The House that traces its lineage from its founder John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third son of King Edward III was the richest and one of the most powerful families in England by the end of the fourteenth century. The Duchy of Lancaster continues to this day to provide a major source of income for the crown. John of Gaunt was uncle to King Richard II. Born in 1340, he was created Earl of Richmond as a child and entered the Order of the Garter in 1359 on the death of one of its original members. He was married first to Blanche of Lancaster and on her father's death he acquired the Dukedom of Lancaster along with the Earldoms of Derby, Leicester and Lincoln and became Steward of England. Blanche died in 1369 leaving John with three children, Henry (later King Henry IV), Philippa (who became Queen of Portugal) and Elizabeth (who married John Holland, Duke of Exeter). John's second marriage was to Constance of Castile and produced only one daughter, Catherine, who would become Queen of Castile and is an ancestor of Catherine of Aragon.
When Constance died in 1394, John married his mistress Katherine Swynford in 1396. Their illegitimate children were legitimised in Parliament by Richard II, later confirmed by Henry IV and Henry V, though the act of legitimacy strictly forbade them or their descendants from claiming the throne. The children took the name Beaufort after the castle in France where they were born. These children were John, Earl of Somerset, who was the ancestor through whom Henry VII's mother claimed royal descent, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Thomas, Duke of Exeter and Joan who married Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. Joan was grandmother to Warwick the Kingmaker, King Edward IV and King Richard III.
John's military career was extensive in France and Spain but never very successful, making him unpopular at home. When Edward III's oldest son, the Black Prince, died leaving a child heir there appears to have been genuine concern that John would seek to take the throne for himself. He was ordered to swear an oath of allegiance to Richard, which he did. With his eldest brother's death, John's influence grew at the court of his aging, ill father. When Edward III died, John was excluded from the minority Council of Richard II though in reality he retained a great deal of power and influence.
King Richard II banished John's son Henry Bolingbroke in 1398 following a dispute. When John died in early 1399, Henry was not permitted to attend the funeral and returned to England a few months later claiming that he wished only to be reconciled with the king and to claim his inheritance of the Duchy of Lancaster. Landing at Ravenspur in Yorkshire, he headed south gathering support and momentum. When he arrived in London, he was strong enough to swiftly depose the unpopular Richard and install himself as King Henry IV. Richard was kept in captivity but a later attempt to free him made his continued existence untenable. Reports claim that he was starved to death, though others stated that he starved himself to death, and probably died on 14th February 1400, aged 33.
This event was vital because it severed the line of succession and challenged the notion that kings were appointed by God. A man had dared to remove a king and a dangerous precedent was set by the House of Lancaster which was to haunt it for decades to come. As king, Henry IV suffered many rebellions. In Wales, Owain Glyndwr was fighting for independence and in England the Percy family, led by the Earl of Northumberland, rebelled. Henry managed to crush these uprisings but never felt secure on his throne. Following several periods of illness, Henry died on 20th March 1413 aged 46. Henry's first wife Mary de Bohun had provided him with four sons and two daughters and it was the eldest son who became King Henry V aged about 27. Henry V's exploits in France are legendary. He succeeded in regaining much of Edward III's French lands and was immensely popular at home as a result. His victory at Agincourt saw him immortalised. Yet Henry died in 1422, in his mid thirties, probably from dysentery. His only child was a nine month old boy also named Henry. It was this king of the House of Lancaster who sat upon the throne as building tensions exploded and politics spiralled out of control into the open warfare we now call the Wars of the Roses.
The founder of the House of York was Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York. Edmund was born on 5th June 1341, the fourth surviving son of King Edward III. In 1361 he was made a Knight of the Garter and in 1362, aged 21, became Earl of Cambridge. He undertook several campaigns in France for his father and though he was not outstanding, neither was he a military failure.
Edmund was married firstly to Isabella, daughter of King Peter of Castile. They had three children; Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York who was killed fighting alongside Henry V at Agincourt, Richard of Conisburgh, Earl of Cambridge, who was executed for treason by Henry V but who is an ancestor of King Edward IV and King Richard III, and Constance of York, an ancestor of Anne Neville, wife of King Richard III.
Richard of Conisburgh was executed on 5th August 1415 and Edward, Duke of York was killed at the Battle of Agincourt on 25th October the same year. On Edward's death without children, the title Duke of York passed to his nephew, Richard, son of the executed Richard of Conisburgh who was not yet quite 4 years of age. This Richard became 3rd Duke of York and was a prime mover in the Wars of the Roses. Usually referred to as Richard of York, he was the father of King Edward IV and King Richard III.
As a child with an enormous inheritance, Richard's wardship was valuable and was granted to Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, who had over twenty children by his two wives and needed good matches for his many daughters. Ralph, as he was entitled to do with his ward, married Richard to his daughter Cecily when Richard was 13 and Cecily 9. Cecily was called the Rose of Raby for her beauty and the couple appear to have enjoyed a happy marriage, at least until the eruption of the Wars of the Roses. Richard of York had a distinguished military career in France before being made Lieutenant of Ireland and Earl of Ulster. Irish support, based upon this connection, was to prove a great boon to the House of York in times of trouble.
At the emergence of trouble in the mid 1450's, Richard Duke of York was the senior noble in the country and one of the richest and most powerful men in the land.