An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.
Michael D. Miller
|Chapter 77: The battle of Bosworth: August 1485
|Preliminaries to Invasion
The preparations for the invasion have been described in the preceding chapters, but there was a war of words before Henry Tudor even set foot in Wales on 7th August 1485. Henry had for some time been writing to potential supporters in England. Such correspondence was dangerous in the extreme, and it was naturally destroyed as soon as it had been read. There is however a surviving example in which 'your poor exiled friend' stated that he proposed to deprive 'that homicide and unnatural tyrant' of the dominion which he unjustly bore over the people of England. The letter went on to ask when people would be ready to fight for him in such a laudable enterprise and what forces could they raise. When he had enough support, he would cross the Channel. The letter was signed H.R. - Henricus Rex
However much care was taken, the vigilance of the government was such that at least some of this correspondence must have fallen into the King's hands, and he was predictably enraged by its contents and its signature. In June 1485, King Richard III issued his own proclamation, and this was not sparing in its abuse. Richard's enemies were attainted traitors "of whom many be knowen for open murdrers avontrers [adulterers] and extorcioners" who had forsaken the land of their birth "a yenst all trouth honour and nature". Not getting the support they needed from Brittany, they had sought it from the age-old adversary of France, and they were led by Henry Tudor "of bastard blood both of ffather side and of mother side", the one-time Earl of Richmond who now had the temerity to style himself King of England! To get French support, Henry had bargained away England's rights to the Crown and Realm of France and the Duchies of Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Gascony, Guienne and the City of Calais. Richard now called on all "like gode and true Englishmen" to "endevoir" themselves in the defence of their wives, goods, children and inheritances. This remarkable tract may have been lacking in strict accuracy, but playing as it did on the average Englishman's xenophobic view of the French, it cannot have been entirely without effect.
There was a severe outbreak of the "Sweating Sickness" in England during 1485, and whilst it must have had some effect on the preliminaries to the invasion, it is impossible to say just how much influence it had on events. This was another of the strange medieval diseases of which very little is known. It made its appearance in rural England during the hot summer months (there were very few known cases in English cities or outside England), and first became known during the mid-15th-century. There were several widespread epidemics until 1551, when it disappeared just as mysteriously as it had first arrived. The sufferer was afflicted by 'flu-like symptoms, with a high temperature and profuse perspiration. Some died within 2 or 3 hours of the original infection, although those who survived for 24 hours were thought to be out of danger. After such an experience, the convalescent was greatly enfeebled and took some time to recover his strength. Those who did not wish to obey the King's call to arms could plead (whether truthfully or not) that they were suffering, or recovering, from the Sweating Sickness. [The Times dated 18th August 1997 gives an excellent description, and points to a possible link with the hantavirus, which affected some soldiers during the Korean War 1950-1953, and is thought to have reappeared in southern Argentina during the 1990s. It attacks the lungs]
During July 1485 Thomas, Lord Stanley, sought the King's leave to absent himself from Court and to visit his estates in Lancashire and Cheshire, from which he had been long absent. He promised to come promptly with his men to the King's army should his step-son Henry Tudor invade. King Richard III was sceptical but, against the advice of his ministers, granted him leave, but only on condition that his son George, Lord Strange should come to Court. There was no doubt in anybody's mind that George would be a hostage for his father's good behaviour. George was summoned and duly arrived, whereupon Thomas departed; he may have been out-of-sight, but he was certainly not out-of-mind.
Henry Tudor's march through Wales and the West Midlands 7th-21st August 1485
During the evening of 7th August, Henry landed his small army at the village of Dale, close to Milford Haven. It was a Sunday, and Henry bade his men to give thanks for a safe crossing and a successful landing. According to Fabyan [The New Chronicle of England and France p 672] the psalm "Judica me Deus et discerne causam meum" - Look kindly on me Oh Lord, and favour my cause - was sung before Henry made the sign of the Cross and kissed the ground. Camp was pitched at Dale for the night, and during the morning of the 8th, the army marched the short distance to Haverfordwest. There Henry heard news which both heartened and disquieted him.
A deputation arrived from Pembroke, promising that Pembroke men would support their 'natural Lord' Jasper Tudor. They had not seen him for a long time, but they had not forgotten him. Of Rhys ap Thomas, the Great Chieftain of South Wales and Sir John Savage, both of whom had sworn to support him, there was no sign. There were stories that they were mustering their men, and even rumours that they would fight for the King. Henry nevertheless marched North-West towards Cardigan, and was disturbed that the countrymen of South Wales did not flock to join his standard of the blood-red dragon of Cadwallader as he had hoped. There was instead a report that Sir Walter Herbert was about to descend on them from Carmarthen 'with a mighty host'. Scouts were sent out and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford anxiously sought a good position for a defensive battle. Mercifully, the reports turned out to be false, and somewhat shaken, the army continued its march.
At Cardigan, Henry at last began to gather recruits, in small numbers perhaps but they were nonetheless welcome. Typical was a lawyer, John Morgan, who had gathered together a like-minded band. Some of the small garrisons of the Royal castles they passed threw in their lot with Henry, who now found that he had some useful recruiting sergeants; just as they had done in the days of Owen Glyndower, the minstrels were strumming their harps and singing of the ancient glories of Wales gained under the blood-red dragon of Cadwallader. That banner was even now flying again, could the people not see it? A useful trickle of men joined Henry and his ranks began to swell, but nowhere near to the extent that he had a substantial field force. Until Rhys ap Thomas and Sir John Savage honoured their promises, there was little hope of achieving this.
Now at last there was a messenger from Rhys. He was in arms to the North-West (he did not say where) and was wondering what he stood to gain by fighting for Henry. The messenger was sent back with the promise that, once victorious, the Lieutenancy of Wales would be his. That persuaded Rhys, and he duly joined Henry's army at the mustering point of Newton with a horde of wild-looking Welshmen. With others who had sworn to support him, Henry adopted an imperious tone. Sir John Savage, Sir Gilbert Talbot and John ap Meredith were told that he would cross the River Severn at Shrewsbury, and that they were to join him at Newton for the march on London. His letters, signed 'by the King', denounced Richard as an usurper, and stated that their failure would incur his severest displeasure. They did indeed muster at Newton, a town about 20 miles to the East of Shrewsbury, where Henry arrived on 12th August.
