Post-classical history

40

LORD OXFORD WINS A BATTLE,
1485

THE EARL OF OXFORD

Night and day, Henry Tudor pestered the French Regent, Anne de Beaujeu, for funds to finance his expedition against Richard III of England. Finally she offered to lend him ‘a slender supply’, amounting to 40,000 livres. This was supplemented by various loans from ‘other private friends’; presumably these were some of the secret supporters who had stayed in England, including his mother. As sureties for the Regent’s money, Henry agreed to leave behind him the Marquess of Dorset – seriously out of favour for having tried to return and make his peace with Richard – and John Bourchier, who were both to remain in French custody until the money was repaid.

As the only exile with any first-hand experience of high command, Lord Oxford must have played a vital part in organizing and equipping the invasion force. (No doubt the money borrowed by Henry paid for the Earl’s own armour and weapons, very expensive items.) The force was composed of about 500 English exiles, 1500 French troops under Philippe de Crevecoeur, several hundred Breton soldiers of fortune, and a contingent of Scots mercenaries commanded by Bernard Stewart, Seigneur d’Aubigny. Both Crevecoeur and d’Aubigny were gifted commanders, future marshals of France. Fortunately Oxford was well used to dealing with opinionated foreigners such as the Scots, having visited their country on more than one occasion.

Carrying about 3,000 fighting men at most, the little invasion fleet left Rouen ‘with a soft southern wind’ on 1 August 1485, sailing down the River Seine and out into the Channel. After a smooth voyage it put into Milford Haven six days later, disembarking at a secluded cove on St Anne’s Head which was well away from prying eyes. Henry had landed here deliberately.

For not only was Pembrokeshire his uncle Jasper Tudor’s old territory but one of the major landowners in the adjoining county of Caermarthenshire, Rhys ap Thomas of Dinefwr, had sent an encouraging message of support, promising that he would join; Rhys had been recruited by his former tutor, Dr Lewis Caerleon, who was none other than Margaret Beaufort’s conniving physician. Margaret’s steward, Reginald Bray (still at liberty despite his part in Buckingham’s rising), had also advised Henry to land in Wales, adding that he had collected a substantial sum of money with which to pay his troops.1

First marching northward, ‘through ragged and indirect tracts’, according to the Croyland chronicler, Henry and his army then turned east into Powys and then into Shropshire. There was no sign yet of Rhys ap Thomas; ‘very much a Welshman on the make’ (to borrow Professor Ross’s elegant description), understandably Rhys was extremely nervous about committing himself. Ross thinks that Henry hoped that he would be joined by the Stanleys, who owned estates not too far away in North Wales; on the other hand, given Lord Stanley’s well-earned reputation for trimming, it was not at all impossible that he might decide to attack his stepson.

Only when the Tudor army reached Shropshire did supporters begin to join it, including – at last – Rhys ap Thomas. Sir Gilbert Talbot joined Henry in Staffordshire, though with a mere 500 men. They were still hopelessly outnumbered. Everything depended on the Stanleys.

From Shropshire Henry had sent messages to his mother and to the Stanleys, saying that he intended to march on London. No doubt Margaret Beaufort tried hard to convince her husband of the advantages of being stepfather to a new King of England. However, Thomas Stanley had survived the Wars of the Roses and profited by his shrewdness in identifying and then backing the more powerful side. While Richard III might well be too unpopular to have very much hope of long-term survival, in the short term he was looking alarmingly formidable – seemingly in complete control of the present situation.

Richard had not expected his enemies to land in Wales, but ‘on hearing of their arrival, the king rejoiced or at least appeared to rejoice,’ says the Croyland chronicler, who may have been present when the news reached him. Calmly, Richard summoned his own troops to meet him at Nottingham. A message from Lord Stanley was received; he had the sweating sickness and could not come.

As has been seen, the King always suspected Thomas Stanley. When he had recently left court to visit his estates, Richard insisted that he leave his son, Lord Strange, behind. Just after the letter arrived, Strange tried to desert but was caught ‘by stratagem’, the Croyland chronicler relates. Questioned – no doubt tortured – he revealed that, together with his uncle, Sir William Stanley, and Sir John Savage, he had been planning to go over to Henry. However, he was adamant that his father was still faithful to the King. Richard kept Lord Strange a prisoner under close guard, his life depending on his father’s satisfactory behaviour. William Stanley and John Savage were proclaimed traitors.

