Not so long ago, everyone would have agreed that the turning point of this period was 1485 when Henry VII won the crown at the battle of Bosworth and the Tudor dynasty began. This used to be seen as the point when the modern history of England began, as the struggle between Yorkist and Lancastrian factions in the Wars of the Roses came to a close. More recently, however, historians have been noting the similarities between the rule of the Yorkists (the dynasty that controlled the country from the accession of Edward IV in 1461, to the death of Richard III in 1485) and of Henry VII (reigned 1485–1509). It has become clear that the economic, social, religious and cultural history of England from the mid-15th to the early 16th centuries shows considerable continuity. There is thus a good case for the date that has increasingly become the starting-point for the new periodisation: 1461, when the Yorkists came to the throne.


However, there was initially no certainty about the survival of the new dynasty and, since the century ended with a Tudor rather than a Yorkist on the throne, to take 1461 as the key year would be paradoxical. The choice of 1483 answers the objections to both 1485 and 1461. By 1483, the Yorkist dynasty was firmly established and apparently secure and yet in that year the seeds of its destruction two years later were sown. What happened in 1485 was the almost inevitable result of Richard III’s usurpation in 1483.

In 1461, Edward of York defeated the forces of the Lancastrian Henry VI and became Edward IV. He had the support of only a small number of the nobility and almost none of the major nobles, apart from the Nevilles, the greatest of whom was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, “the Kingmaker”. Indeed, it was not until 1471 that Edward could truly count himself king. This was after he had been briefly replaced by Henry VI, in a French-backed rebellion instigated by Warwick, in which Edward’s own brother, the Duke of Clarence, participated. Henry VI, his son Edward of Lancaster, and Warwick all died in this rebellion, giving Edward a clean slate.

So effective was Edward’s rule in what is known as his second reign that, by 1483, his ability to impose his will on the country was possibly greater than that of any king since Edward I (died 1307). At its heart were two, interlinked, forces: a closely-knit nobility, among whom his ultra-loyal youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester, the greatest power in the north, was the most prominent, and a powerful household and affinity, led by Lord Hastings, Edward’s oldest and truest political ally. The royal finances and internal order had been restored after the downward spiral of both under Henry VI, and Edward was far too secure for foreign powers to try to intervene in English affairs. Indeed, in his second reign, he was pardoning and restoring some of the exiled Lancastrians and, towards the end of the reign, Henry Tudor, long exiled in France, was considering relinquishing his claim as the heir of Lancaster and returning to England. The succession seemed secure with Edward’s two healthy sons.

1483 in context

With Ireland and Wales affected by England’s political crisis, Scotland alone enjoyed relative peace

England in 1450 was a much-governed country. Kings could raise large sums for war by taxation, took responsibility for law and peacekeeping and were becoming involved in economic and moral regulation. There was a sizeable and expert central bureaucracy but most government was done by local amateurs, usually gentry, the local nobility playing a large part in co-ordinating their activities. One effect of the extended period of crisis was to reduce the regional authority of the nobles, putting kings more directly in command of governance in the shires. This is no longer seen as the replacement of a corrupt system of government, loosely referred to as “bastard feudalism”, by something more “modern” and it is now understood that direct and indirect rule both had their strengths and weaknesses.

The European-wide economic depression, caused by plague-induced demographic decline and a bullion shortage, was at its worst in 1450. In England prices and agrarian incomes were low. Towns, after a period of expansion, were mostly in decline, as was international trade. However, late in the century, the cloth trade, England’s principal export, recovered. For the lower classes, though, times were good: real wages had risen significantly in town and country, serfdom had virtually disappeared, land was available cheaply and on good terms. Enterprising yeoman farmers, exploiting the more buoyant parts of the agrarian market, could prosper. Despite all this decline, London continued to grow as an economic, political and cultural centre.

Full literacy was the norm among the middling and upper classes, while there were enough readers among the lower classes for even the illiterate to have access to the written word. Certainly, the English populace was politically well-informed. The religion of the English was conventional, there were very few heretical Lollards, and, from top to bottom of society, gifts were made to religious institutions, most often to the parish church.

Defeat in 1453 ended the Hundred Years War, despite Edward IV’s failed efforts to restart it in 1475. That made it easier to neglect Scotland, France’s traditional ally, and political upheavals in England diverted attention from the British Isles in general.

