Battle of Bosworth Field: Richard III, Last Yorkist King of England, Defeated and Killed

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Battle of Bosworth Field: Richard III, Last Yorkist King of England, Defeated and Killed

The clash between Richard's and Henry's armies at the battle of Bosworth Field
Diorama at Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, near Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, England
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 22, 1485

My post for today centers on England's great 15th century dynastic struggle, the Wars of the Roses. This was the last defining battle of that war, which provided much fodder for the plays of William Shakespeare 100 years later. There is also some controversy about the true location of this fight.


Between 1399 and about 1485, the throne of England was in dispute between two branches of the House of Plantagenet, the Houses of Lancaster and York. Rather than go into the entire background, let us simply state that in 1483, there was nominal peace in England with the Yorkist king Edward IV on the throne. He had originally reigned from 1461 to 1470, when he was deposed and fled to the European continent. A year later he returned to England with a small mercenary army, which gathered adherents as he approached London. He entered the capital, took his usurper Henry VI into custody, and was restored to the throne. There was relative peace in England for 12 more years.

King Edward IV of England (1461-1470, 1471-1483)
King Edward IV of England (1461-1470, 1471-1483)

In April of 1483, however, King Edward died suddenly, whether from pneumonia, typhoid fever, or a generally unhealthy lifestyle is unknown. He had been a spectacularly successful military commander, and a popular and very able monarch. Edward added some codicils to his will prior to his demise. One of those changes appointed his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as the kingdom's Protector (or regent) during the minority of his son, Edward V, who was 12 years old.

Almost immediately, Duke Richard launched plans to take the throne for himself. He dismissed or arrested most of Edward's entourage prior to entering London. Once in the city, Richard escorted the young uncrowned king to the Tower of London. On June 25, 1483, an assembly of members of the Houses of Lords and of Commons declared Richard as the true king, after it was declared that Edward was illegitimate and ineligible for the throne. [Interestingly enough, the crown of England was legally the property of the King of England, and could be willed by him to whoever he chose. This was an entitlement established by William I (the Conqueror aka the Bastard), who was himself illegitimate.]

Edward and his brother, Richard the Duke of York, were imprisoned in the Tower, and by the end of the summer were never seen again. Their ultimate fate is unknown, but many historians believe they were ordered killed by the new king, their uncle Richard III.

Within months of his coronation, King Richard faced a rebellion by certain disaffected nobles. Originally, they intended to place his nephew Edward back on the throne. But when rumors of the child's death began to spread, the leaders decided to try and lure Henry Tudor – the best claimant from the House of Lancaster – back to England. Henry was living in Brittany at the time. At first, he agreed to return and support the rebels. Unfortunately, a heavy storm in the English Channel forced his fleet to return to Brittany. This left his adherents high and dry, and the rebellion collapsed. The conspiracy's leaders, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, was captured, tried, and beheaded.

Copy of a near-contemporary lost portrait of Richard III, circa 1520; Portrait owned by Society of Antiquaries, London, England
Copy of a near-contemporary lost portrait of Richard III, circa 1520
Portrait owned by Society of Antiquaries, London, England

As a result, King Richard put pressure on the Duke of Brittany to return Henry to England. Henry fled to the court of the King of France, Charles VIII. Henry was welcomed by the French, who provided him with troops and equipment, in preparation for a second invasion attempt. On August 1, 1485 Henry's flotilla left France and arrived at Milford Haven, in Pembrokeshire, Wales, close to his birthplace on August 7.

Preliminaries to the Battle

Henry's army consisted of about 2000 mostly French soldiers, with some English and possibly Scottish soldiers as well. He gathered adherents during his slow approach to London, but surely not as many as he hoped for. Henry also received aid from some nobles who deserted the king's cause. In addition, he was hoping for the support of Thomas Stanley, 2nd Baron of Stanley, who controlled troops and lands crucial to Henry's plans. [Also, Stanley was Henry's step-father, having married Tudor's mother Lady Margaret Beaufort in June 1472.] In fact, King Richard had ordered Stanley to come to join the royal army, but Stanley demurred, citing having caught the "sweating sickness." Richard finally found out that Stanley planned to join Tudor's invading army, and took Stanley's son Lord Strange as a hostage against his loyalty to the crown. Therefore, Stanley organized his retinue and began marching toward Leicestershire, the general area in which both armies were converging.

Portrait of King Henry VII, oil on panel (1505), artist unknown; Currently in National Portrait Gallery, London, England
Portrait of King Henry VII, oil on panel (1505), artist unknown
Currently in National Portrait Gallery, London, England

King Richard, meanwhile, had been kept well informed of Henry's pending invasion since June of that year. The king told his nobles to remain in a state of high readiness, to march to his aid as soon as possible. Consequently, Richard received notice of Henry's landing about three or four days afterward. Despite getting messengers out quickly, some of the nobles' troops did not begin moving for several days. Despite this, enough men came to Richard's banner to form an army variously estimated at between 8000 and 10,000 men.

Warfare in Fifteenth Century England

To a large extent the men who fought, and won battles in the last years of the Middle Ages were experienced professionals. This is because in England the system known today as "bastard feudalism" was in use. Under this concept, instead of having a standing army, the king would call upon his nobles to bring their own troops to his aid in times of unrest or war. A typical lord's troops were made up of the men of his household, his tenants and above all his retainers.

The men known as retainers came from many sorts of social background, ranging from the bourgeoisie to the knights and gentry. These men would sign a contract with their lord known as "livery and maintenance," meaning military service was exchanged for a salary and the lord's protection. The retainers in turn brought their own tenants and troops with them to join their lord. As such, single noblemen sometimes had vast numbers of soldiers at their call.

