Saturday, 22 August 2015

Commemorating Bosworth: Bosworth Field - The Battle

There are few battles as significant as the Battle of Bosworth, which took place on August 22nd in 1485. It is viewed as ending the long running Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrian (Red) and Yorkist (White) houses; finishing the Plantagenet dynasty under Richard III, while installing a new branch of Lancastrians under Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond.

By the C15th  perhaps due to the ongoing dynastic strife, the age-old feudal system had been corrupted. Loyalty to the king was no longer a given; instead nobles mustered able bodied men to their own militias, under their own command. Actual personal relationships between King and lord probably held more sway than any perceived sense of loyalty to the estate of the crown. The more powerful a lord, the greater the incentive the crown would have to yield to win over a house’s support. When all else failed, of course, there was always the practice of holding hostages as insurance. 

Due to resentment over the manner that Richard had seized the throne and the disappearance of the princes in the tower; Henry Tudor, an exiled Lancastrian, left Brittany and landed in South Wales with a force of some 2000 French mercenaries.

Henry took his time travelling through Wales and the Marches gathering support. In all he called to his banners around 2000 Welsh recruits and around 1000 Englishmen. Accompanying his venture were many Lancastrian exiles, including the experienced John de Vere, Earl of Oxford; whose strategic nous would prove invaluable to the inexperienced Henry. 

Meanwhile Richard, with 3000 men, moved to intercept Henry demanding his lords to join him; his most loyal supporter was John Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, commanding around 3000 men at arms. Also answering his summons was the Duke of Northumberland with 4000 and, dragging their feet,were the Stanleys from Cheshire with 6000. During the Wars of the Roses the Stanleys had a reputation of hanging back from many of the bloodbaths until a critical point. To make matters worse relations between Richard and the Stanleys were not the best, so to ensure his reluctant allies' support Richard held Lord Stanley’s son as a hostage. Henry himself had made overtures to the Stanleys but true to form they had held back from openly declaring their allegiance to either claimant. In theory then Richard had three times as many troops as Henry.

In the C15th battlefield tactics had seen a reemergence of heavy infantry. The Longbow, Pike and Billhook - and to some extent cannon - had robbed cavalry of their battlefield supremacy. Cavalry were now mainly used to chase down a retreating enemy and ensure a rout and also to swing around the flanks and prevent the foe escaping.

Nobles and professional men-at–arms would be encased in steel plate, wielding sword and mace, while levies would have quilted armour, if fortunate a helm, and would be armed with poleaxe weapons.

Heading west, Richard’s forces moved through Sutton Cheney in Leicestershire and took position on Ambion Hill with Norfolk. Ambion Hill overlooked a plain with an area of marsh on his left flank. Behind this marshy area Northumberland’s forces formed his rear-guard.

To the west at White Moors were Henry’s forces, while south of the marsh, visible from Richard's position, the Stanleys and their 6000 men camped at Dadlington. The Stanleys had, in effect, acted as a screen to Henry’s forces, while Richard’s army assembled.

Forced to attack Henry’s army swung east, and then north, to be able to cross the river that drained into the marsh. While advancing Richard’s cannon harassed them. Although becoming more common, cannon were notorious at this time; they were inaccurate and easily overheated, with the unfortunate tendency of sometimes exploding and killing their crews. If the Stanleys had attacked at this juncture the battle would have been over. Indeed Richard demanded that they take action, threatening the death of his hostage; but Lord Stanley would not move coldly replying that he had other sons.

Staying at the rear with his guard, Henry gave command of his army to Oxford. Oxford ordered that his men stay in a single formation and formed a wedge and advanced with his cavalry guarding the flanks. After the usual exchange of arrows Richard ordered Norfolk to attack.

In the desperate hand to hand melee Oxford’s wedge formation began to gain the upperhand. Richard’s superior numbers were negated as they couldn’t break the formation and destroy them piecemeal. Oxford had ordered that his men shouldn’t stray more than ten feet from their banners.  Richard ordered Northumberland to attack but this force didn’t move. Whether he was mirroring the Stanleys or disloyal to Richard is unknown. If he had advanced he would either had to swing east in a wide flanking move to avoid the marsh or would have had to advance through Richard’s forces currently engaged with the enemy. To add to Richard’s woes Norfolk was struck in the face with an arrow and killed. The battles' outcome was on a knife edge and both commanders knew that the Stanleys could sway the result either way.

King Richard may have been lacking luck at Bosworth but he certainly wasn’t lacking courage. He saw that Henry had moved with his bodyguard to negotiate with the Stanleys. In a desperate bid to land a decisive blow, Richard, with a small mounted force, swung around the melee to attack Henry’s force. Richard himself felled Henry’s standard bearer and came very close to Henry himself. Henry’s bodyguard were sorely pressed to defend their lord from the battle crazed Yorkist king. It was at this point the Stanleys made their move, seeing Richard isolated they fell upon him, forcing his small force into the marsh. With his horse stuck in the boggy ground or killed beneath him as in the Shakespearian verse, and after coming within a sword length of Henry himself, Richard found himself surrounded.

Men with halberds fell upon him, striking him so fiercely that he lost his helmet with its golden circlet. It was said that it was a Welshman, Rhys ap Thomas who delivered the death blow.

With Norfolk and the king dead all hope was lost for the Yorkist cause. Northumberland and his forces fled north. The circlet was retrieved and Henry was crowned king on a hill at nearby Stoke Golding.

In 2013 the positive identification of King Richard’s remains in a car park in Leicester revealed a skeleton with ten wounds, eight of them to the head.  So died Richard III. An usurper? Maybe. A child killer? Perhaps. A brave warrior? Absolutely.

Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and is currently writing his own fantasy series.     Information on his writing projects can be found at Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow.


  1. I loved reading this Rob. I have to agree, Richard may have been many things but boy was he a bad ass

  2. Although the Stanley's percieved treachery did for Richard, they were very canny. Lord Stanley and his brother were very popular amongst their followers as they spent their men's blood very wisely; he was more loyal to the men under his command than either claimant to the throne. All things considered I think I'd prefer to be in the Stanley's retinue; you'd have more chance of seeing another dawn!