The Wars of the Roses have been ascribed to many different causes by different historians. To some their origin is mainly constitutional. Henry VI, it is argued, had broken the tacit compact which the house of Lancaster had made with the nation; instead of committing the administration of the realm to ministers chosen for him by, or at least approved by, his parliament, he persisted in retaining in office persons like Suffolk and Somerset, who had forfeited the confidence of the people by their many failures in war and diplomacy, and were suspected of something worse than incapacity. They might not be so personally odious as the favourites of Edward II or of Henry III, but they were even more dangerous to the state, because they were not foreign adventurers but great English peers. In spite of the warnings given by the assault on Suffolk in 1450, by Jack Cade's insurrection, and by the first armed demonstrations of Richard of York in 1450 and 1452, the king persisted in keeping his friends in office, and they had to be removed by the familiar and forcible methods that had been applied in earlier ages by the lords ordainers or the lords appellant. Undoubtedly there is much truth in this view of the situation; if Henry VI, or perhaps we should rather say, if his queen Margaret of Anjou, had been content to accept ministries in which the friends of Richard of York were fairly represented, it is probable that he might have died a king, and have transmitted his crown to his natural heir. But this explanation of the Wars of the Roses is not complete; it accounts for their outbreak, but not for their long continuance.
According to another school the real key to the problem is simply the question of the succession to the crown. If the wedlock of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou had been fruitful during the first few years after their the marriage, no one would have raised the question of a change of dynasty. But when they remained childless for seven years, and strong suspicion arose that there was a project on foot to declare the Beauforts heirs to the throne, the claim of Richard of York, as the representative of the houses of Clarence and March, was raised by those who viewed the possible accession of the incapable and unpopular Somerset with terror and dislike. When once the claims of York had been displayed and stated by his imprudent partisan, Thomas Yonge, in the parliament of 1451, there was no possibility of hiding the fact that in the strict legitimate line of succession he had a better claim than the reigning king. He disavowed any pretensions to the crown for nine years; it was only in 1460 that he set forth his title with his own mouth. But his friends and followers were not so discreet; hence when a son was at last born to Henry and Margaret, in 1453, the succession question was already in the air and could no longer be ignored. If the claim of York was superior to that of Lancaster in the eyes of a considerable part of the nation, it was no longer possible to consider the problem solved by the birth of a direct heir to the actual occupant of the throne. Though Duke Richard behaved in the most correct fashion, acknowledged the infant Edward as Prince of Wales, and made no attempt to assert dynastic claims during his two regencies in 1454 and 1455-1456, yet the queen and her partisans already looked upon him as a pretender to the throne. It is this fact which accounts for the growing bitterness of the Yorkist and Lancastrian parties during the last years of Henry VI.
Margaret believed herself to be defending the rights of her son against a would-be usurper. Duke Richard, on the other hand, considered himself as wrongfully oppressed, and excluded from his legitimate position as a prince of the blood and a chief councillor of the crown. Nor can there be any doubt that the queen took every opportunity of showing her suspicion of him, and deliberately kept him and his friends from sharing in the administration of the realm. This might have been more tolerable if the Lancastrian party had shown any governing power; but both while Somerset was their leader, down to his death in the first battle of St Albans, and while in 1456-1459 Exeter, Wiltshire, Shrewsbury and Beaumont were the queen's trusted agents, the condition of England was deplorable. As a contemporary chronicler wrote, "the realm was out of all good governance as it has been many days before the king was simple, and led by covetous councillors, and owed more than he was worth. His debts increased daily, but payment was there none, for all the manors and possessions that pertained to the crown he had given away, so that he had almost nought to live on. For these misgovernances the hearts of the people were turned from them that had the land in rule, and their blessing was turned to cursing."
The officers of the realm, and especially the Earl of Wiltshire the treasurer, for to enrich himself plundered poor people and disinherited rightful heirs, and did many wrongs. The queen was defamed, that he that was called the prince was not the king's son, but a bastard gotten in adultery. When it is added that the Lancastrian party avoided holding a parliament for three years, because they dared not face it, and that the French were allowed to sack Fowey, Sandwich and other places because there was no English fleet in existence, it is not wonderful that many men thought that the cup of the iniquities of the house of Lancaster was full. In the military classes it was felt that the honour of the realm was lost; in mercantile circles it was thought that the continuance for a few years more of such government would make an end of English trade. Some excuse must be found for getting rid of the queen and her friends, and the doubtful legitimacy of the Lancastrian claim to the crown afforded such an excuse. Hence came the curious paradox, that the party which started as the advocates of the rights of parliament against the incapable ministers appointed by the crown, ended by challenging the right of parliament, exercised in 1399, to depose a legitimate king and substitute for him another member of the royal house. For Richard of York in 1460 and Edward IV in 1461 put in their claim to the throne, not as the elect of the nation, but as the possessors of a divine hereditary right to the succession, there having been no true king of England since the death of Richard II. Hence Edward assumed the royal title in March 1461, was crowned in June, but called no parliament till November. When it met, it acknowledged him as king, but made no pretence of creating or electing him to be sovereign.
But putting aside the constitutional aspects of the Wars of the Roses, it is necessary to point out that they had another aspect. From one point of view they were little more than a great faction fight between two alliances of tending over-powerful barons. Though the Lancastrians made much play with the watchword of loyalty to the crown, and though the Yorkists never forgot to speak of the need for strong and wise governance, and the welfare of the realm, personal and family enmities had in many cases more effect in determining their action than a zeal for King Henry's rights or for the prosperity of England. It is true that some classes were undoubtedly influenced in their choice of sides mainly by the general causes spoken of above; the citizens of London and the other great towns (for example) inclined to the Yorkist faction simply because they saw that under the Lancastrian rule the foreign trade of England was being ruined, and insufficient security was given for life and property. But the leading men among the baronage were undoubtedly swayed by ambition and resentment, by family ties and family feuds, far more than by enlightened statesmanship or zeal for the king or the commonweal.
It would be going too far to seek the origin of the Yorkist party as some have done in the old enmity of the houses of March, Norfolk and Salisbury against Henry IV. But it is not so fantastic to ascribe its birth to the personal hatred that existed between Richard of York and Edmund of Somerset, to the old family grudge (going back to 1405) between the Percies and the Nevilles, to the marriage alliance that bound the houses of York and Neville together, and to other less well remembered quarrels or blood-ties among the lesser baronage. As an example of how such motives worked, it may suffice to quote the case of those old enemies, the Bonvilles and Courtenays, in the west country. While Lord Bonville supported the queen, the house of Courtenay were staunch Yorkists, and the Earl of Devon joined in the armed demonstration of Duke Richard in 1452. But when the earl changed his politics and fought on the Lancastrian side at St Albans in 1455, the baron at once became a strenuous adherent of the duke, adhered firmly to the white rose and died by the axe for its cause.
Richard of York, in short, was not merely the head of a constitutional opposition to misgovernment by the queen's friends, nor was he merely a legitimist claimant to the crown, he was also the head of a powerful baronial league, of which the most prominent members were his kinsmen, the Nevilles, Mowbrays and Bourchiers. The Nevilles alone, enriched with the ancient estates of the Beauchamps and Montagus, and with five of their name in the House of Lords, were a sufficient nucleus for a faction. They were headed by the two most capable politicians and soldiers then alive in England, the two Richards, father and son, who held the earldoms of Salisbury and Warwick, and were respectively brother-in-law and nephew to York.
It must be remembered that a baron of 1450 was not strong merely by reason of the spears and bows of his household and his tenantry, like a baron of the 13th century. The pernicious practice of livery and maintenance was now at its zenith; all over England in times of stress the knighthood and gentry were wont to pledge themselves, by sealed bonds of indenture, to follow the magnate whom they thought best able to protect them. They mounted his badge, and joined his banner when strife broke out, in return for his championship of their private interests and his promise to maintain them against all their enemies. A soldier and statesman of the ability and ambition of Richard of Warwick counted hundreds of such adherents, scattered over twenty shires. The system had spread so far that the majority of the smaller tenants-in-chief, and even many of the lesser barons, were the sworn followers of an insignificant number of the greater lords. An alliance of half-a-dozen of these over-powerful subjects was a serious danger to the crown. For the king could no longer count on raising a national army against them; he could only call out the adherents of the lords of his own party. The factions were fairly balanced, for if the majority of the baronage were, on the whole, Lancastrian, the greatest houses stood by the cause of York.
Despite all this, there was still, when the wars began, a very strong feeling in favour of compromise and moderation. For this there can be no doubt that Richard of York was mainly responsible. When he was twice placed in power, during the two protectorates which followed Henry's two long fits of insanity in 1454 and 1455-1456, he carefully avoided any oppression of his enemies, though he naturally took care to put his own friends in office. Most of all did he show his sincere wish for peace by twice laying down the protectorate when the king was restored to sanity. He was undoubtedly goaded into his last rebellion of 1459 by the queen's undisguised preparations for attacking him. Yet because he struck first, without waiting for a definite casus belli, public opinion declared so much against him that half his followers refused to rally to his banner.
The revulsion only came when the queen, victorious after the rout of Ludford, applied to the vanquished Yorkists those penalties of confiscation and attainder which Duke Richard had always refused to employ in his day of power. After the harsh doings at the parliament of Coventry (1459), and the commencement of political executions by the sending of Roger Neville and his fellows to the scaffold the trend of public opinion veered round, and Margaret and her friends were rightly held responsible for the embittered nature of the strife. Hence came the marvellous success of the Yorkist counterstroke in June 1460, when the exiled Warwick, landing in Kent with a mere handful of men, was suddenly joined by the whole of the south of England and the citizens of London, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Lancastrians at Northampton before he had been fifteen days on shore (July 10, 1460).
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.