Richard III’s downfall was largely determined by lack of support from the nobility and some bad luck.
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 of all the very biggest landowners. Those on the borders (Marches) of Wales, Scotland, East Anglia, the South Coast and the South-West were most important.
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. He had given land to Richard, the Queen’s family and some favourites such as William, Lord Hastings.
The nobility felt threatened by the concentration of land in the hands of a few powerful nobles. Richard recognised this and some of his first actions on becoming Protector and then king were to take lands and offices away from members of the former Queen’s family. These were redistributed to others loyal to himself. These actions also contributed to Richard III’s downfall.
Henry Stafford (Duke of Buckingham) was given responsibility for Wales, a centre of potential rebellion and a possible route for invasion. Thomas Howard (Duke of Norfolk) similarly for East Anglia, vulnerable to invasion from France and the Low Countries. Henry Percy (Earl of Northumberland) for the North to guard against invasion from Scotland. The South Coast, vulnerable to invasion from France, Brittany and Spain was protected by several nobles and the royal fleet.
These were in satisfactory order although the seven-year truce with France in 1475 had just expired and France had ceased to pay huge sums of money due to Edward IV. 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, but they had their own problems with a succession crisis.
Edward IV had left the royal treasury solvent, unlike his predecessor Henry VI. 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 no money on the royal treasury. Lack of money also contributed eventually to Richard III’s downfall.
How Did the Succession Crisis of April to July 1483 impact on Richard’s Authority?
Then came the succession crisis of Edward V which was concluded when Parliament offered Richard the throne.
All three Estates of Parliament (Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal and Commons) agreed to offer the throne to Richard, so this indicates widespread support for his claim to kingship.
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 grew in the South of England. Edward IV’s loyalists, Woodvilles and supporters of Henry Tudor co-ordinated into the ‘Buckingham rebellion’ of October 1483.
How Did the Buckingham Rebellion of October 1483 impact on Richard’s Authority?
The ease with which he was able to overcome this uprising indicates support for Richard’s early kingship.
However, he may have sown the seeds of discontent deeper than necessary with the Act of Attainder in the following January. Over one hundred nobles, minor landowners and officers of the crown, including some from his own household, had property confiscated. A few were executed and many chose to go to Brittany to join the Court-in-exile of Henry Tudor. The biggest casualty was the duke of Buckingham and the forfeiture of his lands and offices. These and others, gave Richard the opportunity to award these to people whom he could trust, including many from his years in the north. This created more resentment amongst the nobility and gentry in the south to whom northerners were like foreigners. This Act of Attainder was a factor in Richard III’s downfall.
Margaret Beaufort was another major casualty. She was spared execution but her wealth was 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. Margaret Beaufort support for her son was a key factor in Richard III’s downfall
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 to England. At the same time his navy was harrying shipping off the coasts 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 into the French court.
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. They had a minority kingship under a Regency which was being opposed by many of their own nobility. They also faced possible invasion from Burgundy which supported the Yorkists.
What was the Sequence of Events leading up to Bosworth (Aug 1485)?
In 1485 Richard remained in London, where his Queen died in March. He left for the last time in mid-May heading to Nottingham where he stayed until mid-August. An invasion was threatened and Nottingham was close to the centre of England from where he could reach any part of the country at a few days’ notice. Past invasions such as those of Henry IV and Edward IV had arrived on the east coast. Henry Tudor’s 1483 invasion had headed for Dorset, and, in 1471, Margaret of Anjou’s for Devon. The point of arrival was the invader’s choice and the defender’s guess. This time Henry Tudor opted for the coast of Wales, landing at Milford Haven on 7 August.
Henry was able to take his small 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 may indicate 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?
His claim before 1477, was very slender and weaker than at least a dozen other nobles all descended from sons of Edward III. He was regarded as a potential threat to the Yorkists because of his mother’s wealth and political influence.
By mid-1483 his position had improved when some principal Yorkist claimants were removed by death, illegitimacy or attainder. The lack of other claimants willing to put themselves forward left the way clear for Henry to make an attempt at 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. Over the years he had gradually accumulated a Court-in-exile of disaffected English nobles who supported his claim to the throne. This might have been because he was been bankrolled by his mother, one of the richest people in England.
His attempted invasion of October 1483 has been financed partly by his mother and partly by the duke of Brittany. In 1485 Henry was supported by France with 2,000 men at arms, mostly ex-convicts, promised freedom if they signed up. Richard III’s downfall was a policy aim of France.
The role played by the weather
Support for Henry grew rapidly once Richard had been crowned King. Supporters of Edward IV resented the rumoured assassination of his sons and this developed into the rebellion 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 from his own lands. With his inability to cross the River Severn, decided to retreat instead of engaging with the king’s army.
Henry Tudor’s October 1483 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. The major sponsor seems to have been France which was facing twin threats of civil war and of invasion by Richard III. They chose to back an expedition which would divert Richard and could place a grateful ally on the English throne. Some of the hundreds of English nobles and gentlemen who had joined Henry may also have contributed 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.
There are many detailed descriptions of this battle which ended the Plantagenet dynasty which had ruled England for over 300 years.
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.
Numbers and Deployment of Troops
Henry Tudor: around 5,000 men of whom 2,000 were French, 2,000 from Wales and England (most of these might have been archers). The latter had joined up since Henry’s arrival a few days earlier. The balance consisted of several hundred former exiles and around 500 men from Shrewsbury under Lord Gilbert Talbot.
Richard had around 9,000 men with 3,000 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 of around 6,000 men. Richard III’s downfall can be attributed in part to the ambiguous military support by the Stanleys and Northumberland.
John Howard, 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 Henry 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.
Thomas, Lord 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. As an insurance Richard had his son, Lord Strange, kept hostage during the battle. 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 a pact with his stepson and any action delegated to his younger brother William.
Sir William Stanley turned up 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.
Sir Gilbert Talbot, commanded the right wing of Tudor’s army.
Sir John Savage, 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 since then he had not engaged 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. We do know that Henry Tudor had no prior experience of battle although he too was comfortable on a horse.
Richard presumably made the fatal decision to personally attack Henry 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 seize the opportunity of a cavalry charge and put an end to Henry Tudor.
Richard thought he saw an opening in Henry’s guard that was vulnerable and reached very close to Henry. The ground was marshy, his horse went down, either slipping or by being attacked. Richard would have found himself fighting hand to hand in mud facing overwhelming odds and was killed. The marsh literally contributed to Richard III’s downfall. The whole battle lasted between one and two hours.
Once Richard’s death was known to his men they began to shift for themselves to avoid capture. The rout which usually followed medieval battles was very dangerous for the defeated side. 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 reappeared years later to lead a rebellion.
Richard’s body was badly treated. He was stripped naked, thrown over a horse and then stabbed. He was taken back to Leicester and put on display as evidence that he had been killed. Henry did not even arrange a proper burial for him but allowed the Grey Friars to take his body. He was placed 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.
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