Thursday, January 23, 2014

Family Feuds: A Cause of War

by Nancy Kelley

Edward III

Edward III made a mistake. It’s an easy one to make, really, but it still had far-reaching consequences for his kingdom. His mistake? Too many of his sons survived to adulthood.

Richard II
When I watched The Royal Shakespeare Company perform Richard II last fall, I realized three of the principle characters were first cousins: Richard, son of Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince; Henry Bolingbroke, son of Edward’s middle son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; and the Duke of Aumerle, son of Edward’s fourth son, the Duke of York. The action of the play follows the final few years of Richard’s life, from the funeral of his youngest uncle, the Duke of Gloucester (who history strongly indicates Richard had a hand in killing), through his deposition at the hands of Bolingbroke, and finally his own murder.

And we all know what followed: Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV, his son Henry V, and etc. But was Bolingbroke truly the next in line to the throne?

You might have noticed I only mentioned four of Edward III’s five sons. The second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, did not have a surfeit of sons as his father did. However, he did have two grandsons. The elder, Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March, was by the laws of primogeniture the heir presumptive to the English throne. When he died in 1398, that passed, presumably, to his own son, Edmund.

And yet it was not Edmund who became king when Richard was deposed. His uncle Edmund (who should have been second in line to the throne) supported Bolingbroke’s claim. And so Henry Bolingbroke, who by the standard understanding of succession was fourth in line, took the throne.

So what, Nancy? What does that have to do with Edward III having too many sons?

Ah, but a deposition and usurpation of the crown from its rightful heir set a pattern for what happened three more times in the next one hundred years of English history. When Henry V’s son, Henry VI, proved to be mentally unstable, a distant cousin deposed him and took the throne, usurping the title from Henry’s son and rightful heir. Despite the fact that Edward was only a boy, stepping in when there was an heir apparent instead of just an heir presumptive, as Edmund had been, was a much bolder move.

Edward, Duke of York, was the great-great-grandson of Edward III, descended from both the second and fourth sons. His claim to the throne was on a similar level to Bolingbrokes: legitimate, except for the fact that he skipped over several people in line to become king.

Understandably, the Lancastrian family took a fairly dim view on these events, and there we have the beginning of the War of the Roses, known at the time as The Cousins’ War. In the next thirty years, two more kings would be removed from the throne by a relative—first the young Edward V by his uncle, Richard III (the fate of young Edward after Richard took the throne is still a mystery), and then Richard himself by a very distant cousin, Henry Tudor.

Four kings removed from power. Three cousins and one uncle taking the crown instead. Four usurpations, with each new king skipping over the next in line to rule.

Had Edward III not had quite so many sons, there would not have been room for all the bickering over who got to be king next. The offspring of those royal princes turned the next century of English history in a large family squabble about who deserved to have the largest portion of the inheritance. Laws of succession get harder to enforce when there are multiple heirs with strong claims to the throne. It’s even more difficult when one farther down has a larger army than the true heir.

It was an easy mistake to make, on Edward’s part. Who knew those five sons would all survive to adulthood? In those days, it paid to have at least an heir and a spare. But Edward’s stock proved heartier than most, and that simple fact set the stage for the Wars of the Roses.


Nancy Kelley majored in psychology for three semesters. Her favorite course was family systems, the study of how family patterns can be passed down and relationships within a family.

However, she decided that as much as she loved psychology, she would rather analyze historical figures and fictional characters. She changed her degree and now writes historical romance. Her first three novels, His Good Opinion, Loving Miss Darcy, and Against His Will, are all companions to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

You can find Nancy at, on and on Twitter @Nancy_Kelley.

All paintings are in the public domain in the United States because they were published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.


  1. I have to say the War of the Roses is my favourite part of English history, and the complexity of family relationships makes it feel like trying to unravel a really badly tangled, and potentially never-ending ball of wool. When you're reading about the characters involved, it's so much more fascinating when you consider the myriad ties of family and marriage that connected them. Thanks Edward and Phillippa...

    1. "The complexity of family relationships" is the best way to sum it up. I won't tell you how long it took me to figure out exactly what place in the succession Bolingbroke was--going back to his first cousins to see if they had sons born before Richard died, and who was born first, etc, was not an easy process.

  2. Yes, I have always thought the problem was with Edward III having too many sons. Mind you, his own background was full of war and he was an only son! Primogeniture must have been a headache, but it was probably better than Scotland's murderous fighting over the throne in the early days, because they DIDN'T have it.


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