The House of Lancaster had come to the throne at the close of the fourteenth century, with a title, whose validity rested upon the legality of the election of Henry IV by the House of Commons. Henry IV, being son of John of Gaunt, fourth son of Edward III, could not be considered as the heir to the throne, if the Crown was to descend strictly by those rules of hereditary descent which the feudal law applied to the descent of real property. If such rules were to govern, the throne should have passed, after the deposition and death of Richard II, to Edward Mortimer, the infant son of Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, son of Phillippa, who was daughter and heiress of Lionel of Clarence, third son of Edward III.

The whole question, from a legal standpoint, as to the respective rights of the claimants of the Houses of York and Lancaster to the English throne, therefore, turned upon this question as to whether the throne of England was strictly hereditary, or whether, upon extraordinary occasion, the English Parliament had the right to vary such rules by the election of the most worthy member of the Royal Family. It was a question in which there was much difficulty in reaching any definite decision, although the historical arguments lay entirely on the side of the House of Lancaster. It was a question too difficult to be settled by law, a question whose final decision in the fifteenth century could only be decided by the sword. The War of the Roses, indeed, could not finally settle the real question. The varying fortunes of war placed first one nation and then the other in power, and even at its close the legal point in controversy could hardly be said to have been determined. It remained an open question in the English Constitution, down to the time of the accession of the House of Hanover.

It was two generations after the accession of Henry IV before the adverse claims of the descendants of Lionel first began to manifest themselves. At the time of the deposition of Richard II, the heir of the House of Mortimer was an infant, and among his followers there were none to make headway against the wary cunning of the Lancastrian King. The brilliant foreign victories of Henry V made him the idol of the English people, and it seemed as if the House of Lancaster was at last firmly established on the English throne, but the aspect of affairs suddenly changed in the reign of Henry VI. Coming to the throne when a few months of age, displaying throughout his life a weakness of intellect, which at times reached the point of absolute insanity, rendered unpopular by the acts of his ministers, by his marriage, by the loss during his reign of the foreign conquests of his father, the position of Henry VI after thirty years of his reign had been completed, was such as to invite attacks upon his power. The claim to the throne as the representative of the claims of the House of Lionel had now passed to Richard, Duke of York, who, on the male side, was descended from the fifth son of Edward III. At first the Duke of York only claimed to be considered as the heir of Henry VI, but upon the unexpected birth of a son to the King, he advanced the bolder claim to the immediate possession of the crown, even as against Henry himself.

It would be out of place to speak in detail of the kaleidoscopic changes of fortune of the thirty years through which the Wars of the Roses extended. The defeat and death of Richard, the first claimant of the House of York was succeeded by a series of Yorkist victories, which placed Edward IV, son of Richard upon the English throne, and sent Henry VI to prison and his wife and son into exile. The temporary change of fortune caused by the desertion of Edward's greatest supporter, Warwick, the king maker, was soon followed by greater successes for the House of York and the murder of Henry VI and of his son. Edward IV continued, thereafter, throughout his life upon the throne of England without interruption, and it now seemed as if the House of York had finally succeeded to the throne, but as in the case of the House of Lancaster, the appearance proved deceptive. The unpopularity of Richard III, who was supposed to have murdered his nephew, Edward V, in order to obtain the throne, at length aroused new opposition, and Henry Richmond took the field against him as the last representative of the House of Lancaster.

Few claimants for the English throne ever possessed a more remote connection with the royal family. He was descended, on the male side, from a long line of Welsh gentlemen of no very great prominence, but into which family had been infused by marriage the claim to the throne, derived from John of Gaunt, through his late and rather illegitimate marriage. It was, however, owing much more to the unpopularity of Richard rather than the strength upon which his claim rested, which brought him the support which enabled him to win his decisive victory at the battle of Bosworth, the last battle of the Civil War.

The details of the struggle of the War of the Roses are of mere passing interest to the student of English Constitutional History; nor was the result of the war, so far as it affected the fortunes of the two houses themselves, of any very vital importance to England. The important result of the War of the Roses was the destruction of the greater part of English nobility. Death on the field of battle, on the block, and in banishment, had so thinned the ranks of the body, which in an early age had more than once proved too strong for the royal power itself, that it was a mere shadow of the House of Lords which was left to meet Henry VII after his coronation.

From the close of the War of the Roses, there were two great parties instead of three, struggling for the controlling power in the government of England. The nobles had received a blow from which they never recovered, and the contest for supremacy was left to the King and to the House of Commons. The immediate effect was to greatly increase the power of the King. In the contest against the King the leading place had previously been taken by the House of Lords. The House of Commons, on such occasions, had generally taken but a secondary part, merely supporting the Lords in their resistance. The nobility had now become no longer able to make headway against the King, and the Commons were not yet ready to take the initiative. The result was that the Kings of the Houses of York and Tudor were the most despotic in English history. When in the seventeenth century the absolute power of the King is once more resisted, it was no longer the House of Lords but the House of Commons which was able to claim for itself a share in the government of England. The temporary eclipse of English liberty becomes thus merely the prelude to its final establishment on a more firm and permanent basis.