Prelude to the Wars of the Roses, Usurpation, Rebellion, and medieval warfare 1387-1403

The multi-faceted causes of the War of the Roses are defined by two great medieval issues of note, compounded by the great upheavals of the century before it, notably England’s arrival in France and the rise of the House of Lancaster following the usurpation of Richard II in 1399. The two major issues plaguing England which led to the Wars of the Roses were the rise of bastard feudalism, essentially a political and cultural problem greatly influenced by the martial culture of England from 1200 to 1455 [1], and the dynastic rivalries and political machinations influenced and caused by the many battles fought between the houses and liege lords scattered throughout England from Northumberland to Cornwall.

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. [2]

In contemporary histories the influence of the plague on England’s 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.[3]

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 London, 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.[4]

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 also.

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. [5] 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 Ireland in July.

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 Lancaster 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. [6]

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 England 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 England between the Welsh rebels, the House of Mortimer, and the Percys.[7]

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 present.

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

England’s martial culture 1400-1455, degradation of chivalry & 12-13th feudalism, and rise of bastard feudalism

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 which entailed.

Related Posts

[1] McFarlane, K.B. England in the Fifteenth Century (The Hambledon Press)
[2] McFarlane, K.B. Lancastrian Kings & Lollard Knights  (Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK) Hereafter Lancaster & Lollard
[3] England in the Fifteenth Century
[4] Lancaster & Lollard
[5] Royle, Trevor, Lancaster Against York (Palgrave Macmillian UK, 2008) pgs. 24-25
[6] Royle pgs. 38-41
[7] Royle pgs. 52-53


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.