The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles between the competing houses of York and Lancaster for the English crown. Each side laid claim to the throne of England as descendants of King Edward III. The Battle of Bosworth Field was one of the last battles of these wars. It ended with the death of King Richard III, the last Plantagenet king and began the Tudor Dynasty under Henry VII.
The Main Players
King Richard III
The Yorkist King Edward IV had died in April 1483. His twelve year old son Edward was heir to the throne, but he was not yet old enough to rule.
There had been discontent amongst the nobility during Edward IV’s reign over the rapid rise to power of the Queen’s family, the Woodvilles. While Richard, Duke of Gloucester was still away in the north of England, the council decided that Edward, Prince of Wales should be crowned king as soon as possible and planned the event for 4 May. They also decided that his uncle Richard should not be his sole Protector, as Edward IV seems to have instructed, but would instead be the ‘chief’ member of a governing council.
The Queen’s brother Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers oversaw Edward’s upbringing at Ludlow. They and the rest of Edward’s household left Ludlow to travel to London for the coronation. With them was an escort of 2000 men, a number which the Queen and council had agreed on.
Richard and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham met with Edward at Stony Stratford. Richard had several members of Edward’s household arrested. The remainder were ordered to leave. Earl Rivers and Sir Richard Grey, half-brother to Edward, were sent to Pontefract castle where they were later executed. The Dukes informed Prince Edward that these men were traitors who were trying to prevent Richard from becoming Protector.
Richard, the Duke of Buckingham and Prince Edward arrived in London at the beginning of May. At a meeting of the council, a new coronation date was set for 22 June and Richard was officially appointed Lord Protector of England.
Queen Elizabeth Woodville had already gone into sanctuary with her children in Westminster Abbey, seemingly taking a large sum of the late king’s treasury with her. Sir Edward Woodville, the Queen’s brother was anchored off the Kent coast with a fleet of ships. Richard offered them all pardons, which some accepted. Sir Edward fled to Brittany with a large sum of money, where he joined Henry Tudor.
Richard rewarded several of his loyal supporters, granting them positions at court. The Duke of Buckingham received substantial awards including being made Constable and Steward of all lordships and castles in Wales and The Marches.
On 13 June Richard declared that he had uncovered a plot against him. William, Lord Hastings was accused of plotting with the Queen and summarily executed. Other members of the council were arrested.
On the 16 June Queen Elizabeth released her son Prince Richard from sanctuary. He went to the Tower of London to join his brother Edward, which at this time was also a royal palace. The coronation was postponed again until 9 November.
The Duke of Buckingham addressed the leading city authorities informing them that Richard was the rightful king and not Edward on the grounds of Edward’s illegitimacy. The marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was said to be invalid and their children illegitimate as Edward IV had been pre-contracted to another woman, Lady Eleanor Butler.
Richard accepted the crown of England and was proclaimed king at a ceremony in Westminster Hall on June 26. His coronation was held on the 6 July 1483, where his wife Anne Neville was also crowned as Queen of England.
Henry Tudor was born at Pembroke Castle on 28 January 1457. His mother Lady Margaret Beaufort was only 13 years old and already a widow. Henry’s father Edmund Tudor had died, probably of the plague, at Carmarthen Castle in November 1456. Margaret and Henry were under the care of Jasper Tudor, Henry’s uncle and a loyal Lancastrian supporter. Jasper and Edmund Tudor were half-brothers to the Lancastrian King Henry VI.
Jasper was forced to flee into exile in 1461. King Edward IV placed Henry in the custody of the Yorkist Sir William, Lord Herbert. Henry spent most of his childhood at Raglan Castle and seems to have been well looked after. Henry as Earl of Richmond, a title he inherited from his father, was a valuable asset. Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort had married Sir Henry Stafford and remained in contact with her son.
On the 26 July 1469 Lord Herbert was captured at the Battle of Edgecote and executed the following day. Also at the battle was twelve year old Henry Tudor. Henry went to live with Lord Ferrers, the brother-in-law of Sir William, at Weobley in Herefordshire.
In 1470 the Lancastrian King Henry VI was restored to the throne. Jasper Tudor returned from exile and took Henry back to live in Wales.
After the defeat of the Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471, Edward IV took back the throne. Jasper and his nephew Henry Tudor fled into exile, landing in the Duchy of Brittany.
Henry and Jasper Tudor remained in Brittany held in separate locations by Duke Francis II, but they were not badly treated. In 1483 Margaret Beaufort sent word that Henry should return to England to claim the throne. Assisted by Duke Francis, Henry raised an army and assembled a fleet of ships.
