The Battle of Bosworth
Henry Tudor defeated and killed Richard III in battle in August 1485. That much is certain. Colin Richmond, however, wonders how the battle was fought; what prompted Yorkists to defect to the Lancastrian side; and above all, where exactly did the battle take place?
Update: In 2010 the real location of the Battle of Bosworth was discovered. Paul Lay comments on the latest archaeological finds
The English love their disasters: Dunkirk, Scott of the Antarctic, Harold, St Edmund. Nor is it only the English. Remember the Gododdin, Easter 1916, the Song of Roland, the Song of Igor, St Wenceslas. This is understandable; winners are too often unadmirable. Nevertheless, attachment to the loser sometimes is perverse, when the loser is even more unpleasant than the winner: Simon De Montfort, Thomas of Lancaster, Richard III. The first two became popular saints, while support for the latter, though hardly popular, at times has the appearance of crusade. Yet all three were failed politicians, political disasters, and if Simon and Thomas were seen as the victims of tyranny, on that score there can be no sympathy for Richard: he was the tyrant overthrown. The manner of his death may account for the sympathy he (otherwise unacccountably) evokes. As the Spanish Letter's account has it, Richard, the treason around him becoming apparent, is urged to flee; he responds 'God forbid I yield one step. This day I will die as a King or win', and donning his crown he 'began to fight with much vigour'. (This letter, dated March 1st, 1486, contains news brought back to Spain by merchants returning from England.) Polydore Vergil, the Italian at the court of Henry VII, writing over twenty years after Bosworth, completes the picture:
King Richard alone was killyd fyghting manfully in the thickest presse' of his enemyes... suche great fearcenesse and suche huge force of mynd he had ... his corage also hault and fearce, which faylyd him not in the very death, which, whan his men forsooke him, he rather yealded to take with the swoord, than by fowle flyght to prolong his lyfe.
Of such endings are legends made. Richard's valiant death is almost the only feature of the battle of Bosworth we can be sure of. As meagrely documented as any of the battles of the Wars of the Roses, the anomalies and discrepancies in the few accounts there are seem to reflect through the confused recollections of those who were present the confusion of the battle itself. The clearest, most plausible narrative is that of Polydore Vergil; but he was writing after 1506. He may (in true humanistic fashion) have been sacrificing the untidy truth (if he ever was told it) for the sake of a clear, bold, and tidy story, and he was telling the tale the winners told. The still unidentified continuator of the Croyland Chronicle, writing in 1486, undoubtedly had been at Richard's headquarters when the battle was fought; how much of the battle he actually saw is another matter, not much if his one paragraph description is all he could recall. The Spanish Letter of 1486 is a jumble of misremembered names and persons. The Burgundian chronicler, Jean de Molinet (who died in 1507) has a short account whose circumstantial detail is mostly unlikely. The London chroniclers are terse to the point of absurdity (and error); for example, the Great Chronicle of London of about 1513 says 'In the Fyeldys ajoynaunt [Bosworth] bothe hostys mett, and fowgthyn there a sharp and long Fygth whereof In the ende, the vyctory Fyll unto kyng henry'. The battle may have been sharp, it certainly was not long. As to exactly where in the fields adjoining Market Bosworth it took place none of those chroniclers tells us.
John Gillingham, one of the most recent writers on the battle and undoubtedly the best, describes the historians' predicament:
What these accounts do not allow us to do is to make a map of the battlefield. Many such maps have been drawn but, apart from the fun of making them, they are all quite worthless. From the York city records we know that the battle was fought on Redmoor Plain – between Market Bosworth to the north, Sutton Cheney to the east, Stoke Golding to the south and Upton to the west – but we cannot locate it any more precisely than this. Only one geographical feature is mentioned, a marsh, and we do not know where this was. According to the proclamation which Henry issued after the battle, Richard was killed at 'Sandeford in the county of Leicester', but we do not know where Sandeford was, nor do the occasional finds of cannonballs help. No narrative source mentions the presence of guns, and although either or both sides may well have possessed some field artillery, we do not know when these particular cannon-balls were fired, nor from which direction. We do not know where Richard's camp was, nor Henry's, nor Lord Stanley's. Not knowing their starting-point we certainly cannot plot their movements on a map. What then are we left with?
