Bosworth : the Birth of the Tudors – Chris Skidmore

Richard III is definitely the man of the moment. The site of the Battle of Bosworth has been reassessed in recent years & moved several kilometres away from the traditional location. Then, the discovery of Richard’s grave & his remains in Leicester & the controversy over where he should be reburied has dominated newspaper headlines all year. I’ve just received my copy of The King’s Grave, the book by Philippa Langley & Michael Jones about the search of Richard’s burial site & I can’t wait to read it.

Chris Skidmore was already working on his new book, Bosworth : the Birth of the Tudors, when all the excitement erupted. I heard a BBC History Magazine podcast recently where he said that he had just finished the first draft of the book when the news about Richard broke & he had to quickly add a Postscript to the manuscript taking all the new information from the archaeological dig into account.

I’m not a big fan of reading about battles. Strategy & tactics & whose forces stood where on the battlefield isn’t something I’m interested in. However, this book is more than just another recounting of the battle of Bosworth. Skidmore is primarily interested in Henry Tudor (as the subtitle suggests) & so Henry’s life, particularly his years of exile in France & Brittany, are the focus of the first part of the narrative. I found this fascinating because I know very little about Henry’s exile. I’ve read a lot about Richard III & the Wars of the Roses & Henry goes into exile with his uncle, Jasper Tudor,  in 1471 after the Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury & returns with an invading army 14 years later. I know quite a bit about his mother, Margaret Beaufort’s, scheming on his behalf, but Henry himself is a bit of an enigma.

Chris Skidmore has travelled to France to see the castles where Henry was kept in fairly honourable captivity during these years. Henry’s position depended very much on the state of the relationship between Duke Francis of Brittany, King Louis XI & then King Charles VIII of France & the king of England, Edward IV & then Richard III. He was a useful pawn on the diplomatic chessboard. Henry certainly wasn’t kept in a dungeon but he wasn’t altogether free to move around as he wished. Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, never stopped scheming on his behalf & she promoted him as the only viable Lancastrian claimant after the death of Edward, Prince of Wales at Tewkesbury & then the murder of Henry VI in the Tower of London shortly after.

Henry’s claim to the throne was sketchy at best, coming from two illegitimate royal lines of descent. However, his opportunity came after the death of Edward IV, when Richard, Duke of Gloucester usurped the throne of his nephew, Edward V, & became Richard III. Whether Richard was justified in deposing his nephew or not, his short reign was troubled from the start. Rumours of the death of young Edward & his brother, Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower, were widespread only a few months after Richard’s accession. Margaret Beaufort found herself allied with her longtime enemy, Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV & mother of the Princes in the Tower. These two formidable women joined with the Duke of Buckingham (who had helped Richard to the throne but was now disillusioned) in plotting rebellion. The plan was for Henry Tudor to invade &, supported by Buckingham & other disaffected Yorkists, claim the throne & marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth, thus combining the Lancastrian & Yorkist claims to the throne.

This rebellion failed. Henry turned back to Brittany & Buckingham was executed. When Henry planned his next attempt, in 1485, circumstances looked more favourable. Richard’s son & heir, Edward, had died in 1484 & his wife, Anne Neville, was sickly. Rumours spread in early 1485 that Richard planned to divorce Anne & marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, Henry Tudor’s intended bride. The rumours intensified when Anne died & Richard was forced to deny them in public. Support for Richard had never been wholehearted. He was dependant on support from his Northern allies & this annoyed southern nobles. By the summer of 1485, Henry was ready to launch another invasion & he was successful at Bosworth on August 22nd.

Skidmore tells the story of Henry’s invasion in great detail & it’s fascinating. Landing in Wales, Henry was unsure as to his reception & always uncertain about the part his stepfather, Lord Thomas Stanley, would play. Stanley & his brother, William, were consummate fence sitters & they refused to commit themselves & their very considerable forces, to Henry until the very day of the battle. Then, it was their intervention that decided the battle in Henry’s favour. It wasn’t until they saw Richard making his valiant charge at Henry himself & being killed, that they entered the fray.

The final chapters of the book describe Henry’s efforts to reconcile England to their new King. Henry’s shrewdness was evident in his desire to reward his loyal followers without alienating former opponents. He didn’t attaint any of the Northern Lords who had fought for Richard as he needed their support in establishing his reign & his marriage to Elizabeth of York helped to reconcile Yorkists to his victory.

His wiliness was shown in his decision to date his reign from the day before Bosworth, thereby making every man who fought for Richard a rebel & traitor. The Crowland Chronicler’s comment on this move is eloquent “Oh God! What assurance will our kings have, henceforth, that on the day of battle they will not be deprived of the presence of their subjects who, summoned by the dreaded command of the king, are well aware that, if the royal cause should happen to decline, as has often been known, they will lose life, goods and inheritance complete?” This was allowed to remain in the Act of Attainder but was amended some years later. Henry’s reign brought stability to England although he was troubled by pretenders which fed his increasing paranoia. The Tudor dynasty had begun.

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