The Bosworth Cliff-hanger

War and Politics in August 1485. Shifting loyalties were more important than tactical brilliance.
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On 22nd August 1485 two armies assembled near Market Bosworth to contest the throne of England. One was vast and the other tiny, yet the ensuing battle provided one of the greatest upsets in English history. Once the fighting started at Bosworth, the outcome was in genuine doubt until the last drop of blood was spilled, and it turned out to be a real Bosworth cliff-hanger.

This was a battle that hinged, not on military prowess – though there was plenty of that on display – but upon political manoeuvring. While it was common enough for men to desert during a battle, perhaps change sides or even not turn up at all, it was comparatively rare for powerful leaders to mobilise thousands of men at considerable expense without knowing for whom they would fight. So, how did this unusual situation come about?

In the summer of 1485, everyone knew Henry Tudor intended to invade England to wrest the throne from Richard III. The most powerful political players therefore had months, possibly years, to decide between the untried young Henry and the experienced Richard. Henry’s claim to the throne through his Lancastrian mother was flimsy and almost nothing was known about him; in contrast, they knew perhaps too much about King Richard.

Tudor had never fought a battle nor even managed an estate, let alone a kingdom. So, one could be forgiven for wondering why anyone would fight for him. There were, of course, diehard Lancastrians like his uncle, Jasper Tudor, and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, but they were few in number and mostly exiled. Without the help of a growing number of disaffected Yorkists, Henry could not have mounted a challenge to Richard at all. From her sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, the widow of the late King Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, rallied her husband’s loyal servants among the southern gentry. Driven by the belief that the rightful king, young Edward V and his brother had been killed on Richard’s orders, many gave up comfortable positions to join the renegade Tudor. To encourage that support Henry swore that, when king, he would marry Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York.

A late medieval king depended upon the support of his leading magnates and, at the death of Edward IV in April 1483, there were perhaps half a dozen such men. Within two months, Richard had executed two of them: the late king’s brother-in-law, Earl Rivers and Lord William Hastings and imprisoned another, Lord Thomas Stanley. In October, his greatest noble supporter, the Duke of Buckingham joined Tudor’s first attempt to invade and was executed. Richard was therefore seriously short of nobles powerful enough to command the men and resources required to keep him in power. He could only rely for certain upon one: John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who owed his meteoric rise at court almost entirely to Richard.

So desperate was Richard that he was compelled to rely upon two men with no great reason to support him: Lord Thomas Stanley and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. These two men effectively controlled the north of England and could between them muster thousands of men. No-one in England, bar the king himself, could rival their power. It was these two men who would determine Richard’s fate at Bosworth.

Having arrested Thomas Stanley in June, he was forced to release him almost at once or risk trouble in Stanley’s powerbase in the north-west. During the Tudor’s abortive rebellion Stanley’s loyalty hung by a thread since his own wife, Lady Margaret Beaufort was the mother and chief advocate of Henry Tudor. When the rebellion failed, Richard’s reliance upon Stanley was so great that he dared not punish Margaret Beaufort severely for encouraging the rebellion. As a showdown with Tudor loomed, Richard took the extraordinary step of holding Stanley’s eldest son hostage. After that, does anyone seriously believe that Stanley could ever have trusted the king?

During 1485 Thomas Stanley and his brother William secretly agreed that they would fight for Henry; but the Stanley brothers had form when it came to ducking out of a conflict at the last moment. Perhaps Thomas was right to be careful for, though royal favour could bring land and power, a great family that ended up on the wrong side in a key battle might no longer be a great family!  So when, on the eve of Bosworth, Thomas politely refused Henry’s invitation to lead his vanguard, even Henry must have questioned his stepfather’s commitment.

In my view there is no doubt that Thomas intended to support Henry – for why else would he take the tremendous risk of meeting him prior to the battle? Very likely though, Thomas was alarmed at how small Tudor’s army was and concerned that it might be swept aside in the briefest of encounters. If Thomas showed his hand too soon, Richard might execute his captive son and close by lay the massive royal rear-guard, commanded by his northern rival, Henry Percy.

Thomas Stanley’s brother, Sir William had been more directly involved in negotiations with Tudor and he also had an army of several thousand at Bosworth but his situation was very different from that of his elder brother. Even before the battle, the king proclaimed him a traitor, but another factor must also have influenced his state of mind. His stepson and ward, Edward, heir to the Earldom of Worcester, had just died. For William, the death meant no prospect of the earldom or its lucrative estates. Already under suspicion and stripped of his means, William therefore had compelling reasons to oppose the king. But would he act at Bosworth without his brother’s support?

