While many viewers may not be aware of it, the immensely popular television series Game of Thrones (and the equally popular series of novels by George R. R. Martin it is based on) draws liberally from the British historical period known as the ‘War of the Roses’ (Miller). The vicious, bloody scheming and warring for the throne of the fictional Westeros carries many similarities with the equally turbulent historical era, involving a protracted struggle for the throne of England in the sixteenth century. Martin himself has freely admitted the influence (Miller).

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While many may be more familiar with the complex machinations of the Lannisters, Starks, and other houses of Westeros, however, it was historical dynasties of Lancaster and York that sat at the center of the Wars of the Roses. The ‘Wars’ refer to the tangled sequence of claims, plots, rebellions, and battles that began in approximately 1455 and only concluded in 1487 after Henry VII, a heir of Lancaster, seized the throne and ensured an era of peace by marrying Elizabeth, an heiress to York. While this period undoubtedly carried its share of bloodshed, however, both the level of conflict and the significance of the ‘Roses’ are often exaggerated.

Goodwin writes that the name ‘Wars of the Roses’ “goes back only to the early nineteenth century, when it seems to have been coined by the Romantic novelist, Sir Walter Scott, in Anne of Geierstein (1829)” (xix). The roses refer to the idea that the two warring houses were each represented by a heraldic badge of a rose – the Lancasters by a red rose and the Yorks by a white. It it is now recognized, however, that, while the white rose was indeed a major symbol of the York dynasty, the red rose was principally adopted by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) in 1485 (Jones). The invention was a convenient symbol to represent the merging of the two houses in his marriage to Elizabeth and an end to decades of hostilities. As Goodwin writes, it “provided a dignified and satisfying narrative for the previous century of English history. Its usurpations, occasional turmoil, and moments of savagery could be acknowledged or even exaggerated since they were about to be resolved …” (xx).

The importance of the red rose, then, was a convenient piece of fiction intended to support the continuity of the Lancaster dynasty and the legitimacy of the its claim to the throne. In using the convenient and romantic phrase, `Wars of the Roses,’ Scott and others took their cue not only from the Tudor propaganda, but also from Shakespeare, who famously exaggerated the red and white in his chronicle of Henry VI, using the phrase Fatal Colours.”

Similarly, the notion that this thirty-year period was one of constant war and turbulence is also Tudor embellishment and popular misconception. The scale of the fighting and the amount of disorder, particularly of the social and civil sort, was significantly exaggerated, and most civilians were able to continue in their normal affairs without excessive disruption (Pollard). Civilian casualties and the destruction of property was light and, while there were several major battles, there was only about two years of continuous military activity during the whole period, occurring principally in the years 1459-1461 and 1469-1471 (Goodwin). Nevertheless, there was considerable political instability as the houses of Lancaster and York competed for the throne, and many of the battles were ferocious and unforgiving (Jones).

The historical background to the Wars includes a confluence of events that led to increasing unrest and, ultimately, claims to the throne. Crucial was the fallout from the Hundred Years’ War, fought between England and France, which ended in 1455 with English defeat. The populace, and English landowners in particular, were understandably unhappy with the loss of land and property in France and over a hundred years of war with nothing to show for it (Jokinen). The reigning king, Henry VI, was viewed as a poor military leader and at least partially responsible for these losses, increasing dissatisfaction with the monarchy. Not only that, but he had long suffered from uneven mental health (Bark) and was considered too peaceful and pious to rule the nation, without his father`s “warrior spirit” (Jones 220). In 1454, while Henry VI was incapacitated by illness, rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet – the houses of Lancaster and York – schemed to take the throne.

The post-feudal system of “livery and maintenance“ allowed major lords to call upon minor ones and their subjects to fight for their cause, a form of military service. With a plenitude of soldiers and mercenaries suddenly available following the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War, those with enough power and influence were able to assemble substantial armies independent of the crown (Jokinen). This allowed the two aspirants to the throne – Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, from the House of Lancaster, and Richard, Duke of York – enough resources to challenge not only the crown, but each other, and, as the Wars drew on, their descendents. The throne changed hands several times during the Wars of the Roses, and a number of famous and bloody battles were fought – the first and second Battles of St. Albans, the Battle of Wakefield, and the Battle of Towton, among others – before Henry VII restored peace and stability.

Works Cited
Bark, Nigel. “Did Schizophrenia Change the Course of English History? The Mental Illness of Henry VI.” Medical Hypotheses 59.4 (2002): 416-21.
Goodwin, George. Fatal Colours: The Battle of Towton, 1461. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Orion Publishing Group, 2011. Print.
Jokinen, Anniina. “Causes of the Wars of the Roses: An Overview.” Luminarium Encyclopedia, 26 Apr 2007. Web. 29 Dec 2014.
Jones, Dan. The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.
Miller, Laura. “The Real-Life Inspirations for “Game of Thrones.” Salon.com, 3 April 2012. Web. 29 Dec 2014.
Pollard, Anthony James. “Roses, Wars of the.” The Oxford Companion to British History. 2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Web. Oxford Reference. 29 Dec. 2014.

Annotated Bibliography
Bark, Nigel. “Did Schizophrenia Change the Course of English History? The Mental Illness of Henry VI.” Medical Hypotheses 59.4 (2002): 416-21.
Bark uses Henry VI’s story to illustrate how mental illness in general and schizophrenia specifically can be so devastating as to change the course of history. The author makes a retrospective diagnosis of Henry VI’s schizophrenia, pointing to signs of apathy; lack of ambition and ability to take care of himself; and hallucinations, delusions, and periodic psychotic lapses. This article is useful in the present study because the king’s mental illness may have been a significant contributor to the `Wars of the Roses,’ three decades of brutal fighting for the crown that resulted in a new dynasty with a dramatic impact on the country. While reptrospective diagnoses such as this are difficult and never decisive, Bark makes strong arguments for Henry VI’s symptoms based on contemporary and more recent sources.
Goodwin, George. Fatal Colours: The Battle of Towton, 1461. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Orion Publishing Group, 2011. Print.
Goodwin’s account of the Battle of Towton, one of the most brutal in the Wars of the Roses, is not simply a description of the battle itself, but a narrative on the earlier episodes of the Wars as well, beginning with the First Battle of St. Albans in 1455. The does well in explaining intersecting genealogies, tenuous claims to the crown, and other factors at play in the wars, while focusing on military history. When covering in detail the Battle of Towton itself, Goodwin gives vivid detail relating to tactics, weapons and armor, armor, and the style of combat. Towton is considered the bloodiest battle ever fought in England, as very few prisoners were taken and corpses of enemy lords were frequently mutilated. Towton was a seminal event in the War of the Roses, resulting in the defeat of Henry VI’s Lancastrian army and the rise of the Yorkish Edward IV to the throne.
Jones, Dan. The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.
With painstaking attention to detail, Jones traces the British monarchy from the fall of Henry V in 1422 to the rise of the Tudor dynasty in the early sixteenth century. While at times bringing lesser-known historical figures to life, the author also aims to correct some of the mythology around the Tudors’ rise to power that was perpetuated by Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and other more contemporary sources. This work is accessible and provides vivid accounts of the conflicts that made of the Wars. Condensing 100 years of history into a single volume, along with the similarity of certain names, and the labyrinthine nature of the Wars of the Roses on their own can be confusing at times, but Jones provides a comprehensible account. The genealogical tables, maps, and other supplementary materials are particularly helpful to the reader.