The Battle of Bosworth Field August 22, 1485
Treason, treachery and one bold decision gone awry pretty much sums up the events of August 22, 1485.
On that day, Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England, with a royal army of some 10,000 men, faced Henry Tudor and his 5,000 soldiers at Bosworth Field in Leicester.
In just two hours of battle the course of England irrevocably changed.
How did we get here?
But let’s back up a moment and discover how we came to this day that ended one royal dynasty and gave rise to another.
Edward IV and his younger brother, Richard III, were the sons of Richard, Duke of York. Their branch of the Plantagenet family had battled with the rival Lancastrian branch (represented by King Henry VI) for years. Henry VI had ultimately been deposed by Edward IV.
Richard III succeeded his older brother, Edward IV, in 1483 by disinheriting his nephews, Edward’s sons. The claim was that Edward’s marriage was invalid and his children, therefore, illegitimate. Whether the claim was justified or not, Richard’s action alienated some Yorkists, and the beginning of Richard’s reign was restive.
Opposing Richard III at Bosworth was Henry Tudor, one of the few surviving Lancastrians. His mother was Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and a son of Edward III. Henry’s father was Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. By 1483, Margaret had been widowed twice. She was now married to Thomas, Lord Stanley.
Margaret’s descent was lofty but it was not without problems. There was a flaw in the Beaufort lineage. John of Gaunt had married the mother of his Beaufort children well after their birth. The children were legitimized by Richard II, although a later king specified that they were not eligible to inherit the throne.
Henry Tudor was, nevertheless, the strongest Lancastrian candidate. When the Yorkist king Edward IV took the throne, Henry had to flee to the Continent. His mother never gave up hope that her son could someday return and reclaim his father’s lands and titles.
After Richard III succeeded his brother, Margaret Beaufort saw a chance for her son not only to return, but to return as king. Margaret plotted and schemed and made Richard’s life and reign difficult. She approached Edward IV’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville. The mother of Edward IV’s two disinherited sons, and no friend to Richard III, Elizabeth Woodville agreed that her oldest daughter would marry Henry Tudor – if and when he took the throne.
On 7 August 1485, Henry landed at Milford Haven on the southwest coast of Wales. He had with him about 1,500 mercenary soldiers, financed by the French King, along with perhaps 500 Englishmen, consisting of Lancastrian exiles and disaffected Yorkists.
Henry’s plan was to land in Wales, which had always been a Lancastrian stronghold and to which Henry had strong family ties. He would gather more men there, and on his march towards London – his destination.
When Henry landed, he was shrewd enough to raise both the flag of England and the Welsh emblem, the Red Dragon of Cadwalader, on a Tudor background of green and white.
While marching through Wales, no Welshman rose against him and many joined his army. By the time Henry reached Bosworth, he had perhaps 5,000 men.
Henry encamped with his army near Bosworth on the 21st of August.
What was Richard doing?
Richard had been in Nottingham in early August when the news of Henry’s invasion reached him. As a well-trained military commander, he took the threat seriously. He sent out orders for his nobles and their armies to join him and prepare for battle at Leicestershire. Norfolk, Northumberland and twenty other nobles answered the call. But many nobles from the south and west were eerily silent.
One big question: Who would Thomas, Lord Stanley, and his brother William support? Thomas was, supposedly, a Yorkist. He had served as steward of the royal household, between 1471 and 1483, in the reign of Edward IV. He was the king’s confidant and a member of his council. He was also, however, Margaret Beaufort’s husband and, therefore, Henry Tudor’s stepfather. He and William Stanley had met with Henry shortly after his landing, but they had made no firm commitment.
And the Stanleys had quite a reputation! They were known to owe their first loyalty, not to their monarch, but to their own interests. They also had a past history of waiting to see how events unfolded before engaging. Somehow, the Stanleys always wound up on the winning side!
Three separate armies gathered outside of Leicester: Richard III’s 10,000 men; Henry Tudor’s 5,000 men; and the uncommitted force, between 3,000 and 5,000 led by Thomas, Lord Stanley, and his brother William.
The location of Richard’s camp and the battle were traditionally said to have been around Ambion Hill. An exhaustive three-year archaeological study, begun in 2005 by the Battlefields Trust, however, determined that the actual battle site was some two miles from where it had previously been thought. This has led to ongoing study and reinterpretation of the entire battlefield area by archaeologists and historians. The actual site was probably at Sutton Cheney, not far from Market Bosworth.
Most of the accounts of Richard’s thoughts and actions before the battle come from hostile sources. The most imaginative – and the most compelling – are found in William Shakespeare. Great theater! History – not so great!
According to Shakespeare, there was great unease in the Yorkist camp on the night before the battle. It is said that Richard had a premonition that things would not go well. The story goes that a cryptic note was pinned to the Duke of Norfolk’s tent flap the night before the battle. The note said…
“Jockey o’ Norfolk be not so bold for Dickon thy master is bought and sold.”
… and has long been regarded as a warning of the Stanley treason afoot. (While the story is just that, a story, both sides were frustrated by the Stanleys refusal to pick a side.) As dawn broke and Richard’s men began to prepare for battle, supposedly no priest could be found to say Mass – an ill omen, indeed.
