Documentary Notes – British History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley: the Wars of the Roses


  • Story of past open to interpretation 
  • Carefully edited and deceitful version of events 
  • Not just a version of what happened – more a tapestry of different stories woven together by whoever was in power at the time 
  • Wars of the Roses was invented by the Tudors to justify their power 
  • Immortalised by Shakespeare – darkest chapter in English history 
  • Lancaster and York locked in battle for the crown of England – kings deposed, innocent children murdered, cousin fought against cousin 
  • 1485 Richard III slain and Henry Tudor took the throne 
  • Henry VII’s victory hailed the ending of the Medieval period 
  • Line between fact and fiction often gets blurred 
Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.
Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.
  • 1455 Stubbins in Lancashire scene of a legendary battle in the Wars of the Roses beginning with volleys of arrows but ran out of ammunition 
  • Lancastrians pelted the Yorkists with black pudding – local legend 
  • Yorkists pelted the Lancastrians with Yorkshire puddings – local legend 
  • Wars of the Roses in national memory 
  • History books – rivalry between Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose) – bloody rivalry largely a creation of the Tudors 
  • 1461 bloodshed real in the middle of a snowstorm at Towton 
  • Lancastrians started out well but tide turned against them, chased by the Yorkists down the slope to a river and so a massacre began 
  • Blood stained the snow red, so location became known as the bloody meadow 
  • Shakespeare portrayed the battle as a bloody Armageddon – represented a country torn apart by war, nothing as bad in our history 
  • Somme 19,000 British soldiers killed on the first day, Towton 28,000 killed 
  • 20 years ago Bradford University revealed barbarity of fighting with remains of 43 men killed at Towton 
  • Head forced down into the spine, poleaxes – exceptional even for the Wars of the Roses 
  • Skirmishes, but real battles only around 8 in 30 years 
  • Not ravaged by all-out war – later myth 
  • Out of 32 years of wars, fighting on lasted a total of 13 weeks 

  • Story told by the winning side, the history the Tudors wanted us to remember 
  • Battle of Bosworth 1485 ended the War 
  • Henry VII emerged as a courageous leader saving the country from the villainous Richard III, emerged as good vs. evil 
  • Battle mythologised, hard to sort fact from fiction 
  • Location of battle been changed in the last decade due to chance finds 
  • Richard III goes into battle wearing a crown, symbol of what’s at stake, enemies admitted he fought courageously getting within a sword’s length of Tudor 
  • “My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse” 
  • Richard III killed by a blow to the head 
  • Richard’s crown discovered in a hawthorn bush and Tudor crowned with it on the battlefield 
  • This is the story we know because it’s the one Tudor wanted us to remember 
  • Decisive victory on the battlefield 
  • Tudor’s enemies still believed he was a usurper and need to legitimise his reign – recorded his version of events 
  • Henry VII claimed his reign started on 21 August 1485, Battle of Bosworth on 22 August, Henry claimed he was king even before the battle, taking what was rightfully his 
  • Success didn’t lie in victory on the battlefield but in the way the history would be written 
  • 18 January 1486 Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV 
  • New chapter in nation’s history – needed to tell the right story 
  • One of the most important marriages in history uniting Lancaster and York to heal the nation, once bitter rivals 
  • Glossed over the inconvenient fact that he had no right to the throne 
  • Divert attention away from his less-than-royal lineage 
  • Henry VII’s link to the throne comes from his grandmother Katherine of Valois, with a “dodgy” claim to the throne 
  • De la Pole family plotting against the Tudors 
  • Elizabeth of York was the daughter of a king 
  • Marriage an extraordinary act of reconciliation – propaganda campaign 
  • Yorkist Edward IV won the throne by defeating his opponent 
  • Red rose had nothing to do with the house of Lancaster at the time of the wars 
Tudor Rose.
Tudor Rose.
