This article was first published in the March 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
Bosworth is among the most famous lost battlefields in the world. Or at least it was. Centuries of speculation, uncertainty and debate over the exact spot where Henry Tudor clashed with Richard III on 22 August 1485 were finally laid to rest in March 2009 when a team of archaeologists discovered the true site of the Wars of the Roses battle – in a location never before suggested. Here, Glenn Foard, the man who directed the Battlefields Trust project, gives us the background to a discovery that was to turn into one of the historical news stories of 2009…
To pinpoint the exact site of one of the most significant clashes in British history is undoubtedly a hugely satisfying achievement. Yet those who hoped that the Battlefield Trust’s three-year search for Bosworth’s battlefield would lead its team of archaeologists to a vast treasure trove of battle-related finds were to be disappointed. Unlike Towton (another Wars of the Roses clash and the only other intensively surveyed medieval battlefield), Bosworth has so far steadfastly refused to give up large numbers of artefacts – and those that we have discovered have each taken dozens of hours to find.
Yet that’s not to say that the objects we have found haven’t proved fascinating and significant. On the contrary – and as the following examples prove – they have the potential to answer questions about the battle that have been puzzling historians for centuries.
A vital clue as to where the king fell
A silver-gilt livery badge depicting a boar
This badge, depicting a boar, may provide a clue as to the exact spot where Richard III died. It was recovered from the edge of the former marsh called Fen Hole, within 400 metres of where the Fen Lane forded a small stream.
Facing defeat at the end of the battle, Richard made one last charge at the head of a small body of knights, in an attempt to kill Henry Tudor. He was almost successful but at the last moment Richard was driven back by William Stanley’s men and then cut down as his horse became stuck in a mire, at a place reported as ‘Sandeford’.
A boar was the king’s personal device, and the badge is similar to one in the British Museum identified to Richard. As it is silver gilt, it was almost certainly worn by a knight of Richard’s retinue. Such a knight surely rode in Richard’s last charge and perhaps fell close to where the king died?
Evidence of Burgundian troops fighting for Richard?
A silver coin of Charles the Bold of Burgundy (1467–77)
This double patard of Charles the Bold – found near the Fen Lane ford, in the heart of the battlefield – was almost certainly lost during the action. Because Burgundian coins were legal tender in England it does not prove that soldiers from the Duchy of Burgundy (eastern France) fought in the battle, but such coins are relatively rare. We have recovered two others in the survey – both from Ambion Hill, which may have been Richard’s camp the night before the action. The Burgundians were in alliance with the Yorkist kings and provided military support to previous campaigns. It seems that this support may have extended to Bosworth.
Vestiges of a duke’s last stand?
A badge lost close to where the Duke of Norfolk was killed
This silver gilt badge of a bird will have been worn by a knight in the retinue of one of the nobility who fought for Richard. The badge was found close to the site of Dadlington windmill – first identified by the Bosworth historian Peter Foss in the 1980s.
According to an early ballad, the Duke of Norfolk, commander of the vanguard of Richard’s army, was killed beside a windmill during the rout at the end of the battle. It may be, then, that the original owner of this badge and his lord were engaged in that last stand beside the windmill where the Duke of Norfolk was slain.
Bosworth and its legacy
► What happened at Bosworth?
The battle was fought between the Yorkist king Richard III and Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian pretender to the throne who was crowned Henry VII on the field. It was the decisive battle that brought to an end the dynastic struggle we now know as the Wars of the Roses (1453–1487), though Henry did have to defend his crown at the battle of Stoke Field in 1487.
► Why was the location of the battle contentious?
The true site of the battle was common knowledge until the mid-17th century, before being lost to history. By 1777, the battle was believed to have been fought on Ambion Hill, two miles south of Market Bosworth. Then, in 1985, Colin Richmond suggested that this site was not compatible with the original evidence for the battle, proposing an alternative a mile to the south in Dadlington, a theory developed by Peter Foss. This led to a sometimes vociferous dispute between historians as to the true site, compounded in 2002 when Michael Jones suggested another location, nearly five miles away, near Atherstone.
► Where does the new survey place the battle?
The archaeological study – which was undertaken by the Battlefields Trust with £150,000 funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Leicestershire County Council – proves that the armies actually clashed nearly two miles south-west of Ambion Hill, and more than half a mile west of the site suggested by Foss. However, it seems the rout did extend into the latter area.
► What does the survey mean for the Bosworth Heritage Centre?
Leicestershire County Council initially commissioned the survey to ensure the accuracy of the story presented in their revamped visitor centre on Ambion Hill.
Much has since been made of the fact that the centre is not located at the site of the battle, but interpretation centres should not be placed at the heart of battlefields, or they may damage the very sites they are intended to explain. The one at Culloden has been moved recently for this very reason.
Redeveloped facilities at Bosworth will give the updated story and provide a gateway to the battlefield, with a trail and view from the Heritage Centre and interpretation on the battlefield itself.
► What does the survey mean for battlefields in general?
In 1995, English Heritage established a Battlefields Register, the first of its kind in Europe. While this assists local authorities in using planning law to protect sites from development, it provides no statutory protection. As a result, the very type of evidence that allowed the Bosworth battlefield to be located and understood – evidence that simply must be recovered and studied archaeologically if it is to yield its story – continues to be destroyed on battlefields across the country, often quite innocently, by treasure hunters.
This is the case at sites such as Towton and Marston Moor, where the archaeology has been decimated. Bosworth itself has only escaped damage because, until now, its location has remained unknown.
In 2003, the government accepted the need to control metal detecting on nationally important battlefields yet still nothing has been done. In the meantime, English Heritage are working with Leicestershire County Council and landowners at Bosworth to safeguard the site, while elsewhere they are funding work by the Battlefields Trust to promote conservation on other battlefields.
But what is urgently needed is statutory protection. Battlefields like Naseby, Flodden and Hastings are of the highest importance with a fascinating story to tell. They are equally deserving of protection as the more traditional archaeological sites such as Stonehenge and Maiden Castle.