The Battle of Bosworth - An Event Which Changed the Course of British History

by JoHarrington

Bosworth was the final clash in the Wars of the Roses. It marked the end of the Middle Ages and gave rise to the Tudors.

"What do YOU think was the most important event in British history?"

The question came as part of a longer conversation touching upon British history per se. There were four historians in the call and so the fun debate raged.

Whatever we came up with would be, at best, arbitrary. Defining moments tend not to occur in the public eye, or else quietly pass without notice at the time. Others seem more obvious, though much depends upon the criteria set for judging importance. Besides, no matter how far back you go, the answer to most questions about the impact of historical events is 'it's too soon to tell'.

People talked about Hastings in 1066, or the Battle of Britain, or the Industrial Revolution. I gave my answer. It was the Battle of Bosworth, because THAT changed everything.

Bosworth - The Battle of Redemoor Field

There have been some shock results in history, but few which came close to what happened on Bosworth Field that day.

History is written by the winners, and nowhere is there a better example of this than after the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The Tudor propaganda machine steam-rolled through the facts as soon as it was able. There was a shaky grasp on the crown to maintain.

Moreover, most of the English aristocracy had suddenly to scramble to save their social standing. Their personal testimonies became works of fabulous fiction, as they sought to downplay their loyalties to the dead king, and pretend that they'd secretly supported the Tudor dynasty all along. Henry believed them. It was in his firm interests to do so.

Official documents, governmental papers and personal letters were burned. History itself was rewritten along Tudor lines. Until it became difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. Then the playwrights got involved.

All over the globe, people can recite a telling quotation purportedly dating from Bosworth Field.

A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Even those who do not know its origin are fully conversant with the implications. A cowardly king would rather have saved his own skin than lead his people. He would have left loyal subjects floundering in the mire, as long as he personally got away.

The quotation is from William Shakespeare's Richard III. It accurately describes only the Tudor party line about what happened at Bosworth. But then Shakespeare was a playwright seeking royal patronage, and wishing to avoid a lengthy (and possibly fatal) stay in the Tower of London.

Forget all you think you know about Bosworth. It probably never happened. Most of all forget 'my kingdom for a horse', it was never said, nor in any way intimated. Richard fought valiantly until the very last second, even when he knew he had lost.

So what did occur that day on Bosworth Field?  Here is the truth, as best as I can assemble it.

Richard III at Bosworth (complete with horse)

Image: Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Anniversary Event
Image: Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Anniversary Event
Photography by Jo Harrington

Shifting Loyalties in the Run Up to Bosworth

Power resides in those who can wield it. But where did ultimate power lie in England - and perhaps more significantly, Wales - in 1485?

Before the Wars of the Roses, English kings could command huge forces loyal to their reign. Rebellion was not unknown, but it was shocking.

Even those opposing King John, forcing him into signing the Magna Carta, had recognized his divine right to rule. And history has not been kind to the She-Wolf Isabella and her paramour Roger Mortimer for their disposition of Edward II, despite the fact that his son took the throne without any break in the succession.

The Wars of the Roses made the switching of kings not only feasible, but actually quite normal.

For thirty years, no-one could be quite sure who would be reigning this time next week. That made loyalty a perilous business. In fact, it made it a business full stop. Loyalty could be bought with titles, land and hard cash. Highest regal bidder wins.

When King Richard III rode towards his fatal clash on Bosworth Field (or Redemoor, as he'd have known it), all bets favored him. He held the kingship, and along with it the ability to confer wealth and power right now. His great-grandfather may have been able to command loyalty as his birthright, but Richard could buy it.

The actions of his father, brothers, uncles and cousins had eroded the rest. Yet he'd been right alongside them, playing his part too.

By 1485, real power lay with the nobles. Those who had risen to prominence by backing the right people at the right time, playing dangerous games successfully for the whole three decades. These were the men with the titles, wealth and land. They could command huge militia forces, experienced after all of those years of battle. They could decide whom they would favor in the next clash.

Richard still had the edge. He was known. His family had ruled for centuries. He had been born to govern vast estates, and had grown up alongside monarchs, watching, advising and finally becoming one himself. Politically it made sense to support him. Monetarily, it certainly did.

So when the call went out, most nobles answered it on the side of their extant king.

Henry Tudor was the opposite in all things. Untried on a battle-field, inexperienced in war, exiled in Brittany for half of his life. The first half had been spent in deepest Wales, a fact always subject to suspicion in 15th century England. He didn't have the personal wealth to purchase influence. Any titles and land on the negotiation table amounted to nothing more than promises only. He didn't have the power to confer the reality.

But he did have a formidable mother, and Margaret Beaufort was married to the most successful noble of all. Thomas, Lord Stanley, had reached that level by consistently picking the right side - or, more usually, hedging his bets with a brother on one side and himself on another - and his decision at Bosworth could make all of the difference.

History Books about the Wars of the Roses

It was a bloody, dramatic period in British history, which became the inspiration for George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones.
The Wars of the Roses consistently pit cousin against cousin (and siblings too). Richard III and Henry Tudor were related to each other as second cousins.
It was known at the time as the Cousins War. The family tree grew very tangled between the House of Lancaster and the House of York.

The Power of Thomas, Lord Stanley

Both Richard III and Henry Tudor sought to persuade him to favor their cause at the Battle of Bosworth. He was effectively their kingmaker.

Where did power lie in Britain at the end of the Middle Ages?

On August 22nd 1485, the date of the Battle of Bosworth, the lay-person could be forgiven for name-checking Richard III in the morning, or Henry VII by the evening. But they were only the monarchs.

As both men were acutely aware, real power resided with the King of Mann and Lord High Constable of England, Thomas Stanley. He was the man most able to underscore his influence with military might. Thus his loyalty would be the deciding factor at Bosworth.

Both monarch and pretender moved to secure that loyalty as their clash at Bosworth loomed. Richard sent emissaries demanding it. Lord Stanley smoothly assured the monarch's messengers that he would indeed be supporting his anointed king.

Richard didn't believe a word of it. He knew better than most that Lord Stanley's loyalty remained only with the Stanley family and its fortune. The Plantagenets could go hang, if he got a better offer. Fortunately, Henry Tudor seemed unlikely to be able to make one, give or take his own mother already in a marital bed, and Lord Stanley already had her.

Moreover, Margaret Beaufort - Tudor's mother and Stanley's wife - had already been involved in a very public conspiracy to replace Richard with her son. Lord Stanley hadn't moved to support her, either during the conspiracy nor in its aftermath. Though he did now owe Richard one for not ordering Margaret's execution, nor imprisoning her in the Tower of London.

A favor owed by a powerful man isn't always the happy instance it may seem. Removing Richard would be another way by which the debt could disappear. Keenly perceiving that, Richard sought surety for Stanley's loyalty. He asked for, and was given, the nobleman's twenty-five year old son - George, Lord Strange - as a hostage.

Should Lord Stanley fail to support King Richard at Bosworth, then the heir to the Stanley estate would be killed. (George Stanley, Lord Strange, is pictured above.)

However Richard's best surety of Stanley's support came in the reigning king's superior strength.

Even without counting Stanley's men, Richard fielded 10,000 individuals at Bosworth. That was twice as many as Tudor. Still more would have been there, if the king had only waited for them to arrive before starting the battle.

Lord Stanley did not back losers. On paper, Tudor was undoubtedly going to be the loser.

But Henry Tudor's mother had promised him that she would secure her husband's forces for his challenge to the crown of England.

It was this certainty that he had Lord Stanley which gave weight to otherwise airy promises given at other negotiation tables. When Tudor approached Bosworth, the majority of his British troops were Welshmen brought there by Rhys ap Thomas.

Henry Tudor marched under the banner of Y Ddraig Goch to keep them sweet.

Previously King Richard's own lieutenant in West Wales, Rhys ap Thomas had been promised by Henry Tudor that he would be awarded the lieutenancy of ALL Wales, once the throne was taken. But he was swayed into determining that Henry Tudor had a chance at success, because he believed that Lord Stanley had already pledged his allegiance to the pretender.

Two of Richard's officers in Pembrokeshire, Evan Morgan and Richard Griffith, with all their men also defected to Henry's side under the same misconception.

More importantly, so did Rhys Fawr ap Maredudd, a Welsh nobleman from Denbighshire.  He not only brought a sizable body of fighting men from North Wales with him, but went to battle via South Wales, where he raised Y Ddraig Goch and spoke so eloquently about Henry Tudor being Y Mab Darogan (the fabled savior of Wales), that many more Cymric warriors joined the fray.

Big Rhys also believed that Lord Stanley was firmly on board.

As Henry Tudor dawdled the scenic route across Wales and into England in the hope of attracting more support, the pretender twice met secretly with Thomas, Lord Stanley and his brother William. However, the earl refused point blank to openly declare his support either way. He cited fear for the safety of his son as the reason.

Nevertheless, on the second occasion - at Atherstone, close to the scene of battle - the Stanley brothers did discuss battle tactics with Henry Tudor. This was practically on the eve of Bosworth itself, and so he must have been very grateful for the strategy, if incensed by the lack of overt loyalty.

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At stake was the crown of England. What happened was the birth of a whole new era, that founded and shaped modern Britain.

Setting the Stage for the Battle of Bosworth

Richard III chose the Bosworth battle site. As an experienced military man, he could see that the Leicestershire terrain held strong possibilities.

It's said that Richard III looked 'ghastly' on the morning of August 22nd 1485. As he emerged from his tent, on the slopes overlooking Redemoor, his face held a ghostly pallor.

Of course, these reports were all recorded during a Tudor reign, hence they were fabricated emphasized to enrich the ensuing narrative. Richard had obviously not slept. He'd been beset by specters from his murderous past. Or he had slept and received the same in his dreams.

Pro-Richard commentators have been forced to speculate in other ways to explain that ill-looking visage. Ricardians have read between the lines of his medical reports, concluding that he suffered from migraines. He may have awoken to one at Bosworth.

Over 500 years later, we still like to imagine omens in our tales. Hence his 'ghastly' pallor is included in most tellings. Tick.

In reality, Richard and Henry's concerns upon awakening that morning would have been identical. 'Who's arrived in the night? Who is supporting me?'  Each of them would have been looking towards the nearby village of Dadlington, and the Stanley encampment on the hillside there. It was close enough to be distinctly visible to both sides.

Richard sent an emissary to demand that Lord Stanley relocate into his own camp. The message was ignored. Not a man to mess around, Richard immediately ordered that Lord Strange be executed. However, this order was also ignored. 

Those who might have executed Stanley's son and heir held their swords. Common sense dictated that whichever side Stanley favored would be the winning one, and the influential man wouldn't be best pleased to lose his son. There was time enough to behead Lord Strange when the battle was over and a victor declared. Nor did Richard think to check that this order had been carried out. He assumed it would be, and so moved on to tactics.

The location of Bosworth battlefield has been subject to much debate and scrutiny over the centuries. The Tudors didn't gloss over its reality - it had been a glorious victory for them - but they did downplay its role in proceedings.

Henry VII didn't want to be viewed as an invader, who'd secured his throne by force of arms. That didn't make for a pretty story, nor a stable throne in the aftermath. He preferred to be seen as the English king by blood-right, no matter how dodgy his genealogical descent from Edward III.

Hence Bosworth was discussed later in vague terms, more heroic reclamation of a country from its villainous custodians, than in factual histories. Which is why no-one ever thought to write down where we might locate Bosworth battle site.

