The Battle of Bosworth Field, 1485; the end of 331 years of Plantagenet rule, and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. As if it were staged for a soap opera, it had everything from politics and treachery, to brutality and brinkmanship. If one chucks in a slain king whose body is found over five hundred years later under a carpark, it’s got all the makings of a blockbuster series.
And so it should. Nothing in Medieval times was done by half, and the Wars of the Roses had taken its toll. The lessons learned during those fractious centuries prepared Henry VII well for decisions he had to make once on the throne; lessons whose ‘constitutional’ impact through history are still felt today.
The Blockbuster Prequel
Two years before Bosworth, the Yorkist king, Edward IV, was ensconced on his throne and content with two young sons as heirs. Unfortunately for Edward, however, he died suddenly in April that year and despite his progeny, his brother, Richard, who’d been appointed as Protector had decided to have himself crowned instead. The little matter of two young, recently dispossessed, princes then disappearing had caused concern, of course… but Richard had managed to hold his own.
Henry Tudor, on the other hand, was playing a canny game. Spotting the waning support for Richard in some former Yorkist quarters, he pledged to marry Elizabeth of York once he was king. It was an offer that was set to unify the two warring families and sort things out once and for all. But in the way that all blockbusting soap operas follow, it was a disconnected event that triggered action.
Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville, died in March 1485. Sad for her, but potentially disastrous for Henry, for rumours began to spread that Richard had his marital eyes now set on Elizabeth of York. Despite the fact that this would have been an incestuous union the rumours were taken seriously; Henry’s alliance was suddenly under threat. So Henry set sail from France with 2,000 mercenaries and arrived on the coast of South West Wales on 1st August, 1485.
Unsurprisingly, Richard had anticipated Henry’s actions and had prepared himself in Nottingham in readiness. Once news of Henry’s arrival reached him, he marched to Leicester and then further south to intercept the threat on Watling Street. By 21st August, both sides had set up camp near Fenn Lane Farm, Warwickshire, and were eager for battle.
Also unsurprisingly though, as was true of these times, ambitious eyes were watching in the wings. A certain Lord Thomas Stanley and Sir William Stanley were lurking. The Stanleys had not made their intent clear, and though they did meet with Henry some point just before the battle it would seem they hadn’t committed their colours even when fighting began.
It has to be said, however, Henry had good reason to feel a measure of confidence in Lord Stanley. He was married to Henry’s mother and would benefit greatly from being a king’s father-in-law. So it’s also no surprise, perhaps, that Richard took steps to mitigate this risk by snatching Stanley’s eldest son, Lord Strange, and holding him hostage.
Additional Cast Members
Richard is believed to have had the larger army by far; some say as many as ten to fifteen thousand. Whereas Henry’s troops probably numbered closer to five thousand. In the balance, Stanley had around five thousand too, but as we already know… they were hanging back.
22nd August arrived and the day was set. It was a strategic and tactical clash, and wisely the difference in numbers had not made Richard nonchalant of the result; too much was riding on it for him. Terrain, weaponry, troop formations, psychology, and human treachery instead all played their part.
The Yorkist numbers were significant enough to create too large a frontage for Henry’s wing man – the Earl of Oxford – to break through, so he approached Richard’s vanguard, led by the Earl of Norfolk, instead; probably relying on the marshy ground to protect his right side. His advance, however, triggered a significant barrage of artillery and arrow fire. Thus he next spread his troops wider to lessen the impact and pressed on.
His determination paid off. Norfolk slowly gave ground. At this point, it’s believed that Richard next issued orders to Northumberland to attack and envelop Henry’s men, but for some reason Northumberland didn’t move. It is possible he was hampered by the marshy ground. However, it’s also possible he was nervous of Stanley’s lack of commitment even at this point and was waiting to see what happened before turning his back, literally, on a potential traitor.
The time for Richard to appeal to Stanley arrived. Richard sent a message ordering him to step up or his son would be executed. Richard’s heart must have sunk, though, when he received Stanley’s famous reply. “Should the King stain his honour with my son’s blood, tell him I have more. I shall come at my convenience…”. The King’s immediate response was to order the execution of the boy, however it’s suspected that the orders were intercepted by an astute supporter who believed Strange’s life could still hold sway at some point.
Henry, by now though, was heading towards Stanley… slightly isolated but protected still. Richard spotted his opportunity to clash with the man face to face, and broke away with a small detachment of cavalry to chase down the group surrounding Henry. He attacked with force and several of Henry’s bodyguards were either unhorsed or slain.
Seeing Henry in trouble, one can only surmise that Stanley had simply been waiting for the right moment to make his move; ensuring maximum impact for recognition of his support. He sent his troops to attack Richard and they swept the King’s small force aside. Within a short time, Richard was unhorsed and stuck in marshy ground, surrounded by the combined forces of Henry and Stanley. But he didn’t flee, choosing instead to fight and die as a King of England. Seemingly all at once, then, Richard was slain, Norfolk’s vanguard broke and fled, and Northumberland’s troops disengaged.
The Credits Begin to Roll
Henry was clearly the victor, so Stanley, who’d personally not engaged in the fighting, suddenly appeared out of nowhere, brandishing Richard’s crown. The action stood him in good stead and he was rewarded with the Earldom of Derby. But as for the other main character, Richard, he was buried without ceremony at Greyfriars Church, and would remain there until 2013 when he was discovered under a car park and re-interred in Leicester Cathedral.
All of that is interesting, of course, but most significantly of all is the fact that the Battle of Bosworth Field marked the end of the dynastic Plantagenet hold on the country. To cement his plans for change, Henry did exactly as he’d agreed and married Elizabeth, and then took important steps towards preventing a repeat of the previous three centuries. Having seen the power and greed abounding in many key individuals, he removed the ability for nobles to raise their own troops. And as such, this then began the operation of a centralised state. Of note in itself, of course, but such action also laid the path for his son, Henry VIII, to then make great use of this for religious reform… but that’s another story.