Richard III at Bosworth

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What really happened?

Richard III (1483 – 1485)

In December last year we ran this story following battlefield archaeology discoveries relocating the site of the Battle of Bosworth.

Now, archaeologists at Leicester believe they may have uncovered the final resting place of the king himself. In light of all this evidence, what have we learnt about how King Richard III lost his throne? 

Bosworth ‘can hardly be taken for serious military study – since it was not settled by strategy or tactics, but by mere treachery’. That was the opinion of Charles Oman in his magisterial study A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, published in 1924.

Indeed, he regarded the Wars of the Roses as a whole as of little interest, since the English appeared to be intractable military conservatives at a time of radical change on the Continent. ‘It is not too much to say that for over 50 years, from 1455 to 1509, England was completely out of touch with the modern developments of the art of war. It was not till the reign of Henry VIII began that the military problems of the Renaissance began to be studied on this side of the Channel.’

The years around 1500 certainly saw rapid advances. The number, quality, and mobility of guns increased, so that a true field artillery began to emerge. Specialist handgunners became more important on the battlefield, and some were soon equipped with the new arquebus, the first personal firearm with a proper trigger mechanism. Specialist units of highly drilled pikemen and halberdiers were also employed in growing numbers, and experiments began in the effective battlefield co-ordination of ‘pike and shot’. Cavalry were making a comeback as horsemen adopted lighter armour, new weapons (soon to include pistols and carbines), and combined-arms tactics involving close co-operation with infantry.

Backward England?

Recent historical research has shown that Oman was wide of the mark in his assessment of the Wars of the Roses. English commanders were up-to-date in their use of the new military technology. Tactics had moved on from those that had laid waste French chivalry at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt(1415).

The old method had been to form defensive lines in which longbowmen and men-at-arms were interspersed, typically with archers forming projecting wedges fronted by stakes, and knights and associated billmen forming a serious of linear blocs in-between. Against heavily armoured opponents who chose to launch unimaginative frontal assaults – whether mounted or on foot – the method could be devastatingly effective.

During the Wars of the Roses, however, the same methods used by both sides had a neutralising effect. Opposing lines of longbowmen shot at each other rather than at men-at-arms. This may be one reason that contemporary images often show archers wearing considerable armour – helmets, mail shirts (or ‘hauberks’), plate elbow and knee protectors, padded jerkins or (‘jacks’). As the men-at-arms closed, the archers would melt away to flanks or rear, leaving the billmen to slug it out at close-quarters. Instead of one side having been decimated by an arrow-storm on the approach, both lines would engage intact, making the ensuring mêlée a long and bloody affair.

Big battles

Towton – the biggest and bloodiest battle of them all – seems to have lasted all through a bitter snow-swept day in late March 1461, the opposing lines of men-at-arms in contact from shortly after dawn until darkness fell. This simple fact tells us much about the character of Wars of the Roses armies.

For one thing, it reminds us of their size. An expeditionary force to France during the Hundred Years War might have numbered only 5,000 men, perhaps 10,000 at the most, whereas the numbers present at Towton were at least 50,000. Financial, logistic, and moral impediments to transporting Englishmen across the Channel to fight a foreign war did not apply to civil war, where men were needed only for a month or so and served usually within a week’s march or two of their homes.

The mass present was one reason Towton was a long battle. The other was the quality of the soldiers, the great majority of whom were professional to a degree – men steeled to the shocks and stresses of battle.

There were various methods of recruitment. The royal household was one source of troops. Another was the way in which the Crown and the great nobles would negotiate contracts with the captains of armed retinues for their service. These contracts formed the basis of ‘livery and maintenance’. Then there were commissions of array used to recruit archers and others in the shires. And mercenaries might also occasionally be hired from abroad.

The men of the shire levies should have been at least semi-trained, since regular drilling was required, but in practice the standard of professionalism was variable, and the quality may have been lowered by the way in which ‘livery and maintenance’ tended to cream off the best men.

Livery and maintenance

Nor was it just the quality of the shire-levy that was in question; so too was its responsiveness to any particular summons amid the divided loyalties of a civil conflict. Because of this, the shire-levy appears to have played little part in Wars of the Roses recruitment.

Instead, individual knights and squires raised professional war-bands among their tenants and dependants, and then entered into a written agreement to serve a particular great lord in all his disputes. The war-band wore the ‘livery’ of the lord and fought under his banner. He in turn contracted to ‘maintain’ them in all their rights and claims. This system is sometimes described as ‘bastard feudalism’, for with it, cash replaced land as the means by which lords rewarded men for their service.

In 1452, for example, Walter Strickland, with extensive Westmoreland estates, contracted with the Earl of Salisbury to provide ‘bowmen, horsed and harnessed, 69; billmen, horsed and harnessed, 74; bowmen without horses, 71; billmen without horses, 76’. Clearly, in that region of Westmoreland under Strickland’s sway, any commission of array would have been redundant: virtually all the men properly trained and equipped would already have been accounted for by livery and maintenance.

