The European Context of the Wars of the Roses

Illustration of the Battle of Barnet (14 April 1471) on the Ghent manuscript, a late 15th-century document

The Wars of the Roses were part of a common north-western European phenomenon of internal political conflict and civil war in the second half of the fifteenth century. The kingdoms of the Atlantic seaboard were all part of an interlocking cultural, commercial and political network, which meant that what happened in one had important repercussions for the others. Thus events in England were watched closely on the continent, and vice versa. Spies and embassies reported continually on what was happening in each other’s affairs. Rulers in one country plotted endlessly to foment trouble to their own advantage in another. England’s weakness provided opportunities for her neighbours to profit at her expense. At the same time, English rulers sought to exploit divisions within neighbouring countries for their own advantage and looked abroad for alliances to strengthen their hands in their own internal rivalries. International relations were extremely volatile. The civil wars which engulfed England, France, Scotland, the Netherlands and Spain were all at critical moments intensified by foreign intervention; they were part of an interlinked chain of civil wars in north-western Europe.

At the beginning of the Wars, England’s affairs were most closely bound up with the affairs of her nearest neighbours – France, Scotland and the duchy of Burgundy, which incorporated the Netherlands, so vital for her commercial interests. Relationships with the Hanseatic League, a confederation of north German and Scandinavian trading cities, were also of significance because of commercial competition in the Baltic and English piracy in the Channel against the Hanseatic fleet, which passed annually to and from the Bay of Biscay. After the English lost the commercial war with the League, settled by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1474, relationships with the Hanse were less important. But following the accession of Isabella to Castile in that same year, and her husband Ferdinand to Aragon five years later, a new European power emerged which had an increasingly important impact on English affairs.

There was relatively little foreign intervention in the wars of 1459- 61. The involvement of the papacy, through the intrigues of Francesco Coppini, Pius II’s legate, on behalf of the Yorkists, and probably in the interests of the duchy of Milan, had little long-term significance. Before his death in 1460, James II of Scotland made the biggest impact. Vainly seeking to put together an international alliance against England, he still went ahead with his own attacks on England in 1455 and 1456. Rebuffed by the Duke of York in 1456, James agreed to a truce in 1457. But in July 1460, taking advantage of the civil war, he laid siege to Roxburgh, and, although he was accidentally killed when a cannon exploded, the castle was captured. Queen Margaret’s plight after Towton gave the regent Mary of Guelders the opportunity for an even greater coup. On 25 April the Queen surrendered Berwick in exchange for Scottish aid. For the next three years, Lancastrian resistance in Northumberland was sustained by Scottish assistance. In June 1461 Scots as well as Lancastrians attacked Carlisle, which Margaret had ceded as well. Edward’s response was to ally himself with Scottish dissidents until, in 1462, he concluded a truce with the regent. A year later, however, in June 1463, a large-scale Scottish attack in concert with the Lancastrians was launched and Norham was besieged. Edward IV planned a fullscale counterattack, for which he was voted a subsidy by parliament. In the event, no major military operation was launched. Indeed, a new truce was agreed in December which effectively ended this phase of Anglo-Scottish hostilities. The Scots, however, could be well pleased; they had retaken Roxburgh and Berwick, thus immeasurably strengthening their grip on the border, and had successfully sustained three years of opposition to Edward IV.

Charles VII of France and Philip the Good of Burgundy were less willing than James II of Scotland to take advantage of English divisions at the end of Henry VI’s reign. While the Duke of York and the Earl of Warwick had engaged in dubiously loyal discussions with the King and Duke in the late 1450s, the French and Burgundians only became drawn into English affairs after Edward IV became king. In 1462, after the accession of Louis XI, Queen Margaret set off to France to seek his support. This was promised in a treaty of alliance sealed at Tours in June. But little that was tangible came of it, and in the following October Louis XI agreed a truce with Edward IV. From 1463 Margaret and her son Edward maintained a Lancastrian court in exile, but their prospects became increasingly bleaker until Warwick fell out with Edward IV. Of decisive significance for later developments was the marriage alliance made in 1468 between Edward IV and Charles the Bold, the new and belligerent Duke of Burgundy. During the 1460s relationships between Louis XI and his greatest subjects, especially the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, worsened. The marriage of Margaret of York to Charles the Bold, along with an Anglo-Breton treaty, marked the return of traditional alliance patterns in northern Europe. Nothing came of the triple alliance of 1468 as an anti-French coalition, but it was clear that the lines had been drawn. Thus in 1468 Louis XI supported Lancastrian plots in England, particularly in the form of sponsoring a landing in Wales by Jasper Tudor.

