The Wars of the Roses are a complex topic. Much like the Hundred Years War in France or the Thirty Years War in the German states it was not a singular, continuing clash of arms, but could be described more as a series of inter-connected battles and skirmishes taking place over several decades, with long periods of relative peace in-between. Actual warfare, when it happened, was brief and settled rather quickly, with some crucial moments happening without any bloodshed on a battlefield at all while many of its “battles” were little more than professional riots.
But it was a very important war, the nadir of the Middle-Ages, one of the last great conflicts fought before the Age of Gunpowder really took hold. The end of the Hundred Years War, the Fall of Constantinople, the invention of the printing press and soon enough the discovery of the New World – the Wars of the Roses were part of a major series of events that radically changed Europe forever.
It was, at its heart, a dynastic clash over who the ruling family of England would be – the Lancastrians, they being the family of Henry IV or the Yorkists, a branch of the Plantagenet line. The decidedly weak rule of Henry VI really set the violence in motion, and England would have several rulers from each family over the following decades, until a relative outsider, Henry Tudor, would settle the matter in 1485, beginning a new, more stable, monarchy.
What was Ireland’s role in this conflict? In truth, very little. Aside from one pitched battle in 1462, the Wars of the Roses never spread wholesale to the island, and Ireland’s role in the fighting amounted to, essentially, that of a supply base and place of safety, with some nobles travelling to England to take their place in the armies of both sides.
Ireland’s English were, predominantly, supporters of the house of York. Through the first half of the Wars, this family was headed by Richard, Duke of York, who also happened to be the Earl of Ulster, being the nephew of Edmund Mortimer, the noble who had been, briefly, the heir of Richard II.
Richard was a giant figure of the age, constantly feuding with the royal household. Such was the power he grew to represent, after successful spells in France and Normandy, that he was eventually, for all intents and purposes, given an honourable exile by being placed as the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1447. The move was not totally nonsensical – Richard was the Earl of Ulster after all, and did own large estates in Ireland – but it has been always been seen as an attempt to simply get Richard, clashing with the King on matters of French policy, out of the way.
Richard arrived in Ireland with a force of over 600 men, indicating that he intended his stay to be a long one. His time in Ireland is viewed with a surprisingly positive attitude, even by Irish sources, most of which describe Richard as just and fair in his dealings, if perhaps a little unenthusiastic for the job. Richard’s time in Ireland is even mentioned in Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part Two:
Great lords, from Ireland am I come amain,
To signify that rebels there are up
And put the Englishmen unto the sword.
Send succours, lords, and stop the rage betime,
Before the wound do grow uncurable;
For, being green, there is great hope of help.
My Lord of York, try what your fortune is.
The uncivil kerns of Ireland are in arms,
And temper clay with blood of Englishmen.
To Ireland will you lead a band of men,
Collected choicely, from each county some,
And try your hap against the Irishmen?
I will, my lord, so please his majesty.
In terms of lasting effects though, Richard didn’t really do much in Ireland. He, like so many Lord Lieutenants before him, suffered from a lack of finances in order to really do anything of note. When faced with aggressive Irish chieftains, he was predisposed to settling things in a non-violent matter, probably because he lacked the funds to pay for a viable army. To that end, his Irish Parliament busied itself passing self-protection laws for citizens of the Pale, essentially giving them the right to murder any soldier in the employ of the Earldoms and border nobles – the “Marchers” – who attempted to loot their property, with the English administration lacking the power to offer adequate protection. Like his predecessors, Richard was often left with no recourse then to write home and beg for money in order to try and defend English lands.
If it seems like I harp on about that point a lot, it is only because it seems so extraordinary, given the popular perception of the English “occupation” of Ireland that the invaders were in such a weak position for much of their early time here. And not just militarily, but in terms of simple economics.
In truth, Richard had his eyes on a larger prize then Ireland. At the earliest opportunity he left the island to return to England, helping to stamp out a rebellion led by the (in)famous peasant Jack Cade, with some sources claiming that Cade was actually Irish of birth (one Irish source describes the situation in England at the time as like “a trembling Irish bog…they had nothing stable to rest on”). That reasoning was subterfuge of course: Richard wanted control of the crown, and Cade’s rebellion gave him the excuse he needed to land in England and gather troops.
In that regard, Ireland’s double role during this time can be seen: the position of ruling it was seen as a high enough honour not to be a disgrace, while it could also be used as an effective launching pad for campaigns in England.
At some point Richard’s thinking went a step further and he began to campaign for the right to be named as Henry VI’s heir, Richard’s claim going all the way back to his great-great grandfather, Lionel of Antwerp, the younger son of Edward III.
Richard’s fortunes in England fluctuated wildly between being forced to swear allegiance to the King to capturing Henry VI after the First Battle of St Albans. Such was the course of the Wars of the Roses, when victory in the field of battle could turn to defeat within a very short space of time. In 1459 he and his confederates were forced to flee the country from an onslaught of Lancastrian support, with Richard returning to Ireland. The Pale and most of the surrounding Earldoms were firmly on his side, and the English colony, through the Irish Parliament, all but declared independence from England in the aftermath of Richard’s flight, asserting its right to legislative autonomy from the crown. Such declarations are little remembered by those who so treasure Ireland’s history of revolts today; the Irish Parliament of the day was just the ruling body of an English province after all. Henry VI was a notably weak ruler, prone to bouts of illness and mental instability, and neither he nor his closest advisors and controllers had the power to bring Ireland to heel.
It was an odd irony that in being forced to flee England, attainted and dishonoured, Richard and his compatriots were still in a very strong position. He controlled the east of Ireland, with most of its support while close friend and ally the Earl of Warwick held Calais, controlling the flow of traffic in the English Channel. Such was their strength that Warwick was able to travel to Ireland without impediment, conspiring with Richard to return to England, already having huge influence over the southern part of the country.
This they did in 1460, Richard again crossing to England from his stronghold in Ireland. This time Richard was completely victorious, though he failed to convince England’s nobles to back his claim for the crown. Instead, that honour passed to his own heirs, with all three of his sons set to play a crucial part in the latter stages of the wars. Richard died in 1460 at the Battle of Wakefield, but his death at the hands of the Lancastrians did not do them much good, his eldest son soon asserting his own rights and becoming Edward IV.
Richard’s successful use of Ireland as a safe haven illustrates the power that the land could have, filled as it was with nobles who had no great love for the Lancastrian regime – perhaps because that regime had been so toothless when it came to enacting any real change in English fortunes in Ireland. English inability to send more soldiers was a strange positive, in that the same reasons that the crown could not send aid to defeat the Irish was the same reason they could not send aid to defeat Richard once he was encamped there.
Those nobles would soon take to the field against each other, to fight their own Wars of the Roses against each other in Ireland.
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