1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Shakespeare's Country: Wars of the Roses

William Shakespeare
(Part 7)


Wars of the Roses.

The history of Warwickshire in Anglo-Saxon times is identified with the kingdom of Mercia, which, under a series of able rulers, was for a time the dominant power of the country. In later times, from its central position, the county was liable to be crossed by military forces if rebellion made head ill the north or west, as well as to be traversed and occupied by the rival armies during the periods of civil war. The most important events, indeed, connected with the shire before Shakespeare's time occurred during the two greatest civil conflicts in the earlier national annals -- the Barons' War in the 13th century, and the Wars of the Roses in the 15th. The decisive battles that closed these long and bitter struggles, and thus became turning points in our constitutional history, were both fought on the borders of Warwickshire, -- the battle of Evesham on the south-western and the battle of Bosworth Field on the north-eastern boundary. The great leaders in each conflict -- the founder of the Commons House of Parliament and the "setter up and puller down of kings" -- were directly connected with Warwickshire. Kenilworth belonged to Simon de Montfort, and its siege and surrender constituted the last act in the Barons' War. During the 'Wars of the Roses the county was naturally prominent in public affairs, as its local earl, the last and greatest of the lawless, prodigal, and ambitious barons of medieval times, was for more than twenty years the leading figure in the struggle. But notwithstanding this powerful influence the county was, like the country itself, very much divided in its political sympathies and activities. The weakness and vacillation of Henry VI had stimulated the rival house of York to assert its claims, and, as the trading and mercantile classes were always in favour of a strong government, London, with the eastern counties and the chief ports and commercial towns, favoured the house of York. On the other hand, South Wales, some of the Midland and most of the western shires, under the leadership of the Beauforts, and the northern counties, under the leadership of Clifford and Northumberland, supported the house of Lancaster. Political feeling in the Principality itself was a good deal divided. The duke of York still possessed Ludlow Castle, and, the Welsh of the northern border being devoted to the houses of: March and Mortimer, Prince Edward, the young earl of March, after the defeat and death of his father at Wakefield, was able to rally on the border a "mighty power of marchmen," and, after uniting his forces with those of 'Warwick, to secure the decisive victory of Towton which placed him securely on the throne. Still, during the earlier stages of the struggle the Beauforts, with the earls of Pembroke, Devon, and Wiltshire, were able to muster in the south and west forces sufficient to keep the Yorkists in check. And when the final struggle came, -- when Henry of Richmond landed at Milford Haven, -- the Welsh blood in his veins rallied to his standard so powerful a contingent of the southern marchmen that he was able at once to cross the Severn, and, traversing north Warwickshire, to confront the forces of Richard, with the assurance that in the hour of need he would be supported by Stanley and Northumberland.

Warwickshire itself was, as already intimated, considerably divided even in the more active stages of the conflict, Coventry being strongly in favour of the Red Rose, while Warwick, under the influence of the earl, was for a while devoted to the cause of the White Rose. Kenilworth was still hold by the house of Lancaster, and Henry VI. At the outset of the conflict had more than once taken refuge there. On the other hand Edward IV. and Richard III. Both visited Warwick, the latter being so interested in the castle that he is said to have laid the foundation of a new and "mighty fayre" tower on the north side, afterwards known as the Bear's Tower. Edward IV., in harmony with his strong instinct for popularity, and command of the arts that secure it, tried to conciliate the people of Coventry by visiting the town and witnessing its celebrated pageants more than once-at Christmas ill 1465 and at the festival of St George in 1474. Although he was accompanied by his queen the efforts to win the town from its attachment to the rival house do not appear to have been very successful. Under Edward's rule the manifestation of active partisanship was naturally in abeyance, and no doubt the feeling may to some extent have declined. Indeed, in the later stages of the struggle Warwickshire, like so many other countries, was comparatively weary and quiescent. When Richard III advanced to the north the sheriff of the shire had, it is true, ill obedience to the royal mandate levied a force on behalf of the king, but as this force never actually joined the royal standard it is naturally assumed that it was either intercepted by Henry on his march to Bosworth Field or had voluntarily joined him on the eve of the battle. In view of the strong Lancasterian sympathies in the both and east of the shire the latter is by far the more probable supposition. In this case, or indeed on either alternative, it may be true, as asserted in the patent of arms subsequently granted to Shakespeare's father, that his ancestors had fought on behalf of Henry VII in the great battle that placed the crown on his head. Many families bearing the name of Shakespeare were scattered through Warwickshire in the 15th century, and it is therefore not at all unlikely that some of their members had wielded a spear with effect in the battle that, to the immense relief of the country, happily closed the most miserable civil conflict in its annals.

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