Battle of Bosworth Field, 22 August 1485

Background
The Usurpation of Richard III
Henry Tudor's Invasion
The Battle of Bosworth Field
Aftermath

The battle of Bosworth Field (22 August 1485) was the final  major battle of the Wars of the Roses, and saw the Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, defeat and kill Richard III, the last of the Yorkist monarchs.

Background

At the start of 1483 the Yorkist dynasty seemed to be firmly established on the English throne. Edward IV was still fairly young. He had two healthy sons, Princes Edward and Richard. Prince Edward was only twelve, but his uncle Richard of Gloucester was a loyal supporter of the king, and would have been expected to support them if anything happened to their father.

Battles of the Wars of the Roses
Battles of the
Wars of the Roses

The Lancastrian cause had suffered a crushing blow in 1471. At the start of that year the former King Henry VI was still alive, and had just been put back on the throne, while his wife Margaret of Anjou and teenage son Prince Edward were in France waiting for the right moment to return. They picked wrong, and the young prince was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury (4 May 1471). Henry VI was killed when Edward returned to London, and the Lancastrian claim descended to Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond.

Henry Tudor's claim was valid, if a little thin. John of Gaunt, Edward III's third son, had four children with his mistress Katherine Swynford. In 1396 Gaunt had married Swynford, and in 1397 Richard II had legitimized their children, giving them the family name Beaufort. In 1407 the Beaufort's half-brother Henry IV had confirmed their legitimacy, but also barred them from the succession to the throne.

Henry Tudor's mother Margaret was the only child of John Beaufort, first duke of Somerset, the son of John Beaufort, the oldest of Gaunt and Swynford's children. She was thus the great-grand daughter of John of Gaunt.

Tudor was almost unknown in England. He was born in 1457, while Henry VI was still fairly secure on the throne, and grew up in Wales. His uncle Jasper Tudor was forced into exile after the Yorkist victories of 1461, and Henry was raised by William Herbert. In 1469, when Henry was only twelve, Herbert was murdered on the orders of the earl of Warwick.

In the following year Warwick briefly restored Henry VI to the throne, and Jasper Tudor was able to return and regain control of Henry, but in 1471 Edward IV regained the throne. Jasper Tudor spent most of 1471 in Wales attempting to keep the Lancastrian cause alive, but the events of 1471 had left Henry Tudor as the Lancastrian claimant to the throne and in September Jasper Tudor decided that it would be safer to seek refuge in France. The escape attempt went wrong when storms forced the Tudors to land in Brittany. Duke Francis II of Brittany was an ally of Edward's, and although he refused to hand the Tudors over to Edward he did restrict their freedom. From 1471 until the death of Edward in 1483 Henry Tudor thus lived a rather restricted life in Brittany.

The Usurpation of Richard III

On 9 April 1483 Edward IV died after a short illness. He was succeeded by his young son Edward V, and as almost always happened the succession of a minor was followed by a power struggle. In this case the fight was between the new king's uncle, Richard of Gloucester, and his mother's family, the Woodvilles. On 30 April Richard seized control of the young king at Stony Stratford, before he could reach London, and over the next few weeks most of the Woodvilles were eliminated.

At first Richard's actions didn't cause much alarm, at least outside the Woodville family. He had been made the king's protector in Edward IV's will, and so taking personal control of the king was hardly shocking. The Woodvilles were unpopular, so their fate didn't upset many people. If Richard had stopped at this point, then the Yorkist dynasty would probably have been safe. He could have ruled as his nephew's regent for the next ten years and Henry Tudor's claim would have faded from memory.

Instead Richard decided to seize the throne and in doing so he began to gain a bloodthirsty reputation that would soon lose him many supporters. On 13 June he had one of his earliest supporters, William Hastings, Lord Hastings, executed. On 17 June Prince Richard was forced to leave sanctuary, and joined his brother Edward in the Tower. On 22 June, the day that should have seen Edward's coronation, Dr Ralph Shaw preached a public sermon at St. Paul's in which he asked Richard to take the throne. On 26 June Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, another of Richard's allies, presented him with a petition making the same request, and on 6 July Richard was crowned as King Richard III.

