The House of Lancaster

Henry IV’s Usurpation

The House of Lancaster began with a usurpation of the English throne. In 1399 King Richard II was captured and persuaded to give up the throne to his first cousin Henry IV. Richard had been ignoring the advice of his most important nobles and failing in his responsibilities as a king. He had sent Henry into exile a year earlier. After the death of Henry’s father (John of Gaunt), most of the nobility were keen to support Henry as king.

This was the second usurpation since the Norman Conquest. The first was of Edward II in 1327, also for ignoring his responsibilities as a king.

Henry V

Henry’s son, Prince Hal, became Henry V in 1413 and is one of the most famous kings in English history. His small army, supported by thousands of Welsh archers, defeated the armies of France at Agincourt in 1415. Henry was married to Princess Katherine of France and he became heir to her father’s throne.

Henry VI

Henry V died shortly after their son was born so at age nine months Henry VI was King of England. Two months later he became King of France when Queen Katherine’s father died. Henry V’s elder brother, John Duke of Bedford, was made Regent of France. In England a ruling council was set up that was led by Henry V’s younger brother, Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester.

Henry VI was six when he was crowned but the council still ruled until he reached adulthood. In his twenties he married a French princess, Margaret of Anjou. She was expecting their first child when Henry VI became mentally ill for eighteen months. A new protectorate had to be established to govern England during his illness. Richard, Duke of York, was chosen as Protector.

This time of uncertainty worsened the already bad relationships between some of the most powerful families. After Henry’s recovery, the arguments gradually developed into battles between the king’s supporters (Lancastrians) and the Duke of York’s supporters.

The Wars of the Roses

The first battle was at St Albans in 1455 and the battles continued for thirty years. From 1461 to 1471 there were two rival kings: Henry VI and Edward IV. Henry VI spent much of that time in hiding but was briefly king again from October 1470 to March 1471. This is the ‘winter of our discontent’ which opens Shakespeare’s play Richard III.

The Last Lancastrians

After Henry VI’s son was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury, many of John of Gaunt’s descendants survived.

Two of John of Gaunt’s daughters had married into European royal families. Richard III would later seek the hand of Joanna of Portugal shown above. Another daughter had married into the Holland family. Before Henry VI’s son was born, Henry Holland believed he was Henry VI’s closest heir.

But the Lancastrian family who finally claimed the throne were the Beauforts. The legitimised male line of the Beauforts had died out at the Battle of Tewkesbury. However, the Beaufort daughters were ancestresses of the Nevilles. Other descendants were the Stafford dukes of Buckingham, the kings of Scotland and the Tudor dynasty. Henry V’s widow, Katherine of Valois, had secretly married Owen Tudor, a Welshman. One of their sons, Edmund, married the wealthy heiress, Margaret Beaufort. Edmund and Margaret’s only child was Henry Tudor who became Henry VII, the first Tudor king.

A male line of Beauforts survives to this day: the Somerset Dukes of Beaufort are descended from Henry Beaufort. When Richard III was rediscovered and scientists were looking to match his DNA with known relatives, they compared his Y-chromosome with this line but found no match. Find out more here.

drawing of a red rose of Lancaster
a red rose of Lancaster