Shrewsbury proved to be friendly, and opened her gates to Henry and his soldiers. [By one account, Shrewsbury was initially reluctant, and only relented on the persuasion of Sir William Stanley]
But what of the Stanleys, Lord Thomas and his brother Sir William? Henry found their attitude as puzzling as did King Richard III. By the time he reached Shrewsbury, he had a sizeable force, either with him or committed to him, but not yet of such numbers that he could hope to engage the Royal army with confidence of numerical superiority Their support was essential, and from the answers he received to his letters, he was aware that they each led substantial contingents, not a single force as he may at first have supposed. Sir William had promised him armed support before he had even left France even if Lord Thomas was far too circumspect to commit himself in any way. Now at long last he received letters from them. They would join him 'when the time was ripe', Lord Thomas explaining the difficulty of his son George being in Richard's hands; if Richard received any adverse report on Lord Thomas's loyalty, whether it was true or not, George would be beheaded within the hour. Their only safe course was to fall back onto the Royal army as if retreating in the face of a superior force, but they would always remain close enough so that 'at the proper time' they could join Henry's army immediately. In the meantime, they advised against a march on London, in any event a Yorkist stronghold, which would give Richard's undefeated army the chance to fall on their rear. The best course, and one espoused by Henry's own officers, was to march to confront the Royal army without delay.
From what Henry Tudor did next, there appears to have been something of the gambler in his character, although this trait seems to have been absent from that of King Henry VII. He left Shrewsbury on 14th August to complete the muster of his troops at Newton before taking the best, or the least unpromising, of the options open to him, that of marching to give battle to the Royal army. Oxford, who knew Lord Thomas well, would have left him in no doubt about the true nature of the man, and of his ability so to manage things that, whatever happened, he would always end up on the winning side. He had hoped for better from Sir William, apparently a more forthright and honourable man, but he now seemed to be just such another as his brother. He may have been inexperienced in military matters, but he could see the good sense in refraining from turning his back on the Royal army and inviting it to pounce upon his rear, but there was now another reason for marching directly to confront King Richard. If he now marched for London, he ran the risk that the two Stanleys, once he had lost contact with them, would join the Royal army and fight against him. In one sense it was disquieting that they were not retreating before him as they said they would; in another, it was comforting to know that they were shadowing him on each flank. [The proclamation that Sir William Stanley was a traitor was not made until the evening of 15th August at the earliest. A day or so must have past before it became widely known, but it is not clear if it reached Henry Tudor's ears] Henry now advanced 13 miles to Stafford, where he was pleasantly surprised to find that Sir William Stanley was waiting for him. Sir William had brought no troops with him, but explained that his force was not far off. He repeated what the letters had said, that he and his brother would join Henry 'when the time was ripe', but promised a further meeting, this time with Lord Thomas himself. He made a suggestion which struck Henry's officers as good sense. Henry's army was advancing on Nottingham, whereas the Royal army was mustering at Leicester, a days march to the South. Henry should alter his line of march South-East to Lichfield with a two-fold purpose in mind; he would still be heading towards the Royal army, but could fool Richard's scouts into thinking that he was after all making for London. This could throw the Royal army off balance sufficiently into tempting Richard to leave any strong defensive position he may have taken up. Accordingly Henry's army marched the 17 miles to Lichfield.
Henry stayed in Lichfield for only a short time, and on the 19th set off for Tamworth. During the march, Henry let his men go on ahead and stayed behind with only a small escort to rest and to try to marshal his thoughts into order. He was now approaching an epic battle with insufficient numbers, and the fate of all things hung in the balance. What had he so far failed to do to marshal his supporters who had sworn to fight for him? What could he now do to persuade them to come? What should he now do besides this? Above all, how could he force the Stanleys to face the issues which involved them all? He turned all these questions over in his fevered mind, but found no answers.
Rousing himself from his reveries, he saw that it was now getting dark. His army was no more to be seen, and he had no idea how to find Tamworth. After some agonised searching for their way in the rapidly gathering gloom, he and his men sought refuge in a local farm, where he learnt to his relief that Tamworth was only three miles away. Forbidding his men to show themselves, Henry spent what he later described as the worst night of his life. Leaving in the first light of the dawn of the 20th, he cantered into his camp to find that his officers too had spent an anxious night, wondering if Henry had deserted them and fled. He told them airily that he had merely wanted to be alone for a time and that nothing untoward had happened, but it had been a nasty moment for them all.
Now the Stanleys wanted to see him at Atherstone, only a short distance away. Here for the first time, Lord Thomas Stanley set eyes on and shook hands with his step-son. He found himself face-to-face with a young man just 28 years of age, of middling height, with a pleasing and charming manner. He noted the small blue eyes, the fresh complexion, the long nose of his mother and the abundant flaxen hair. When Henry smiled, he also saw that his teeth were bad, a sure sign of poor health. Henry on his side found that his mother had given her hand to an elderly man with a long beard, but with a grave expression and a distinguished manner. Each party had brought only a small escort; it would never do for some spy in the Stanley forces to report to Richard that they had met with the rebel. The pleasantries over, the meeting then got down to business.
Henry to his dismay found that it was still no easier to pin down the Stanley brothers to a definite commitment than it had ever been. He emphasised what his scouts had told him, that Richard was gathering a large and well-equipped army, amply supplied with all that an army needs. Without their contingents, he had no hope of matching the King in numbers. Could they not see that if the detested tyrant was to be toppled, it was now or never? Another chance like the present one was most unlikely ever to arise again. Did they not understand that what they had so far done would damn them for ever in Richard's eyes? The news that Sir William had already been proclaimed a traitor may not have been known to Henry, but it is inconceivable that Sir William himself remained in ignorance of what had been done nearly a week before, which makes his behaviour all the more difficult to comprehend. Perhaps he too cared what happened to his nephew. They had advised him that he should march directly onto the Royal army, and here he now was just a few short miles from Richard's mighty host. Retreat for the safety of Wales was now impossible, he was committed to a great and terrible battle. In honour they must now join him. All the two brothers would do was to nod sympathetically, repeat the now familiar litany that Lord Thomas's son was in deadly danger, and promise that they would intervene 'when the time was right'. No more than this could Henry get from them.
