​Battle of Bosworth: the treachery that killed Richard III

Painting of the Battle of Bosworth
The Battle of Bosworth, which took place on 22 August in 1485, was one of the final engagements of the Wars of the Roses, which had raged between Yorkists and Lancastrians for 32 years.

The Yorkists were led by the King, Richard III, who had come to the throne following the death of his brother, Edward IV. The Lancastrians followed Henry Tudor, making his own (very tenuous) claim to the throne.

Richard's reputation today is often as a hunchback, tyrant and murderer, but much of this comes from writers, including Shakespeare, who were serving under Tudor monarchs including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Contemporary history has shown that Richard's deformities were exaggerated, he was a loyal servant to his brother, and there is plenty of doubt about the deaths attributed to him.

Henry sailed from France to Wales, where he had been born, and gathered supporters as he marched on to England. His force of 5,000 men was around a third of the size of Richard's army.

As he started to gain momentum, Henry asked Lord Thomas Stanley and Sir William Stanley for their support. Lord Stanley was married to Henry's mother and had a large private army that would bolster Tudor’s numbers. Fearing a loss of their support, Richard took Stanley's son hostage to encourage them to fight on his side.

Richard's army marched from Leicester in an attempt to stop Henry's advance to London. It is believed, the King's troops camped overnight on Ambion Hill and then moved down to meet the Lancastrian forces.

Henry's smaller army was forced to circle round a marsh to meet the advancing Yorkists.

All attempts at winning the Stanley's support seems to have failed and they sat out the early fight, not committing to either side.

Unlike Richard, Henry Tudor had little experience as a military leader, however he was supported by battle-hardened veterans.

The Lancastrian attack was led by the Earl of Oxford, who organised his men in a solid wedge to attack the King's vanguard, led by the Duke of Norfolk.

From his vantage point, Richard could see he was losing the flank and ordered his rearguard, led by the Earl of Northumberland, to attack. Whether hindered by the marsh, concerned by the position of the Stanleys, or having struck a secret deal with Henry Tudor, Northumberland didn't move.

Now Richard was told that Henry was moving with a small force of troops, away from his army and towards to the Stanleys, perhaps intending to push the case for supporting him.

Spotting an opportunity to strike directly at Henry, the King led a charge of his knights straight into Tudor’s bodyguards.

At this point, Sir William Stanley committed to the battle, joining on the side of Henry Tudor. His forces outnumbered Richard's and they cut down his knights.

Many historians paint the Stanleys as fence-sitters, but Bosworth expert Mike Ingram says they had a long-running feud with the King and had plotted against him in the run up to the battle. He argues that their ploy of joining late may have been a trap to kill the King.

At this point Shakespeare has the King crying out his famous line, "My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse," but the truth is that Richard was bogged down in marshland and had refused the offer of a horse to escape, declaring he would live or die as King of England.

When Richard's body was discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012 scientists were able to establish how he had died. A large number of injuries to his head and body suggests he was set upon by Henry's knights - a gruesome death.

In the aftermath, Norfolk and Northumberland's troops withdrew from the battlefield and Lord Thomas Stanley presented the new King with Richard's crown, found under a thorn bush.

Henry Tudor became Henry VII and created a line of rulers that would prosper for more than 100 years.

Want to know more? Our Wars of the Roses tours are led by experts and explore the most important battlefields. The Decisive Battle is led by historian Mike Ingram, and includes exclusive access to the Bosworth battlefield, where Ingram provides a fascinating commentary on Richard’s downfall.

Take a look at our Wars of the Roses itineraries.

Picture credit: The Battle of Bosworth, Abraham Cooper / Public domain