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Romans in Britain
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Lancaster and York
     Richard II and Bolingbroke
     The Lancastrian kings
     Wars of the Roses

Henry VII and Henry VIII
Children of Henry VIII
Charles I and Charles II
Civil War, Commonwealth
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Richard II and Bolingbroke: 1398-1400

The history plays of William Shakespeare concentrate on a span of about ninety years from the end of the reign of Richard II to the seizing of the crown by Henry VII. It is an exceptionally dramatic period, in which rival branches of the English royal house conspire and fight for power.

Every contestant in the struggle is descended from Edward III, whose poisoned gift to his own lineage is to have four sons - each of whom, except for one, has a thriving line of descendants. The significant exception is the eldest son, Edward the Black Prince. He dies before his father and leaves just one son, Richard II. The young king proves himself a cultured monarch, but not a wise one.


Richard's weak but autocratic rule makes him many enemies among the nobility. The most powerful of them is his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the son of Richard's uncle and early mentor, John of Gaunt. In 1398 Richard finds a pretext to banish Bolingbroke for ten years. Bolingbroke departs peacefully for Paris, but the following year Richard pushes him too far. When John of Gaunt dies, in 1399, the king confiscates his vast lands and inheritance, and declares that Bolingbroke's banishment is now for life.

After this act of provocation, Richard is unwise enough to depart for a campaign in Ireland. Bolingbroke returns to England, easily raising sufficient support to march unopposed through the country and into Wales.


Richard, returning from Ireland, surrenders to his cousin at Conwy without a battle. In London, on 29 September 1399, he is forced to renounce the crown. On the following day a parliament is held in Westminster Hall. The throne is vacant. Bolingbroke is seated in it by the two archbishops, of Canterbury and York, becoming Henry IV. His accession introduces the Lancastrian line on the English throne, because the title which he inherits from his father is duke of Lancaster.

Richard is imprisoned in a succession of castles. He dies at Pontefract, in February 1400, probably starved to death after the discovery of a conspiracy by some of his supporters.


The Lancastrian kings: 1399-1461

However broad his original acclaim in the country, Henry IV is undeniably a usurper. He has displaced the rightful king, and much of his reign is taken up with putting down rebellions - the most threatening of them from his own disaffected supporters (including the fiery Henry Percy, known as Hotspur).

These discontents prompt the last great uprising of Welsh nationalism, led by Owain Glyn Dwr. The relative weakness of the new king's position also causes parliament to exert itself, with the commons in particular insisting on proper safeguards when money is to be raised. Even so, the country is calm when Henry dies.


Henry V, succeeding his father in 1413, concerns himself mainly with English claims in France. His campaigns across the channel bring him great prestige. The first, in the autumn of 1415, results in two great successes - the capture of Harfleur (the scene of the famous speech 'Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more' in Shakespeare's Henry V) and the resounding victory at Agincourt.

These years see England's most sustained effort in the Hundred Years' War. Henry's tactic is to take towns and fortresses one by one, planting in them English garrisons. This brings him the great prize of Rouen in 1419, and the treaty of Troyes in 1420.


The treaty of Troyes, extraordinarily advantageous to the English cause, is agreed with only one of the two sides in France's civil war. Under its terms Henry V is to be the acknowledged heir of the French king, Charles VI, to the exclusion of the dauphin. Within two weeks of the treaty Henry marries Catherine, daughter of the king of France.

In 1421 the couple have a son, also christened Henry. Before the infant is a year old, both his father and his maternal grandfather have died. For the second time in the Hundred Years' War a king of England has a valid claim to the crown of France. The boy is crowned Henry VI of England at Westminster in 1429, and Henry II of France in Paris in 1431.


Henry V's death from fever at the age of thirty-five, while still campaigning in France, is a disaster for the new house of Lancaster. The long minority of his infant son, followed by recurring bouts of some form of mental instability in his adult life, means that Henry VI is never the real ruler of England. In the early part of the reign the great magnates jockeying for power are his Lancastrian uncles. But from 1454 the most powerful man in the land is the king's cousin, Richard duke of York, the leading member of another branch of the royal house.

The Yorkist claim to the throne is almost as good as the Lancastrian. The issue will be fought out in the Wars of the Roses.


Wars of the Roses: 1455-1485

England's most intense dynastic war takes its name from the badges worn by the followers of the two sides. The Yorkist branch of the royal family (descended from Edmund Langley, duke of York, the 4th son of Edward III) has long been known by the sign of the white rose. The Lancastrians (descended from John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, the 2nd son of Edward III) adopt the red rose as a contrasting symbol during the war between the two sides.

The conflict comes to a head because of the spells of insanity suffered during the 1450s by the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. Both sides of the family want to secure power. They clash at St Albans in 1455 and again at Northampton in 1460. On each occasion the king's army is defeated.


After the battle at Northampton, Henry VI is a captive of the Yorkists. Even though he has a young son of his own, he is forced to acknowledge Richard duke of York as his heir. In the event Richard does not inherit. In further battles between the two sides he is killed (on 30 December 1460) and it is his son who is proclaimed king in 1461 as Edward IV - introducing the Yorkist line on the English throne. Henry VI flees to safety in Scotland.

Further turmoil brings Henry briefly back to the throne for six months (from October 1470), after which he is again captured by Edward IV and is murdered in the Tower of London.


The violence continues after Edward's reign. He is succeeded in April 1483 by his 12-year-old son, Edward V. The regent is the young king's uncle, Richard duke of Gloucester, who soon confines the king and his younger brother, prince Richard, in the Tower of London. Known in English history as the Princes in the Tower, and widely assumed to have been murdered on their uncle's command, the boys vanish from sight.

Meanwhile, in June 1483, the duke of Gloucester is proclaimed by a parliament at Westminster as Richard III. But he reigns for only two years before he is killed at Bosworth Field in battle with another claimant, Henry Tudor, who succeeds him as Henry VII.


In this series of violent upheavals, Henry Tudor is the only contestant who is not of royal descent in the male line. His grandfather, Owen Tudor, is a member of the Welsh gentry who prospers greatly in the service of Henry V. But Henry Tudor's mother is of the Lancastrian house, and he himself is betrothed to Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. Any child of theirs on the throne will close the vicious circle, uniting the two houses.

Henry is crowned in October 1485. He marries Elizabeth in January 1486. Their first son, born in September, is named Arthur - as if the Tudors count this legendary British king among their ancestors. And a new badge, the Tudor rose, now blends in harmony the white and red roses of the bitter dispute.


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