Roses at War

How the Wars of the Roses turned into Europe’s biggest sporting rivalry

This  summer, York’s campus erupted with excitement as sports teams representing the York snatched back the Roses crown from Lancaster University. Jamie Summers traces back the  sporting spectacle that has dominated the calendar each  of the last 51 years.

Our History

What has become a unique varsity tournament over the last few decades is steeped in centuries of history. For years, the historic counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire have been arch-enemies, stretching back, you could say, to the fifteenth century Civil War between their respective Houses.

The varsity Roses Tournament began in 1965, pitting the White Rose of York against the Red Rose of Lancaster. It was the brainchild of Lord Eric James, York’s original Vice-Chancellor, who proposed a boat race between the two new universities.

In the spirit of the occasion, students added other sports to the calendar, and it has grown in size, intensity and rivalry ever since. The first victory went to York, and a pattern quickly developed where the home team usually triumphed.

Much of the 70s were dominated by Lancaster; they claimed victory in every year between 1972 and 1977, with the exception of 1974 – which remains the only draw to date.

A Dry Spell for York

Another barren spell came for York in the mid-1980s, but as the century drew to a close, the White Rose rediscovered their competitive spirit. The building of the original JLD Astroturf, funded by alumnus and future Chancellor Greg Dyke, helped to raise York’s sporting profile.

Ironically, it was also during the 1990s that the darkest hour came for the White Rose, as they were thumped 170.5-60.5 on the west coast in 1996.


The fiftieth anniversary of the tournament came around in 2014, and having been on the wrong end of a bruising defeat a year earlier in YO10, Lancaster were determined to win back the title to mark the occasion.

It was a superb contest in the West of Lancashire, but Roses were indeed Red last year. Our rivals pulled out all of the stops, erecting an impressive temporary stadium to mark the event. Current York Sport President Cass Brown, then serving her first term in office, took heart in the fact that York’s defeat was the narrowest away loss ever – a swing of just five events would have seen York retain the title.

YUSU's Cass Brown
YUSU’s Cass Brown

Roses 2015: York Victorious

That promise was duly fulfilled in a sensational event this year, in what must surely go down as one of the greatest ever Roses Tournaments. Lancaster, spurred on by a huge following styled the ‘Red Army’ descended upon both of York’s campuses, intent on causing an upset.

But the White Rose had other ideas, setting a new standard for future competitors to follow. The tournament was opened by University Chancellor and current Football Association Chairman Greg Dyke, alongside the England Football manager, Roy Hodgson, and they watched as boxing officially opened proceedings for the first time.

An electric atmosphere pervaded Central Hall as 1,000 people looked on, coupled with a further 6,000 packed into Vanbrugh Paradise outside as a series of bouts ended in a draw. The intensity of the evening set the tone for five days of competition.

By Sunday evening, York had pulled off something incredible: the largest winning score ever. The White Rose thumped their rivals by 225.5 points to 139.5 to reclaim the esteemed Carter-James Trophy, so named after the company that originally sponsored the event in 1965.

This latest victory means that York’s formidable form on home soil continues – they have now won every single tournament in Yorkshire since 1985, and it was fitting that, in Dyke’s final year as Chancellor, the Trophy would return home once again.


Amid the excitement of the sporting competition, inclusivity was the focus of this year’s tournament, as part of a broader co-operation between the two universities; 2015 saw a women’s event in the boxing open the competition for the first time, whilst the inaugural disabled students’ event, sitting volleyball, also proudly took its place in the extensive fixture calendar.

Regardless of the eventual victors each year, what makes Roses so distinctive is the manner in which all involved revel in the occasion – over the past few decades, the tournament has expanded to become the largest of its kind in Europe.

A hugely diverse range of sports, from football to kendo are on show, and this year alone saw the introduction of boxing, sitting volleyball, rugby league, futsal and octopush for the first time. The excitement in the build-up to this year’s tournament was palpable, and the buzz around campus afterwards was infectious.

York had aimed to reclaim their title, and what they delivered was, in the words of Current York Sport President Cass Brown, “the best Roses in history.” This is a battle that, like the original war between the Houses of Lancaster and York, will rumble on for decades to come. For now, though, Roses are White…