Active Learning on

The Wars of the Roses: Part 1
Rivals and Alliances 1450 – 1455


This activity is similar to another activity already on the site on the events of 1452-1455:


The differences however are important:

• this one goes back to mid-1450 (beginning after Cade’s rebellion)

• more importantly, it’s less detailed and I hope provides students new to the topic and to A level with a more manageable overview.

If anyone uses this activity I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on the level of detail as an introduction to these events.

Having said that, the nature of the activity is very similar. It uses students to represent the key politicians of the early 1450s, moving them around the room to represent the changing pattern of politics in the lead up to the first Battle of St. Albans. No prior knowledge of the events is needed. The activity is designed to overcome the problem many students have with this period by introducing:

• the key people – students often struggle to distinguish Salisbury from Northumberland from Somerset, a tricky ‘who’s who’ made worse by multiple names – e.g. Neville being the family name of Warwick and Salisbury.

• the pattern of events between 1450 and 1455

• why York, bereft of support initially, was able to challenge and defeat Somerset in 1455

• the idea that the first battle of the wars was not about the crown but about who filled the role of Henry VI’s chief councillor

Most importantly, the activity enables students to go on to read their textbooks more effectively and with more confidence. Some students, (especially those for whom A level History is their third or fourth choice) ‘bounce off’ reading that abounds in names and events and so struggle to develop that first layer of understanding that’s vital for moving on to deeper understanding. Having used this kind of activity many times I have no doubt that it is time well-spent because it then accelerates the learning of all students, leads to deeper understanding and more secure knowledge of events and particularly enables weaker students to find their way onto those first rungs of understanding that might otherwise defeat them.

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A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this can be downloaded [ click here ]

This activity is based on the ’Simulation’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.

The Activity

Your role as teacher is to tell the story of events, moving the students around the room to show changes in political power and alliances. You should also ask questions of students, getting them to think about alternative courses of action, possible motives – again I’ll emphasise this isn’t about them knowing the right answers but about getting them to think about each situation.

What follows isn’t a script but the outline of a script. I’m assuming that as an A level teacher you know the events well and will adapt the level of detail you include to meet the requirements of each class. I’ve included what I think are the key points – but not tried to dictate your every word!

Props – students are helped enormously to identify who’s who by wearing tabards with their character’s name on. A couple of crowns for Henry and Margaret and a suitable soft toy ‘baby’ to be Prince Edward will also help.

As this only involves about 10 students at the most – what do the rest do, assuming you have more in the class? They map the action, taking notes, ideally to a framework you’ve provided so that they leave at the end with clearly structured notes. Possible frameworks are sets of guidance questions or annotate-able diagrams of the ‘geography’ of the characters in the activity. It helps to pair up or create trios of students – one taking part in the activity, the others taking notes on the ‘actor’s’ behalf.

Background – I’m assuming some work has been done on Henry VI’s failings and on Cade’s rebellion – this activity starts after the defeat of Cade.

Timing – it’s impossible to predict because the amount of discussion and questioning will vary considerably. I have to leave it to you to decide how much of this to include in one session.

1. Autumn 1450 – who will be the King’s chief councillor?

Set-up – begin with 4 people, representing their geographical positions in July 1450:

Henry and Margaret sitting together - with an empty chair (the chief councillor’s chair) alongside Henry.

York – separately placed back left - i.e. in Ireland

Somerset – separately placed, nearer the front – i.e. in Normandy

Summary story:

Recap the major requirements of a king and then Henry’s failings, the murder of Suffolk and the shock of Cade’s rebellion – a mass protest against misgovernment. [lots of potential here for asking questions]

Key question for this section of activity is ‘why will replace Suffolk as Henry’s chief councillor?’ – there are two possibilities - York or Somerset. [identify them and point out where each was in July 1450 and what role each was playing there]

ASK students – what qualities would you expect such a man to have? Give students a short summary of their careers – not much between them in ability or experience.

Explain that Somerset returned in August and took up the role. MOVE Somerset to empty chair next to Henry.

ASK students what York’s reaction likely to have been

MOVE York in to join the others representing his return from Ireland – explain that he tried to win support and challenge Somerset but failed to win enough support. Majority of nobles rallied round Henry and Somerset. MOVE York away again so isolated.

Question time – what questions do students have? what do they want to find out? what’s puzzling?

Use this to create an agenda for reading and reporting back later so that reading is self-motivated, students want to find answers to their own questions.

2. 1451-1452 – can York replace Somerset?

Set-up – begin with 4 people, representing their political situations in 1451:

Henry, Margaret and Somerset sitting together.

York – sitting separately to represent political isolation

During this section (see below) bring in other nobles – Salisbury and Warwick (the Nevilles), Buckingham, Exeter to join the king’s group.

[Buckingham doesn’t actually do anything other than represent loyalty to Henry]

Summary story:

York remained an outsider throughout 1451; the nobles were loyal to Henry and Somerset’s role was proving successful. Nobles saw unity as important after Cade’s rebellion.

Introduce Buckingham – distant member of royal family, very loyal to Henry

Exeter – also related to Henry, not very bright!

Salisbury and Warwick (Nevilles – father and son) – long record of loyalty to Henry, very powerful in north and midlands. Important to emphasise loyalty here – just because they were on York’s side in 1455 doesn’t mean that had been likely earlier – this is an assumption students make that needs challenging.

PLACE these nobles around royal group.