The accounts of the actual battle generally come from vague accounts written well after Richard’s defeat. Their evidence, therefore, has to be regarded skeptically, although much of it might in fact be true. Here, however, our knowledge is bolstered by archaeology and we are on ground that is a little more certain.
The two armies had a traditional command structure. Richard III and Henry Tudor led their own forces. Richard’s vanguard was commanded by John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and his rearguard commanded by Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland. Henry Tudor’s vanguard was commanded by John de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
Norfolk and Oxford engaged near a marshy area at the bottom of a hill. Not only were archers involved, but recent archaeology has unearthed evidence of significant handgun use – and even cannon shot! The fighting was intense and soon became bloody hand-to-hand combat. At some point (the exact choreography of the battle is unclear), Oxford and his men surged ahead. Howard was killed, leaving his forces leaderless.
The Stanley forces remained aloof and to one side, equidistant from the two armies.
The cry of battle
Watching the battle from an elevated position, Richard suddenly caught sight of Henry Tudor, close enough to be within what looked like easy striking distance. He decided to lead a personal charge against his rival.
Why take such a risk? Perhaps Richard, the last medieval king, possessed a strong old-fashioned sense of chivalry and saw this as a matter of personal honor. Perhaps he was seeking a divine “sign of approval” for his reign. Perhaps he simply thought, practically, that if he could strike quickly and kill Henry, the battle would be over.
Richard rode at the head of his cavalry. Tradition has it that his steed was named “White Surrey.” He was, of course, fully armed and, as King of England, wore a gold circlet on his helmet. He gave the order. Now! Charge! And, with his companions by his side, banners flying, war cries sounding, hoofbeats and hearts pounding, Richard hurled himself into the fray.
It was so close, so close. Just a matter of a few feet. Close enough that Henry’s standard bearer William Brandon was killed.
Henry’s foreign mercenaries, however, stalled Richard’s advance. They used a technique used on the Continent, but unknown in England. They formed ranks and enclosed Henry Tudor inside a square of pikemen. Richard’s cavalry could not penetrate through the bristling wall of pikes. Men were unhorsed, and the entire force was thrown into disarray.
It was at this crucial moment that William Stanley, who had been closely watching the progress of the battle from a distance, saw his opportunity to be a “Kingmaker.” He threw the Stanley forces into the fray and smashed into the flanks of Richard’s cavalry.
Richard was unhorsed. He was offered a steed, and a means of escape, but refused. He fought on, fiercely and bravely, screaming “Treason! Treason!” until he was literally hacked to death.
The battle was over. It took just two hours. Northumberland and his forces, to the rear, never even engaged in battle.
It is said that it was Thomas, Lord Stanley, who recovered Richard’s circlet from the battlefield and placed it on Henry’s head. Legend has it that it was Lord Stanley who first called him by his new title, King Henry.
The aftermath was not pretty. Richard’s mutilated, naked body was displayed for several days before being buried at Greyfriars monastery. His surviving supporters fled, all of them branded “traitors” according to Henry Tudor, who dated the start of his reign from the day before the battle.
Some of Richard’s close friends were executed. Henry Tudor was, however, eager for the hostilities to end and he pardoned many. Thomas Howard, son of Richard’s “Jockey of Norfolk,” was badly wounded at Bosworth and then imprisoned. He was eventually freed and allowed to inherit his father’s title. John de la Pole, Richard’s nephew and heir, was not at Bosworth. He was not penalized for his Plantagenet blood and served as godfather to Henry Tudor’s firstborn, Prince Arthur.
Lincoln soon rebelled against Henry, however. And, after continued unrest, Henry was no longer so merciful. It became dangerous to have Plantagenet blood. The political murders of surviving Plantagenets continued well into the reign of Henry VIII.
With Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth, he had won the throne by battle – a time-honored tradition for becoming the King of England. And to the victor go the spoils. Henry had Parliament restore the legitimacy of Edward IV’s children; he then married Edward’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. His mother Margaret Beaufort could now proudly style herself, “My Lady, the King’s Mother.” And it was Henry’s chroniclers who got to write the history.
The Battle of Bosworth has been called “one of England’s four great decisive battles of the last 1,000 years,” by the UK Battlefields Trust. The others include Hastings (William the Conqueror defeats the Saxon king), Naseby (Cromwell defeats King Charles I) and the Battle of Britain (British pilots push back the Nazi invasion of England).
Bosworth ended the War of the Roses for good. It also ended the Plantagenet dynasty that had ruled since Henry II in 1154 — 331 years of rule by one family, the longest ever in Britain. And it gave rise to the Tudor dynasty, another rollicking bloody bunch who also fundamentally changed Britain as well.
Today Bosworth Field, which incorporates the actual battlefield site, is an historical site and popular tourist attraction. For more information on visiting this famous landmark, go to http://www.bosworthbattlefield.com/.
The memories of Richard’s desperate “last charge” were not lost. As was said of another, much later, cavalry force that rode into the “Valley of Death,”
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.”
The chroniclers – Tudor all – remembered Richard’s bravery. And the story of Richard’s dramatic death was preserved for all time by William Shakespeare, who sends his Richard off to everlasting glory, saying
Advance, our standards! Set upon our foes!
Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George,
Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons!”
(Richard III, Act 5, Scene 3)