On 22 August 1485, a seismic conflict took place in a field near Market Bosworth in Leicestershire. The Battle of Bosworth saw the sun set on the Plantagenet dynasty that had ruled England for 331 years and ushered in the dawn of the Tudor era.
Richard III led a glorious, thunderous charge of his household cavalry and is the last King of England to die on a battlefield. Henry Tudor emerged from the carnage as perhaps the most unlikely king ever to rule England, but the patriarch of a dynasty that would change the kingdom forever.
A king under threat
Richard III had only been king for just over two years, since 26 June 1483. He had previously enjoyed a strong reputation as a good lord in the north. However, he found opposition almost as soon as he became king, perhaps because of the policies that had been so popular while he was Duke of Gloucester.
In October 1483, there was a rebellion in the south-west involving the Duke of Buckingham, who may well have been making a grab for the throne for himself. In exile for the last 12 years, Henry Tudor took part, but his fleet failed to land and returned to Brittany, though he didn’t give up.
Personal tragedy overtook Richard as his only legitimate son and heir died in 1484, and his wife of more than ten years also passed away in early 1485. Richard is a figure that sparks debate today, and that was no less true during his two years as king.
A rebel in exile
Henry Tudor was born on 28 January 1457. His father was Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, a half-brother to King Henry VI and son of Katherine of Valois, widow of Henry V. Henry’s mother was Lady Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and a wealthy heiress. She was only 13 years old when Henry was born and already a widow after Edmund died of the plague.
Henry was raised mainly by his father’s enemies, the Herbert family. In 1470 he was briefly reunited with his mother when Henry VI returned to the throne, only to be whisked into exile aged 14 with his uncle Jasper Tudor in 1471 when Edward IV returned.
He spent the next 12 years languishing with no prospects until the accession of Richard III thrust him to prominence, probably backing Buckingham’s bid for the throne in October 1483, but after Buckingham’s execution, as a viable alternative king. Most of that time had been spent in Brittany, but in 1485 he moved to the French court.
The Battle of Bosworth
During the campaigning season of 1485, Richard based himself at Nottingham, in the centre of his kingdom, to enable him to respond to the threat of Tudor’s invasion wherever it might emerge. Henry Tudor landed at Mill Bay in south-west Wales on 7 August. He marched north along the Welsh coast before turning east into England. His army travelled along Watling Street, the old Roman road now largely covered by the A5.
Reaching London would transform Tudor’s prospects, and Richard moved to block his path. Mustering at Leicester, he marched out to intercept Tudor near Market Bosworth in Leicestershire.
The size of medieval armies is notoriously hard to establish, but it is generally believed Richard had between 8,000 and 10,000 men and Tudor between 5,000 and 8,000. The Stanley family had brought between 4,000 and 6,000 men.
Thomas Stanley was Henry Tudor’s step-father but had sworn to support Richard. Richard’s vanguard, led by the Duke of Norfolk, faced Henry’s under the Earl of Oxford. Norfolk was killed, and Richard took matters into his own hands, charging across the field to confront Tudor. He came close, killing Henry’s standard-bearer William Brandon and unseating John Cheney, a 6’8” knight.
It was then that a force led by Sir William Stanley, Thomas’s brother, intervened on Tudor’s side, leading to Richard’s death at the age of 32. All the sources agree that the king ‘was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies’, as Polydore Virgil recorded. Henry Tudor, an exile for half of his 28 years, was the new king of England.
The international dimension
One element of the Battle of Bosworth that is frequently overlooked is its international aspect and importance. Henry Tudor had secured French funding and military support not because they believed in his cause but because it suited their political aims.
Louis XI, known as the Universal Spider, had died within months of Edward IV and left his 13-year-old son to succeed him as Charles VIII. France was dealing with a minority crisis and a feud over the regency that would spill into a civil war known as the Mad War between 1485 and 1487.
Richard had taken part in his brother’s invasion of France in 1475 and opposed the peace by which Edward was bought off. Richard refused to accept the generous annual pensions offered by the French king to Edward and his nobles. From then on, France kept an eye on Richard.
When Edward died unexpectedly in 1483, France was renewing war efforts against England. Louis stopped paying Edward’s pension, and French ships began raiding the south coast. France had been trying to get hold of Henry Tudor for as long as England had. When he fell into their lap, they used him as a weapon to destabilise England. They hoped he could deflect Richard’s attention from their shores.
It is also worth remembering that as a great-grandson of King Charles VI of France, Henry might have been interested in a French crown in crisis.
Henry was given French men and money to help launch his invasion. French backing effected regime change in England in furtherance of an ongoing policy of the French crown, a reversal of England’s invasions of France.
The Battle of Bosworth is clumsily used as a dividing line between the medieval period and the early modern. It ended Plantagenet rule and began the Tudor era. Perhaps its forgotten significance lies in its international dimension as the final act of the Hundred Years’ Wars that had seen England and France pitted against each other since 1337.