Henry cantered back to his camp with a heavy heart, the nightmare vision rising before his eyes of the blood-red dragon of Cadwallader faltering on the field of battle, when the two Stanleys would join Richard's men and finish off the Tudor. The safety of Wales lay far to his rear, and a hostile army lay close in front. The battle had to be fought. There was no going back.
The Web of betrayal King Richard III - 11th-17th August 1485
Between Henry Tudor's landing on 7th August, and the battle of Bosworth on the 22nd, there was a series of events which at first sight were unconnected with each other, but when taken together indicated that King Richard III was being betrayed by those on whom he should have been able to count for support.
The news of Henry Tudor's landing first reached Richard in his Headquarters at Nottingham Castle on 11th August. It must have struck him as curious that the news should not have reached him sooner than this; the arrangements he had put in place [pages ] should have sufficed to bring this information to him by the 9th August, or at the very latest the 10th. Was there any question of intentional delay? Why was there no word from Sir William Stanley, who held the command in North Wales, that he was marching, in company with Sir John Savage, to crush the Tudor? He needed no command or authority to do this. Why was there no word from the Herberts, who could easily have raised a force in South Wales strong enough to stamp on so puny and so impudent an invasion? No matter, the agonised period of waiting was over at last and the time for action, something that Richard rejoiced in, had finally arrived.
Richard promptly summoned his Lords to war. Some answered readily, like John Howard, Duke of Norfolk and his son, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, Francis, Lord Lovell, Sir Richard Radclyffe, Sir Robert Brackenbury and a score of others who hastened to bring their contingents to the mustering point at Leicester. Some answered not at all, such as John de La Pole, Duke of Suffolk even though his son John, Earl of Lincoln was Richard's heir, but then Suffolk had always held himself aloof from any fighting, and had not joined in the desperate battles of Barnet or Tewkesbury.
Others seemed strangely reluctant, such as Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. He acknowledged receiving the summons and said that he was marching to join Richard with all haste, but there seemed to be a curious reluctance to do so. Why should this be? On 15th August, Richard received a letter from Thomas, Lord Stanley, which told him that Thomas was suffering from the Sweating Sickness and could not possibly come; there was no suggestion that his troops were marching to join the King under the command of a trusty subordinate. At the same time, some other disturbing pieces of news reached Richard's ears. Henry Tudor had reached Shrewsbury on 12th August and there he had been made welcome and substantially reinforced. This could only mean that he had marched through Wales unopposed and that the Welsh chieftains, and some English Lords as well, had joined him. To crown it all, the vigilant guard mounted upon George, Lord Strange now brought that worthy before the King and told him that he had been detected in an attempt to slip out of Nottingham Castle.
Richard questioned Strange closely and probably resorted to torture. Strange had received a message from his father, borne by the same messenger who had carried his father's letter to Richard, that he should escape and rejoin his family. His uncle, Sir William Stanley and Sir John Savage had conspired with Henry Tudor to join him as soon as he had landed. Strange swore that his father Thomas had not been a party to this plot; he had no intention of joining the Tudor but would assuredly remain loyal to Richard. Whether or not Richard believed this extraordinary story, only Sir William Stanley and Sir John Savage were proclaimed traitors. Strange was given paper and pen, and bidden to write to his father to describe the desperate danger in which he now stood, and urge him to join Richard at once.
To take his mind off things whilst his army was gathering, Richard went hunting in Sherwood Forest on 16th and 17th August. Unlike his brother Edward, he had never been a keen huntsman, but he had to do something active to escape the web of events which seemed to envelope him ever more closely. On his return to the hunting lodge in the evening of 17th August, he found two dusty and sweat stained messengers awaiting him. He knew them both well, John Sponer, Sergeant of the Mace of York and John Nicholson. On the previous day the City Fathers of York had met to express astonishment that their King, to whom they had always been most loyal, had not sent to them for a contingent of troops, which they would readily provide. They had their difficulties, including plague in the City, but they would somehow surmount them if only they knew what their King expected of them. Richard heard their message with foreboding. Northumberland was the Commissioner of Array in the North, and it was he who should have called out the men of York, plague or no plague. Even though time between receipt of the summons to fight and the 16th August had been short, he had clearly made no effort to do so. Richard, without betraying his alarm at this ominous indication, thanked both messengers and sent John Nicholson back to York asking that troops be sent. On 19th August, the ever loyal City dispatched 80 well equipped horsemen for Richard's army and busied itself in raising more soldiers. It was already very late; there is some doubt if even the 80 cavalry-men reached the battle-field in time.
As Richard rode back to Nottingham Castle, his thoughts cannot have been pleasant or comfortable. It was not the thought of a battle with Henry Tudor which concerned him; he earnestly wanted such an encounter to settle things with the Tudor once and for all. There was not the question of having to fight superior numbers which gave him any worry; he was always likely to have a superior force at his back. The problem was, how reliable was it going to be, and now a new factor, that of betrayal, entered onto the scene. The fear of treachery is insidious, and saps the will and vigour of even the most resolute. Should he relieve Percy of his command as soon as he appeared? No doubt many of the northern men he brought with him would be prepared to fight for him under any new commander that he appointed; Richard had always enjoyed the loyalty of many in the North, and no doubt many in the Northumberland division would prove to be staunch to him. The new commander would have to be a Northerner, but there were plenty available who could command a division such as Sir Richard Radclyffe or Sir Robert Brackenbury. But was this such a wise idea? Many others of Percy's division would be Percy retainers, as they and their forefathers had been for generations. They could re-act very badly to the disgrace of their chief, and perhaps would desert in a body to the enemy. It would be madness to make a virtual present to the Tudor of several hundred prime fighting men. This sort of thing, or the threat of it, had happened before during the Wars of the Roses. There was no simple answer.