By 1450 Wales was becoming anglicised, with its own squirearchy, but the political crisis affected Wales as well as England and there was a descent into disorder halted only under Edward IV. Much of Ireland was already out of English control but, from the 1470s, Edward and then Henry tried to restore some order, especially in making the remaining core of English settlement, the “Pale”, more secure. This was done by a combination of alliances with great Anglo-Irish nobles, like the Butlers and the Fitzgeralds, and periodic expeditions from England, the trend being towards greater external intervention. Perhaps partly because of the absence of English attacks, Scotland in this period was peaceful compared with England – just one king, James III, was violently removed and that was by his son – and kings usually won in confrontations with their nobles. Apart from offering half-hearted support for the Lancastrians in the early 1460s, Scottish kings in this period generally preferred diplomacy to war in dealing with England.

Too young to be king

Then, on 9 April, Edward died unexpectedly, shortly before his 41st birthday. The age of his heir, Edward V, made it difficult to set up a stable minority government. At 12 he was too young to rule but too close to the age when he might begin to do so. Even so, all would be well as long as the three centres of power could work together. These were the Woodvilles, Edward V’s mother’s family, who controlled the king’s person; Hastings, linchpin of the royal household and political connection; and Gloucester, with his great territorial power.

The young king was at Ludlow and, as his Woodville relatives were bringing him to London for his coronation, they were met at Stony Stratford by Richard of Gloucester and his new ally, the duke of Buckingham. There, on 30 April, Edward was forcefully removed from his entourage, and some of the Woodvilles arrested and later executed. Nevertheless, Gloucester continued to work with Hastings, whose control of the royal household gave him enormous power around the king and in the localities, and to prepare for the coronation. But on 13 June Hastings was seized and executed. Gloucester, who had thus removed the opposition first of Edward V’s family and then of the Yorkist political and military establishment, took the throne on 26 June. Richard III, as he now was, justified his usurpation by the need for continuity. However, he had done the hitherto unthinkable, in deposing a king who had not just done no wrong but had not been in a position to do anything at all, and who had succeeded a successful king.

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Richard’s immediate problem was that he was heavily reliant on his closest accomplices, notably Buckingham, and could only keep their support by bribing them with grants. In October Buckingham, having decided Richard was not giving him enough, rebelled. But the core of the rebellion was the Yorkist household. This had originally acquiesced, probably partly taken by surprise and partly in the hope of saving the princes, but, by October, there had been time to resolve to resist Richard and it was probably known by then that the princes were dead.

Rebellion was therefore raised in the name of Henry Tudor and, almost overnight, the man who had given up hope of pursuing his claim to the throne became the Yorkist claimant; to enhance his appeal, he promised to marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth, if he became king. The rebellion failed and thus a number of Yorkists left England, followed by others as Richard III’s short reign progressed.

The hated northern interlopers

In late 1483, as his support outside the north dwindled, Richard had to embark on his policy of “planting” his northern supporters throughout the midlands and the south, using lands and offices confiscated from Yorkists. These northern interlopers not only earned him a lot of resentment but also stretched his resources of reliable manpower. In a vicious circle, as Richard’s support diminished, so he became less viable as a king and more people deserted. By the time of Henry Tudor’s invasion and the battle of Bosworth in 1485, this disbelief and disaffection had spread across much of England, even into Richard’s northern stronghold.

Richard might possibly still have won at Bosworth, but Henry was only in a position to defeat him because of what had happened between 1483 and 1485. Moreover, the unease in Richard’s forces, and late betrayal by some of his supposed allies, both of which contributed to his defeat, are also directly attributable to the diminution of belief in his kingship whose roots lay in the way he had taken the throne in 1483. If Bosworth was a Lancastrian victory, it was even more the restoration of the Yorkist establishment.

Why Richard acted can never be known but, since he had shown no previous signs of uncontrollable ambition, it is probable that he was impelled more by panic: seizing the king because he feared that the Woodvilles would take apart his vast estate, much of it built on dubious land transactions, and then, once he had attacked them, fearing a Woodville revanche when Edward came of age.

Perhaps also, having always been the perfect underling to his brother, he found the responsibility of being on his own too much for him. The timing and unexpectedness of Edward IV’s death, the vacuum created by the sudden loss of his wide-ranging and very personal authority, and Richard’s acute failure of judgement, combined to open the way for the first Tudor to become king, something that seemed wildly improbable up to that moment.

And with the Tudors came many things that might not have been otherwise. There was rule that was in many ways no more effective than Edward’s but much more obviously disciplinarian towards landowners, especially the nobility. There were implications for Britain. Wales, the Tudors’ own country of origin, was already very much integrated and pacified, and Edward IV had increased the pace of this process. But Scotland remained, and was to remain, a troublesome land for England, and it was the marriage of Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret, to the king of Scotland that was to lead to the eventual union of the two crowns under James I. Ireland had been much neglected by late medieval kings, who had France, Scotland and sometimes their own survival more in mind, and Henry VII was to initiate the more aggressive tactics that his successors followed, not necessarily with beneficial results.

