Richard III’s downfall and the rise of Henry Tudor

Medieval England was run by a king with the co-operation of major landowners – the nobility. To be effective, a king had to have the support, or at least control, of all the very biggest landowners, especially those on the borders (Marches) of Wales, Scotland, East Anglia, the South Coast and the South-West.

What was the state of Royal Governance in April 1483?

For more detail see Government Policy under Richard III .

Richard inherited a kingdom during which his brother Edward had taken lands away from some of the biggest landowners (Nevilles & Percys in the North, Mowbrays in East Anglia) in favour of himself, Richard, the Queen’s family and some favourites such as Hastings.

The nobility and other landowners resented and felt threatened by the concentration of land and property in the hands of a few. Richard recognised this and some of his first actions on becoming firstly Protector (May 1483) and then king (July 1483) were to take lands and offices away from members of the former Queen’s family to redistribute these to others loyal to himself.

Stafford (duke of Buckingham) was given responsibility for Wales, a centre of potential rebellion and a possible route for invasion; Howard (duke of Norfolk) for East Anglia, vulnerable to invasion from France and the Low Countres; Percy (Earl of Northumberland) for the North but under the Council presided over by de la Pole (Earl of Lincoln), to guard against invasion from Scotland. The South Coast, vulnerable to invasion from France, Brittany and Spain was protected by several nobles plus the royal fleet.

Foreign affairs were in satisfactory order although the seven-year truce with France in 1475 had just expired and France had ceased to pay the huge sums of money due to Edward IV and others.  Henry Tudor was still in Brittany under the protection of Duke Francis II, with about 300 followers in a Court in exile. Burgundy was an ally, with Richard’s sister Margaret as dowager Duchess, although they had their own problems with a minority ruler and a succession crisis.

Finances

Edward IV had left the royal treasury solvent, unlike his predecessor Henry VI, but on 1st May the dowager Queen, her brother Edward and son Thomas, chose to quit the scene prior to Richard’s arrival in London. Between them they removed all the treasure they could find in the Tower of London. In addition, Edward commandeered a further £10,000 in gold on a ship in Southampton. This left Richard with pretty much an empty exchequer.

Then came the succession crisis of Edward V which was concluded by Parliament offering Richard the throne.

How Did the Succession Crisis of April to July 1483 impact on Richard’s Authority?

All three Estates of Parliament (Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal and Commons) agreed to offer the throne to Richard, so this indicates widespread support.

At his Coronation a majority of the English nobility was present, though some may have been harbouring secret opposition.

Once Richard and his Queen Anne were off on their Royal Progress from July till the end of September 1483, discontent in the South of England from Edward IV loyalists & Woodvilles was co-ordinated into the rebellion of October.

How Did the Buckingham Rebellion of October 1483 impact on Richard’s Authority?

The fact that Richard, with the help of his supporters and some extremely bad weather, was able easily to overcome this series of uprisings indicates the wide extent of support for his kingship.

However, he may have sown the seeds of discontent deeper than necessary with the Act of Attainder the following January. Over one hundred nobles, minor landowners and officers of the crown, including some from his own household, had their property removed. A few were executed and many chose to go to Brittany to further swell the Court-in-exile of Henry Tudor. The biggest casualty was the duke of Buckingham and the forfeiture of his lands and offices, together with others attainted, gave Richard the opportunity to award these to people whom he could trust, including many from his years in the north. This built up more resentment amongst the gentry in the south to whom northerners were akin to foreigners.

Margaret Beaufort was another major casualty. She was spared execution on account of her gender, but her money and lands were taken away and put under the control of her husband Sir Thomas Stanley. With hindsight after Bosworth this was an own goal by Richard, but his options were limited.

Brittany and France

These were separate realms at this time. Brittany was a dukedom and France a kingdom.

Richard’s relations with both were not particularly positive.  He was negotiating with the duke of Brittany to return Henry Tudor whilst at the same time harrying shipping off the coast of both Brittany and France.

Early in 1485, Richard had reached a deal with the duke of Brittany to return Henry in exchange for 1,000 archers. Henry got wind of this and escaped into France where he was welcomed. 

By the time of the 1485 invasion France had their own reasons for a regime change in England. Richard was re-asserting the Plantagenet claims to the throne of France whilst they had a minority kingship under a Regency which was being opposed by many of their own nobility and they faced possible invasion from Burgundy which sided with the Yorkists.

What was the Sequence of Events leading up to Bosworth (Aug 1485)?

Richard’s itinerary.