What we can state with absolute certainty is that it was in Leicestershire, somewhere in the region of Sutton Cheney, Dadlington and Ambion Hill. Possibly where the Battle of Bosworth Visitors' Centre is now. More likely the next set of hills to the north.

There were at least three hills - Richard was camped on one of them, Henry Tudor on another and Lord Stanley on the third - with a half-concealed marshy bog down below.  Richard had roughly 10,000 men - all highly experienced. Henry had around 5,000 - 1,800 Bretons and French men, experienced enough but without knowledge of the terrain, alongside around 600 English exiles, a few Scottish mercenaries and approximately 2,500 Welshmen. Lord Stanley had brought some 6,000 experienced English and Welsh soldiers. 

The numbers in each camp were boosted by its assorted followers, usually servants, squires, women and children. Somebody had to cook, clean the armor, look after the horses and run messages. Plus economic followers - prostitutes, medics, smiths and everyone else who might make a buck amongst hordes of fighting men.

Should Richard III have waited for more people to arrive? Absolutely, unequivocally yes. But that's the sort of answer one can only give in hindsight.

For Richard himself, looking out over the terrain, and receiving word from spies in all camps, it seemed more risky to wait. As far as he was concerned, Lord Stanley and Henry Tudor had not yet spoken in person with each other. The longer he left them camped on adjacent hill-tops, the more likely those negotiations would take place.

Plus he could see that his own men out-numbered Tudor's two to one. He could see the perfect battle environment down below. It was entirely more sensible to get this over with, so everybody could go home.

Besides he could see what Henry had apparently missed. The Tudor pretender was on the wrong side of the marsh. It promised to be a slaughter.

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August 22nd 1485: The Battle of Bosworth

Richard III and Henry Tudor fought. Lord Stanley watched from the sidelines. Then he made his decision.

The show of strength along that ridge line must have seemed terrifyingly intimidating. 10,000 men, some mounted on horseback, filled the horizon from west to east.

On the right side were arrayed the cannons. They were accompanied by 1,200 archers, plus spearmen, all under the command of John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk, and his son Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey.

In the center was King Richard III, surrounded by his household guard and closest friends, at the helm of 3,000 infantry.

To the left, Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland, sat atop his horse, ready to lead 4,000 men into battle. The majority of them were mounted cavalry.

Richard had been commanding armies since he was eighteen years old. He'd spent most of his adult life either fighting in the Wars of the Roses or defending the north of England from the Scots. He was in overall charge of the entire battle, and he had the vantage point to inform his experienced decisions.

I have this book. Open on the desk before me in fact. It's really quite good.

Henry Tudor was not experienced in battle. He was much more at home with his accountancy ledgers than with a sword. He was very good at theoretical battle tactics, but had never been in a position to put them to the test. He could fight - his uncle Jasper Tudor had seen to that training - but again never against an actual enemy.

It's therefore hardly surprising that he wasn't in charge, even at Bosworth, but opted instead to remain near the back surrounded by personal bodyguards headed by Uncle Jasper.

John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, instead took command of Tudor's forces. The experienced general had been forced to flee into exile during a previous rebellion against Richard. He viewed the terrain very dimly now, then opted for the lesser of all evils.

He kept his men together, marching down their hillside, towards the central valley beneath that formidable Yorkist ridge. Then drove them straight into the marsh.

Norfolk's cannons tore into Tudor's main battle force. Arrows rained down in great clouds from above. Most of the Lancastrian casualties occurred right there in the bog, under that lethal, unrelenting bombardment.

But this was Oxford proving that he fully understood the concept of 'cannon fodder', especially when he had loads of Welsh and Frenchmen to expire.  He and his tiny cohort of exiled Englishmen were amongst the first to push on through under cover, making it safely across the marsh. Surviving Celts and Galls followed suit.

Richard was ready for this. He signaled for Norfolk's spear-men to race down under cover of their own archers, where they were joined by much of Richard's own infantry. Oxford clambered for steady ground, fighting for purchase every step of the way.

