The Battle of Bosworth - August 22, 1485

Ricardian Register, Winter 2002-03

Why I moved the battle of Bosworth to Atherstone
Michael K. Jones


Derby Spinney (clump of trees) with Fenny Drayton in the background. Michael Jones' theory of the battle places Richard III's death here.

It seems audacious to transport a battle some eight miles from its long- established environs, and particularly this one, for Bosworth 1485 is central to any debate on Richard III as man and king. But if something as basic as this is in need of re-appraisal, a lot else might be too.

The true story of this famous battle remains frustratingly elusive.

Henry Tudor’s victory set the seal on a change of dynasty and was soon portrayed as God’s endorsement of a rightful cause. The tale we know is one told and re-told by the Tudor victors. Richard III’s preparations are overshadowed by a fear of treachery, his army is committed in piecemeal, haphazard fashion and his charge towards his opponent appears a desperate gamble. The last Plantagenet king of England reacts to events always outside his control, and his end, overwhelmed by his enemies, is somehow grimly inevitable.

The geography of the traditional battle site plays a key part in these events: the king huddled defensively on the summit of a hill, the narrow west-facing escarpment from which he makes his ill-judged charge. If Richard were passive, fearing the approach of Henry Tudor, we would expect to find him on a hill, where he would anxiously survey the manoeuvres of his opponent. And if he were unable to command the loyalty of magnates in his own army, we might understand him choosing a site where the nature of the terrain disallowed their easy participation in the forthcoming clash of arms. Ambion Hill in Leicestershire, the home of the present day battlefied centre, provides a convenient setting for this drama to be enacted. But it is a version I now wish to challenge.

What if our assumptions about the defeated commander are wrong? The Richard I see takes a pro-active role in the imminent encounter. He believes he can win, and wishes to do so in the most emphatic manner possible. He creates the time and space to prepare his army, which is loyal and motivated. This is done through the use of powerful ritual, to inspire his men and communicate the cause for which they are fighting. And this cause is no less than the legitimate succession to the throne of England.

Up until now, the suggestion that Cecily Neville’s eldest surviving son, Edward IV, was a bastard, has never been taken seriously. We learn from the testimony of Dominic Mancini, an Italian visitor to London in the summer of 1483, that Cecily herself ‘fell into a frenzy’ and in her rage, made the astounding accusation, adding that she would prepared to testify before a public enquiry that it was indeed the case. How has this incredible disclosure been explained away by historians? Edward, of course, was born abroad, in Rouen on 28th April 1442, and slanders of this kind attached themselves more easily to a birth outside the country. But for the mother herself to make the acknowledgment was unprecedented. It has been dismissed on two grounds. Some have believed Cecily’s disclosure was mischievous, vindictive and intended to discredit her son the king because of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, a liaison she could never accept or forgive. Others assume that Richard callously intimidated his mother into making the admission, or even worse, disparaged her behind her back in his ruthless pursuit of a crown not rightfully his. I wish to argue that the disclosure may have been true.

In my new book, I gather the evidence to sustain this revolutionary point of view. One crucial new piece of evidence establishes that the Duke of York, Richard’s father, was away from his wife at the time of Edward’s conception. This brings Richard forward in a new light, as the only true heir and successor of the house of York following the death of his brother Clarence, and the only man able to restore the honour of that house following the shameful intrusion of a bastard line. For the first time, Richard has a cause to fight for, shared by his mother. It was one which could be powerfully communicated to his soldiers on the field of battle.

A number of near-contemporary sources refer to Richard wearing the ‘most precious’ or ‘priceless’ crown of England at the time of battle. This seems to have been a reference to the coronation regalia itself, the richly jewelled crown of Edward the Confessor. This would have been far too heavy to wear during the fighting, indeed, its weight was such that magnates and bishops would have supported it on the king’s head as he processed before his troops. Such a ceremony must have made a profound impression on those who witnessed it.

This alerts us to a very different possible sequence of events as the battle was about to begin. Instead of the wholesale rush and disorganisation inflicting his army, Richard has time to unify it through ritual drama. His military acumen was acknowledged even by his enemies, and it is hard to imagine such a man boxing himself into a corner as the traditional narrative suggests. The slopes of Ambion Hill are an unlikely place to find him.

I believe that Richard had a vision of the way he wished to win this crucial encounter, by leading a massed cavalry attack against his Tudor challenger. I argue from the presence of the experienced Spanish war captain, Juan de Salazar, in the royal division, close to Richard’s person, a vital link with an earlier battle, that of Toro in March 1476, which had been won by Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, through just such a feat of arms. And I have discovered an entirely new source for Bosworth, an eye-witness account by one of the French mercenaries in Tudor’s army, describing the charge itself in stirring fashion. It was not the hasty act of a reckless king and a few diehard supporters. Rather, Richard prepared carefully and led forward his entire division, numbering several hundred horsemen, to deliver the knock-out blow.


