Stranger Than Fiction: The History of 'The Wars of the Roses'

Daniel Hautzinger
Keeley Hawes as Elizabeth Woodville, Judi Dench as Cecily, the Duchess of York, and Phoebe Fox as Anne Neville.
Keeley Hawes as Elizabeth Woodville, Judi Dench as Cecily, the Duchess of York, and Phoebe Fox as Anne Neville. (Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd)

Necromancers and mad kings, royal cuckolders and murdered princes: the characters in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses seem fictional, but they’re all historical figures. Here’s some extraordinary background on the real-life people portrayed in this three-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays and Richard III.

Henry VI (played by Tom Sturridge in The Wars of the Roses)

Tom Sturridge as Henry VI.(Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd) Henry enjoyed a relatively long reign, though “enjoyed” might be the wrong term. Crowned King of England as an infant after the unexpected death of his father Henry V in 1422 and King of France the same year, he suffered through war and the end of English kingship in France, a civil war at home, bouts of madness, and the loss of his crown two separate times to Edward IV, in 1461 and again in 1471. Various nobles essentially reigned for him at different times, including his uncle the Duke of Gloucester, his wife Margaret of Anjou, and Richard Plantagenet. But he did establish the venerable Eton, All Souls, and King’s Colleges, and until the 16th century was believed to be a saint who had performed miracles.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville)

Hugh Bonneville as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.(Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd) Son of Henry IV, brother to Henry V, and uncle of Henry VI, he was close to kings his whole life. A chivalrous and learned diplomat, he fought in the Battle of Agincourt and served as Lord Protector of the Realm while Henry VI was a child. A patron of literature who corresponded with leading Italian Renaissance figures, he was beloved by the people of London but was eventually brought down by accusations of sorcery against his wife, Eleanor (Sally Hawkins). Eleanor was convicted of necromancy for consulting astrologers and using potions, and imprisoned for life while her conspirators were burned or hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo)

Sophie Okonedo as Margaret of Anjou.(Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd) A French noblewoman, she became Queen of England when she married Henry VI in 1445. One of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages, she led the Lancastrian faction against Richard of York in the Wars of the Roses. At times during Henry’s reign, she essentially ruled in his stead, banishing Richard of York to Ireland and later calling the Great Council of 1455 which led to the first battle of the Wars of the Roses. She died in France at the court of her cousin Louis XI after a stint of imprisonment at the Tower of London. She is the only character to have a significant role in all three episodes of The Wars of the Roses.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (Adrian Dunbar)

Adrian Dunbar as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York.(Great Performances) A descendant of King Edward III, he had a competing claim to the throne while Henry VI ruled. That claim, along with a large estate and great power in Ireland, England and France, contributed to a feud with Edmund Beaufort and Queen Margaret of Anjou that eventually led to the Wars of the Roses. He served as Henry VI’s Lord Protector for a time, and led the Yorkist faction in the Wars of the Roses. Though he was killed in battle before he became king, two of his sons by Cecily Neville (Lucy Robinson and Judi Dench) eventually held the crown. The dispiriting mnemonic “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain” is often used in Britain to remember the colors of the rainbow.

Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (Ben Miles)

Ben Miles as Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset, with Margaret of Anjou.(Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd) The Duke of Somerset’s legendary rivalry with Richard Plantagenet helped lead to the Wars of the Roses. He is believed to have had an affair with Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois, as well as with Queen Margaret of Anjou, with whom he conspired to hold great power at Henry’s court. Indeed, Margaret’s only son Edward is suspected to have been Somerset’s child. Somerset was killed in the first battle of the Wars of the Roses.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (Stanley Townsend)

Stanley Townsend as Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.(Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd) Incredibly powerful and wealthy, he was instrumental to fifteenth century English history. When Richard Plantagenet originally rose up against King Henry VI, Warwick joined Henry’s side, the Lancastrians. After a territorial dispute with Somerset, he threw his support behind Plantagenet on the Yorkist side and helped depose Henry and crown Edward IV. Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville incensed Warwick, who had advocated for a marriage to the French king Louis XI’s sister-in-law. Warwick again switched sides and helped restore Henry VI to the throne, but was soon killed in battle. (That’s three loyalty changes and the deposition of two kings, in case you lost count). His daughter Anne (Phoebe Fox) learned from her father and also switched sides: she married Henry VI’s Lancastrian son Edward, but after being widowed, she married Richard III, a Yorkist.

Edward IV (Geoffrey Streatfeild)

Crowned king twice, both times usurping Henry VI, he realized his father Richard of Plantagenet’s dreams of the throne for the Yorkist faction. He married the widowed Elizabeth Woodville (Keeley Hawes) in secret and against much of the court’s wishes. Upon his death, his son Edward V was to succeed him but was never crowned, as he and his brother Richard were declared illegitimate and mysteriously disappeared while staying in the Tower of London. They are suspected to have been murdered, perhaps on the orders of their uncle Richard III. Almost two hundred years after their disappearance, the skeletons of two children were found by workmen at the Tower, though it has not been proved that they are of the young princes.Keeley Hawes as Elizabeth Woodville, erstwhile queen.(Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd)

Richard III (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III.(Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd) Though Shakespeare portrays him as a hunchback, that seems to be a fiction invented after his death to tarnish his reputation. Upon the death of his brother Edward IV, he became Lord Protector of the Realm and then conspired to have Parliament declare Edward’s children illegitimate, thus allowing Richard to become king. Having schemed against many nobles to attain the throne, he suffered two rebellions against him. Richard was killed during the second uprising and was replaced by Henry VII, who had been in exile in Brittany and whose crowning marked the beginning of the Tudor era. The Wars of the Roses thus began and ended with a Henry on the throne.

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