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 1471 and the subsequent death of the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, the war seemed to have come to close. The Yorkist leader Edward 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.
This painting of Richard from the National Portrait Gallery in London shows the king as a pinch-faced man living with a life of endured pain; and bears a striking resemblance to actor Tom Courtenay (below)
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-heir Thomas, 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.
(Above) The March from Leicester by the estimable Graham Turner. (Below) Richard’s battle standard, bearing his white boar alongside the white rose of York
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.
In the plain below, the Lancastrian forces deployed; with Oxford commanding Henry’s forces. Oxford drew his men up in one large “Battle”. The accounts do not make it clear if his forces were primarily dismounted, or if some part of his line (presumably the flanks) were cavalry. Considering that most of his forces were Welsh spearmen and French mercenaries (some of which may have been members of the French king’s “Scots Guards”) it is likely that most of the Lancastrian force was infantry. Only Henry’s bodyguards were certainly mounted.
John de Vere, Earl of Oxford and commander of Henry Tudor’s army
On the flank of the battle, the Stanleys deployed their forces on rising ground. All attempts by Richard or Henry to command them to declare themselves were met with silence or prevarication.
The battle unfolded Oxford advancing the Lancastrian forces towards Ambion Hill in one body; his right-wing protected by the marsh. An exchange of arrows and even cannon fire followed. (Richard had an unknown number of guns, ranging in caliber from 30mm up to 94mm. Based upon the number of projectiles excavated at the battle site, at least 10 such guns were present. It is unknown if Henry Tudor had any guns at his disposal.
Though in action during the battle, early field guns had no noticeable effect on the progress or outcome. (Artwork by Graham Turner, “Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets” by Christopher Gravett, @ Osprey Publishing)
Norfolk’s vanguard then descending Ambion Hill and engaged Oxford’s force. In the fierce melee that followed, men hacked at each other with a variety of weapons, the most popular being pole-axe or pole-hammer, battle axe, mace, and long sword. Norfolk’s force was getting the worst of the melee, and Norfolk, who was slain in or after the battle, may have fallen at this stage. Richard ordered Northumberland to bring up his reserve and join Norfolk’s hard-pressed men.
The Knightly-class of the late Middle Ages were superbly armored in a mixture of plate and mail. Since the 100 Years War, Men-at-Arms had often chosen to fight on foot, since quality infantry were scarce and to spare their expensive mounts from the lethal firepower of the longbow. During the War of the Roses, the Men-at-Arms fought either mounted or on foot as circumstances dictated. To defeat the high-quality armor of their opponents they often used pole-weapons (as carried by the figure here), war-hammers (5), maces (6) and battle axes. The latter was Richard III’s chosen weapon at Bosworth. The sword (7-12) was still the signature weapon of the knightly-class.
For reasons unknown Percy failed to move. Historians argue to this day whether this was treachery or simply an inability of Norfolk to maneuver his force through Richard’s own “Main” or around the marsh to the left. In either case, Richard was forced to commit his own main-body into the melee to bolster Norfolk’s flagging forces.
Richard prepared to make his fateful final charge. (Artwork by Graham Turner, “Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets” by Christopher Gravett, © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)
Still Tudor’s Welshman held firm. Richard, growing frustrated, decided to finish the issue with a charge of his household knights, directly at Henry himself, visible beneath his banner behind Oxford’s battling forces. It is likely that a gap had opened in the mass of struggling men on the plain, and Richard saw this gap as an opportunity to strike directly at his rival.
Charging at the head of his knights, Richard reached Henry’s banner. His lance struck Henry’s standard-bearer, Sir William Brandon, throwing him from his horse and killing him outright. Riding on, Richard unhorsed Henry’s giant bodyguard, Sir John (later Baron) Cheyne , a renown jousting champion, allegedly with the broken stub of his lance. (Cheyne was a massive man of renown strength, called in his day “The Vigorous Knight”. Based upon a 21″ thighbone found in his tomb at Salisbury Cathedral, his height is estimated to be 6 feet 8 inches; a true-life version of George R.R. Martin’s fictional character Ser Gregor Clegane, known as “the Mountain“.) The felling of two such redoubtable warriors was a magnificent feat of knightly prowess, and had he won the battle would no doubt have burnished Richard’s legacy with chivalric glory. But even in Medieval battles, the place of the king and general of an army is not to be tilting with lance against enemy paladins. It is a sign desperation that Richard now found himself having to play his own Lancelot.
Richard threw down his broken lance and drew a battle axe, his intention now to hack Henry Tudor down. At that very moment, however, the Stanley’s made their move.
Their previously uncommitted force now charged into the flank of Richard’s household knights. In the sudden press, Richard was separated from Henry; and along with his knights was driven back into the marshy ground on the flank.
Outnumbered, Richard’s group fought valiantly but were cut down. Richard hacked left and right with his battle axe, shouting “Treason!” with each blow.
His horse mired in the soft ground, Richard was forced to continue the fight on foot. Here Shakespeare had him shouting, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” However, accounts indicate that Richard’s followers offered him their own mounts so he could escape. But Richard refused to quit the field. All chroniclers agree that Richard fought bravely to the end. Eventually overwhelmed, the last Plantagenet King of England died fighting.
Richard has the distinction of being the last English king to die in battle (and only the second to ever do so, Harold Godwinson being the only other).
(On September 12, 2012 skeletal remains were identified as Richard III. The remains showed some 10 wounds, evidence of Richard’s fearsome last fight. An arrowhead was found embedded in the spine. Perhaps this wound, inflicted by an enemy archer at close range, brought the battling King to his knees. The killing blow seems to have been a blow to the back of Richard’s head by a halberd or bill. Almost certainly Richard’s helmet had been knocked off first; as the blow cleaved very deeply into his skull and through the lower brain. Several postmortem wounds were also inflicted upon the dead king’s body.)
On news of their king’s death, the Yorkist forces still fighting broke, leaving the Lancastrians victorious.
Henry was crowned as Henry VII, on the battlefield.
Northumberland and Norfolk’s son, Surry were both subsequently arrested, but eventually pardoned by Henry and restored to their estates and offices. The Howards served both Henry VII and Henry VIII loyally. Henry Percy was lynched by a northern mob 8 years later; supposedly in revenge for his betrayal of his king at Bosworth.
Richard’s body was taken to Leicester, where it was displayed naked for several days. It was eventually buried in the church at Greyfriers Abbey. In 1536, the Abbey was one of many destroyed by Henry VIII. The location of Richard’s body was lost till recovered in 2012 at the site of Greyfriers.
Along with the signs of trauma noted above, the skeleton refutes the description of Richard given to posterity by Shakespeare. He had no withered arm, and was not a hunchback. He did, however, have scoliosis of the spine; which would have led one shoulder being higher than the other, and a lifetime of discomfort.
The victor, Henry Tudor, cemented his claim to the throne with a marriage to Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and Richard’s niece. By this marriage the Houses York and Lancaster were united in his heir, Henry VIII; bringing to England a much needed century of peace under the Tudor Dynasty.
Statue of Richard in the Gardens of Leicester Cathedral, just yards from his final resting place within.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.