By Tim Venning
We can be fairly sure the Battle of Bosworth wasn't like this. Picture by James Doyle.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Battle of Bosworth was one of those occasions when, in retrospect, an era seemed to end in a decisive fashion – in this case the direct line of the House of Plantagenet, which had ruled since the accession of King Henry II (whose father Count Geoffrey of Anjou had reputedly used a spring of the broom plant, the Planta Genista, as his personal emblem).
And it certainly wasn't like this re-enactment of the 500th anniversary of the battle in 1985. Henry on the march to Bosworth.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Indeed, William Shakespeare used it – following the trend by 16th Century chroniclers working for the Tudor dynasty, whose founder Henry VII had unexpectedly won at Bosworth – as the climax of his series of royal history plays. The series of plays end with the heroic and virtuous invader Henry killing the unhinged and child-murdering tyrant Richard. Henry then married the late King’s unjustly bastardised niece Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, to unite the White and Red Roses of York and Lancaster and bring an end to the generation of bloody civil wars that had troubled England as the two rival lines of the Plantagenet family fought over the throne and spectacularly murdered each other.
But this is a myth on several levels. There was not one series of devastating civil wars and invasions, but a series of coups and rebellions or invasions with long intervals between some of them. The warfare only affected a minority of the population, and the wars did not end with Bosworth. Two years after Bosworth, there was another nearly successful invasion on behalf of a Yorkist pretender. This was led by Richard’s nephew John de la Pole. It was again a King based in the Midlands with a smallish if effective army facing an invader, and most of the nobility not taking part in the war on either side.
The arguments still go on as to whether Richard was a tyrant. He seems to have been paranoid (with reason?) about his foes and he left a trail of elite victims behind him in his quest for security – regardless of whatever happened to his nephews in 1483. If he had won at Bosworth, his reputation would not have been rubbished by his successors – although he was already controversial long before any “Tudor spin-doctors” got to work on his real or imagined crimes.
Richard III (born October 1452, so aged 32) was a more experienced commander than Henry Tudor (born January 1457, so aged 28) at the Battle of Bosworth. He had fought his first battle, probably in command of his elder brother Edward IV’s army at Barnet in March 1471 at the age of eighteen after they returned from exile to depose Edward’s rival, King Henry VI. Henry Tudor had never fought, let alone commanded in battle before and had spent most of the past fourteen years as an interned political hostage at the court of Duke Francis II of Brittany, usually under close guard in a comfortable but isolated castle. He presumably received some military training as a boy from his then guardian, Edwards IV’s Lieutenant of South Wales, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.
Royal Standard of Richard III.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
At Bosworth, Henry Tudor had the smaller army, consisting of a mixture of ‘die-hard’ Lancastrian exiles, supporters of Edward IV who had refused to accept his sons’ exclusion from the throne as ‘illegitimate’ by Richard in 1483 and had fled abroad, and a more militarily coherent force of French mercenaries loaned to Henry by the regency for the teenage King Charles VIII of France. His victory was therefore far from inevitable.
And the Royal Standard of Henry VII. Dragons beat boars.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Although five similar challengers had overthrown the reigning sovereign in England in the past century (Henry of Bolingbroke, aka Henry IV, deposing Richard II in 1399; Duke Richard of York politically neutering Henry VI in 1460; Richard’s son Edward IV deposing Henry in 1461 and 1470; and Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’ expelling Edward in 1470), each of them had been an experienced general. Henry Tudor was the only one of these lacking military experience, although he had capable lieutenants.
The whole run of coups – successful or otherwise – and successful invasions in turbulent England from 1387 to 1487 was a rare experience in contemporary Europe, suggesting that England was frequently an unstable, if not a ‘failed’ state during this period.
Richard had faced two major rebellions already in a two-year reign. However, the less controversial Edward IV, his elder brother, was challenged successfully by his cousin Warwick in less than two years in 1469-70, so deposing of his crowned nephew in 1483 did not make Richard a uniquely insecure figure. Edward was arguably as insecure and as unsure of popular support in 1469-70 as Richard was in 1485. Richard was not uniquely “hated and deserted as a murderous tyrant” in 1485, despite both later Tudor propaganda and the effects of the disappearance of his nephews while in his care in 1483 (which contemporary foreign witness Dominic Mancini testified caused serious discontent and fear in London).
Richard had the larger army at Bosworth, though some nobles had refrained from sending troops to join his army as summoned. Thomas Stanley, principal magnate of Lancashire and Henry Tudor’s stepfather, had avoided joining Richard as ordered, despite a threat to execute his hostage son.
Stanley and his brother Sir William Stanley camped somewhere close to the two rival armies. It was unclear which side they would choose as the two armies lined up near the village of Stoke Golding, off the Roman Road of Watling Street, on the morning of 22 August 1485. Richard is believed to have taken up a position on the upper slopes of Ambien Hill. His magnate allies, such as Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, commended forces of their own tenants; these allies were of uncertain loyalty, not least due to the questionable means of Richard’s unexpected accession.
Richard had faced a revolt by many of the late King’s loyalists a few weeks after his accession in June 1483. This had been defeated, but rumours had arisen that both Edward V and his younger brother Richard – the princes in the tower – had been murdered by Richard III, and he could not produce them alive.
Then in Autumn 1483, Richard III had faced a major revolt by his closest ally, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Richards had the advantages of reputation, high ground, and numbers on 22 August. His wait in central England for Stafford to advance to meet him has sometimes been interpreted as a sign of weakness. However, Richard’s defensive strategy was only a repeat of that of Warwick’s government when facing Edward IV’s invasion in 1471. It gave him time to muster a larger army rather than hurry forward to take on the invader.
Henry Tudor was initially out of reach in western Wales after landing at Dale near Milford Haven, and could not be tackled safely until he reached the English lowlands. If Richard had moved forward to block Henry’s exit from Wales at Shrewsbury, but he couldn’t be sure that the Earl of Northumberland (son and grandson of Lancastrians killed by Richard’s kin in 1455 and 1460) would not attack his rear.
It should also be remembered that uncertain political loyalties meant that having a large army – actual or potential – was not a guarantee of success, or even safety. This can be seen in the desertions Edward IV suffered in 1469 and 1470. Richard, who made much of the threat of treason in his appeals for help in 1483, may have been wary about calling on potential defectors for help in August 1485.
Richard had commanded a wing at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, aged eighteen, and he led armies against the Scots in the early 1480s, whereas Henry had never been on a battlefield. Henry’s uncle Jasper Tudor had military experience from the 1460s, as a long-standing Lancastrian commander in Wales. The senior Lancastrian commander at Bosworth, Oxford, had commanded Warwick’s left wing at Barnet in 1471.
Richard faced potential treachery by Lord Stanley, commander of the Lancashire and Cheshire levies. His brother Sir William Stanley was also strategically positioned with his levies near the battlefield, and joined his brother in attacking Richard when the King got into difficulties.
There was – allegedly – a warning to Richard’s commander of the vanguard, John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, beforehand that Richard was going to be betrayed, presumably by the Stanleys. A note pinned to his tent read: “Jockey of Norfolk, be not too bold/ For Dickon thy master is bought and sold”.
It is also uncertain if the Earl of Northumberland, commanding his North-Eastern levies as part of the Royal infantry, held back from following Richard down Ambien Hill into the melee out of cowardice, caution lest he be attacked in the flank by the Stanleys, or treachery. Commanders of the sections of a mid-15th Century army changing sides was not an unusual event. For example, at the Battle of Barnet, the Marquis of Montagu, Warwick’s younger brother, was found to be wearing the enemy colours under his armour when he was killed, possibly indicating he intended to defect at an opportune moment.
Details of the Battle of Bosworth are still contentious as it is not clear what positions the rival armies held and where. Archaeological research in 2009 found some cannonballs a good distance away from the site assumed to be the correct one in the 19th Century, close to the foot of Ambien Hill. There was a marsh near the site, which possibly required either Richard or Henry to manoeuvre to avoid it and/or protected one of Henry’s flanks so Richard had to attack him head-on on a narrow front.
Richard appears to have been to the north or northeast of Henry. The sources generally agree that Richard had to attack Henry by moving west or southwest down from a hill – traditionally assumed to be Ambien Hill.
The battle started poorly for the Royal forces when Howard was killed leading the royal vanguard. The Stanleys did not yet join in on Henry’s side and merely continued to ignore orders to move to support the King. It remains unclear why Northumberland did not move his troops forward to aid Norfolk’s men in breaking Henry’s line. It might have been due to geography rather than intended treason. Was the ground too marshy or the hill too steep? Did Northumberland fear an attack on his flanks by Stanley?
The two vanguards were left engaged on approximately equal terms in the centre, with some of Richard’s forces not coming into the action. Richard’s forces were the more experienced and thus more likely to prevail in a long combat. However, Richard attempted to put the issue beyond doubt by a personally-led cavalry charge downhill against the pretender. His frontal attack with his Household knights could have won the day – he got close enough to Henry to cut down his standard bearer Sir William Brandon.
However, as he must have feared, both Stanleys then attacked Richard’s force in the rear, and he was surrounded and hacked down. His body, dug up in a car park in nearby Leicester in 2012 at the site of his recorded burial at the town’s Grey Friars church, showed clearly major injuries suffered that were a testimony to the ferocity of his final struggle. It was also found that the body had a twisted spine from scoliosis, confirming the Tudor and Shakespearean ‘myth’ of him having a hunched back.
