Five hundred and twenty-eight years ago, almost to the day, the Wars of the Roses came to an end in beautiful countryside near the town of Market Bosworth in Leicestershire. A man called Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond won a great battle there, ending 331 years of rule by Plantagenets. The date of this post is Sunday, 11 August. The date of this great battle was 22 August, 1485.
The end of the Wars of the Roses was a Good Thing. For years the barons of England had been employing private armies to force their way through violence and bloodshed upwards towards the throne. Two large families fought each other tooth and nail as if (as we have said before in this blog) they were in Chicago in the 1920s –not the Middle Ages.
History students’ impressions of Bosworth and the events which lead up to it are shaped, as so often happens, by a dramatist who created a marvellous piece of theatre from the writings of other men. Shakespeare’s Richard III, via Thomas More and others, presents Richard as a ‘wicked uncle’ a deformed tyrant’, ‘a treacherous villain with a withered arm’, a ‘hunchback’ etc. We are told in contemporary accounts that he was born with black hair down to his shoulders; and teeth. Not an attractive infant. It is possible that these masterpieces of the imagination were composed to please the victorious Tudor dynasty. This would be logical enough. The first Tudor himself set the standards by dating his reign from the 21 August – the day before the battle – so that the Council could denounce as traitors all those who fought against him. They could then be found guilty, executed, their lands taken, their heirs found and eliminated etc. But the day on which Richard III, crowned and anointed monarch, was killed was the 22nd.
Who was the usurper? He was a son of Edmund Tudor or Tydder, first Earl of Richmond, and his wife was Margaret Beaufort. It was through this lady that Henry derived his claim to the throne of England, for Margaret Beaufort was a great-great-granddaughter of Edward III, who had married his mistress after losing his first wives. The bastard Beaufort line had been legitimized in an Act of Parliament during the reign of Richard II. Edmund was a son of Owen Tudor, a Welsh knight who had astutely married Catherine de Valois, widow of Henry V.
We learn that Henry never met his father, who died 3 months before his birth in 1457. He spent his childhood and youth in Wales, and was once granted an audience with the sick and ailing Henry VI (House of Lancaster, founder of Eton College and King’s College). During the War of the Roses Edward IV (House of York) briefly lost the throne but won it back again (in 1471) upon which Henry Tudor ran off to Brittany with uncle Jasper Tudor, where they stayed for thirteen years, almost as prisoners of the Duke of Brittany, whose loyalty to either House was questionable.
In April, 1483 Edward IV, a devout womaniser who had had at least one secret marriage hushed up, died suddenly leaving a strong young heir, the future Edward V, then just a teenager, as well as a second son, the Duke of York who was about ten years old. These were the celebrated Princes in the Tower. The then Duke of Gloucester (Richard) kept these boys in a royal palace of great solidity and luxury called the Tower of London, where one assumes they would be safe. They were not safe, because they were never seen alive again, except by Londoners who claimed to have seen the boys playing bows and arrows in the royal gardens.
Richard of Gloucester declared that his older brother the now dead Edward IV had had at least two secret marriages before marrying his Queen, a Woodville. Richard announced that the two boys staying in the Tower were illegitimate therefore, and had himself declared King. The crowning took place on the 6th of July.
Tudor, safe but in virtual house arrest in France, sensed that the time had come for him to organise a rebellion against King Richard III. He wished to be King, though in fact his clever mother had a better claim than him. In a cathedral he solemnly swore that if with the help of the Duke of Brittany he could defeat Richard, he would put an end once and for all to the Wars of the Roses by marrying Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter, thus united the White and Red roses. It seems that Brittany was impressed by this oath.
If you are still with me I will go on; meanwhile, Richard’s son and heir died at seven years old, and this tragedy was all the persuasion needed for Tudor to demand help from Francis, a particularly crafty Duke of Brittany. This gentleman had already been begged by Richard to surrender Tudor to him, but had not listened. In case he changed his mind, Tudor and his uncle Jasper escaped from house arrest and made their way back to England. Thousands of Englishmen flocked to his standard because they firmly believed that Richard had murdered his nephews in the tower, though genuine evidence of such a crime did not exist.
Tudor gathered an enthusiastic army and marched east from Milford Haven, while the King mustered at least 10,000 not so enthusiastic solders and marched to meet him. This they did on Ambion Hill not far from Leicester. Two of the most important sections of the royal army were commanded by the Earl of Northumberland and the brothers Stanley respectively. When the battle started Richard found that neither Northumberland nor the Stanleys would join in. They stood or sat about watching. It was treachery, and Richard knew he had lost, so he took matters into his own hands, called a hopelessly small group of loyal knights and friends, and charged directly across the battlefield straight for Henry Tudor, who paled and would have run but was persuaded not to. Richard, at full gallop with his sword waving must have been a fearsome sight as he had proved himself a valiant fighter in many a battle during the Wars of the Roses. This was the moment for the Stanleys, who blocked Richard’s path! Fighting hard he killed Tudor’s standard bearer and got within yards of the Tudor himself, but he was saved from sure defeat and disaster; Richard and his friends were cut to pieces by William Stanley’s traitors. The bleeding remains of the King of England were thrown over the back of a mule which was led away. Archeologists have recently insisted that some bones found beneath a modern car park belong to Richard III.
Henry Tudor was proclaimed King on the battlefield, and Richard became the last English monarch to die on the battlefield. In 1684 some boys’ bones were conveniently found under a stair in the Tower of London, and shortly declared to be the remains of Edward V and his brother Richard Duke of York.
I am not a revisionist, and have carefully read dozens of scholarly works on this subject, but I do know I have never been convinced that Richard was so wicked he could kill his own brother’s children (who were illegitimate anyway so could have no claim), or for that matter Henry VI in prison, or another brother, the Duke of Clarence – simply because Tudor historians tell us so. I am convinced that Richard ordered the instant execution of the Duke of Buckingham, who was raising armies in the west, and the beheading in the Tower of Lord Hastings with a rusty old sword. It is also true that Henry Tudor had but a feeble claim to the throne, and was no more entitled to it that Richard himself, though it should be said that most medieval kings got on to the throne through victory on the battlefield.