History Files
 

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Kings of England

 

England

England today forms the driving force behind the geographical and political entities which are known as Britain (England and Wales), Great Britain (with Scotland added), and the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' (including the remnants of a single island of Ireland which was held until 1922). The union is not a single entity in the way of the Spanish union of states (for example, although even that union is under increasing strain). Instead the four 'home nations' have many of their own institutions and, since 1999, devolved governments which largely handle internal affairs. These are increasingly becoming independent governments in waiting, especially since the highly-divisive Brexit referendum of 2016.

The origins of England lie with the West Saxons. They had formed one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during the period after the end of Roman power in Britain, and during the two subsequent centuries of colonisation and territorial advance. In fact it was their kingdom which had ended up standing almost alone amongst the by-then native English kingdoms in the face of the overwhelming onslaught of Danish attacks in the last quarter of the ninth century. As a result, almost all of the later Bretwaldas - the most powerful of Anglo-Saxon rulers who were acknowledged as such by their peers - were West Saxon kings. This was so much the case that the kings of Wessex effectively merged that title into their own kingship.

MapThat Danish onslaught and the enforced merging into a single state of the remaining free English territories produced a united kingdom of English peoples, although it was far from a kingdom of all of England - not until the Danish-controlled territories could be conquered (see map via the link, right). While that process was largely initiated by Alfred the Great, it was his grandson, Æthelstan, who could claim to be the first king of a single, United England. Despite reservations on the part of some modern historians, from 927 Æthelstan actually was the recognised ruler or overlord not only of all of England, but of the principalities of Wales and all of Scotland and Strathclyde too.

The ascendancy of Wessex remained with subsequent kings, although the Scandinavian kingdom of York proved to be a continual source of distraction until it fell to King Eadred in 954. He now ruled a definitively united kingdom. The early Anglo-Saxon kings still had their powerbase in Wessex, and still spent much of their time there but, now that they had a far greater domain, Wessex became somewhat demoted in the form of an earldom which existed alongside several other great, pre-Norman earldoms of England.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Mick Baker, from Æthelstan: The First King of England, Sarah Foot (2011), from the BBC series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, first broadcast from 6 August 2013, from The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, J N L Meyers, from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from Wessex, Barbara Yorke, from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede, from the Oxford Online Dictionary of National Biography: Cenwalh, Barbara Yorke (2004), from The Earliest English Kings, D P Kirby (1992), from Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, Barbara Yorke, from the Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales, John Marius Wilson (1870-1872), from The Peterborough Chronicle (the E Manuscript version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia of Earth, and Early Christian to medieval settlement and cemetery (Historic England), and Devolved Parliaments and Assemblies (UK Parliament).)

House of Plantagenet / Angevin Empire (England & France)
AD 1154 - 1399

In October 1066, William, duke of Normandy, had led a force which narrowly defeated the standing Anglo-Saxon army in battle. Although he spent a good deal of his subsequent rule of England subjugating various resistance movements and rebellions, William was firmly able to establish his Norman dynasty. Norman French became the language of the royal court, and would remain so for the next two centuries.

William's granddaughter, Empress Matilda, became embroiled in a civil war with her cousin, Stephen. With neither able to win decisively, the conflict rumbled on for the best part of twenty years until 1153 when a worn-out Stephen agreed to a compromise in which he adopted Matilda's son, Henry Anjou, as his heir. Matilda had married Prince Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou in 1127, uniting the French house with the very powerful Norman one. Their son gained the crown of England from Stephen in 1154, having already married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152.

However, unlike Stephen, Henry came to the throne not only as the ruler of England, but also of Anjou and Normandy, as well as most of the rest of France through his wife. Always more interested in the continental territories than England, it was his sons who lost most of his Angevin empire, so that Henry III had little more than Gascony in the south-west of France. However, all kings down to and including Edward III could claim the title duke of Aquitaine.

It was during the fourteenth century that St George, a former Roman army officer, became the patron saint of England in place of the Anglo-Saxon king, Edward 'the Confessor'. By that time, the Angevin kings had become English kings, with a much-altered English language creeping back into court life and Edward I even bearing an Anglo-Saxon name. He concentrated primarily on creating an Anglo-Norman 'empire' in the British Isles (although this was so that he could subsequently go to war against France, a plan which never came to fruition for him).

