Wars of the Roses

At the time of the Canterbury Roll’s creation, England was in the middle of a dynastic crisis. The country was in chaos as two rival families, the Lancastrians and the Yorkists, fought for the crown in a drawn-out civil war that occupied much of the 15th century. These wars were known as the Wars of the Roses, named after the heraldic symbols of the two royal houses: the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York.

The Wars of the Roses threw England into political instability for the major part of the 15th century. Such a situation heightened awareness of lineage, descent, and genealogies. This may account for the prevalence and popularity of genealogical manuscripts during this era. The Canterbury Roll is an example of such a diagram produced during this period.

The Canterbury Roll shows the same 'war' fought on parchment rather than on the battlefield. Two different sides of the Lancaster-York conflict are portrayed on a genealogy that attempts to legitimise their respective kings - the Lancastrians Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI, and Edward IV of York:

Henry V (Lancaster)

Henry V (Lancaster)

Edward IV (York)

House of Lancaster

Although the ultimate origins of the Canterbury Roll are a mystery, it appears to have been created as a pro-Lancastrian manuscript. Its original production is dated between 1429 and 1438. When first drawn up it was like many other Lancastrian genealogical rolls that highlighted historical continuity and justified Lancastrian rights to the crown.

As with any dynasty, insistence on legitimacy was paramount for the Lancastrians. In 1399, Henry of Lancaster had deposed his cousin, Richard II, and bypassed the heir presumptive (Edmund) to establish himself as Henry IV. In the first half of the 15th century, the Lancastrian position seemed secure. For example, the successions of first Henry V and later the infant Henry VI were uncontested. Nonetheless, Lancastrian kings were vulnerable to other families with similarly strong claims to the throne. In particular, the danger for the Lancastrians came from the other major branch of the royal family: York.

This diagram shows the claim to the throne of the Lancastrian kings and the foundations of the later rival claim from Yorkists:

Kings of England: Edward III to Henry V (Lancaster)

Lancastrian succession

The original version of the Canterbury Roll ignores the troubled circumstances under which the Lancastrian Henry IV succeeded to the throne. It makes no mention of the deposition of the incumbent king Richard II or the decision to set aside the claims of the descendants of Lionel of Clarence. The Roll's commentary passes over the question of the Lancastrian succession in silence. The line of succession is drawn, without break or incidence, in a straight line from Edward III to Henry IV, giving the illusion of continuity:

The three circles on the central axis represent the succession of Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV


The Lancastrians were a usurping dynasty, and they were aware of the importance of establishing a strong sense of dynastic legitimacy. Genealogies such as the Canterbury Roll added to a dynasty's sense of prestige and reinforced that legitimacy while providing an authoritative account of the kings of England.

House of York


The rival challengers to the Lancastrian kings came from the descendants of Edmund, Duke of York.

While incomplete, the diagram below provides an expanded genealogy of the kings of England from Edward III to Henry VIII, encompassing the period known as the Wars of the Roses. (Click to enlarge in a new window).

The Houses of Lancaster and York

Click to Enlarge

The above diagram shows that the lineages from both Lionel (Duke of Clarence) and Edmund (Duke of York) provided the Yorkists with a strong case for the right to rule England. So much so that in 1461 Edward of York declared himself King Edward IV. The Yorkist involvement in the Canterbury Roll is explained in further detail in this section: Yorkist Revision.

Ultimately, the dynastic dispute concluded in 1485 when Henry Tudor (a distant Lancastrian claimant) was crowned Henry VII after defeating the last of the Yorkist kings, Richard III. Henry VII married Richard's sister, Elizabeth of York, founding the Tudor dynasty - a royal house that achieved infamy and renown over the next 117 years until the death of Henry VII's granddaughter, Elizabeth I.

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