Soon after this the two Princes in the Tower disappear from sight. At the time the general assumption was that Richard had killed them, and he was never able to produce the Princes to disprove this. During the rest of his reign there were many occasions when the appearance of the two Princes would have been useful for Richard, and his failure to produce them strongly suggests that they were indeed dead. Given the history of the Yorkist family, and the events of 1471, it seems unlikely that Richard would have allowed two potential rivals for the throne to stay alive for two years.

The nature of Richard's usurpation, combined with the disappearance of the two princes, quickly began to undermine his position. The first attempt to overthrow him came as early as October 1483, and involved another of his early allies, the duke of Buckingham. This revolt revealed the big weakness in Richard's position. By usurping the throne he had splintered the Yorkist establishment. He had the support of much of the old Neville affinity in the north, but he was losing the support of the old York affinity. Amongst the rebels were supporters of the Woodvilles, and members of Edward IV's household, including the old king's brother-in-law Sir Thomas St Leger. Amongst the early leaders of the plot were two of the Woodville brothers - the marquis of Dorset and the bishop of Salisbury. Richard's seizure of the throne has also encouraged the Lancastrians, both at home and abroad. The biggest shock was that the duke of Buckingham, who only a few months earlier had helped Richard to the throne, joined the plot. His motives are unknown but perhaps including an increasing concern that he might share the fate of Lord Hastings. The plotters also drew in Henry Tudor. His mother was now married to Lord Stanley, Richard's steward and one of his most important supporters, but that didn't stop her plotting in favour of her exiled son.

The plan appears to have been for a series of uprisings, in Kent, the south-west and the Wiltshire-Berkshire area, all of which were to begin in October. Buckingham would raise an army at Brecon, and Henry Tudor would land on the south coast. Richard would be overwhelmed by all of these attacks. Instead Richard was able to deal with each threat in turn. Buckingham failed to gather the sort of support he must have been hoping for, and especially that of Lord Stanley, who remained loyal to Richard. Buckingham got close to Hereford before he lost his nerve and abandoned his army. He was betrayed by one of his supporters, and beheaded in front of the king at Salisbury on 2 November. Henry Tudor got as far as the south coast, where he learnt that the revolt had collapsed, and returned to Brittany. The rapid collapse of the revolt did have one unexpected consequence - most of the rebel leaders managed to escape to the Continent, and a sizable court in exile began to form around Henry Tudor.

The aim of the Buckingham revolt had been to put Henry Tudor on the throne, a clear indication that most people believed that the Princes in the Tower were already dead. Tudor now became something of a unity candidate, combining a Lancastrian claim to the throne with a backing largely made up Yorkist supporters alienated by Richard. On 25 December 1483 Tudor went one step further and made a public oath to marry Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward VI.

1484 saw both sides preparing for the inevitable clash. The year began with Richard's only parliament. The three main events of the parliament were the acknowledgement of Richards's son Edward of Middleham as heir to the throne, the embodiment of the petition of June 1483 calling for Richard to take the throne as the statute Titulus Regius, and the attainting of one hundred of the rebels of 1483. In his entire reign, which included two major periods of civil war, Edward IV had only attainted 140 people. Richard's regime was already seen as being overly dependent on his northern following, became increasingly narrowly based as the year progressed.

Richard did achieve some successes during the year. He finally came to terms with Elizabeth Woodville, and on 1 March she and her daughters left sanctuary. He was also able to apply pressure on Francis II of Brittany, and in September or October Henry Tudor was forced to flee to France. The biggest blow came in April. His son Edward hadn't been a healthy child, and in April he died. His parents were distraught. Richard had suffered both a personal and a political blow - with no heir he was now a dynastic dead-end. Things only got worse after the death of his wife Anne Neville on 16 March 1485. If Richard's regime had survived he would have remarried and perhaps produced an heir, but in the heated atmosphere of 1485 damaging rumours soon spread. Richard was said to have poisoned his wife so that he could marry his niece Elizabeth of York. These rumours threatened to alienate Richard's crucial Neville supporters, who were largely tied to him through his marriage to Anne, and on 30 March he was forced to make a public statement in which he promised not to marry Elizabeth.

