Post-classical history

19 : War or Life

They marched through the mountains beneath the sign of the dragon. Henry Tudor and his allies had been on the road for a little over a week, travelling on a cautious route and at a slow pace through the rolling and occasionally inhospitable Welsh countryside. Frenchmen, Welshmen, English exiles and a smattering of Scots made up this hotchpotch army, but above their heads the banners of the campaign included a few clear symbols of their intent. The cross of St George and the Dun Cow of the Beaufort family spoke of royal intent and Lancastrian ancestry. The red dragon against a background of green and white reminded those who passed by that as a Welshman, Henry could connect himself not only with Henry VI (who had granted Edmund and Jasper Tudor the right to use it as a heraldic symbol) but with ancient kings of the Britons such as Cadwaladr, whose exploits were celebrated by the bards.1

Their route during the first week of their march had taken them north-east from Mill Bay, via Haverfordwest to Cardigan, then hugging the coastline up to Aberystwyth. This was by no means the most direct path towards Henry’s sworn enemy, the man whom his letters to local Welsh gentry described as ‘that odious tyrant Richard late duke of Gloucester, usurper of our said right’. But it was the safest road to take: partly because south Wales was well secured against the Tudors and partly because Henry entertained a keen hope that his stepfather Lord Stanley and his brother Sir William Stanley would be willing to add their substantial military might from their estates in north Wales and north-west England.

On Sunday 14 August the invaders were at Machynlleth, the small town in the Dyfi valley that had in Owain Glyndwr’s day been the rebel capital of the whole country, and from which it was possible to turn directly east and traverse the mountains of mid-Wales, descending through the marches to reach England by the fertile plain of Shropshire. Even in the height of summer this was rugged and difficult countryside, but after three days Henry’s men had dragged their feet and their guns over the high ground and were approaching Shrewsbury. The English midlands and their chance at seizing the realm opened up before them.

Of all the men and women who had fought for the English crown during the struggles of the century, perhaps none was less familiar to the majority of that crown’s subjects than Henry Tudor. A thin face with high cheekbones framed a long thin nose, a feature shared by his mother, Margaret Beaufort. Round, somewhat hooded eyes formed a tight triangle with his thin, downward-sloping mouth, and dark wavy hair tumbled down almost to his shoulders. Having barely lived in England, he preferred to speak French. But he had already adopted the style and bearing of a crowned king, and his letters calling for support suggest that he was more than comfortable in the language of imperious persuasion that was expected of an English monarch. ‘We will and pray you and on your allegiance straightly charge and command you that in all haste possible ye assemble [your] folks and servants … defensibly arrayed for war [and] come to us for our aid and assistance … for the recovery of the crown of our realm of England to us of right appertaining,’ he wrote from Machynlleth to potential supporters among the Welsh gentry.2 To many of these Welsh supporters he also dangled the alluring prospect of the principality’s ancient liberties and legal freedoms being restored, should he be victorious. All the same, the Tudor rebellion struck most contemporaries as so unlikely that reinforcements trickled, rather than flowed, to his side.

As Henry rode through the mountains, word reached Richard III that the attack he had long anticipated had finally arrived. He was in Nottinghamshire during mid-August, and according to one well-informed chronicler he ‘rejoiced’ at the news, celebrating Henry’s arrival as ‘the long-wished-for day … for him to triumph with ease over so contemptible a faction’. The Stanley family was the one serious ally whom the Tudors could hope to recruit, but Richard had taken precautions to secure their loyalty: while Lord Stanley was absent from the king’s side in Lancashire, he had agreed to leave his son and heir, George, Lord Strange, under royal supervision. Richard did not trust the Stanleys – indeed, as a precautionary measure he had declared Sir William and his associate Sir John Savage to be traitors simply as a warning to others who might consider joining the rebellion – but he had enough of a hold on them to feel that they would think long and hard before attacking their anointed king.

All the same, as the Tudors came down out of the mountains into England, they found that their association with the Stanleys was beginning to work in their favour. On their first arrival at Shrewsbury on Wednesday 17 August, the bailiff, Thomas Mitton, lowered the portcullis against them, swearing an oath that they would have to walk over his belly – implying his dead body – before they were allowed to pass through the streets of the town. After a short impasse, word reached Mitton from the Stanleys that Henry was to be afforded civility and assistance. The rebel army marched through, and in order to protect his oath and his honour, Mitton lay on the ground in front of Henry and allowed him to step over his – very much living – belly as he went.