And winning.

It was desperate, but then the Tudor cause had always been desperate with or without Stanley, and especially now it was certainly without. Welsh, Breton, French, Scottish and English soldiers alike hacked for their lives and seemed to be on the verge of breaking through.

But they were still out-numbered, and Richard saw the brink of victory right in his grasp. He alerted Northumberland to engage his cavalry, to charge down into the fray and finish them off. It should have been game over. Bosworth won in just a few minutes.

Northumberland stayed put.

Later, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, claimed that he'd secretly supported Tudor all along. That his inactivity here was him making his move. Even Henry Tudor didn't believe that, and had Northumberland banged up in the Tower of London with Richard's other surviving generals.

Historians have debated long and hard about the issue. Some thought it was personal. As Lord of the North, Richard had spent decades banging heads with Henry Percy. Now he was monarch, the situation wasn't much improved, and Percy did strongly suspect he was about to lose land, even if he showed prowess at Bosworth. Others think that Lord Stanley had got to him.

Military historians have pointed out that the ridge itself hindered Percy's ability to act. With the York infantry now deployed below, Northumberland's cavalry would have plowed right through them to get to the enemy.

Either way, Northumberland's refusal to follow orders here gave heart to Henry Tudor, who immediately galloped off - with his bodyguards - towards the watching Lord Stanley.

From a tactical point of view, that was a ridiculous thing to do!  Henry might have been going to plead for intervention, now that he perceived that they had a chance, but he'd just neatly separated himself from his main battle-force, relying upon the protection of a man who'd not promised allegiance.

Watching from upon the ridge, Richard III must have inwardly chuckled, but such incompetence deserved its own reward.

Richard made a split second fatal decision to put an end to Tudor's pretensions for once and for all. Together with an entourage of household knights, the king pointed his horse straight at the pretender. The small cohort galloped down at great speed and intercepted Henry on the slopes.

Tudor's standard bearer William Brandon was killed almost immediately. Y Ddraig Goch fell to the ground. For those looking on, it seemed that Henry himself was down, and the tide of battle began to turn in Lancastrian disarray.

Henry Tudor

Portrait of Henry Vii

Which was the moment when Lord Stanley made his own decision. From his own vantage point, he could see that Richard III had made the same error as Henry Tudor. He'd separated himself from the main body of Yorkist troops, and he was relying upon Stanley to either stay put, or else declare for Richard.

William Stanley instead led his men into the melee, but it was on the side of Henry Tudor. His reinforcements, numbering in the thousands, surrounded the stricken King Richard. Lord Stanley remained above, never once entering the Battle of Bosworth, but deciding its outcome all the same.

By now, Rhys Fawr ap Maredudd fought his way into the melee and lifted Y Ddraig Goch high. Then defended it from all comers until the battle was over.

Far from Richard fleeing with exhortations of 'A horse, a horse! My Kingdom for a horse!', Henry Tudor's own official historian Polydore Vergil recorded that 'King Richard, alone, was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies.'

The man who administered that final halberd blow to King Richard's skull was Rhys ap Thomas. He did indeed become the Governor of Wales, along with the awards of a knighthood and extensive land holdings throughout Wales.

Rhys Fawr ap Maredudd also received a knighthood and land in the North of Wales.

John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, had his own lands and titles returned to him, with many more piled on top. He became one of the most influential, powerful men of the Tudor regime.

John Howard, Duke of Norfolk was killed at Bosworth. His son Thomas was stripped of his titles and lands, before being imprisoned in the Tower of London for three years. He survived long enough to win favor again with the crown, and went on to become the grandfather of two Tudor queen consorts - Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.  He was the great-grandfather of perhaps the most famous of all Tudor monarchs - Queen Elizabeth I.

As soon as he saw that Richard was dead, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, fled Bosworth battlefield towards his own strongholds in the North. It was to no avail. He was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London for several months. But he was later released and restored to his land and titles too.

