Middle Ages, Symbols and Art

First Blog Post: the Tudor Rose

“Nor hold thou no other flower in such dainty

As the fresh Rose, of colour red and white;”

The Thistle and the Rose (The Thrissel and the Rois) William Dunbar, August 1503 in honor of the wedding between King James IV of Scotland to Princess Margaret Tudor of England. 

The Tudor Rose is the symbol of the alliance between House of York (symbolized by a white rose) and the House of Lancaster (symbolized by a red rose). Both houses were branches of the Plantagenet royal house who could trace their descent from King Edward III (1312 – 1377). It is credited to the Tudor dynasty for combining those two and creating what we know now as The Tudor Rose.


Historians disagree on the Red Rose of Lancaster. Some say it was originally a symbol of Henry’s great-grandfather John of Gaunt, while others insist that it was assumed to the House of Lancaster by Henry VII only after the wars were over.

The actual symbolism behind the White Rose of York had religious connotations as it represents the Virgin Mary, who was often called the Mystical Rose of Heaven. In Christian liturgical symbolism, white is the symbol of light, typifing innocence and purity, joy and glory. The origins of the emblem are said to go back to Edmund of Langley in the fourteenth century. 

It was the 22 of August 1485 when Henry VII (who was blood-tied to House Lancaster)  though outnumbered, ended the “Wars of the Roses” after taking the crown of England from Richard III in battle, becoming Henry VII King of England. He spend two more years afterwards wiping out other claiments to the throne. The “Wars of the Roses” is a civil war in England that lasted from 1455 until 1487. Historians still debate the true extent of the impact on medieval English life, and some revisionists, such as the Oxford historian K.B. McFarlane, suggest that the conflicts during this period have been radically overstated, and that there were in fact, no “Wars of the Roses” at all. It is notable that they did not produce widespread destruction and economic recession. Many places were largely unaffected by the wars. 

Here is a fun clip by the great Horrible Histories with a War of Roses Report: 

During the wars, many of the inns and hostels in the Yorkshire countryside (and elswehere) had roses carved in the ceilings panels and beams of the bar room. This had nothing to do with the white rose of the House of York but with the term “Under-the-rose” or in Latin “Sub-Rosa”. Warlike matters and espionage issues discussed “under the rose” were treated as being very sensitive and not to be repeated to others under pain of death. 


In January 1486 Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, bringing the houses historically together. The marriage was one of political brilliance: their children would have Yorkist and Lancastrian blood, owning united claim to the throne from both their mother as well as their father’s side. It was then that the Tudor Rose first made it appearance. During the medieval war, neither parties cared much about roses or flowers. They were not part of the official coat of arms. Instead, servants wore emblems of the flowers on their liveries (servant uniforms). It was only during his wedding that Henry VII adopted the bicoulored Tudor Rose as a badge, cleverly making use of the fact that during this time, signs and symbols spoke louder than words. During his reign, Henry VIII had the “Round Table” at Winchester Castle – then belived to be genuine – repainted. The new paint scheme included a Tudor rose in the centre.  

The rose symbols were first brought to promincence by William Shakespeare in his play Henry VI part 1. He wrote a scene set in the gardens of the Temple Church, where a number of noblemen and a lawyer pick red or white roses to show their loyalty to the Lancastrian or Yorkist faction respectively. However, it was not until the later 18th century that historians began the acknowledge the symbolic reconciliation of the Tudor Rose. That in turn causes Sir Walter Scott to refer to the conflict as “The Wars of the Roses” in his historical novel Anne of Geierstein. 

Books and more (click on picture for information):

 Henry VII         wars of the roses            elizabethofyork

Still intrigued? Here’s a documentary about the Wars of the Roses: