Wars of the Roses

At the time of the Canterbury Roll’s original production, England was in the middle of a dynastic crisis. The Roll was first drawn up thirty years after the throne was seized by the Lancastrian family. Less than three decades after its creation, the country fell into chaos as the Lancastrians and a rival family, the Yorkists, fought for the crown in a prolonged civil war. These wars became 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 much 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 one such work.

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 legitimize their respective kings – the Lancastrians Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI, and Edward IV of York.

Henry V (Lancaster)









King Henry V (House of Lancaster)
King Edward IV (House of York)

House of Lancaster

Although the ultimate origins of the Canterbury Roll are a mystery, it was certainly created as a pro-Lancastrian text. The work of the earliest scribal hand to appear on the Roll, that of the Lancastrian Scribe, dates to between 1429 and 1433. When first drawn up, our roll highlighted historical continuity and justified Lancastrian rights to the crown, as did many similar contemporary rolls.

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 genealogy shows the claim to the throne of the Lancastrian kings and the foundations of the later rival Yorkist claim.

Kings of England: Edward III to Henry V (House of 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.

Roundels representing the succession of Edward III (CRN499), Richard II (CRN502), & Henry IV (CRN519)

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 main challenge to the Lancastrian kings came from the descendants of Edmund, duke of York.

The below table provides an expanded, albeit incomplete, genealogy of the kings of England from Edward III to Henry VIII, encompassing the period known as the Wars of the Roses (select to open in a new window).

The Houses of Lancaster and York

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The genealogy 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 the 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 niece, 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.


Scribal Hands in the Digital Edition

The Lancastrian Scribe: Identified in the Digital Edition by the red rose of Lancaster. This is the earliest hand to appear on the Canterbury Roll. The scribe is responsible for the majority of the manuscript’s commentary and roundels.

The Lancastrian Scribe’s work was first identified by Arnold Wall. His contribution was dated to 1429 to 1438 in the 1970s/80s; it was narrowed to 1429 to 1433 by Maree Shirota in 2015.