Little by little, Henry was gaining momentum. Although the nobility remained thinly represented – of the highest ranks only John de Vere, earl of Oxford was with him – the rebel army slowly began to expand with gentlemen who either had connections to the Stanley family or else remained loyal to the memory of Edward IV, Buckingham and even the duke of Clarence. The Stanleys themselves had three thousand men in the field, although Lord Stanley refused to formally join his forces with the five thousand or so who were directly behind the Tudors. On Friday 19 August they were at Stafford. The following day they had reached Lichfield. The day after that Henry had his army camped around Atherstone, near the border between Warwickshire and Leicestershire.

By this stage, Richard III had travelled from Nottingham to Leicester and had somehow scrambled together an army described as ‘greater than had ever been seen before in England collected together in behalf of one person’. The king rode out of Leicester at the head of his army on the morning of Sunday 21 August with the duke of Norfolk and earl of Northumberland by his side and the crown on his head. ‘Amid the greatest pomp’ and with ‘mighty lords, knights and esquires, together with a countless multitude of the common people’, Richard rode west towards the place where his scouts told him Henry Tudor was waiting.3 By nightfall little more than a mile separated the armies of king and pretender, both of whom were now ready to meet their fate.


Richard III woke early on the morning of Monday 22 August, out of a fitful sleep, plagued by ‘a terrible dream’ in which ‘he saw horrible images … of evil spirits haunting evidently about him … and they would not let him rest’.4 It was so early that the king could not find breakfast in his camp, nor was there a chaplain yet awake who could celebrate the mass. But the discomfort of the night did not dissuade the king from battle; rather, it hardened his mood. His enemy was, to Richard’s mind, the last true obstacle to the final security of his kingdom. He ‘declared it was his intention, if he should prove the conqueror, to crush all the supporters of the opposite faction’, not least since he believed that Henry Tudor would do exactly the same if the roles were reversed. That day, he told his companions, ‘he would make end either of war or life’.5 He decided at some point that he would ride into battle wearing his royal crown. Everything he was, everything he possessed, would be visibly at stake.

The two armies were camped on either side of a place known locally as the Redesmere – a marshy plain below the sharp slope of Ambion Hill, set in verdant countryside dotted here and there with towns and little villages, including Market Bosworth, some way off to the north. The royal camp was pitched at Sutton Cheney, near the hill: perhaps fifteen thousand men stretched out across the fields, all of them having been encouraged to feed and refresh themselves before the travails that lay ahead. Morale was reasonable, for none had been in the field for more than a couple of weeks, but spirits had all the same been dented by a pair of high-profile embarrassments. The royal captives Sir Thomas Bourchier and Walter Hungerford, both imprisoned in the Tower on suspicion of plotting in 1483, had escaped while being moved in custody, and managed to join with Henry Tudor. It was also suggested, some time after the battle, that during the night before the battle the duke of Norfolk’s tent was graffitied with a defeatist slogan:

Jack of Norfolk be not too bold

For Dicken thy master is bought and sold.

The light had barely come up on the camp when, from the vantage point of Ambion Hill, the enemy was spotted on the move, marching north-east in battle formation across the corn fields that lay between the hill and the villages of Atterton and Fenny Drayton. Henry Tudor had beaten Richard’s men to the start, and now the king’s men scrabbled to be ready for the oncoming assault.

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, armour and sharp arrowheads gleaming, and dozens of lean-barrelled 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 would have been filled with caustic smoke, and the field rung with deafening booms. As the arrows were unleashed, the thunder would have been joined by the snap of bowstrings and the deadly fizz of wood and fletchings arcing towards vulnerable flesh.

The rebels’ vanguard was led by the wily and experienced John de Vere, earl of Oxford; the left and right were led by Henry’s allies John Savage and Gilbert Talbot respectively. Henry himself was behind the lines, surrounded by a very few men grouped around the Tudor standard bearer, Sir William Brandon. Mercifully for Richard III there were no Stanleys among the rebel ranks. Although Lord Stanley and Sir William were present near the battlefield they kept their forces mustered separately, arrayed about a mile away, from where they could watch the battle unfold before committing themselves. This was not entirely useful to anyone but the Stanleys themselves. In a fit of pique, Richard sent a message that Lord Stanley’s son, Lord Strange, whom he had brought as his hostage to the field, should be summarily beheaded to punish the Stanleys for their lack of commitment. But as the chaos, thunder and panic of battle unfolded, the orders were never carried out.

