Heraldry Badges and Emblems of the Wars of the Roses

Henry VI

Henry VI 1540 at the National Portrait Gallery
Henry VI 1540 at the National Portrait Gallery

Chained swan, chained antelope, red rose, ostrich feathers, spotted panther

The red rose is the symbol of the House of Lancaster, although it didn’t really become so poignant until later on in history. Red is the colour of blood and life, of love and combat. Henry VI’s reign saw a lot of combat and bloodshed, but Henry himself wasn’t very involved. He seems to have caused the Wars of the Roses by his inability to rule England properly. He seemed to lack both life and love, however, as he didn’t seem to engage properly with people.

The ostrich feather symbolised the Egyptian goddess Maat. Maat was the ancient Egyptian goddess of truth, balance, order, law, morality and justice. Henry VI did at least push for justice and morality because of his faith in his religion. Ostrich feathers also stood for beauty and iridescence. Henry VI was obviously interested in beauty – he founded Eton College Chapel and King’s College Chapel, enhancing his father’s legacy of architectural patronage. King’s College Chapel has the world’s largest fan vaulted roof.

The panther represents savagery and cunning, and the female was noted for its fighting and courage. Henry VI wasn’t savage or cunning, but his wife, Margaret of Anjou, was certainly noted for her fighting spirit and courage. Mythical heroes used to wear panther skins, so the emblem of the panther possibly suggests a connection between Henry VI and his father, Henry V, the victor of Agincourt.

Chains can represent either defeat, or the liberation of a believer through divine intervention. Henry VI was a devout believer in God and religion. The linked rings of a chain also represent lasting unity. The swan was a symbol of purity, so along with the chains, it symbolised the liberation of Henry VI into a pure life dedicated to religion. The chained antelope seems a strange symbol for Henry VI, as it is quick and alert, sensitive to those around it. Henry VI was sensitive to those around him, perhaps too much so as he fell into melancholia, but he wasn’t quick or alert, as demonstrated by his periods of madness and inability to make important decisions about the politics of his realm.


Edward IV

Edward IV
Edward IV

White lion, white wolf, falcon in fetterlock, white rose, sun in splendour

The white rose was a well-known symbol of the House of York, but not technically an official symbol of Edward IV. It was eventually combined with the red rose of Lancaster to create the Tudor rose when Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, married the Lancastrian Henry Tudor. White can symbolise either purity or a restoration of lost innocence. Perhaps instead of a restoration of lost innocence, Edward IV saw white as the restoration of his rights to the throne.

The sun in splendour was the main emblem of Edward IV. At the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461 three suns appeared in the sky over the battlefield. Edward claimed that this was a symbol of the three brothers of York (Edward, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Gloucester) and a forecast that they would win the battle, which they did. The sun was the destroyer of darkness – perhaps Edward IV saw himself as the bringer of light after the dark reign of Henry VI. The sun also has negative connotations, including a link with the spilling of blood. Edward IV certainly spilt blood – the Battle of Tewkesbury was the bloodiest medieval battle, and he authorised the execution of his own brother, George Duke of Clarence, supposedly by drowning him in a butt of malmsey wine.

In astrology the sun is also associated with the lion, the king of the beasts. The lion was also an emblem of Edward IV. Edward IV was also said to have had blonde hair, and been tall and striking, a bit like a lion. The lion symbolised dominion, like a king holding dominion over his subjects. A lion also symbolised masculinity, the epitome of Edward IV. In Egypt, a lion was the manifestation of Sekhmet, the god of war. Edward IV did pursue a war to gain and then stabilise his throne.

Edward IV took the falcon and fetterlock symbol from his father, Richard, Duke of York. The falcon is said to represent freedom and victory. In ancient Egypt the falcon was a royal symbol, so possibly the Duke of York chose it to enhance his royal credentials when he was vying for the English throne. The falcon was also said to be a manifestation of the god of the sky, Horus, and it also has connections to St Hubert, the patron saint of hunters. Edward IV was very fond of sport and hunting, especially in his early years on the throne. In Egyptian hieroglyphics the falcon was used in phrases like “sovereign”, “pharaoh”, “greatness” and “god”. Edward saw himself as the rightful king, and intended to lead England to greatness. The fetterlock is a symbol traditionally associated with the House of York.


Richard III

Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.
Later 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed at the National Portrait Gallery

Boar armed and bristled, white rose, sun in splendour

For the white rose and the sun in splendour see Edward IV. The sun in splendour has a link with the spilling of blood, as previously explained. Looking back, it is easy now to link this with the killing of the princes in the Tower, although it is not 100% sure that Richard was the perpetrator. When three suns appeared in the sky before the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, Edward IV claimed they represented him, Richard and their other brother, Clarence, united on the field of battle. The white rose demonstrated Richard’s link to the House of York and the successful reign of his brother, Edward IV. Possibly he hoped to encourage people to remember that he was the brother of Edward IV, rather than the fact that he overthrew his nephew to take the throne.

The boar is probably the most famous emblem of Richard III. The site of the Battle of Bosworth has been located because of the finding of boar emblems in the ground, which Richard’s soldiers would have worn to proclaim their loyalty to their king. The boar supposedly represents a dauntless soldier who fights with courage in battles. Even Richard’s enemies claim that he died at the Battle of Bosworth fighting courageously in the midst of his enemies, so this interpretation at least seems to be accurate. The boar is traditionally seen as the most aggressive version of the pig. In ancient Rome the boar was connected with Mars, the god of war. It was also said to be a symbol of savagery, which can be connected to the princes in the Tower (if he was in fact guilty of their deaths). Boar meat was buried with the Celts in order to give them strength for their journey to the afterlife. Perhaps Richard used the boar to emphasise his own strength.

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