What indeed? It has to be stressed, because of the persistence with which Ambion Hill and its slopes are maintained to be the site of the conflict, that we simply do not know where on Redmoor (the name given to the battle until about 1500) Richard and Henry's armies fought.
The marsh, which, said Polydore Vergil, lay between the two armies and which Henry in his advance kept on his right hand, had been drained by 1578, when Holinshed wrote 'at this present, by reason of diches cast, it is growne to be firme ground'. The identification of Sandefor.d by James Gairdner as at Shenton where what he calls the old road from Leicester to Atherstone, apparently termed on this stretch 'the Sand Road', crossed a tributary of the river Sence is unconvincing. Moreover, not one of the finds traditionally associated with the battle may be related to it. The cannonballs, including Gairdner's famous four (one lead, one stone, two iron), said to have been dug up on Ambion Hill are probably from the Civil War battle fought across these fields. The swords and spurs are also later than 1485, while the justly famous processional cross with its sunburst of the House of York was recorded by Nichols as having been ploughed up 1778, but where exactly was not clear to him. Nor is it known where the equally famous ring with its white enamelled boar was found; folk at battles were careless of their rings, for there is also the 'Percy' signet ring, ploughed up in the late eighteenth century on the site of the battle of Towton. The Bosworth ring and perhaps too the processional cross appear to be the only precious objects to have escaped Sir William Stanley, to whom, according to a strong Welsh tradition, the spoils of Bosworth were granted; no doubt those chiefly comprised not objects lost upon the field or cast away in flying from it, but Richard's household and chapel treasure, for according to the Spanish Letter, 'there was lost all of the king's treasure which he brought with him into the field'. The crown itself, of course, was picked up from where it had tumbled off Richard's head into or beneath a thorn bush: why else, as Professor Griffiths has pointed out, should Henry VII's chapel at Westminster be so lavishly adorned with crowns and thorn bushes?
William Hutton in his Battle of Bosworth Field of 1788 remarked on there having been few finds from the battlefield; he does, however, say that 'human bones and warlike implements, had been discovered, especially at the enclosure of the commonfields of Stoke Golding in the 1580s. Nichols, thirty years after Hutton, conjectured that the 'indented spaces of ground...' visible in several spots about Dadlington were 'the graves of the victims in this bloody battle'. Nichols was probably right. In August 1511 Henry VIII licensed the churchwardens of Dadlington parish church to collect contributions in the Midlands towards the building of a chapel of St James, 'standing upon a parcell of the grounde wher Bosworth feld otherwise called Dadlyngton feld ... was done', and for the stipend of a priest to pray for the souls of those killed in that field. Those who did contribute 'a devoute and a competent almes', would, as the letter of Confraternity printed shortly afterwards promised, share in 'all the indulgence and pardon that is graunted to the benefactors of it and of all masses and prayers that shall be seyde in it and good dedes that shall be done in it unto the worldes ende'. To this chapel of St James, as the letter stated, 'the bodyes or bones of the men sleyne in the seyd feelde beth broght and beryed'. Is St James's Church, Dadlington, therefore, on the actual site of the battle of Bosworth, as Battlefield Chapel is on the battlefield of Shrewsbury and the uncompleted chapel at Towton was on the battlefield of Towton'? In any case, it seems that it was around Dadlington (and not around Ambion Hill) that the battle of Bosworth was fought. Thus, in Dadlington parish and not too far from the Church of St James ought to be found the arrowheads that have never been found on or about Ambion Hill – until now (but no longer) one of the mysteries of a battle in which, for the first time since Harold, an English king lost his life and crown.
