The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Wars of the Roses, the Development of Absolutism in the 15th Century

Category: 15th century

The 15th century was an age of violent contrasts. This age is marked with two parallel processes going in full swing. While feudal relations and the feudal mode of production were decaying, bourgeois relations and the bourgeois mode of production were developing rapidly. These changes were fully characteristic of all spheres of life. Thus the decline of the feudal estate (or manor) created favourable conditions and made it possible for internal wars to rage all over the country. The Wars of the Roses were a vivid expression of the anarchy of the period. The bourgeoisie, though becoming more numerous and wealthy, were not yet strong enough to form the basis for a powerful monarchy and the local administration was not strong enough to resist the great nobles.

The Wars of the Roses (1455—85) started on the background of England’s defeat in the Hundred Years War (1337—1453) between England and France. The term ‘Hundred Years War’ is a misnomer, for a series of wars occurred, not just one war, and these wars lasted, counting intervals of peace, for more than a hundred years. However, historians have found this name to be most suitable.

Fundamentally, the struggle resulted from the English possession of territory in France, which began with William the Conqueror, and from the

French desire to drive out the invaders. One might add the old feudal disputes between English and French kings and the Anglo-French controversies regarding fishing in the North Sea and the English Channel. Moreover, the English king Edward III claimed the French throne because he was a grandson of the late French king.

The defeat in France had brought back the most warlike nobles, who were greatly dissatisfied with their losses and who could not adjust themselves to the serious changes in the economic life of the country, which had occurred during the long struggle between England and France. For these nobles and their bands of soldiers war had become a profession. They were unfit for peaceful work. Given the lack of powerful central government and the reign of anarchy, a general outbreak of feudal strife was inevitable.

In form it was a dynastic struggle between two most powerful feudal families — the House of Lancaster which had the emblem of the red rose and the House of York with the emblem of the white rose. Hence the name of the wars. The various noble families related to these two Houses formed ranks behind them. Towns loyal to Yorkist families closed their gates to all Lancastrians. The court shut out all Yorkists. London was filled by armed followers of both parties.

After terrible struggle and bloodshed which lasted 30 years the war ended in 1485. The battle of Bosworth, fought on August 22, 1485 ended the Wars of the Roses and with them a whole historic epoch in England. Henry of Richmond or Henry Tudor won this battle against Richard III. The latter was killed in battle. The king is dead. Long live the king!’ is a strange English saying. It means that as soon as a king is dead, another must take his place. Henry Tudor became Henry VII (1485 —1509). Moreover, Henry was wise enough to marry the heiress of the House of York. Thus Henry VII formed a new monarchy, the Tudor monarchy, which was based upon a new relationship in society.

The Wars of the Roses had considerably weakened economically and politically the old feudal baronial families. Not only did they lose many of their most powerful members, but they also wasted a considerable portion of their property in almost half a century of dynastic wars. The new Tudor monarchy was absolute. It was supported by the new nobility and the emerging bourgeoisie — the merchants, the clothiers, that is those people, who valued security which was necessary for the development of the economy, and who feared the resumption of feudal wars and anarchy. Karl Marx noted in this context, ‘The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers’.

In the time of the Tudors, the merchants and their guilds were strong and wealthy, but not yet so strong and wealthy that they could oppose the king. Just as the king required the merchants, who supplied him with the money to govern so did the merchants need a powerful king, who guaranteed their commercial activities against feudal anarchy. Henry VII and his son Henry VIII both chose their ministers of state from the sons of wealthy merchant families (Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, Wolsey) and rewarded them with the confiscated feudal lands of the Catholic church.

The peasantry too supported the Crown, for instead of many evils, feudal violence and lawlessness it preferred one evil — the king.

Crushing down the old nobility, confiscating the lands of the defeated, Henry began to create a new nobility coming from the upper layers of society and directly dependent upon the Crown.

It was under Henry VII, at the close of the 15th century that Britain was emerging as a centralized national state. This process continued well into the 16th century and culminated in the 17th century during the English bourgeois revolution.

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