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The Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses (1455–1485) were a series of civil wars between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Both houses were branches of the Plantagenet line, and claimed rights to the English throne. The name refers to the two royal houses' badges, the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York.

The antagonism started in 1399 when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, overthrew his cousin Richard II, the last Plantagenet king. Despite a poor claim to the throne, Bolingbroke was crowned Henry IV. He was tolerated because Richard II's government had been very unpopular. His son, Henry V, was well liked because he was a great soldier, strengthening Lancaster's hold on the throne.

Henry V died unexpectedly in 1422, leaving his infant son as Henry VI, who would be the last Lancastrian king. His regents managed to lose virtually all the English holdings and land that Henry V had won in France during the Hundred Years' War.

Henry VI was a weak ruler, but his wife Margaret d'Anjou was very strong and ambitious. Her advice kept Henry's position secure in the conflicts with the House of York.

The main period of armed conflict was between 1455 and 1485. Richard, Duke of York, led a small force toward London, met and defeated Henry's forces at St. Albans. Several prominent Lancastrian leaders were killed. Five years later, Margaret's large army met Richard near the City of York, defeating him soundly in the Battle of Wakefield.

Margaret formed an alliance with Scotland, and Edward of York raised an army from the area near England and Wales. These armies met at the second Battle of St. Albans, with the Lancastrians again emerging victorious. They moved southward toward London, where the terrified people shut the city gates and refused food and supplies to the Queen's army.

Edward of York advanced on London from the West and was welcomed into London. The Bishop of London affirmed his right to the throne, which was confirmed in Parliament; he became Edward IV, the first king from the House of York, and promised to either execute or banish Henry and Margaret.

The Rose Kings

Although Edward IV had southern England under control, battles went on in the North for several years after his coronation in 1461. Meanwhile, he alienated his former friend and advisor — Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick — by his choice in marriage, and by refusing to allow his brothers to marry Warwick's daughters. Warwick and the king's brother George raised an army against King Edward, but were not successful. They were declared traitors and fled to France.

Margaret d'Anjou was still in the picture. France's King Louis XI persuaded her to form an alliance with her former enemy Warwick. Together they invaded England, forcing Edward to flee London. He gathered an army in the North, and his brother Clarence — who had betrayed him by plotting with Warwick — turned coat again, returning to Edward's camp with his forces.

Edward recaptured London and marched west, where Margaret was advancing. He scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury, where Henry VI's only son Edward was killed. Henry himself was murdered shortly after that.

Things were relatively calm for the next twelve years, until Edward died in 1483. Remember his disfavored marriage? His son and heir, Edward V, was only twelve years old. Edward IV had named his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to be Protector of England upon his death. Richard did not want his in-laws to have too much influence on Court affairs. So he had Edward V, and eventually also his younger brother Richard, confined in the Tower of London. He got Parliament to decree that Edward IV's marriage had been illegal, making the young king and his brother illegitimate.

"Loyalty binds me"
Richard III's motto

Gloucester was crowned King Richard III, and the boys were never seen again. Their disappearance has never been explained, and their prison is now called the Bloody Tower.

© Isananni

Henry Tudor, grandson of Henry V's widow Catherine, gathered an army and marched toward London from Wales. He defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard was killed, the last English king to die in battle. His body was displayed for a while to prove he was really dead, and was eventually misplaced during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It remained missing until it was discovered in 2012 under a parking lot in Leicester. His remains were reburied in Leicester Cathedral.

After Bosworth Field, Henry became King Henry VII. He had Lancastrian bloodline by his mother. She was a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of Edward III. Henry consolidated his position by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV — he and his wife were fourth cousins, both descended from Edward III. Thus the Houses of Lancaster and York were finally united in the rule of England after five generations of separation and warfare. They formed a new badge, the red and white Tudor Rose. Henry VII further secured his position by executing competitive pretenders to the throne on the slightest excuse, a policy that was famously continued by his son Henry VIII.

Armies' routes to Bosworth Field, 1485
– after Mike Pitts, Digging for Richard III, Thames & Hudson, London, 2014, pg. 29

It has been noted that the bloodlines of Lancaster and York were united with the marriage of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. This also happened when Richard of York married Cecily Neville, granddaughter of the Duke of Lancaster. Therefore their sons, the Kings Edward IV and Richard III, were also descended from both lines.



Probably the main attraction in Lancaster is the Castle (we'll get there soon). The castle is famous for its prison, which is no longer used. The Crown Court therein is the oldest working court in Britain. Just down the hill is the Judges' Lodgings, used by visiting magistrates.

The Duke of Lancaster is a pub. It is also the title of England's reigning monarch.

This northern port city is very hilly. The street in the second photo is next to the Judges' Lodgings, leading up to Lancaster Castle.

