The period of sporadic civil conflict that ran from 1455 to, in the estimation of most, 1485 (though this is open to debate), was termed the Wars of the Roses around the nineteenth century and the name is often attributed to the writer Sir Walter Scott. The period saw a dynastic struggle for the Crown of England that devastated the aristocracy, polarising support between the Houses of Lancaster and York. The heraldic symbol of the House of Lancaster was the red rose, while the House of York took the white rose and it is from this that the idiom was born. At the time the phrase would not have meant anything to the people. It was simply war.
King Edward III died in 1377. His eldest son, the Black Prince, had died the previous year and so Edward's grandson was the new king. Richard II was 10 years old when he came to the throne and his uncles sought to rule for him until he came of age. When he was older, Richard proved deeply unpopular for many reasons and in 1399, his cousin, Henry Bollingbroke, who Richard had exiled, returned and seized the throne as King Henry IV. Henry's father was one of Richard's uncles, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and so Henry IV became the first Lancastrian king. Henry IV was succeeded in 1413 by his son, the glorious King Henry V of Agincourt renown and it must have seemed that the Lancastrian kings were secure and set to flourish.
Henry V died suddenly of dysentery on campaign in France in 1422. His son was only nine months old when he became King Henry VI and for many years England was ruled by regents on Henry's behalf. Henry is widely regarded as having been a deeply pious man but unsuited to mediaeval kingship. He suffered from mental health problems and frequent bouts of catatonia when he would not speak or recognise anyone for prolonged periods of time. Despite the reluctance of Henry's wife, Richard, Duke of York was named Protector of the Realm during Henry's illness. Eventually, the Duke of York, the senior noble in the country, was named as Henry's heir to the exclusion of the Prince of Wales, yet the Duke grew impatient and the Wars of the Roses sprouted from the dispute between York and Lancaster for the Crown.
The Duke of York was killed, along with his second son, at the Battle of Wakefield on 30th December 1460. Only a few months later, his eldest son, Edward, Earl of March managed to complete his father's work and became King Edward IV on 4th March 1461. Henry VI was briefly returned to the throne in October 1470 when Edward fell out with his cousin the Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker. Regaining his throne in April 1471, Edward disposed of Henry after his son had died at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Edward then reigned until 1483 when he died after a short illness, leaving his twelve year old son to become King Edward V. Edward IV's brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester was appointed Protector but later became King to the exclusion of his nephew. Richard III lost his Crown and his life at the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485. The victor was the last Lancastrian hope, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. As King Henry VII, he founded the Tudor dynasty. Henry married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, uniting York and Lancaster
Traditionally the Wars of the Roses are viewed as ending at Bosworth, but struggles continued afterwards, including the Battle of Stoke in 1487 and several Pretenders to Henry's throne. Some of the relatives of the House of York were to prove thorns in the Tudor side for a long time to come.
Richard Plantagenet was born on 2nd October 1452 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. He was the seventh child and fourth son to survive born to Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and his wife Cecily Neville. As the fourth son, he was unlikely to inherit a great deal and would most likely have been expected to make his own way in the world. A career in the Church was perhaps most likely.
The Duke of York was a great grandson of King Edward III and the most senior noble in England by the time his namesake was born. Cecily was a great, great granddaughter of King Edward III herself through a different branch of the family. Called the Rose of Raby for her beauty, Cecily was a member of the powerful Neville family who held vast authority and influence in the north of England. They were frequently at odds with the Percy family who also held great power in the region.
It was reported later by a Neville family historian, John Rous that Richard was born with shoulder length hair and a full set of teeth after two years in his mother's womb. It is worth noting that Rous wrote this account after Richard's death having praised him greatly during his lifetime. Clearly this account seems unlikely and contemporaries often stated that Richard bore a much greater resemblance to his father than his brothers did. The Duke of York was a man of average looks and normal height, so we can infer that his youngest son was similarly unremarkable.