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Third Crusade: Richard the Lionhearted and Philip Augustus, Sidney Painter (in A History of the Crusades - The Later Crusades, 1189-1311, Kenneth M Setton, Robert Lee Wolff, & Harry W Hazard (Eds, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969)), from The Making of Europe, Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change: 950-1350, Robert Bartlett (Princeton University Press, 1993), from Scottish Kings 1005-1625, Archibald H Dunbar (D Douglas, Edinburgh, 1899), from Under the Hammer: Edward I and Scotland, 1286-1307, Fiona J Watson (Tuckwell Press, 1998), and from External Links: Westminster Abbey, and Archaeology News Network, and History Extra, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

1154 - 1189

Henry II Plantagenet

Son of Matilda. Duke of Aquitaine. Lord of Ireland (1175).

1155

Pope Adrian issues the Laudabiliter, a papal bull which apparently issues King Henry II Plantagenet with the authority to invade and secure Ireland. The papal intent is that the Georgian church reforms can be enforced there. In the event, Ireland is indeed invaded but successive English kings cite Adrian's successor, Alexander III, as the issuer of their title and authority in Ireland.

Saint-Etienne Cathedral, Limoges
Limoges remained the capital of Henry's duchy of Aquitaine, and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint-Etienne remained the city's religious seat

1164 - 1166

Having faced several revolts by his own nobles, possibly with support from England, Duke Conan IV of Brittany is forced to appeal to Henry II for help. In return, Henry demands that Conan's only daughter and heiress, Constance, marries Henry's son, Geoffrey.

In 1164 Henry moves from subtle control of the duchy to overt control by intervening to seize lands along Brittany's border and also that of Normandy. In 1166 Henry invades Brittany outright in order to punish the local barons. Conan is eventually forced to abdicate in favour of his daughter (who of course is married to Henry's son).

1170 - 1183

Henry 'the Young King'

Son. Co-reigned with his father 14 June-11 June. Died.

1166 - 1175

Dermot Mac Murrough, king of Leinster, is forcibly ejected. He flees to Bristol and then Normandy where he gains the support of Henry II, and Norman allies with which to return to Ireland. The main invasion takes place in 1169, with Leinster quickly being regained. The Norman commander, Richard de Clare (Strongbow), earl of Pembroke, marries Dermot's daughter and is named his heir. This development concerns Henry II so much that he arrives in 1171 to take personal control of the invasion.

Henry II Plantagenet
Henry II of England and Normandy, son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, died having added half of France to his possessions, making him one of the most powerful rulers in Western Europe

1170 - 1173

Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket is murdered by four of the king's knights in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December following a long-running dispute between him and the king over the jurisdiction of the church. The king is generally blamed for the atrocity and, accepting that he is at fault, pays public penance at Becket's tomb. It takes Henry another two years before he decides to fill the vacant position of archbishop, eventually selecting Richard of Dover, the monk who had taken charge of Becket's body and had arranged for its immediate burial in Canterbury Cathedral.

1175

With the high kings of Ireland defeated, Henry II styles himself 'Lord of Ireland', although the title is handed to his son, John, as the governor of the new lordship of Ireland. When John becomes king of England in 1199, control of Ireland is held directly by the crown.

1189 - 1199

Richard I 'Coeur de Lion' ('Lionheart')

Son. Killed while campaigning in France.

1189 - 1192

Richard leads the Third Crusade in Outremer, sailing from Dover to Calais in December 1189 to team up with Philip of France and Hugh III of Burgundy on the venture. On his way to the Holy Land he attacks Sicily to free his sister from captivity and Cyprus where his intended wife is also being held captive, by Isaac of the Byzantine empire.

King John
King John of England was also John, lord of Ireland, holding both titles in personal union during his less than happy reign between 1199 and 1216

FeatureFinally he delivers a merciless wave of warfare against Saladin, gifting Cyprus to the king of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, his archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Exeter, dies while in the Holy Land in 1190. Richard himself is captured and imprisoned on his way back to England by Leopold of Austria. In the meantime, according to legend, in Britain Robin Hood is fighting for justice (see feature link).

1199 - 1216

John 'Lackland'

Brother. Daughter Joan m Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales.

1202 - 1214

John becomes involved in the 'War' of Bouvines. Defeat at the Battle of Bouvines on 27 July 1214 loses John the duchy of Normandy and his other French possessions to the French crown. His return to England sees him forced to sign Magna Carta by the disaffected barons and the archbishop of Canterbury on 15 June 1215.

1216 - 1217

FeatureOn his deathbed, John persuades William Marshal to act as regent of England for his young son. With enemies all around, William takes Henry III into his care and ensures his coronation. The following year, Philip II of France sends his own son, Louis, and the count de Perche to invade England via Dover (with the royal port of Sandwich being severely damaged in the process - see details of its churches via the feature link).

The Battle of Lincoln sees William lead the charge, and he personally kills de Perche (accidentally, as he wants him as a prisoner for the ransom he would raise). The defeated French noblemen are led to a ship bound for France whilst their Scots allies return north.

First Barons War illusration from the Battle of Lincoln 1217
The First Barons' War in England saw a collection of the powerful baronial class rise up against King John, determined to force him to abide by Magna Carta but weakening their own cause by accepting support from France

1216 - 1272

Henry III 'of Winchester'

Son. Acceded aged 9. Increasing ill-health claimed his life.

1216 - 1219

William Marshal

Regent. Greatest melee tournament knight of his day.

1236

The power of the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth has been declining for years, and by this point the practical end of the dynasty has arrived. It is subjugated by the Plantagenets, giving them mastery of all of South Wales. North Powys is also taken.

1245

FeatureHenry III begins to rebuild Westminster Abbey (see feature link). The original structure, built by Anglo-Saxon King Edward 'the Confessor', is almost entirely replaced aside from large portions of the undercroft and Pyx Chamber in the cloisters. The bones of many burials around the edges of the abbey - probably senior clergy, mostly of the eleventh and twelfth centuries - are stacked up into dense piles like firewood to be found under Victorian drainage pipes by archaeologists in 2015. Some skulls have square holes left by the pickaxes of Henry's workmen. The abbey costs Henry the staggering sum of £45,000.

Westminster Abbey
Most of the remains which were stacked up around the outside edges of Henry's new abbey are thought to have been senior clergy - their bones were rediscovered by archaeologists in 2015

1255 - 1260

The weight of Plantagenet oppression in Ireland begins to trigger an increasing number of revolts. In 1255 Brian, king of Tir Eoghain, makes the most of weakness in the earldom of Ulster by launching a raid on colonist land across the River Bann and into Ulaid. Towns and castles are destroyed along the way.

In 1256, Aodh O'Connor, the son of the king of Connacht, conquers the neighbouring kingdom of Breifne, supported in word by Brian. In 1257, Teige Caeluisce, son of the king of Thomond, defeats the Norman lords and plunders their lands. The three meet in 1258 when Brian is proclaimed high king. The Plantagenet response in 1260 brings a definitive end to the revolt.

1272 - 1307

Edward I Longshanks

Defeated last independent Welsh. Hammer of the Scots.

1282 - 1283

With the death of the Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, in 1282 and his brother Dafydd the following year, four hundred years of dominance by the house of Gwynedd comes to an end. Gwynedd had survived intense rivalries from its neighbours, as well as outside threats from Irish, Bernician, West Saxon, Viking and Norman raiders and would-be-conquerors. It had done so through a combination of might and well-placed diplomacy which has nevertheless failed to withstand the final, determined assault from the Anglo-Normans in the person of Edward I.

1290

The 'First Interregnum' in Scotland is usually measured from the death of Margaret of Norway in 1290. With the prospect of dynastic war looming over the country, Scotland is governed by guardians while Edward I is invited to adjudicate over the succession. With no one to stand in his way, he also becomes Scotland's overlord.

Margaret, the 'Maid of Norway'
Margaret, the 'Maid of Norway' is now an accepted queen of Scotland despite being uncrowned at her death, but that was not always the case

1296 - 1298

Edward I invades Scotland following the formation of a council of twelve to manage the country outside the king's authority. This triggers the First Scottish War of Independence. The Scots are defeated at Dunbar in April 1296 and John Balliol formally abdicates on 10 July 1296.

The 'Second Interregnum' follows, during which Edward I again rules Scotland directly, using his English and Irish troops to enforce his will. John is imprisoned in the Tower of London until allowed to leave for France in 1299. The rebel guardian of Scotland, Sir William Wallace, wins support in some quarters and is victorious against an unwary English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. He is defeated at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298.

1302 - 1305

FeatureIn his attempts to keep down William Wallace and Robert the Bruce during the Scottish Wars of Independence, Edward I builds a fortress at Linlithgow (see feature link).