The wars of 1470 and 1471 were in part a manifestation of these diplomatic developments. As early as 1466, there were rumours circulating in France that Louis XI was seeking to suborn Warwick. The Earl, who used his position as Captain of Calais to maintain independent lines of communication with France and Burgundy throughout the 1460s, had to clear his name of involvement in the 1468 plotting. The contacts were already in place when he turned in 1470 to a Louis XI more than eager to effect a reconciliation between him and Queen Margaret. The initial success of the invasion of 1470 and the readeption of Henry VI not only reopened the dynastic civil war in England, but also heralded a European war. Since 1465 Louis had been smarting at the humiliation he had suffered at the hands of the League of the Public Weal, especially the surrender of the Somme towns to the duchy of Burgundy. Part of the price of his support was English agreement to a military alliance against Charles of Burgundy. In February 1471, Warwick honoured his commitment by declaring war on Burgundy. The immediate effect of the declaration of war was to stimulate a hitherto hesitant Charles the Bold into instant backing of an expedition to England under the exiled Edward IV, for which he provided 36 ships and a few hundred men. Edward also secured the support of the Hanseatic League, since 1468 at war with England under Warwick’s inspiration, the price of which were the concessions he subsequently made to them. Thus the Readeption was achieved by means of the King of France and the restoration of Edward IV by licence of the Duke of Burgundy and the Hanseatic League. The fighting in England in 1471 was an extension of the conflict being fought between the rival princes of France. Between the summer of 1470 and the spring of 1471, the Wars of the Roses were part of a wider European war, in which, it could be said, Louis XI, as well as the house of Lancaster, was defeated on the fields of Barnet and Tewkesbury.

After 1471, when Edward IV was at last firmly established on the throne, there was less reason for foreign powers to hope to profit from English divisions. Indeed, by taking the initiative and mounting an invasion of France in 1475, Edward IV forced Louis XI back on the defensive. Moreover, by the end of the reign, having fought a successful war against Scotland, which in 1482 saw the recovery of Berwick so shamefully surrendered in 1461, Edward IV was in a strong position to dictate terms to his northern neighbours. All was changed by Richard III’s usurpation. Although Richard III was able to maintain pressure on the Scots and secure a favourable truce in 1484, he was faced by continental neighbours once more in a volatile state. France was passing through a minority, in which rival factions were jockeying for power. The new Habsburg regime in the Burgundian territories was faced by unrest and rebellion; and the duchy of Brittany, where Henry Tudor was in exile, was divided between pro and anti French factions. It was Henry Tudor’s good fortune that when he escaped from Brittany to France in October 1484, he was welcomed by a group anxious to promote his cause. While official backing was withdrawn at the eleventh hour, Henry was still able to recruit mercenaries and a fleet in Normandy with which he launched his invasion of England in August 1485. He was particularly fortunate that disbanded troops who had recently returned from campaigning in the Netherlands were at his disposal. Had he arrived in France any earlier, or delayed leaving any longer, he might not have found support forthcoming. While, subsequently, the French would claim, and Henry VII strenuously deny, that they had made him King of England, the circumstances in France in the summer of 1485 had made his expedition possible. As a result, France gained a four-year respite from English hostility.  

What was sauce for the goose in 1485 was sauce for the gander thereafter. In 1487 Lambert Simnel was backed by German mercenaries paid for by Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, who gave whatever backing she could to successive Yorkist pretenders to the English throne. Perkin Warbeck was initially taken up by Charles VIII of France, who dropped him as part of the terms of the treaty of Etaples with Henry VII in 1492. He had more success with both Scottish and Burgundian support, until 1497 becoming a significant thorn in Henry VII’s side. Thus the Wars were not only sustained, but also extended by the intervention of foreign powers.

The nature and impact of foreign intervention in the Wars of the Roses changed over the years. At first, in the wars of 1459-64, it was marginal; in 1469-71 it became central as the wars were subsumed in a wider European conflict. After 1483 the wars were almost entirely sustained by foreign intervention and became almost completely absorbed in the complex game of international politics. This was, however, never a one-way process. In the early 1470s, Edward IV sought to capitalize on the animosity between Louis XI and Charles the Bold for England’s gain. Between 1479 and 1484 Edward IV and Richard III, for instance, played on the quarrel between James III of Scotland and his brother, Alexander, Duke of Albany, to advance the English cause north of the borders. And Henry VII, in a long tradition, sought to exploit factional rivalries within the duchy of Brittany to his advantage. English kings were able to take advantage of disputes within Scotland and France because those kingdoms, too, were wracked by civil war.