The Battle of Bosworth Field – 22nd August 1485
The Rebellion Begins
Henry was now seen as the Lancastrian heir to the throne, although his claim was weak. Margaret Beaufort was a descendant of John of Gaunt and his mistress, later his third wife, Katherine Swynford. Although Margaret’s line had been legitimised by an Act of Parliament, they were still barred from the line of succession.
Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville made an agreement that Henry Tudor would marry Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, once he had the throne of England.
The Princes in the Tower, Edward and Richard, had not been seen for some time and rumours were circulating that they had been murdered. There was also discontent over the way King Richard had claimed the crown of England.
The Duke of Buckingham, one of King Richard’s most trusted allies, was a leading conspirator in the rebellion, which was planned for the 18 October 1483.
The rebels in Kent had risen up a few days before the 18 October giving the rebellion away. King Richard who had been warmly received on his northern progress was informed of the uprising while at Lincoln on the 11 October. He swiftly summoned his army and ordered his supporters to crush the rebellion.
On the 18 October the planned uprisings broke out across the southern counties. The Duke of Buckingham led a revolt in Brecon, but it failed, due to bad weather and a lack of real support. He fled disguised as a labourer to a cottage in Wem, Shropshire where he was soon caught and taken to Salisbury. Buckingham was executed in the market place on November 2. King Richard had been deeply shocked by Buckingham’s move against him.
Henry’s fleet had run into a fierce gale in the Channel, and only two ships made it to the English coast. With King Richard and his army nearby, Henry returned to Brittany.
The rebellion had failed. Many of its supporters were executed, including Sir Thomas St Leger, the husband of King Richard’s sister Anne. Others managed to flee to Brittany to join Henry Tudor. On Christmas Day 1483 in Rennes Cathedral, Henry Tudor made a pledge before his supporters in exile that he would marry Elizabeth of York. In return they promised to support Henry in his claim to the throne.
Richard passed attainders against those who had taken part in the uprisings, confiscating their properties. These Richard gave to his loyal, mainly northern supporters. This caused resentment amongst the gentry in the south who did not want to be ruled by northerners.
Richard tried to negotiate the return of Henry Tudor from Brittany. In September 1484 Henry narrowly avoided capture and escaped to France. Duke Francis, who had been ill at the time and unaware of the agreement to send Henry back to England, allowed Henry’s supporters to leave Brittany and join him in France.
The Deciding Battle of Bosworth Field
Aided by the French King Charles VIII, Henry had raised an army and assembled a fleet of about twenty to thirty ships. They left Harfleur on 1 August 1485 and arrived at Milford Haven on 7 August. Henry Tudor and his men marched through Wales and crossed into England at Shrewsbury gathering support as they went.
King Richard had been expecting Henry Tudor to make another attempt on his throne since the failed uprising of 1483 and had taken steps to ensure that his army would be ready to assemble at short notice. Upon news of Henry’s landing King Richard sent letters to his supporters and to the commissioners of array ordering them to muster their forces.
Henry Tudor’s army marched towards the royal forces. As soon as they were in range of each other, probably by about 9am, the archers on both sides began to fire. King Richard also ordered his artillery to fire. Recent archaeological finds suggest that Henry Tudor may have had guns as well.
Oxford ordered his men to close ranks and go no further than ten feet from the standards. He formed his men up into a wedge and launched an attack on Richard’s right flank.
At some point the Duke of Norfolk was killed and the royal army’s vanguard began to give way. The Earl of Northumberland remained in position on the left wing, his forces not engaged in the battle.
King Richard led a cavalry charge against Henry Tudor and his small force at the rear of the vanguard. The fighting must have come quite close to Henry as Sir William Brandon, Henry’s standard bearer was struck down, possibly by Richard himself. At this point Sir William Stanley joined the battle on the side of Henry Tudor.
King Richard’s supporters had urged him to flee. Several accounts tell that Richard chose to stay and fight, “this day I will die as a King or win.” Even sources hostile to Richard describe how bravely he fought to the end. King Richard was unseated from his horse and died from blows to his head.
With King Richard’s death the royal army soon collapsed. Many threw down their arms and surrendered, others turned and fled. The battle had lasted about 2 hours. One source, Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia, puts casualties at 1,000 of King Richard’s men and 100 of Henry Tudor’s men.
Tradition has it that Lord Stanley took Richard’s crown and placed it on Henry’s head after the battle.
Richard’s body was stripped and slung over the back of a horse. His body was placed on display in Leicester, so that people would be certain Richard was dead, before being buried in Greyfriars. In 2013 it was confirmed that remains discovered buried under a car park in Leicester were those of King Richard III. In March 2015 he was re-buried in Leicester Cathedral.
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