What occurred subsequently is hard to piece together. Henry’s vanguard, under Oxford, used the marshiest part of the field as a natural defence on their right flank and came upon the royal vanguard as they ran down Ambion Hill. The two vans crunched into one another, their helmets pulled down over their faces, fighting fiercely hand to hand. Oxford had ordered the rebel troops to fight in tight clusters, no more than ‘ten foot from the standards’, according to Vergil.6 This caused some confusion to their enemies, watched by Henry Tudor from behind his lines, and King Richard observing from higher ground on the hill.

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.7

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’.8 And his tenacity was rewarded. Seeing Henry in trouble – perhaps also having heard that Lord Strange’s sentence of death had been executed – Sir William Stanley charged his reserve army into the mêlée, 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 enough to kill him instantly.9‘King Richard alone was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies,’ wrote Vergil.10 He died, if not a hero, then certainly a staunch and courageous soldier. ‘An end to war or life,’ the king had cried on the eve of the battle. Fate had chosen for him: as one writer at the time marvelled, ‘A king of England slain in a pitched battle in his own kingdom, has never been heard of since the time of King Harold.’11 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.’12


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 mêlée, 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.

Henry VII officially dated his reign from Sunday 21 August, the day before the battle of Bosworth – a novelty that allowed him to present victory as divine sanction for his kingship. Accordingly, since Henry’s reign had been approved by God, he had been ‘crowned’ (in the most informal manner) by Stanley and his rival Richard III was dead (quite a luxury for a usurper) he was prepared to delay his official coronation by more than two months. Partly this was for safety, since London in the late summer of 1485 was plagued with a ‘sweating sickness, whereof died much people suddenly’.13 The date for Henry’s crowning was therefore set for Sunday 30 October 1485, which allowed enough time for the epidemic to depart and a splendid ceremony to be prepared. Henry realised that he was a political unknown, whose reign demanded brilliant public spectacle in order to demonstrate that he was no interloper, but rather a worthy successor to both Henry VI and Edward IV. In that sense, extravagance was a political necessity.

Accounts of the coronation were drawn up by Sir Robert Willoughby, and they spoke of a flurry of activity among the goldsmiths, cloth merchants, embroiderers, silkwomen, tailors, labourers, boatmen and saddlers of London. Instructions went out for yards of velvet, satin and silk in royal purple, crimson and black, which were then run up into beautiful jackets, hose, hats, robes, wall hangings, cushions and curtains. Henry’s henchmen were ordered hats plumed with ostrich feathers, boots made from fine Spanish leather and striking costumes of black and crimson.14 Even the horses were smartly dressed: their stirrups were covered in red velvet, while tassels and silk buttons adorned their halters. More than £50 was spent commissioning 105 silver and gilt portcullises – the family symbol of Margaret Beaufort – for distribution to favoured guests. This was far more than was spent even on the four ceremonial swords carried in Henry’s procession: two with sharpened points and two blunt. In total, more than £1,500 was spent on the solemnities and celebrations.15

From the embroiderers of London the new king purchased great decorative trappings and hangings – presenting most clearly the symbols of the new reign. One item in the royal accounts for the coronation stands out: £4 13s 4d paid ‘to John Smith, broderer for embroidering of a trappour of blue velvet with red roses with gold of Venice and dragons feet’. Many emblems were displayed at the coronation. Some were traditionally English, like the arms of St Edmund and St Edward the Confessor; others were generically chivalric, such as the ‘trappour with falcons’ which was embroidered by one Hugh Wright. But several were particular to the new Tudor king and his family. The arms of Cadwaladr advertised Henry’s connection with the ancient British-Welsh kings of Arthurian lore. (That claim had also been made by the Yorkists, who proudly traced their ancient roots through the Mortimer line.) A similar lineage was suggested by the many images of red, fiery dragons and their feet. But the greatest sums were spent commissioning red roses detailed with gold. The image of the rose was far from new: the white rose had been one of the chief badges favoured by the house of York, along with the golden sun, with which it was often combined. It was true that red roses had occasionally been associated with Lancastrian kings since Henry IV’s lifetime, while the Welsh poet Robin Ddu had associated the Tudors with the symbol, hankering for the time when ‘red roses will rule in splendour’.16 But never had a king of England so consciously or prominently adopted the red rose as his most visible emblem.