In 1305 William Wallace is captured and is subsequently hanged, drawn, and quartered at Smithfield, London. In the same year, Edward appoints his nephew, John of Brittany, as guardian of Scotland. The second son of Duke John II of Brittany, John wholeheartedly shares Edward's aims when it comes to expanding the size and influence of the English kingdom. He is trusted by the English court as a diplomat and negotiator, and his term of office as guardian witnesses no major upsets.

1307 - 1327

Edward II

First English Prince of Wales. Weak king. Died mysteriously.

1314

FeatureEdward II's defeat at Bannockburn by the Scottish under Robert the Bruce sees the start of a period in which the certainty of Scottish independence from England becomes more and more established. The drawing up of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 (see feature link) involves Pope John XXII in negotiations. The defeat at Bannockburn, in which the lord of Glamorgan is killed, also sparks a minor revolt in Wales.

Battle of Bannockburn by William Hole
The Battle of Bannockburn by William Hole, part of a mural in three sections, from the Scottish National Portrait Museum in Edinburgh showing Robert the Bruce in the foreground

1315 - 1317

The great European famine strikes, leaving many across the European mainland and in Britain facing death. The famine is brought on by a spring and summer of relentlessly heavy rain, causing widespread crop failures.

The grave of Richard de W'Peton is found by archaeologists in 2017. He dies on 17 April 1317 and is buried near the altar of a former hospital chapel which is part of Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire. He would be ministering to the starving, working in the face of desperately limited resources and, perhaps, despite these efforts he also succumbs to the famine himself.

1327 - 1330

Isabella

Strong wife of Edward II. May have 'removed' her husband.

1327 - 1330

Roger de Mortimer

The queen's lover. First earl of March. Executed.

1328 - 1330

Now that Edward II is out of the way, Isabella is able to sign the Treaty of Northampton in 1328, in which England renounces its claim to Scotland. Her scandalous relationship with the former lord lieutenant of Ireland, Roger de Mortimer, and their presumed murder of Edward II stirs up increasing hostility on the part of the dead king's remaining family and the nobility. In 1330 Edward III asserts his claim to the throne and has Mortimer arrested. Mortimer is hanged at Tyburn and his vast new wealth is forfeited to the crown.

1330 - 1377

Edward III

Overthrew Isabella and Mortimer.

1330 - 1376

Edward of Woodstock

Son. Prince of Wales. Duke of Cornwall: 'The Black Prince'.

1330 - 1376

Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, later becomes popularly known as the Black Prince (a term first used well after his time). He is the eldest son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, and father of Richard II. Edward is an effective military leader, and is very popular during his lifetime.

Land's End in Cornwall
Land's End in Cornwall, like the rest of this duchy never actually part of England, but certainly neighbouring it and, in the twenty-first century, a thriving tourist hotspot

He is the first Englishman to be created a duke (of Cornwall in 1337), and he serves as a symbolic regent for periods in 1339, 1340, and 1342 while Edward III is on campaign. His early life sees a rise in fashion sense, with Edward taking a fancy to red and purple velvet cloaks and hats, and an early love for tournaments at the expense of learning, like his father. He also develops a recklessness with money and leads successful campaigns against the French in the Hundred Years War, perfecting the use of English and Welsh longbowmen.

In his later years, campaigning on behalf of Pedro 'the Cruel' of Castile ruins Edward's health and finances, and a lingering illness causes his death one year before that of his father, and so he never rules (the first English prince of Wales to suffer that fate). The throne passes instead to his son, a minor.

1337 - 1453

The Hundred Years War between England and France begins when France confiscates Gascony from Edward III. Edward invades France to press his own claim to the throne. In 1346, Edward crushes the army of Philip VI of France at the Battle of Crécy. The seventeen year-old King David of Scotland decides to invade England in support of his French allies, but he is defeated and captured at the Battle of Neville's Cross, near Durham, on 17 October. He is imprisoned by the English for eleven long years.

Guildhall stone shield
This stone shield from the Guildhall in London shows the royal arms of Edward III after he laid claim to the French throne (around 1340), with the fleurs-de-lis on a blue field alongside the three lions of England on a red field

1348 - 1350

The Black Death reaches Britain and Ireland from continental Europe. In less than two years approximately a third of Britain's population is killed, while in Ireland the Anglo-Norman town dwellers are hit much harder than the native Gaelic population. In some British regions, entire villages are laid waste or are abandoned. The plague causes great social changes as the reduced workforce is now in a position of negotiating power.