This brought him to other considerations. Where were the two Stanley brothers, Lord Thomas and Sir William? Richard had never believed the story of the Sweating Sickness, and Sir William had been denounced as a traitor. He had a hold over Lord Thomas, who must have heard by now (in case he had made a miraculously quick recovery from a dread disease) that his son George, Lord Strange was Richard's hostage, and could lose his head if Richard received any adverse report, whether it was true or not, that Lord Thomas was contemplating treachery.
Perhaps at this point Richard smiled grimly to himself, a smile with no sign of mirth but full of malice and menace. He was the Richard, the Duke of Gloucester who had been famous for his loyalty to his King and his friends. His motto was "Loyaute me lie" - Loyalty binds me - and all had marvelled at the way he had lived up to it. But since the death of his brother King Edward IV, he had lived by one betrayal after another. He had betrayed his brother whatever his dying wishes may have been, he had betrayed his two nephews by seizing the Crown (possibly even murdering them into the bargain), he had betrayed his mother 'Proud Cis' by spreading stories that she had been unfaithful to her marriage bed, he had betrayed his old friend Hastings by cutting off his head on the basis of unproved suspicions, and last but by no means least, he had betrayed his gentle Queen Anne. In return, he had been betrayed by Buckingham, and perhaps this was just the first of many such betrayals, for those who live by betrayal will assuredly die by it.
That there was any feeling of remorse is too much to expect, for Richard was a man of his times, and if Might was Right, it did impose certain requirements on those who exercised the Supreme Power. Some things were going to have to change, and the foremost of these was his method of rule. He had earnestly tried to make himself loved by his people by the beneficence of his rule, by giving good governance, by righting wrongs, by removing oppression, by lightening taxation and by many other ways. The people had taken all the benefits of his paternal administration, but had withheld their love and their duty. From now on he would rule ruthlessly and without mercy so that they would learn to fear him. Only in that direction lay the hope of survival.
King Richard III - the days before the battle of Bosworth - 18th-21st August 1485
Richard left Nottingham Castle on 19th August to march the short distance to where the Royal army was mustering at Leicester. He was bringing with him his own strong division, consisting mostly of midlands men. His soldiers, with their burnished and shinning armour and weapons and with the banners of their officers waiving gaily above their heads, make a brave show as they marched, four abreast, out of the Castle. In their midst rode the King, mounted on a white charger, at the head of his household knights. Each man and each horse wore full armour polished until it shone like silver, and Richard's helm was surmounted by a coronet, symbolising the Crown of England. He wore his visor up so that all might see his face. His expression was grave and composed, and masked the sense of impending doom which tore savagely at the breast of the last of the Plantagenet Kings as he rode forth to give battle to his enemies.
Richard's division reached Leicester that same evening of the 19th. Tradition has it that he was quartered at the "White Boar", his own emblem. John Howard, Duke of Norfolk and his son Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey were already there with their own division, a strong force from East Anglia and heartening to Richard's eye. At least these two men would be loyal whatever happened, but Norfolk told Richard that all was not well with the Howard force. Their call to arms, where it had been answered at all, had only been responded to with reluctance. Many had thought that the long drawn out Wars with their constant battles had been concluded in 1471, 14 years before, and could see no reason to leave their hearths and homes to fight yet again. Desertion, a common feature in any army, had been more than usually noticeable, and the scouts had frequently had to return would-be deserters to their places with the Colours. Some had even ignored the call and had stayed at home. Among these was John Paston who, whatever his troubles had been with the Mowbray Dukes of Norfolk, owed everything to the Howards. Ordered to muster at Bury-St-Edmunds, he had simply stayed away. [The Summons sent to John Paston may be seen in the Paston Letters Vol 3 p 320] On a more cheerful note, the division was still not fully mustered; other more reliable people had sent word that they were on their way and would shortly arrive. Northumberland had sent a message that he was in the last stages of his long march from the North, and expected to arrive during the evening of the 20th.
The Howards, father and son, heard their King's account of his dealings with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and the Stanleys with grave and concerned faces. They agreed that all three must be regarded as unreliable, and it would be folly to place any trust in any of them until they had given proof that they were worthy of it. It was however worth waiting for Northumberland to arrive on the following evening and then to hear what he had to say for himself. An explanation might well show that things were not as bad as they presently feared, and they should have his strong division with them before any attempt was made to engage the enemy.
Northumberland duly arrived as the evening of the 20th August was turning into night, and Richard demanded an explanation for his tardiness. Northumberland replied with some heat that there had been no tarrying. Time had been short between the receipt of his summons and his arrival in Leicester. Nevertheless he had gathered all his retainers together as quickly as was possible for a series of forced marches. Surely the king could understand that it took three days to march from Alnwick to York and a further two to reach Leicester, and then only by forcing the pace. Why had he not called out the men of York? The King must be aware that they had the Plague in York, and it would be the height of folly to introduce the disease into the Royal army. The pestilence would decimate it and ensure its defeat without the enemy even striking a blow. In any event he had brought a substantial force with him as the King could see with his own eyes. This questioning sounded as though his loyalty was being questioned, and this he greatly resented. The Percies were loyal to their King and intended to remain so. In the meantime, his men and horses were exhausted and must have some rest. If Richard proposed to leave Leicester in the morning, he would march as the rear-guard in the afternoon.
On this he insisted. On this note an ascorbic and at times acrimonious meeting was brought to a close.
On their face, these were perfectly reasonable explanations and suggestions and Richard had perforce to accept them, but their were other grounds to doubt the Percy loyalties. The enemy was a sprig of Lancaster, and in the past the Percies had been staunchly loyal to that House. They had suffered many losses in the Wars of the Roses; this Percy had lost several close relatives during the battles, one at St Albans 1455, another at Northampton 1460, and his own father at Towton 1461. It was true that he had given good service to King Edward IV when he had returned from his exile in 1471, and had been commended for it, [page ] but he doubtless resented the fact that John de La Pole, Earl of Lincoln and not himself headed the Council of the North. [page ] Richard had been aware when he himself was in the North, Percy had not altogether welcomed his presence where previously the Percy writ had run supreme. Was Percy now prepared to transfer the regard and affection he had held for King Edward IV, the King who had restored his Earldom to him, to Edward's brother? That was not nearly so certain. Would Percy welcome a new King who would give him the free hand in the North that his family regarded as their birth-right? That could not be discounted. Had he refrained from calling out the men of York to reduce the numbers of Richard's supporters within the ranks of his own division? That was quite possible.
