A Beginner’s Guide to “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses”


The long-awaited second installment of The Hollow Crown starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III has just finished airing on BBC Two, and you can color me excited. As a not-so-closeted Shakespeare nerd, one of my many pleasures is watching adaptations of the Bard’s work. If you’re a fan of Benny, but hated reading Shakespeare in high school, never fear. The plays were never meant to be read; they were meant to be performed and experienced by actors and audiences alike. Watching Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, and Richard III as interpreted by director Dominic Cooke eliminates a good deal of confusion.

For those of you unfamiliar with your British history, here’s a bit of context to make your viewing more interesting.

What is the War of the Roses?

Henry Payne, c. 1908
Henry Payne, c. 1908

This famous conflict lasted approximately 30 years in England, and can be classified as a civil war. It took forever to resolve because the battles were usually small, and a lot of the time they took places several months (and even years) apart. Many nobles and great houses switched sides many times during these 30 years, in the hopes that they would end up on the winning team.

Who fought in it?

The main adversaries in the war were two rival families, both descended from the House of Plantagenet. Each family, the House of Lancaster and the House of York, had claims to the throne of England.

Why roses?

The White Rose of and the Red Rose of
The White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster

Because the symbol of the House of Lancaster was a red rose while the symbol of the House of York was a white rose.

Main Characters

Henry VI—King of England, immortalized by William Shakespeare in three plays as a weak-willed man who suffered from mental instability. After a failed war in France, he had a mental breakdown and his government was taken over by Richard of York (the future Richard III’s father). Although Richard only served as Regent for a year until Henry recovered, this helped lay the groundwork for inevitable civil war. After numerous conflicts and confusing politics, Henry was usurped by Richard’s second son Edward IV (the first King of the House of York).


Richard III—King of England, immortalized by William Shakespeare in one play as a scheming murderer. He is often remembered for possible involvement in the disappearance and/or murder of the Princes in the Tower. Richard became king after the death of his brother Edward IV, and the ensuing declaration that Edward’s sons were illegitimate and therefore could not take the throne. He was in the news recently after his grave was discovered under a parking lot (his remains had been thought to be lost for at least five centuries).

Margaret of Anjou—Queen of England and wife of Henry VI, immortalized by William Shakespeare in three plays as a fierce, intelligent, and ruthless woman and politician. She frequently ruled the kingdom in Henry’s place, partly due to his bouts of mental illness. During the War of the Roses, she personally led the Lancaster forces during multiple battles.

Game of Thrones?

Basically, yes. The War of the Roses is the historical basis for George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses also stars Hugh Bonneville, Judi Dench, and Sophie Okonedo. You can watch online via the BBC iPlayer for a limited time, or catch it on PBS later this summer.

Now is the winter of our discontent /
Made glorious summer by this sun of York

-The Collected Mutineer