For many, 22 August 1485 remains one of the key dates in British history. Yet what exactly took place in the early hours of the morning (the battle was over by noon) still remains tantalisingly elusive. So, what are the facts?
Many myths surrounding Bosworth remain prevalent – stirred by the imaginings of Shakespeare, whose famous words, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”, placed in the mouth of the defeated Richard III, are occasionally still recounted as part of the narrative description. Despite decades of research into what exactly happened at Bosworth, and where exactly the battle was fought, it seems truth remains inconvenient when it comes to telling a good story.
That shouldn’t stop anyone knowing the basic facts of one of the most famous battles in English history, however. So for anyone interested in knowing as far as possible ‘what happened’, here are 10 key things to bear in mind…
The battle of Bosworth wasn’t actually fought at Bosworth
It only became known as the battle of Bosworth from around 25 years after it was fought. Instead, contemporaries knew it as the battle of ‘Redemore’, meaning place of reeds. Other names for the battle included ‘Brownheath’ and ‘Sandeford’.
The site of where the conflict took place has now been located two miles from the battlefield centre, close to the villages of Dadlington and Stoke Golding. The landscape would have been a marshy plainland (later to be drained), across which ran a Roman road.
It is hard to imagine the scale of battle
Richard III’s army, at around 15,000 men, was approximately three times the size of Henry Tudor’s army at just 5,000 men. Meanwhile the Stanley brothers (Henry Tudor’s step-father, Thomas Lord Stanley, and Sir William Stanley) had around 6,000 men between them. These numbers meant that the battle site would have had to stretch across several miles.
At the same time, Richard had an impressive military arsenal
One account mentions 140 cannon, while the archaeological searches of the battlefield have found more than 30 cannonshot – more than any other discovered on a European medieval battlefield.
A portrait of Richard III. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Henry Tudor had landed in Wales on 7 August, and had marched more than 200 miles into England
Richard III had been ‘overjoyed’ to hear of his landing, confident that he would defeat the ‘rebel’. So confident was the king that he even delayed leaving his base at Nottingham by a day in order to celebrate a feast day.
A novice when it came to battles, Henry Tudor remained stationed at the back of the field, while his forces were led by the Lancastrian general, John de Vere, the earl of Oxford, who also led Henry’s vanguard
In between the two forces was a marsh, which Oxford managed to navigate around, keeping the marsh on his right, before launching an attack against Richard III’s vanguard, led by the aged John, duke of Norfolk.
It was Oxford’s crushing of Richard’s vanguard that began to turn the battle for Henry: Richard’s troops began to desert him
In particular, his ‘rear guard’ – 7,000 men led by Henry Percy, the earl of Northumberland – stood still, and ‘no blows were given or received’, suggesting that Northumberland’s men were kept out of the action. Perhaps they were unable to cross the marsh.
Alternatively, tales of Northumberland’s treachery were rife. Later he was killed by his own supporters for ‘disappointing’ Richard. Whatever the cause, the fact that the rear half of Richard’s army did not engage in battle left the king in real trouble.
On this podcast, historian and politician Chris Skidmore offers his take on pivotal moments such as Richard’s seizing of the throne, his death at Bosworth and the disappearance of the princes in the tower:
Richard was offered a horse to flee the battle, but refused
“God forbid I yield one step”, he is reported to have said. “This day I will die as a king or win”. Richard spotted Henry Tudor’s standards and decided to charge towards him with his mounted cavalry, perhaps some 200 men in total, wearing the crown over his helmet.
The battle around the standards was brutal
All accounts attest to Richard’s strength in battle. Even John Rous, who compared Richard to the Antichrist, admitted “if I may say the truth to his credit, though small in body and feeble of limb, he bore himself like a gallant knight and acted with distinction as his own champion until his last breath”.
Richard knocked down Sir John Cheyney, who at six foot eight inches was the tallest soldier of his day, while Henry’s standard-bearer Sir William Brandon was killed. Richard’s own standard-bearer, Sir Percival Thribald, has both his legs cut from underneath him, but still managed to cling to the king’s standard.
It was only when Henry was in ‘immediate danger’ that the Stanleys – or rather Sir William Stanley – came to his aid, crashing into the side of Richard’s men and sweeping them into the marsh
Sir William had nothing to lose if Richard had won – he had already been declared a traitor days previously. His wily elder brother, Thomas Lord Stanley, despite being married to Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, seems to have thought best to stay out of the battle altogether. When Henry was crowned on a nearby hill, one source reported that it was Sir William Stanley, rather than his brother, who placed the crown on Henry’s head.
Listen to historian Nicola Tallis exploring the life of Tudor matriarch Margaret Beaufort, in this lecture recorded at BBC History Magazine’s 2019 History Weekend
One report puts his death down to a Welsh halberdier – the halberd being an axe-like weapon on the end of a six-foot long pole. The king’s helmet seems to have been cut away (there are cut marks on the skull’s jaw suggesting that the helmet’s strap has been cut off) to expose his head.
Several gouge marks in the front of the skull seem to have been caused by a dagger, perhaps in a struggle. Then the two wounds that would have killed Richard include the back part of his skull being sheathed off by what seems to be a halberd; if this did not kill him, a sword blade thrust from the base of the skull straight through the brain certainly would have done the job.
On this podcast, following the momentous announcement in 2013 that the body found in a Leicestershire car park was indeed Richard III, we spoke to Leicester archaeologist Lin Foxhall and Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, to get an inside view on the developments:
Richard was then placed on the back of a horse, trussed up like a hog (his insignia) with his ‘privy parts’ exposed, to be taken to Leicester, where his body was put on public display.
In conclusion, Bosworth remains a battle with an enduring appeal: it is not simply a tale of defeat and victory, but also of treachery and intrigue. But as recent discoveries have shown, the battle’s own history remains very much a living one, with our understanding of where the battle was fought and how exactly Richard III died being completely transformed in recent years. The story of Bosworth, 529 years on, remains very much alive.
Chris Skidmore is the author of Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2013)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in August 2014