“The Rose of England”


A rose springs up in England, but is rooted up by a boar. The rose returns via Milford Haven, gathers his forces, wins the field, becomes king, and receives great praise.


To tell the history of the Wars of the Roses in less than thirty thousand words is impossible (especially since it involves the story of Richard III, who is perhaps the most controversial figure in all of human history), but here goes anyway:

In 1399, King Richard II was deposed (with good reason; he was an inept despot).

The throne, however, did not pass to his heir (his great-grand-nephew, a Mortimer) but to his cousin Henry IV. This was acceptable as long as Henry IV and his son Henry V were alive. But in 1422, just after he had been declared heir to the kingdom of France, Henry V died, leaving as his only heir a nine month old boy, Henry VI.

Without a strong king, England soon lost control of France (the last possessions outside Calais were lost by 1453). To make matters worse, Henry VI was feeble-minded, and was married to a tremendously ambitious queen, Margaret of Anjou. Their inept government descended into chaos when Henry went mad.

Eventually a civil war arose between Henry's partisans and the partisans of Richard Duke of York (the legitimate heir of Richard II). Richard of York probably didn't really want the throne, but when Margaret had him killed, Richard's son Edward had no choice but to seize power (1461). It took Edward (IV) ten years to gain a firm grip on power (it is probably not coincidence that Edward gained firm control in 1471, when his brother Richard turned 18. Richard was Edward's chief support in the last years of his reign). Edward reigned for another twelve peaceful years. Then disaster struck. Edward died young in 1483, leaving as his heir a twelve year old boy (Edward V) who was in the hands of a rapacious faction. When a rumor arose that Edward V was illegitimate, Richard seized the throne. (The fact that his seizure cost a couple of people their heads should not conceal the fact that it was arguably legal and undoubtably the best thing for England.)

The Lancastrian faction (which had earlier supported Henry VI) managed to find a new candidate for the throne in Henry Tudor, a semi-illegitimate descendent of Henry IV's father John of Gaunt. By a minor miracle, Henry defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and became king as Henry VII. (Despite the song, it should be noted that Richard III was far more legitimate than Henry VII, was probably a better soldier, gave every evidence of being a decent man when politics wasn't involved, and was *not* deformed. Henry, by contrast, was a cheap, rather ugly coward.) To firm up his claim, Henry also had to marry Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth.

It is ironic to note that Henry was often proclaimed as a gift from God designated to rescue England from Richard. But Henry's arrival corresponded to the arrival of the "Sweating Sickness," which apparently killed tens of thousands of people by the time of the last known outbreak in 1551. (According to _The Wordsworth Encyclopedia of Plague & Pestilence_, there were outbreaks in 1485, 1507-1508, 1516-1517, 1529, and 1551). Thus the sickness was virulent just about exactly as long as there were male Tudors on the throne. No, I don't think the facts actually related. But it's something for the "divine intervention" folks to consider.)

The title "The Rose of England" came from Henry's adopted token of the red rose -- and also from the white rose that was the token of the House of York (the family of Edward IV, Richard III, and Elizabeth). Whether Henry VII was an improvement over Richard III can be debated -- but certainly he was no rose. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the company he kept: The three men most responsible for making him king were

- Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, who was murdered by his own people for his behavior

- Sir William Stanley, a multiple turncoat who had been spared by Richard and who saved Henry's life -- but was executed by Henry half a dozen years later for treason! (Of which more below.)

- Lord Thomas Stanley, Sir William's brother and Henry's stepfather, another turncoat whom Richard had spared. He lived to become Earl of Derby, but Henry kicked him out of his government

Henry's Chancellor was John Morton, Bishop of Ely, whose chief accomplishment was his ability to extort money from Henry's subjects.

All in all, a man with very unpleasant associates. The best thing that can be said for Henry VII is that he was the grandfather of Elizabeth I -- but, of course, Edward IV was Elizabeth's great-grandfather, and Richard III her great-great-uncle.

The sundry references in this song include the following:

"A crowned king... ouer England, Ireland, and France": The kings of England had claimed the throne of France since the time of Edward III -- but in Henry VII's time, only Calais was still in Henry's hands, and the only use Henry made of the title was to use it to extort money for "invasions" he had no intention of carrying out.

"Milford Hauen": Milford Haven, the town in Wales where Henry VII landed when he set out to attack Richard III.

"Sir Rice ap Thomas": Rhys ap Thomas was a Welsh chieftain who brought his forces over to Henry Tudor (in return for promises of high office).

"Erle Richmond": The closest thing Henry Tudor had to a legitimate title; his father had been appointed Earl of Richmond by Henry VI in 1452. (Though Edward IV withdrew the title while Henry was still a boy; see Elizabeth Jenkins, _The Princes in the Tower_, Coward, McCann & Geoghan, 1978, p. 22).

"Sir William Stanley": As noted above, Sir William Stanley was the brother of Lord Thomas Stanley (c. 1435-1504; second Lord Stanley and by this time first Earl of Derby), who was the third husband of Margaret Beaufort, Henry's mother. Thomas Stanley was a member of Richard's government, but (for obvious reasons) the Stanleys would have preferred the Tudor on the throne.

The Brothers Stanley, however, refused to show their colors; both brought forces to the Battle of Bosworth -- and then refused to fight! Only when Richard ordered his charge against Henry Tudor did William Stanley intervene; his forces killed Richard and probably saved Henry Tudor's life.

It surely says something about both William Stanley and Henry Tudor that, in 1495, Henry accused William Stanley of treasonable support for a pretender and had him executed. Henry's only sign of gratitute to the man who put him on the throne was to pay for Stanley's burial.

"The Erle of Oxford": John de Vere (c. 1443-1513), the (Lancastrial) Earl of Oxford, and a sort of a "yellow dog Lancastrian": He'd support a yellow dog for king as long as it wasn't a Yorkist.

"King Richard": Richard III. The reference in the song to a boar who rooted up the rose of England is probably an allusion to Richard's emblem of the White Boar.

The part about rooting up the Rose of England doubtless refers to the disappearance of Edward V. Shortly after being set aside as King, Edward and his brother Richard disappeared. Their fate was and is unknown (there are a couple of skeletons that might be theirs, but Elizabeth II has refused to allow genetic testing to find out for sure). It is likely that Richard killed them -- but even Henry VII couldn't offer any proof of that; there are those who think he killed Edward V himself, and if those unknown skeletons are really those of the Princes in the Tower, it's also possible that Edward V died of dental problems. It's a mystery that simply cannot be solved.

For additional details on Richard III's story, see the notes to "The Children in the Wood (The Babes in the Woods) [Laws Q34]" and "The Vicar of Bray." - RBW

Historical references

  • 1485 - Death of Richard III. Accession of Henry VII


  1. Child 166, "The Rose of England" (1 text)
  2. Flanders/Olney, p. 91, "The Rose of England" (1 fragment, with lyrics somewhat resembling Child's but so short that it may not be the same song)
  3. Flanders-Ancient3, pp. 149-150, "The Rose of England" (1 text, the same fragment as Flanders/Olney)
  4. Roud #4001
  5. BI, C166


Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1750 (Percy folio)
Found in: US(NE)