There did however appear to be an answer, and this lay in the local topography. Richard's scouts reported that Thomas, Lord Stanley's force lay at Stoke Golding, his brother Sir William's at Shenton and Henry Tudor's at Atherstone, which sat astride Watling Street, the main road to London. An easy march westwards towards the enemy brought Richard's vanguard (the Howard division) to the small village of Sutton Cheyney. From Sutton Cheyney a ridge, still running in a westerly direction and somewhat higher than the surrounding plain, ends in a pronounced knoll, Ambion Hill, which stands some three miles due south of Market Bosworth whose church spire can be clearly seen. Ambion Hill's south-western aspect is in places steep, and where it slopes away on its easterly side there was at the time a marsh. This marsh, fed by the springs on Ambion hill, formed a substantial barrier to a body of advancing troops, and served as a guard to one of the flanks. Today the marsh has gone, and in its place stands Ambion Wood. The springs too have dried up. Legend has it that King Richard drank from the clear waters of one of the springs; today it appears stagnant and singularly uninviting. The hill however formed an admirable defensive position, thrust as it was between one hostile and two possibly disloyal forces. There could be no question of the Tudor army marching on London with a strong, hostile and undefeated force to its rear. Its only realistic option was to attack the Royal army for which it would have to advance uphill. Moreover, the hill could be held by the Howard's and the King's divisions without having to rely on Northumberland's dubious loyalties.
On the night of the 21st, the Royal army pitched camp on the ridge around Sutton Cheyney. An advance guard was sent forward to the knoll with orders that it was to hold it at all costs should the enemy attempt to occupy it during the night until help could be sent to it. During the march to Sutton Cheyney, Richard had cast many anxious backward glances and was rewarded, to his intense relief, by the sight of a silver, shimmering column marching in his wake, with the sun glinting off their weapons and armour. Northumberland, true to his word, was following as the rearguard. As soon as he arrived, Richard supped with his commanders and outlined the course for the morrow. His own and the Howard's divisions would occupy Ambion Hill at first light, and Northumberland's division would remain on the ridge as a reserve.
Before he retired to his rest, Richard, accompanied only by his squires, strolled about his camp, casting his expert eye on the faces of his men and running it over the state of their equipment. No doubt he stopped to talk to some of them, and rejoiced in their rough bucolic accents, for like his brother Edward, Richard was a soldier's general, and liked to have an idea of the morale of the men who would soon have to stand in line and fight against the malice of the enemy. His stroll would have brought him to Ambion Hill where he also chattered to the advance guard. He stood on the summit, and looked down pensively on the twinkling fires of three other camps and listened to their trumpet calls. Deep in thought, he strolled back to his tent, his faithful squires trotting at his heels. Had he done all he could to ensure victory on the morrow? Had something been left undone? Only God knew what lay ahead. Richard, a devout man, prayed to him, but no answer came.
The numbers engaged in the Battle
As usual, medieval numbers are hopelessly elusive, and we have to make the best judgement that we can of the strengths of each of the forces which took part in the battle. Henry Tudor is thought to have brought about 5, 000 men to the field, Scots and French mercenaries and Welsh and English adherents. Some of these would have been returning exiles. Rather than trouble the reader with tedious speculation on the strengths of the other forces, it is thought that a table will be of greater assistance, if only because it represents the probable thoughts going through the minds of King Richard III, and very probably those of Henry Tudor's commanders as well:-
Tables of this nature are rough and ready, but it does illustrate the conundrum that faced both sides before the battle began, with only one important difference; Henry could be confident that all who fought under his banners would fight lustily, whereas Richard could feel no such assurance. Already the faithful Brackenbury had had to report truthfully that some in whom he had put complete trust had gone over to the enemy. There does seem to have been a constant trickle of deserters to Henry Tudor.
The eastern sky was showing the first red traces of the rising sun when the officers of the Royal army roused their men and bade them fall into line. With a clatter of arms and weapons, Norfolk's and the King's divisions formed into column before the trumpets called the advance. Norfolk's division as the vanguard, with his silver lion banner at its head, marched off towards the heights of Ambion Hill, followed closely by the King's division. Northumberland's division stayed in its place as the rearguard and the reserve. Richard's intention was that the sun should rise to reveal a strong and menacing Royal force on the heights. Some historians have suggested a measure of confusion within the Royal army in that the men were required to march before they had eaten their breakfast and before mass was heard, there being no chaplains in the Royal army, but this is impossible to accept. Chaplains always accompanied a medieval army, and troops were frequently required to perform an important manoeuvre before they ate. [They still are - author's experience] Spiritual and physical comforts could wait until they were in position, and no doubt they did on this occasion. Richard was a pious man, and the singing of mass by thousands of throats, a sound that would be heard from afar in the fresh morning air, would increase the sense of menace he intended to convey. He was also a careful and considerate commander, who well knew that men fought better on full bellies.
The manoeuvre worked well, and the sun rose to reveal a strong and apparently confident Royal army on the heights of Ambion Hill from where it could be seen for miles around. To increase the aspect of menace, such of Norfolk's division as were mounted remained on horseback at this stage, only dismounting when the time came to fight. The King's division did the same, except that Richard and his household knights, altogether 80 in number, remained mounted throughout. Medieval artillery could not be depressed so far as to shoot downhill, but there was a suitable position for the Royal guns. They were deployed on the left of the Royal army where the grounds flattens out towards the marsh. From there they could en file the Tudor army if it should attempt to storm the Hill, and doubtless some of the gun-stones found at Glebe Farm came from this source. Stout chains were run between the guns to discourage enemy cavalry from attempting to ride through them.