Richard's regime was increasingly narrowly based, but for the moment he could hope to rely on his northern supporters, and in particular Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, and Thomas, Lord Stanley. Stanley had carried the mace at Richard's coronation, and was lord steward of his household, but he had briefly been arrested at the start of Richard's reign, and he was married to Henry Tudor's mother, Margaret Beaufort. Stanley would remain neutral at Bosworth, despite having promised to support Henry Tudor, and it would be his brother Sir William Stanley who made the decisive intervention in the battle.

Henry Percy, fourth earl of Northumberland, had only been restored to his titles and land in 1470, and effectively remained neutral throughout all of the upheavals of 1470-71. Neither man was thus entirely trustworthy, and neither man would actively fight for Richard at Bosworth.

By the end of 1483 Henry Tudor had been joined by most of the surviving rebels, amongst them Elizabeth Woodville's son Thomas Grey, marquis of Dorset, Peter Courtenay, bishop of Winchester, Edward Courteney, the Lancastrian head of the Courtenay family, and many of Edward IV's former courtiers including Sir Giles Daubeney, Sir John Cheyne and Sir William Berkeley. The move to France worked in his favour, placing him out of Richard's reach and gaining him the active support of Charles VIII's regents.

In France Tudor was joined by John de Vere, earl of Oxford, a dedicated Lancastrian who had been in prison at Hammes, one of the Calais fortresses. He was accompanied by James Blount, the captain of Hammes Castle, and John Fortescue, gentleman porter of Calais. These defections worried Richard, and he replaced the garrison. In March 1485 he went one step further and put his illegitimate son John of Gloucester in charge. John was a minor and so Richard had effectively taken personal command of the garrison.

In December 1484 Richard began to prepare for an invasion, which was expected to come in the summer of 1485. On 7 December he issued his first proclamation against Henry Tudor. On 8 December he issued commissions of array for most English counties, the first step in raising the local levies and on 18 December he ordered a survey of the lords and gentry's military capability, asking how many men they could raise on half a days notice.

Henry Tudor's Invasion

In the spring of 1485 Henry moved to Rouen and began to gather a fleet. In April Richard sent his fleet to sea under Sir George Neville, and in June he ordered the commissioners of array to be ready to mobilise their men at short notice. Richard then moved to Nottingham to wait for the upcoming invasion.

One of Henry's most important tasks was to try and gain supporters in England and Wales. By the spring of 1485 he had received promises of support from the Stanleys, from Gilbert Talbot, uncle of George Talbot fourth earl of Shrewsbury (the earl was only seventeen in 1485, although he did fight at the battle of Stoke in 1487), from Lord Stanley's nephew Sir John Savage, and from Rhys ap Thomas, a powerful figure in south Wales. As far as we know nothing was heard from the Percies. The Tudors still had their family link to Wales, and Henry's uncle Jasper Tudor, still hoped to be able to raise some troops there. With most of their support thus coming from the north-west and Wales, the Tudors decided to land in Wales, move north to gather their supporters and then turn east to find Richard.

Henry Tudor set sail from Harfleur on 1 August 1485. His army had two components - a core of several hundred English exiles and a contingent of Norman mercenaries led by Philibert de Chandée. This force was somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 strong and was described by Commynes as being made up of 'the most unruly men that could be found', but Henry did make their leader Earl of Bath in 1486 so they can’t have performed too badly.

Richard's navy failed to interrupt Henry's passage, and his fleet landed at Milford Haven on 7 August 1485. Henry's men knew that they would be vulnerable until their allies showed their hands, and for the first few days they were rather nervy. On the first evening they advanced five miles towards Cardigan, but a rumour spread that Walter Herbert was about to attack them with a large army. Henry's scouts found no such army, but there was also no sign of Sir John Savage (he didn’t actually join Henry until the day before the battle of Bosworth) or of Rhys ap Thomas. There were also worrying rumours that both men were planning to resist Henry's invasion.

Henry marched north up the coast towards Aberystwyth, with his fleet shadowing him. Rhys ap Thomas was offered the lieutenancy of Wales, and decided to stick to his word. From Aberystwyth Henry turned east to head towards Shrewsbury, and ap Thomas joined him on the road.

