The Battle of Bosworth Field: A Welsh Victory?

Robin Evans puts Henry Tudor's victory into Welsh historical perspective.

Battle of Bosworth, as depicted by Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740–1812)Bosworth Field, 22 August, 1485. The Yorkist forces of Richard III faced those of the Lancastrian Henry Tudor. The ensuing battle would last approximately two hours and Richard would be the first English king to be slain on the battlefield since Richard I in 1199. England had a new king, Henry VII, but his success was due in no small measure to Welsh support and to his Welsh ancestry. In return, Wales expected a great deal of the new king of England.

The Redeemer Cometh

To begin to understand the significance of Bosworth Field to the Welsh, and Welsh support for Henry, one needs to remember that the Cymry (Welsh) were intensely aware of their British heritage. A most significant strand to this heritage was the belief that one day a leader would appear who would free Britain from the English and ensure that Britons would once again rule Britain. When Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) circa 1135 it was widely regarded as a genuine history of Britain. It was this history which presented the prophecy of the return of a leader who would free the Britons to a wider audience. However, such prophecies were known in Wales long before the Historia was written. It comes as no surprise to understand that Geoffrey's history was popular in Wales, particularly in light of the subsequent relationship between Wales and England.

The attempt by the House of Gwynedd to unify Wales in the thirteenth century had led to a direct response from Edward I of England. The result was the death of Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn the Last) in 1282, which in turn ensured English dominance over Wales. By the Statute of Rhuddlan 1284 Wales was divided into two political and administrative areas. The Principality was under the king's control and was defended by 14 castles. The marcher lordships, on the other hand, were a collection of independent authorities where lawlessness was rife. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that there were around 90 castles in the marches in the 14th century! A parallel development of course was the establishment of a large number of towns - the vast majority of which were English plantations. The town and its castle were 'symbolical of conquest and the imposition of an alien regime, and the presence within Wales of a privileged burgess element'. It is hardly surprising therefore that, despite the death of Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf, there was no end to the prophecies of a national leader who would free the Welsh. Indeed the bards, who were a vital aspect of Welsh culture and identity, continued to emphasise the coming of y mab darogan, a redeemer who would lead the Welsh to freedom.

Such a leader appeared in the fifteenth century. Owain Glyndwr's rebellion of September 1400 quickly became a national war and the belief in the man of destiny certainly played its part in securing support for his cause. His achievements and radical aspirations 'captured the imagination of succeeding generations of Welshmen'. However, his failure to defeat the English led to the introduction of the Penal Laws of Henry IV. According to Gwyn Alf Williams, 'The ferocious racist penal legislation passed at the height of the Glyn Dwr rebellion turned the Welsh into unpersons without civic rights'. While the wars added to the continuing decline of Wales both socially and economically, the penal laws left a legacy of hate for the English. Anti English sentiment characterised Welsh prophecies and the manner of Owain Glyndwr's disappearance - he was not captured and his death was never confirmed - certainly added to the expectations that a hero would return some day.

However, while the Penal Laws, prophecies and anti-English sentiment continued, the harsh realities of everyday life gave those Welshmen who so desired the opportunity and desire for advancement within the English sphere. This was because the effects of war, plague and economic decline led to Welshmen being able to settle in the boroughs, probably in great numbers. However, the towns were still perceived as being English and privileged, although there is also evidence of a merchant group emerging during this period. Significantly, this period saw the emergence of the uchelwyr (squirearchy) class. They gradually gained office, as sheriff, bailiffs etc, and were so successful that they were the rulers of Wales by end of the fifteenth century. Yet, although many of them had been rewarded by the English crown, the uchelwyr also actively supported Welsh culture. These were the men Henry Tudor needed if he was to ensure the support of the Welsh for his cause.

The fifteenth century witnessed the Wars of the Roses, a struggle that saw the 'baronage of England let loose in a self-destructive sequence of conflicts and practically every family of substance in Wales was drawn in'. It is hardly surprising that much of the Wars of the Roses was fought in the marches and that Wales played a prominent part in these wars. There was also a fresh outburst from the bards which was more aggressively anti-English and which reflected Welsh aspirations and helped re-awaken Welsh national feeling. These wars were to give Henry Tudor his opportunity.

