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Decisive Battles of History: Bosworth Field

Political background

After the death of King Henry V, the ascendency of the English in France came to an end, and soon a French counterattack started to take back territories from the English. Henry V was followed on the throne by his young son Henry VI. Having a child on the throne was bad enough in an era where the personal qualities of the ruler made a huge difference, but in some cases, the children grew up to become a capable men.

A capable and effective ruler was something that Henry VI never became. Under his reign, England lost nearly all her lands in France and the English defeat in the Hundred Year’s War was followed shortly by a civil war in England itself, the famous War of the Roses.

Henry’s cousin Richard of York tried to make himself the power behind the throne and force Henry to name his line the successors of Henry. Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, was having none of the antics of Richard of York, and the civil war broke out between the two.

In the initial years of the conflict, the line of Henry, the Lancastrians, had the better of the Yorkists, and even Richard of York and his eldest son were killed in late 1460. The Yorkist cause was taken up by Richard’s son Edward and his cousin Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. The Yorkists decisively defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in early 1461. Such were the losses suffered by the Lancastrians that their cause seemed defeated, and Edward dethroned Henry VI to became the King of England as Edward IV.

For years England was at peace once again, but Edward fell out with the Earl of Warwick, who turned on him and forced him to flee the country in late 1470. Warwick restored Henry VI to the throne, but in reality, the old king was nothing more than a tool in the hands of Warwick and Henry’s ambitious wife Margaret of Anjou.

Edward bided his time for the moment, but he received assistance from the wealthy Burgundians and plotted his return to England. He deemed the moment was ripe for his return by spring 1471. Warwick and Edward’s younger brother George, the Duke of Clarance, were facing the same old problems that plagued the rule of Henry VI. Henry was incapable of ruling himself, which left the nobles squabbling for power.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Richard III was the last Plantegenet ruler of England.
    • True
    • False

Answer Key

  1. True

Edward landed in March and soon captured Henry when he entered London. He was faced by two Lancastrian armies, one under the command of Warwick and one army that sailed from France under the nominal command of Margaret and her son, the heir of Henry VI.

Edward IV moved quickly and defeated Warwick on the same day when Margaret’s army landed. Warwick was killed at the Battle of Barnet and his army was scattered, which left the Lancastrian cause in the hands of Margaret’s army. Upon receiving news of Warwick's defeats, Margaret initially wanted to return to France, but she changed he mind, and his army faced Edward at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Edward was victorious again, and the Lancastrians were defeated. Margaret was captured, his son killed and most of the leading pro-Lancastrian nobles killed or executed.

Henry VI was found dead not much later also, most probably killed on the orders of Edward IV. With the death of Henry and his son, the next strongest Lancastrian claim was Henry Tudor’s, a mere boy at the time who was safeguarded out of England by the Lancastrian supporters. For the next decade he was a half hostage, half guest of the Duke of Brittany, who used him as a bargaining chip with England and France.

Although Henry Tudor escaped, with the defeat of their armies and the death of so many of the Lancastrian nobles, the Lancastrian cause looked beaten for the time. The Yorkist grip on power looked rock solid. Edward was still a young man, he was a tested and proven general, he had a son and two brothers George( who defected back to Edward before the Battle of Barnet) and Richard, soon he had another son.

Once again, peace was brought back to England, but the regime was somewhat undermined by the squabbling of George and Richard for the inheritance of Warwick( the two of them married the two daughters of Warwick). George was suspected of plotting against Edward and executed in 1478. Edward also turned to a very unhealthy lifestyle after his victories in 1471 and became inactive and overweight. His health started to deteriorate eventually and he died in 1483, aged only 41.

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 Portrait of Richard III of England

Portrait of Richard III of England

The Ascension of Richard III

When Edward IV died, his son and heir, Prince Edward, was only a boy aged 12. Edward named his brother Richard as the regent of his son, but soon after Edward’s death Richard and the widow of Edward, Elizabeth Woodville, were at each other’s throats. It is difficult to know what happened. Richard’s version of the story would have us believe that the dowager queen was trying to impede him from assuming his role as Lord Protector of the Realm, and he only defended himself by arresting and executing the supporters of Elizabeth. The other side of the story claims that Richard’s ambition drove him to take the throne from the legitimate heir, the son of his brother, and he cut himself a bloody path to the throne.

Whatever the truth is, the boy Edward V was never crowned the King of England, and Richard took the throne for himself. His claim to the throne was based on information supplied to him by Bishop Robert Stillington. The marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was invalid, as Edward was already married at the time. Thus the offspring that came from the marriage was illegitimate and in no position to inherit the throne of England. Richard accepted the crown on June 26 and was crowned on July 6, 1483.

Richard had the sons of Edward locked up in the Tower of London, which at the time was not a prison but a Royal residence. The boys eventually disappeared and nobody saw them after the summer of 1483. The truth about the fate of the princes is still a mystery, and many theories have emerged since then.

The Road to Bosworth Field

Disaffected nobles, the mother of Henry Tudor, Margaret Beaufort and dowager queen Elizabeth Woodville conspired against Richard in late 1483. The former ally of Richard, the Duke of Buckingham, raised a rebellion, and another army from Brittany led by Jasper Tudor and Henry Tudor was planned to join them and march against Richard III. Storms and bad weather forced the Tudors to remain on the Continent and Richard easily crushed the rebellion of Buckingham, who was captured and executed.

With Buckingham crushed, Richard won himself a temporary respite. He offered military aid to Britanny in exchange for Henry Tudor, but Tudor escaped to France before he was captured. Henry later publicly promised to marry Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, to unite the houses of Lancaster and York. With King Louis XI of France dead, his young son, Charles, took the throne and the regents of Charles offered to support the Tudor claim. Henry recruited troops in France and sailed for England in the summer of 1485.

He landed in Wales and was joined by some lords, but his numbers were not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination and his army only numbered around 5,000-8,000 men at its peak. Richard soon received news of Henry’s landing and marched to face the pretender. He picked up men along the route, and by the time the two armies came into contact, Richard probably outnumbered Henry between 1,5-1 and 2-1. In a straight fight, he looked like the favourite to win, but there was a wild card in the struggle for the English throne.

A third army also arrived close to the other two under the command of Lord Thomas Stanley and his brother William Stanley. Thomas Stanley became famous for picking different sides during the previous periods of the Wars of the Roses, and nobody really knew whom would Stanley join in this fight. Richard believed he had Thomas Stanley in check by holding his son hostage, however, as Stanley was also the husband of Margaret Beaufort and thus the stepfather of Henry Tudor, his allegiance to Richard was dubious at best.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Richard III was the last King of England who was killed in battle
    • False
    • True

Answer Key

  1. True

The battle was fought on August 22, 1485. Richard divided his army into three parts, his wings were commanded by the Dukes of Norfolk and Northumberland, while he took command in the centre. The Tudor forces remained relatively compact and attacked the wing of Norfolk. As they started to push back the Yorkists, Richard ordered his other flank to assist, but his order was refused either because of treachery or by the fear of his allies that Stanley would take them from behind and their flanks. Other historians argue that the battleground would have made the manouvre difficult and the troops of the era were not capable of such moves.

The King then decided to gamble the battle on a decisive cavalry charge. Led by Richard in person, around a 1000 knights charged the positions of Henry Tudor and pushed the Tudors back. Lord Stanley finally showed his true allegiance and attacked Richard. The knights of the king were soon overwhelmed, and Richard was killed in the fighting.

Upon hearing of the king’s death, the Yorkist force disintegrated and the battle soon ended. Henry Tudor emerged victoriously and took the throne as King Henry VII. His Tudor dynasty remained the ruling dynasty of England in 1603 when Queen Elizabeth died and was succeeded by James Stuart.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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