Henry knew that everything depended on Thomas Stanley, though he would certainly have been reminded of his stepfather’s treacherous behaviour in 1470–71 by Lord Oxford. On the other hand Thomas had married Henry’s persuasive mother, which may explain why her son took the highly dangerous risk of visiting Thomas and William Stanley secretly in the former’s camp at Atherstone. Here, if Vergil is to be believed, they discussed how their troops should be deployed during the coming battle. The meeting has been questioned by historians, partly because Lord Stanley later stated he had known Henry ‘well’ from a date two days after the battle – yet he could scarcely say that he had known him well at this stage. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that, as Vergil claims, they were ‘moved to great joy’. All three were men of the utmost cynicism. Whatever Vergil may claim, Henry still had everything to fear from the coming battle, knowing that the Stanleys were never men of their word.

Like Napoleon, Richard understood that the way to win a battle was to get there quickest with the most men. He had to wait at Nottingham for his troops to assemble, but when they came they were all mounted, archers as well as men-at-arms, composing an army of between 10,000 and 15,000 strong – two or three times as large as any force his opponent could muster. His cannon were serpentines, light guns that could be moved quickly in fast carts. When Henry reached the Midlands the King rode out to do battle with impressive pomp, wearing a crown on his gold-plated helmet – not the crown that he wore on state occasions, but a jewelled coronet valued at £20,000 in the period’s money. He was escorted by John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, together with half a dozen lesser peers. ‘None evil captain was he in the war, as to which his disposition was more meetly than for peace,’ More says of Richard. ‘Sundry victories had he, and sometimes overthrows, but never in default as for his own person.’ All contemporary sources testify to the King’s reputation as an extremely capable soldier. Had his lavishly equipped troops and their commanders been loyal, Henry Tudor could never have hoped to defeat him.

On the night of 21 August the royal army encamped a mile or two south of Market Bosworth, ready to intercept Henry on the following day. Yet for all his overwhelming superiority in men and weapons, not all was well with Richard III. Clearly he realized that there was some sort of treachery in the wind. Ominously, despite having been proclaimed a traitor, Sir William Stanley was still with his brother. Could the King rely on Lord Stanley, who was at the head of 3,000 men? And what about the other magnates? Richard must have sensed their own profound uneasiness, but he does not appear to have guessed that Northumberland was secretly in touch with his enemy and planning his destruction. While his troops were asleep, someone posted a note on the tent of his staunchest supporter, Norfolk, containing a couplet which later became famous.

Jockey of Norfolk, be not too bold
For Dickon thy master is bought and sold

When dawn came, the King made a ferocious speech to his assembled army in which he swore to be avenged not only on his enemies but on those who had failed to come and fight by his side. He wore a noticeably haggard look. If he had not dreamed of his murders, as Shakespeare would have us believe, he may well have been kept awake by worries about betrayal.

King Richard positioned his troops in echelon on the eastern ridge of Ambion Hill, close to Bosworth and looking down on to a marsh at the foot.2 (Ironically, it was land that had belonged to the late Lord Hastings.) In the very front stood a formidable contingent of dismounted archers commanded by the Duke of Norfolk. Behind them was the vanguard, its flanks protected by cannon that were linked together by chains to stop cavalry riding through them – the guns consisting of nearly 150 heavy bombards and the same number of light serpentines. There were so many troops in the vanguard, horse and foot, that Vergil (who had obviously spoken to survivors) records that ‘to the beholders afar off, it gave a terror for the multitude’. Richard was behind it with a force of picked men-at-arms which included his knights and squires of the Body, and behind the King was the Earl of Northumberland with 3,000 northerners.

At most the opposing army numbered 5,000, with no proper artillery. Henry – who had never seen a battle before – commanded the reserve, a mere troop of men-at-arms and a few archers and billmen. Lord Oxford, who led the vanguard, was the Lancastrians’ real commander. Vergil tells us that Henry was ‘no little vexed and began to be somewhat appalled’. So too, no doubt, did his entire army. His stepfather did not respond to desperate appeals.

With the same number of troops as Northumberland, Lord Stanley took up a position between the two armies, declining requests from both Henry and Richard to join them. When, after threatening to execute Lord Strange, the King received a message to the effect that Lord Stanley had plenty of other sons, he ordered the young man’s immediate beheading. (The order was ignored.) Richard’s worst suspicions were more or less confirmed. Even so, the odds remained very much in his favour.

