1483 wasn’t exactly a great year for Henry Tudor, any more than it was for his mother. He traipsed mournfully across Normandy and into Brittany to the fair town of Vannes, where the first bit of news he heard was that Buckingham, had been executed. Sic transit gloria mundi, buckers, he might have remarked miserably to himself, chewing on life’s gristle. But when he managed a whistle, his perspective began to change; because various very important rebels began to arrive in town, presumably mud splattered from all the frantic riding and covered in bark from all the hiding in trees. John Morton, and Elizabeth Woodville’s son the Marquis of Dorset to name but two of the most important. Meanwhile, Duke Francis continued in his Mr Helpful Positive persona, and agreed when Henry asked him to pledge aid should he try to claim his throne encore un fois, guv. At Christmas he and his merry band of brothers swore an oath together, and Henry swore that if he became king he would marry Elizabeth of York, an offer designed to keep on his side all the rebels of Edward IV’s old household who had survived the 1483 uprising. Elizabeth of York was not consulted.
Of Margaret in the next two years we know very little again. But there are straws blowing in the wind, along with all those answers Bob was looking for. One is that it is highly likely she was writing to her lad – none of the letters survive, but it seems that Stanley, fulfilling his dual role as jailer and husband, allowed her a deal of latitude, without doing so much that would arose the king’s ire. And a ballad suggests that Elizabeth Woodville in her heart remained on team Henry, whatever her public behaviour, and added her words to those of Margaret’s to bring Stanley round to Henry’s side.
Richard was well aware of the danger, and his actions confirm the increasing desperation of his fears. The contemporary Polydore Vergil – historian if you are team Tudor, Tudor apologist if you are a Riccardian – wrote that Richard was
Vexed, wrested and tormented in mind with fear almost perpetually
Also he suffered a horrible blow; the death of his and Anne’s only son Edward. The couple were at Nottingham, and ‘became almost out of their minds for a long time when faced with such sudden grief’ – as you would do. Within a year, Richard would also lose his wife; at the time the various Tudor historians talked of rumours that Richard had poisoned her, so that he could marry again. There’s no proof of such a thing; you can make your own choice, I’m choosing not to be believe it, and to feel sorry for Richard and Anne’s loss, which must be awful.
Richard, however, was not the kind of guy to sit around chewing his lip waiting for things to happen, he was a man of action. What his regime needed was legitimacy and stability. His first step was to persuade Elizabeth to come out of Westminster Abbey and join him at court. For Elizabeth, the equation was that she could not stay in sanctuary indefinitely, and she owed it to her daughters to normalise their lives; so after Richard swore a public oath to do her no harm, she rejoined court; by the sound of things, to her daughter Elizabeth of York’s great enjoyment in the Christmas of 1484.
Still, the real problem was out of Richard’s reach, in Brittany, and apparently in favour with the Duke. So Richard showed us his regnal chops, if I can put it like that. He needed to find a way to change Francis’ attitude, he needed to find leverage.
Part of that leverage came from France, where Anne of Beaujeu was regent for her young son, and began to put pressure on Francis, eager to make sure Brittany became French. Meanwhile, Richard chose this time to respond to Breton piracy, something of a constant in the medieval world; he let his very own pirates off the leash, commissioning them to visit fire and sword on Breton shipping and ports. And it worked. By the latter part of 1484, Brittany was suffering badly, and Francis wanted it to end please.
At the same time, though, Richard offered the hand of friendship – tsk tsk, sorry about those Cornish I do try to stop their old tricks; but how about France? You must be worried about them? By playing on these fears, and providing 3,000 English archers, Richard both pressurised Francis and showed him the advantages of alliance; set against that, how valuable was his support for Henry, who had already tried and failed to seize his throne? Loser!
Henry came as close to disaster in 1484 as he had ever been; Francis, and maybe more specifically his Chancellor Landois actually agreed in secret to Richard to hand Henry over. Enter Christopher Urswick, envoy of Margaret. Somehow, Margaret came to know of these wicked plans; and you have to guess that news came from Stanley, further evidence that the Stanley rat was leaving the sinking Yorkist ship. Urswick came to Brittany, met with John Morton and thence to Henry – he was in direct danger, he must fly for France. Together, Henry and the ever faithful Jasper made their plans.