1377 - 1399

Richard II

Son of the Black Prince. Deposed. Died 1400.

1377 - 1386

John of Gaunt

Uncle and regent. Duke of Aquitaine.

1384 - 1386

England supplies six hundred battle-hardened men to John of Portugal to help him secure his throne against the French-allied John of Castile. As a result of this, two years later England and Portugal sign the Treaty of Windsor on 9 May, the oldest alliance in Europe still in force.

1399

The exiled Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt and heir to the duchies of Lancaster and Aquitaine, returns to reclaim his lands, raising an army and marching meet the king. Henry and his ally, archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel, meet the king to discuss the restitution of Henry's lands, but at the meeting Richard is arrested and deposed, so snatching the throne away from him in a coup and paving the way for the first ruler of the House of Lancaster.

House of Lancaster (England)
AD 1399 - 1461

Empress Matilda, granddaughter of William of Normandy, became embroiled in a civil war with her cousin, Stephen after he usurped her rightful throne. With neither able to win decisively, the conflict rumbled on for the best part of twenty years until 1153 when a worn-out Stephen agreed to a compromise in which he adopted Matilda's son, Henry Anjou, as his heir. Matilda had married Prince Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou in 1127, uniting the French house with the very powerful Norman one. Their son gained the crown of England from Stephen in 1154, having already married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152.

The House of Lancaster was a cadet (junior) branch of this successful Plantagenet dynasty. The family name first appeared in 1267, when the title of earl of Lancaster was granted to Edmund 'Crouchback' (1245-1296), youngest son of Henry III and brother to the powerful Edward I 'Longshanks'. Two of Edmund's sons by his second wife, Blanche of Artois, succeeded to the title. Two generations later it had passed via two heiresses to John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III and regent for the English throne in 1377-1386.

In 1399, the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt and heir to the duchies of Lancaster and Aquitaine, returned to reclaim his lands, raising an army and marching meet the king. Despite having military intentions, Henry and his ally, archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel, actually met the king to discuss the restitution of Henry's lands, but at the meeting Richard was arrested and deposed, so snatching the throne away from him in a coup. Richard's former 'First Lord High Treasurer' was also executed as the new regime took control (which possibly also claimed the life of the outspoken Chaucer).

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216, Austin Lane Poole (Oxford University Press 1993), from The Making of Europe, Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change: 950-1350, Robert Bartlett (Princeton University Press, 1993), from Scottish Kings 1005-1625, Archibald H Dunbar (D Douglas, Edinburgh, 1899), from Conquest, The English Kingdom of France 1417-1450, Juliet Barker, from The Yorkists - History of a Dynasty, Anne Crawford, and from External Links: Richard III: Leicester Cathedral reburial service for king (BBC), and History Extra, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

1399 - 1413

Henry IV

Cousin of Richard II. Formerly the exiled duke of Lancaster.

1400

Henry and archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel conspire to kill the Plantagenet King Richard II. Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, is a close friend of Richard's while also being married to Henry IV's sister and court poet under Richard.

King Henry IV of England
The coup to seize the throne by Henry IV (pictured) and his ally, Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, ushered in a more repressive regime which used burning at the stake as a way of removing undesirable figures

During the reign of Richard II there had been a flowering of English literature (despite Shakespeare's later dramatic claims to the contrary), but Henry's reign witnesses a heavy level of censorship. People who cross Arundel could find themselves burnt as a heretic. Chaucer, outspoken in his mockery of powerful prelates who covet worldly possessions (including Arundel), could well be a victim of this oppressive new order. He disappears just two months after Richard's death. None of his original works survive him, and all mention of him ceases for seven years after his probable death.

1402 - 1406

With Robert III, king of Scotland, beset by problems at home, Henry now invades the Scottish lowlands. The Scots are defeated twice, at the battles of Nesbit Moor and Humbleton Hill, and Henry seizes Edinburgh, albeit briefly. In 1406, Robert sends his ten year-old second son, James, to safety in France but his vessel is captured and he is taken prisoner by the English. The sad news may hasten Robert's death in the same year.