When we turn to Richard’s other key magnate, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, we find an almost equally toxic relationship. Percy came from a long line of Northumberland earls who regarded control of the north as their birthright. Fighting for Lancaster, the Percys had lost all at the decisive battle of Towton in 1461. The Percy heir, Henry was imprisoned and his cherished earldom surrendered to one of the Neville family – their most bitter rivals.

Even after the forgiving Edward IV restored Henry to his earldom, rule of the north passed to the king’s brother, Richard. By marrying Anne, heiress of the hated Nevilles, Richard put himself firmly on Northumberland’s hit list. When Richard took the throne in 1483, Northumberland could have opposed him, but chose not to. In 1485, however, the Tudor invasion provided another opportunity and, while Henry Percy did not necessarily arrive at Bosworth intending to betray his king, he must have considered the possibility. By supporting Richard, he would gain little more political influence than he already possessed. Yet a Tudor triumph would be even worse for it could only benefit Percy’s northern rival, Thomas Stanley.

Percy wisely kept his options open, for battles could be unpredictable: the king might be killed, or Tudor, or both. What then? Tudor was by no means the only claimant to the throne – indeed Edward, Earl of Warwick, son of King Richard’s attainted elder brother, George Duke Clarence, had a far better claim. At that time, the ten-year-old earl was held with Elizabeth of York and other heirs at Sheriff Hutton castle in Yorkshire. If Richard was killed, how easy it would be for Percy to free the young earl and set him upon the throne. Perhaps he could also marry his daughter to the new king to cement his dominance in the kingdom. He then, rather than Thomas Stanley, might play the kingmaker and, in one fell swoop restore his family to their rightful place of prominence.

I would not suggest that this was a fully formed plan but, given the high stakes in play, Percy must at the very least have considered it. It would certainly explain his tardy arrival and subsequent reluctance to commit to either side.

In the first hours of the battle, Richard’s vanguard, led by the steadfast Duke of Norfolk, was pressed back and unexpectedly routed. In vain, the king waited for Thomas Stanley to rush to Norfolk’s aid and even considered executing his hostage son. Instead, tempted by the Tudor standards flying amid Henry’s puny and exposed rear-guard, Richard opted to charge at his rival in a glorious quest for victory.

At this pivotal moment in the battle, with the royal vanguard in pieces, neither Percy nor Thomas Stanley supported the king’s attack. Instead, despite the thousands at their command, they simply looked on. Since their armies were not far apart, they also watched each other – like hawks – to see who might blink first. If one committed to the fight the other might join them, but equally they could attack their flank and annihilate them.

Richard’s brave charge almost succeeded, although it is near impossible now to distinguish fact from fiction in the final sequence of events. Though Henry was well defended by his leading knights, his standard bearer, Sir William Brandon was killed and one of the greatest – certainly largest – knights of his day, John Cheyney, was knocked down. There was a genuine threat to Henry’s life, but also to Richard’s.

While the battle hung in the balance, neither Thomas Stanley nor Percy could possibly have known for certain what was happening. But while the two northern heavyweights remained immobile, it was Sir William Stanley who risked all to go to Tudor’s aid. Arriving in the nick of time, he saved Henry from both death and defeat. However, his timing was such that it could not possibly have been planned. When William raced down with his three thousand men, he could not know whether Henry would still be alive when he reached him. For William, what mattered was that King Richard perished – even if Henry Tudor did too. Perhaps he acted with the tacit approval of his brother Thomas to keep his promise to Henry; if so, it was little more than a token gesture.

At the last minute, Percy bottled it and, despite the overwhelming military force at his back, he neither supported the king nor attempted a coup in favour of the young Earl of Warwick. My explanation for the inactivity of both Thomas Stanley and Henry Percy is that they were more concerned about each other than they were either King Richard or Henry Tudor. Effectively, they cancelled each out.

When the dust settled, the Stanley brothers emerged as heroes and Percy was imprisoned until Henry Tudor could assess his loyalty. The battle lasted perhaps only a few hours and the death toll was relatively small – perhaps a hundred of Henry’s men were killed to a thousand of Richard’s. This was a strange battle where those looking on outnumbered those who actually fought. The death of King Richard was all that mattered.

A few months later, after Henry had secured possession of Edward Earl of Warwick, Percy was released from imprisonment. In the end perhaps he decided that intervention was just too risky; better to keep his powder dry and see what happened in the new reign. After all, no-one expected the wet behind the ears young Tudor to be much of a king anyway. In all probability, the new and very inexperienced king would soon be so beset with problems and rival claimants that fresh opportunities to exploit would arise. Percy reckoned, however, without the relentless determination of Henry Tudor.

Derek Birks is a novelist and author of a nine-book series on the Wars of the Roses period, the final of which, Crown of Fear, is out now.