The premature death of England’s King Henry V in 1422 left a power vacuum that in the Middle Ages could have but one result—civil war. For a time a regency council ruled in the stead of the infant Henry VI, with only minor squabbling among the powerful lords. But a series of military defeats in France coupled with increasing economic hardship at home soon put the nobles at each other’s throats. Any hopes that Henry VI, upon reaching seniority, would be able to quell the growing unrest faded when it became apparent he was prone to mental collapse and unfit to rule.
The inevitable civil war, known to history as the Wars of the Roses, is one of the most confused affairs in military history. The opposing sides, the Yorkists and the Lancastrians, both claimed royal lineage back to Edward III. Thus the war was, in essence, a huge family squabble to determine which branch of Plantagenets would rule. Bloody battles at Towton (1461) and Tewkesbury (1471) shattered the Lancastrians, deciding the issue in favor of the Yorkists, in the person of Edward IV.
Unfortunately, Edward’s own premature death in April 1483 triggered a resumption of hostilities. He’d left behind two young sons, whom his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, soon swept aside and likely had killed. The young princes vanished from the Tower of London, and Gloucester had himself crowned Richard III that July. In succeeding months Richard ruthlessly consolidated his hold on power. Meanwhile, across the channel in Brittany, young Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian with only a tenuous claim to the throne, was rallying support.
In 1485 Henry made his move. Landing on the coast of South Wales, he wasted little time before heading inland, gathering adherents as he went. Still, as he marched into central England, Henry had no where near the numbers necessary to defeat Richard’s royal host. Most troubling to Henry was not knowing what course the powerful Stanley family would take in the struggle. Lord Thomas Stanley was Henry’s stepfather and disposed to support his cause, but his eldest son, George, Lord Strange, was Richard’s “guest” (hostage), held to ensure Stanley support or neutrality. The king, however, was having his own problems. Many lords had ignored his summons, and although Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, was marching to his aid with a powerful northern army, Richard had reason to doubt his loyalty.
Despite their problems, the opposing armies met for the decisive battle at Bosworth Field, in rural Leicestershire, on Aug. 22, 1485. After a prolonged artillery bombardment, Richard ordered his army forward. Henry’s outnumbered troops fought well and halted the royal army’s advance. To turn the tide, the king ordered Northumberland forward, but Percy ignored the order. Richard also sent word to Lord Stanley to send in his 6,000 men or his son would be executed. Stanley boldly replied, “I have other sons.”
At that point Henry decided to personally ride out with a small escort and encourage Stanley to join the fray on his side. Richard spotted Henry’s movement and sent 800 heavy cavalry in a charge aimed directly at the pretender. It was a brilliant stroke that could have ended the war in an instant. The king’s cavalry struck down many of Henry’s guard, and Richard and Henry may even have exchanged blows. The Tudor cause hung by a thread. But the balance shifted when the Stanleys marched to Henry’s aid, quickly surrounding and crushing the king’s cavalry. Richard himself died in the thick of the fighting, shouting not as Shakespeare would have it, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse,” but, “Treachery! Treachery! Treachery!”
Modern-day visitors to Bosworth Field often have a hard time making sense of the battle. For one thing, the visitor center stands where for centuries historians thought the battle took place, but in 2009 archeologists confirmed the true battlefield lies in a patchwork of farm fields more than a mile away, near the village of Stoke Golding. Moreover, centuries of agricultural use have obliterated most of the landmarks mentioned in contemporary sources. Still, those same archeologists have now pinpointed the exact spot where Richard III met his fate, enabling visitors to stand where the mighty Plantagenets fell to the House of Tudor.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.