The Wars of the Roses

From time to time my children ask me about our ancestors. Have we got a pirate in our family tree? Did we have someone at Waterloo? Were we part of the Raj?

Recently my daughter Charlotte wondered if our family had supported the Lancastrians or the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses. The short answer of course, is ‘Yes, very likely’. The war started in 1455 and continued for over thirty years, so given the usual pattern of branching genealogical descent it is probable that we had forebears on both sides.

The Vauxs

The English civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, fought over whether the House of Lancaster or the House of York should control the English throne, began in 1455 and continued for 30 years.

 “Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens” by Henry Albert Payne (1868-1940) based upon a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Retrieved from Wikipedia.

My fifteenth great grandfather William Vaux (1435 – 1471) supported the Red Rose of Lancaster, but when the Yorkists won a series of battles in 1461 Vaux was convicted of treason and his lands were confiscated, including his principal manor at Harrowden in Northamptonshire. He was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471. (Last year we visited Tewkesbury Abbey and looked at the nearby battlefield. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the name William Vaux seems to have gone unrecorded there.)

Tewkesbury Abbey

Vaux left a widow, Katherine, and at least two children: Nicholas (born about 1460, my 14th great grandfather) and Jane or Joan.

Katherine, a lady of the household of Queen Margaret, was with the Queen when she was taken prisoner by King Edward IV after the battle, and she stayed by the Queen during her imprisonment in the Tower of London. On the Queen’s release in 1476 Katherine went with her into exile.

Illumination from the Books of the Skinners Company : Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI – the picture commemorates the Queen’s entry into the fraternity about 1475/6. Image retrieved from Wikipedia. It is suggested in the book “Middle Aged Women in the Middle Ages that the lady in waiting is possibly Katherine Vaux.

Nicholas Vaux and his sister Joan were brought up in the Lancastrian household of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII.

It seems likely that Nicholas Vaux fought under Margaret Beaufort’s husband, Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. This of course was the decisive battle which put the Lancastrian Henry Tudor on the throne as King Henry VII. The defeated King Richard III, who Shakespeare has crying ‘a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’, was killed. (In 2012 his skeleton, identified by DNA, was unearthed beneath a carpark in Leicester.)

Battle of Bosworth Field by Philip James de Loutherbourg retrieved from Wikipedia

Nicholas Vaux prospered under the new king. His family property was restored to him, he was frequently at court, and he held a number of official positions, one of them the important command of Guisnes in 1502. Guisnes, an English possession, was a castle six miles south of Calais.

Guisnes castle pictured in a 1545 painting of The Field of the Cloth of Gold (see below)

Nicholas Vaux is said to have spent the summer months in Guisnes and the autumn and winter in England.

Nicholas’s sister Joan became governess to Henry VII’s daughters. Joan’s first marriage in 1489 was attended by the King and Queen.

When Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509, Nicholas Vaux continued to be active at court. In 1511 he entertained the king at the Vaux estates in Harrowden. Among other roles Vaux was a royal ambassador to France in 1514 and 1518.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

In 1520 Nicholas Vaux served as one of three commissioners responsible for a formal meeting between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France, staged as a tournament. The summit, which ran for 18 days between 7 June and 24 June was arranged to strengthen the bond of friendship between the two kings.

The tournament was a magnificent royal spectacle which from the richly embroidered fabrics of the tents and costumes became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, oil painting of circa 1545 in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court. Henry VIII on horseback approaches at bottom left. Retrieved from Wikipedia. Guisnes Castle is to the left of the temporary palace which has a wine fountain in its forecourt.

In just over two months, a huge English workforce erected several thousand tents, built a tiltyard (or tournament arena) for jousting and armed combats, and constructed a vast temporary palace of 10,000 square metres to accommodate the English King.

The feasting and entertainments were extraordinarily lavish.  “Each king tried to outshine the other, with dazzling tents and clothes, huge feasts, music, jousting and games.” 12,000 people attended. The English accounts English food and drink accounts showed provisions of nearly 200,000 litres of wine (wine was flowing from two fountains) and 66,000 litres of beer; the English food supplies included 98,000 eggs, more that 2,000 sheep, 13 swans, and 3 porpoises.

Both kings took part in the tournaments. “While the carefully established rules of the tournament stated that the two kings would not compete against each other, Henry surprisingly challenged Francis in a wrestling match, but it turned sour for Henry when he quickly lost.”

Vaux’s marriages

Vaux married twice.

His first wife, Elizabeth Fitzhugh (died 1507) was the widow of Sir William Parr (died 1483; her granddaughter Catherine Parr through her first marriage became the sixth wife of Henry VIII).  Elizabeth was the niece of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick (known to history as Warwick the Kingmaker). The Lancastrian Vaux’s first marriage was thus to a Yorkist.

His second wife, Anne Greene, was the sister of Maud Parr nee Green, who was the wife of Thomas Parr who was the son of Nicholas’s first wife. Maud was the mother of Catherine Parr. Anne Greene was the sister of Nicholas Vaux’s first wife’s daughter-in-law Maud.

Abbreviated family tree showing the two wives of Nicholas Vaux (c 1460 – 1523).
Vaux’s first wife was grandmother and his second wife was aunt to Catherine Parr who married King Henry VIII in 1543.

In May 1522 England was at war with France and Vaux was at Guisnes ensuring its defence. In September 1822 he was reported to be “very sore”: either sick or wounded. He returned to England and died on 14 May 1523 at the hospital of St. John, Clerkenwell, London.

Nicholas Vaux had three surviving daughters by his first marriage and two surviving sons and three surviving daughters by his second marriage. His oldest son Thomas inherited the title and was also at court.

Nicholas Vaux is a minor character in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. He has four lines directing a barge to be prepared to ferry Buckingham to his execution. It has been observed that Vaux showed ‘his humanity and respect for the Duke by ordering that the barge to convey him to his death be properly decorated to reflect the Duke’s status’.