Henry was welcomed into Shrewsbury. He then advanced across Shropshire and into Staffordshire. Gilbert Talbot and 500 men joined him at Newport. He then advanced to Stafford, where he had an interview with Sir William Stanley. The main Stanley army had just withdrawn from Lichfield to Atherstone, on the road towards Richard's muster at Leicester, and Sir William's task was presumably to reassure Henry that this was just a ploy designed to deceive Richard. The Stanleys now had a serious problem. Lord Stanley had left court just before Henry had landed, but had had to leave his son Lord Strange behind as a hostage. On 11 August Richard learnt that Henry had landed and one of his first moves was to summon Lord Stanley back. Stanley claimed to have the sweating sickness and refused to move. Lord Strange then attempted to escape from court, but was captured. Under questioning he admitted that his uncle Sir William was with Henry, but claimed that his father was now loyal. Lord Stanley knew that if he was to save his son, then he would have to remain neutral for as long as possible and only openly support Henry once the battle was underway.

From Stafford Henry moved to Lichfield, and then to Tamworth. On his way he was joined by Sir Walter Hungerford and Sir Thomas Bourchier, two former members of Edward IV's household. They had taken part in Buckingham's revolt, but had since been pardoned. Richard had summoned them to his muster, but didn’t entirely trust them so had ordered one of his men to accompany them. Despite these efforts the two men had escaped from their guard and joined Henry.

From Tamworth Henry went to Atherstone, where he had a secret meeting with the Stanleys, who once again assured him of their support.

On 21 August both armies moved towards Market Bosworth. Richard arrived first and was able pick his battlefield. Henry arrived later in the day and camped a few miles away. 22 August would see the decisive and only battle of the campaign, and would decide which man would wear the crown.

The Battle of Bosworth Field

Contemporary documents give us two clues for the location of the battle. The York city records place it on Redmoor Plain, bordered by Market Bosworth in the north, Stoke Golding three and half miles to the south, Sutton Cheney in the east and Upton three and a half miles to the west. This is an area of gentle hills, with the steepest being Ambion Hill, just to the west of Sutton Cheney. This is the site of the visitor centre, but possibly not of the battle itself. An alternative site to the south of Ambion Hill has also been credibly suggested as the site of the battle, although the two locations are close enough for it not to really be a significant issue.

According to the proclamation Henry issued after the battle Richard was killed at Sandeford but we don’t know where that was, and the area is crossed by many streams that might have been had a sandy ford in 1485. The main water feature in the area now is the Ashby de la Zouch Canal, which of course has to be ignored when looking at the medieval terrain. The area was also rather more marshy in 1485, and so the presence of a swamp on the battlefield also doesn't really help.

We are better informed about the deployment of the two armies. Our best source for the battle is Polydore Vergil, who was writing under Henry VII, and so presumably had access to eyewitnesses and participants in the battle. Most other sources agree with his basic account.

Richard decided to put most of his men in an unusually wide and powerful vanguard, containing a mix of infantry and cavalry, and with a line of archers in front. John Howard, duke of Norfolk, was placed in charge of the vanguard which was apparently designed to intimidate Henry's men. In most medieval battles the vanguard was actually the right wing of the army, the rearguard formed the left wing and the main battle was in the centre, but here both sides appear to have used their vanguard as a genuine front line. Richard took up a position behind the front line, with a select force of his own men. It isn’t entirely clear where Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, was posted with his powerful force, but he may have been placed to watch Lord Stanley. Overall Richard is said to have had at least 10,000 men, but many of them fought without enthusiasm.

Henry had around 5,000 men. He had a narrow vanguard, with a line of archers in front. John de Vere, earl of Oxford, was certainly in charge of the archers, and probably also of the vanguard. Gilbert Talbot was posted on the right wing, and John Savage on the left. Edward was in the centre with a small force of cavalry and infantry.

The Stanleys are said to have taken up a position between the two armies, presumably meaning somewhere off to one side, equally distant from both forces. On the morning of the battle Henry asked Stanley to join his army, but Lord Strange was still a hostage in Richard's army. Lord Stanley's response was that Henry should array his own men. Stanley would put his men in battle order and then bring them to the battlefield. The Stanleys probably had 3,000 men at Bosworth, under the command of Sir William Stanley, but it is possible that they had 8,000 men, with 3,000 under Sir William and the rest under Lord Stanley. In most modern accounts the Stanleys don’t join the battle until Sir William's intervention towards the end, but other early sources have Lord Stanley join with Oxford soon after the fighting began.  