The rising sun also revealed something else that Richard was anxious to know, where were the Stanleys and what were they doing. Sir William had moved his men to a line on the plain about half a mile from the Royal line and at right-angles to it. Many of his men could be seen to be mounted behind his banner of the White Hart. His brother Thomas had made a night march so that he now stood in a similar line behind Sir William's. A messenger was sent with a pre-emptory command that the Stanleys should fall in to the right of the Royal line and face the enemy. Sir William may have been proclaimed a traitor, but good service given this day would make it much easier to overlook this impediment. Richard watched the messenger go, an easy figure to distinguish in his colourful herald's garb, and wondered uneasily what answer he would bring back.
Richard now harangued his troops in a ferocious manner, saying that the fate of England depended on the day's outcome. Further, the future of a lot of people hung on the fortunes of the battle, for a victorious Tudor would have no use for Yorkist followers; their prospects would be bleak indeed. His officers noted that his face, which of late had appeared drawn and care-worn, was now haggard as well. Richard noticed their anxious glances and laughed off their concern, saying that his rest had been disturbed by night-mares. Dreams worried only timorous women and faint-hearted cowards, but not soldiers. Many later speculated that the ghosts of those he had recently murdered had appeared in his sleep and had forecast his own dreadful end and descent into Hell, where a legion of demons impatiently awaited him. Nobody can be sure if there is any truth in the story related by Shakespeare, [King Richard III - Act V- Scene 3 ] and Richard would hardly have so described his dreams. There was quite enough of the possibility of treason to disturb the slumbers of even the heaviest sleeper, and was there not the note which, legend relates, some unknown hand had pinned to Norfolk's tent during the night:-
"Jockey of Norfolk, be not so bold,
"For Dickon thy master is bought and is sold."
Trumpets now shrilled on the plain below, and it could now be seen that the Tudor army had accepted the challenge and was advancing boldly to the attack. Henry Tudor may not have been a soldier, but he had a number of excellent officers who knew how to make war. The Tudor centre was commanded by John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and a feeling of annoyance arose in Richard's breast. How like the arrogance of the man to choose as his emblem a blue boar, so like his own white one! There was somebody who needed to be humbled if ever anyone did!! No matter, he would soon get his come-uppance. The right wing was commanded by Sir Gilbert Talbot - he too would soon learn what it meant to defy his King. The Tudor left wing, a much smaller body, was headed by that traitor Sir John Savage, and Richard recollected that Sir John's mother was Katherine, the Stanley's sister. The Tudor seemed very confident that family ties would bind the slippery Stanleys, and that seemed ominous. Had they already come to an agreement? Behind the Tudor line there was a small mounted reserve whose duties must have included providing the escort for Henry Tudor. The Tudor army had a good train of artillery. They had brought with them from France some of the excellent French guns, but they had clearly helped themselves to whatever they could find during their march to the battle-field. At least one of their pieces seems to have been a culverin, whose long barrel ensured greater range for its heavier shot, which compensated for its greater size and consequent difficulty in handling. Such a large piece was not normally seen on the battle-field, but some shot weighing 14 lbs have been recovered from the top of Ambion Hill, and probably came from this weapon.
The Tudor army marched boldly on, but had to change direction to the North to avoid the marsh. Richard noted how skilfully this difficult wheeling movement was executed. Then it resumed the axis of its advance upon Ambion Hill. The guns commenced firing, and a brisk counter-battery action started. Soon the armies would be within bow-shot. There were no trumpet calls or any sign of movement in the Stanley ranks which would signify obedience to the King's command. Where was that infernal messenger? What had kept the man so long when minutes, even seconds, counted?
At last the man returned. The story has it that Thomas sent a defiant answer, saying that he had many sons. This does not sound like Thomas, who is far more likely to have taken refuge in something temporising, such as he saw no reason to move since he was admirably poised to attack the Tudor flank. Richard snarled an order that George, Lord Strange should die at once, but the order was never obeyed.
Perhaps the bustle and confusion in receiving an enemy attack was the reason, but some may have sensed a Tudor victory, and it could go ill for him who now put George to death. Whatever the reason, George lived to render the Tudor King many excellent services in the years to come.
Soon both armies were within bow-shot, and the archers began to shoot. On both sides men were falling, pierced by the arrows, but still the Tudor army advanced. Richard may have expected it to halt at the bottom of the Hill, but the trumpets insisted on the advance and it marched boldly up the slope. Now Norfolk's trumpets called the charge, and the men-at-arms of his division swarmed down the slope, shouting their war-cries at the tops of their voices.
Now the Tudor trumpets rang out again, and commands were barked in several languages. Richard saw that a strange thing had happened in the Tudor army, a manoeuvre unique for the time, where the wings withdrew onto the centre so that it now formed one solid body. Historians have suggested that it now formed a triangle with its apex pointed towards the Royal army, but this is scarcely likely; the apex would have formed a point of possibly fatal weakness. It is far more likely to have formed a rectangle, perhaps with a base which was longer than its front. If it was a square, hollow in the middle to allow Oxford or his officers to bring aid to a threatened point, then its resemblance to the British squares at Waterloo is even more marked. This formation would only allow a limited number of soldiers of Norfolk's and the King's divisions to get near it, however numerous they were.
Moreover, the Tudor army was safe from the Royal guns and archers whilst the Royal soldiers were milling about it; they could not shoot without fear of hitting their own men.
Some clue of this manoeuvre is given by Oxford's order that 'no soldier is to go more than 10 paces from his officer's standards' There must be no general melee, the usual result of a medieval battle once it had been joined. Nobody must go in pursuit of a foe. Instead, each man was to keep to his place, and put his trust in his long pike or halberd.
Norfolk's division, with reinforcements sent to it from the King's, was making no impression on the Tudor army, and Norfolk's trumpets now called for withdrawal so that they could re-group before continuing the assault. At this point, Norfolk himself was struck down and killed. His White Lion banner disappeared, but the command of the division would devolve onto the shoulders of his very capable son Thomas, Earl of Surrey. Richard now ordered Northumberland's division, which had so far not been engaged, to join the renewed attack. Northumberland refused, saying that his division was needed where it was, facing the Stanleys and discouraging them from making any adverse move. So far they had attempted none, but had stood stock-still in their places, scarcely moving a muscle.
