Wars of the Roses, Causes of

   Civil war erupted in fifteenth-century England for many interrelated reasons. While Tudor and Elizabethan commentators found the chief cause of the conflict in the 1399 deposition of Richard II and its attendant break in the legal line of succession, historians working in the twentieth century proposed numerous other causes, including BASTARD FEUDALISM, economic weakness, royal incompetence, and military defeat in FRANCE. Although all these ideas have been closely examined and many have been discredited or modified, debate continues, both on questions of how and why the WARS OF THE ROSES began and on questions of how best to relate and evaluate the various causation theories being proposed.
   The oldest theory of causation is the dynastic, which states that the wars were disputes over title to the throne. The Lancastrian usurpation of 1399 led to civil strife because it vested the Crown in a branch of the royal family whose right to it was inferior to that of other members of the family. As originally enunciated by Tudor writers, and especially by William Shakespeare, this theory also had a supernatural component—the deposition of an anointed king, being a violation of divine law, led inexorably to the divine punishment of civil war. Although this view has today fallen out of fashion, some modern historians have partially revived it by arguing that HENRY VI and MARGARET OF ANJOU were much concerned for the future of the house of LANCASTER in the 1450s, and that many of their attitudes and actions were shaped by fear of the dynastic ambitions of Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York.
   In the late nineteenth century, Charles Plummer and William Denton advocated the theory that bastard feudalism was the chief cause of the Wars of the Roses. They argued that a corrupt offshoot of the feudal social system (which Plummer termed bastard feudalism) allowed a small group of wealthy nobles to raise large bodies of armed RETAINERS with which they conducted private quarrels and defied the authority of the Crown. Developing in the fourteenth century during the reign of Edward III (r. 1327–1377), bastard feudalism disrupted English political society in the fifteenth century. Civil war resulted from a collapse of central authority brought on by “overmighty subjects” who used the Crown and the royal government for their own ends. After 1940, K. B. McFarlane and his students largely demolished the notion that a corrupted form of feudalism caused the Wars of the Roses. They argued that bastard feudal292 WARS OF THE ROSES, CAUSES OF ism was the basis of political society from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries, and that only the weakness of the Crown under the inept Henry VI allowed the system to be corrupted in the fifteenth century. As McFarlane wrote, “only an undermighty ruler had anything to fear from overmighty subjects” (McFarlane, p. 238). In the last thirty years, the debate has shifted from the belief that the wars arose mainly from the weaknesses of Henry VI to discussion of a general shift in the balance of power between the Crown and its most powerful subjects. This idea salvages some of the Plummer/Denton theory by holding Edward III responsible for altering the king’s relationship with his nobles. Instead of standing clearly above and apart from leading noblemen, as Edward I had done, kings after Edward III stood more as first among equals, a consequence that made effective kingship more dependent on the personality of individual monarchs. When a truly ineffective monarch came to power in 1437, royal government ceased to function as it should, and powerful nobles had more scope for making trouble, with bastard feudalism serving as only one of the means by which they did so.
   In the 1930s, M. M. Postan suggested that the “political gangsterism” (Postan, p. 48) of the fifteenth century arose from the financial distress of a nobility experiencing declining incomes. In the 1950s, Charles Ross and T. B. Pugh expanded this idea and tied it into the theory of bastard feudalism by arguing that financially strapped nobles became increasingly dependent on Crown patronage and therefore fought each other not because they had the wherewithal to raise private armies but because they needed royal largess to pay the retinues they already had. This theory of noble insolvency as a cause of civil war also embraced the increasing financial woes of the Crown under Henry VI. In the 1390s, Richard II enjoyed an annual revenue of £120,000, while in the 1450s Henry VI’s annual income had shrunk to about £40,000. Besides experiencing the same decline in rents that affected the PEERAGE, the Crown also suffered from a European-wide depression that reduced customs revenues and from the king’s free-spending tendencies, a point that also reinforces the idea that Henry VI’s incompetence was a prime cause of the wars.Although the general financial position of the nobility in the fifteenth century has been much debated, the bankruptcy of the Crown is not in doubt; what is in question is how much of a role royal insolvency played in the coming of the civil wars.
   Certainly the Crown’s poverty was a factor in the English loss of Normandy in 1450, and the loss of that important province, which was both a psychological blow to England’s pride and a financial blow to the incomes of numerous noblemen, helped initiate the quarrel between York and Edmund BEAUFORT, duke of Somerset. This quarrel over standing at COURT and access to patronage is generally accepted as an important immediate cause of the wars. Another immediate cause was the entry into politics of Margaret of Anjou, who worked on behalf of her son, Prince EDWARD OF LANCASTER, to thwart the political ambitions of York. What is less accepted is the effect, if any, of the ending of the HUNDRED YEARS WAR on the coming of the Wars of the Roses. The notion that the internal disorder of the 1450s was the result of returning hordes of unruly soldiers (and magnates), who had earlier directed their aggression toward the French, has been largely abandoned, but the idea that dissatisfaction with the Lancastrian regime’s handling of the French war made possible Yorkist opposition to the government is still much debated.
   Recently, scholars have pointed out that the theories discussed above apply only to the civil wars before 1471. For the revival of the conflict in the 1480s, a general consensus finds the main cause in the actions of one man— RICHARD III. Some historians suggest that EDWARD IV, by basing his regime too narrowly on a small number of supporters, such as William HASTINGS, Lord Hastings, and the WOODVILLE FAMILY, was responsible for creating conditions that allowed Richard to easily topple his nephew, EDWARD V. AlWARS OF THE ROSES, CAUSES OF 293 though this may be true, the fact remains that only Richard’s usurpation, undertaken in 1483 for any number of reasons, allowed Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond (see Henry VII, King of England), to become a serious contender for the throne and transformed the defunct struggle between the houses of Lancaster and YORK into a struggle between the latter and the house of TUDOR.
   Further Reading: Dockray, Keith,“The Origins of the Wars of the Roses,” in A. J. Pollard, ed., The Wars of the Roses (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), pp. 65–88; McFarlane, K. B.,“The Wars of the Roses,” in England in the Fifteenth Century: Collected Essays (London: Hambledon Press, 1981); Pollard, A. J., The Wars of the Roses (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988); Postan, M. M.,“The Fifteenth Century,” in Essays in Medieval Agriculture and Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973); Pugh,T. B., and Charles Ross,“The English Baronage and the Income Tax of 1436,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 20 (1952): 1–22.

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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