There was a swamp between the two armies. Henry advanced around the left-hand side of this swamp, using it to protect his right flank against attack. One source says that he had the sun on his back at this stage, and this is often taken to mean that he was moving north, but the only problem with this detail is that the fight was taking place on an August morning, so the sun would have been in the east or south-east.

As Henry advanced around the swamp Richard ordered his men to attack. The battle began when Richard's archers opened fire. Henry's archers returned fire and the two armies then advanced towards each other and a fierce melee began.

Oxford feared that his men would be outflanked, and so ordered them not to go more than ten feet from their standards. This move caused a pause in the battle as Richard's men feared that it might have been the start of some sort of trick (perhaps the entry into battle of Lord Stanley). Oxford then renewed the battle, attacking in a wedge. This might have been when the duke of Norfolk was killed, although that isn't at all clear.

The battle wasn’t decided by this melee. While the fighting was going on Richard's scouts noticed Henry, a little way away from his main army and guarded by a small bodyguard (presumably his own household troops). Richard decided to attack Henry and attempt to end the battle by killing his rival. He led his select force around the edge of the main battle, and charged Henry's force. For some time the outcome of this fight appears to have been in doubt. Henry's banner was cast down, and his standard bearer William Brandon was killed (Polydore Vergil says he was the only one of Henry's nobles to be killed in the battle). Richard was held up by Sir John Cheney, but Henry was in real danger. At this point Sir William Stanley finally committed to the battle, leading his 3,000 men to Henry's assistance. Most of Richard's men fled from the scene, but the king himself remained behind and was killed in the fighting.

With Richard dead the rest of his army is said to have fled or surrendered. Polydore Virgil says that Richard lost around 1,000 dead, while Henry only lost 100. As most casualties happened after one line had broken, this would suggest some sort of pursuit of Richard's defeated vanguard. Amongst the dead were the duke of Norfolk, Lord Ferrers, Robert Brackenbury and Sir Richard Radcliffe.  Others escaped from the battlefield. Lord Francis Lovell and Humphrey and Thomas Stafford all reached the sanctuary of St. John at Colchester.

Amongst the many prisoners were Earl Thomas of Surrey (Norfolk's son), who was imprisoned for some time, and Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, who was very briefly imprisoned but then released without punishment. Percy's behaviour at the battle was widely judged to have been a betrayal of Richard III, but is no evidence of an actual agreement with Henry so it is possible that the battle ended before Percy's men were actually ordered into the fight.

According to Polydore Vergil Richard wore his crown into battle. It was discovered on the field, and placed on Henry's head by Lord Stanley. Henry Tudor was acclaimed king as Henry VII on the battlefield.

Aftermath

The battle of Bosworth Field really ended the third and final phase of the Wars of the Roses. Henry was crowned on 30 October, and on 18 January 1486 he kept his vow to marry Elizabeth of York. Their first son, Prince Arthur, was born on 19 September of the same year.

There were a few die-hard Yorkists who refused to accept the verdict of Bosworth, but the House of York had rather torn itself apart and so they were lacking clear alternatives to Henry. There were two possible heirs - Clarence's son Edward Plantagenet, earl of Warwick, but he was soon securely in Henry's hands, or John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln and the son of Richard's sister Elizabeth.

Neither of these men was a convincing claimant, and so when the Yorkists did attempt to overthrow Henry they used imposters as their figureheads. The first, and most serious of these revolts, Lambert Simnel's revolt, broke out in 1487. Simnel was said to be the earl of Warwick, although Henry was able to produce the real earl in London. Simnel's supporters eventually risked an invasion of England, but this ended in a disastrous defeat at the battle of Stoke (16 June 1487). Lincoln was killed in the battle and Simnel was captured in what is generally seen as the last battle of the Wars of the Roses. A second pretender, Perkin Warbeck, appeared in the 1490s, but was never a real threat.

Books on the Middle Ages - Subject Index: War of the Roses

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (22 August 2000), Battle of Bosworth, 22 August 1485, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_bosworth.html

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