Philippe de Commynes, who knew the Europe of his own day well, commented in the 1490s that England was, of all the countries he knew, the one where public affairs were best conducted. 9 We cannot now judge whether he was right, but extended periods of internal strife, in some kingdoms involving dynastic as well as factional struggle, were characteristic not only of England, but also of Scotland, France, the Netherlands, Aragon and Castile. All these kingdoms were prone to similar strains, and everywhere the maintenance of domestic peace was precarious because it depended on the capacity of an individual hereditary monarch personally to hold together a fragmented and decentralized polity with severely limited resources, negligible armed force and skeletal bureaucracies at his disposal. The Wars of the Roses were not a uniquely English phenomenon: `inward war’ was the common experience of the kingdoms of Western Europe in the later fifteenth century. The wars need to be seen in this wider contemporary context.

For England’s closest neighbour, Scotland, the fifteenth century has long been a byword for conflict, murder and civil war. Recently, however, as with England, the interpretation of its fifteenth-century history has been substantially revised. Scotland was a tiny kingdom. Its population of some 400 000 was but a sixth of that of England and minute compared with France. In a polity in which the royal revenues rarely surpassed £8000 per annum, and in which the king had to rely utterly on the willing cooperation of his greater subjects for the administration of justice and the defence of the realm, it was intensely critical that the king enjoyed good relationships with them. The earls, lords and lairds of Scotland enjoyed a degree of local autonomy not found south of the border. In many ways the king presided over a federation. When one also bears in mind that in the fifteenth century every king came to the throne as a child and that there were more than 40 years of minority or conciliar rule, it is not surprising that successive kings found it difficult to assert their authority. Two met violent deaths at the hands of their own subjects: James I was assassinated in 1437 and James III killed in battle in 1488.

Yet successive Stewart kings – James I, James II and James III – were in their different ways effective rulers. While all faced plots and rebellions – especially James II in dealing with the Douglases in 1450- 55, James III in coping with his disgruntled brother the Duke of Albany in 1479-84 and, finally, in the baronial revolt which led to his death at Sauchieburn – never did the whole kingdom slide into sustained civil war. James III’s career and reign have been likened to that of Richard III; but, in many ways, that unfortunate king was more like Richard II. Moreover, although two kings were killed (James I and James III), both were succeeded without challenge by their heirs. For all its weaknesses, the Scottish monarchy, indeed, the kingdom as a whole, had a greater resilience than England. If a comparison in Scottish medieval history is to be drawn with the English Wars of the Roses, it lies in the civil war between Bruce and Balliol in the first half of the fourteenth century, which was overtaken by English intervention. Indeed, it has been plausibly suggested that the memory of the Wars of Independence acted as a powerful restraint on Scottish kings and nobles of the fifteenth century, who were only too conscious of the advantage the English might take of their own internal divisions. Thus between 1479-84, English attempts to take advantage of the quarrels of James III and Albany within the royal family consistently failed because on every occasion, intervention led to a healing of the breach in the interest of the greater good of the kingdom.

In many ways, the kingdom of France was like the kingdom of Scotland, only on a grander scale. It, too, was fragmented and decentralized. The king exercised direct control over only a small part of his vast kingdom. Most of it was ruled by appanaged princes who enjoyed considerable legal, financial and military autonomy. These included not only the duchies of Aquitaine (until 1453), Brittany (until 1491) and Burgundy (the duchy itself until 1477), but also others, such as Anjou, Bourbon, Orleans and Navarre. As in Scotland the effective enforcement of royal authority depended to a large extent on the mystique of kingship and personal competence. But perhaps because the kingdom was so much larger and the great subjects so much more powerful, France was more prone to civil war.

France’s misfortunes during the fifteenth century, so much greater than either England or Scotland, stemmed to a considerable degree from the madness of Charles VI who, after 30 years of insanity, died in 1422. Rivalry for control of the kingdom between factions headed by the Dukes of Burgundy, on the one hand, and the Dukes of Armagnac and Orleans, on the other, led in 1410 to intermittent civil war which lasted until 1435. This internal strife was compounded by the intervention of Henry V of England. On one level, Henry V acted as a French subject, for he was Duke of Aquitaine and in 1417-19 successfully recovered possession of the duchy of Normandy. But Henry V also revived the Plantagenet claim to the throne of France and was adopted as heir in 1420, while his son was crowned king in 1431. Henry V transformed a civil war into a dynastic conflict, for he was, from 1420, the candidate of the Burgundian faction, which fought with fluctuating enthusiasm for his cause for 15 years. From a French point of view, the wars of 1420-35 were a struggle between rival parties for the throne itself. Only after the rapprochement between Burgundy and the Valois King, Charles VII, did the struggle unequivocally take on the character of a war to rid the kingdom of the English.

