Part II: Battle of Bosworth Field

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Part II: Battle of Bosworth Field

"Battle of Bosworth Field" by Philippe James de Loutherbourg
1857 engraving of 1804 painting
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 22, 1485

King Richard III moved northwest from London reaching Leister on August 20, 1485. He joined forces commanded by John Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Another of his commanders, Henry Percy the Earl of Northumberland, arrived with his retinue the next day, Sunday August 21. Receiving reports of the usurper, Henry Tudor, moving eastward through Leicestershire, the royal forces began marching to intercept them.

Late in the day, the royal army passed close to the town of Sutton Cheney. Richard then received scouting reports that Henry's army was no more than a mile southwest of the town. Sighting a local ridge called Ambion Hill to the southwest, Richard instructed his subordinates to camp just to the north. At some point in the late afternoon or early evening, King Richard attended mass in the small-town church in Sutton Cheney.

Henry and his army were encamped a short distance away at White Moors, while the Lord Thomas Stanley and his brother Sir William had placed their troops – totaling 6000 men – near the villages of Dadlington and Stoke Golding.

That night, King Richard slept very poorly, apparently having nightmares of particularly heinous nature. One chronicle said that when Richard emerged from his tent the next morning, his face was "more livid and ghastly than usual."

'David Garrick as Richard III' oil on canvas by William Hogarth (1745); Richard's sleep having been haunted by the ghosts of those [he] has murdered, wakes to the realization that he is alone in the world and death is imminent.
"David Garrick as Richard III" oil on canvas by William Hogarth (1745)
Richard's sleep having been haunted by the ghosts of those [he] has murdered,
wakes to the realization that he is alone in the world and death is imminent.

Battle of Bosworth Field: Opening Moves

King Richard was an experienced battlefield commander, and had several subordinates who usually fought well. The king knew his forces outnumbered Henry's rebels – even without the temporizing Stanleys. Richard divided his army into the three traditional "battles," or divisions. The Duke of Norfolk commanded the right wing of mainly pikemen, the Earl of Northumberland the left which was mostly mounted, and the king took command of the center. Each battle consisted primarily of pikemen, billmen, and other footmen. A line of archers fronted each wing, and a number of cannon were also deployed on the right to harass the enemy. [I have been unable to find any information on the number and kind of guns the royalists used.]

Henry Tudor was an inexperienced military man, having to this point in his life (he was 28 years of age) had a greater interest in commerce and finance. However, he was smart enough to attract to his banner men who did have martial backgrounds. On the morning of August 22, 1485 Henry appointed John de Vere, Earl of Oxford as his commander, while Henry stayed with his own bodyguards behind the main Lancastrian battleline. Oxford directed his troops to form a single large block of footmen, with small contingents of horsemen to guard the flanks and longbowmen to the front.

Opening Moves: Battle of Bosworth Field; Richard's center and right advance, the left hangs back
Opening Moves: Battle of Bosworth Field
Richard's center and right advance, the left hangs back

At about mid-morning, Henry's men began to deploy south of Ambion Hill, beginning a slow advance toward the royal army. Richard had delayed taking any action to this point. Earlier, he had sent a message to Lord Stanley – still with his men sitting by and waiting for events to develop before he committed his troops to one side or the other. Exasperated, the king again threatened Stanley with the death of his son, Lord Strange, unless Stanley joined the royalist. Almost immediately, Lord Stanley sent a rather cold-blooded reply, saying he had other sons.

Showers of arrows from both sides opened the contest. Richard then ordered an advance by Norfolk's battle to attack the rebels, in concert with the center led by the king. Norfolk obeyed immediately, charging down the hill with his footmen and a few contingents of knights. They were met by Oxford's solid phalanx of pikes and bills. After a short, bloody melee, some of the recently recruited royal soldiers fled the field. Seeing this, Oxford ordered his men to form a tight wedge, and they redoubled their attacks on the royalist. At some point in this melee, Oxford personally confronted the Duke of Norfolk. After fighting a brief melee, Oxford managed to strike Norfolk's helmet, tearing away part of his faceguard. Shortly afterwards, a Lancastrian arrow struck Norfolk in the face, killing him.

Receiving news of Norfolk's demise, King Richard was badly demoralized. Realizing he needed help, he sent word to the left flank to join the fight. However, Northumberland and the left flank did not move. Perhaps Percy never received the orders, or maybe he was aware of a large marshy area to his immediate front that would have required much maneuvering by his horsemen to skirt. There is even the possibility of personal animus with the king. Whatever the cause, it would be a fateful turn of events.

