The Usurpation of 1399 and its preceding events and aftermath are in many ways the opening to the Wars of the Roses due in part to the upheavals initiated originally through popular dissent aimed at the economic/financial constraints of the period, which some peasants and lords alike would have agreed was the tyrannical rule of King Richard II (reigned 1377-1399) and his councilors during his minority.
Popular and academic histories as well seem to highlight Richard’s supposed authoritative, elitist and yet naive and flighty rule as the jus ad bellum for the revolts against him and his later dethronement. This same history has glorified his usurpation as a revolution of conscience waged by the chivalric, warlike, Henry of Bolingbroke the Earl of Derby, who as the usurper king becomes a paranoid and “cold-blooded” miser. 
In contemporary histories the influence of the plague on
economy and on the finances of the crown is noted as critical to the revolts
and rebellions of the 1380’s. Economically the realm had seen a sharp recession
in taxes collected by the throne following the episodic outbreaks of contagious
diseases which spread throughout the British Isles
beginning in 1348-1349.
One notable event preceding King Richard’s usurpation which was influenced by the ‘Great Pestilence’ as well was the Peasants Rebellion of 1381, eventually led by Wat Tyler who became famous for his death at the hands of the Lord Mayor of
which all but crushed the rebellion.
Death of Wat Tyler in 1381 as the young King Richard II looks on
Of greater threat to Richard were the actions of the Lords Appellant following the
Battle of Radcot Bridge
1387, in which the Duke of Ireland, Sir Robert de Vere royalists were
defeated by Bolingbroke and the other Lords Appellate while they attempted to
retake the bridge over the Thames.
A victory important because it severely checked young King Richard and his advisor’s power in favor of the rebel-reformers, whose lords’ included members of both the houses of Lancaster and York.
Both the Peasants Rebellion and the actions of the Lords Appellant (1386-1388) had taken place during Richard’s minority and may have hinted at the grave problems facing him as the sovereign lord of
England and a claimant to the throne of France
After the embarrassment at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, in which Richard’s warden of the East March, Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy was defeated, captured, and later ransomed for a small fortune by the Scots, the border conflict relaxed with peace between England and the French who were nominal allies with the Scots into the 1390’s-1400’s.  See Battle between House Percy and Clan Douglas, for more
The Earl of Douglas' Death at the Battle of Otterburn August 1388
Bolingbroke found the ideal time to strike in June of 1399 while Richard was on campaign in
Ireland to quell another uprising
which leads inadvertently to his brutal if somewhat bloodless downfall.
Richards’s absence when Bolingbroke landed was critical to the Usurpation
because what support he could have raised to crush the rebellion vanished in
part because Henry was an influential man, the heir of a highly respected
knight and lord, now a legitimate and well supported claimant to the throne in
his own right.
The most decisive factor in the success of the Usurpation was that Bolingbroke was able to rally liege lords to his banner as the anti-Richard, and later rallied them to the defense of his crown. With the ever important support of the northern lords including the house of Percy, Bolingbroke made his inglorious bid for power after Richard returned from
Though he allegedly confided in these same lords that he did not ultimately wish to usurp the throne from his cousin Richard, merely reclaim his inheritance, regardless Bolingbroke ascended to the throne as Henry IV, patriarch and regent of the
dynasty after ousting the former rightful king. Anointed as all other
Plantagenet kings had been before him, blessed by God while maintaining and
adhering to the royal prerogatives and private justice so hated by the Lords
Appellant and the peasants alike during Richard II’s reign. 
Henry of Bolingbroke, Henry IV (b.1367-1413)
The Usurpation of 1399 in turn becomes the catalyst for the opening of the Wars of the Roses because of the uncertainty, turmoil and opportunity for usurpation (counter-revolution) which followed King Henry’s bid for power and its greater aftermath beyond 1400.
Rebellion of the Percy’s
The rebellion of the Percy’s, a house renowned in the century before for their long service on the border in the name of the crown, is the first conflict fought in
after the Usurpation which marks the prelude to the Wars of the Roses.