MOVE York towards royal group– tell story of attempt to seize power in February 1452 at Dartford when he marched army from Welsh border but had to back down as only two nobles supported him. York had to make apology – make York kneel in front of Henry to beg forgiveness.

ASK – what does Somerset feel about York’s action? Why do nobles see York as a problem?

Question time – what questions do students have? what do they want to find out? what’s puzzling?

Use this to create an agenda for reading and reporting back as before.

3. 1453 – the impact of Henry’s collapse

Set-up – begin with nobles as previous section – York even more isolated.

Henry, Margaret and Somerset sitting together with Salisbury and Warwick (the Nevilles), Buckingham, Exeter.

York – sitting very separately!

Introduce Northumberland in this section (see below)

Summary story:

Government facing developing problems – defeat in France, increasing disorder at home, including the feud between the two great northern families, the Nevilles and Percies.

Introduce Northumberland as head of Percy family – place away from royal group (because of Nevilles) but also away from York.

In summer 1453 Henry VI fell ill – going into a coma, unable to communicate though he could eat and move. He was not an active king but this created problems – how long would his illness last?

October – Prince Edward was born – celebration of heir to the throne – give Margaret a soft toy to represent Prince.

MOVE York into royal group - nobles invited York to council meetings because they felt there was a need for unity and York was seen by most as Henry’s nearest relative.

ASK York and Somerset how they feel about working together – hostility!

MOVE Somerset away from group - York insisted on Somerset being imprisoned so situation now reversed – ASK why this had happened (role of accident in form of Henry’s illness)

ASK Nevilles – why might they give their support to York? [Clue – think about their feud with Percies (Northumberland)? – why would York’s support help them?]

[I haven’t included the quarrel between Warwick and Somerset over lands in Glamorgan here but you could add them in, depending on how much detail you want at this stage)

Question time – what questions do students have? what do they want to find out? what’s puzzling?

Use this to create an agenda for reading and reporting back as before.

4. 1454 – York becomes Protector

Set-up – begin with nobles as at end of previous section – Somerset now isolated.

Henry, Margaret and York sitting together with Salisbury and Warwick (the Nevilles), Buckingham, Exeter.

Somerset – sitting very separately!

Northumberland also sitting separately.

Summary story:

By early 1454 Henry had not recovered – now over six months since fell ill. Nobles decided to appoint a Protector to be clear leader during Henry’s illness. Several people thought they should take lead:

Margaret wanted to be Regent – ASK – how much support do you think she had? - little or no support

Exeter believed his close blood relationship meant he should be Protector

York also believed his close blood relationship meant he should be Protector

York was chosen as Protector and he appointed Salisbury as Chancellor

[make sure York and Nevilles right at centre of government]


- how does Exeter react? MOVE Exeter away from royal group

- how does Northumberland react? [doesn’t like Neville enemies being so powerful] MOVE Northumberland next to Exeter

- later in 1454 the Percies and Exeter plotted against York, attempting to attack him but they failed. Exeter and Northumberland’s son were imprisoned. ASK Exeter and Northumberland how they feel about York now?

ASK York what he will do about Somerset who’s still imprisoned?

Answer – whatever he wants he has to accept that nobles are opposed to putting Somerset on trial for treason.

Conclusion of section – York much more powerful now he has Neville support.

Question time – what questions do students have? what do they want to find out? what’s puzzling?

Use this to create an agenda for reading and reporting back as before.

5. 1455 – the impact of Henry’s recovery

Set-up – begin with nobles as previous section.

Henry, Margaret and York, Salisbury and Warwick (the Nevilles), Buckingham.

Somerset sitting separately

Exeter and Northumberland also separate.

Summary story:

- Henry recovered at Christmas 1454 – much rejoicing – but no longer any need for York as Protector.

- Somerset released, York resigned as protector; Salisbury resigned as Chancellor.

MOVE – Somerset back to centre of royal group, next to Henry.

MOVE – York away back into isolation

MOVE – Nevilles next to York

ASK – Exeter and Northumberland – are you going to support return of Somerset? [why – opponent of their opponents, York and Nevilles]

MOVE Exeter and Northumberland to royal group

Note – these are now the key leaders of the two armies at St. Albans in May 1455.

To continue up to battle:

ASK Somerset what would you be afraid of? [Henry becoming ill again, restoring York to power, therefore he may want to act quickly against York while Henry is well]

ASK York what would you be afraid of? [Somerset taking revenge for prison so he may want to retaliate first]

Therefore each was afraid of the other, leading to each taking action, Somerset politically, York militarily.

Key point – St. Albans was about who was chief councillor, not about who was king.

Question time – what questions do students have? what do they want to find out? what’s puzzling?

Use this to create an agenda for reading and reporting back as before.


That brings the activity to the eve of St. Albans and hopefully students are motivated to read and find out what happened next as well as building up their detailed knowledge on top of this framework.

Some final points:

1. I’ve always found it important to explain to students why I’m using this kind of activity – to some it may not seem ‘mature’ enough. They will learn more effectively if they understand how the lessons are structured to help them learn.

2. You could use the activity to construct a hypothesis for whatever essay question might follow e.g. Why did fighting break out in 1455? The activity may not give them all the components but they should be able to identify and discuss the major elements as a result of the activity.

3. For revision try doing this again but with students telling the story, maybe using the activity as a way of answering a question.

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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The Activity