The traditional view of 15th c. England has been that of a decadent society, torn by a bloody civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. Between 1455 and 1485 the armies of the Houses of Lancaster and York fought each other on numerous occasions and as a result the crown changed hands 5 times. This turmoil was ended when Henry Tudor of the House of Lancaster became king, married Elizabeth of York, ended the civil wars, and brought peace and prosperity to England.

In a 1981 study, Wars of the Roses, John Gillingham argues that England was not a war-torn society, but "the most peaceful country in Europe." He believes the Wars of the Roses were really caused by: 1) shortcomings of Henry VI, 1459-61; 2) discontent of Earl of Warwick, 1469-71; and 3) ambitions of Richard III, 1483-87.

Henry VI was dominated by his wife, Margaret of Anjou, and his counselors, the Dukes of Suffolk and Somerset, and ignored the wealthiest landowner of England, Richard of York. In 1453 Henry suffered a mental breakdown and for 18 months was unable to speak or use his limbs. These mental relapses would occur frequently throughout the rest of his life.

The Act of Accord, 24 October 1460, allowed Henry VI to keep the throne but decreed it would pass upon his death to Richard and his heirs. Although Richard of York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460, his son was proclaimed Edward IV in March 1461 after the Yorkist defeat of the Lancastrians at Towton.

Warwick was upset with Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and allied with Edward's brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in two attempts in 1469 and 1470 to overthrow the king. Edward IV fled to Holland in October 1470 and Henry VI was once more declared king. Edward recaptured the throne in May 1471, however.

Edward IV's death in 1483 made his 12 year old son, Edward, king, but the boy's uncle, Richard of Gloucester, kidnapped Edward V and his younger brother and had himself crowned Richard III in July 1483. Discontented Englishmen rallied round the Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. (This is the Tudor view, anyway.)

Gillingham argues that the dynastic struggle did not create the conflicts but rather channeled them and permitted them to be resolved. The wars were caused not by structural or ideological tensions but by the shortcomings of Henry VI, Warwick, and Richard III. Most Englishmen were not involved in the fighting and the battles produced few casualties.