The Tudor rose is, of course, the most poignant symbol of the Tudor dynasty and what it stood for. The visuals are very well-known – the red rose and the white rose together. But what does it actually stand for and what is the significance of it?
Jean Plaidy in her novel, The Red Rose of Anjou imagines a scene where the roses come into play. It goes as follows:
“[Somerset] moved away from Buckingham’s restraining hand and plucking one of the red roses, the symbol of the House of Lancaster since the days of Edmund, Earl of Lancaster and brother of Edward the First, he cried out: ‘I pluck this red rose. The red rose of Lancaster. I am for Lancaster and the King.’
Warwick turned away and immediately picked a white rose – the symbol of York – the white rose worn by the Black Prince himself. He held the rose on high. ‘I pluck this white rose,’ he said. ‘The white rose of York. Let every man among us choose his rose. Let him declare himself with these fair flowers. Then we shall know how we stand together.’
There was a shout of excitement as all began plucking the roses until the flowerbeds were completely denuded. Their cries filled the air.
‘For York. For Lancaster.’
This was the prelude. The curtain was about to be raised on the wars of the roses.”[i]
This scene is unlikely to have happened at all, but the sentiment is there. The country was split in two. The Lancastrians believed that Henry VI was the rightful King, to be followed by his son, Edward, Prince of Wales. On the other hand, the Yorkists believed that the Duke of York should be King and, after his death, the allegiance changed to his son, eventually Edward IV.
Thomas Penn, author of ‘Winter King’, about the reign of Henry VII, says that ‘The “Lancastrian” red rose was an emblem that barely existed before Henry VII. Lancastrian kings used the rose sporadically, but when they did it was often gold rather than red; Henry VI, the king who presided over the country’s descent into civil war, preferred his badge of the antelope. Contemporaries certainly did not refer to the traumatic civil conflict of the 15th century as the “Wars of the Roses”. For the best part of a quarter-century, from 1461 to 1485, there was only one royal rose, and it was white: the badge of Edward IV. The roses were actually created after the war by Henry VII’.[ii] So, really, the Tudor rose was a piece of propaganda by Henry VII in order to demonstrate that the Wars of the Roses were at an end, and that Henry sat securely on the throne of England.
Adrian Ailes has suggested that the red rose “probably owes its popular usage to Henry VII quickly responding to the pre-existing Yorkist white rose in an age when signs and symbols could speak louder than words”.[iii] What this means is that the Ailes believes the red rose was never really the symbol of the Lancastrian cause, but that Henry VII made it so because he wanted a symbol that represented the union of the houses. Personally, I do not believe this. I think that the red rose was the defining symbol of the House of Lancaster in order to contrast with the white rose of York. The red rose is now the symbol of Lancashire as a whole. The colour red implies danger, blood and battle. There certainly were battles, as Henry V won at Agincourt, and Henry VI lost his throne at the Battle of Towton.
The combination of the red and white represents unity and mutual regard, the whole of which is the rose, the symbol of England.[iv] It was supposed to demonstrate that England was united and that civil war was over. The Tudor rose was carved onto buildings and liveries in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown. These can be seen in particular at Hampton Court Palace, and also at some private residences across England.
The Lancastrian Kings were:
Henry IV 1399-1413, married Joan of Navarre & Mary de Bohun.
Henry V 1413-1422, married Katherine of Valois.
Henry VI 1422-1461, married Margaret of Anjou.
The white rose is a different story. It was used to contrast with the red rose of the House of Lancaster in order to clearly define the two sides. It was definitely in use during the fifteenth century, even if the red rose was not. The white rose has since been adopted as the symbol for the whole of Yorkshire.
The Yorkist Kings were:
Edward IV 1461-1483, married Elizabeth Woodville.
Edward V 1483, unmarried.
Richard III 1483-1485, married Anne Neville.
When Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry Tudor took the throne as Henry VII. He was the Lancastrian heir at the time, and he married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. This ended the Wars of the Roses by uniting the two houses, and the two symbols were merged to create the iconic emblem of the House of Tudor.
[i] Jean Plaidy, The Red Rose of Anjou (London: Arrow Books, 2009) p. 214.
[ii] Thomas Penn, ‘How Henry VII branded the Tudors’ [http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/02/tudors-henry-vii-wars-roses?INTCMP=SRCH]
[iii] Adrian Ailes, “Heraldry in Medieval England: Symbols of Politics and Propaganda,” in Heraldry, Pageantry, and Social Display in Medieval England, ed. Peter Cross and Maurice Keen (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2002), pp. 83-104, p.101.