Jones' conception of the battle. Click to view enlargement.

On Ambion Hill there is simply not enough room to effect such a manoeuvre. But if we move Richard some eight miles further west, close to the small market town of Atherstone in Warwickshire, its low-lying fields are ideal cavalry country. Surprisingly, many of the closest contemporary accounts point to such a scenario. One, the Crowland Chronicle, tells us that Richard gained accurate intelligence of Tudor’s whereabouts as close to the Abbey of Merevale, situated a mile south-west of Atherstone itself. This well-informed source, which drew on testimony from those who had marched in Richard’s army, then relates how Richard camped nearby and names their encounter the following morning, ‘this battle of Merevale’. Another, the Warwickshire antiquarian John Rouse, tells us the battle took place on the Warwickshire/ Leicestershire border, which is exactly where Atherstone lies. And a newsletter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, gives the nearest town to the engagement as Coventry, not Leicester, again placing the action further west. Most telling of all is a grant of compensation for crops trampled by Tudor’s victorious army, made by Henry VII in the months following his victory. In the first he recompenses Merevale for crops damaged as his men marched towards the field of battle. In the second, he gives money to Atherstone and its neighbouring parishes, for damage inflicted at the field of battle itself. Henry’s grant delineates a clash taking place on the open fields north-east of Atherstone.

There is one fascinating detail which makes no sense in the tradtional location – the position of the sun. It has always been noted, but set aside on the assumption that those who recorded it must simply have made a mistake. The Tudor court historian Polydore Vergil spoke to those who had fought in Tudor’s army. He gleaned from them a crucial piece of information, that Tudor’s captains undertook a flanking manoeuvre to gain the advantage of the strong August morning sun directly in their opponents’ eyes. They must therefore have been facing west or northwest. On Ambion Hill this cannot be, since it was Richard who was charging down the west-facing slope. If we follow the route set out in Tudor’s compensation grants, we at last find a setting that allows this. Henry marched out to the east through the fields of Merevale, then swung north across the parishes adjacent to Atherstone. Accepting that Richard’s encampment was to the north of the town, for the first time we find a scenario that works, with Henry Tudor’s men approaching as the sun climbed in the sky behind them.

Only one key factor seems to work against such a re-location of this famous battle – the known burial site of some of the slain at Dadlington, a mile or so south of Ambion Hill. This known place of burial was of such significance that the very naming of the battle seems to have derived from it, Market Bosworth being the nearest town. Such a link has convinced the majority of historians that the action must have taken place either on Ambion Hill or close by.

But an alternative explanation exists. In a deliberate act of remembrance, Henry Tudor chose to move the slain of his army en masse to consecrated ground, because they had died saving his life. It was this very public commemoration of a debt of gratitude that was to inspire the battle name, rather than the exact geographical location. This provocative new argument is based on both detailed research and a different way of reading medieval battles. Only the bare bones of it can be given here.

Atherstone may now be the setting for one of the most epic battles of our history. And if we travel to this startling new location, the Richard we find there is entirely different from the Shakespearean caricature. He has a cause in which he truly believes, and has prepared his battleground, both actual and psychological, accordingly. He will take the fight to his opponent. My new eye-witness source shows the reason for his defeat as extraordinary chance, a manoeuvre by the French pikemen opposing this that he had never seen before and thus had no way of anticipating. The pikemen formed a square, to shatter the impact of the king’s heroic charge, while Tudor dismounted within it and kept his head down. The king’s almost superhuman efforts to break through, which came so close to success, at last give us the vista of courage that even his harshest critics have always acknowledged.

In August 2002 I walked the traditional battle site at the time of its annual re-enactment, and discussed my ideas with some of the participants. I have visited many battle sites and have often found them intensely moving places where one can easily sense the drama and emotion of the life and death combats which have marked them. The tranquil surrounds of Ambion Hill felt to me curiously lacking in such qualities, but I wondered whether my own beliefs about the location could be causing me to miss something. Then one of the re-enactors turned to me and said: ‘I’ve camped out on lots of sites from the Wars of the Roses. Some of them are really spooky. It’s like it all happened yesterday – you can almost hear the horses. But this place has never felt to me like a battlefield’.

 


About the Author:

Michael K. Jones, an independent scholar, is the co-author, with Malcolm Underwood, of The King’s Mother, a biography of Margaret Beaufort. His rationale for siting the battle at Atherstone can be found in his new book, Bosworth 1485 - Psychology of a Battle (Tempus/Arcadia, 2002) ISBN: 0 7524 2334 7 Hardback UK £25 USA $29.99. To order the book, call Arcadia toll-free at 1-888-313-2665 or use this link to order online from Amazon.com (and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Richard III Society, American Branch).

 


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