England's only official standing army was the garrison of Calais, but was cut off by the Channel. This contingent rarely came into play as the major campaigns of the war were generally too short. In addition, foreign mercenaries played little role in the war, except by factions launching invasions from abroad, as is the case of Edward IV in 1471, and Henry Tudor in 1485. The one other source of manpower was through the royal commissions of array, which gave the bearer the right to assemble and arm men in the king's (or a noblemen's) name. The larger towns like York or Coventry frequently sent contingents of men – sometimes as many as 200 strong – to join needy armies.

The Wars of the Roses commenced at a time shortly after the end of England's 100+ year war with France. Therefore, there were considerable numbers of Englishmen with military experience. In the French wars an average English army had large numbers of archers, perhaps three archers for every other foot soldier. On English soil similar numbers must have been involved. The English practice of fighting on foot had not changed either. French cavalry charges against English soldiers had proved ineffective in France and proved equally futile during the Wars of the Roses. Despite this, horses were used extensively in the campaigns as transport. Soldiers rode to the scene of the engagement so as to arrive fresh and save their strength for the battle ahead. For this reason poorer men would ride any horse available, "even packhorses," wrote an Italian visitor in 1483.

In battle most of the nobles, including the army's commander, made a point of fighting on foot, so as to share the same risks as the common foot soldiers. Many nobles started the battle on foot, then had their horses brought to the front later on. This gave them a good advantage over the enemy should he be routed, as horsemen were able to pursue and pick off men in flight at their ease. On the other hand, should the battle turn against them, the nobles were more likely to escape capture and death by fleeing on horseback, than they would on foot slowed by their armor.

Plate armor made for King Henri II of France around 1555. On display in the Museum of Ethnography, Vienna, Austria
Plate armor made for King Henri II of France around 1555
On display in the Museum of Ethnography, Vienna, Austria

While movement was slightly restricted in full plate armor, men could do most everyday actions just as well with a bit of practice. Armor was heavy but as the weight was spread over the body, in particular the shoulders, it was not as encumbering as often believed. Medieval armor reached its peak in quality, during the Wars of the Roses, to the extent that men in full panoply no longer needed shields and were free to wield two-handed swords, battle axes, maces, and the many pole arms available.

Swiss or German two-handed swords, 15th -16th century. Displayed in Historical Museum of Basle, Switzerland
Swiss or German two-handed swords, 15th -16th century
Displayed in Historical Museum of Basle, Switzerland

Although nobility and knights could afford plate, some chose to wear the similarly effective but substantially cheaper brigandines, favored by the men-at-arms. A brigandine consisted of a leather jacket, lined inside with strips of metal riveted together, and offered good protection while staying affordable even to some of the lower classes. 'The lower classes' on the battlefield were the foot soldiers, mostly archers and bill-men. They nearly all had sallets,the most common helmet (as did the nobles) and padded jacks which were surprisingly good at cushioning a blow. The difference between a brigandine and a padded jack (or jack of plates) was that the metal plates were sewn into the leather coat of a jack, rather than riveted as in a brigandine.

English or Scottish jack of plate, c. 1590. From the Royal Armoury, Leeds, England
English or Scottish jack of plate, c. 1590
From the Royal Armoury, Leeds, England

As well of bills, foot soldiers might also fight with halberds, glaives and poleaxes. Besides these, both archers and bill-men had a second weapon, usually in the form of a sword or dagger, sometimes accompanied by a small iron shield that could be hung on their belt.

Several examples of sallets, 14-16th century
Several examples of sallets, 14-16th century

The newest element of English armies was their often-substantial artillery trains. Cannon and bombards were used successfully in siege warfare at the time, bombarding Bamburg, and other impressive castles into submission during the early 1460s. On the other hand they played little or no part in the actual battles for diverse reasons. The slow clumsy artillery had trouble keeping up with armies moving distances of twenty or thirty miles a day. Further, there was no standardized system of manufacturing ammunition for these guns. Each cannon was built to differing specification, and ammunition was produced specifically for that gun.

England's war winning weapon on the continent for the past century-and-a-half was its archers; at home, however, they tended to cancel each other out. Most battles started with an archery duel, which never really lasted very long but generally weakened the opposing ranks. The armies were split into three divisions known as "battles" with the archers gathered at the front and the men-at-arms and common soldiers behind them. The commanders stood at each division's centre with their retinues of lords and knights.

When one side got the upper hand of the archery duel the other would drop its bows and advance to engage the enemy and put an end to the slaughter. As they advanced the archers would fire their last arrows, before either retreating behind their army or joining the combat alongside their own billmen. The battle itself would quickly degenerate into a bloody melee of fierce hand-to-hand fighting with little mercy given or requested, and could go for several hours before the winning side became apparent.

English longbowman, c. 1450-1485, (note arrows behind and underfoot) (Illustration courtesy of
English longbowman, c. 1450-1485, (note arrows behind and underfoot)
(Illustration courtesy of

During the rout following each battle, fleeing common soldiers were generally spared but pursuing soldiers were instead encouraged to seek out and kill the knights and lords. After victory, beheadings of leading noblemen usually took place. An American historian calculates the total number of dead nobles during and following the battles of 1455-1487 as "one Prince of Wales, nine dukes, one marquis, thirteen earls and twenty four barons." This is not including the hundreds of knights and gentry slain. As a result, several great families became extinct during the Wars of the Roses. Overall the general population of England suffered very little during the wars, yet these same wars were the greatest calamity to hit the nobility since they were first formed under William the Conqueror 400 years previously.

Tomorrow: Part II: Battle of Bosworth Field

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Did the Stanley's form part of Richard's 10000 men army or were they not counted?

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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.