Northumberland's refusal and his reasons could be said to represent sound military sense, but Richard saw things in a different light. A harsh, bitter sound escaped from his throat, a laugh without merriment and terrible to hear. He had known all along that the Percy intended to betray him, and now he had done so. Percy knew perfectly well that the Royal army had so far failed to break that of the Tudor, and now he refused to fight at all. Meanwhile Henry Tudor's heterogeneous collection of French and Scots mercenaries and his English and Welsh adherents had fought magnificently, keeping faithfully to the formation which had served them so well. Richard saw himself with but few choices left. He must break the Tudor army in the renewed assault, or the battle would certainly be lost. If the assault failed again, the Stanleys and possibly the Percy as well would attack him.
At this critical point, something happened which was almost certainly unique in the history of war. Ever since men had instruments to play and voices to sing, the troubadours and the minstrels had told of the Knight's duty to fight for his King, to rescue the Holy Land from the Infidel, to slay dragons, to rescue damsels in distress and to protect the weak. There was something more within this code of Chivalry, the two leaders deciding the issues at stake by engaging in hand-to-hand and mortal combat with nobody's life at risk but their own. Epic were the encounters so related, and they greatly entertained the company even if it was all folklore, fairy-story, myth and legend which nobody believed had ever happened or ever would, but now....
From his position atop Ambion Hill, Richard had always known where Henry Tudor was to be found; he was among the small Tudor reserve at the bottom of the Hill. It has been said that the distance was too great to make out the banner of the blood-red dragon of Cadwallader, but this is not so; it can clearly be seen in its present position with good eyesight although admittedly the dust of battle no longer hangs in the air. The chivalric idea, born of desperation, now took root in Richard's mind of engaging the Tudor in hand-to-hand conflict with the issue of the battle being decided by success or failure. If he succeeded in killing Henry Tudor, the minstrels would sing for years of a brilliant stroke. If he failed to do so, then he would die in battle facing his enemy. What a fitting end to his destiny. Nobody who called himself a soldier could hope for a better way to die.
Richard felt a hand on his arm. He turned in the saddle to see Catesby. The man's eyes were wild with fear, and the muscles of his face trembled so that the mouth could scarce form the words. Leave the battle-field now, urged Catesby, while there was yet time. The loss of a battle need not be the end of everything, and while life remained, many things could be done. Richard pushed the man away contemptuously, Plantagenet Kings did not flee the battle-field. This was not the Council Chamber where lawyers like Catesby belonged.
This was the field of battle where soldiers, not lawyers and certainly not cowards, do their work. Soldiers knew how to live, to love, to feast and to drink deep, but they also knew how to fight and if necessary how to die.
Now a small party from the Tudor reserve was making its way to the Stanleys, obviously with the intention of bringing them into the battle and finishing off the Royal army. This at all events had to be stopped. Richard, his mind made up, reached out his hand to his squire for the gleaming pole-axe. [battle-axe] Then he turned his horse to face his Household knights, some 80 in all, mounted, armoured and ready for action. These were his friends, his faithful followers, who had sworn to go with him everywhere, even to the gates of Hell itself if he so ordered. There was Sir Robert Brackenbury, Sir Richard Radcyffe, Sir Marmaduke Constable, Francis, Lord Lovell, Sir James Harrington, Sir Thomas Burgh, Sir Ralph Assheton, Sir Thomas Pilkington, Sir Robert Percy, John Sapcote, Humphrey and Thomas Stafford and many others whose names we shall never know. Even his faithful secretary, John Kendall, was among their number even though he was not trained to do knightly deeds. Richard looked them straight in the face, and they gazed levelly back at him. This was not the Court, where the King might only be addressed on bended knee and with the eyes lowered. A soldier has always had the right, the duty even, to look his commander straight in the eye, and even today the soldier is trained to look his officer in the eye when he salutes him. They looked back at their King, their faces grave and composed. He read in their eyes that they knew what he intended to do, that it was desperate, suicidal even, and almost certain to end in their deaths, but they would not flinch or fail him. From earliest youth they had trained for this moment, and now that moment had come.
Richard turned again, waived his pole-axe above his head, and then pointed the weapon to the line of advance. The little troop moved forward to skirt the right, or northern flank, of the Royal army, and then advanced down the hill. The hideous roar of battle had ceased with the lull in the fighting, and there was now almost silence as several thousand pairs of eyes watched King Richard III ride forth to do personal battle with his enemy. Wearing his tabard of the Royal Lions and Lilies, with his golden Coronet about his helm, and with his emblem of the White Boar borne by his squire waving bravely above his head, the last of the Plantagenet Kings, whose dynasty had ruled ever since 1154, rode out on the chivalric venture of which the bards had so often sung, but had never thought would one day become a reality.
Once on the level ground, Richard urged his white courser to a canter. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the serried ranks of Sir William Stanley's men, still mounted and motionless, a bare bow-shot to his right. He ignored them, not caring whether or not they were amazed.
He saw with satisfaction that the Tudor reserve had halted, puzzled at what was happening. Then it turned into line to receive his charge. All watched, hardly daring to breath, as the two troops closed the gap, still at the canter. It was difficult to keep proper dressing during any lengthy period at full gallop, and this was essential if the charge was to have its greatest impact. Besides, it made no sense to begin the fight with blown horses.
Richard now shouted the order to charge and slammed his visor shut. His troop spurred to full gallop. The Tudors did the same, and the crash of the encounter echoed round the battle-field. Out of the narrow slit, the 'sights', Richard could see a huge man riding straight for him. From his size, as big as his brother's had been, Richard knew this was Sir John Cheyney who had dwarfed the puny Richard in those long-ago, happy, days at Court which now seemed like another world. Sir John raised his arm to strike, but the burnished pole-axe swung in a glistening arc, and Sir John felt himself thrown from the saddle by a super-human force, such was the fury of this little man who wore a golden coronet about his helm. Others came at him, anxious to protect the Tudor. Richard's axe swung this way and that as he destroyed his foes, Blows rained on his armour, but he paid them no heed. Now he could see Henry Tudor, only a few paces away, prepared to defend himself as best he knew how against this demon who seemed to have sprung from the earth before him. Henry's standard bearer, Sir William Brandon, threw himself between Richard and Henry. The great axe flashed again, and Sir William was laid dead on the turf. Now his squire was screaming some gibberish at him and pointing behind him, but Richard paid him no attention.
