The Myth of the Cousins’ War: A Guest Post by Leanda de Lisle

A hearty welcome to Leanda de Lisle! As I said in my last post, I thoroughly enjoyed her new book, Tudor: The Family Story. And now, here is Leanda:


The Wars of the Roses are so over. The power struggle between the red rose House of Lancaster and the white of York, has a new, and supposedly more ‘authentic’, name. Philippa Gregory, Sarah Gristwood and Alison Weir, have relabelled the era ‘the Cousins War’. They tell us this was the term used by contemporaries. But we are never told who these contemporaries were or where they used it. So which is the more ‘authentic’ term?

When I wrote my new dynastic history, ‘Tudor’ I believed that ‘the Wars of the Roses’ was a term first coined by the nineteenth century novelist Sir Walter Scott. The historian Dan Jones has since traced these exact words back to the eighteenth century historian David Hume. But as I note in Tudor, the origins of the phrase are much older than the form of words we now use.

The ‘wars of the roses’ were being referred to as ‘the quarrel of the two roses’ in the mid seventeenth century Before then you have Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, part I, with the scene in which Richard, Duke of York quarrels with the Lancastrian leader, Edmund, Duke of Somerset. The two men ask others to show their respective positions by picking a rose – red for Lancaster and white for York.


The simple five-petal design of the heraldic rose of the fifteenth century was inspired by the wild dog rose that grows in English hedgerows, and was used in different colours. The earliest association I found linking a red rose with the House of Lancaster was when Henry Bolingbroke – the future Henry IV, and first king of the House of Lancaster, had red roses decorating his pavilion at a joust in 1398.

At the height of the Lancastrian struggle with the House of York, the red rose appears again in a striking context. The deposed Lancastrian Henry VI was re-adapted briefly as king in 1470, and the Grocer’s Company in London planted red roses as a mark of their loyalty to him. Although the red rose was not a favourite Lancastrian badge, it marked a contrast with the white rose badge used by Henry VI’s enemy and rival, Edward IV of the House of York – the Grocer’s Company had ripped up white roses, to plant the red.

Detail of a Tudor rose, from British Library Royal 20 E III   f. 30v.
Detail of a Tudor rose, from British Library Royal 20 E III f. 30v.

In 1485 Henry Tudor chose the red rose as his favoured badge in the knowledge that he was to marry Elizabeth of York, the heir of the white rose dynasty. Within weeks of this marriage the royal mint had issued a coin featuring the double union rose, commonly termed the ‘Tudor rose’, in which the red petals of the Lancastrian rose, surround the white petals of the House of York. It became immensely popular with artists and poets, symbolising as it did, national healing after the civil wars.


Does the term ‘the Cousins war’ really have the same meaning or resonance? Certainly the House of Lancaster and York were cousins, the two families being descended from Edward III. But as royal houses intermarry, and as European nations were ruled by monarchies for most of their history, half the wars in Europe’s past could be described as ‘cousins wars’ – down to and even including World War I.

Should we really edit out the Wars of the Roses for a term as dull and woolly as ‘the Cousins war’? Does it actually have any history predating the works of Gregory, Gristwood and Weir? And in what way is it more authentic?

27 thoughts on “The Myth of the Cousins’ War: A Guest Post by Leanda de Lisle”

  1. I guess names like these are never really “contemporary”, it’s what we -people living later in time- do: put a label on things that happened in the past. It’s not like people in 15th century England waking up one morning, saying: “Let’s start the Wars of the Roses.” Or, for that matter, the Cousin’s War.
    In some ways it can be compared to the Eighty Years War in the Netherlands. It started in 1568, with attacks by the Prince of Orange, his brothers and others against the Duke of Alba, it ended in 1648 with the treaty of Münster, which ended the conflict between the German Emperor and the Spanish King, and the German states and the Dutch Republic (to name some of the parties). It *is* a period of eighty years, and many battles took place. But, was it a war? It started as a rise against the lawful government. There were other conflicts before 1568. So, nowadays historians say it should not be called a war, and it did not last for eighty years either.

