Bosworth 1485

Bosworth 1485

The Battle that Transformed England

Michael K. Jones

Pegasus Books, New York, 2015, 256 pages

Book Review published on: April 7, 2017

“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” This famous stanza from Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, takes on a whole different meaning after a review of Bosworth 1485. What many of us have come to accept through literature, plays, and history is a portrait of a king of England through the less objective lens of the Tudors. If history is written by the victors, in this case, it holds true to form.

After the rise to power of Richard III, as well as the ascendency of his brother Edward before him, we see great similarities in royal behavior at the time. It was not altogether uncommon for the use of fratricide within one’s own family to assume power, for parents (mother, in this case) to control events that seem counter to moral principles, and of course, to take on a bravado or chivalric stance or ceremony to justify ones rise, although many can see it as hubris. Controlling for these independent effects on outcomes is how we isolate relevant components and build an accurate historical account. This allows specifics such as battle formations, tactics, and overall outcomes to be key elements in this review versus the villainizing of a king. Michael Jones does this with great fidelity and prowess.

The account of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth has been vetted as one of a usurper with no right to the throne. This was at least the story that the Tudors would like us to believe. However, these preconceptions are reexamined and found to be misplaced. What is even more fascinating about this account is that it comes out just after Richard III was located in a Leicester parking lot in 2012. Strangely enough as the story goes, the very first place the archaeologists exhumed immediately uncovered what was later to be verified as Richard’s remains. DNA was matched to a relative seventeen-generations removed and through carbon-14 dating found the approximate date of death (1450-1520). It was matched through his mother’s side, Cecille Neville, whose infamy matches that of her sons. Five centuries of the Neville blood line led to a positive identification, as well as confirmation of Richard’s curved spine and humpback. He was vilified for these disabilities that were thought to have been a representation of his wickedness in assuming the crown versus a painful debilitating genetic disease that he incurred later in life. These vilifications were a part of the rationale as to why he was defeated at Bosworth. However, as findings unfold, you can see a different figure, as well as a battlefield scenario and context that explains how Bosworth happened as it did; a tactical error based on a desire to display courage, chivalry, and valor toward one enemy versus prudence in action.

Richard’s desire to avenge his father’s own demise in 1441 and chivalry played a more significant role in the failure on the battlefield than did the absence of divine support. Also critical was his inability to foment adequate allegiances to support him on the battlefield such as the Stanleys, who stood by with their forces and never interceded in the conflict. Richard III was holding Sir William Stanley’s son as a guarantee of his support (another common tactic), which did not motivate him. Interesting enough, he also did not help Henry VII for that matter and stood aside. This subtle yet significant element is absent in the final Tudor account.

A formal battlefield analysis identified the relevant terrain elements and tactics involved, which demonstrated a misreading of the ground where the battle was actually fought as well as the failure to see a tactical change in the use of weaponry. When Henry formed for battle he held a defensive position. The initially successful assaults of Richard nearly broke Henry’s lines until, in an act of chivalric bravado and misperception, Richard determined that his cavalry would break the line. Richard did not take into account Henry’s use of French mercenaries with halberds and pikes, who eventually surrounded and killed Richard III when he was knocked off his horse.

Richard III was a proven warrior whose desire to demonstrate his right coupled with the shame that his father suffered in a previous battle blinded him to then current tactics. Furthering the hypocrisy of the Tudors toward Richard’s reign, when Henry marched into the capital, he immediately jailed all families and elements perceived as a threat, conducting in his own way the precise example Richard presented. These facts produce an alternative Shakespearean tale and help to reinforce many erroneous interpretations of the events at Bosworth. Divine intervention was not on the side of the righteous, but on the side of those who read the terrain, displayed the right tactics, and used modern weaponry to great effect.

Medieval to modern historians, military tacticians, and leadership scholars can all gain substantive insight through this text. Not only does it define the transition to a modern age in England, but it also identifies well with current challenges in diplomatic relations, paying credence to the differences in statesmanship of other nations and knowing the subtle differences between principles of war and myth in defining the rationale of the outcome of a battle. This is how current and objective elements must work in tandem to produce the best possible definition of world history from accurate renderings.

Book Review written by: Col. Thomas S. Bundt, U.S. Army, PhD, Fort Detrick, Maryland