It has been alleged that Richard refused to escape in the few minutes available to him after he had seen the Stanleys advancing. But if the Stanleys had delayed for a few more minutes; if Northumberland had moved into the fight to give Richard the advantage of numbers; if Richard had been able to reach Henry, the outcome of a personal battle between them would have been in little doubt.
Those magnates who had hung back from the battle to see which way it went would have had no option but to hasten to the King’s assistance with assurances of their support.
Lacking a broad base of support and with his main general Norfolk dead, Richard would not have been able to punish them for fear of causing more rebellions. Stanley controlled much of Lancashire and the Isle of Man, and Northumberland was head of the powerful Percy clan and crucial to the safety of the Border now that Richard had moved south to London.
Richard would have had to make the most of what support he had among the peers and seek to establish a secure regime with the passive quiescence of men he knew he could not trust. This was what happened to Henry VII in real life after both Bosworth in 1485 and the Battle of Stoke in 1487 against Yorkist rebels.
Richard had sought to project an image of himself as a man concerned with his subjects’ welfare since 1483, acting swiftly to carry out justice, dealing with concerns raised in Parliament, and pointing out his moral standards and piety in contrast with the ‘luxury’ and immorality of his brother’s reign. His use of moral issues in his propaganda was noted, with foes who had been known for their wild living at Edward IV’s luxurious court (such as the Marquis of Dorset, Elizabeth Woodville’s son by her first marriage) being denounced as immoral wastrels, and Edward IV’s ex-mistress Elizabeth/Jane Shore having to do penance as a whore.
Richard Rex Tertius. The earliest portrait of Richard III.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Richard’s sympathetic biographers, Paul Murray Kendall (1955) in particular, have paid extensive tribute to his abilities, public spiritedness, and hard work as King. His critics have, however, noted his obsession with sin and his extensive founding of chantries, and analysis of his personal ‘Book of Hours’ hints at a sense of guilt. Richard also had a personal devotion to St Julian, who had killed his relatives.
Richard’s death was particularly lamented in York, the centre of his power. The Council there paid him a generous tribute – a public defiance of the new King and his ‘spin’ about Richard being a murderous tyrant.
Having been brought up at Middleham Castle in the Yorkshire Dales, which he later inherited, along with most of his cousin Warwick’s other confiscated Yorkshire estates, Richard was a well-known and respected local patron and employer. He may have been a shrewd and subtle manipulator who knew how to seem affable and concerned for the poor and how to present an image of virtue. Whatever his motives, the fact remains that his ‘spin’ succeeded with many in Yorkshire. However, the extent of the post-coup revolt against him in the South-East shows that many of the local – even Yorkist – gentry there did not trust him. He replaced many sacked local officials with his own Northern supporters.
There had been panic in the streets of London after he staged a mass arrest of his rivals on the Council of State on June 13, 1483, and had his supposed challenger Lord Hastings beheaded on the spot in a clear act of terror to intimidate his foes.
He therefore had much to do in winning people over, but if maintained a grip on power and a monopoly of violence, then the elites would have had to put up with him whatever they thought in private.
Were he to be unchallenged King from 1485, Richard would have continued his policies, and with Henry Tudor either dead or in flight to France, he would have faced no major challenges for at least several years.
The circumstances of his removal of a legitimate sovereign meant that, like Henry IV before him, he would not have been secure from a series of potential challenges even after one crushing victory.
It is indicative of Richard’s sense of the dynastic threat that even before his ailing wife Anne died (probably of tuberculosis), in winter 1484-85 the idea was floated that he should marry Elizabeth of York, sister of the missing Princes. She was eighteen; he was thirty-two. It is unclear if the idea was raised simply to see if this drastic solution to his dynastic illegitimacy would be accepted, but the very fact that it was proposed despite the incest it would involve (Elizabeth was Richard’s niece) indicates his sense of weakness and his need to neutralise Edward IV’s children as a threat.
Reaction at court and among the ‘political nation’ to any idea of his marrying Elizabeth of York was so hostile that Richard was forced to deny that it had ever been seriously considered. The fact that there could be possible rebellion in revulsion at the marriage, a reaction that Richard’s advisors had warned him about, may well mean that a victorious Richard would have still ‘played it safe’ and continued the diplomatic negotiations with Portugal for a Princess to marry him.
The probable candidate was King John’s sister Juana, later nicknamed ‘the Holy Princess’ for her religious enthusiasms and to be canonised. This would have complemented his own public moralist stances on ‘sin’ – especially the supposed debauchery of Edward IV’s luxury-loving, drunken court.
The next article in this two-part analysis of the Battle of Bosworth will look at possible consequences of a Richard victory there.
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Tim Venning has written a series of books for SLP on Ancient Rome, starting with Caesars of the Bosphorus.