After the final expulsion of the English from Normandy in 1450 and Aquitaine in 1453, the problem of Burgundy still remained. Although the conglomerate of duchies, counties and lordships held by the Valois Duke of Burgundy in the Netherlands and eastern France have been described as a state, they never acquired the coherence, autonomy or status of a separate kingdom. In the last resort, the Duke of Burgundy was a subject of the King of France in Flanders, Artois, Picardy and the duchy of Burgundy, as well as of the Empire in the county of Burgundy and his other dominions. The ambition of the Dukes of Burgundy, especially Charles the Bold, effective ruler from 1464 to 1477, ensured the periodic revival of civil war in France. In 1465 Louis XI faced an alliance of dissident princes, led by Charles, calling themselves the League of the Public Weal. The climax of several months of civil war was the bloody battle of Montlhéry, which left Burgundy with the advantage. On this occasion, Edward IV was too weak to be able to intervene to English advantage. Fighting between Louis XI and Charles the Bold was renewed in 1470, 1472 and 1475. Edward IV’s attempt to exploit the continuing enmity by the construction of a grand alliance and invasion in 1475 foundered when Charles privately came to terms with Louis. It was not until after the Duke’s death in January 1477 that Louis launched an all-out assault on his French territories. The duchy of Burgundy was rapidly overrun and subsequently retained. All-out war between Louis and Maximilian of Austria, the regent of the Burgundian inheritance, relieved by two truces in 1478-79 and 1480- 81, lasted until a treaty of peace was agreed in December 1482 by which Artois, as well as the duchy of Burgundy, was to be ceded to France. Paradoxically, it was in this period that England could have secured a significant advantage, but did not. The opportunity for the King of England’s brother to become Duke of Burgundy by marrying Charles’s daughter and heiress was passed up because Edward IV would not trust George of Clarence with the sources of the duchy at his disposal. Four years later the new Duke, Maximilian, was begging for an alliance against Louis XI, which Edward turned down because he judged his pension from the French King to be more valuable

After the death of Louis XI in 1483, during the minority of Charles VIII, matters were compounded by renewed factional conflict at court between the regent, Anne of Beaujeu (the King’s aunt), and Louis, Duke of Orleans (the heir presumptive), and by the crisis of the Breton succession. The government of Anne of Beaujeu faced conspiracies and rebellions of dissident lords, inspired by Louis of Orleans until he was taken prisoner at the battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488. The objective of the government in Brittany was to integrate the duchy more fully into the kingdom either by force or by marriage treaty. It faced determined opposition from a powerful group of Breton nobles. The Breton war, which began in 1487 and continued, with a brief interlude in the latter months of 1488, until 1491, coalesced with the Orleanist and Burgundian conflict. Maximilian of Austria revoked the treaty of Arras and joined Breton and other enemies of Anne of Beaujeu in 1487, 1488 and 1490-91. At the same time, Maximilian himself faced revolt from the cities of Flanders, being for a time held captive by the Brugeois in 1488, and the French government intervened in Flanders to sustain and support the rebels. Henry VII, seeing his own opportunity, twice intervened in Brittany, once `off the record’, but on neither occasion to any effect. Civil strife was as severe in France in the 1480s as in any other western European kingdom in the second half of the fifteenth century. It was ended in 1491 when Charles VIII restored Orleans to favour and, later in the year, married Anne of Brittany. In 1493 the Burgundian war was brought to a similar end by the treaty of Senlis, in which Artois and other lordships were restored to Burgundy on the condition that the young Duke Philip do homage. Thus in the early 1490s a period of French civil war was brought to an end only on the eve of, and to prepare the ground for, Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy.

