The War of the Roses in a Nutshell
Lance Rasmussen (left) as Earl of Somerset and Michael Elich as Richard Plantagenet in Henry VI Part One, 2018.
By Kathryn Neves
As exciting and full of intrigue as the Henry plays are, they can be hard to follow. They’re full of historical references and allusions that are far removed from our time. If you don’t know the history, Henry VI can be challenging. Shakespeare’s audiences certainly understood the plays. Even though the War of the Roses took place a few centuries before Shakespeare’s day, Elizabethans were still under the effects of the War of the Roses. The whole Tudor clan, including Queen Elizabeth, came to power because of that war. So the history was relevant and accessible to them.
We might need a little more context, though. So here is the in-a-nutshell version of the War of the Roses, as it applies to all three parts of Henry VI.
It starts, as the name implies, with two roses: one red and one white. The red rose was the badge of the House of Lancaster, and the white rose was the badge of the House of York. In Henry VI Part One, Shakespeare used actual roses as symbols for each house and for each side of the argument, but in reality, it had nothing to do with the actual flowers. There wasn’t a picking-of-the-roses scene; it was just a symbol of their houses.
Henry V (red rose), one of England’s favorite kings, tenuously won control of France and married a French princess: Catherine of Valois. Because of this, he declared himself the king of both France and England. So, when his son was born, the baby was declared the heir. Henry V died nine months after the birth of his son, and the crown passed on to the infant. Obviously, though, a baby can’t rule a country; so little Henry VI’s uncles became regents of the realm and ran the country in his place. Things were tense, but it seemed like things would get better as soon as little Henry grew up.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Henry VI was not interested in politics: he was quiet, he was weak-willed, and his wife had far more ambitious plans than he ever did. Not only that, but Henry inherited a mental infirmity from his grandfather, the old king of France. So with all that going on, there was no way Henry could effectively rule. He ended up losing France, which angered the English people and paved the way for a new contender for the throne: Richard, the Duke of York (white rose). York was a direct descendant of King Edward III, and as such had a strong claim on the crown, some say stronger than Henry’s claim. Still, Richard declared loyalty to Henry and decided to wait until Henry died, then take the throne. Unfortunately for him, Henry’s wife, Margaret, had a son and heir. At this point, Henry briefly seemed to recover from his illnesses, and sent Richard away. It was then that Richard of York decided that the time was now, and he moved against Henry.
After numerous battles, the Yorks won, took King Henry prisoner, and established the new monarchy under the white rose. Meanwhile, Margaret of Anjou (Henry’s wife) raised up an army to try to reinstate her husband on the throne. And yet again, the Yorks won.
Margaret kept trying to reinstate Henry to the throne, and York kept trying to capture Henry. Finally, Henry and Richard of York came up with a compromise: Henry could stay king, but Richard and his family would be his heirs. Margaret didn’t like this at all, and once again raised an army against the Yorks. This time, things were different, and the Yorks were soundly defeated. Margaret had Richard killed, and his severed head was put on display, putting the house of the red rose firmly in charge again.
However, Richard also had a son, Edward, and Edward marched against the Lancaster group (Henry and Margaret, if you remember). The battles seemed to go back and forth, but eventually the Yorks won, and Edward of York took the throne for himself—back to the white rose.
Margaret wasn’t done, however; she fought against Edward and put her husband right back on the throne he’d just been kicked off (now the red rose again). In retaliation, Edward gathered another army and led several more battles against the Lancasters. Henry and Margaret were defeated, Henry died, and Margaret eventually went back to France (and the throne is firmly in the hands of the Yorks, the white rose).
This is where Henry VI ends; the story keeps going, however. Edward of York, now Edward IV of England, ran the country for a while and then died, giving the crown to his son— Edward V. But Edward IV’s brother, Richard, didn’t want that; he wanted the throne for himself. He plotted to have the boys declared illegitimate and placed in the Tower of London— and was soon crowned Richard III.
All of this, though, led to Henry Tudor— a distant relative of Henry VI— defeating Richard III and taking the throne for himself, as Henry VII. He quickly married Elizabeth of York and they had a child who would become Henry VIII, with blood in his veins of both the house of York (white rose) and the house of Lancaster (red rose), finally uniting the two families and ending the War of the Roses. And, of course, one of Henry VIII’s children was Elizabeth, who would become Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s queen and possibly his patron.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but that’s a quick glimpse of the War of the Roses and the history and context. Hopefully this will help you to understand the play a little better. But even without all these details, you should see the play: it’s full of tyranny, political intrigue, and crazy family dynamics that everyone can understand, whether they’re an Elizabethan peasant or a present-day office worker.