    But, just try to find a new name for that period in Dutch history. Dutch schoolchildren hearing their teacher say: “Today we will look at the Eighty Years War,” understood the image. Just as in England most people have an image when hearing “Wars of the Roses”. Words as “rise against the Spanish King” or “cousins war” are not as strong. They are not images…
    Names as The Eighty Years War and Wars of the Roses are good and sound to point at a certain period in history. And ofcourse we can find things pro and contra these names. But why should we rename them? For one thing, they have a long history, and in the case of the the Wars of the Roses, the rose image -as is shown in this blogpost- has enough contemporary evidence to keep the image.

    Thank you for sharing this information with us.


      1. Though somewhat out of place here: when I went to my local bookshop (it’s a good one, with a large history department), no Leanda de Lisle available. (“Why not, she wrote several books!” No idea why, sir!”) But I did order Tudor today. Curious about it…
        And… at least one of their staff will remember your name now! LoL

  2. Great little article – but I would have liked to read it as part of a much larger one.
    I own ‘After Elizabeth’ which I have not yet read and ‘The Sisters Who Would Be Queen’ which I bought for pennies as a dog eared paperback then rebought as a brand new hardack – The best titles need keeping in their best format.

    Tudors, I would like a book that dealt far more deeply with the Tudors from our earliest sightings to 1485. A study of the people that built the foundations of the dynasty that we all know.

  3. An overdue post! I can’t stand the term “Cousin’s War”. The term to describe a war need not be contemporary anyway. The point of using any name is that everyone knows what you mean. The addition of the alternative name is confusing rather than helping to clarify anything. It was a dynastic struggle – I’m hardly going to be gobsmacked to discover that it involved cousins…

  4. I know it as the wars of the roses because that is what I learned in school. The cousins war is just rubbish penned by fictional writers who write history as they see it. Cousins war as no meaning stop using it.

    1. I would not call it rubbish, nor can I say that the three woman mentioned in this blog are fictional writers who write history as they see it. All three have written non fictional works. One of the problems connected to writing about history is that it involves interpretation. And interpretation is influenced by who the historian is. What is her / his background, in what age did the historian live. Historians are human after all; so in that respect all historians write about history as they see it.
      The point here is not the persons writing about history, nor their view on history. I think the point is if there is a good cause to change a term used to point at a certain period in English history. And in this case I see no point in changing the name. We have used it for a long period of time. When discussing history we all know what period we are talking about when we say The Wars of the Roses. Perhaps we can think of other names to give to that period. But what we should ask: is there a need to change the name. And then my answer is: no!


  5. I’m all for keeping ‘The Wars of the Roses’ – it makes sense, as paintings from the time depict it. I’d never heard of ‘The cousins war’, and I’ve been reading Yorkist/Lancastrian/Tudor history for over 30 years and have read the ‘classics’ such as G R Elton, etc. It’s a new, unwelcome title.

    I’ve just finished ‘The Tudors’ this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly the chapters concerning Margaret Beaufort.

  6. Couldn’t agree more! The rose as a symbol of the respective protagonists has, as you describe, a long and well known history. I suppose that rebranding an historical period may be perceived by some as making it more ‘relevant’ to a modern audience. However to sacrifice the clarity of a familiar and well understood description is not only sad but unnecessary (and I believe underestimates the audience!).

  7. There have always been Cousins’ Wars of one kind or another. How about Caesar and Cicero who were related? His uncle’s sister married the brother of the other’s grandmother.

    And guess who’s the third famous Roman to hail from the town of Arpinum besides Marius and Cicero? Agrippa!

    It’s not so much what’s in the history books that bothers me as what ain’t

  8. I agree completely, “Cousins War” sounds like some kind of feud between cousins over a small piece of land or inheritance… War of the Roses sounds much more epic and worthy of what the fight for the throne was all about!