In Spain matters were similarly unsettled. Spain comprised three kingdoms: Aragon, Castile and Portugal, two of which (Aragon and Castile) later united to form the kingdom of Spain. Both Aragon and Castile were torn by civil war in the second half of the fifteenth century. Aragon, based on Catalan commercial wealth, was a leading Mediterranean power. But between 1462 and 1472, it was reduced to impotence by civil war which culminated in the siege of Barcelona. The war combined elements of a popular revolt and a conflict between the old contractual traditions of Catalonia and a new drive towards absolutism introduced by the King, Juan II. In neighbouring Castile, a kingdom recently carved out of the reconquest of central Spain from the Moors, absolute authority was already well established. Nevertheless, this kingdom, too, was plunged into civil war between 1460 and 1480. Castile was a huge territory, in which the power of the monarchy depended on alliances with the quasi-independent descendants of the conquistadores, who had extended powers wider than any other of the western European aristocracies in the later fourteenth century. More markedly than has ever been claimed for England, the civil wars in later fifteenth-century Castile were an escalation of violent feuds between these truly overmighty subjects. Yet the first civil war (1464- 74) also resulted from the incompetence of the King, Enrico IV (d. 1474), called the impotent because of the later slur that he could not possibly have fathered his daughter Juana. Enrico was, in some respects, not unlike Henry VI of England and under his slack rule factional rivalry slid into open war. In 1465 his enemies deposed him in effigy and attempted, unsuccessfully, to replace him with his child brother, Alfonso (d. 1468). When Enrico died in 1474 he left a disputed succession between his only surviving daughter, Juana, and his half-sister, Isabella, who had already married Ferdinand, the new King of Aragon. Between 1475 and 1477, they fought and defeated the supporters of Juana to secure control of Castile and fought off Portuguese intervention. By 1480 Isabella and Ferdinand were triumphant.

The history of the civil wars in Castile is further reminiscent of the Wars of the Roses in the manner in which, subsequently, Isabella, the victor, was presented as the saviour of her kingdom; the one who had rescued it from anarchy. Moreover, in order to justify her disputed succession, the reputation of the unfortunate Enrico IV was blackened to much the same effect as was Richard III blackened by Henry VII. As in England, however, it is debatable whether the civil wars were as destructive or the previous kings as disastrous as the victor claimed. The fact is that the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, went on to achieve the expulsion of the Moors from Granada, the unification of their kingdoms and the conquest of the Americas. It was in their `Golden Age’ that the foundations of Spain’s future greatness were laid. Their later success, like the Tudors, vindicated their dubious rise to power.

The late medieval monarchies of Europe were fundamentally fragile and prone to civil disorder. Political stability and harmony depended ultimately on the personal capacity of individual kings. In the second half of the fifteenth century, the western kingdoms all endured upheaval and civil war as a result of disputed, ineffective or overbearing rule, all exacerbated by foreign intervention. The Wars of the Roses were part of a common north-western European experience before a general revival of monarchical authority, which took place at the end of the century. The disorder and political instability suffered by England were comparable with the instability suffered by neighbouring kingdoms. This fact did not escape Philippe de Commynes who, after giving a brief account of the Wars of the Roses, commented that God sets up enemies for princes who forget whence their fortunes come, as `you have seen and see every day in England, Burgundy and other places’.

Yet the era of internal disorder came rapidly to an end in the 1490s. Nowhere was this the result of fundamental social changes. Internally, he change is related to the emergence of effective and energetic rulers, nowhere more so than in the case of the `Catholic Monarchs’ in Spain. But the change is also closely linked to the transformation of the military and diplomatic map of Europe. In both France and Spain significant steps were taken towards the reunification of the kingdoms after 1480. In 1482 France recovered the duchy of Burgundy from the Habsburg dukes; in 1491 Brittany was absorbed. In Spain the conquest of Granada, the last Moorish sultanate, was completed in 1492. These developments were the prelude to the shift of the focal point of international conflict to the Mediterranean. France had long enjoyed claims to the duchy of Milan and the kingdom of Naples. In 1494, having made peace with England and Burgundy, Charles VIII launched his invasion of Italy to make good his Angevin claim to the throne of Naples. This was a direct challenge to Aragonese interests; in 1496 an Aragonese counterattack recovered Naples for the ruling dynasty. From thenceforth Italy was, for two generations, the focus of European international politics. The rulers of France and Spain brought a new degree of internal order as they focused the energies of their greater subjects on the wars between them and developed the mechanisms and agencies to prosecute them. England, on the periphery, although wooed by both sides, did not command the resources in modern warfare to be more than a bit player, and until the middle of the sixteenth century, the rivalries between the north-western powers of Europe were played out in Italy rather than within their own kingdoms. In these circumstances, the era of late fifteenth-century civil strife in north-western Europe came to an end.