If nothing may be said about where precisely Richard lost his life and crown – unless and until the debris of fifteenth-century warfare begins to be discovered at Dadlington – what may be firmly stated about the manner of his losing them? Very little, has to be the blunt answer. Nonetheless, despite the opaqueness of the accounts one thing does stand out: Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland's responsibility for Richard's defeat. Only in Polydore Vergil's account is he not mentioned, save as one who freely submitted to Henry immediately Richard was dead; the implication is, however, that he was one of those who would have done so even before the conflict had begun, had he been in a situation to do so. Northumberland was imprisoned soon after the battle. He was released under surety on December 6th, 1485, restored to his offices and sent north where Henry VII had discovered he could not do without his authority. He was murdered near Thirsk in April 1489 by Yorkshiremen who had been made angry by his ordering them to pay taxes. He should not have been; he had a large body of retainers with him; but they deserted him. There is, therefore, irony and justice here. Did these retainers, some of whom had been Richard III's before they had become Northumberland's, remember his desertion of their and his lord at Bosworth? For desert his king Northumberland plainly did in 1485. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, and in the shock and surprise of victory, easy victory at that, Henry may not have known how crucial Northumberland's unilateral policy of non-interventinn had been: hence the Earl's confinement. Henry surely discovered the truth during the autumn, as Northumberland was not among those attainted in the parliament of November 1485.
For Northumberland's role at Bosworth the Croyland Chronicler is the derisive starting point:
But where the Earl of Northumberland stood, with a troop of a size and quality befitting his rank, no opposition force was visible and no blows were exchanged in anger.
It may be a decisive statement; it also begs the question: why was no opposing force visible? Croyland's statement is echoed by the later London Chronicler, Robert Fabyan's comment that at the battle 'some stode hovynge a ferre of'. Molinet also describes Northumberland failing to act on Richard's behalf. The Spanish Letter's 'Lord Tamorlant' may be Northumberland (with a dash of Sir William Stanley added) and in the Letter's account of the battle he played an anti-Ricardian part. At York on August 23rd the city council received news of the 'feld of Redemore' and mistakenly believed that Richard had been slain 'through grete treason of the Duc of Northfolk' – for whom we may care to read the Earl of Northumberland. In the same city at Christmas 1490 during a fierce discussion on the recent past John Painter was reported as remarking 'that therle of Northumberland was a traytor and betrayed Kyng Richard'; he also had 'myche other unfittyng langage consernyng the seid Erle'. John, however, denied this and others present also deposed they had not heard him insult the Earl's memory, though they had heard the schoolmaster with whom John was arguing insult King Richard.
None of this bears too close an examination, yet the impression from it (it is no more than that) reinforces the Croyland Chronicler's indication that Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, let Richard down at Bosworth – decisively: as decisively holding back his troops as Sir William Stanley committed his.
The Earl of Northumberland was, therefore, as disloyal as the Duke of Norfolk was loyal. John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, there is no doubt at all, was killed in the thick of the fight between his wing and Henry's vanguard led by the Earl of Oxford: that was a battle within a battle and it was for the domination of East Anglia. With John Howard perished some others, but not many others, of Richard's stout supporters. Or they were killed when Richard himself attacked Henry Tudor – the men under their two commands clashing with such effect on those who observed it. We have seen that we do not know where this occurred; can we conjecture how it happened?
This is my conjecture; conjecture, it has to be remembered, it is. Polydore Vergil says Norfolk commanded Richard's van; Croyland says he led a wing, the wing which faced the troops under the Earl of Oxford, who led (according to Polydore Vergil) Henry's vanguard. Therefore, does Richard's right wing oppose Henry's vanguard as the battle is joined? 'Right wing' because Northumberland (if he is at this point 'Lord Tamorlant' of the Spanish Letters account) is in command of Richard's left wing. There was no fighting where he was says Croyland; but where was he? Is the following a credible scenario?