Like everywhere else in England, parking is tight here.

The Abbey is a short walk from Lancaster Castle.

Lancaster Castle.

Archers used these slots to defend the Castle.

Lancaster is the local home of the Crown Court. When court is in session they say "Her Majesty is in residence," and photography is not permitted inside the castle. So we have to trust our memory about the courtroom with its stairway to the basement, where convicts went when the judge said "Take him down."

We also got to spend a few minutes in one of the cells, where absolute darkness reigns when the doors are all shut; and we saw the scaffold where the guide explained how the depth of the drop is computed to match the condemned man's weight. Not far enough, and he strangles slowly. Too far and his head comes off.

The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 are among the most memorable events at Lancaster Castle. Before it was done, twenty local citizens from 9 to 80 years of age were accused of making covenants with evil spirits. They were not allowed counsel and could not call any witnesses. Most of the evidence presented against them was gossip.

After three days' proceedings, nine of the accused were sentenced to die on the gallows; one was sent to prison except for some days out to be spent in the pillory; and ten were set free.

The Ashton Memorial was commissioned by Lord Ashton as a tribute to his late wife. Born in Lancaster, Lord Ashton became a millionaire producing oil cloth and linoleum which was exported from the port all over the world.

Lord Ashton erected the memorial in the early 1900s in his wife's memory. Today it serves as a classical concert venue, and the observation platform around the second floor offers great views over Lancaster. Legend has it that Lord Ashton offered the council a new wing for the hospital, named after his wife, or the memorial — and the rest is history.

Around the base of the memorial, there is a park and a playground. Ashton's father, who gave the property to Lancaster, employed cotton workers as landscapers when the American Civil War caused a cotton shortage.


York was founded by Romans in the year 71 AD at the place where the River Foss flows into the Ouse. Many of the walls the Romans built at this outpost are still standing. They called the place Eboracum, "place of yew trees." When the Romans left, Angles settled the area about the 5th century, calling Eoforwic, "boar's dwelling." When Vikings took over in 866, they changed this name to Jorvik. I'm not sure when the modern name took hold, but it's a lot easier to spell than the older ones.

The views toward York Minster (left) and the Law Courts (right) are from atop Clifford's Tower, an important part of the city's defense and the site of a notorious massacre.

The tower is part of York Castle, which has been called the "Tower-of-London of the North."

The tower was originally wooden. In 1244 Henry III ordered the wooden tower to be demolished and replaced in stone. Master mason Henry de Reyns, who designed Westminster Abbey in London, was commissioned. The works expanded to include bailey walls, towers, gates, a bridge, houses, two halls, a chapel, a prison and a kitchen.

It was originally called King's Tower. The cloverleaf shape affords a good all-round view and makes it easier to defend against attackers.

One account of the modern name involves Roger Clifford, who rebelled against King Edward II. Clifford was hanged for his treason. Then his body was chained high on the tower, where it remained for several years.

The interior structure is gone now, but the tower originally had two floors. The upper floor rested on a massive pillar in the center of the tower.

The ground floor was probably divided into two comfortable rooms, each with a fireplace and privy. The upper floor would have been furnished with tables, chairs, and chests; with colorful wall hangings and rushes on the floor.

There is a well in one corner, essential for the supply of fresh water, particularly in times of siege.

In the walls of the entrance passage the slots in which the portcullis was raised and lowered can still be seen, and within the lower walls, the slits from which the bowmen could fire their lethal arrows at attackers.

Like the text above, signs on the property explain York Castle much better than I ever could. In their own words, …

York Castle

In medieval times, York was second only to London in importance and the King spent a great deal of time here.

The King's Tower not only provided safe lodgings, but was used to store gold, weapons, and other valuables. It also served as a jail for imprisoned noblemen.

The exact locations of the medieval buildings inside the castle bailey (the main courtyard) walls are not known. But we do know that as well as towers and gates there were two halls and a kitchen, houses and stables, a chapel, and a prison.

Halls were used whenever a large, communal place was needed. They were furnished simply with trestle tables. Kitchens were built well away from other buildings because of the danger of fire. Stone ovens for baking bread and the buttery, where provisions were stored, would have been located nearby.

The jail was first mentioned in 1205, when prisoners would have been kept in the Great Gate (upper right in the diorama above) because it was the only stone building. Later, a purpose-built stone jail was erected, but escapes were frequent, either because of poor security or overcrowding.

The Great Gate was the largest gate. It faced Watergate and was built in stone even when the rest of the castle was made of wood.

William the Conqueror formed the King's Pool (beyond the diorama, to the right) by damming the River Foss. It provided an important defense on the weakest side of the castle, and was a source of fish for the castle kitchens.

The castle mills (beyond the diorama at the bottom), across the river, were first built by the Normans to grind corn for flour.

The Royal Mint

Money was made all over the country to avoid carrying it long distances. There was an ancient royal mint at York before the days of King Athelstan, who ruled 925–941 AD. However, the first mint inside the castle was probably established during the Norman period. The keep was usually used as a strong room, stacked with barrels of silver pennies and chests of gold ornaments which could be melted down for new coins if necessary.

In King Edward I's reign, a new, permanent building and special staff were provided for the mint. Large sums of money were coined at York during the later years of Edward's reign to pay the wages of his soldiers fighting the war with the Scots. In 1344 the mint began to produce coins of gold as well as silver. In 1546, the mint was moved from the castle to the Hospital of St. Leonard's, 800 meters away. The site quickly became known as Mint Yard until a new street, St. Leonard's Place, was built in 1831.


William the Conqueror and his formidable Norman army invaded in 1066 and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. William then ordered that castles be built throughout the country to subdue local resistance and to deal with the threat of a Viking invasion.

Work started on the first of two castles at York in 1068, across the River Ouse from Clifford's Tower. This was destroyed the following year when local people, who despised the Normans, helped the Danish Vikings attack the city.

A second, larger castle was built, on the present site. First, a large, flat-topped mound was raised, on which was built a wooden tower, called the King's Tower. Water from the River Foss was used to form a series of moats for extra protection. As the tower was made of timber, it was vulnerable to attack and suffered on several occasions from damage by fire and storm. In 1244 King Henry III visited York and ordered that the castle be rebuilt in stone.

The Tudor Vandal

The castle became neglected in the 16th century and in 1596 a Tudor jailer, Robert Redhead, began to sell off the stone and pocket the money. He pulled down parts of the tower, cunningly working from the inside, so that it was two years before the townspeople managed to stop him.

The Civil War and the Minced Pie

The Tower's 17th-century nickname was the Minced Pie, probably because it looked like a raised meat pie.

There was always antagonism between the townspeople and the army in York. The garrison commander and those in charge of the castle were resented because they took power away from the city and the soldiers were an unruly lot.

During the 17th century the garrison imposed their own curfew on the citizens of York, charging them a fine if they were going home late at night, and putting them in jail if they didn't pay up.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, the castle was garrisoned for King Charles I. Clifford's Tower was refurbished and gun platforms were built in preparation for action. During the War, the Parliamentarians laid siege to York Castle, which was occupied by the Royalists. The siege lasted nearly two and a half months before the Parliamentarians defeated the Royalists on the battlefield and the siege was renewed. Twelve days later York surrendered.

The castle continued to be garrisoned, but in 1874 the tower was gutted by fire, following a seven-gun salute to mark St. George's Day. The fire may have been started deliberately, as many toasts had been drunk in the city to the demolition of the "Minced Pie."

The reddened stones inside the tower bear witness to the ferocity of the fire.

The Castle After 1700

Clifford's Tower passed into private hands, and became a folly in the garden of a fine house. In 1825 a new prison was built and some townspeople wanted to demolish the tower, as it was in the way.

Fortunately, it was saved and in 1877 it was declared a public monument. In 1935, some of the old prison buildings were pulled down and the tower became visible to the public again. It is now in the care of English Heritage and is a major attraction for visitors to York.

These buildings, the Castle Museum, now stand where York Castle once was.


When Henry II, a protector of England's Jews, died in July 1189, his oldest son Richard I (Lionheart) became king. Richard was a Crusader, caught up in Europe's fever to reclaim the Holy Land for the Church.

In this atmosphere of religious passion, hatred of Jews was rampant, with anti-semitic riots all over England. The perception of a Jew's place at the bottom of society is very clear in the 12th-century drawing here.

In York, the Jewish community was frightened enough to ask the constable for help. He offered the shelter of Clifford's Tower to 150 of them. Inside the tower, the Jews grew wary of the constable and locked him out when he left on business. The constable then laid siege to the Jews inside.

When siege machines arrived to knock down the gates, most of the Jews inside decided that suicide would be preferable to surrender. They started a fire, which grew and drove them outside, where they were massacred.

The ringleaders of the mob were noblemen who were deep in debt to the Jewish moneylenders. To avoid paying, they forced the sexton of York Minster to hand over the notes, which they burned in the church to destroy any evidence.

Although Henry II is remembered fondly as a protector of Jews, he is also remembered unfavorably as the man who caused the murder of Thomas Becket, or St. Thomas of Canterbury.

My visit to Clifford's Tower was on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, which added some interest because of the tower's significant rôle in Jewish history. While its placement is not ostentatious, this plaque on the entrance walk is hard to miss.

