It was perhaps history's nastiest family feud -- a bloody clash in the late 15th century between the royal houses of York, represented by the white rose, and Lancaster, represented by the red, over which family branch of the Plantagenet dynasty should rule England.

Three kings, a prince of Wales and numerous dukes were murdered, executed or killed in battle during "The Wars of the Roses," a body count that belies the fanciful name given to the great struggle years after it ended.

Only in the last few centuries, as their power gradually diminished to almost nothing, have British monarchs been able to sit securely on their thrones. Before that, the crown was frequently up for grabs for anyone strong enough to seize it.

Brothers fought brothers; sons went to war against fathers. In one instance, a daughter took the crown from her dad.

The reason for this familial warfare was simple. Sovereignty meant power. Kings sat at the highest level of human existence, divinely ordained, it was believed, to rule ordinary mortals. They had power over life and death. They could create or destroy an individual's wealth and were the ultimate arbiters of justice.

In short, it was good to be king, except when it came to fending off predatory relatives who also wanted to be king.

Today, "duke" and "earl" are honorary or hereditary titles given to royal relatives of the figurehead sovereign and other aristocrats. But these titles once meant far more.

A duke of York, for example, literally controlled that portion of England. He owned vast tracts of land; lower gentry and peasants who farmed it owed him rent. This created immense wealth, which in turn allowed dukes and earls to raise and support their own armies.

With such tremendous resources at their disposal, dukes often posed a dangerous threat to kings. And, in a system of hereditary monarchy that demanded it, they usually had the royal blood to back up their armed might in the quest for the crown.

Amid this atmosphere of kill or be killed, the Wars of the Roses were fought. The extended royal drama, which so intrigued William Shakespeare that he devoted half of his history plays to it, was rooted in 1399 when King Edward III's grandson, the son of the Duke of Lancaster, usurped the throne of his cousin, Richard II, and became King Henry IV [see family tree on facing page].

Thus, Henry started the Lancastrian line of kings. After taking the crown from cousin Richard, Henry had him murdered. While this was no way to promote kinship, things went fairly smoothly for the Lancastrian kings, at least for a time.

Henry IV's son peacefully inherited his father's throne in 1413 and went down in history as the heroic Henry V, defeating the French at Agincourt and other great battles during the Hundred Years War while reasserting English power on the continent. The triumphant king died young, however, and his far less inspiring son took the throne.

Henry VI, not yet a year old when he became king in 1422, grew up to be a kind, pious man, if a bit of a simpleton. Plain and unassuming, he much preferred wearing a hair shirt to a crown and abhorred war and bloodshed.

He is still revered as the founder of Eton, the famed boy's school, and King's College, Cambridge. Good guy though he was, Henry was a dazzlingly incompetent monarch.

In the medieval world, when mighty rulers were needed to subdue sometimes overwhelming chaos, Henry VI was a toothless lion on a savage plain. He was, as Pope Pius II, a contemporary, described him, "a man more timorous than a woman, utterly devoid of wit or spirit."

Blushing at the very mention of sex and sincerely believing that his son had been sired by the Holy Spirit, Henry was hardly meant to dominate the feudal food chain.

Surrounding himself with greedy and inept advisers who picked his coffers clean, Henry allowed England to slide into disorder, debt and decay. Crowned ruler of France as well, he stood idle as the once-vast English possessions there gradually were snatched away by the likes of Joan of Arc and others, until almost nothing was left.

To further undermine Henry's effectiveness, this already painfully dull man suffered from debilitating bouts of insanity.

As England fell into ruin and France leaked away under Henry's timid rule, the king's powerful cousin, Richard, Duke of York, watched with increasing agitation. A descendant of two of Edward III's sons on both his parent's sides, Richard had a claim to the throne arguably superior to that of Henry. In time, out of sheer frustration, he would assert it. An ugly family clash was looming.

the battle begins

In 1454, the nobles put the Duke of York in charge of the kingdom while cousin Henry suffered one of his early bouts with madness, but Richard's influence quickly waned after the king recovered.

Seeking greater control and especially to oust Henry's favorite, their mutual cousin, the Duke of Somerset, Richard confronted Henry by force at St. Albans in 1455. Somerset was killed, and the king was wounded in the neck by an arrow.

After this first battle in the Wars of the Roses, the York branch of the family was ahead by one victory, but removal of King Henry was not yet the goal. That would come later.

The meek and gentle monarch sought peace and reconciliation above all, but his ferocious French queen, Margaret of Anjou, was eager to quash the despised Duke of York. Since she was the marriage partner with all of the mettle, Margaret usually got her way.

