The series of conflicts that wracked the kingdom of England between 1455 and 1487 are today collectively known as the Wars of the Roses.
Although the first clashes were fought for control of the king, the saintly but weak-minded Henry VI, by the time of Towton the kingdom itself was at stake, with two kings vying for the throne. The first six years of the conflict, between the First Battle of St Albans and the Battle of Towton, witnessed a blood feud as horrible as any seen in English history, immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Henry VI.
The two opposing factions that fought the Wars of the Roses are today characterised as ‘Yorkist’ and ‘Lancastrian’, though it is doubtful that they would have referred to themselves in these terms. Similarly, neither army fought under the emblem of a single rose: the adoption of a white rose for the Yorkists (and later for Yorkshire itself) and a red rose for the Lancastrians (and Lancashire) is a much later development.
In fact Yorkshire (and the city of York) was overwhelmingly Lancastrian in its allegiances. The Lancastrians take their name from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, whose son (Henry IV), grandson (Henry V) and great-grandson (Henry VI) had reigned in succession from 1399, the year in which Henry IV succeeded his cousin, Richard II. The Yorkists are named after the House of York, the dynasty established by Richard, Duke of York, whose sons eventually ruled as Edward IV and Richard III. All were descended from King Edward III (d. 1377), and were therefore related by blood. The closeness of the family ties between some of the main protagonists in the Wars can only have increased the horror and bitterness of the struggle.