The Red Rose and the White: The Story Behind the Tudor Rose

Carol Ann Lloyd

One of the most recognisable symbols in the history of the English and British monarchy.

It’s one of the most recognizable symbols in the history of the English and British monarchy. In fact, it has become the emblem of England in royal items such as the coronation robe, alongside the shamrock for Ireland and the thistle for Scotland. You’ll find it everywhere from historic buildings to neighborhood pubs, public plazas and coins of the realm. The Tudor Rose is one of the most famous symbols in history. It represents not just the ever popular and larger than life Tudor dynasty, it has come to represent England itself. But how did the Tudor rose come into being? Here’s the story Shakespeare tells us in Henry VI part 1, when the tension between Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Richard Plantagenet erupts in the Temple Garden. Plantagenet, standing by a rose bush, challenges all who believe him to ‘From off this brier pluck a white rose with me.’ Somerset immediately rises to the challenge, encouraging his supporters to ‘Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me.’ The rest of the men take sides by picking roses. Warwick supports Plantagenet, ‘I pluck this white rose with Plantagenet.’ Suffolk supports Somerset, ‘I pluck this red rose with young Somerset.’ And on it goes leading to the inevitable conclusion: the Wars of the Roses. Warwick lays out what will happen: And here I prophesy: this brawl today, 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.
The Red Rose and the White: The Story Behind the Tudor Rose
The Tudor Rose on the Round table at Winchester

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The Red Rose and the White: The Story Behind the Tudor Rose
An 18th Century Canon with a Tudor Rose on

The play was first performed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I

TThe play was first performed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and it demonstrates the extent to which the symbol and story had taken hold on the English consciousness. The image of red and white roses, which ultimately became joined into one Tudor rose, had been part of the royal message for years. Henry VII’s narrative had taken hold, the story of a war between the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York, which had ended when the Tudor dynasty established peace at the Battle of Bosworth. But the history behind the Tudor reign and the Tudor rose reveals that there’s a great deal more to the story. The first Tudor king, Henry VII, created the image and the story of the Tudor rose as a means of survival. After years of civil wars and battles for the crown rocked England through the second half of the 15th century, Henry Tudor was the least likely man to be crowned King in Westminster Abbey. He had spent the previous 14 years in exile in France and Brittany. His claim to the throne was questioned because he descended through the Beaufort branch of John of Gaunt’s family rather than the Lancastrian branch. He was an unknown who appeared in August 1485 with an army of French mercenaries and discontented Englishmen who somehow managed to defeat the royal army under the leadership of warrior King Richard III. After his victory, Henry Tudor had to maintain his hold on the crown. He had no power base among the nobility. He had no powerful foreign backing. He was vulnerable to other distant descendants of Edward III who could make a claim to the throne. Henry Tudor had to come up with a plan to establish himself as the rightful King and discourage others from raising an army against him. He did this with a symbol and narrative that would change the monarchy, change the nation, and change history. Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII in Westminster Abbey on 30 October 1485, and then he married Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV. Their marriage was presented as the union of former enemies and the end of the civil war. At least that was the story Henry told. To reinforce it, Henry VII created the Tudor rose: a physical manifestation of the union of red/Lancaster and white/York. Two families become one; two roses become one. Simple, elegant, and memorable. But not exactly accurate. The white rose was, indeed, associated with Edward IV. It’s found on the King’s manuscripts, and it features prominently in Edward’s genealogical roll, which was probably created to celebrate his coronation as King of England. The roll was designed to justify Edward’s claim to the throne, and the white rose emblem features prominently throughout. That part of Henry VII’s narrative works, as Elizabeth of York was Edward’s eldest daughter. The problem comes with Henry’s use of the red rose as the Lancastrian emblem. A few previous Lancastrians had used a gold rose, but not consistently. Henry Tudor’s Lancastrian predecessor, Henry VI, had used the antelope. Henry Tudor himself had initially used the symbol of the red dragon of Wales, associating himself with the mythical British King Cadwalladr. We don’t see any evidence of Henry using the red rose before Bosworth. But once he was King, he realized the power of symbolism and settled upon something that would allow him to put his stamp on the country forever. It was a masterstroke. The combination of the red and white rose was powerful in its simplicity and effective in its message. The King then went about carving that rose into buildings, emblazoning it on royal documents, and including it in portraits. When Prince Arthur was born a year later, his birth was celebrated with this poem by Thomas Phelypps: I love the rose both red and white. Is that your pure perfect appetite? To hear talk of them is my delight. Joyed may we be Our prince to see And roses three.
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That moment was the triumphant outcome of the union between York and Lancaster

That moment was the triumphant outcome of the union between York and Lancaster, an important highlight of the new Tudor dynasty, and the physical embodiment of the King’s narrative: a peaceful future. This did not persuade everyone that Henry Tudor should remain on the throne. Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel were both able to muster considerable support in their efforts to displace the Tudor King and end the dynasty before it really began. But despite the challenges, Henry VII held on to the throne and the Tudor dynasty lasted into the 17th century. The Tudor rose represented the very heart of the Tudor dynasty and it became a way of looking forward to future generations and a peaceful kingdom. Henry VII also used Tudor roses, along with the Beaufort portcullis, to decorate the new chapel he commissioned at Westminster Abbey. This again reinforced his claim to the throne, aligning his reign with God’s glory. Ultimately, the chapel was the final resting place of Tudor monarchs including Henry VII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Only Henry VIII was buried elsewhere. Even after the death of Prince Arthur, the original embodiment of the union of York and Lancaster, the Tudor dynasty and its symbol continued. Henry VIII was celebrated at his coronation in 1509 with Thomas More’s ‘Poems on the coronation of King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon,’ which is decorated with several images of the Tudor rose representing Henry and the pomegranate representing Katherine. Stephen Hawes created ‘A Joyful Meditation to All England’ described the royal couple this way: Two titles in one thou didst well unify When the red rose took the white in marriage Reigning together right high and noble From whose united titles and worth language Descended is by right excellent courage King Henry VIII for to reign doubtless. During his reign, Henry VIII had the large round table at Winchester, which was believed to be the actual round table of King Arthur, repainted, with the King’s new design including a large Tudor rose at the center. Despite Henry VIII’s efforts to keep his daughters off the throne, Elizabeth became Queen and made significant use of the Tudor rose. One of her coronation pageants, entitled ‘the uniting of the two houses of Lancaster and York,’ featured Henry VII with a red rose, Elizabeth of York with a white rose, Henry VIII as the Tudor rose alongside Anne Boleyn, and finally Elizabeth as the Tudor rose. Elizabeth used the Tudor rose throughout her reign. A crowned Tudor rose features prominently in the so-called ‘Pelican Portrait’ of Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard, which was painted around 1574. In this case, the rose is ‘slipped and crowned,’ meaning it’s shown as a cutting with leaves and a stem and topped with a crown. When it appears with just a crown (not the stem), it’s considered ‘royally crowned.’ The Tudor rose is also on a medalet commemorating the ‘Hampshire,’ which is held at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. It’s found on Elizabethan coins, and it is visible on Elizabeth’s Great Seal, which is held at the National Archives at Kew. And then, in 1592, the image of the Tudor rose was in the mind of Shakespeare’s audience as they watch the tensions rise and the war that had become associated with red and white roses being acted out on the stage. Use of the Tudor rose didn’t end with the Tudors. It had come to represent England. You’ll find it on canons cast in the 17th and 18th centuries and beyond. The Tudor rose is on buildings, ceilings, and public squares across the country. It’s on the 20-pence coins minted between 1982 and 2008. You’ll find Tudor rose Christmas ornaments, greeting cards, and wallpaper. It’s all over the coronation regalia that is still in use today, from the robe to the armillas to the spurs. The Tudor rose is not an accurate representation of the ‘Wars of the Roses’—a title that wasn’t used until 1829 in a novel by Sir Walter Scott. Instead, it’s an example of the extraordinary success the Tudors achieved in creating an image of themselves and their reign that literally stamped itself all over our collective consciousness. The ‘rose both red and white’ has turned out to be one of the most successful logos of all time—all thanks to the first Tudor King.
The Red Rose and the White: The Story Behind the Tudor Rose
Tudor Rose Design
The Red Rose and the White: The Story Behind the Tudor Rose

Carol Ann Lloyd

Carol Ann Lloyd is a popular speaker, author, and podcaster who brings the stories of history and Shakespeare to life. She presents programs for Smithsonian Associates, Royal Oak Foundation, English Speaking Union, Folger Shakespeare Library, OLLI at George Mason University, and more—online and on stage. Her podcast, British History: Royals, Rebels, and Romantics, explores the lives of famous and infamous characters in history. She is currently working on a book, Tudors by the Numbers, that is scheduled for a 2023 release. Carol Ann also speaks about how Shakespeare can help us develop effective conversation and interpersonal skills. She is the author of Building Relationships, One Conversation at a Time, and an Audible book, How to Build Meaning Relationships through Conversation. Carol Ann in preparing to launch a new “Shake Up Conversation” program. She is a member and on the board of the National Speakers Association.
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