Welsh Heritage

The Tudor family came from Anglesey, an island off the north west coast of Wales. The basis of the Tudors' wealth was laid by Ednyfed Fychan, faithful Steward to Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great) who rewarded him with lands in Anglesey and Caernarfon. The family claimed descent from the ancient ruling kings of Britain and played a leading role on the side of Owain Glyndwr during the fight for freedom.

Henry Tudor was born in Pembroke castle in south west Wales on 28 January 1457. Although born in Wales, his paternal grandfather Owain Tudur (Tudor) was the only one of his four grandparents to be a full-blooded Welshman. Owain Tudur had married Catherine of Valois, Henry V's widow, and one of their children was Edmund Tudor. That Henry's grandmother Catherine was French was to prove useful in his years of exile. In 1460 Owain Tudor became the first of his family to bear the Anglicised surname. Henry was the only son of Edmund Tudor and Margaret Beaufort, though she was a 14-year-old widow when she gave birth to him. It was through John of Gaunt, Margaret's great-great-grandfather, that Henry inherited his claim to the throne. As Glanmor Williams has emphasised, 'Henry was of very mixed descent, like other members of the royalty and aristocracy of Europe … he was probably very proud of being connected with so many distinguished lines.'

Henry was born and raised in Wales and this was to prove significant. He was brought up in Pembroke and at Raglan, the Herbert family's main residence whose household was one of the leading Welsh bardic patrons of the age. Following the death of William Herbert, Henry found himself under the influence of his father's brother, Jasper. This was to prove highly significant. Jasper was not only a great influence on the young Henry but he also saw the potential of north west and south west Wales as strategic bases and centres of support. He had great influence in south Wales and was a great patron of the bards, including Lewys Glyn Cothi and Dafydd Llwyd.

When Henry VI's heir, Edward, prince of Wales, was put to death it was Jasper who realised that Henry was very much a possible Lancastrian claimant to the English throne and it was he who decided that Henry should leave Wales for his own safety. Having sailed from Dinbych y Pysgod (Tenby) in 1471, destined for France, they ended up in Brittany, an independent duchy ruled by Duke Francis II. There were historical links between these two Celtic nations and their peoples spoke sister languages. Edward IV was aware of Henry's presence in Brittany and attempted to have him returned to England. Duke Francis, however, promised to keep Henry under his control but would not send him to England. There he remained for the remainder of Edward's reign, although it is not known to what extent Henry was influenced by his Celtic roots during his time in Brittany.

From York to Tudor

Following the death of Edward IV in 1483 it was Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who succeeded in setting himself up as King Richard III. By the autumn of that year there were rumblings of discontent against his rule. Henry was now a genuine claimant to the throne. Margaret Beaufort began to conspire with Elizabeth, Edward IV's widow. Her aim was to ensure a marriage between Henry and Elizabeth, Edward's daughter, thereby uniting the houses of York and Lancaster. Interestingly it was a Welshman, Dr. Lewis Caerleon, mathematician and astronomer, who acted as go-between. It is significant that Margaret Beaufort sent word to Henry to go back to Wales where he would find help. Duke Francis then promised Henry aid in the form of men, ships and money.  

At this point Bishop Morton of Ely and the Duke of Buckingham plotted to overthrow Richard and to place Henry on the throne. The plot failed due to a number of factors, a significant one being that the Duke of Buckingham was very unpopular with his tenants and made no appeal to Welsh national identity. Bad weather prevented Henry from crossing and this, coupled with news of the defeat of the rebels, led to his returning to Brittany. This was possibly advantageous to him as disaffected Yorkists and Lancastrians gathered there and a type of 'government in exile' developed.