Though the uprising of the Welsh led by Owain Glyndŵr from 1400-1415 became the longest and most critical conflict of Henry IV’s reign, the rebellion of Sir Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, in 1402-1403, and the later treasons of his father the Earl of Northumberland, who was also killed in the Battle of Bramham Moor in 1408, are indicative of the dynastic disputes and grievances that soured the relationships between the larger more independent houses of England and some of the more prominent royalist houses, and the royal house itself from 1400-1455.
Sir Owain Glyndŵr, or Owen Glendower
The Percy’s were an influential house tracing their lineage back to William the Conqueror in the aftermath of his Harrying of the North, when Normans flocked to the region to claim in King William's name. Certainly a militaristic dynasty serving as border guards in the North, the House of Percy were eternal enemies of the Scots rewarded with titles and lordships in the Northern counties, earning ransom payments from captured Scots and from salaries granted by the king. They would play a major role on both sides of the Wars of the Roses as their power waxed and then waned sharply during their almost separate conflict with the House of Neville during 1455-1471.
Even though they curried great favor amongst the lords of the country, the Percy’s were known as the de facto kings of the region with a bevy of castles, knights and retainers at their disposal. However they were never able to make a succinct bid for power, unlike the more socially connected and economically viable houses of the south such as the Yorks, Lancasters, or later the Tudors. The history of the Northumberland Earls and of Hotspur in particular is very intriguing in regards to their contribution to the prelude of the Wars of the Roses.
Hotspur and the Northumberland’s seem to have misjudged not necessarily the military might of King Henry IV, but instead may have misjudged their own power as feudal lords. Unlike Henry and his heir, Prince Henry Monmouth, later Henry V, who both had wide ranging support in the more populated south, Hotspur and the Percy’s could raise little favor outside of Northumberland, adding to this Hotspur had been allied with the Welsh rebels making him a traitor of the worst kind in the eyes of his countrymen. In 1405 Hostpur’s father would enter into the failed Tripartite Indenture, which looked to carve up Henry’s
between the Welsh rebels, the House of Mortimer, and the Percys.
Socio-Political, geographical, cultural, and individual personality differences greatly affected influence and therefore prestige and power in the Wars of the Roses. Percy influence, or lack thereof during King Henry IV’s reign is most evident with the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.
Militarily speaking this was a battle comparable to the more decisive, large scale, set piece battles of the Wars of the Roses in that the enemy combatants both fought ferociously, slaying equal numbers with arrow, sword, or spear. Many noble houses were represented including several members
of Clan Douglas from Scotland, fighting for the Percy’s, and both the king and his heir Henry Monmouth were
The difference in the outcome of the battle being that the leader of the rebellion, Hotspur, was slain by an arrow, signaling a Northumbrian defeat in the field and the total collapse of their “movement” at least for the immediate time being. Similar to the deaths in combat of the Duke of York in 1460 or the Earl of Warwick in 1471, Hotspur's death illustrates the important sort of medieval “cult of personality” which existed amongst the most prominent lords and knights of
England and Scotland 1200-c.1513.
Death of Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury 1403
The landed gentry, knights, sergeants, and men of rank who owed their lands and titles to the king and his good graces had in turn a great dilemma in deciding who to support and when to support them, in a bid for usurpation or in their attempt to rebel/revolt for whatever grievance one lord or house might have.
These men gained little from choosing an alliance foolishly or half heartedly. The breakdown in feudalism and chivalry is evident in the frequent treasons and revolts of this greater period of the Wars of the Roses and the knight played an integral role in this.
Ultimately the rise in dynastic rebellion, dispute, and socio-political dissonance that defined the Wars of the Roses is thoroughly rooted in the decay of the feudal system which had begun well before the Usurpation of 1399 and perhaps even before the Hundred Years Wars. As with the many conflicts, plots, and revolts of
England during the Wars of the
Roses era, the lords and the landed gentry’s collective, bloody-minded martial
culture was a very critical factor in the escalation of rebellion and violence
 McFarlane, K.B. England in the Fifteenth Century (The Hambledon Press)
 McFarlane, K.B. Lancastrian Kings & Lollard Knights (Clarendon Press,
Hereafter Lancaster & Lollard Oxford, UK
in the Fifteenth Century England
 Lancaster & Lollard
 Royle, Trevor, Lancaster Against York (Palgrave Macmillian
UK, 2008) pgs. 24-25
 Royle pgs. 38-41
 Royle pgs. 52-53