To a nameless Welsh soldier went the credit of knocking Richard off his horse with one mighty blow. Lithe and as nimble as a cat in his armour, Richard sprang to his feet. A squire offered him another horse, but Richard would have none of it. "Treason" he shouted, and again "Treason". They were all about him now, their weapons raised to strike. Another mighty blow threw him to the ground. Again he struggled to rise, but there were too many of them, hacking and hewing at his form, breaking his armour and inflicting many wounds, each of which was mortal.
Panting from their exertions, Richard's enemies drew back into a circle. There, on the turf before them, lay the lifeless body of the last Plantagenet King, and the last of England's Kings to die in battle. Even those who disliked him, and Polydore Vergil was certainly one of them, admitted that King Richard III died a hero's death.
Richard's mad, helter-skelter charge failed in its object for two reasons. Henry Tudor's escort made valiant and determined efforts to protect their leader. Sir William Stanley ordered his own cavalry to charge the rear of Richard's small troop, and it was this to which Richard's squire was vainly trying to draw his attention. Sir William had no patience with his brother's shilly-shallying, which overlooked the fact that he (Sir William) was a proclaimed traitor who would have to explain this away if Richard had lived to win the battle. He saw his chance and he took it.
With the death of their King, the Royal army made no attempt to continue the battle. Most laid down their arms.
Some endeavoured to flee, and the possibility arises that some of the Howard's and King's divisions fled southwards and became entrapped in the marshy ground near Dadlington.
They were pursued by Henry Tudor's men, and were cut down when they turned at bay to fight. [page ] Otherwise the Tudor army made no sustained effort at pursuit. Henry had no quarrel with the rank and file, and was content that they should disperse to their homes in peace. Most did so, and Northumberland's division marched off the field in good order, not having struck a single blow in the battle. The commanders could be dealt with later, if necessary by attainder.
Many of Richard's senior officers hastened to make their submissions to Henry. Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland was one of the first to do so. Henry put him under arrest, to be incarcerated in the Tower when that fortress had been secured. This may have been done at Percy's own request and for his own protection; there were far too many of Richard's supporters in the ranks of his division to risk marching home with them. He only remained in the Tower for a short time until feelings had cooled a little, but the wisdom of this precaution became apparent 4 years later. Then the men of York tore him limb from limb when he told them they must pay the Tudor taxes.
Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey came to make his own submission, and he too was sent to the Tower. He remained there considerably longer, but was eventually released. He rendered the Tudor Kings many sterling services, including the winning of the dazzling victory of the battle of Flodden 1513. This, to an even greater extent than the battle of Homildon Hill 1402, was revenge in kind for the disaster suffered by English arms at the battle of Bannockburn 1314.
Thomas.Lord Stanley was rewarded for his services with the Earldom of Derby. He is said by popular legend to have found Richard's coronet in a thorn bush, no doubt hidden there by a looter, and to have brought it to Henry to be set on his head.
There were no battle-field executions, a welcome departure from contemporary practise, for Henry's purpose was to unite the country and he saw no reason to begin with a blood-bath. There were later exceptions however. Catesby was captured three days later, and before his death he made a will which declaimed his own side in ringing terms. Then he was beheaded in Leicester. Nobody wanted him.
Very few of Richard's House-Hold knights survived his mad charge. Once Sir William Stanley's cavalry charged their rear, they were surrounded and heavily out-numbered. Sir Robert Brackenbury and Sir Richard Radclyffe were killed, the probable fate of most of the rest who spurned any thought of surrender. Some escaped, among them the two Stafford brothers and Francis, Lord Lovell. Lovell made his way to Burgundy where Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, became the focal point of what remained of the Yorkist faction. He returned to England and took part in the battle of Stoke 1497, This too was a Tudor victory, but Lovell escaped again, this time to his mansion at Minster Lovell. He hid in the cellars when the Tudor soldiers came looking for him. They did not attempt to remove him, but simply walled up all the entrances. It was not until some building work in the 19th-century that his remains were found.
The battle of Bosworth was no Towton, or Barnet, or Tewkesbury, even though it was the most decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses. There was some very fierce fighting, but this lasted only for a short time, and the casualties were correspondingly very light. From start to finish, the battle can have lasted for little more than 2 hours. The sun rises in mid-August at about 4.45 G.M.T, and from the fast moving nature of the action, it would be surprising if the initial clash between the Howard division and the Tudor army took place later than 6.0'clock. The fighting was fierce at this point, too fierce to keep up for long, and Norfolk must have given the signal for withdrawal after no more than half-an-hour, This would indicate that Richard's charge would have taken place at about 7.00 o'clock. This would have meant that Henry Tudor was the victor of his first battle about 7.30, or at the very latest 8.00 am.
Sir John Cheyney survived the battle, although he must have been seriously hurt. His tomb may be seen in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral.
Richard's corpse was not treated with honour. Stripped of his armour, it was slung, stark-naked, across the back of a pack-horse and so brought to Leicester. There the head was said to have struck the same stone of the bridge which, only the day before, his spur had grazed as he rode forth from the town. This fulfilled the prophesy of doom which some of the townsfolk had made. For two days his corpse was publicly exhibited so that all might see that he was dead. Then the Carmelite Friars claimed it for burial in a grave which was originally unmarked, although later some pious person provided a headstone. Nobody can say what happened to the grave; it was said to have been desecrated and the bones scattered far and wide. It is equally possible that, below the daily thunder of the traffic of Leicester, lie the mortal remains of the last Plantagenet King.
Richard was scarcely mourned. Only in York, his favourite City, was there any sort of grief. This took the form of a record in the minutes of the City Council dated 23rd August 1485:-
"It was shewed by divesse personnes, and especially by John Sponer, sent unto the feld of Redemore to bring tidinges frome the same to the Citie, that King Richard, late mercifully reigning upon us, was......pitiously slane and murdred, to the grete hevynesse of this Citie."
Richard had never been a sentimental man. Perhaps this was all that he wanted.
|Copyright © Michael D. Miller 2003|