Botanic Notables: York and Lancaster Rose

Botanic Notables: York and Lancaster Rose

November 25, 2011
Photo by: York and Lancaster rose, by Pierre-Joseph Redoute; York and Lancaster roses, Wiki-user Sodacan

The year 1455 was a pivotal time of political unrest in England; it was the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, when white and red roses were the divisive motifs of a civil feud. The long war would end with a new dynasty, and a rose that symbolized England's unity.

Heavy with symbolism, the two roses signified a divide in England and a tussle for power: a red rose (Rosa gallica officinalis) for those who aligned with the House of Lancaster's Henry VI, reigning king of England and a white rose (Rosa alba semi-plena) for the Duke of York, who fought to claim the throne. 

The Wars of the Roses, as they would come to be known, were long and bitter. Victories were exchanged for three decades and the throne was passed between the two families, both with its own floral badge—Lancaster's red rose and York's white rose. At the end of it, Henry VII, a Lancastrian descendent in the House of Tudor, was finally named king. As a gesture of reconciliation, (or perhaps to cement his claim to the throne), the new ruler married a descendent of the House of York. For the first time in thirty years, the white rose and the red rose were united. 

According to historians of botany and history, a new sort of flower appeared shortly thereafter: a rose bush that grew three types of blossoms—some pure red, others pure white, and the rest a surprising variegation of red and white (sometimes called damask roses), as described in Harvard University's Arboretum bulletin. Named the York and Lancaster rose (Rosa damascena versicolor), the new flower would become an emblem of a new royal unity.

The end of the Wars of the Roses launched the Tudor dynasty, which was represented by the Tudor rose, a stylized design of the York and Lancaster rose. Below is the Tudor rose in a stained glass window in Chichester Cathedral, and as the badge used by British monarchs since Henry VII.


(L-R) Stained Glass Tudor Rose, Chichester Cathedral, photo credit: Chichester Cathedral; Tudor rose insignia, photo credit: Wikiuser Sodacan.

payne shakespeare

Set in the Temple Garden, Henry Payne's painting Choosing the Red and White Roses (1908) illustrates a scene from William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1, in which supporters of dueling houses choose red or white roses. Shakespeare's portrayal of the political split that launched the Wars of the Roses is considered apocryphal. "And here I prophecy—this brawl to-day / Grown to this faction, in the temple garden / Shall send, between the red rose and the white / A thousand souls to death and deadly night." Photo credit: Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery. 

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.