<em>Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens</em>, the 1910 fresco painting by Henry Payne, in the Palace of Westminster, is based on a scene from Shakespeare's <em>Henry VI</em>.
Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens, the 1910 fresco painting by Henry Payne, in the Palace of Westminster, is based on a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Public Domain

In late March 1458, hundreds of English lords and ladies gathered at Westminster Abbey and walked hand in hand through the streets of London, along the western banks of the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a “loveday” procession, a form of reconciliation meant to put the Wars of the Roses to rest.

“It was a bit Hollywood,” says John Sadler, author of The Red Rose and the White, a history of the series of English civil wars in the mid-15th century. “There was a lot of pomp about it. Banners flying, drums beating, it was a show.”

A ballad composed to commemorate the event described the public display of political affection:

At Paul’s in London, with great renown,
On our Ladyday in Lent, this peace was wrought.
The King, the Queen, with Lords many one …
Went in procession …
In sight of all the commonality,
In token that love was in heart and thought

The women were “blinged up to the eyeballs—they’d have looked like the 15th-century equivalent of footballers’ wives,” says Sadler. But beneath the finery, tensions still ran high. Within two years of the Loveday procession, most of the men who had walked together in London would be dead, and the wars would rage on for nearly three more decades.

A 1916 engraving of Old St. Paul's Cathedral, before the fire of 1561 that destroyed the spire.
A 1916 engraving of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, before the fire of 1561 that destroyed the spire. Public Domain

Three years before, concerns about King Henry VI’s ability to perform his royal duties—due to his infamously gentle nature and persistent illness, which many now believe to have been “catatonic schizophrenia”—reached a boiling point. Viewing him as weakly pious and more fit for a life of prayer, Richard Plantagenet, a Yorkist represented by a white rose, decided to act. The insurgency began with the Battle of St. Albans in 1455, when Richard—the Duke of York—staged a bloody surprise attack and captured King Henry VI, who belonged to the rival House of Lancaster, represented by a red rose.

Apparently restored to health, the king had the idea to stage a public ceremony in 1458 to reconcile the rival houses. As well as an attempt to bury the hatchet and avert an escalation, the Loveday was a public relations campaign meant to reassure Londoners that the war, which had disrupted trade and daily life in the capital, was over. The proceedings were rife with religious symbolism—such as the start point at Westminster Abbey—meant to pound an air of peace into the event. The parade was set for Lady’s Day, which memorializes the Virgin Mary’s receipt of the news that she would bear a child, and also doubled as the start of the new year at the time (January 1 wasn’t adopted as New Year’s Day in England until 1752). It was the right moment for a fresh start, Henry thought.

King Henry VI and Queen Margaret of Anjou in quieter moments.
King Henry VI and Queen Margaret of Anjou in quieter moments. Public Domain

Lovedays were a common form of arbitration in medieval England, but were generally used to settle local matters. Scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt’s 1798 definition describes the practice as “a day appointed for the amicable settlement of differences.” Lovedays were employed to help resolve disagreements outside the law, in a friendly fashion, and usually culminated in a feast followed by a handshake to seal the accord. They could be pretty elaborate—one feast noted by late medieval scholar Josephine Waters Bennett required the provision of more than 500 gallons of Gascon wine (that’s a malbec), two fat oxen, and twelve fat sheep to be consumed “in a regular English jollification”—all to celebrate the settlement of a pasture dispute.

“These were civic performances and, as with many political performances, offer interesting indications of political symbolism and iconography rather than … substantial or lasting evidence of the pursuits of political concord,” says Patricia Clare Ingham, a scholar of medieval studies at Indiana University. It was rare that a loveday would be used to settle something so fractious as a full-blown civil war. A symbolic gesture is little substitute for revenge after the deaths of friends and family members.

The members of the Houses of York and Lancaster did not take the hand-holding to heart. Queen Margaret of Anjou, who had already begun ruling indirectly during the king’s catatonic episodes, took a prime position in the procession, holding hands with her sworn enemy, Richard of York. Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick (who had already switched his allegiance from Lancaster to York), held hands with the Duke of Somerset, Henry Beaufort, whose father had been killed at St. Albans three years prior. There’s probably nothing quite like gripping your enemy’s clammy palm for a two-mile walk to remind you of your total revulsion at his existence.

With all having gone through the motions of this grand gesture, Henry VI retreated politically and Queen Margaret again took the helm. The Loveday peace accord would be short-lived.

The 1471 Battle of Barnet, as depicted in a 15th-century manuscript.
The 1471 Battle of Barnet, as depicted in a 15th-century manuscript. Public Domain

“It’s like a soap opera,” Sadler says of the Wars of the Roses. A cast of strident characters—with the addition of their armed retinues—turned small misunderstandings and loads of historical baggage into an ongoing, disastrous drama.

In May 1458, less than two months after the Loveday, the Earl of Warwick directly flouted the law by engaging in some casual piracy along the coast of Calais, where he had been virtually exiled by the queen. When she summoned him to London to answer for his actions, a scuffle broke out. Margaret used the ensuing bedlam to make a decisive move: She officially accused the Earl of Warwick, the Duke of York, and other Yorkist nobility of treason in October 1459, decrying the duke’s “most diabolical unkindness and wretched envy.” The Loveday procession had curdled into a “parliament of devils,” she said, and the roses were at it again, and would be for another generation.