The Battle of Bosworth Field

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses. The battle was the culmination of 30 years of civil war between the Houses of York and Lancaster, although at the time it was likely viewed as just another battle in a lengthy period of unrest.

In 1483, the Yorkist king Richard III had claimed the English throne after, somewhat controversially, deposing his twelve-year-old nephew Edward V. Richard’s reign was further tainted by the disappearance of Edward and his brother, and the death of his own wife, Anne Neville. Amidst the discontent, support began to gather around the exiled Henry Tudor, whose claim to the throne came through the Lancastrian line, albeit tenuously.

Image of two silver coins side by side. The left coin depicts Richard III and the right coin depicts Henry VII.
The two main protagonists of the Battle of Bosworth, as represented on coinage of the period. On the left is Richard III (SF-172464) and on the right is Henry VII (IOW-EDA5B6). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY).

After a failed invasion attempt in 1484, Henry and his forces landed in southwest Wales on the 1st August 1485. He marched inland, headed for London, gathering support and reinforcements along the way. Richard’s forces intercepted them in Leicestershire, just south of the town of Market Bosworth. As morning broke on the 22nd August 1485, three groups faced each other on Bosworth Field: Richard III and his Yorkist army, the challenger Henry Tudor, and the forces of the Stanley family whose support for either side was somewhat non-committal.

Image of three metal badges in the shape of a wild board, arranged in a single row.
Boar badges worn by supporters of Richard III. The white boar was the personal emblem of Richard and such badges were given out in large numbers to his supporters. Several examples are recorded on the PAS Database including those pictured here (from left to right: LON-A33FF5, BERK-39FF21, YORYM-1716A4). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence CC-BY.

Little is known of the battle itself. There are just four main contemporary accounts, and these are mostly written from second or third-hand information. Even the location of the battlefield itself is disputed. Historians place Richard’s forces, estimated at between 7,500 to 12,000 men, along the ridge-line of Ambion Hill, whilst Henry’s smaller army of 5,000 to 8,000 men lay to the southwest. The Stanley forces, numbering between 4,000 to 6,000, waited in positions around nearby Dadlington Hill.

Henry Tudor retreated to the rear of his forces, handing command of the battle to the more experienced Earl of Oxford. At some point during the engagement, Richard III noticed Henry and his retinue at some distance behind his main forces. Seeking a quick end to the battle, he led a mounted charge at Henry’s group. Richard killed Henry’s standard bearer, Sir William Brandon, and unhorsed another in the melee, whilst Henry retreated behind his bodyguards. At this point, William Stanley and his army declared a side and rode to the aid of Henry.

Image of the the front and reverse of a silver hawking ring showing the coat of arms of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. of
A silver gilt vervel (NMS-F2EEC6) bearing the Coat of Arms of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. Charles’s father, William Brandon, was Henry Tudor’s standard bearer at the Battle of Bosworth and was slain by Richard III himself. The Brandons clearly profited from their service to Henry as Charles Brandon married Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor. Copyright: Norfolk County Council, Licence CC-BY.

Richard went down fighting. It is not known who struck the final blow but analysis of Richard’s skeleton revealed 11 wounds, 9 of which were to the head. He became the last English king to die in battle and with him ended the Plantagenet line. Henry VII was crowned on the battlefield and became the first Tudor monarch. The Battle of Bosworth Field was championed as a new beginning for England, although subsequent rebellions and uprisings suggest otherwise. Richard III came to be viewed as the villain of the story – a crooked hunchback who murdered his own nephews. However, the discovery of his skeleton in a car park in Leicestershire (in 2012) has provided an unprecedented opportunity to reassess the mythology surrounding this much-maligned king.

Image of a silver badge in the shape of a wild boar.
A silver boar badge in the shape of a male boar (LEIC-A6C834). This badge helped to locate the probable site of the battle. Copyright: Leicestershire County Council, Licence: CC-BY.

But what about the battlefield itself? Here too, recent research has shed new light on the subject. Between 2005 and 2009 an extensive survey of the area by The Battlefields Trust led to the discovery of the site of the core battlefield. A systematic metal-detecting survey uncovered, among other items, large quantities of lead shot and a small silver badge in the shape of a male boar. As mentioned above, a large number of these badges were given out to Richard’s supporters. However, most are not precious metal. This one, being silver, belonged to a high-status individual. Experts believe that this badge could indicate the exact location of Richard’s death since it was probably worn by a member of his close retinue – the group that would have ridden with him as he attacked Henry’s personal bodyguard.

You can read more about the Bosworth Battlefield survey here

For a look at the other discoveries during the survey, check out ‘The Other Bosworth’ blog series by former Leicestershire Finds Liaison Officer Wendy: Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five.

Finally, to learn about the discovery and excavation of Richard III’s remains, see here.