The conclusion has to be that even among the two huge hosts that fought at Towton, virtually every man was either a full-time professional or at least a part-time ‘territorial’. This was another reason it was a hard-fought battle.

Plate and mail

There was a third reason: the weight of armour worn by men-at-arms. This had reached its peak, with many men encased from head to foot in plate and mail weighing in total 60lbs or more. The effect of wearing this spread across the body – a weight similar to a modern soldier’s full backpack – has been explored by researchers at the University of Leeds. It has been found roughly to double the energy required to walk, making men breathless, unable to move quickly, and slower to react.

These problems would have been compounded by the awkwardness of even the most finely crafted armour, which impeded movement and the senses, such that a line of men-at-arms in the mid 15th century was probably among the most ponderous formations ever deployed on a battlefield. To accuse contemporary commanders of lack of tactical flair is to miss the point. For them to have attempted anything more complicated than organising their armies into the customary three divisions (or ‘battles’) and then lumbering into a frontal collision with the enemy was to court disaster.

Heavy armour had another grave disadvantage: it could be a death-sentence for the defeated. The carnage of the Wars of the Roses seems to have been visited disproportionately on the nobility. This was partly policy. The Yorkists in particular would often order their men to slay the Lancastrian nobility but to spare the rank and file. But it was also a practical matter: the nobility was more heavily encumbered and found it much harder than common archers and billmen to get away in the event of a rout. Amid heavy fighting, an armoured man who went down might soon he pinned under a heap of dead and wounded. Some may simply have suffocated.

Battlefield archaeology

In fact, such weight of armour was already obsolescent. It had brought ruin to French chivalry in the Hundred Years War, and European infantry – crossbowmen and handgunners, clubmen and swordsmen, halberdiers and pikemen – had continued to wreak havoc since. And herein lies the special interest of the new archaeological work on the site of Bosworth. The evidence collected in metal-detector survey seems to herald the very military revolution that Oman maintained had passed the English by and rendered the Wars of the Roses of little interest to the student of military history.

In comparison with the battles of the Hundred Years War, contemporary sources are poor for the Wars of the Roses generally and Bosworth in particular. Nonetheless, until 1985, a standard interpretation had been widely accepted – and it was this, of course, that had informed Oman’s disparaging commentary. Then, re-examination of the limited contemporary evidence in tandem with exploration of the historic landscape threw the traditional view into doubt. This triggered a systematic investigation by the Battlefields Trust. Starting in 2005, it was commissioned by Leicestershire County Council, financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and led by Dr Glenn Foard.

A multi-disciplinary team was assembled to review the documentary evidence, reconstruct the contemporary landscape, analyse field- and other place-names, map soil and peat deposits, and, crucially, carry out extensive metal-detector surveys. The results, communicated to the media in October 2009, made headline news. Mainstream reports were dominated by the fact that the Battle of Bosworth had ‘moved two miles’.

Lead roundshot

Desktop research, landscape investigation, and the soil sampling had indicated the general area where the battle was likely to have taken place, but they had not fixed the spot; as Foard explains, ‘it was systematic archaeological survey with metal-detectors that was the method by which we finally located the battlefield’.

Some 7 sq km were surveyed and 5,000 objects recovered, but only a tiny proportion related to the battle. ‘For more than a year, we had hints that we were close to the action, but it was only in the last week of planned fieldwork, the last possible area, that the critical evidence was found.’ This evidence comprised 22 pieces of lead roundshot, of various sizes, fired from cannon and handguns.

Despite the headlines, the nature of the evidence is more interesting than its location. The new battlefield – the precise location still under wraps to protect it from ‘nighthawks’ (metal-detectorists who plunder archaeological sites for gain) – conforms to contemporary descriptions of the action and does not alter what little we know about deployment and movement. What is perhaps more important is confirmation of the growing corpus of historical research that rejects the view that the English art of war was antiquated in the late 15th century.

The battle arrays

King Richard III had somewhere between 10 and 15,000 men on the battlefield. These included his own and his leading supporters’ retinues, plus shire-levies fromLondon, the South-East, and theMidlands. In addition, since he controlled the royal armouries at the Tower, he had an impressive train of artillery and, we now suspect, numbers of men equipped with handguns.

Henry Tudor’s army was much weaker. However unpopular Richard may have been in some quarters, the Yorkist incumbent, based in the mainly pro-Yorkist and wealthy south-eastern part of England, was playing a strong hand. The usurper, attempting to revive a discredited and much-decayed Lancastrian cause on the basis of a somewhat tenuous claim to the throne, had been able to muster only around 5,000 men. Some 2,000 of these were French mercenaries, the rest mainly men raised in South Wales in the Tudor interest by Henry’s uncle, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke.

