The Battle of Bosworth
- August 22nd 1485 -
"A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse.” These famous words from Shakespeare’s Richard III speak of the frustration of the King, Richard, as he saw his crown and life slipping away from him. This pivotal battle in the Wars of the Roses, in effect, ended the medieval period and ushered in one of the most successful dynasties in English history – the Tudors. The battle was won not by superior tactics, weapons or courage but by double crossing. Richard III was betrayed by many of his key men.
Having deposed his nephew, Edward V, in 1483 by claiming, with some level of accuracy, that he was illegitimate, Richard had enjoyed a fairly positive start to his reign, especially in the North of England, which is where his powerbase lay. However when Henry Tudor sailed from France and landed in Milford Haven, South Wales, on August 7th he must have known that trouble lay ahead. However he was so confident of defeating Henry that he delayed his departure from Nottingham to celebrate a feast day.
Henry’s father, Edmund Tudor, and his grandfather, Owen Tudor, had held a lot of land in Wales and it was here that he looked for support. His rather thin claim to the throne came from the fact that his mother, Margaret Beaufort, was the great grand-daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of Edward III. Margaret was keen to promote her son as an alternative to Richard despite the fact that she was married to the powerful Yorkist, Lord Stanley. On Christmas Day 1483 Henry agreed to marry Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, and as a result gained supporters on both Lancastrian and Yorkist sides.
Henry marched 200 miles into the Midlands and Richard went to meet him. It is notoriously difficult to gauge numbers in a medieval battle but the Yorkist army under Richard numbered around 10,000 plus those in the service of Lord Stanley who had declared for Richard. The Duke of Norfolk stood at the front guarding the right flank on Ambian Hill (Although the location of the battle is strongly argued) and Richard with his contingent stood behind him in the centre numbering about 3,000 infantrymen with the Duke of Northumberland nearer the back, guarding the left, with about 4,000 – many of these being cavalry. At the side of the battlefield was Lord Stanley who had up to 6,000.
Henry’s army was made up of many different nationalities. He certainly had French mercenaries brought with him from France. He probably had fewer than 1000 Englishmen, some of them disenchanted supporters of Richard. A lot of his army of around 5,000 were from Wales that were picked up on the march to England. Henry was very inexperienced in battle and left the tactics and vanguard to the Earl of Oxford, with his uncle Japser Tudor, the Earl of Pembroke, leading as well. He was heavily outnumbered – or so it appeared.
Between the two sides was a marsh but the Earl of Oxford, at the vanguard of Henry’s army, moved around this, avoiding the cannon fire from Richard’s artillery. Keeping the marsh on his right he attacked the Duke of Norfolk. A fierce battle ensued with Oxford’s men getting the upper hand. Some of Norfolk’s men now started to flee the battlefield. Seeing this Richard deployed Northumberland’s sizeable contingent to help but after having given the order the men sat there and did nothing. He still had the Stanleys waiting to enter the fray but he then noticed that Henry had become slightly distanced from his bodyguard. Thinking he could win at a stroke by killing his rival for the throne he gathered a posse of men, his personal retinue, and charged around the melee that was going on and went straight for Henry himself. He killed Sir Richard Brandon, Henry’s standard-bearer and got very close to Henry himself. Oxford had left some pikemen to guard Henry and this slowed down the attack. It is said by eyewitnesses that Henry got off his horse and huddled in the middle of his men to avoid being noticed. He certainly seemed to take no part in the fighting.
At this point, Lord Stanley, seeing the position Richard was in entered the battle. However he did not enter on Richard’s side but for Henry Tudor, his stepson. Richard had taken Stanley’s son hostage before the battle to ensure his loyalty. He may or may not have known that Henry had met with Stanley that morning but it certainly seems that he did not trust Stanley’s loyalty. The orders were clear however that should Stanley fight for Henry his son would be put to death. This order was never carried out.
The intervention of the Stanleys was to prove crucial. The Duke of Northumberland’s men were still unmoved and Richard was now pushed away from where Henry was towards the marsh. At this point he was unseated from his horse and was offered another to help him escape. Richard was reported to have said, “God forbid that I retreat one step. I will either win the battle as a king, or die as one." His own standard bearer, Sir Percival Thirlwall, lost both of his legs in the fighting but, extraordinarily, continued to try and fight and hold the banner upright until he was killed. Henry Tudor’s official historian, Polydore Vergil, relates that, “King Richard, alone, was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies.”
Richard had come within a metre of killing Henry. Lord Stanley’s intervention had proved crucial in stopping him. We now know, after his skeleton was found in a car park in Leicester in 2013, that he suffered terrible injuries eight of which were to the head. It is believed that he was hit so hard that his helmet was driven into his skull. He also received a couple of violent blows to his naked body after the battle when he was stripped naked and slung over a horse. One blow, to his bottom, went through his buttock to the bone. On hearing of his death Richard’s supporters started drifting away. The Duke of Northumberland rode off without having lifted a sword in anger. The Duke of Norfolk was killed.
As for Henry he was proclaimed King on the battlefield. It is written that the crown was found in a thorn bush and was placed on his head by Lord Stanley – the last English King to be crowned on the field of battle.
Henry Tudor became Henry VII and reversed the fortunes of the monarchy. He rewarded those who helped him very well with land and titles. As Richard Unstead rightly says, “To rule a King needed to be strong and to be strong a King must have money.” He set about filling the Royal coffers in all sorts of ways. He encouraged trade and shipbuilding and gradually increased the wealth of the country. He largely avoided costly foreign wars. Henry was not a showman like his son and successor, Henry VIII. What he did have was political skill, an eye for making money and strong common sense – which isn’t always so common. Without this skill, cunning and expertise there is no way that his second son, Henry VIII, could ever have reigned as he did. After a reign of twenty four years Henry Tudor passed on to his son wealth and obedient nobles. As Unstead continues, “What he could not pass on was his own common sense.”