On 22 August 1485 the War of the Roses reached a bloody climax at Bosworth Field. Here, Richard III, England’s most controversial king, defended his crown against the Lancastrian champion, Henry Tudor.
The thirty-year long Wars of the Roses was a dynastic struggle between rival branches of the ruling royal family of England, the Plantagenet. These two Houses, cadet branches of the Plantagenet, were descended from sons of the prolific Edward III: the House of York, whose symbol was the white rose, and the House of Lancaster, represented by the red.
After the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1461 and the subsequent execution of the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, the war seemed to have come to close. The Yorkist leaderEdward IV was firmly in command of his kingdom; and would rule undisturbed till his death in 1483. However, Edward left as heir his son Edward, not yet thirteen years old. The dead monarch’s younger brother, Richard of Gloucester was named as guardian for the young prince and Lord Protector of the Realm.
The War of the Roses raged across the map of Britain for 30 years, decimating the nobility of England.Throughout his brother’s reign (and the struggle for Yorkist victory that established it) Richard of Gloucester had ever been Edward’s capable, trusted, and loyal lieutenant. As Warden of the North he had proven himself an able captain; successfully campaigning against the Scots, temporarily occupying Edinburgh and capturing the mighty fortress of Berwick in 1482. But as Lord Protector for his young nephew, King Edward V, Richard quickly found his authority challenged by his brother’s widow, the Queen Mother Elizabeth Woodville and her ambitious family.
In the brief struggle for power that followed, Richard outmaneuvered the Woodvilles and took custody of both the young king-to-be and his brother, Prince Richard. The two princes were lodged in the Tower of London; then still used as a royal residence as well as a prison for the most important of prisoners. Over the next month, the boys coronation was postponed; while rumors were circulated that the marriage of Edward IV to Elisabeth Woodville had been illegal. The prince was ultimately disinherited, and on 25 June, an assembly of Lords and Commons declared Richard to be the legitimate king; later confirmed by act of parliament.
Thus began the reign of Richard III, perhaps England’s most controversial king.
The displacement of his brother’s son and heir alienated some supporters of the House of York. The disappearance of the two princes in the tower and rumors of their murder (later confirmed) further tainted Richard’s reign with the charges of usurpation and regicide.
Though there is no evidence that Richard was a “bad king”, division within the Yorkist ranks invited adherents of the House of Lancaster to plot a renewal of the War of the Roses. Taking advantage of the disaffection, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, scion of the Lancastrian dynasty, landed in Wales on August 7, 1485 with a force of French mercenaries.
(Artwork by Graham Turner, “Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets” by Christopher Gravett, © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)
Wales was a traditional Lancastrian stronghold; and this combined with Henry Tudor’s half-Welsh ancestry allowed him to gather to his standard a sizable force of Welsh troops and remnants of the Lancastrian cause. Welshmen comprised the largest part of his forces; with few, in fact, being English.
Though inexperienced at war, Henry had for advisor and commander the veteran warrior,John de Vere, Earl of Oxford; who had commanded the Lancastrian rightwing at the Battle of Barnet. While he could expect to be outnumbered by the Royal forces Richard would bring to bear, Henry had an “ace up his sleeve”: His mother’s husband, Thomas Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby and Lord of (the Island of) Man.
Stanley was a veteran courtier and intriguer. He was married to Henry Tudor’s formidable mother, Margaret Beaufort; a descendant herself of Edward III on her father’s side. She was a confirmed and dedicated Lancastrian, and for years had been preparing the way for her son to raise again the standard of the Lancastrian cause.
Portrait of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (the future Henry VII) as a younger man.As Henry Tudor marched through Wales, he was in communication with his stepfather; who through the agency of his brother, Lord Sir William Stanley, Chamberlain of Chester and north Wales, opened the way through the countryside to Tudor’s Army. Richard, of course, was not ignorant of Lord Stanley’s connection to his enemy; and of the Stanley’s complicity in Tudor’s invasion. His relations with Lord Stanley were strained and had been for over a decade; the enmity between the two erupting into violence in 1470. Wary of Stanley, Richard took Stanley’s son, Lord Strange, as hostage to discourage Stanley from openly joining Tudor’s army.
Meanwhile, Richard called the lords of the realm to assemble under his banner at Leicester on the 16th of August. Many of Richard’s vassals failed to answer the royal summons. The chief lords who did join their king were John Howard Duke of Norfolk, and his son-and-heirThomas, Earl of Surrey; and Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland. While the Howards were loyal to Richard and the Yorkist cause, Percy is thought to have harbored deep jealousy of Richard dating from his time as Warden of the Northern Marches (a title usually held by a Percy) and the renown Richard had gained in his Scottish campaign. Both Percy and Howard held chief commands during the coming battle: Norfolk commanding the Yorkist Vanguard, and Northumberland the Rearguard/Reserve. On August 20, the royal army, with the arms of England flying overhead alongside Richard’s personal standard, displaying a White Boar; marched from Leicester to intercept Henry’s army, on route to London from Shrewsbury.
Three armies converged on a field south of Bosworth Market, 13 miles west of Leicester: Richard’s, numbering 10,000; Henry Tudor’s army, numbering 5,000; and that of the Stanley brothers, some 6,000 strong. The Stanleys had been in close communication with Tudor, and were ostensibly his ally. However, on the day of battle, they refused to declare themselves one-way-or-another; making the Battle of Bosworth Field a three-sided affair.
Richards took up a position on Ambion Hill, a strong position dominating the battlefield. Elevation aside, it was protected (or constricted, as events would show) by a marsh in the low ground to the left. Richard’s deployment is disputed: Norfolk’s “Van” may have been in the front or on the right of the Yorkist forces; with Richard, commanding the “Main” behind this (or in the center) at the crest of the hill. Northumberland deployed his 4,000 man “Rear” behind or to the left of Richard’s “Main”.