Looking up, Henry Tudor and his men, who knew nothing of King Richard’s difficulties, saw doom poised above them. A ballad called ‘The Song of the Lady Bessy’, almost certainly written by someone who was at Bosworth, says that the King ‘hoveth upon the mountain’ – meaning that his troops suddenly came into view on top of Ambion Hill. Then Oxford realized that Richard’s narrow front might prevent him from making full use of his numbers, while it was difficult for fifteenth-century cannon to shoot down. Oxford decided that the only chance was to attack uphill; although many of his troops were second-rate, there were experienced soldiers among the exiles who composed their officers. Oxford led them round the marsh and up the slope, straight at Richard’s archers, who fired down. Then the Duke of Norfolk charged them. Although in his mid-sixties, this veteran of Towton was still a most dangerous opponent. He intended to smash the Lancastrians before they could deploy and launch a proper attack.

The Earl ordered his men to group round their officers’ banners, those of the exiled gentlemen – ‘no soldier should go above ten foot from the standards’ – and formed them into a triangle, after which he counter-charged Norfolk, uphill. According to a legend that is probably well founded, Oxford and the Duke met in personal combat. Norfolk is said to have wounded the Earl, but then Oxford knocked off his chin-guard, and a moment later the Duke fell down dead with a stray arrow through his exposed throat.3

Indirectly, Oxford’s unexpectedly successful counterattack was to save the day for Henry Tudor. Taken aback by Norfolk’s failure to rout such puny opposition, and by now fully aware that the Stanleys were preparing to betray him, King Richard ordered the Earl of Northumberland to place his troops between the Stanleys and the Lancastrians. Northumberland refused. Alarmed, the King knew that he must act very quickly if he was to save the situation. Suddenly he recognized Henry and a small escort, beneath the banner of the Red Dragon of Wales, riding across the field below Ambion Hill. In desperation, he was going to throw himself on his stepfather’s mercy.

‘All inflamed with ire’, the King at once led the knights, squires and yeomen of his household out from among the ranks of his army, and then in a furious charge downhill and over the field. He killed Henry’s banner-bearer with his lance, knocked another man out of the saddle with his battle-axe and slew others. He may even have exchanged blows with his rival. Richard was ‘making way with weapon on every side’, and Henry’s men ‘were now almost out of hope of victory’.

The combat was taking place in full view of the Stanley brothers, only half a mile away. If Henry died, they would probably die too – soon after the battle. But here was the moment to decide it in their own favour. Sir William at their head, the 3,000 red-jerkined horsemen of the Stanley affinity – mindful of ‘good lordship’ – charged to rescue their good lord’s stepson. Within a matter of a very few minutes all the royal household men were dead or in full flight.

King Richard, ‘who was not ignorant that the people hated him, out of hope to have any better hap afterward’, refused to leave the battlefield, ‘such great fierceness and such huge force of mind he had,’ we are told by Polydore Vergil. ‘I will die King of England,’ he insisted. ‘I will not budge a foot.’ After his horse was killed under him, he continued fighting on foot, shouting ‘Treason! Treason!’

Vergil (who may have obtained his information from Lord Oxford) agrees with the generally well-informed Croyland chronicler and John Rous – no less hostile – that the last Plantagenet king died a hero’s death. He fought on alone till he fell ‘in the thickest press of his enemy’. Richard III preferred such an end, Vergil believed, rather than ‘by foul flight to prolong his life, uncertain what death perchance soon after by sickness or other violence to suffer’.

How Henry Tudor was crowned on Bosworth Field by his stepfather has become part of the national myth, even though some historians may question his account.

The soldiers cried ‘God save King Henry! God save King Henry!’ and with heart and hand uttered all the show of joy that might be, which when Thomas Stanley did see he set anon King Richard’s crown, which was found among the spoil in the field, on his head as though he had been already by commandment of the people proclaimed king after the manner of his ancestors, and that was the first sign of prosperity.4

Meanwhile, the late King’s mangled body, stripped naked – ‘nought being left about him so much as would cover his privy member’ – covered in blood and mud, was slung over a horse and taken back to Leicester for public display and then a pauper’s burial.

Yet if the Earl of Oxford had not driven back the Duke of Norfolk’s archers with quite such skill, the Stanley brothers would never have had their chance to intervene and win the battle for Henry Tudor.

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