In 1485 Richard remained in London, where his Queen, Anne, died in March. He left for the last time in mid-May when he headed to Nottingham where he stayed until mid-August. This was close to the centre of England from where he could reach anywhere in a few days. Past invasions such as those of Henry IV and Edward IV had arrived on the east coast; Tudor’s 1483 invasion had headed for Dorset, Margaret of Anjou for Devon in 1471: it was the invader’s choice and the defender’s guess. This time Henry opted for the coast of Wales landing at Milford Haven on 7 August. 

Henry was able to take his little army through Wales and into the heart of England unopposed, picking up more men as he progressed. He even passed through Stanley-controlled lands in North Wales, which indicates where the Stanley sympathies lay.  Richard had previously ordered a call to arms in all counties and now arranged a muster of his army to meet at Leicester on 21/22 August.

Why was Henry Tudor a Claimant to the English Throne?

See Genealogy.

His claim before 1477, was very slender and weaker than at least a dozen other nobles all descended from sons of Edward III. But he was regarded by both Edward IV and Richard III as a potential threat to their position. 

His mother’s financial support, her determination to bring him safely back to England, bolstered by mid-1483 when half a dozen of the principal Yorkist claimants had been removed by death, illegitimacy or attainder, and the lack of other claimants willing to put themselves forward, left the way clear for Henry to attempt the throne.

Henry had been living in exile since the age of fourteen, mainly in Brittany, and recently in France. He was fluent in the French language and familiar with their culture, as were many English nobles of the 15th century. From small beginnings with his uncle Jasper Tudor, over the years he had gradually accumulated an unofficial Court-in-exile of disaffected and dispossessed English nobles who were willing to support his tenuous claim to the throne. This might have been because at least until the Buckingham Rebellion of October 1483, he was been bankrolled by his mother, one of the richest people in England.

His earlier attempted invasion of October 1483 has been financed partly by his mother and partly by the duke of Brittany.  This time Henry was supported by France with 2,000 men at arms, mostly ex-convicts, promised freedom if they signed up

What support did Henry Tudor have during Richard III’s reign?

Support for Henry grew rapidly once Richard had been crowned King. Some supporters of Edward IV resented the displacement, and possibly the assassination, of his sons and this rapidly developed into the rebellions of October 1483.  These failed through a combination of atrocious weather, early discovery of the plot and lack of co-ordination. The nominal leader, the duke of Buckingham, found he could not raise enough men for his own lands and, with the inability to cross the River Severn, decided to retreat instead of engaging with the King’s army.

Henry Tudor’s invasion fleet of thirteen ships from Brittany was delayed by storms, then scattered and when he reached the English south coast with just one or two ships, he chose not to land but returned to France.

How was the invasion of 1485 organised and financed?

In the absence of much documentation, this was presumably being planned once the dust had settled from the 1483 invasion. Money may still have been reaching Henry from his mother but in secret through his stepfather, Thomas Stafford and perhaps via their business manager Reginald Bray. The major sponsor seems to have been the Regency of France who were facing threats of civil war and of invasion by Richard so chose to back an expedition which, at the least, would divert Richard for a while and, at best, would place a grateful ally on the English throne. Some of the hundreds of English nobles and gentlemen who had joined Henry in the previous few years may also have had the means to contribute to his invasion. One very important noble was John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford. He had fought, with some success, at Barnet, escaped, was captured, escaped again and joined Henry in 1484. As a very experienced battle tactician he was appointed Henry’s commander in chief at Bosworth.

The Battle

There are many detailed descriptions of this battle which ended the Plantaneget dynasty that had ruled England for over 300 years, and began the Tudor dynasty which ruled for well over a century

See detailed accounts on the Richard III Society website, the Battle of Bosworth Site and the Schools History site.

Topography

The area around the presumed location of the battle is gently rolling Leicestershire countryside, with some broad, low hills and a large area of low-lying marshy ground. Nearby villages were built on elevated positions to avoid the marshes.

Even today we are not certain of the exact location. Artefacts of cannon balls and other debris suggest the site may be some way from the traditional centre of Ambion Hill.

If you imagine the amount of space required by a force of several thousand men, many on horseback, the battle front would have stretched for hundreds of metres anyway so there would be no such place as an exact site.

Weather

The weather seems to have been good, no rain was reported.

Numbers and Deployment of Troops

Henry Tudor: around 5,000 men of which 2,000 were French, 2,000 from Wales and England (most of these might have been archers) who had joined up since his arrival a few days earlier, several hundred former exiles and around 500 from Shrewsbury under Lord Gilbert Talbot.

Richard: around 9,000 men of whom 3,000 were in the reserve with Northumberland the remainder divided between Richard and Norfolk.

