The Battle of Bosworth: End of a Dynasty; Birth of a New

On the early morning of the 22nd August 1485, Richard III and Henry Tudor finally faced each other in battle near the town of Market Bosworth in Leicestershire. The short battle, lasting only a couple of hours, ended in the death of Richard III and the ascendancy of the newly proclaimed Henry VII and his new House of Tudor. Bosworth has become etched in the public memory as the definitive engagement which ended the ‘Wars of the Roses’, a conflict which had torn the English royal and political establishment apart since the mid-1450s. Historically, the Battle of Bosworth is one of the worst recorded battles in English history with varied accounts and the inability to confirm and cross reference other sources. One thing however is certain: it marked a turning point in the history of England.

The Battle of Bosworth- 1485.

The Battle of Bosworth- 1485.

At Richard III’s death in August 1485, he had been King of England for a mere 24 months yet he remains England’s foremost controversial monarch. His seizure of power from his nephew, Edward V, whom, alongside his brother, Richard, Duke of York, disappeared in the Tower of London in July 1483, remains Richard III’s darkest act. Historians are almost certainly never to know what happened to the Princes in the Tower although Richard III was ultimately responsible for their security. The controversy here could be discussed over a lifetime, but Richard’s usurpation of the throne from April-July 1483 had a direct link to the Battle of Bosworth two years later. Richard III, known as the Duke of Gloucester throughout most of his life, was a Yorkist. His brother, Edward IV, had ruled England, officially, since 1461. Richard showed consistent and steadfast loyalty to his brother during the tumultuous period from 1469-1471 where the powerful Earl of Warwick had allied with the Lancastrians to overthrow Edward.

After 1471, Richard became the dominant magnate in the kingdom, as de facto Lord of the North, he built himself a strong affinity of supporters in the region. Yet, upon his brother’s death in April 1483, Richard was King several weeks later; overthrowing his nephew, the boy King, Edward V. In so doing, Richard III split the Yorkists; those supporting him and those who remained loyal to the kin of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen-dowager in sanctuary at Westminster after the fall of her son. Virtually every single supporter of Edward IV, Edward V and the Woodvilles would make no appearance to help Richard at Bosworth and many openly declared for the Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, whom had promised to marry Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York; thereby uniting the feuding Houses of Lancaster and York.

Many of the Yorkists who had opposed Richard III rebelled in October-November 1483. Incorrectly referred to as ‘Buckingham’s Rebellion’ (the Duke of Buckingham being the highest ranked rebel), the majority of the rebels were from the southern gentry of England. Their defeat by Richard III’s organised army, with the crucial support of the Stanley family pushed many of the rebels abroad to France and Brittany, whilst others were pardoned and tried to readjust and conciliate to Ricardian government. Nonetheless, those rebels who fled England now rallied to a largely unknown Welshman, Henry Tudor.

Henry Tudor, son of the wealthy heiress, Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor who was the son of Catherine of Valois (widow of Henry V) nevertheless had a weak claim to the throne due to the controversy over the Beaufort family’s legitimisation, the genealogical strength of other claimants such as John de la Pole and his status as a Lancastrian. Desperate to see Richard III removed from power, many Yorkist pledged to support Tudor after he declared his intention to marry Elizabeth of York at Rennes Cathedral in Brittany whilst in exile. Tudor made himself known publically to Richard soon after the failed rebellion of November 1483 and Richard III had to wait until the summer of 1485 to face him in battle for the Crown.

So, what happened at Bosworth?

Richard III’s army was the first to camp on the battlefield. The night before battle, some sources have claimed the King did indeed have an uncomfortable sleep and was accompanied by nightmares- later to be immortalised by William Shakespeare. Richard’s army was believed to be larger than Henry Tudor’s on the eve of battle. His chief allies, John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Richard Ratcliffe, the Stanley family and the Earl of Northumberland all brought substantial forces to the field. Tudor’s army was believed to be much smaller. It has been revealed that the vast majority of his army was made up of foreign soldiers; primarily from France with some from Scotland. The French had good reason to support Tudor as Richard III had acted antagonistically towards France ever since the beginning of his reign, most importantly sanctioning piracy against French ships. Many of the French soldiers in Tudor’s army however, were highly trained, many in the Swiss fashion which would be demonstrated more clearly in the French invasions of Italy in the 1490s. However, Tudor remained outnumbered on the 22nd August 1485.

The crowning of Henry VII at Bosworth.

The crowning of Henry VII at Bosworth.

At the beginning of the battle, the sun faced towards Richard III’s army, with Tudor’s having their backs to it. Richard III, unusually and unexplainably (he was extremely pious) did not take mass that morning. The commander of Tudor’s vanguard, the veteran Lancastrian, the Earl of Oxford led the charge against Richard’s vanguard, commanded by the Duke of Norfolk. The ‘battle of the vanguards’ was where most of the fighting took place. Norfolk, an ancestor of Anne Boleyn, fell, as did key Ricardians such as Ratcliffe.

At some point during the battle, the Stanley’s had not committed themselves to Richard and instead opted for Tudor (Lord Stanley was married to Tudor’s mother). Richard III spotted Henry Tudor’s standard: a Welsh dragon, and darted straight for him, hoping to strike him down, ending the battle and securing his throne. The majority of accounts specify Richard III’s heroic actions at this point, but, remember those Swiss trained French soldiers? Their main weapon was the pike: it easily removed riders from their charging horses. When Richard III’s body was discovered in 2012 and analysis of the body took place, the large hole at the top of his neck was most likely believed to have been from a Swiss halberd. Richard’s impulse to end the battle quickly and decisively ended in his own demise, the death of Yorkism as an independent political force and the emergence of an unlikely dynasty which would take England upon a different course of history from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I.

The Tudors had arrived.

Photo Credits: James William Edmund Doyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons & By Unidentified, signature at bottom right [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons