I think it’s fair to say that, with the probable exceptions of Hastings and Culloden, Bosworth is the best-known battle to have taken place on British soil. While it wasn’t actually the last battle of the Wars of the Roses – that took place two years later near Newark – its effects were significant and long lasting. For Bosworth saw the defeat by a rebel army of a royal force nearly twice its size, leaving Richard III dead on the field and establishing Henry Tudor as king and founder of a new dynasty.
It’s also a particularly controversial affair. Was Richard, the loser, a murderous tyrant and certainly not the sort of man you’d want for an uncle, or has his reputation been unfairly besmirched by the likes of Shakespeare? Was the battle won by treachery or was there a bit more to it than that? And, perhaps most controversial of all, where did the battle actually take place?
Over the years a number of historians have weighed in with their theories about the site of the battle with the result that anyone hoping to stand on the spot where the dramatic events of 22 August 1485 actually unfolded has been faced with a bewildering number of choices of where to go.
However, once a bit of work was done on reconstructing what the landscape was like at the time of the battle it soon became clear that the ‘traditional’ location of the battle, ie on and around Ambion Hill, was almost certainly incorrect. Not good news for Leicestershire County Council who had developed an award-winning visitor centre near to that site. To the Council’s credit they have made no attempt to sweep this rather inconvenient historic fact under the carpet. Instead they have sought to establish once and for all where the battle was fought by commissioning the Battlefields Trust to carry out a thorough historical, topographical and archaeological investigation of the area.
The results of this research are due to be made public early next year but, having just spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend there, I’m confident that wherever it turns out that the battle took place, the Bosworth Battlefield Visitor Centre will continue to thrive, not only because its displays are engaging and thought provoking but also because it puts on some really good special events.
Indeed, it was a special event that brought me there last weekend. It was the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth and I had come along to help spread the word about the Battlefields Trust and its work from a rather splendid tent that the Centre staff had kindly lent us after our own marquee had rather embarrassingly disappeared into the next county at the first gust of wind.
Over five hundred re-enactors from the Wars of the Roses Federation had been assembled, not only to recreate the events of the Battle of Bosworth but also to provide an insight into everyday life in the late Middle Ages. And they did it very well. Visitors could wander through a medieval encampment where cooks, craftsmen and armourers were hard at work or watch displays of falconry, archery, gunnery and jousting. Those with a groat or two to spare could purchase a wide variety of items from traders in medieval-style tents. The goods on show ranged from pewter pilgrims’ badges to polearms and for some reason I found myself unable to resist the temptations of a seven-foot long bill. This was the weapon that was used to great effect against the Scots at Flodden although the question of what I’m actually going to do with one in Godalming has yet to be answered.
I once heard it said that Richard III is the only English king with his own fan club and the first tent that you came to as you entered the site was that of the Richard III Society, an interesting organisation which manages to combine some first-rate original research on a variety of medieval subjects with what I have always considered a slightly eccentric desire to ‘restore the reputation’ of this long dead monarch.
Not that his reputation seemed to need much restoration at Bosworth. Many of the spectators sported Richard III badges and I was later told that the re-enactor rather reluctantly portraying one of the Tudor leaders had Richard III’s symbol, a white boar, tattooed on his chest. And, when it came to the re-enactment, there was no doubt where the crowd’s sympathies lay as the Tudor forces took to the field under a barrage of boos. It was certainly not the place to go quoting Shakespeare! Battle was joined and the two sides duly set about each other with bills, halberds and poleaxes.
History required that despite having the crowd on their side the Yorkists were doomed to defeat and after some hard fighting Norfolk was cut down, Richard charged to his death and the Stanleys made their decisive intervention on the side of the Tudors. It had been quite an impressive affair and the kit worn by the participants was of a universally high standard but one comment I did hear from a number of the spectators was the fact that nobody seemed to ‘die’ until the battle was almost over!
I suppose that given that the participants were amateurs doing this for a hobby and not paid performers, this was inevitable – people hadn’t spent hundreds of pounds on kit and driven miles just to play dead after five minutes – but I can’t help feeling that a few corpses wouldn’t have gone amiss. Perhaps in future the organisers could offer free admission to a few members of the public who were prepared to don some basic kit and lie down for half an hour but I presume that with all those vicious weapons and trampling feet there’s bound to some kind of health and safety consideration. Health and Safety on the Battlefield – now there’s a thought!
Read more on Richard III and Bosworth in David Hipshon’s assessment of the real reason he might have lost the battle here.