Lord Stanley, right there on the battlefield, proclaimed his step-son King Henry VII of England. As the new monarch's step-father, he enjoyed unprecedented influence over the throne at the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Titles, honors, wealth and yet more land were attached to him, not least the Earldom of Derby.

His brother William Stanley also enjoyed the spoils. But the Stanley family were finally caught out hedging their bets, a decade later, during the rising of the Pretender Perkin Warbeck. William was executed for supporting him. Lord Stanley managed to distance himself and survived.

Books about the Death of Richard III at Bosworth

In 2012, the remains of Richard III were unearthed from under a council carpark in the city of Leicester. Read on to learn what they told us about his brutalized desecration.

The Legacy of Bosworth

This short battle may be one of the most important turning points in British history.

I began by stating that I believed the Battle of Bosworth to be one of the most significant events in the history of Britain. But why? The answer is that it delivered the Tudors to the English throne.

This isn't me waving the flag for Wales, as many are probably suspecting. The Tudor period turned out to be quite a nasty one from a Cymric point of view.  The Tudor dynasty hardly repaid the debt owed to the Welsh people by returning their country to them. In fact, it annexed substantial borderland territories into England.

Plus the first time that the Welsh language was banned was during the reign of Henry's son, Henry VIII, and the screw of cultural genocide occurred in smaller ways too. In short, the result of Bosworth eventually transpired to be a disaster for Wales.

Bosworth was important to Britain, because the Tudors changed so much.

Many of our historical documents were destroyed in that initial purge. More fell to the Dissolution of the Monasteries a century later. In this way, the Tudors uprooted our past.

Britain also lost its historical claims to land in modern day France. Henry Tudor paid for the Breton and French soldiers with a promise to give it up. As King Henry VII, he surrendered those territories to the French throne without a fuss.

Henry VIII's libido led directly to the quashing of Catholicism in Britain, and the establishment of the Church of England. So much of what followed - from the creation of colonies in the Americas to the English Civil War and beyond - stemmed from that moment.  Elizabeth I's expansionism grew into the British Empire.

The fact that there could be British Queens dawned during the Tudor period. That Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II were crowned at all, let alone without uproar, may be traced to Queen Mary Tudor and the first Elizabeth in our regal history.  Union with Scotland - thus the United Kingdom itself - stemmed from the Tudors marrying Scottish Stuarts, then Elizabeth I being unwilling to lose power by marrying anyone herself.

There is not the scope here to go into a detailed analysis of all the ways in which Britain was changed forever under Tudor reign. The above are merely the biggies, tasters for the whole, and the Battle of Bosworth marked the moment when it all changed. Hence my argument that Bosworth is as good a choice as any for Britain's most important historical event.

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More Articles about Richard III on Wizzley

Ask anyone with a passing interest who killed the Princes in the Tower. The likely answer is that it was Richard III. But did he do it?
Ruthless schemer, potential child murderer, helpless pawn in a real world game of thrones or tragic victim? Anne of Warwick has been called them all.
Behind all the Tudor propaganda and Shakespearean drama, what do we really know about Richard III?
Richard III is often blamed for a lot of things during his reign. However, what were the events that led to his coronation and was he really the villain the Tudors made him?
Updated: 10/29/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 08/14/2014

It's a fascinating period in history. Did you do all of the Wars of the Roses?

Telesto on 08/14/2014

That's a really interesting article Jo. I've recently finished a short course about England in the time of Richard III, and although it went over the Battle of Bosworth Field, you've gone into a lot more detail about it.

Jo_Murphy on 07/27/2014

I thought the one and only defining moment of the whole of British history - was the day the sent the first convict fleet to Australia? Yes?

JoHarrington on 07/25/2014

I'm glad you liked it.

Tell me, does Leicestershire feel any residual guilt over the whole car park incident?

Paul on 07/25/2014

Great article! I'd recommend anyone in the area to visit as it's definitely an interesting and worthwhile day out.

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