8/22/12

Battle of Bosworth Field 1485: The Death and Usurpation of King Richard III

A whirlwind of events set the stage for the last great medieval battle in English history, the Battle of Bosworth Field of 22 August 1485. The sudden death of King Edward IV in April of 1483 thrust his young son Edward V (b.1470-Missing, 1483) into nominal rule until his forever historically maligned uncle, Richard the Duke of Gloucester (b.1452-1485) , seized the young king and his younger brother Richard the Duke of York Richard acted decisively; detaining their legal protectors and retinues, having most of them executed. Following the disinheritance and disappearance (and probable murder) of his two nephews, Gloucester survived his own betrayal in the rebellion of the Duke of Buckingham in October of that year to ascend to the throne on 26 June 1483 as King Richard III. His only son, the sickly eight year old Prince of Wales would predecease him in the year 1484. 

Richard III charges at the Battle of Bosworth (Osprey)

In the winter of the next year King Richard's beloved wife, Lady Anne Neville, the daughter of the Earl of the Warwick, the Kingmaker, died as well. Richard learned early in his very short reign that "heavy is the head that wears the crown" and would hold onto power (with a very limited power-base) until the late summer of 1485 when met his death at arguably the most important battle fought in the British Isles during the medieval era on August 22nd, 1485. King Richard III was the last English monarch to die leading an army in battle.

The Battle of Bosworth Field 
& Ambien Hill, August 22 1485

The last major battle of the Wars of the Roses was the Battle of Bosworth or the Battle of Bosworth Field- A battle which altered the course of history for the English monarchy and an event which also helps many historians to rather neatly chronologically close the medieval ages in the British Isles. After the exiled Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and son of Lady Margaret Beaufort, landed in Wales in August of 1485 the young nobleman quickly spread word that he needed knights and friendly banners. [2] Only a few days after arriving on the coast from France he had close to 5,000 men swearing fealty to him as the rightful, Lancastrian king of England. Though he gained support, King Richard looked disdainfully upon the usurper and evidence suggests he was more than eager to meet the rebel army in the field to defeat and scatter them.

Henry Tudor's Battle Standard, the Welsh dragon to the left and Red Lancastrian roses on white


Richard III's banner with the Yorkist [Plantagenet] white rose and Sun in splendor to the right and his personal livery, a boar (known as the 'Bosworth Boar'), to the left

When his forces under the command of John de Vere the Earl of Oxford finally meet Richards’s army at Bosworth Field, the forces of the house of Stanley, some 3000-5000 men, had arrived as well and waited cautiously near the Tudor & Yorkist flank, though Lord Thomas Stanley does not declare his allegiance in what now is merely a rebellion. He woud not declare until the very end of the battle when King Richard’s army had been, arguably, already defeated in the battle. It seems that Lord Stanley was motivated to do this for fear of what would happen to him and his brother Sir William Stanley if they supported a failed rebellion. 

Deployments of the three armies at the Battle of Bosworth 1485

Besides the stagnant situation of House Stanley's neutrality, the battle raged on throughout the afternoon of August the 22nd in a similar manner probably similar to most of the set-piece battles of the Wars of the Roses, though little (accurate) information pertaining to most battles survived. What we do know is that a hail of arrows and cannon fire from King Richard III’s vanguard commanded by John Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, opened the skirmish at Bosworth and thus began a fierce battle with melee man-at-arms and knight versus knight combat ensuing after the charge of the royalist horse and infantry into the Tudor (Lancastrian) army of Sir Henry Tudor and the Earl of Oxford.

Lord Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby (b.1435-1504)

According to many accounts the now “impulsive” King Richard III perhaps looking back to his earlier feats in battle under his brother’s command at Barnet and Tewksbury or maybe affected by the death of the Duke of Norfolk just minutes before-decided to charge Henry Tudor in an attempt to win the battle in single combat by slaying the rebel leader in the melee. Other accounts and/or narratives suggest instead that maybe he had seen Henry Tudor literally minutes before ride his own charge conferring with his retainers nearer to the Stanley’s position on the battlefield-to more than likely seek aid in the battle as author Charles Ross (Wars of the Roses, 1976, Richard III, 1981) recounts.

Regardless of his true motives that day, King Richard III charged down Ambion [Ambien] Hill into legend and infamy. He managed to kill Tudor’s standard bearer, Sir William Brandon with a single blow from his lance [depicted above] at the end of his charge though he was quickly unhorsed before he could reach Henry Tudor and slay the young would-be king. Refusing a second mount Richard fought with his sword until he was killed, making any Stanley contribution in all likelihood useless to the outcome of the battle, though Lord Stanley did allow his younger brother William to charge the nearly broken forces of Richard III. One important factor in Richard's defeat besides the obvious which is often omitted from some histories was the Earl of Northumberland's (a 'Hotspur' Percy from the North) refusal to mobilize and join the battle, choosing to keep his forces out of the melee almost entirely. 

With his death on the battlefield at Bosworth that day King Richard’s short but bloody rise to power ended in ignominious defeat, in the last great battle in English medieval history. [3] The crown of the fallen “tyrant king” Richard was transferred to Henry Tudor who was now crowned as Henry VII, the patriarch and founder of the Tudor dynasty. [4]

Richard III's last stand

Battle of Bosworth Field Historiography

The Battle of Bosworth has become the unofficial end of the medieval ages in the British Isles and its importance in the study of England and its people cannot be overlooked. As mentioned previously elsewhere it is inaccurate to say that Bosworth was the last battle of the medieval age, nor is it truly even the last battle of the Wars of Roses.

Though 1485 was not like the large scale uprisings and conflicts of 1460-1461 or 1471 the Battle of Bosworth Field’s importance has not diminished in the least bit over the past 300 years historically or culturally, easily still one of the most iconic and frequently cited events in English or European medieval history today despite it being a relatively small battle of little consequence to world history or to England's influence on the rest of Europe even. Most recently the discovery of King Richard's remains under a parking garage in Leicester has revived interest in the long-lost Plantagenet King of England.

Lord Stanley Crowns Henry Tudor after the Battle

It was the Battle of Stoke Field in June of 1487 fought in Nottinghamshire which holds the rightful honor of being truly the last battle fought in England during the Wars of the Roses. A battle fought at the behest of Yorkists and Irish mercenaries who supported the young pretender Lambert Simnel and the royalist Tudor (Lancaster) forces of Henry VII, the Tudors won a decisive victory. This last Yorkist uprising coupled with the Cornish uprisings of 1497-1499 and later execution of another pretender, Perkin Warbeck,  finally ended the greater Wars of the Roses era.


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[1] Known as the Kentish Uprising, May 1471. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Death of Thomas Fauconberg. Britnell, Richard (The Ricardian, March 1995)
[2] With a marriage to a Yorkist lady and a relation to Edward III through John of Gaunt the Duke of Lancaster, Henry, the son of Lancastrian knight Edmund Tudor Earl of Richmond had a distant claim to the throne. Author Note: Yorkists and Ricardians then & now consider him a usurper who killed the rightful king and then who savagely buried his body in an unmarked grave at the Greyfriars, which only until very recently has been uncovered (Summer, 2013).
[3] Some traditions recount that an unknown lowly Welsh men-at-arms killed Richard III while others claim Lord Stanley’s brother killed him, more than likely the fatal blow was made by Rhys Aps Thomas, a Welsh Lord and knight
[4] A significant number of historians, professional and amateur, as well as private citizens support the Yorkists and Richard III historical trust fund, dedicated to historical revision, remembrance, and serious academic research of the ‘Ricardian Age’ located today in Essex, UK

2 comments:

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