The Battle of Bosworth Field was the decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses. While it was not, technically, the final battle of that conflict, it marked the end of the Yorkist faction’s prospects as surely as it ended the life of its king, Richard III. Conversely, the Lancastrian faction’s prospects centered around Henry Tudor, who not only began his reign as Henry VII with this victory, but also founded thereby a new dynasty that would rule for more than a century. A victory won in large measure by chance in the face of roughly equal odds, it made a powerful mark on English history.
The Yorkists had held the throne since 1471. Edward IV died in 1483, and within several months, Richard of York contrived to take the throne in the place of Edward’s young son. As Richard III, he was to rule for little more than two years. Across the Channel, Henry Tudor waited in exile in France. Descended from John of Gaunt, Henry was the last Lancastrian candidate for the throne. He had made an ill-fated attempt to return late in 1483, but he managed to escape when the plan unraveled; he intended to be more prepared the next time.
To do so, however, he needed to secure French support, and while he operated with French indulgence, it took some time to win concrete aid from his hosts. Late in 1484, Henry won some financial support from the French, but it was not until the following summer that upwards of four thousand French soldiers were attached to Henry’s meager forces. With some effort, he also gained promises of support from Welsh lords; his expectation was that his numbers would grow significantly after landing in Wales, and a decisive force could face Richard thereafter.
Richard was quite aware of a pending attack, and he called extensively on his power base in the north for his response. He was able to raise a significant force of his own, but had reason for concern about the loyalty of several of his commanders, namely brothers Thomas, Lord Stanley, and Sir William Stanley, and the Earl of Northumberland. Of these, the Stanleys had indeed been in secret communication with Henry Tudor, while the Earl of Northumberland seems mainly to have been displeased with administrative changes made in the north, and consequently gave much less than his full support to Richard. The Stanleys were difficult to read, having avoided committing their troops fully to either side throughout the wars, and Richard thought he had dealt adequately with his questions about their loyalty by holding Lord Stanley’s son hostage.
Henry and his forces landed at Dale on August 7. During the first week, they marched north along the coast, then turned east from Machynlleth. Henry was disappointed in his local support, most of which did not materialize immediately. By the 20th of August, his somewhat enlarged forces camped near Atherstone. Significantly, the Stanleys and their forces were also nearby, although it remained unclear whether it was to join Henry or to serve as the first line of defense for Richard.
That same day, Richard set out to lead his troops, riding from Nottingham to the muster at Leicester, from which his army set out on the 21st. His reconnaissance seems to have been marginally better than Henry’s, and he had already determined where Henry’s army had camped. Both forces advanced that day, converging near Bosworth by the end of the day. Dominated by an irregular hill, it was a natural site for battle, and both forces prepared to meet the next day.
On August 22, Henry had roughly five thousand men under his command, although he still hoped to enjoy the support of the Stanleys as well. If given, they would add possibly as many as six thousand more men. Richard had a larger force, even if the Stanleys did side with Henry, but the chronicles are unreliable. As it happened, the Stanleys remained at a distance, and there is much debate over the actual locations of their forces. Some believe that they were split up, with one north of Ambion Hill and the other south of it, while others argue that they were grouped together, but they could have been on either side of the hill. This makes a precise recreation of the battle problematic.
In any event, the Stanleys began the day aloof and inscrutable; given the uncertainty concerning Lord Stanley’s son, it is even possible that they did not know for sure on which side they would fight. Henry and Richard alike must have faced some real anxiety about the outcome, but both showed audacity in their efforts to claim the high ground. Henry showed it by marching his five thousand openly against a superior force; Richard showed it by keeping his men in marching columns for speed, instead of deploying in battle lines first. As it so happened, Henry’s men were delayed by the discovery that their path was blocked by a marsh, and after they wheeled around it, Richard’s army was securely in position.
Henry’s main force, under Oxford, advanced up the hill, while Richard’s right wing, under Norfolk, met it halfway down the slope. Notably, his left wing, under Northumberland, never left its position. Northumberland protected Richard’s flank from attack, but made no active attack on his king’s behalf; this certainly reduced some of Richard’s advantage in numbers. Richard waited with his cavalry near the center of the line, while Henry Tudor kept up an observation post well to the rear of his forces.
Henry’s forces fought with determination, and Richard saw with some surprise that the battle was settling into a stalemate. Meanwhile, the Stanleys remained a matter of concern. Richard was desperate to force a decision. At last, he saw his opportunity: Henry Tudor had left his rear position and was moving closer to the battle.
It is not clear exactly what was happening there. Some suggest that Henry was approaching the Stanleys, to make a personal appeal for their intervention. In the absence of a firm sense of where the Stanleys were posted, this opinion answers few questions even if it is true. In any event, Henry Tudor was on the move with a small entourage, and Richard decided to kill his rival or die trying. He launched a charge of some eight hundred cavalry for Henry’s small detachment. He rode at the head of this attack himself.
This gambit nearly succeeded. Richard managed to kill Henry’s standard-bearer, William Brandon, personally; it is highly probable that Henry was within only a few feet. Henry stood his ground, and one of his supporters, Sir John Cheney, knocked Richard from his horse. It was at this point that the Stanleys committed their forces, coming to the aid of Henry Tudor. Forced to fight on foot, Richard soon found himself isolated from his supporters, and he was eventually cut down, almost certainly by a common soldier.
When it was seen that Richard was dead, his forces began gradually to quit the field. One of the Stanleys presented Henry with the crown that Richard had worn upon his helmet. Although his official coronation came later, he was effectively the King of England from this point, and the Tudor Dynasty began.
Gravett, Christopher. Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets. Osprey, 1999.
Haigh, Philip A. The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses. Bramley Books, 1995.
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