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Red roses and white: A brief history of the Tudor Rose

A brief history of one of the most famous royal symbols.

One of the most distinctive and unmistakable flowers in England is the Tudor Rose. This specific type of rose is both red (around the outside) and white (in the centre), and has been in use as the country’s plant emblem since the Tudor Era. But there is more to the Tudor Rose than meet the eye. The flower is not just a sight for sore eyes – it is a representation of the merging of two warring houses, and the end of years of conflict.

Our story begins in the 13th century, when the the rose introduced in England as a royal emblem by Eleanor of Provence, the wife of King Henry III. Eleanor used the golden rose of Provence as her badge while she was Queen Consort, and the emblem was later adopted by her son, Edward I. However, it wasn’t until the 15th century, during the period of conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, that the rose rose to prominence as the floral badge of England.

When King Edward III died in 1377, he was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II. However, although the beginning of his reign had been marked by hope and prosperity, Richard grew increasingly unpopular, and in 1399, was deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who ruled as Henry IV. The new King was the son of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and the third son of the late King Edward.

Henry IV was succeeded by his son, another Henry, who strengthened the Lancastrian hold on the throne through spectacular victories in the Hundred Years War again France. Unfortunately, Henry V died of dysentery in 1422, leaving his nine month-old son, Henry VI, to rule the country. Throughout the new King Henry’s minority, England was controlled by regents, and even as an adult, the King was was in no state to rule. Not only was he a weak and ineffective leader, but Henry VI also displayed many signs of mental illness. He often succumbed to bouts of insanity, and failed to recognise his son, Prince Edward, who was born in 1453.

It was under these circumstances that Richard, Duke of York, a descendant of Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund of Langley, staked his claim to the throne. The Duke had a powerful ally in Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, and together with their armies, the two of them marched into London to overthrow the mad King Henry. This was the beginning of a Civil war between the two greatest factions in England – the House of Lancaster and the House of York.

The years of armed conflict, sometimes known as the Cousins’ War (owing to the fact that both Richard, Duke of York, and King Henry VI were directly descended from Edward III and therefore cousins), are most commonly known as the Wars of the Roses. The name is derived from the heraldic badges used by the two houses – the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I, noblemen are shown allying with either the House of Lancaster or the House of York by picking a red or white rose respectively, and the Lancastrians and Yorkists fought under banners bearing their factions rose.

The Wars of the Roses came to an end with the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. King Richard III was defeated by the Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, who ascended the throne as Henry VII. King Henry secured the succession and cemented his rather tenuous claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth of York, the daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV.

The Lancastrian Henry Tudor's marriage to Elizabeth of York united the two Houses.

The Lancastrian Henry Tudor’s marriage to Elizabeth of York united the two Houses.

Their marriage united the two warring houses once and for all, and it was around this time that Henry VII introduced the Tudor Rose, which combined the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York. The Tudor Rose was adopted as the national emblem of England, and was a symbol of peace and unity in the period following the long civil war.

The Tudor Rose is a common sight in England even today. The floral emblem can be seen on a number of old buildings, most notably Hampton Court Palace, which was built during the reign of Henry VII’s son, King Henry VIII. The badge is found on the uniforms of the Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London, and even on the back of 20p coins! And if you look closely, you can even see Tudor Roses growing out of the ground on which the Lion and the Unicorn stand in the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.

Photo credit: lisby1 via photopin cc and Garrett Coakley via Flickr

  • The House of York based it’s claim to the throne on decent from Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, the 2nd surviving son of Edward III. They also decended from Edmund.

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