  • Henry VII adopted the red rose as the symbol of the house of Lancaster, in order to combine it with the white rose and create the Tudor rose 
  • Tudor rose became symbol of new Tudor dynasty – Henry VII revised history 
  • Henry VII made king’s college chapel in Cambridge site of Tudor propaganda, began by Henry VI initially but finished by Henry VII 
  • 1508 Henry VII gave the chapel a cash injection then died the following year 
  • Greyhound symbol of Margaret Beaufort, dragon highlighting welsh descent, crowned Tudor roses everywhere 
  • Still talking about it so hugely successful 
  • Emerging Tudor tale – Henry VII was a conquering hero 
  • John Rous wrote a history of the wars and about Richard III’s birth – talons, long hair, in the womb for 2 years, hunchbacked 
  • This is the beginning of the vilification of Richard III, accusations of murders of Henry VI, Edward V and Richard Duke of York as well as Anne Neville 
  • Malicious, wrathful, envious, “lump of foul deformity” = Richard III 
  • Telling the truth was less likely to happen if it didn’t suit the reigning monarch 
  • Rous had previously written in praise of Richard III 
  • Depicted as Renaissance prince rather than deformed figure of Shakespeare’s plays 
  • Rous was writing to gain the favour of the people who he was working for 
  • When Henry VII died Henry VIII made the story his own and kept the Tudor rose symbol, but no question over his right to rule as over his father’s 
  • Battle of Bosworth – Henry VII defeated Richard III and established Yeomen of the Guard, worried about his own safety 
  • Henry VIII increased their number from 300 to 600 
  • Also introduced the scarlet uniform still worn today, though modern version 
  • Tudor rose still features on the uniform today, along with the thistle of Scotland from 1603 and the shamrock of Ireland from the act of union 
  • Under Henry VIII Tudor rose went from being the symbol of a marriage to an emblem for the whole nation 
  • Tudor rose was on the queen’s coronation gown, Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress and on the 20p coin 
  • By the middle of the 16th century almost everyone with first-hand knowledge of the wars had died but the story lived on 
  • Elizabeth at her coronation wearing all the trappings of majesty 
  • Coronation a bit touch and go as Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn 
  • Marriage declared null and void so could be argued Elizabeth was illegitimate – hard to find a bishop willing to anoint her 
  • Elizabeth’s coronation robe was covered in Tudor roses 
  • Elizabeth herself treated as living embodiment of the Tudor rose 
  • Elizabeth failed to produce an heir – haunted her subjects with repeat of Wars of the Roses, history repeating itself with rival claimants fighting over the throne 
  • Wars of the Roses had all the ingredients for drama under Shakespeare 
  • Henry VI Part 1 was the first of Shakespeare’s plays covering the wars and it was a hit 
Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare 1610 possibly by John Taylor
Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare 1610 possibly by John Taylor
  • One of the plays best known scenes has the nobles plucking a red (Somerset) or a white (York) rose to show which side they were on 
  • This scene turned messy reality into a straightforward struggle – didn’t really happen but Shakespeare’s version is so powerful that it remains with us 
  • Shakespeare is one of the first writers to write history plays 
  • Henry VI parts 2 and 3 are written first, and then part 1 and all are hits 
  • You don’t have to stick to the facts, you can do what you want with it 
  • Shakespeare uses bits and pieces from history, uses chronicles like Holinshed to show the victory of the Tudors 
  • Inspired by Chronicles written at the time – e.g. deformity of Richard III 
  • See things that could be done better 
  • Tale torn apart by rival factions struck a chord – Henry VIII and Break with Rome 
  • Fear of religious wars when Elizabeth dies worse than Wars of the Roses 
  • Richard Burbage an Elizabethan actor got a message from a lady when he was playing Richard III wanting to see him, but wanted him in character as Richard III 
  • Liked the cruelty and charisma of Shakespeare’s character 
  • Since 1886 45 different productions of Richard III in Stratford 
  • 1984 production of Richard III Antony Sher played Richard as a spider with a hump 
  • Most portrayals of Richard III by Shakespeare have some kind of physical disability – humped back, withered arm or bad leg 
  • Believed that outward appearance reflected the inner self 
  • Princes in the Tower and Richard III, classic example 
  • Claimed that Richard III had the princes murdered in the Tower to take the throne himself 
  • In 1619 Sir George Buck heard that the bones of the Princes might still be in the Tower – found bones turned out to be those of an ape escaped from the Tower menagerie 
  • John Webb decades later reported a sealed room containing human bones, but these bones were too young to be those of the princes 
  • 1674 while excavating at the Tower a wooden chest was found with the bones of two boys, said to be those of the princes 
  • Charles II ordered the bones buried at Westminster Abbey 
  • A marble funeral urn was commissioned and the inscription says that Richard III killed them 
  • The Stuarts took the Tudor tale as fact and set it in stone 
  • Victorian vision of Medieval England shaped by Sir Walter Scott – Wars of the Roses represented the Middle Ages gone wrong 
  • Scott set only 1 of his 20 novels in this period – ‘Anne of Geierstein 
  • Scott thought the Wars of the Roses had too much brutality and not enough chivalry to be a bestseller 
  • However, Scott did give the Wars of the Roses their name, the first time it was called the wars of the red and white roses 
  • Victorians interested in Middle Ages as a whole but saw 15th century as being corrupted 
  • Bishop William Stubbs – an influential figure in the study of history 
  • Victorian historians quite happy to pass judgement – willing to call things “evil” 
  • Whig history = view of history as progress, onward march up to the Wars of the Roses then it slips backwards again 
  • 1066 and All That – spoof of confident Victorian historians, Wars of the Roses the fault of the “bad barons” 
  • No account of the Wars of the Roses could have the staying power of Shakespeare 
  • 20th century Richard III moved to the screen played by Laurence Olivier “now is the winter of our discontent” 
Skeleton of Richard III found in a car park in Leicester 2012
Skeleton of Richard III found in a car park in Leicester 2012
  • Everyone else who played Richard III would be measured against Olivier 
  • Ian McKellen played Richard III as Hitler, but made no connection to 15th century events 
  • Richard III became the biggest baddie in history and the Wars of the Roses symbolised the nation’s darkest hour 
  • 1924 Richard III Society was founded turning opinions of Richard on their head 
  • Culmination of Richard’s rehabilitation came in 2012 when his remains were discovered under a car park in Leicester 
  • Richard III did have a curvature of the spine, but didn’t shake Ricardians convictions that Richard wasn’t evil 
  • Ricardians see Henry VII as the true villain who overthrew Richard III 
  • 2013 Henry Tudor Society was founded 
  • With Richard III’s reputation going up, Henry VII’s is going down 
  • Need to find hero and villain of the Wars of the Roses – still strong 
  • 2015 Richard III was laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral 
  • History isn’t just a collection of facts but a collection of stories which reveal as much about their authors as they do about their subjects 
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Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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