The Stanleys, placed themselves, apparently uncommitted, between the two armies with a total around 6,000 men who could turn the battle either way.

Armaments: a few canon (range perhaps half a mile), Richard had chosen not to request the siege weapons from the Tower; archers (range up to 300 m), hand weapons (face to face);  cavalry in reserve – several thousand including Stanley and Percy, 

Chief Nobles

John Duke of Norfolk

Commanded the centre of Richard’s main force against the Earl of Oxford and came off worse. He was killed by an arrow.

Lord Percy, Earl of Northumberland

Commanded Richard’s rear guard but did not engage in the battle. Claimed he was hampered when Richard led his own cavalry charge and that he needed to remain in place to protect the front line from possible attack by the Stanleys.

The Stanleys

Thomas Stanley was the stepfather of Henry Tudor, married to Margaret Beaufort, caught in a dilemma of loyalties. He had excused himself from Court some months earlier for ‘family’ reasons. He declined to fully commit to Richard’s preparations for Bosworth, citing illness and unreadiness so, as an insurance Richard had his son, Lord Strange, kept hostage during the battle. Two days before the battle both Stanleys met in secret with Henry Tudor: they may have come to an understanding which played out on the day, but we do not know. Both Richard and Henry wanted explicit commitment from both Stanleys before the battle began and both were disappointed. Thomas arrived early at Bosworth, stood with his force of several thousand men watching the battle but did not engage. This may have been the pact with his stepson and any action delegated to his younger brother William.

William Stanley turned up with his men, much as his brother but in a position at which he could have been a threat to Richard whilst not actually being arrayed with Henry. When Henry Tudor was under attack by Richard, William weighed in and this turned the course of the battle. William is credited with picking up Richard’s crown from the field of battle and offering it to Henry. Despite this, ten years later William was executed by Henry for supporting the pretender Perkin Warbeck as the true king.

John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, commanded Tudor’s archers and the main attacking force with great success.

Lord Talbot (Shrewsbury), commanded the right wing of Tudor’s army.

Sir John Savage (Cheshire), commanded the left wing of Tudor’s army. He had previously been a supporter of Edward IV.

The Final charge

Richard had gained experience of hand to hand fighting at Barnet and Tewkesbury (1471) but in the ensuing fourteen years he had not had to engage much in this way. He was a very experienced horseman, travelling the length and much of the breadth of England by horse. We have no record of him leading a cavalry attack before Bosworth. However, we do know that Henry Tudor has absolutely no prior experience of battle although he too was very comfortable on a horse.

We have no way of knowing why Richard made the fatal decision to personally attack Henry other than that he sought to end the battle sooner rather than later. One of his supporters (Catesby) tried to dissuade him but he was determined to go ahead. Richard is reported to have said that, rather than retreat, he would live or die as a king of England. He may have reasoned that a surgical strike against Tudor would over-ride the questionable loyalty of the Stanleys and of Percy who had him surrounded. Richard’s battle plan may have been to finish the battle with a cavalry charge and put an end to Henry Tudor when the opportunity arose, hence keeping ready and making use of his household cavalry.

He may have thought he saw an opening in Henry’s guard that was vulnerable and in this he appears to have been correct as he reached very close to Henry. But the ground was marshy, and his horse went down, either slipping or being attacked. Richard would have found himself fighting hand to hand in mud – something he was very able to do, but faced overwhelming odds and in due course was killed. The whole battle lasted between one and two hours.

Once Richard’s death was known to his men, that ended the battle and they began to shift for themselves to avoid capture during the inevitable rout which followed medieval battles. Some high-profile supporters, such as Sir William Catesby, did not escape and were executed in Leicester; some, such as Francis Lord Lovell, did escape and came back many years later to try a rematch.

Aftermath

Richard’s body was badly treated. He was stripped naked and his body thrown over a horse and even then stabbed. He was taken back to Leicester and put on display, in the usual medieval way, as evidence that he had been killed. Henry did not even arrange a proper burial for him but allowed the White Friars to take his body. They placed him in a ready-made grave in their Abbey, the location of which was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 2012.

Henry claimed the throne of England ‘by right of conquest’ which has been a validation used for centuries when kings of England invaded parts of France, Ireland and Scotland.

Henry declared his reign started the day before Bosworth and hence anyone who fought against him was guilty of treason.

Further Reading

Richard III A Failed King?, Rosemary Horrox (Penguin, 2020) chapter 5

Richard III Loyalty Binds Me, Matthew Lewis, (Amberley, 2018) chapters 19 & 20.

Richard the Third, Paul Murray Kendall (W.W. Norton & Co., 1956) Book Two, Part Two, chapters X and XI

IWF