Urswick firstly was sent on a clandestine mission to France, to gain permission to enter France, quickly given. In late summer, Jasper Tudor left the Breton town of Vannes, apparently on his way to meet with Duke Francis. Presumably whistling casually. When he came near the French border, he legged it hard as he could over the border into Anjou. Two days later, Henry Tudor left Vannes with just 5 servants, saying he was going to meet a friend. Presumably whistling casually. And then when he neared the border–guess what? He too lifted his skirts, showed his hairy knees and legged it over the border. Too late the Bretons had realised what was going on. They sent men in hot pursuit–but Henry was over the border just an hour before they caught up. Dering do, or what! By October 1484, Henry was safely ensconsed in the French court, and negotiations began. At this point, Duke Francis appeared to wash his hands of the whole thing, and let the rest of Henry’s supporters leave and go to Paris too, on the grounds that they were eating him out of house and home. Richard must have been apoplectic with rage. So close. So unlucky.
By 1485, then, Richard knew full well that he could expect an invasion from Henry, and his power to prevent it was slight – all he could do was prepare. And in fact, he probably now welcomed the coming challenge – only by defeating Henry in battle could his legitimacy be won. On 7th December 1484 he issued a proclamation denouncing Henry and his invaders. Henry meanwhile was flooding England and Wales with letters, seeking support; at the top of the list would have been two of Richard’s most powerful magnates – Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and of course the Stanley brothers, Thomas and William; Henry had already received a boost when John de Vere left Hammes castle near Calais to join him –to be duly rewarded with the position of commander for the expedition. Meanwhile the French were accommodating-without being wildly so, but loaning him money, and allowing him to recruit. And right at the end of July 1485, Jasper and Henry were ready to go with their intrepid band – or motley crew might be a better description, of some French soldiers, English exiles, Norman villains scraped from the prisons.
And so on the 7th August 1485, Henry and his band of probably 4,000 warriors and cutthroats landed near Milford Haven on the coast of Wales. Henry jumped into the surf and did the traditional ground kissing for the cameras.
After he’d wiped the sand from his lips – which you never really get rid of do you, if my experience of beach holidays is anything to go by – the obvious route then was along the south of Wales straight towards the prize – London. But instead, Henry took a much harder route – north along the west coast of Wales. You might ask why – and probably it was because Richard had loyal supporters in South wales, and until he could increase the size of his army, Henry would have wanted to avoid conflict.
Richard meanwhile probably found out that the moment of truth had arrived around 11th August 1485; letters and commands were sent to Percy, Norfolk and Stanley in particular, as well as to his own men to assemble at Nottingham in the English Midlands.
Henry arrived at his first major town, Shrewsbury. Into history steps the valiant and true bailiff of the town, one Thomas Mitton. Bravely, Mitton lowered the portcullis and refused entrance to the rebel Henry declaring grandly with a great oath that they would have to walk over his belly before he allowed them in. Sadly for Mitton, the citizens of Shrewsbury didn’t like the sound of this, and took Mitton off to one side and burnt his ears. And before you could say ‘abject surrender’, Henry and his army was marching gaily through Shrewsbury. Mitton meanwhile lay down in the muddy street, belly to the air so that Henry could indeed step over his belly, as he had vowed. Mitton’s honour was thus duly preserved, though not his dignity by the sound of things.
By 21st August, Henry was at Atherstone in the midlands of England, stepping on the old Roman road of Watling Street which led south east towards London; and just 20 miles from Leicester.
And it was at Leicester that Richard had assembled his forces on 21st August. As far as he could see, Richard had scored 2 out of three – both Howard and Percy had arrived. Richard had on paper a pretty decent army, and pretty good odds; at very least 7,000 men to Henry’s 5,000, and quite possibly Richard had more. Obviously, the Stanleys were a problem – they were still floating around the area not showing any obvious signs of which way they were jumping. But as he set out to meet Henry in battle, Richard would have been pretty comfortable. Certainly there were no signs of any large scale desertion, and by the evening of 21st August the two armies were ready for battle the following day.
On the morning of 22nd August, Richard looked like death warmed up, plagued apparently by terrible dreams and demons. But what’s clear is that Richard wanted this battle, and indeed needed this battle every bit as much as did Henry Tudor. Meanwhile as Howard, Duke of Norfolk came out of his tent in the cold light of dawn, he found a friendly note waiting for him:
Jack of Norfolk be not too bold
For Dicken thy master is bought and sold
Howard was however, to prove every bit as resolute as was Richard.