1403

While dealing with many rebellions throughout the kingdom, in one of his few notable victories in relation to the widespread Welsh rebellion, Henry IV defeats Henry Percy ('Harry Hotspur') of Northumberland, a rebel and ally of Owain Glyndwr, Prince of Wales, at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

1413 - 1422

Henry V

Son. Lord of Aquitaine.

1415 - 1420

Henry's much smaller army wins a startling victory at Agincourt in 1415, despite being outnumbered by the 'flower of French chivalry'. In 1420, Charles VI cedes France to Henry in the Treaty of Troyes and, following Charles' death in 1422, much of France becomes an English possession, although Henry V doesn't live to see it.

Battle of Agincourt
The overwhelming victory for the forces of Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt destroyed the flower of French chivalry and gave all of France to a Lancastrian Plantagenet king

1422 - 1461

Henry VI

Son. Aged 1 at accession. England & France. Deposed.

1422 - 1429

England effectively rules France through Henry's brother, John of Lancaster. Elements of the French nobility refuse to accept an English king, however, and support a fight with Charles VI's son as their figurehead. The French victory at Orleans in 1429 turns the tide of the war. John, and his younger brother Humphrey, remain Henry VI's regents in England as most of the French territory is subsequently lost.

1422 - 1435

John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford

Uncle and regent, mostly in France (1422-1429).

1422 - 1447

Humphrey, duke of Gloucester

Brother and lord protector in England. Died disgraced.

1429 - 1431

The Hundred Years War is over, with Charles VIII now king of France by right of conquest, if not by any other legal right. However, in 1430, Charles' inspiration for the reconquest of France, Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of Orleans), is handed over to the English for the princely sum of ten thousand gold crowns by his rival, Philip the Good of Burgundy. She is tried for heresy and is found guilty, being burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. Then Philip, sensing the tide turning against the English, supports Charles so that he can be crowned king.

Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans
Joan of Arc began her fight against the English 'occupiers' of France as a freedom fighter who inspired others to follow her, but she ended as a pawn in political powerplays

1455 - 1485

The Wars of the Roses begin with Richard, duke of York's victory at the Battle of St Albans. Lancastrians are pitched against Yorkists in England for the next thirty years. Richard's son, Edward, gains the throne in 1461 to usher in the first period of rule by the House of York.

House of York (England)
AD 1461 - 1470

The House of York had been founded by the fifth son of Plantagenet King Edward III and first duke of York, Edmund of Langley (1341-1402) to replace the now-defunct earldom of York. From him the title passed to his son, Edward of Norwich, as the second duke, and to Richard Plantagenet (Edward's nephew) as the third duke. The fourth duke, Richard's son, was soon to be Edward IV.

With the support of his cousin Richard Neville, earl of Warwick (the 'Kingmaker'), Edward pressed his claim to the Lancastrian throne of England through a series of battles between 1460-1461. He managed to secure London while Henry VI and his militaristic queen were campaigning in the north. The House of York owned land predominantly in the south of England, while the rival Lancastrians owned much of the north, including Lancashire and Yorkshire, making the civil war a north-south conflict. It would take until 1485, and several changes of ruler, before the conflict could be concluded. It subsequently became traditional for the English monarch to hand the title of duke of York to the second son - albeit with frequent breaks - and this practice continues in use to the present day.

FeatureNew evidence points to Edward IV's mother, Cecily, daughter of the first earl of Westmorland, having had a liaison with a tall, well-built archer at the Rouen garrison while her royal husband was campaigning against the French (see feature link, right, for more detail). Edward was conceived at a time in 1441 in which his father, Richard Plantagenet, third duke of York, was nowhere near his mother. Edward was born in April 1442, the grandson of Richard of Conisburgh, third earl of Cambridge, whose own grandfather had been Edward III. His brother, George, later the duke of Clarence, was certainly legitimate. The third child, Richard III was also legitimate, and fully resembled his slightly-built, thin-faced father in stature and appearance. However, this evidence is highly controversial, and a strong camp of defenders exists for Edward IV's legitimacy.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Mick Baker and Trish Wilson, from From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216, Austin Lane Poole (Oxford University Press 1993), from The Making of Europe, Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change: 950-1350, Robert Bartlett (Princeton University Press, 1993), from Scottish Kings 1005-1625, Archibald H Dunbar (D Douglas, Edinburgh, 1899), from Conquest, The English Kingdom of France 1417-1450, Juliet Barker, from War and Politics in 15th Century England, William E Baumgaertner, from The Yorkists - History of a Dynasty, Anne Crawford, and from External Links: Richard III: Leicester Cathedral reburial service for king (BBC), and History Extra, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

1461 - 1470

Edward IV

Son of Richard Plantagenet. 3rd cousin of Henry VI. Deposed.

