In 1421, England was the most powerful state in western Europe. Under the exceptional leadership of King Henry V the English had gotten the upper hand on the French in the latest phase of the Hundred Years War, they controlled the Duchy of Normandy and most of northern France including Paris, and thanks to a recent treaty, Henry V was the legitimate heir to the thrown of France. This meant that after the mentally ill French king Charles VI died, the two crowns would be united in Henry’s possession.
England was the most stable, tightly governed, and centralized kingdom on the continent; incredibly wealthy and ready to be tapped by effective and competent systems of taxation to support professional, well equipped soldiers who could fight for years at a time. England was very much on the rise.
This had all come crashing down after Henry V died suddenly in 1422 at the age of 35, leaving the crown in the hands of his incapable son Henry VI. By 1453 England had lost all of its possessions in France and the crown no longer held its prestige and legitimacy. A divided nobility and Parliament – refusing to grant taxes – led to further decay as law and order began to break down and civil war loomed on the horizon.
The violence began 1455 and lasted – off and on – until 1485. This thirty year period is known as the Wars of the Roses and it consisted of some of the bloodiest battles in medieval history. Dynasties rose and fell; first the Lancastrians and then the Yorkists.
This turbulent time featured some of the most colorful characters of the whole medieval period that inspired many great works from Shakespeare to George R. R. Martin: the talented eighteen year old giant who became king, Edward IV, who was eventually undone by his incredible appetites for food, drink, and sex; his ally and then enemy the treacherous Earl of Warwick, the kingmaker who stood behind Edwards rise and then turned on him; Edwards brother, the usurper Richard III, who had his brothers sons murdered in his bid to claim the thrown; Elizabeth Woodville, Edwards queen, who rose from the lower ranks of the nobility to place her large extended family at the heights of power; Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudors mother who worked tirelessly to put her son on the thrown; and lastly Henry Tudor himself, a virtual stranger to England who seized his moment to take the crown from Richard III after he emerged victorious at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and begin a dynasty that would sit on the throne until 1603.
The battle was brutal and the outcome sent shock-waves through history:
“Richard’s army certainly appeared as ferocious as the sleepless king who commanded it. Arranged in a single line, they stretched out for miles, horse and foot alongside one another: swords and sharp arrowheads gleaming, and dozens of lean—barreled serpentine guns chained together alongside their fatter cousins, the bombards.
Some of the infantry carried handguns, and when all the royal gunners began to fire, the early morning air filled with caustic smoke, and the field rung with deafening booms.
Henry Tudor and his personal guard were still bunched in a small group below his rival royal standard. To Richard, never short of personal bravery, this seemed to offer an opportunity to end the battle in short order.
His enemy was a man who had lived twenty-eight years without ever commanding troops; he, Richard, was a toughened veteran of numerous difficult battles. ‘Inflamed with ire, he struck his horse with the spurs’ and charged around the side of the vanguard towards where his enemy was positioned. His crown was still on top of his helmet. Richard slammed into Henry’s men with lethal speed. His assault caused such terror and damage to the rebel leader that his standard bearer was killed and the standard that marked out the commander’s position was hurled to the ground.
This was a very perilous situation for any army to endure, since the fall of the standard was generally associated with the defeat and probable death of the man below it. But Henry clung on, although his own soldiers were now almost out of hope of victory. And his tenacity was rewarded.
Seeing Henry in trouble, Sir William Stanley charged his reserve army into the melee, casting in his lot with the Tudors at the last possible moment. Three thousand fresh men poured onto the field, scattering the royal army in despair and overwhelming Richard as he fought in plain sight of his rival.
At some point, it seems that Richard must have either lost or removed his battle helmet. It cost him his life. He was struck by several glancing blows, which cut his scalp and took small chunks of skull away. Then he was dealt a heavy blow directly to the top of the head by a small, pointed blade which pierced his skull right through. Finally, a heavy, bladed weapon – it may well have been the wickedly curved large blade of a halberd – cleaved through the air and removed a large chunk at the base of his skull, opening a huge wound, perhaps severe.
He died, a staunch and courageous soldier. ‘An end to war or life,’ the king had cried on the eve of the battle. Fate had chosen him: as one writer at the time marveled, ‘A king of England slain in a pitched battle in his own kingdom, has never been heard of since the time of King Harold.’
His death brought the battle – which came to be known as the battle of Bosworth – to an end. Once the fighting had ceased King Richard was stripped of his armour, slung over a horse and taken to Leicester to be buried in the nave of the church of the Greyfriars.
Somewhere on his final journey his body was abused and humiliated: a knife or dagger was stabbed so hard through the naked buttocks that it damaged the bone of his pelvis. Then his slashed and bloodied body was slung into a hastily dug shallow grave. ‘God that is all merciful,’ wrote one chronicler, ‘forgive him his misdeeds.’
Once the battle of Bosworth was won, Henry Tudor thanked God, clambered up the nearest hillside and addressed the men who stood exhausted before him on the battlefield. He thanked the nobles and gentlemen who had fought beside him, commanded the wounded to be cared for and the dead to be buried, and then received the acclaim of his soldiers, who bellowed ‘God save King Henry!’ at the tops of their voices.
Lord Stanley, standing close by, saw his moment. Richard III’s battered crown, dislodged along with his helmet in the melee, had been found ‘among the spoil in the field’. As kingmaker, Stanley exercised his right to place the hollow crown on Henry Tudor’s head, ‘as though he had been already by commandment of the people proclaimed king’. Then the victorious party left the field, making their slow and regal way towards London.”
The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenet’s and the Rise of the Tudors (Chapter 19: War or Life)