The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses: Why the War Started


At the end of this week’s The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, a war for the throne breaks out in England. Why did the wars happen historically? It’s family drama.

Our own review of The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses‘ first part of Henry VI said it’s tough to keep all of the different dukes straight, because all of them have an agenda and some weird relation to the crown. At the end of this first part, war effectively breaks out between the two factions: Lancaster and York.

So why do the Yorks think they have a claim to the crown, and what’s Henry VI’s claim anyway? The Encyclopedia Britannica has a chart of the House of Plantagenet, and you’ll want to refer to the lower left region generally.

The Lancasters

Image via BBC

Henry VI

The king at the start of The Wars of the Roses, Henry VI has a claim to the throne from his father, Henry V, and his grandfather, Henry IV. Henry IV had previously usurped the crown from Richard II, and this Henry also had a byname of “Henry of Lancaster”. Ultimately, Henry VI is descended from Edward III and his third son, John of Gaunt, by John’s first wife Blanche.

(For those playing at home, Richard II was the only issue of Edward III’s first son, who was also an Edward.)

Keeping Henry on the throne became a difficult task historically, since he suffered breakdowns, which led to years where he wasn’t king, then was suddenly king again. He swapped places with Edward IV, the Yorkist king. Additionally, the failures in France did not help matters.


Somerset, who plucks the red rose at the start of things and starts an affair with Margaret, is actually also descended from John of Gaunt, just by a different wife. Eventually, John married Katherine Swynford, but she was his mistress first. The Somerset we see in the play is mostly Edmund Beaufort, 1st duke of Somerset. In short, Somerset has royal blood, but his claim is a little shakier. Since Henry VI really likes putting him in charge of things, he wants to keep Henry on the throne.


Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was Henry IV’s fourth son, and so he was Henry V’s younger brother. As such, he became Lord Protector of the Realm for the young Henry VI, which is why he gets a fancy scepter. Since he dies at the end of Henry VI, Part One, he mostly doesn’t count anymore.

The Yorks

From The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses. Image is a screengrab via PBS

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

It’s a bit tough to decipher, but Richard believes his claim to the crown is stronger than Henry VI’s. Technically speaking, he’s right. He’s descended on both sides from two sons of Edward III. Most importantly, he’s descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, who was older than John of Gaunt. (You’ll recall that Henry VI’s claim comes from John.) Therefore, he should have been king. His family missed out because Henry IV was sneakier, and so Richard’s still not happy about it.

This Richard is also married to Cecily Neville, played by Judi Dench starting in Richard III in another case of stellar casting.

When Humphrey dies in the play, Richard actually becomes the heir to the throne. His sons, Edward and Richard, will show up in the next play. Both become king at one point.

Next: The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses Part 1 Reviewed

There you have it: a brief explanation of the Lancaster faction and the York faction, their competing claims to the throne, and the war’s origins.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses continues on Sunday with Henry VI, Part Two.