The coronation went off with appropriate pomp, with the most prominent roles taken by the small group of English nobles whom Henry could count as his intimates. These included his uncle Jasper Tudor, now duke of Bedford, his stepfather Thomas, Lord Stanley, who became earl of Derby, and Sir Edward Courtenay, another of the Breton exiles, who was awarded his ancestors’ old title of earl of Devon. All three played important parts in the pageantry, as did John de Vere, earl of Oxford, whose loyalty was rewarded at the coronation feast, where he placed the crown on the king’s head. All had been well rewarded for their long suffering and faith in the Tudor cause. But none was so well rewarded as Margaret Beaufort, the king’s mother: according to her late-life confessor John Fisher, she ‘wept marvellously’ at the moment the crown was placed on her son’s head.

Margaret held the title of countess of Richmond, and was given back the lands that had been placed in her husband’s name by Richard III. She was declared femme sole, a special legal status that gave her total independence, and given a beautiful Thames-side mansion at Coldharbour, which served as her main London residence. But the sight of her son, the boy who had been torn devastatingly from her womb in a cold, plague-ridden Welsh castle when she was just thirteen years old, being crowned king was surely the greatest reward that a mother could desire. Throughout Henry’s reign Margaret was treated as a sort of demi-queen – allowed to dress in the manner of a consort and (in her later years) to sign herself ‘Margaret R’, an explicitly royal style. Her son consulted her in virtually all matters, from foreign policy to legal affairs and internal security. Her manor of Collyweston in Northamptonshire would be palatially refurbished and would serve as a base for the crown in the east midlands. She was entrusted with queenly status and authority, and she exercised it with relish.

She was not, of course, the queen. Henry VII had sworn a solemn oath in 1483 that he would marry Elizabeth of York. Now he was king, he was bound to make good on his word. On 10 December, at Henry’s first parliament, the Speaker, Thomas Lovell, requested that the king’s ‘royal highness should take to himself that illustrious lady Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward IV, as his wife and consort; whereby, by God’s grace, many hope to see the propagation of offspring from the stock of kings, to comfort the whole realm’.17 The king, sitting enthroned before the whole gathering, told parliament that he was ‘content to proceed according to their desire and request’. The wedding was to be held on 18 January 1486.

Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth was not simply a matter of his word or of popular opinion. It was vital to his whole royal manifesto. It was no secret that his claim in blood as a Lancastrian king was weak; he was not a sufficiently obvious heir to Henry VI to be accepted wholeheartedly for who he was. In large part Henry had been made king because he was a candidate for those seeking a replacement for Edward IV: marrying Edward’s eldest daughter was essential to holding that support and trying to restore some stability to the English royal line. It should be noted that Henry ensured he had been crowned and acclaimed as king in his own right, by the judgement of God, before he went about marrying Elizabeth – he could not afford to be seen as purely the puppet of the Yorkists, still less of ruling by right of his wife. (As a group of English ambassadors were instructed to tell the pope in 1486, Henry had won ‘the throne of his ancestors’ by ‘divine aid’. He was marrying Elizabeth to ‘put an end to civil war’.18) Nevertheless, he used the marriage to project a subtle and effective political message, summed up in a striking visual motif. His marriage was represented by another rose. This time it was not the famous old white rose of York or the rather hastily adopted red rose of Lancaster, but a perfect blend of the two: the Tudor rose, white superimposed upon red to form a visual emblem of union, instantly comprehensible to even the dullest mind. The Tudor double rose expressed an instant analysis both of the cause of the wars that had torn England to pieces during the troubled fifteenth century, and of their solution. Everything, the rose said, was down to the split between the houses of Lancaster and York. Everything, the rose also said, was now solved by the two houses’ binding union. Or, as the contemporary writer and court poet Bernard André wrote, ‘It was decreed by harmonious consent that one house would be made from two families that had once striven in mortal hatred.’19 This was a simplistic reading of history, to say the least. But it was one that would endure for centuries.