Richard strung out his army in battles, with Howard commanding the vanguard. The position of Percy is interesting; but he and his contingent appears to have been on the left. Richard must have been constantly plagued by doubts – would Percy remain loyal when they arrived at the crunch? Of the Stanley’s, Richard appears to have made up his mind. Famously he is supposed to have demanded Stanley declare himself, and threatened to kill his son; and received the reply that Stanley had other sons, so do your worst. Richard did indeed apparently order the worst, ordering his men to behead Lord Strange-but the order wasn’t carried out. As it happens, the Stanleys were still playing both ends; Henry’s urgent enquiries got no more satisfaction than did Richard’s. The Stanleys were playing for time.
Henry’s army of exiles, Welsh, French and Scots came on; skirting round the marsh to attack Howard in one mass battle. They were pepperd by Richard’s artillery and handgunners; any notion that Richard was poorly prepared should be ignored; plenty of ammunition of both types have been found on the battlefield. But then Richard gave the command, and Howard charged down the rise into Oxford’s vanguard, and the vicious business of hand to hand fighting began, pike and bill hook, sword and axe and dagger. It seems as though Oxford ordered his men into tight groups around standards, and in the press this concentration seemed to work, and they began to gain the advantage; either that or it was just bad luck that Howard was killed; and anyway that in itself can’t have helped the morale of the Yorkists. The fight was hard, but for some reason, Richard was unable to deploy Percy’s battle, and Percy’s battle contained most of Richard’s northerners, his most committed supporters. Now this might be for two reasons; it could be that the marsh now prevented Percy from joining, blocked him in so that the only way for him to join the battle would be through Howard’s battle. Or it could be treachery; it could be that Henry’s letters and blandishments had done their work.
At this point, Henry put himself in great danger; he and his small personal guard became exposed. Either he had simply become disconnected from the main army as Oxford pushed forward; or maybe even, he had decided to ride to William Stanley to entreat him to join and swing the battle in his favour.
On his hill Richard and his cavalry saw an opportunity; if he could charge with his cavalry and kill Henry, the battle would without doubt end in triumph. If he killed Henry, the judgement of God could not be clearer. Plus it could be that the main battle was going against him –certainly his most trustworthy supporter was dead, Percy’s loyalty uncertain. But, But – by attacking Henry directly, he would expose himself to horrible danger – disconnected from the rest of his men-and right in front of the Stanleys’ positions. If their loyalty did indeed not hold, he would be in terrible danger. He stood on the edge of the cliff – danger and opportunity fighting for supremacy in his mind. And as he’d done in 1483, Richard rolled the dice.
‘This day I will die as a king or win
He roared, and kicked his horse into action and with the men around him ordered the charge, the gold circlet on his crown gleaming as he rode. Richard led his cavalry, and slammed into the exposed Henry with vicious speed and weight of horse and metal. They hit, and carried all before them. Richard’s path to Henry was blocked by a massive knight, John Cheyney- but Richard hacked him down, chewing through Henry’s guard. William Brandon was cut down and Henry’s standard fell, and to all who saw it, that must have signalled the end of Henry Tudor. But the charge was slowing and Henry’s men resolutely gathered around him and desperately resisted.
At which point William Stanley rolled the dice – and ordered his men to charge. And the object of the charge was not Henry, but Richard. It seems likely that at this point, as the Stanlys flew toward Richard, that he had the opportunity to fly, to escape back to his army, though with the Stanleys now committed it was Richard that was outnumbered. But Richard was committed-if he could just reach Henry, all could be saved.
Stanley’s men hit before he could break through, and now the tables were turned. Richard’s horse was killed from under him. At some point he must have lost his helmet, and he was hit by several glancing blows that cut his scalp and took chips of bone off his skull. In agony he fought on, but a mounted man struck down with a dagger and pierced his skull. And then came a mighty blow from a heavy bladed weapon which opened his skull at the base of his head, and night closed on his eyes and he bit the dust.
Whatever his crimes or triumphs, one thing nobody could take away from Richard was the heroic nature of his death. To give the last words to the arch assassin of his reputation, Polydore Vergil, he died ‘fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies’.
Margaret of course was not there, and was forced throughout Henry’s march and battle to wait for news – though maybe letters went to and fro as Henry marched through Wales. Obviously, we can be reasonably sure of Margaret’s joy and no doubt vast relief when the news arrived. Henry was to give her a gift – a book of Hours taken from the dead king’s tent, and signed by him. Margaret had already noted in her own book
This day king Henry VIIth won the field where was slain king Richard III
Which I have to say is a rather emotionless entry. When she received Richard’s signed Book of Hours, she permitted herself a little more latitude, erasing the name of the hated usurper who had seized the crown of her Lancastrian ancestors. In his book she wrote
For the honour of God and St Edmund
Pray for Margaret Richmond
All the worry, and hoping and scheming were over.