After a fair bit of tinkering, playing, researching and counter-shuffling, I am finally prepared to start my ‘Wars of the Roses’ refight! By way of introduction, I’ll begin with a brief bit of scene-setting for the benefit of newcomers to the period (perhaps unnecessary, but indulge me for now and accept apologies in advance for any historical blunders - I'm reasonably new myself!)
The start of the wars has something of an advantage in that it has only two major figures centre-stage. There’s Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York; and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.
York is capable, rich, and an heir to the throne after the childless Henry VI, but it’s all rather spoiled by two things: first is that York himself is highly ambitious and sees his claim less as an “I should be king after you” matter and more of an “I should be king instead of you” business. The second thing is that his whole family is viewed with suspicion. His dad was executed for treason against Henry V (right before the Agincourt campaign, no less!) and 4-year old Richard was only saved from being disinherited by his uncle, who died at Agincourt and left him the Dukedom of York. After this, Richard grew up to become one of the richest and most powerful nobles in England, but his rival claim to the king’s throne meant he was under a cloud the whole time.
Enter the Duke of Somerset, who is a relatively poor noble but a favourite of the king. Henry VI tries to make up for this by showering him with prestigious and well-paid honours, much to the annoyance of others such as York, who winds up paying for a lot of this through the crown. York also gets saddled with hard fighting in France for the first half of the 1440s without much backing from the king, and when he’s sent away for the second half of the decade and Somerset takes over, disaster follows as the English lose much of France. Although the king keeps his favourite despite these disasters, most English people begin to hate the incompetent Lancastrian regime and York (packed off to Ireland) escapes much of the blame for misrule.
Things are all set to go spectacularly wrong, and they do - when York returns from Ireland in 1452 and demands that Somerset be arrested and he get a place on the King’s Council. It all fell apart as people were reluctant to support York and he was forced to back down, swearing never to raise a sword against the king again (that clearly doesn’t work out!) It looked like York had fluffed his big chance and was finished, except for two big catastrophes that followed.
First, the English lost the Hundred Years’ War and all holdings on the continent outside of Calais, which sent the fragile Henry VI into a full-blown nervous breakdown. With nobody at the discredited court able to rule the angry and rebellious nation, York had to be made Protector. He promptly imprisoned Somerset, froze out the queen, and began promoting all his favourites to positions of influence, building up a small but powerful following. It was all fine, until the second catastrophe struck - Henry VI recovered.
Now there were two rival factions with a lot at stake in either York or Somerset controlling the pliant king. Things looked bad for York as not only did Somerset promptly get released and restored to favour, but the king now had a male heir of his own, putting the inheritance of the crown even further from York. (Apparently conceived pre-breakdown, but York’s supporters naturally spread the rumour he’s the illegitimate offspring of Somerset!)
In 1455 York and his supporters (such as the powerful Neville family) left London without taking leave of the king and headed north to their estates and began raising troops - for their own protection, naturally. Then summons arrived from the court, calling on them to attend a Great Council at Leicester “to provide for the king’s safety.” There was no indication what was going to be discussed, but with Somerset controlling the king it seemed pretty certain that “all Yorkists being dead or in prison” was on the agenda! What do you do when you’re backed into a corner, alone, vulnerable, and with only a few thousand highly-armed killers at your disposal? York knows the answer…