The Hebrew inscription on the marker is incomplete. It should read

Let them give glory unto the Lord, and declare His praise in the islands.

This passage was special to the Jews of England, for whom "the islands" meant the British Isles.

Some scenes from a stroll around York. This is the River Foss, the city's minor river.

Hospital gate.

The Shambles is the most famous street in York, and the most photographed street in England. It was originally a collection of slaughterhouses, mentioned in the Domesday Book. The name is thought to be evolved from the Saxon word Flesshammels, meaning of the flesh.

There are no butchers on the street today, but some of their legacy remains, like the sloping floors that made it easier to clean the shops. The street is very narrow, so it's possible to reach out the window and shake hands with the guy across the street.

In the Middle Ages, the street was the sewer. The nature of the business made for an especially septic situation in the Shambles, vexing York with many plagues and later outbreaks of cholera. Things are much better today.

Café Rouge. It's not only in Didsbury.

St. Denys Parish Church.

A few streets back, an early glimpse of York Minster.


York Minster

York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. It was over 250 years in construction. The first significant foundations were laid in 1080 by the first Norman archbishop, Thomas de Bayeux; but the bulk of the building happened between 1220–1472.

The church is especially noted for its windows, the world's largest collection of medieval stained glass. During World War II, all of these windows were removed, crated, and stored in the crypts to protect them against bombing.

This is the West Window (1338) with its distinctive upper tracery, the "Heart of Yorkshire."

The Rose Window commemorates the 1486 marriage of Lancaster's Henry VII to Elizabeth of York, ending the Wars of the Roses. The Rose Window has over 17,000 pieces of glass.

The lancets in the Five Sisters Window (1250) are each fifty feet tall. This is also called the Jewish Window because it was financed by loans.

The window contains over 100,000 pieces of glass.

The Five Sisters Window is in the North Transept, which also houses the Astronomical Clock. The Astronomical Clock is a memorial to over 18,000 men of the Royal Air Forces of the Commonwealth and their Allies who, operating from bases in Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland, gave their lives in the second World War.

The edge of the large convex disc represents the horizon as seen from an aircraft directly over York and flying south. A plan of the Minster and the City Walls is picked out in gold in the center. The clock's "Sun," represented by a gold disc, rises and sets on the horizon at the actual times of sunrise and sunset throughout the year. It crosses the vertical, south-pointing wire at noon. From day to day its path along the silver band (representing the ecliptic) varies so that it rises higher in the summer than in the winter.

The dials at the bottom show, on the right, Greenwich Mean Time; and on the left, the sidereal or star time.

The dial on the other side of the clock shows the North Circumpolar Stars visible from the latitude of York (54°N) circling around the Pole Star.

– from a sign near the clock

This Roman column once stood within the Great Hall of the headquarters building of the fortress of the Sixth Legion (whose emblem was a bull) in the Fourth century AD. It was found in 1969 during the excavation of the South Transept of York Minster, lying where it had collapsed.

It was given by the Dean and Chapter to the York Civic Trust, who in 1971 erected it on this site to mark the 1900th anniversary of the foundation of the city by Romans in AD 71.

The earliest City Walls surrounding York were constructed by the Romans in the first century. The first stone walls were built by the Normans in the reign of William the Conqueror around 1066. The remains of the walls that surround the city today date mainly from the 13th century, although some Norman work can still be seen.

A large portion of the Walls remain, but the best example of a walled city in England is Chester, on the next page.

St. Mary's Abbey

St. Mary's Abbey was founded as a Benedictine abbey in 1055. William the Conqueror started an expansion program that was finished by his son in 1088. It became the largest and wealthiest Benedictine house in northern England. It earned a reputation for decadence that gave it a place in the legend of Robin Hood, one of whose nemeses was a "ryche abbot here besyde Of Seynt Mari Abbey." The abbey was badly damaged by fire in 1137, and was rebuilt about 150 years later. The new church was built much larger and grander, as this artist's concept shows. Compare the size to York Minster, at right in the background.

– drawing courtesy York Museums Trust

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the Crown took over the property. It was used for administrative offices for a while, then substantially destroyed. Today the site is the home of the Yorkshire Museum and its garden. The Abbot's House (King's Manor) survives because it was used as the seat of England's Council of the North, but most of the buildings are in ruin.


The ten-sided Multangular Tower was part of the Roman wall around Eboracum. It's the only one left of eight towers the Romans built where the city wall took a turn. Only the lower part is Roman; the second story is about a thousand years newer. Inside, there are a few stone coffins from Roman times.

The Hospitium was originally a guest house for second-tier visitors. These would have included secular people, who were not accommodated within the main part of the abbey. It has been rebuilt and is now part of the museum; it's also hired out for special events like weddings.


on to Chester

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