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Ceremony of the Lilies and the Roses at the Tower of London

The short service of remembrance, known as The Ceremony of the Lilies and the Roses, is held every 21 May, to commemorate the fact that Henry VI, England’s so-called “saintly king”, died at the Tower of London in 1471.

Tradition has adopted the Norman Wakefield Tower as the location where the event took place. Begun in the 1220’s and jutting out onto Water Lane, it is a world within a world, a Tower within the Tower. It is in fact, all that remains of the domestic buildings of Henry III, together with the gateway beside it which became part of the Bloody Tower. It is possible that this Tower even contained Henry III’s private bedchamber, because it is known to have housed both a chapel, fireplace, large windows and fitting enough space for a bed. It probably fulfilled the function of a council chamber and today accommodates a sumptuous recreation of a medieval court complete with chandelier and throne, with the chapel area separated from the chamber by means of a timber screen.

The decisive Lancastrian victory at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 enabled those forces loyal to Henry VI to defeat the Yorkist army, the rival house in the raging dynastic tug for the England throne. However it was only a defeat in one battle, because the Wars of the Roses fought on for another twenty seven years, culminating in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and finally in the last engagement of the Wars, with the Battle of Stoke Field two years later. Following the death of Richard, Duke of York at the Battle of Wakefield, York’s eldest son Edward, Earl of March and now himself titular Duke of York – and the future King Edward IV – inherited his father’s titles and claim to the English throne. In 1460 the Act of Accord had been passed, which essentially declared that Richard, Duke of York should succeed Henry VI, although it confirmed that the king retain the royal title for life. Henry was forced to agree to the Act, but Henry VI’s consort, Margaret of Anjou, refused to do so as the Act excluded her own son, Henry VI’s heir Edward of Westminster. In the aftermath of the Second Battle of St Albans, Edward proclaimed himself king. Now supreme head of the Yorkist cause, he and his forces pursued the Lancastrian army, emerging triumphant from the bloody Battle of Towton which took place during a snowstorm in March 1461, after which Edward returned to London for his coronation.

Meanwhile Henry VI had been deposed as a result of Towton, showing that this was the crucial battle which ultimately enabled Edward to take power in what was a weak political situation, proving himself a victor both in dynastic terms as well as on the battlefield. Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower in 1465 and briefly restored to the throne in 1470 by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, whereupon Edward IV was forced into exile. When Edward returned to England, Warwick was killed at the Battle of Barnet. The Yorkist cause celebrated its ultimate and decisive victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 and Henry VI was once again imprisoned in the Tower, his pathetic second reign having lasted no more than six months. Edward IV was now the undisputed ruler of the royal House of York, king of an England ravaged by civil war. Given the vicious struggle for power that had prevailed in the bid for power, the existence of two kings in England would not have been a possibility allowed to last. It is a poignant irony that the Lancastrian Henry VI was reputed to have been imprisoned in the Wakefield Tower, as the Battle of Wakefield had of course, been a battle at which the Lancastrian forces had been briefly victorious.

Accounts sympathetic to Edward gave “melancholy” as the cause of the death of Henry VI; but his Lancastrian supporters maintained he had been murdered. The Government declared that it was the death of his son Edward, who perished in the Battle of Tewkesbury, together with the fact that his wife Margaret of Anjou had also been captured, that led to the King’s own death from sheer sorrow. This report was perhaps also drawing attention to the point that Henry VI had previously undergone a complete nervous breakdown, in the form of what has recently been suggested to be catatonic schizophrenia, thus hoping to explain his death through what was factually proven in his behaviour. What is certain is that he died at the Tower of London on May 21st, 1471. He is widely believed to have been murdered and this happened allegedly whilst he was at prayer, which accounts for why tradition tends to accept his having been praying in the Wakefield Tower. History has generally suspected Edward IV of so ordering if indeed the king was murdered, Edward thereby seeking to quash all hopes of a possible Lancastrian restoration. The body of Henry VI was brought to Black Friars, “chested”,  then transported by river to Chertsey Abbey, where he was interred in the Lady Chapel there in 1471. Henry VI’s body was moved to St. George’s Chapel in 1484 at the possible order of Richard III.

The remains of Henry VI are still to be found at St. George’s, to the south side of the High Altar. For several centuries, the alleged hat and spurs of Henry VI could be viewed next to his tomb at St. George’s and these suspected relics were believed to possess healing qualities. Henry’s skull was examined in 1910. W.H.St John Hope, who was present at the exhumation, recorded the appearance of what he suspected was “blood”, although a professor of anatomy who was also present made no reference to this, commenting instead that the skull was “unfortunately much broken”. On balance of probability, it seems likely that Henry VI was killed, because his “melancholy” was more likely to have affected his mind as it had previously done and not been the cause of his demise. Although the evidence we have is based on individual observation and is altogether circumstantial, it would appear that Henry VI was more likely to have been murdered than not, the event taking place so soon after Tewkesbury, which had reaffirmed Edward’s kingship.

The spot that tradition has chosen to associate with the death of Henry VI is now enclosed within a beautiful tiled chapel area behind a  painted wooden screen, on the first floor of the Wakefield Tower. On the tiled floor of the chapel a simple plaque reads, ‘By tradition, Henry VI died here’. It was placed there in 1923.

On the evening of the anniversary of Henry VI’s death, a short and beautiful ceremony takes place. This is a private ceremony, featuring the respectful laying of lilies by Eton College, to honour the king who founded the College; Eton equally honours Henry VI with a statue in its School Yard. Roses are also placed by King’s College, Cambridge and have been since 1947. This is to mark the fact, that the ill-fated King also founded King’s College, the two colleges being represented by their respective floral emblems. The service takes place facing the chapel in the Wakefield Tower and is accompanied by a choir, the chaplain and Governor of the Tower, together with the Provosts and scholars from the two colleges, the latter who lay the flowers themselves. In addition, Henry VI also founded the College of All Souls’ in Oxford.

Similarly, at St. George’s Chapel, the King’s birthday – 6 December – is commemorated with a ceremony featuring lilies and roses, with representatives from Eton and Cambridge. It is particularly fitting that the ceremony also takes place at St. George’s Chapel, because Windsor is inextricably linked with the memory of Henry VI. Not only does St. George’s Chapel contain his tomb, but Henry VI was born at Windsor Castle in 1421.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.