London at this time was swarming with agitated supporters of both the Duke of York and Henry, the Lancastrian king, as the government tried to mediate their differences. Ever the dependable sap, the king staged a "love day" ceremony to encourage and display family unity. Although Queen Margaret acquiesced in the idea, even walking hand in hand with her sworn enemy York in a procession to St. Paul's Cathedral, she did so with clenched teeth.

Margaret was convinced that York sought to steal Henry's throne, a suspicion that became all the more gnawing after St. Albans, when the duke again assumed control of the kingdom as Henry suffered another "episode."

Raising an army, the angry queen defeated her husband's cousin, York, at the Battle of Ludlow in 1459 and sent him scurrying to Ireland. Using less than subtle language, she then introduced legislation declaring him a traitor.

In it, Margaret deplored York's "most diabolic unkindness and wretched envy" and his "execrable and most detestable" deed at St. Albans. The English peers who subsequently became known as "The Parliament of Devils" passed the act.

Bill or no bill, the newly outlawed Duke of York was far from finished. Returning to England, his forces routed those of the king at Northumberland, after which Henry was returned to London a prisoner in 1460. York then entered the city and formally submitted his claim to the throne.

HENRY TAKES A STAND

For once, Henry VI stood up for himself. In defiance of his cousin York's claim, he proclaimed to a gathering of nobles:

"My father was king [Henry V]; his father was also king [Henry IV]; I have worn the crown for 40 years, from my cradle. You have all sworn fealty to me as your sovereign, and your fathers did the like to my fathers. How then can my right be disputed?"

While no one was prepared to unseat an anointed king, York held the power. Parliament, less powerful than the king and far from the firmly established lawmaking institution of today, reached a compromise of sorts. The duke was reluctantly declared first in line to inherit the crown, displacing King Henry's only son, Edward of Lancaster. Now Queen Margaret was really angry.

Raising another army in 1460, she attacked York's army at the Battle of Wakefield, during which the duke was killed. His severed head was displayed on the gates of York city with a paper crown stuck to it -- a medieval way of mocking his kingly pretensions.

Heading south, Queen Margaret's victorious Lancastrian forces then attacked the remnants of York's troops in the second Battle of St. Albans. King Henry was reunited with his family after reportedly spending the entire skirmish laughing and singing to himself.

Margaret, meanwhile, treated their son to a little post-battle entertainment, allowing the 7-year-old Prince of Wales, Edward of Lancaster, to condemn the Yorkist leaders and watch their executions.

The queen, however, would have little time to gloat. The Duke of York was dead, but his formidable 17-year-old son and heir, the future Edward IV, was gathering strength. Certainly, he hadn't found the stunt with his father's severed head one bit funny.

Londoners also were unamused by the looting and pillaging King Henry's forces had done while heading south. They slammed the city's gates on the royal family and their Lancastrian army and welcomed York's son, who immediately declared himself King Edward IV.

Issuing a rather windy proclamation in 1461, Edward lamented that the time of "our adversary, he that calleth himself King Henry the Sixth," had begotten "not plenty, peace, justice, good governance, policy and virtuous conversation, but unrest, inward war and trouble, unrightwiseness, shedding and effusion of innocent blood, abusion of the laws, partiality, riot, extortion, murder, rape and vicious living."

This was an elaborate justification for the second usurpation of the throne by a family member in less than a century. It would not be the last.

Edward was now sovereign, but Henry still lived. England's new monarch chased his predcessor north, where Edward's troops vanquished Henry's at Towton in the most savage encounter of the long, dreadful family feud.

"This battle was sore fought," one chronicler wrote of the cold winter clash, "for hope of life was set [a]side on every part and taking of prisoners was proclaimed a great offence."

The snow shimmered with the blood of thousands hacked apart or pierced by arrows, including that of 42 Lancastrian knights whom Edward ordered beheaded on the battlefield immediately after their capture.

The new king had proved a victorious warrior. With his hulking frame covered in gilded armor and his helmet adorned with a jeweled coronet, he inspired his soldiers whenever he appeared among them in the thick of battle. Cousin Henry, on the other hand, characteristically spent the night praying.

THE FAMILY FLEES

After the devastating loss, the deposed royal family made a midnight escape to Scotland, carrying whatever possessions it could and followed by a stunned and shivering retinue. The former King Henry VI became an elusive shadow, hovering forlornly around his lost kingdom for years.

After wandering from refuge to refuge, he was captured in 1465, betrayed by a monk who had been sheltering him. "He fell into the bloody hands of his deadly enemies, his own subjects," as one contemporary put it.