Richard suspected that Henry might land in Wales and took steps to deal with the threat from this direction. A system of signalling lamps was established and strategic castles were placed in loyal followers' control. Nevertheless, on 7 August 1485 Henry landed on the coast of south west Wales, just out of sight of the castle of Dale. 

The choice of south west Wales as a landing place was very significant to Henry. There was obviously strong support for the Lancastrians in the area and Jasper Tudor had maintained his Welsh connections during the period of exile. Henry was busy promising a great deal in return for Welsh support, and a propaganda machine of at least 35 poets proclaimed the coming of y mab darogan  (the man of destiny). Henry was thus appealing to the Welsh national consciousness and to those who hoped to gain personally from his venture.

There were other equally important practical considerations for choosing south west Wales. Militarily it was important to land in a remote area far from Richard III where preparations could be made. There was also a need for Henry to deploy himself in an area where he could hide if anything went wrong - as the experiences of Owain Glyndwr had shown. The most practical consideration was that by travelling northwards he would gain men and supplies, especially from north and mid Wales. But it would be a mistake to think that all of Wales supported Henry, as the Vaughans in south east Wales continued to support the Yorkist cause. Others may have sympathised with Henry but were waiting to see how events would develop.

Bosworth Field

From Dale, Henry and his troops proceeded up the coast of Cardigan Bay to the Aberystwyth area. Henry then turned eastwards and stopped at Mathafarn, the home of a loyal poet Dafydd Llwyd. He then continued eastwards towards Welshpool and Mynydd Digoll (Long Mountain). It was here that substantial contingents from all parts of Wales joined him, thereby doubling the size of his army. The largest contingent was that of Rhys ap Thomas from south west Wales. But there were other significant forces: William Gruffudd led a force from the north west, Rhys ap Maredudd led the men of Hiraethog, while Richard ap Hywel led men from the north east. Supplies poured in with 'fat animals, oxen and cows' coming from north Wales. Gwyn Alf Williams states that in this 'highly risky venture' Henry Tudor 'depended utterly on a Welsh rally to carry him through to his supporters in England'.

Nevertheless, by the time he had reached the vicinity of Bosworth Field on 21 August 1485, he still had only a small army of 5,000 men, while Richard III's forces probably numbered 10,000-12,000. One important question was whether he had the support of the Stanley brothers, Lord Stanley and Sir William Stanley, who exercised so much influence in north-east Wales and north-west England. The Stanleys were notorious for changing sides and it is clear that the strength of their force could win the battle.

The battle was hard fought and it was a Welshman Rhys ap Maredudd - Rhys Fawr (Rhys the Mighty) - who picked up Henry's Red Dragon banner when the standard bearer fell. It has been suggested that, seeing his troops in danger of defeat due to the size of Richard's forces, Henry rode towards Stanley to appeal for help. It was at this point that he was spotted by Richard who launched a direct attack on him. Richard lost the battle, it is argued, partly due to this fateful decision, but Henry's success was also due to Sir William Stanley's decision to join the Lancastrian cause on the battlefield. 

Henry recognised the Welsh role in his success. When the battle was over he issued a proclamation whose opening words were 'Henry, by the grace of God, King of England and of France, Prince of Wales and Lord of Ireland'. On 3 September he offered to God the three banners his forces had carried in battle - the arms of St. George (symbolising his right to the crown by virtue of victory in battle), the Tarteron and Duncow (symbolising the Lancaster and Beaufort) and the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr proclaiming his Welsh (British) ancestry. The arms of Cadwaladr were also prominent at his coronation. Restoring the true ruling house of Britain did not in everyday political reality mean much to Henry, but French, Scottish, Venetian and Italian notaries all drew attention to the significance of Henry's British lineage. Glanmor Williams argues that it certainly made up for any weak claim to the throne. However, to the Welsh poets his Welsh victory was a great one and expectations were high.

The Impact on Wales

Henry continued to make the necessary gestures as regards Wales, and the poets warmed to them. He kept St. David's Day, pensioned off his Welsh nurse and employed Welsh archers among his bodyguard. A commission was directed to inquire into his pedigree. He also packed the royal court's minor offices with Welshmen, and Welsh poets and musicians were welcomed to court. But there were soon signs of disillusionment among the poets, with the gentleman-poet Llywelyn ap Hywel claiming that Henry and Jasper preferred the English to the Welsh.

It cannot be argued that Henry did not reward his Welsh supporters, specifically those who had been instrumental in his success. Jasper Tudor became Duke of Bedford and was given many offices and lands, including that of the Chief Justice of South Wales. Rhys ap Thomas was knighted shortly after Bosworth and was created Chamberlain of South Wales. There was no need for a dramatic gesture or policy in Wales - Henry rewarded his followers and that was good enough. He was not the first to reward individual Welshmen, but this was on a greater scale not only in terms of those in the upper ranks who were rewarded but also in the number of lesser men appointed as sheriffs, bailiffs etc. Richard ap Hywel of Mostyn's decision to stay in Wales and 'dwell among my own people' was 'a rare exception'. Henry's position was still far from secure as was shown in April 1486 when Sir Thomas Vaughan of Tretwr (Tretower) led a Yorkist rebellion against him, but was quickly dealt with by Sir Rhys ap Thomas.

Having secured himself on the English throne, did Henry actually do anything substantial for Wales? He did not repeal the Penal Laws of Henry IV which had made the Welsh second-class citizens within their own country. Some Welshmen, however, were rewarded with letters which freed them from the Penal Laws. In addition, during the years 1504-1508 parts of Wales were granted charters which gave the Welsh certain concessions such as the right to buy and hold land and to hold office in England and the English boroughs in Wales and the right to inherit land according to English law. Calls for these concessions had come long before Henry became king and, ever the practical monarch, he granted the charters for a financial payment. The burgesses of north Wales reacted strongly and protested vigorously against the new privileges granted to the Welsh. But there had long been calls by the Welsh to be given the same rights as the English and Henry was more than willing to reward his loyal supporters at a price.

He probably also ensured a good deal of goodwill in Wales by promoting greater stability and good government in the country. Council sitting in Star Chamber heard cases from Wales, for example. Henry also went a long way towards ensuring stability in the marcher lordships by taking possession of some 50 marcher lordships himself, thereby becoming the greatest of the marcher lords. He also secured agreement with the lords in south Wales by which they were made responsible for the good conduct of their inhabitants. This was only a short-term solution but it led the way to greater reform under Henry VIII through the Acts of Union.

Henry revived the Council of Wales and the Marches which had been established in 1471 but ceased to exist after Edward IV's death. Henry made his son Arthur Prince of Wales on 29 November 1489 and he was sent with his wife Catherine of Aragon to Ludlow to rule Wales. But after Arthur's death the Presidency of the Council was placed in the hands of Williams Smyth, bishop of Lincoln. The powers of the Council included the receiving of petitions and royal bills and the control of local officials. Henry was no innovator but he had re-established in Wales an instrument capable of effective administration.

Wales was stable but not free. Wales was still ruled by the crown of England and by great English families in many parts of Wales. Thus when Henry revived the Council of Wales and the Marches it was staffed almost entirely by Englishmen! The bards voiced their disappointment, but given their expectations such disappointment was hardly surprising. However, Henry rewarded those who needed to be rewarded and to a great extent the fact that he was the founder of a Welsh dynasty was enough. Yet he was no Welsh national hero and the irony was that his success paved the way for even closer union with England.

Robin Evans is Head of Humanities at Ysgol Uwchradd Bodedern on Ynys Môn (Angelsey), a bilingual comprehensive school.

Further Reading:

  • J. Davies, Hanes Cymru (London, 1992)
  • D. Fraser, The Adventurers (1976)
  • G.E. Jones, Modern Wales: A Concise History c.1485-1979 (Cambridge, 1984)
  • W.S.K. Thomas, Tudor Wales (Llandysul, 1983)
  • G. Williams, Henry Tudor and Wales (Cardiff, 1985)  


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