The wedding was celebrated in the customary fashion, with ‘wedding torches, marriage bed and other suitable decorations’, followed by ‘great magnificence … at the royal nuptials and the queen’s coronation. Gifts flowed freely on all sides and were showered on everyone, while feasts, dances and tournaments were celebrated with liberal generosity to … magnify the joyful occasion …’20 The new queen fell pregnant on or soon after her wedding night and the royal couple departed on progress to the north in March 1486, to demonstrate to the kingdom at large the power and good fortune of the new king. They encountered a few minor disturbances as they went, but largely the countryside was peaceful. And at York, heartland of the former regime, the first city pageant that greeted the new king was a mechanical device displaying a gigantic red rose, which merged with a white rose before other bountiful flowers emerged (‘showing the rose to be the principal of all flowers’). Finally a crown descended from a cloud to cover the whole scene.21The message was clear.


Queen Elizabeth went into labour in September 1486, in St Swithun’s Priory, Winchester. It was no random setting. The former capital of England had close connections to King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and the queen’s lying-in was deliberately located there, in the hope that she would bear a son and heir whose life and reign would rekindle the glorious past.22 Ever since the earliest days of the Plantagenets there had been a taste among the rich and educated English elite for national histories that began with the deeds of Brutus, Cadwaladr and Arthur. The fashion was as strong as ever. In 1485 Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur had been printed by Caxton, providing a new compendium of tales from the days of Camelot. The origins and ideals of English kingship lay in these long-distant histories of the island, and Henry VII had made it his business to be closely associated with them.23 That extended explicitly to attempting to produce his own heir to the crown in a place with as much historical significance as possible.

In this pageant of dynastic creation Elizabeth played her part perfectly. On 20 September she gave birth to a healthy son who was christened, inevitably, Arthur. ‘Let the priests chant fitting hymns with great praise and entreat blessed spirits to favour the boy, that he may magnify the splendid deeds of his parent and exceed his ancestors in piety and arms,’ fawned Bernard André.24

Arthur was very quickly invested with all the trappings of princely status: at his birth he became duke of Cornwall; when he was three years old he was created prince of Wales and earl of Chester and made a knight of the Bath. When he was still not quite five, he became a knight of the Garter, taking the Garter stall at Windsor that had lain vacant since the disappearance of Edward V. He was appointed as warden of the north, with his practical duties carried out by Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey. He was named as the king’s lieutenant when Henry VII travelled out of England. After infancy the boy was tutored by the same Bernard André who had written such exaltations on the occasion of his birth; André reported that his student was vigorous, quick to learn and well versed in the classics. Henry wished to establish his son in exactly the same role as the young Edward V: setting up a prince’s council at Ludlow to deploy royal rule over Wales and the marches. Just as Edward V’s council had been run by a trusted uncle, Earl Rivers, so Prince Arthur’s authority was wielded by his great-uncle, Jasper Tudor, duke of Bedford, a man who was in many ways the most loyal of them all.

Prince Arthur was soon joined by a sister, Margaret, born at Westminster on 28 November 1489. A brother, Prince Henry, was born on 28 June 1491 and a second sister, Mary, on 18 March 1496. In the case of the second prince, Henry VII once again followed the protocol of Edward IV’s time: little Henry was made warden of the Cinque Ports and marshal of England at around the time of his first birthday, and the boy was given the important and evocative title of duke of York. Wild celebrations attended his official investiture on All Hallows’ Day, 1 November 1494. The king laid on a grand three-day tournament with glittering prizes including heavy gold rings set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, great feasts and dances were held, twenty noble sons were knighted and virtually the entire political community of the realm attended a solemn service in the parliament chamber at Westminster, where the little boy was paraded in his finery alongside his parents, both of them wearing their crowns. The story of Henry VII’s reign, played out in a series of pageants and state occasions, was a simple one: through his family he was healing the kingdom.

Yet for all King Henry and Queen Elizabeth’s success in producing heirs, publicising their union and plastering the country with joined roses, there remained – inevitably – those who wished that the turmoil and violence that had tormented England for so long could somehow be rekindled: that another usurper family could be overthrown and yet another king placed beneath the crown. And indeed, Prince Henry’s creation as duke of York when he was aged just three was a direct response to a very specific plot against his father. Three generations of English history had made it inevitable that anyone with even the slightest trace of old royal blood in their veins could be a plausible candidate for kingship: a fact that seemed to be true whether that person was alive – or dead.

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