But the balance was more even than at first appears. Henry’s French mercenaries are likely to have included handgunners, and perhaps artillerymen, so that his firepower may have been a match for that of the King. In addition, the powerful Stanley affinity was also mobilised, bringing somewhere between 5 and 8,000 men to the battlefield, their allegiance for long uncertain, as they stood aloof in the opening phases of the battle. Furthermore, even within the King’s host, possible disloyalty was a live concern; as the fighting raged, the rearward battle, commanded by the Duke of Northumberland, appears to have hung back and taken no part, whether through accident, lethargy, or treachery remains unclear.

Finally, if Richard was an experienced military commander, so too was the Earl of Oxford, Henry’s field commander. Bosworth, then, was no clash of blundering amateurs, neither in the sense that the weapons technology was antiquated, nor in the quality of either the leadership or the rank and file. It was a modern battle fought by professionals.

Oxford’s plan

The details remain obscure. Richard’s army may have been divided into three battles, commanded by the Duke of Norfolk (with the ‘vaward’), himself (the ‘main’), and Northumberland (the ‘rearward’). Or there may have been only two, with Richard retaining direct control of nothing more than a small household reserve of mounted men-at-arms. Equally unclear is whether he formed single line or deployed in depth. The best guess is that he put as many men as he could into his forward line, but restricted space on the rising ground he had chosen limited its length.

His plan may have been to use superior numbers to envelop the flanks of the heavily outnumbered Tudor force as they closed – after they had advanced across the marsh to the Yorkist front, under fire from cannon, handgunners, and longbowmen.

If this was the plan, it was too obvious for a wily old veteran like the Earl of Oxford. Instead,Oxford carried out an elaborate manoeuvre, turning the marsh to Tudor advantage. The boggy ground in the middle of the battlefield threatened disorder to any who tried to cross. Using it to protect his right flank against attack while he manoeuvred,Oxford shifted his entire army to the left, and then hurled it against the Duke of Norfolk’s men on the royalist right.

Oxford’s move was a gamble. Success depended on three things. First, that the constraints of the ground and the relative clumsiness of late medieval formations would make it impossible for Richard to redeploy his army rapidly enough onto a new front. Second, that breaking the Duke of Norfolk’s battle – the strongest division was traditionally stationed on the right – would precipitate a general collapse of Richard’s army. And third, that the Stanleys, waiting in the wings, would not intervene on the side of the King. It was an all-or-nothing casting of the dice. A lesser man than Oxford might have flunked it.

Richard’s charge

The precise course of the struggle on the Yorkist right is unknown. That cannon, handgunners, archers, and billmen were used in effective combination seems likely. That both sides kept their men well in hand seems likely also. There is a specific report that Oxford ordered his men never to advance more than 10 feet in front of their banners. How long the struggle might have lasted, and what, left to itself, its final outcome might have been, we cannot judge. For two other things happened that decided the battle.

We are not even sure of the sequence – whether Richard charged first or the Stanleys. It may be that the King saw an opportunity to crush Oxford’s attack by committing his mounted reserve. Or, if the Stanleys had already begun their advance, he may have decided on a final, desperate effort to reach the usurper on the other side of the battlefield and cut him down – or to die in the attempt. Either way, at the supreme crisis of the battle, Richard led a mounted charge.

This, too, was the work of a professional who knew his business: against a mass of men weary with long fighting, a charge of heavy horse, even of a small body, if carefully directed and timed, can strike with shattering effect. So it was now. The King reached deep into the Tudor line, coming to grips with the men of Henry’s household contingent and killing his standard-bearer.

But if they had not moved before, the Stanleys certainly did so now, their thousands finally charging across the battlefield and crashing into the embattled Yorkists. This is the context for the famous scene in Shakespeare’s play, where Richard ‘Crookback’, suddenly unhorsed and unsupported in the mêlée, cries out, ‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’

No succour came. Richard and the remnants of his mounted household were driven into the marsh and slain. And the King’s head was smashed by a rebel poleaxe.

The face of the future

Bosworth was the last great battle of England’s Middle Ages in more senses than one. It was a battle of a transitional era in society, politics, and military affairs. Feudal anarchy was giving way to a modern state. The Yorkist government of Edward IV had been a modernising one with strong support among local squires, yeoman farmers, and urban traders. The Tudors, though they claimed the Lancastrian mantle, were in the same mould.

And on the battlefield, that new world of strong rulers, centralised state, and prosperous ‘middling sort’ was represented by the eclipse of men encased in plate and the rise of men equipped with firearms. Bosworth may have been the last big battle between the old noble affinities. But it was also a battle of cannon and handguns, manoeuvre and combined-arms, that heralded a new way of war in the coming epoch of Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolution.

This article is from the December 2011 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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