Above all, if there had been no Henry VIII, would there have been the break from Rome and everything else that followed?

History facts: 1450–1499

Estimated number of people working in the king’s central bureaucracy: around 340

Number alleged by contemporaries to have been killed at the battle of Towton, the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses: 29,000

Increase in purchasing power of agricultural wages 1350–1450: 100 per cent

Key years: Other important events in the second half of the 15th century

1450 – The Crisis over the Loss of Normandy. France had the upper hand in the Hundred Years' War in the mid-15th century. The loss of Normandy as an English possession in 1449 caused an acute political crisis. In February an unruly parliament impeached Henry VI’s chief minister. Through 1450 there was extended and widespread unrest among the lower classes aimed at the government. This became outright revolt in July, with Cade’s Rebellion, centred on Kent, when the rebels took control of London for several days.

1453 – The End of the Hundred Years War. On 17 July the English defeat at the Battle of Castillon put an end to centuries-old English rule in Aquitaine and to the last vestiges of English rule in France, apart from Calais and a small enclave around it. This was the effective end of the Hundred Years' War. It was hearing the news of this defeat in August that allegedly caused Henry VI to lose his reason for nearly
18 months.

1455 – The Beginning of the Wars of the Roses. The first Battle of St Albans on 22 May was the start of the Wars of the Roses. Royal forces confronted the army of the Duke of York in what was little more than a skirmish. The Yorkist victory gave the duke control of Henry VI, who, though recovered from madness, was now only a figurehead king, and enabled York to direct government until he lost power to the queen, Margaret of Anjou, in mid-1456.

1461 – The Accession of Edward IV. York, having returned from exile to claim the throne in 1460, had been defeated and killed by royalist forces at the battle of Wakefield. His son Edward took up his father’s cause, defeated the Lancastrians at Mortimer’s Cross in Wales, entered London and on 4 March proclaimed himself king, making good his claim by a great victory on 29 March over the Lancastrians at the battle of Towton in Yorkshire.

1470 – The brief return of Henry VI. Warwick and Clarence (Edward IV’s own brother), having fled to France after an abortive rebellion, and there made peace with Margaret of Anjou and her son, Prince Edward, returned, restoring Henry VI to the throne in October. Edward IV escaped but returned in March 1471, reclaiming his throne. Warwick was killed at Barnet in April, and invading Lancastrian forces defeated at Tewkesbury in May and Prince Edward killed. Edward IV ordered Henry VI’s murder.

1478 – The Death of Clarence. Clarence had deserted Warwick on Edward’s return from exile and been pardoned but remained troublesome. In 1471–4 he quarrelled with Gloucester over the Warwick inheritance. He was a destabilising influence in the regions where he was most powerful and there were rumours of treason. In 1478 he was condemned in parliament and subsequently killed in the Tower, allegedly drowned in a butt of malmsey. His destruction indicates Edward’s dominance and ruthlessness at this time.

1482 – Recovery of Berwick. This key frontier town had been surrendered to the Scots in early 1461, in the last throes of Henry VI’s rule. Anglo-Scottish relations were largely peaceable under Edward IV, once Scotland gave up supporting Lancastrians in exile. However, in 1482, encouraged by a disaffected Scottish noble, the Duke of Albany, an expedition to Scotland was launched under Gloucester. It achieved little, but did retake Berwick.

1485 – The battle of Bosworth. With French subvention and the support of Yorkist exiles, Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven in Wales in August. He travelled through the midlands, gathering support. Richard III’s forces, mustered at Nottingham, met Henry’s at Market Bosworth near Leicester on 22 August. Some of Richard’s greatest noble supporters failed to fight for him. Launching a brave, or foolhardy, attack on Henry’s centre, Richard was killed, leaving the victorious Henry to claim the throne.

1495 – Poynings’ Law. Support in Ireland for the Yorkist pretender, Perkin Warbeck, and feuding among the Irish lords led Henry VII to intensify his rule there. In 1494 he sent a close servant, Sir Edward Poynings, to restore order and allegiance. A number of acts concerning the government of Ireland were passed in the Irish parliament of 1494-5, including “Poynings’ Law”, which severely curtailed the independence of the Irish parliament from interference by the English king and council.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1534: Henry VIII declares his 'empire'

Go back: 1415: The battle of Agincourt

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543). (Photo by: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine