The story of Richard III, the War of the Roses, and the Battle of Bosworth have all become some of the most famous tales of English history, but there is one man whom history often overlooks from these events – Sir Rhys ap Thomas, the man who many believe struck the killing blow on the last Plantagenet king.
His Early Life
Much of Rhys ap Thomas’ life was tied to the ongoing feud between Lancastrians and Yorkists. When he was a child, his grandfather was killed at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross whilst serving in a Lancastrian army under the command of Jasper Tudor.
This was not unusual however. Many in Wales were sympathetic to the Lancastrian cause as opposed to their Yorkist rivals due to as many had claimed their titles and land during the reign of the Lancastrian Henry VI.
Rhys and his family were forced into exile after defeat by the Yorkists in 1462, only to return 5 years later to reclaim some of his family’s lost land. In 1467, Rhys inherited more of his family’s wealth as his brothers both died early.
A Change in Allegiance?
When Edward IV died, it sparked a chain of events that would change the course of English history and the throne of England. His son, Edward V, was too young to rule so the former king’s brother Richard stepped up to rule as a regent. But this would not be the end, as Richard went on to declare his brother’s children as illegitimate before seizing the throne himself and throwing the young princes into the Tower of London never to be seen again.
This move was seen as abhorrent by many. Henry, Duke of Buckingham rose up against the newly crowned Richard with the aim of claiming the throne for the exiled Henry Tudor. However, this revolt failed and Buckingham was executed for treason.
One man, however, watched the unfolding events in Wales and made a surprising choice. Rhys ap Thomas, despite his family’s history of support for Tudors and Yorkists, decided not to offer support to Buckingham’s uprising. By doing so, he put himself in a very strong position within Wales.
Thanks to his perceived loyalty, Richard III made Rhys his trusted lieutenant in south Wales. In return, Rhys was supposed to send one of his sons to the king’s court as a hostage but instead made an oath to the king:
“Whoever ill-affected to the state, shall dare to land in those parts of Wales where I have any employment under your majesty, must resolve with himself to make his entrance and irruption over my belly.”
Betrayal and Bosworth
In spite of his oath to Richard III, it seems Rhys ap Thomas was still in communication with Henry Tudor during his exile. So, when Henry arrived in Wales with his army to take on the King of England – rather than oppose his forces, Rhys called his men to arms and joined the invading force. But what about his oath?
It is believed that Rhys consulted with the Bishop of St David’s who advised him to take the oath literally in order to not be bound by it. It was suggested that Rhys should lie on the floor and allow Henry Tudor to step over his body. Rhys was not keen on this idea as it would have meant a loss of respect amongst his men. Instead he decided to stand under the Mullock Bridge while Henry and his army marched over it, thus fulfilling the oath.
At the Battle of Bosworth, Rhys ap Thomas commanded a large Welsh army which many sources at the time claimed to have been far larger than the force commanded by even Henry Tudor. When Richard III made his attempt to charge for Henry in order to bring a swift end to the battle, he was unseated from his horse.
It was this moment that has divided the historical community and has led to Rhys being missing from many historical accounts. It is debated whether it was Rhys himself, or one of the Welshmen he commanded, that struck the final blow, but it was not long after this moment of Richard III’s death that Rhys ap Thomas was knighted on the field of battle.
This was by no means the end of Sir Rhys ap Thomas or his service and commitment to the Tudor cause. He would continue to suppress attempted Yorkist rebellions, received numerous handsome rewards for his loyalty to Henry VII and was made a Privy Councillor and later a Knight of the Garter.
For more information on Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his involvement in the Battle of Bosworth, be sure to check out this documentary on Chronicle’s YouTube Channel: