The Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War: The History and Legacy of England’s Most Important Domestic Conflicts

February 25, 2020 - Comment

*Includes pictures*Includes a bibliography for further reading*Includes a table of contents “King Edward told me in all the battles which he had won, as soon as he had gained victory, he mounted his horse and shouted to his men that they must spare the common soldiers and kill the lords of which none or few

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*Includes pictures
*Includes a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

“King Edward told me in all the battles which he had won, as soon as he had gained victory, he mounted his horse and shouted to his men that they must spare the common soldiers and kill the lords of which none or few escaped.” – Philippe de Commines

“Put your trust in God, my boys, but keep your powder dry.” – attributed to Oliver Cromwell

Today, roses are a sign of love and luxury, but for over 30 years, they provided the symbols for two houses at war for control of England. Thousands of people died and many more were injured fighting beneath the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster, and the noble families ruling England tore each other apart in a struggle that was as bitter as it was bloody. Though what followed was a period of strong rule under the Tudors monarchs, it ultimately came at a terrible cost, and even then, it was through Elizabeth of York that the Tudor line received its legitimacy. After all, while Henry VII won his throne in battle, Elizabeth of York was the daughter of King Edward IV of England, a Yorkist monarch.

Despite their limited social and economic impact, the political and personal dramas of the Wars of the Roses have ensured that they are well remembered and still part of the popular imagination. The most famous depictions of the period came from Shakespeare, whose earliest plays included Richard III and the three parts of Henry VI. Naturally, Shakespeare dramatized the tensions of what he presented as hugely destructive events, and his account, which showed the damage done by corruption and weak rule, and which turned Richard III into a popular villain, aimed to please the Tudor dynasty still in power at the time. Of course, it also played to a popular interest in high drama and the sort of personal and political conflicts that lay at the heart of the war.

For over a thousand years, England has had a monarchy, and though the line of succession did not always pass smoothly, it has almost always been continuous. England has more often been faced with the claims of competing kings and queens than with a period of no monarch at all. The major exception to that rule came in the 11 years between 1649 and 1660, when England was a republic. Following the disastrous reign of Charles I and the civil wars that led to his execution, Parliament and the army ruled England. England’s republican experiment started out as a work of collaboration and compromise; lords, army officers and members of Parliament (MPs) worked together to find a political settlement that did not include the despised royal House of Stuart.

Nonetheless, religious and political division made collective rule unworkable, and ultimately, one man emerged from the chaos to rule the country. He had risen from a humble background to become the leading general of the Civil Wars, and as a man of staunch beliefs and ruthless pragmatism, he controlled England from 1653-1658 under the title of Lord Protector. In essence, he was a king in all but name.

That man was Oliver Cromwell, and in the popular imagination, Cromwell has overshadowed the rest of the leaders of the parliamentary cause and the New Model Army. His name is known by everyone in England, while parliamentary leaders like John Pym, constitutional reformers like John Lambert, and even Sir Thomas Fairfax, who led Parliament’s army through most of the wars, are known only to history buffs. But Cromwell has also been one of the most controversial figures in English history ever since. Viewed by some as a despot and others as a champion of liberty, Cromwell’s legacy is so diverse that while many Irish accuse him of genocide, others look at him as a social revolutionary. Even in England, Cromwell was both a beloved and reviled figure, with seemingly no middle ground.

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