To compound the indignity, the former king of England, his feet tied to the stirrups beneath the belly of his horse and his head covered by a straw hat, was paraded through several towns on his way to imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Parliament, meanwhile, had declared "the said Henry, usurper" a traitor, while enthusiastically confirming Edward's claim to the throne after his formal coronation.

Despite pockets of Lancastrian resistance, often led by the indefatigable former queen, Margaret, Edward IV's Yorkist regime seemed secure. The Wars of the Roses, however, were far from finished.

Edward wore the crown but had another close relative, the Earl of Warwick, to thank for it. Known to history as "the kingmaker," Warwick had the resources to be the second most powerful man in England. Problem was, he wanted to be the first.

relations collapse

The eventual confrontation between the king and his "over mighty subject" would result in the stunning restoration of Henry VI. Given the family history, Edward should not have been surprised.

His relationship with Warwick deteriorated gradually as the earl unsuccessfully attempted to control his royal kinsman in exchange for helping him to gain the crown. But when the king married Elizabeth Woodville, a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Margaret, relations between the two collapsed.

Warwick loathed the new queen, primarily because she sought to advance many of her relatives. With King Edward's support, they married well, reaped huge financial rewards and were given influential positions in government. Warwick felt threatened and lashed out.

First, he encouraged a popular revolt in Kent in 1469, manipulating widespread discontent about the queen's greedy relatives. Her father and brother were early victims of the rebellion, beheaded without trial on Warwick's orders. It was a none too subtle message from the earl to cousin Edward IV that he was not happy.

Warwick's cohorts, including King Edward's own brother, the Duke of Clarence, continued to sow rebellion, even capturing the king at one point. Edward was forced to abandon any pretense of friendship with his treacherous relatives and declare war. Though he issued a proclamation in the spring of 1470 denouncing Warwick and Clarence as "rebels and traitors," he was to lose his crown that fall.

Warwick was convinced that he could never control Edward. He also realized that the English people would never accept his ally, Clarence, as their sovereign. If he wanted to wield power, restoring the simple-minded and malleable Henry VI was his only option.

Sailing to France, Warwick made an uneasy peace with Margaret and swore fealty to Henry. Then he invaded England. Edward barely had time to escape before the earl's forces swarmed London. The "kingmaker" then moved to restore to the throne the same monarch whom he had helped remove nine years earlier!

Dazed and bewildered, Henry VI was released from the Tower of London, where it was noted that he looked and smelled like a prisoner who had definitely not received royal treatment.

HENRY THE PUPPET

According to a chronicler, they "new arrayed him, and did to him great reverence, and brought him to the palace of Westminster." Meek and simple as ever -- "mute as a crowned calf," as one put it -- Henry regained his job, this time as Warwick's puppet.

King Henry, however, barely had time to readjust the seat of his throne before King Edward returned to England with an army in 1471. Warwick was killed in the Battle of Barnet, and Queen Margaret was defeated several weeks later at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Also killed was Edward of Lancaster, her 17-year-old son, heir to the throne and last hope of the Lancastrians.

Lodged anew in the Tower, Henry VI was quietly murdered there as his cousin again became Edward IV in 1471. The king's corpse was displayed openly in London to assure doubters that the house of Lancaster was finished.

Thus, the Wars of the Roses were temporarily suspended. With no one left to fight, the house of York turned on itself.

Besides the Duke of Clarence, whom Edward surprisingly forgave after his treasonous defection to Warwick, the king had another brother, the Duke of Gloucester. He would become King Richard III after crawling over a heap of his relatives' murdered corpses and ruined reputations to snag the throne when Edward IV died in 1483 [see article below.]

Richard ruled only two years before the Wars of the Roses resumed. He was challenged by a dubious Lancastrian claimant to the throne, the future Henry VII, who fought him at Bosworth Field, where Richard was killed.

With the last Yorkist king dead, Henry VII united the battling houses of York and Lancaster when he married Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth, and established the house of Tudor. After a final Yorkist uprising at Stoke in 1487, the Wars of the Roses were officially ended. The bloody legacy of the great family clash, however, would spill over into the next century.

Henry VIII's multiple marriages were prompted in part by his desire to avert the chaos of the previous century by siring a son to succeed him peacefully.

But even after achieving this goal, Henry faced an extremely dangerous Yorkist foe in his kinswoman, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury.

Although the king had once revered this daughter of the Duke of Clarence almost as a mother, he suddenly decided late in his reign that she was an intolerable threat. He ordered her beheaded in 1541. She was 69 years old.

SHAKESPEARE ON THE SUBJECT

The characters in the Wars of the Roses appear in the following plays by William Shakespeare:

Richard II

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Henry V

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3

Richard III

Henry VIII