prisoner” (Grummitt 209). While in the 1469-1471 conflict, “King Edward…had been captured at a village near Coventry…and then he was sent to Warwick castle where he was held prisoner (Crowland Chronicles 117). However, one main difference between the two scenarios is that Henry VI was kept in the Tower of London for nearly half a decade after he was overthrown in 1461 (Grummitt 209) while Edward IV does not seem to have been held prisoner for that long. It is also important to note that Edward IV “managed not simply to escape but to get himself released with the specific approval of the earl of Warwick himself” (Crowland Chronicles 117).



The Battle of Tewkesbury | MS Ghent | Source: Wikipedia Commons


Now, while the conflicts were mostly similar in nature, they had a few other minor differences that resulted in major consequences. One such difference would be how long it took for each conflict to come to fruition. The rebellions in 1459-1461 took years for the tensions to boil over into an all-out civil war. This could because of the fact York’s rebellions kept failing and if he wanted to stay alive, he had to claim he was rebelling for the sake of the king, not against the king. However, once York’s true intentions were known, he could no longer pretend he was not committing treason. After all, once York acknowledged he committed treason, if he did not win the throne, then he would be killed. At that point, there was no going back for York. In contrast, the earl of Warwick and the duke of Clarence organized the rebellion against Edward IV in “only six months in 1469-1470—and perhaps much less, in 1469 itself” (Hicks 168). The urgency of this conflict could be because unlike Henry VI, Edward IV would know what was about to happen.

Now, the length of the two conflicts’ buildups could also have to do with the kings’ lineages. Even though Henry VI was not considered a good king, he came from an already established dynasty of kings. While Edward IV was also descended from Edward III, Henry VI’s father and grandfather had both been kings before him. However, both Henry IV, Henry VI’s grandfather, and Henry V, Henry VI’s father were usurpers (Carpenter 67-68). But what gave Henry VI the advantage in his own kingship, was the fact his father, Henry V, was considered an excellent king and was well respected (Carpenter 79). This was not the same for Edward IV. At least, it was not the same before the conflict of 1469-1471. Edward IV was a usurper. Unlike Henry VI, Edward IV could not rely on his pedigree alone to gain the respect of the nobility. Edward IV has to actually work for it. However, due to the conflict during 1469-1471, it is clear that during the first part of his reign Edward IV was not particularly worried about keeping the people who helped him get the throne happy.

The amounts of similarities between the two conflicts outweigh the differences. Both kings had to face the same struggles of being king, however, each king reacted in completely different ways to the problems. Henry VI essentially let England’s economy crumble while Edward IV made an attempt to fix it during his first reign. Granted, it was a very weak attempt and only during his second reign would the economy improve, but it was an attempt nonetheless. The ways Henry VI and Edward IV treated those who committed treason against them is also reflective of what kind of king they were. Henry VI acted very weakly under the guise of mercy, while Edward IV seemed to have a ‘fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me’ mindset. It is also interesting how each side treated the enemy king. The Yorks were not merciful while the Lancasters (or at least the Warwicks) were.





Britnell, R.H. “The Economic Context”. The Wars of the Roses. edited by A.J. Pollard. MacMillan Press, 1995. pp. 41-64

Carpenter, Christine. The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, C.1437-1509. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Crawford, Anne, editor. Letters of the Queens of England. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2002.

Pronay, Nicholas, and John Cox, editors. The Crowland Chronicle Continuations: 1459-1486. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1986.

Grummitt, David. Henry VI. Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

Hicks, Michael. The Wars of the Roses. Yale University Press. 2010.

Sadler, John. The Red Rose and the White. Pearson Educated Limited. 2010.