How re-enactments could one day help us understand the final moments of Richard III

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With the anniversary of the battle of Bosworth rapidly approaching, the re-enactment celebrations at the Battlefield Heritage Centre on the weekend of 17 August will likely be as well attended as ever.

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The sight of men-at-arms, their plate armour glinting in the summer sun, the flurry of arrows, the pounding hooves of mounted charges, mixed with the deafening blasts of mock cannon fire proves an enticing allure for many families on a day out, while proving an opportunity also to wander the acres of tents set up by re-enactors, displaying every feature of medieval life.

It seems that re-enacting key moments of battles is proving ever popular. Already, touring the history festivals to speak on my new book, Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors, at Kelmarsh and Chalke Valley History Festival, mock battle scenes have proved the highlight of events for spectators eager to glimpse what might have really happened during the fateful turning point of a battle.

But this raises the question of how much we can ever know about a battle fought over 500 years ago, and whether re-enactments themselves can ever comprehensively illustrate ‘what happened’. Bosworth is a classic example: one of the most important clashes of the 15th century, for decades, re-enactors fought their battles under the illusion that Richard III’s final charge had taken place at nearby Ambion Hill.

Thanks to the researches of Peter Foss and Glenn Foard, we now know this not to be the case. The problem with Bosworth lies in the relatively little documentation of the events of the battle itself: even Henry VII’s biographer/hagiographer Bernard Andre preferred to leave a blank page when it came to describing the battle.

What we can surmise is the vast sizes of the armies that drew up to fight on that fateful day: Richard III commanded between 10,000-15,000 men, Henry Tudor’s forces, led by the earl of Oxford, comprised around 5,000 men, while the Stanleys commanded around 6,000 men between them. Compare this to any battle re-enactment, fought by, at most, around 100-200 re-enactors.

In contrast to re-enactments, taking place in a cordoned off field, it is had to comprehend that Richard’s forces, spaced out at around ten feet between each soldier, would have comprised a battle line that stretched for several miles, and was around a mile deep. Unless one day we are able to stage a full scale demonstration of the battle, re-enactments, while vivid and impressive, must be seen as only a microcosm of what really went on that day.

Then there is the question of re-enacting what really took place: for instance, Oxford’s decision to withdraw his forces, forming a wedge like formation in order to break the ranks of Richard’s vanguard, at the same time as moving to the right of Richard’s flank, in order to get the sun and the wind behind him.

This complicated manoeuvre, described in detail by Polydore Vergil, was arguably the decisive moment during the battle, but it seems to have come off the page of Christine de Pisan’s Le Livre des faits d’Armes. She herself took the strategy from the Roman military textbook De Re Militari by Vegetius.

So, a prisoner to the surviving sources, is the battle of Bosworth as we know it actually in part an imagined battle?

Like Bernard Andre, we should show caution when asserting exactly what happened, whether we be historians or re-enactors. Yet one way to reveal if Oxford was able to get the sun and wind behind him (when we know that initially Richard’s forces had taken that position early in the morning) would be to re-enact the battle at the exact day and time that it was fought.

That would actually be 31 August due to the change between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. As the morning sun rose on that day and began to make its arc across the sky, could Oxford really have taken advantage of the changing position of the sun?

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Perhaps this is a fanciful desire, but I only hope that re-enactments can grow in popularity until the day that we might be able to stage a full-scale re-enactment of Bosworth, perhaps testing out every theory, in as realistic a manner possible. But let us never forget that battles are far more complicated than they appear.