The term War of the Roses wasn’t used until the 18th century and not popularized until the 19th, while the war itself was fought in the 15th. Like many wars, it had no official name at the time of conflict, but it could be described as a series of civil wars fought between the houses of Lancaster and York. Those houses were represented by a red rose and white rose, thus encouraging the eventual romantic name.
Recently, fiction author Philippa Gregory has turned to calling it the Cousins’ War, and her novels concerning it have recently been turned into the Starz series The White Queen.
I prefer to call it the War of Increasingly Distant Cousins, as the struggle involved various descendants of King Edward III, including two great-great-great-grandchildren.
As an Aside: As they descend from two branches of Edward’s family, they were also his great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren.
And you thought your family feuds were bad.
Henry IV’s Overthrow of Richard II
English history is full of royal families having too many or too few heirs. Here, the issue was too many.
Everyone agreed that the eldest legitimate son of a king inherited upon the king’s death. However, there was no agreement as to what happened if there was no legitimate son or if the eldest legitimate died after leaving his own heir. Where do brothers fit in? Nephews? Women?
Edward III had a pile of kids (thirteen), most of whom reached adulthood. His eldest, Edward the Black Prince, predeceased his father, but not before producing a child that became Richard II.
Unfortunately, Richard wasn’t very good at ruling, and he was overthrown by the man who became Henry IV, Richard’s cousin and son of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt.
Henry argued he was the legitimate ruler as the eldest son of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son. Others, however, argued the rightful heir was a seven-year-old child named Edmund Mortimer, great-grandson of Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III’s second son. He was Henry’s cousin twice removed.
Mortimer’s problem was his descent was not a male-only line. On the other hand, he hadn’t overthrown a legitimate king, either.
Hundred Years’ War
Besides the trouble brewing at home, England was also fighting the Hundred Years’ War in France arguing about, of all things, who should be king of France. Edward III claimed the throne through his mother, who was sister to the childless king of France. The French were not about to be ruled by the English and insisted one cannot inherit through a woman.
On top of which, English kings had long held some French territories. As war raged on, more and more of those lands were lost, which could only dissatisfy their noble owners, making it easier for opponents of the kings to find supporters.
Henry VI (Lancaster)
Henry IV was followed by Henry V who was then followed by Henry VI, because the Lancastrians are boring with names. He started out as a child king, which no one ever likes, and eventually went through periods of intense mental illness.
This encouraged Richard, Duke of York to challenge him.
At this point, the Mortimers (descending from Edward III’s 3rd son) had married into the York (descending from Edward’s 4th son) family. This made Richard the 2nd cousin of Henry VI by his Yorkist father and 3rd cousin once removed by his mother, Anne Mortimer, if I’m correctly following the tree. It also means he is his own 2nd cousin twice removed.
I literally have a scorecard keeping track of it all.
Edwards IV and V (York)
His son, Edward IV, succeeded in becoming king, although him and Henry VI handed the crown back a forth a couple times…and by handed, I mean stole. Henry died first, and when Edward died, the crown went to his son, Edward V, who was only 12.
Gah, child kings. There were also accusations that his parents were not legally married, making Edward illegitimate and, therefore, not a legal heir.
Henry VII (Lancaster)
That weakness encouraged Henry Tudor to press his own claim, which descended through his mother and a grandfather born illegitimate, and whose closest royal relative is his great-great-grandfather, Edward III. Henry is Edward V’s 3rd cousin once removed (I think). By this point, the Lancasters are scraping the bottom of the genetic barrel.
Edward V vanishes and is replaced by his uncle, Richard III (of York), who eventually loses to Henry Tudor, who becomes Henry VII.
The war ended with the marriage of Elizabeth of York (Richard III’s sister) and Henry VII, which resulted in children being descendants of both families.
Clear as mud, right? Yeah, that was the point of the ridiculous description above. (You didn’t actually try following that, did you?) Yet, as crazy as that sounds, it’s probably still more coherent than this: