The first event happened on 15 May 1965 after the Vice-Chancellor of York, Lord James of Rusholme, suggested a boat race between the two universities. The students amplified this idea and held a 3-day event with a variety of sports: rowing, table tennis, relay race, mixed field hockey, and tug of war. The winner of each of the sports received two points, and the losing vice-chancellor presented a trophy to the winning university. The event has continued to increase in size since its founding, with new events added every year (2004 had 37 different sports). It is the largest inter-university sports tournament in Europe, and live coverage of the event is broadcast every year by a joint collaboration between the two university's student television stations YSTV and LA1TV, and its two student radio stations, Bailrigg FM and University Radio York. The importance of non-sporting social activities at the event has also been increased, with organised events on the Friday and Saturday evenings.
The Lancaster University Men's Hockey Club 3rd Team, Lancaster Bombers American Football team and the Lancaster Trampolining team were the only teams to remain unbeaten in the history of the tournament to date going into Roses 2012, however all three teams lost to their York counterparts in 2012.
In the 2011 tournament a stadium was used for the first time. The Rugby 1sts XV battled it out at Huntington Stadium, the home of the York City Knights. During the 2013 tournament York opted to use the same venue again, for the second year running.