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Interpreting the Battle of Bosworth Field


The Battle of Bosworth was a defining moment in English history, as the Houses of Lancaster and York clashed in the penultimate battle of the Wars of the Roses. The death of King Richard III and the crowning of Henry Tudor as King of England marked the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the beginning of the Tudor reign.

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Richard III, Act V, Scene vii

These are the famous last words of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, at least according to William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s version of events and the image that the last Plantagenet king of England was a misshapen antichrist have always clouded the truth of Richard III’s life. Since then, there have been many tomes written by both the supporters and detractors of Richard III; of the mysterious death of the Princes in the Tower, and the usurpation of the throne itself. Indeed, scholars and historians will no doubt continue to debate Richard’s character and life for many years to come.

The Battle of Bosworth (or Redemoor) was fought on 22 August 1485 and was the penultimate battle of the Wars of the Roses, a series of dynastic civil wars fought for the throne of England. It is often regarded as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the renaissance, although in reality the change was much more gradual. Nevertheless, it does mark the beginning of the reign of the Tudors, with Henry VII taking the throne at the end of this fateful day, before his son Henry VIII and his granddaughter Elizabeth I would go on to lead the country to previously unknown greatness.

Considering its importance, very little was written about the battle either at the time or during Henry’s reign. Not only that, but most accounts were written by people with either little or no concern for military tactics, making any reconstruction of the battle difficult. It would be another 160 years and another important battle in English history, Naseby, before the tactics and dispositions of the troops would be recorded in any detail. It is also an old adage that history is written by the victor, but in the medieval period, it usually was, and as such was heavily biased.

Accounts of the battle

The Crowland Chronicle

Of all the accounts, the Crowland Chronicle is probably the most contemporary. It was commissioned by the Benedictine Abbey of Crowland (or Croyland) in Lincolnshire and was written in two parts known as the First and Second Continuations. The Second Continuation, which details the battle and the events leading up to it, was probably written the year after the event. Its author was most likely John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln, who was keeper of the privy seal for Edward IV and chancellor under Richard III. He probably accompanied Richard III on the campaign and as such was well-informed. However, he was not an eyewitness to the battle and does little to disguise his dislike of Richard’s rule.

Historiae Anglicae

Polydore Vergil was an Italian who came to England in 1502 as a deputy to the collector of papal taxes, Cardinal Adriano Castelli. He wrote his description of the battle in his Historiae Anglicae between 1503 and 1513, probably at the request of Henry VII. Unusually for the time, he gives a detailed description of events during the battle, no doubt using eyewitness testimony. Virgil himself says that his account is truthful and, considering he had no allegiance to either party, is probably correct. Both the Tudor chroniclers Hall and Holinshed made use of it, and later Shakespeare would use these two texts to write his history of Richard III.

Jean Molinet's Chroniques

Another source for the battle is Jean Molinet's Chroniques. Molinet, who was the historian to the Burgundian court and sympathetic to the Yorkist cause, wrote his account of Bosworth in around 1504, probably based on stories told by French troops and in the court.

Phillippe de Commines' Memoirs

Burgundian nobleman Philippe de Commines (or Commynes) wrote his eight-volume Memoirs during the 1490’s, although as he was one of Louis XI of France’s most trusted advisors, his account of the battle and the events leading up to it are biased towards Henry Tudor and his supporters. Although well written, his account has to be treated with caution because his information would have been based on rumour and second- or third-hand accounts, and it also appears that in parts he was guilty of altering events to suit his own ends. A further foreign account was written for the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, in March 1486 by Diego de Valera, a Castilian courtier, but much of his information appears to come from Spanish merchants returning from England and is confused in places.

Other sources

There are a number of other sources such as Historia Johannis Rossi Warwicensis de Regibus Anglie written by John Rous (c.1490); The Chronicle of Fabian by Robert Fabian (c.1510); and the Pittscottie's Chronicles by Robert Lindsay of Pittscottie (c.1570). All these works mention the battle in passing, but give little detail. Edward Hall, a London lawyer, also wrote The Union of the Two Noble Families of Lancaster and York in around 1550, which primarily follows Virgil’s work and includes other parts from de Comines, Fabian and other now obscure sources. Throughout his work Hall includes lengthy speeches, no doubt dramatic invention, and it is likely that Shakespeare derived some of his history from here.

Poetic accounts of the battle

Probably written early in the sixteenth century, The Ballad of Bosworth Field gives a poetic account of the battle in over 600 lines. It was commissioned by a member of the Stanley family, with Lord Thomas and Sir William Stanley playing a central role. Its accuracy has long been debated, although it does contain information collaborated by other sources as well as detail not found anywhere else. The same anonymous author probably wrote two other ballads, The Song of Lady Bessy and The Rose of England, both including accounts of the battle with a strong bias towards the Stanleys. Again they contain information found elsewhere, but like The Ballad of Bosworth Field are considered suspect by some historians. Another poetic account of the battle was written by Baronet, Sir John Beaumont around 1600 and is called Bosworth Field. Beaumont studied at Broadgate’s Hall (now Pembroke College), Oxford, and lived at Thringstone, not far from the battlefield. He was a descendant of both William Hastings, who was controversially executed by Richard III, and the earls of Oxford, whilst his father was a judge of the Common Pleas. It was written in the style of the heroic poems of old and much of what he wrote is found in other sources such as Hall, although there are a few interesting sections that go into extraordinary detail and are not recorded anywhere else.

Battle location

For many years the location of the battle was thought to be on Ambion Hill, close to the village of Sutton Cheney in Leicestershire. In 2010, after a major archaeological project, the actual site of the battle was announced to the public as being 3km from Ambion Hill, close to Fenn Lane. Although the site of the famous battle is now known, there are still many more unanswered questions: the dispositions of the three armies; their locations before and during the battle; the location of the artillery; and how events unfolded that day. All of these questions are open to a number of interpretations due to the scarcity and ambiguities of the sources.

The death of Richard III

One by one, Richard’s followers are cut down in the melee that followed, before Richard himself was killed. According to Vergil he was ‘killyd fyghting manfully in the thickkest presse of his enemyes’. Molinet, on the other hand, writes that ‘His horse leapt into a marsh from which it could not retrieve itself. One of the Welshmen then came after him, and struck him dead with a halberd’. In one version of events, it was later claimed that Rhys ap Thomas was the Welshman who killed him, although he was not a halberdier. Another version is that Ralph of Rudyard, which is near Leek in Staffordshire, dealt the fatal blow. Whoever delivered the final coup de grâce, Richard III’s courage during his last moments was unquestionable, as even his detractors agree. John Rous says that he ‘bore himself like a gallant knight and acted with distinction as his own champion until his last breath’. The Crowland Chronicle writes that ‘King Richard fell in the field, struck by many mortal wounds, as a bold and most valiant prince’. Exactly where Richard died is not known, although a proclamation by Henry soon after the battle says that it was at a place known as ‘Sandeford’. Where this was has been lost in time, but it was most likely south of the marsh at a crossing point on one of the streams that fed the marsh. Another fragment of the letter quoted in the Spont paper says that ‘he [Henry] wanted to be on foot in the midst of us, and in part we were the reason why the battle was won’. Without the rest of the letter, we do not know in what context this was said; however, it is generally accepted that it implies that Henry retired behind a wall of French pikes when Richard charged. As the French were fighting on the flank, it probably means that Henry simply wanted to be part of the main flanking attack and it was because of this attack that the battle was won.

The immediate aftermath

According to Vergil, with the battle over, Henry gave thanks to God for his victory and withdrew to the nearest hill. From here he thanked his commanders and nobles, knighted Gilbert Talbot, Rhys ap Thomas and Humphrey Stanley, and gave orders that all the dead should be given an honourable burial. Thomas Stanley then crowned him Henry VII with Richard’s own crown, which according to tradition was found under a thorn bush close to where Richard was killed. We do not know how true this story is, although Henry did take the image of a crown and thorn bush as one of his badges soon after. As to the site of this momentous event, part of the high ground behind Henry’s battle line, originally known as Garbrody’s Hill and Garbrod Field in the fifteenth century, was changed to Crown Hill and Crown Field before 1605, no doubt in reverence to the event.

Richard’s body was recovered from the battlefield and, according to Vergil, was ‘nakyd of all clothing, and layd uppon an horse bake with the armes and legges hanginge downe on both sides’. The scene was described by the Crowland Chronicle as a ‘miserable spectacle in good sooth’. His body was then taken back to Leicester. Hall says that he was on the horse of his Blanc Sanglier Pursuivant, an officer of arms ranking below a herald but having similar duties, but the Great Chronicle of London says that it was a Pursuivant called Norroy. John Moore was the Norroy King of Arms, a senior herald with jurisdiction north of the River Trent (Nottingham), and his son was at some point Blanc Sanglier, so it could have been either. One of the legends associated with the battle says that as Richard rode across Bow Bridge en route to Bosworth, his spur clipped a stone pillar. One of those ubiquitous wise women who witnessed this supposedly announced that where his spur struck, his head would be broken. And sure enough, as Richard’s body was carried across the bridge, his head hit the same stone.

Richard’s body was put on public display for two days at Greyfriars church, probably in a place of honour. According to some accounts, the corpse was interred in a plain unmarked tomb within the church, whereas others allege that a tomb made of alabaster, with an effigy of Richard on top, was later erected on the orders of Henry. This original tomb monument, however, is believed to have been removed during the Reformation, and Richard’s remains were lost for more than five centuries, believed to have been thrown into the River Soar.

The discovery of Richard III’s remains

In 2012, an archaeological excavation commissioned by the Richard III Society on a Leicester City Council car park, believed to be the site once occupied by Greyfriars Priory Church, discovered a battle-damaged skeleton suspected to be Richard's remains. On 4 February 2013, it was announced that DNA testing had conclusively identified ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ the remains as those of Richard. The University of Leicester identified the skeleton found in the excavation as that of Richard III as a result of radiocarbon dating, comparison with contemporary reports of his appearance, and comparison of his mitochondrial DNA with that of two matrilineal descendants of Richard’s eldest sister, Anne of York. The 2013 identification of King Richard’s body showed that the skeleton had 10 wounds, eight of them to the head, clearly inflicted in battle and suggesting he had lost his helmet. The skull showed that a blade had hacked away part of the rear of the skull. On 26 March 2015, these remains were ceremonially buried in Leicester Cathedral and a day later the new royal tomb of Richard III was unveiled.

Extracted from Battle Story: Bosworth 1485 by Mike Ingram (with the exception of ‘The discovery of Richard III’s remains’) 

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