King's Gambit: Richard charges Henry, but Stanley finally intervenes
King's Gambit: Richard charges Henry, but Stanley finally intervenes

King's Gambit: Richard Throws the Dice To Save His Throne

Despite his numerical superiority to the rebels, King Richard's army was stymied by Henry's force. There is also speculation that Richard's army did not really have their hearts in the right place to fight for the king, who many felt was a usurper. Without the help of Northumberland's men, the battle hung in the balance. The Stanleys still refused to commit themselves, even after the threat of Lord Strange's execution. Then, Richard saw a chance – a small one – to bring the battle to a swift conclusion.

At this point, Henry Tudor took his retinue of about 50 mounted knights and rode in the direction of the unmoving Stanleys, hoping to persuade them to join his army with a face-to-face conversation. Seeing Henry's standard flying with that moving group, Richard made a bold decision. Taking every mounted knight in his center, the king charged out of combat and pursued Henry's horsemen. Richard probably reasoned if he could kill the head of the rebellion, the rebellion would die. Consequently, several hundred heavy horsemen thundered across the English heath, seeking to kill the man who would be king. [The exact number of knights involved is the object of some historical speculation; one source said it was 800-1000 knights and men-at-arms, while another said it was simply Richard's personal retinue which may have number a few hundred.]

King Richard III (center) attacking Henry's retinue at Bosworth Field; Richard has just unhorsed Henry's standard bearer (Note Richard is wearing a gold circlet atop his helmet) (Illustration courtesy of
King Richard III (center) attacking Henry's retinue at Bosworth Field
Richard has just unhorsed Henry's standard bearer
(Note Richard is wearing a gold circlet atop his helmet)
(Illustration courtesy of

Taking the Lancastrian leader by surprise, the king's horsemen struck like a thunderbolt. King Richard led the charge himself, killing Henry's standard bearer with his lance, then unhorsed another knight with the broken lance stub. Richard then brandished a battle-ax and continued his quest to kill his royal rival. Henry's bodyguard gathered round him, seeking to stave off further attempts to bring him low. The fight was being fought on the edge of the marshland that had kept the royal left wing from advancing.

Finally, after watching the action for nearly two hours, fate decided to intervene. Sir William Stanley – whose troops were deployed farther from the action than his brother's men – saw that Henry's retinue was in desperate straits. Stanley led his troops into the royal melee, surrounding and killing Richard's men. King Richard by this point was unhorsed, partly from trying to maneuver in the boggy ground. Several of his men offered him their horses, but he refused (more on that later). Seeing he was now surrounded by the soldiers of Stanley's retinue, Richard began laying about him with his ax, hoping to sell his life dearly. As he fought, the king began shouting, "Treason! Treason! Treason!" Before long, Richard was overwhelmed and dispatched. When the king went down, his followers lost all heart and began fleeing the field, giving voice to the fact that the king was dead. With Richard's death, the battle of Bosworth Field ended.


For a medieval battle involving over 20,000 men, casualties were remarkably light. Richard's army suffered some 1000 killed, wounded, and captured. Henry's army escaped even more lightly, with an estimated 100 men lost.

'Battle of Bosworth Field. Lord Stanley Bringing the Crown of Richard to Richmond [Henry]' - Author unknown, circa 1858
"Battle of Bosworth Field. Lord Stanley Bringing the Crown of Richard to Richmond [Henry]"
Author unknown, circa 1858

Shortly after the battle, the golden circlet that Richard had worn during the battle was found beneath a hawthorn bush. It was given to Lord Stanley, who then crowned his step-son as the new king of England.

Footnote #1: William Shakespeare wrote a number of his plays based on the history of a number of England's fifteenth century monarchs. Richard III is probably one of the best known. During the Act V, Scene IV of the play, during the battle of Bosworth Field, King Richard comes on stage, and speaks the famous line, "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" If we believe what several historians tell us, after Richard lost his horse during the fight with Henry Tudor's retinue, he refused the offer of several of his subordinates. He was subsequently surrounded and killed.

Footnote #2: Richard's body was then stripped and thrown across the saddle of a horse. The body was taken to Leicester where it was displayed in a church for two days. It was then buried in an unmarked grave, rather a shabby ending for a king of England.

Footnote #3: Henry had pledged to his supporters that should he win the throne, he would marry the Princess Elizabeth of York, sister of Richard III. This was intended as an act of unifying the two warring house. [Henry and Elizabeth were also third cousins.] The wedding took place on January 18, 1486.

Footnote #4: Recent archaeological research seems to indicate that the actual battlefield was about 2 miles southwest of Ambion Hill. This data is still being mulled by historians.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.