The Beginnings of the Wars of the Roses 1452-1455

This activity uses students to represent the key politicians of the early 1450s, asks them to take decisions and moves them around the room to represent the changing pattern of factions in the lead up to the first Battle of St. Albans. I first used this activity in the late 1980s and then used it whenever I taught the period to final year undergraduates. It is also certainly useable at A level because both groups of students face the same kinds of problems in learning about this period. Firstly they struggle to distinguish Salisbury from Northumberland from Somerset, a very tricky ‘who’s who’ made worse by multiple names – on one page a historian writes about the Nevilles, on another he refers to Warwick and Salisbury. It takes a while for students to fully take in that these are the same people. Secondly, the sequence of events is complex, as are the motives behind actions. Not surprisingly, students, especially the weaker ones (perhaps for whom A level History is their third or fourth choice) ‘bounce off’ reading and struggle to develop that first, relatively simple layer of understanding that’s vital for moving on to deeper understanding.

Having used the activity many times I have no doubt of its value and 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 the first rungs of understanding that might otherwise defeat them.


This activity (originally part of the Thinking History Active Learning DVD) is now available on YouTube.

But please don't just leap into watching the activity – please read the introduction, context, points and questions first HERE… 



• Activity file HERE …

• Room plan HERE …


No prior knowledge of the events of 1452-1455 is needed before using this activity – it’s an introduction to this period. The activity is designed to:

• introduce students to the key people and events between 1452 and 1455

• identify some of the motives of politicians and establish why York, bereft of support in 1452, was able to challenge and defeat Somerset in 1455

• enable students to read their textbooks and, for undergraduates, articles, effectively and with more confidence.

Setting Up

Click here to download the full room plan in a new window

1. Set out the room as shown in the room plan. Place chairs for the students in advance so they can see the initial layout before the activity begins.

2. Prepare tabards for the main characters:

• King Henry

• Queen Margaret

• Somerset

• Exeter

• Buckingham

• Archbishop Kemp (also Chancellor of England)

• Warwick

• Salisbury

• Northumberland

• Egremont

• York

Colour-coding helps students – use one colour for the Nevilles ( Salisbury and Warwick) and a different colour for the Percies (Northumberland and Egremont).

If you don’t have that many students, then use stuffed toys to play the main non-speaking roles e.g. Henry and Margaret.

The characters with the most vocal contributions to make are Exeter, Buckingham, Warwick, Salisbury, Northumberland.

3. Choose which students will play which roles. This gives you the chance to put some quieter students in the 5 more vocal roles if you wish – it ensures that the more forthcoming ones don’t keep butting in because they aren’t being asked questions directly, giving the quieter ones the chance to contribute. However this is always a matter of individual judgement in assessing which students will be most helped by quieter or more vocal roles.

If you have a lot more students you can pair students up – i.e. each character has a paired student whose job is to make notes on behalf of both of them, so ensuring they don’t panic because there’s nothing on paper. The most helpful notes are based on plans of the room and how the individuals move. Or other students can just be the audience and you can call on them regularly to see if they agree with the decisions of the characters or have other ideas to suggest.

4. Give role cards to the 5 key characters. These need only be brief as shown below.

5. A couple of props will come in handy – crowns for Henry and Margaret and a ‘baby’ to play Prince Edward, born in 1453. I always found a care-bear played the role perfectly. Just in case you’re wondering if such items are too silly to use with A level students or undergraduates – the key thing is to explain why you are using different methods (as outlined above). Once students realise this is real work, they relax, grow more confident and discuss and think more deeply. Laughter at the right times is a good sign, it means they are relaxed and concentrating. This kind of activity builds up the trust between teacher and student that’s vital for really effective learning.


Role Cards

Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

Brother in law of Salisbury, York and Northumberland

Long experience as councillor to King Henry, very loyal to the king. Your men often provide the royal bodyguard.

Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter

Cousin of the King. Son in law of York.

You believe you are more closely related to the King than is York and so have a better claim to the throne than York.

In dispute with Lord Cromwell over lands.

Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland

Brother in law of Salisbury, York and Buckingham. Father of Egremont

Not influential at court while Somerset and Kemp are at the centre of government. You and Kemp are particularly hostile to each other.

You are a great northern family but less influential there than are the Nevilles. Your family lost lands to the Nevilles early in the 15th century becoming involved in rebellion.

Some of your former family lands are now owned by Lord Cromwell.

Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury

Brother in law of York, Northumberland and Buckingham. Father of Warwick

Cousin of Somerset.

You are a long-experienced royal councillor and soldier.

You are the senior member of the Neville family who gained greatly in power in the north from the Percy earls of Northumberland in the early 15th century.

Summer 1453 – your younger son Thomas is marrying the heiress to half the Cromwell lands.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick

Nephew of York, Northumberland and Buckingham. Son of Salisbury.

Heir to the greatest inheritance in the country, partly from your father, partly through your wife, Anne Beauchamp.

She brought you half the lands formerly owned by the Despencer family. Since 1450 you have held the other half of the Despencer lands, the lordships of Glamorgan and Morgannok, because you have been guardian of the heir while he is a child.

The Activity

Your role is as director of events, feeding in information that students need to take decisions, asking questions and pushing them to think more deeply about possible motives and courses of action, directing them where to move as the factions unravel and re-form. You need to ensure that the sequence follows the course of known events but allow students to speculate about possibilities. Finally, don’t be afraid to give them time to think, allow silences, bring in other students to make suggestions – the prime objective is to get students thinking from the inside of the situation.

What follows is a rough script for the activity, detailing the questions I have used to prompt thinking and the answers I tried to tease out of students.


Stage 1: The situation in 1452 and early 1453

Arrange the students playing roles as shown in the plan. Remind them that the rivalry between York and Somerset is not about replacing Henry, it’s about precedence as councillors although this has long-term implications for the succession.

Use questions to recap events to date, bringing out why York is isolated (i.e. events at Dartford in 1452). Explain that the nobles are loyal to Henry, including the Percies. Ask the Percies why they are slightly detached from the royal court.

Say that this activity will explain why York moves from isolation to have enough support to fight Somerset in 1455.

Ask - What would he need to do that?

Answer – he needs support from other nobles.

Ask – who is most likely to support York? Any suggestions?

This always leads someone to suggest that he might support York, based on his being related to York. Once you’ve had this reply – ask who else is related to York?

The role cards reveal that everyone is! This demonstrates very clearly that relationship by blood or marriage cannot be the sole or even prime reason for political support.

The next question is to ask who is most likely to support York – the most obvious answer is Northumberland because of his detachment from Somerset. Leave this hanging as a hypothesis – it’s good to have a possible answer at this stage to come back to at the end.


Stage 2: Warwick and the Despencer lands

Move over to Warwick – announce that a royal order tells Warwick to hand over the lordships of Glamorgan and Morgannok.

What does Warwick want to ask? – Answer - He wants to know Why?

Tell Warwick that Somerset want these lands and has a royal grant, saying these are his. This was certified by an order from the royal council, at which Somerset was one of 6 men present.

Ask Warwick will he hand over the lands – if not, why not?

Answer - Warwick has held these lands since 1450 – he should be reluctant to hand them over.

Now ask Warwick whether he will join York in opposition to Somerset? If he says yes, take Warwick over to York to get a sense of how isolated York is – Warwick should realise that joining York would be foolish and look like treachery.

So Warwick does not join York but move Warwick a pace or two away from the main group to show the beginning of alienation.

Ask Salisbury if he wishes to see his son separated and what he can do?

Salisbury ’s answer - he wants to keep Warwick in contact with the king – move Salisbury a little to bridge the new gap to Warwick.

This stage has brought only a minor change but it’s a beginning – summarise by asking what has brought this about – a dispute over land. An issue that can be discussed, probably at degree level, is whether this attribution of motive is certain – is it a result of the nature of the sources rather than because it is the most likely?


Stage 3: The Neville-Percy relationship

Announce a wedding in August 1453 between Thomas Neville, Salisbury’s younger son and Maud Stanhope, heiress of Lord Cromwell.

Ask Percies what they think of the wedding?

Answer – Unhappy – Cromwell lands were once Percy lands – now this marriage will take them into the Neville family.

Ask Nevilles how they feel? Answer – Grrreat!

Announce the result – the Percies led by Egremont attacked the wedding party at Heworth Moor and a skirmish took place. (Note – Egremont seems to have been a notably dim but aggressive individual – choose your student for this role carefully!)

Ask the Nevilles what they need?

Answer – powerful aid to punish the Percies

Ask – who will provide it?

Look at alternatives – Somerset? But Warwick has quarrelled with Somerset. York – still powerless. Therefore Nevilles have a problem.

Ask Percies what they need?

Answer – powerful aid to punish the Percies

Ask – who will provide it?

Look at alternatives – Somerset? But Percies not on good terms. York – still powerless

The natural person for both groups to appeal to was Henry – but he has just collapsed following news of a great defeat at Castillon in France.

Neville-Percy skirmishes continued in north as no-one able to use authority during King’s illness.

Announce - October 1453 a council meeting – Warwick and Salisbury support inviting York to attend.

Ask Nevilles – why? Answer – York a possible powerful supporter against the Percies, provided he has power and is no longer isolated.