Richard's three battles were drawn up on the morning of August 22nd as they had encamped the night before, that is according to their line of march from Leicester: Norfolk leading the van, Richard in the centre, Northumberland commanding the rear. In this strung-out formation (as Dr Tony Pollard has suggested) they faced Henry's army as it marched towards them, not from their front but at right angles to them. Thus, it may have appeared to Richard, who was not, according to the Croyland Chronicler, of a collected disposition in a camp which was itself in disarray (no chaplains to say mass shows to what extent), that he had no need to alter his army's formation to engage Henry; he had merely to turn his army half-about in order to face him: Norfolk now led the right wing, Richard continued to be in the centre, and Northumberland commanded the left wing. Henry, however, presumably to avoid the marsh, changed the direction of his approach; Richard seized what he considered his advantage and Norfolk's wing attacked Henry's vanguard. Fierce combat ensued. After a little Richard saw his chance and led his troops in an attack on Henry's. Was this an impulsive move careless of whatever the ran or Northumberland was or was not up to, or was it a desperate one, made in the full knowledge of Northumberland's inaction on the distant left? In all events no help came to Richard from that quarter; on the contrary, Sir William Stanley (coming from that area of the field, where there was no need to fight, or from some other part of it) arrived to help Henry destroy Richard – though the Croyland Chronicler does not say so.
It was a battle soon over. It may have been an unusually haphazard engagement: action at one spot, none at another, fierce fighting by some while others looked on or looked away. It is no wonder those present had only hazy recollections of what had happened. Perhaps all the manoeuvring either to come to grips or to avoid doing so, took up more time and required wore attention than did the combat itself. Who knows? What is clear is that as soon as Richard's active supporters realised he was dead, they fled. For remarkable as are the few casualties in Henry's army, the only casualty being Sir William Brandon whom (Polydere Vergil says) Richard himself killed, equally astonishing are the survivors on Richard's side. Most of his retainers lived to fight another day.
It has been said that 'if ever there was a battle which was a continuation of politics by other means it was Bosworth'. Rightly so: the Earl of Northumberland and Sir William Stanley, as much as the K)uke of Norfolk, the Earl of Oxford, Sir John Savage and Sir Richard Ratcliffe, made their political choice that August morning. As did the many noblemen, knights, esquires and gentlemen who did not choose to come to Redmoor to fight – for either contestant. It is, of course, most striking that so many ignored the command of their king – Northumberland and Stanley even in the heat (if not the thick) of battle. This surely reveals a king who could not command, whose commands had lost their kingliness, whose kingliness was widely seen as not what it should have been. Not opting for the king reveals what sort of a king Richard was. He had murdered his way to the throne in 1483, destroying as he did so all his brother Edward IV had painstakingly created after the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1471.
In a matter of days in June 1483 Richard dismantled the Yorkist regime. It was an inside job. The family of Yoxk was this time not merely mutilating itself (as, for instance, it had in 1478, when the Duke of Clarence was liquidated) but destroying itself. Those Yorkists loyal to Edward V, who were so taken aback by the murderous dimensions of Richard's usurpation that they did not respond in arms until their unsuccessful uprising in October 1483 (the so-called but misnamed 'Buckingham's Revolt'), regrouped around the only opponent Richard had left, Henry Tudor. They flocked to him in Brittany; he swore to marry Elizabeth of York in Rennes Cathedral on Christmas Day 1483; with their backing and the assistance of the King of France he returned in August 1485 to an England h.e had not been in for fourteen years and knew next to nothing of. His victory at the battle of Bosworth was as surprising as Richard's usurpation had been shocking, save that nemesis had taken a hand. May not the shade of Abimelech have passed in front of Richard's eyes before they closed for ever at Dadlington on Redmoor plain? He should have known that story well enough: he owned the Book of Judges in English. The Great Chronicle of London describes Richard's self-inflicted fate perfectly:
And thus endid this man with dyshonour as he that sowgth It, For hadd he contynuyed styll protectour and have suffyrd the childyr to have prosperid accordying to his alegeaunce and Fydelyte, he shuld have been honourably laudyd ovyr all.
Colin Richmond is senior lecturer in history at the University of Keele and author of John Hopton (Cambridge University Press, 1981).
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