1461

Having inherited the Yorkist claim to the throne upon the death in December 1460 of his father, Richard Plantagenet, duke of York, following his death at the Battle of Wakefield, Edward wins two battles in quick succession. Victories at Mortimer's Cross (near Wigmore in Herefordshire) and Towton (in Yorkshire) enable him to depose Henry VI and take throne.

Henry VI Part 1
An imaginative scene from Henry VI Part 1 in which the participants in the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) select white and red roses to mark their allegiances

1464

Edward, with heavy reliance on his cousins the Nevilles, has struggled to consolidate his reign. Much of the nobility has remained loyal to Henry VI or is firmly neutral. Now John Neville's victory at the Battle of Hexham apparently ends the Lancastrian threat.

The victory simply exposes fault lines within Edward's own supporters, with Richard Neville, earl of Warwick (the 'Kingmaker'), taking a dominant role which he thinks is due to him. Richard Neville negotiates a marriage with one of the female relatives of Louis XI of France, and is enraged when he discovers Edward's secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian sympathiser.

1469 - 1470

Warwick remains deeply upset by Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, so he rebels against him. The Battle of Edgecote Moor in 1469 is a victory for Warwick, especially when the king is captured soon after. Elements of the nobility stage a counter-revolt which frees the king and subdues Warwick temporarily, but he and George, duke of Clarence, rebel again in 1470 and Edward flees the country. The Lancastrians are restored to power.

House of Lancaster (Restored in England)
AD 1470 - 1471

The House of Lancaster was a cadet (junior) branch of the successful Plantagenet dynasty. The family name first appeared in 1267, when the title of earl of Lancaster was granted to Edmund 'Crouchback' (1245-1296), youngest son of Henry III and brother to the powerful Edward I 'Longshanks'. Two of Edmund's sons by his second wife, Blanche of Artois, succeeded to the title. Two generations later it had passed via two heiresses to John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III. It was his son who snatched the throne from Richard II to found the ruling House of Lancaster in 1399. That house had been deposed by the House of York in 1461.

Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI, came to an alliance with two of Edward IV's main supporters, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and George, duke of Clarence, urged on by Louis XI of France. Warwick married his daughter to Henry's son and returned to England to defeat the Yorkists in battle in 1470. Henry VI was restored to the throne on 30 October 1470. However, by now the years of hiding and captivity had taken their toll, and Warwick and Clarence held all the power. Henry's return to the throne was very brief.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216, Austin Lane Poole (Oxford University Press 1993), from The Making of Europe, Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change: 950-1350, Robert Bartlett (Princeton University Press, 1993), from Scottish Kings 1005-1625, Archibald H Dunbar (D Douglas, Edinburgh, 1899), from War and Politics in 15th Century England, William E Baumgaertner, from The Yorkists - History of a Dynasty, Anne Crawford, and from External Links: Richard III: Leicester Cathedral reburial service for king (BBC), and History Extra, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and The Battlefields Trust.)

1470 - 1471

Henry VI

Restored. Murdered in prayer at the Tower of London.

Edward

Son. Prince of Wales. Executed in 1471.

1471

In March 1471 Edward IV returns to England, with the assistance of his brother-in-law, Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy. Landing in Yorkshire, Edward is able to assemble troops and equipment before heading south, gathering more troops as he goes. He reaches London unopposed on 12 April.

Queen Margaret of Anjou in 1471
Queen Margaret of Anjou is shown here fleeing the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 after failing to stop the Yorkist advance, but she was soon captured and, spirit broken at the death of her son (Edward), was eventually granted exile in France where she lived out her remaining years in peace

Aware of Edward's movements, the earl of Warwick, the 'kingmaker', who had been in the Midlands raising troops, marches towards London to confront him. In a morning battle which is hampered by mist, Edward's Yorkist forces defeat the Lancastrians at the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471. Warwick is killed and his forces are routed despite their superior numbers.