Ask Northumberland whether approves York being in power – no objection – his quarrel is with Somerset and Kemp.

Move York from isolation into centre of council, move Warwick back closer and bring Northumberland in as well – all seemingly united. Move Somerset to the fringe of the group.

Stage summary – York no longer isolated – why? Was it his initiative? No – result of the King’s unexpected illness – pure chance.


Stage 4: Margaret for Regent?

Prince Edward born autumn 1453 – this is the moment to give Margaret a care-bear or other toy to look after!

Early 1454 Margaret suggests she act as Regent while Henry remains ill.

Ask everyone individually what they think of the idea – general opposition

York , Exeter believe they should be in charge; does anyone wish to be governed by a French woman? Nevilles and Percies would prefer someone who would support them in their struggle.

Announce - February 1454 – Kemp died. This is significant because he had been Chancellor and so had been able to authorise documentation, orders etc – a new Chancellor is needed to maintain government.

But – need someone to appoint a Chancellor, therefore need an official replacement for King, a Protector.

York is chosen as protector because of closeness to royal line. He chooses Salisbury as Chancellor, cementing York-Neville alliance.

Ask all for reactions

• Nevilles – Grrreat!

• Percies – despondent

• Somerset – now threatened by opponent’s power

• Exeter – believes he should have the role

• Buckingham – supports York as rightful appointment

• Margaret – not happy

• Henry – not with it.

Change seating plan – see plan – now Somerset in isolation. Exeter also separate. York and Nevilles in court with Buckingham, Henry and Margaret.

Stage summary – again York’s comeback to power the result of the chance of Kemp’s death plus Nevilles seeking a powerful supporter in a position of power. Until Kemp died, the nobles had been able to carry on without committing themselves to a choice of a short-term replacement for Henry.


Stage 5: The Exeter-Percy Rising

Focus on Exeter and the Percies.

Ask Exeter – what are your long-term ambitions?

Answer – a senior role in the council, more senior than York, a place in the succession after Prince Edward.

Ask – what do you have in common with the Percies?

Answer – involved in disputes over Cromwell’s lands

Ask – what opportunities are created for you by Percy/Neville clash?

Answer – to recruit Percies as supporters and allies

Ask Exeter and Percies – how do you react to York as Protector and Salisbury as Chancellor?

Answer – opposed to both developments – join forces as allies.

Move Exeter and Percies close together.

Announce – rebellion in the north against York led by Exeter and Egremont.

Ask York – what will you do?

Answer – has to deal with rebellion.

Announce – York puts down the rebellion and jails Exeter and Egremont.

Move Northumberland further away from York and Nevilles i.e. close to Somerset.


Stage 6: The King’s Recovery

Announce – December 1454 – Henry has recovered! Ask everyone for their reactions – all overjoyed – or maybe not everyone completely delighted – who might be more and less delighted?

Ask Henry – look around you – what do you want to change?

Answer – bring back Somerset

Ask York and Nevilles – what do you fear now that Somerset is free?

Answer – Somerset will take revenge for isolation.

Move York and Nevilles away from court party

Ask Exeter and Percies where they would prefer to be – with York or Somerset?

Answer – with the King and Somerset after the rebellion against York.

Result – now you have physically moved everyone around and created the sides that fought at St. Albans.


1. As a prelude to St. Albans it’s worth asking the two sides what they fear:

• Somerset fears Henry’s collapse and York’s restoration to power, therefore may want to act quickly against York while Henry is better.

• York fears Somerset retaliating for events in 1453-1454 and so may want to get his retaliation in first.

Therefore both are looking for an opportunity and also fearful of the other – a situation ripe for violence.

2. Go back over the key summary points – note the role of chance in the pattern of events, notably Henry’s illness and recovery and Kemp’s death. The nobility tried to maintain the peace but these events created stresses which led to increased tensions and ultimately violence. Did York make things happen or was he being driven by events?

3. Look at motives – desire for lands, ambition for a leading role in government, the crown? What about idealism? Were they concerned about the good of the country? This leads into how limited our sources are for really understanding motives – no personal papers to identify thinking. This can be tied into differing interpretations by historians.

Notes & Variations

This is a lengthy and complex role-play and translating my notes and script into something other teachers can use isn’t easy. You may well want to change details, ask different questions, introduce more information. All that is possible within the framework.


1. Did you make the right choices about which students played which parts? Did you learn anything about individual students that would have been harder to learn from more standard activities?

2. What was the impact of this activity on motivation to read and effectiveness of reading? [discuss with students]

3. How often should a technique like this be used within an AS/A2 course?

4. Did this technique make a long-term impact on knowledge and understanding?

This Page





Setting Up

The Activity


Notes & Variations