  9. I’m glad to know that there is a historical justification for the term “War of the Roses”; I prefer that one over “Cousins’ War” because it is more specific … “Cousins War” could also apply to the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. Loved “Sisters who Would be Queen”; will read the new book soon.

  10. I think the name “The Cousin’s War” was another invention by P Gregory to promote her books by saying something controversial.
    It’s the “War of the Roses” end of story.

  11. Well said! I wish I knew how to do a “share” to my blog, as this is the exact kind of stuff I have been saying! (If anyone knows how, please pass along. New to all this stuff!)
    Every single noble house in England at the time were cousins of one kind or another. Most drew their lineage from Henry III, Edward I, or from Edward III, including both Lancaster and York. And most were so intermarried that even those that feuded married their children into their “enemy” house. Calling it “The Cousins War” could literally be any house. “War of the Roses” is much more specific.

  12. Has anyone actually read my book Lancaster and York (1994), on the origins of the term ‘the Wars of the Roses’? The concept goes back much further than Hume, and Shakespeare’s reference to the roses suggests that it was well established by his time. In the latter decades of the 20th century several academic historians followed S.B. Chrimes in asserting that the name ‘the Wars of the Roses’ was anachronistic, and some asserted that ‘Cousins’ Wars’ was the correct contemporary term, but I too can find no source cited, although I don’t have the full range of works to hand. But I would agree that the more appropriate term is ‘Wars of the Roses’. No historical novel should ever inform our true understanding of history.

  13. I note that on p 6 of Alison’s forthcoming book on Liz of York, she mentions ‘the Wars of the Roses – a term coined by Sir WS but which contemporaries called the Cousins War’. The concept of the wars of the roses does of course predate Shakespeare – Henry VII use of the union rose being a case in point

  14. An excellent article, Leanda. The Wars of the Roses is not my area of expertise and I had been wondering about the sudden use of the name “The Cousins’ War”, rather than the Wars of the Roses, with reference to Philippa Gregory’s series. I note that Conn Iggulden’s new fictional series is called “The Wars of the Roses”.
    I have a review copy of Alison Weir’s biography of Elizabeth of York and haven’t started it yet but I flicked to the page mentioned by Leanda and it does indeed say that the Wars of the Roses were called the Cousins’ War by contemporaries. There is no reference cited to back this up this so it would be good to know which contemporaries called it this, particularly as Alison Weir, in her comment above, says that “I too can find no source cited”. I’m confused, either it was called that by contemporaries, in which case there should be references, or it wasn’t.
    In my opinion, the Wars of the Roses is the term that the general public know and I don’t see any reason for changing it. Philippa Gregory’s books will always be popular, whatever she calls her series or however she refers to these troubled times, but it doesn’t mean that we should change the term to reflect the popularity of her books.

    1. Thanks Claire. I didn’t read Alison’s Lancaster and York because without references it is not very useful for research, although I am sure it is a cracking read. The new book is also rather casual in regards to refs, and I don\t agree with everything in it – but then history is all about argument and debate and if I agreed with everything I wld have found that rather dull! Congrats by the way on the recent publication of the Anne Boleyn Collection II

  15. I haven’t read that one either, so can’t comment on it. Very true, I always think of history as a living subject because it’s open to debate and we all have such different views, plus people get very passionate about it.
    Thank you, that’s kind of you to say.

  16. Well the term sells books! I agree; I do not like the term cousins war. I have always heard of it called for more than 40 years or so now as I remember the wars of the roes. It was the wars of the roses when reading about it in school and in dozens of books and articles since; so what is wrong with it being called this now? Shakespeare saw is as a war between two houses represented by two roses and the above painting is so iconic with the two leaders and their two roses. Cousins war may be more personally descriptive to remind us that the families were firmly bound by blood but I prefare the old term best and thank you for a great article.

  17. Please provide source for the reference to the Grocer’s Company in London planted red roses as a mark of their loyalty Henry VII in 1470

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