With Warwick dead and Henry VI largely incapable of leading an army, the task is left to his queen, Margaret of Anjou. Her defeat at the Battle of Tewksbury on 4 May sees her son, Edward, Prince of Wales, captured and executed in circumstances that are not fully explained, while the remainder of the royal family is captured. Edward IV regains the throne, and Henry VI is murdered by the restored Yorkists while a captive in the Tower of London.

House of York (Restored in England)
AD 1471 - 1485

The House of York had been founded by the fifth son of Plantagenet King Edward III, Edmund of Langley (1341-1402) to replace the now-defunct earldom of York. From him the title passed to his son, Edward of Norwich, as the second duke, and to Richard Plantagenet (Edward's nephew) as the third duke. The fourth duke, Richard's son, was soon to be Edward IV, founder of the House of York's first stint at ruling England. That stint had been ended by the resurgent Henry IV seizing back 'his' throne in 1470. However, the War of the Roses was certainly not over. Yorkist forces defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, restoring Edward IV to the throne.

Whilst the nobility of this period were busy hacking down their peers, the common population was suffering from repeated waves of plague. Although these were less severe that the Black Death of 1348, they still killed many. A bonus for the survivors was that they were often in a stronger position to be able to climb the social ladder, and even sometimes to become a class of gentry between that of the nobility and peasants. The country gentleman was born in the form of the squire.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216, Austin Lane Poole (Oxford University Press 1993), from Channel 4's The Six Wives of Henry VIII series, Doctor David Starkey (first screened September 2001), from The Making of Europe, Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change: 950-1350, Robert Bartlett (Princeton University Press, 1993), from Scottish Kings 1005-1625, Archibald H Dunbar (D Douglas, Edinburgh, 1899), from War and Politics in 15th Century England, William E Baumgaertner, from The Yorkists - History of a Dynasty, Anne Crawford, and from External Links: Richard III: Leicester Cathedral reburial service for king (BBC), and History Extra, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

1471 - 1483

Edward IV

Former Yorkist king. Restored.

1478

George, duke of Clarence, although forgiven for his change of allegiance in 1470, leads an attempted coup against Edward. He is captured and is executed by Edward for treason (by being hung upside down in a barrel of Madeira). George is survived by two grown-up children who outlive the rule of the House of York.

Edward IV of England
Edward IV was the only War of the Roses commander to win all of his military battles, and was possibly also England's very first Renaissance king

They are the last of the (official) Plantagenets, and the younger of the two is later executed by Henry VIII on trumped-up charges in order to be certain that she cannot apply her legal claim to the throne. But her own sons survive, and a modern-day descendant lived happily in Australia until his death in 2012 after emigrating in the 1960s - Michael, earl of Louden (or Loudoun), a potential claimant to the throne. He is succeeded as earl by his son, Simon Abney-Hastings. That claim, though, has effectively been lost by right of conquest (in 1485) and through later inter-dynastic marriages.

1483

Edward V

Son. Ruled in name as a 12 year-old for 3 months. Deposed.

1483

FeatureRichard, younger brother of Edward IV, knows that the child king has no legitimate claim to the throne, and immediately captures and imprisons the boy and his younger brother, the new Richard, duke of York. Richard III claims the throne as the only surviving legitimate son of the previous duke of York. The princes are held in the Tower of London until their eventual disappearance.

1483 - 1485

Richard III

Brother of Edward IV. Killed at Bosworth Field.

1485

From his exile in France, Henry Tudor leads a slightly underwhelming invasion of England, via Milford Haven, and is fortunate to kill Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, the final major battle in the Wars of the Roses (although not the final conflict of any kind). Richard's body is taken to nearby Leicester and is buried in the grounds of Grey Friars Church in the town.

Richard III at Bosworth Field
Richard III, demonised during the subsequent Tudor period, seems to have been a fair ruler who was unlucky to be defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field

FeatureGrey Friars Church is destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, but Richard remains buried there until he is discovered by archaeologists in August 2012. The site is now a car park, and the skeletal remains are confirmed as the king's after DNA from the bones are found to match that of a descendant of the monarch's family.

Despite plans to rebury the king in Leicester Cathedral (which are brought to fruition in 2015), the Plantagenet Alliance (which includes fifteen of the king's distant relatives) states that the king's wish had been to be buried at York Minster (see feature link for more on the minster).

Having played a key role in the last years of the Wars of the Roses, one of the few powerful noble families left standing which is capable of providing the leadership the country now requires is that of the Tudors. They form a very distinctive dynasty of their own by which to rule England.