Thirty years before the Battle of Bosworth Field, a civil war began in England. Known as the War of the Roses, the conflict revolved around which faction of the Plantagenet royal family should rule: Lancastrian or Yorkist. In 1455, the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, reigned. His grandfather, Henry IV, had established the Lancastrian branch after overthrowing his cousin, Richard II, in September 1399. Although Henry IV faced revolts, he nonetheless secured the throne for his son. Upon Henry V‘s ascension, the king managed to prevent revolts against him by going to war with France.
Unlike his predecessors, Henry VI wasn’t cut out to rule. The king proved to be weak-willed and allowed others to rule through him. As a result, corrupt officials surrounded Henry by the early 1450s. Alarmed by the decline in government, Richard, Duke of York, began campaigning for reforms. The duke’s followers, known as Yorkists, supported his efforts.
Although initially attempting to pursue his reforms peacefully, Richard soon realized that Henry VI wouldn’t take action. After being removed as Protector of the Realm in January 1455, the duke rebelled. In May, Richard and the Yorkists fought against the Lancastrians at the Battle of St. Albans. In the end, the Yorkist army emerged victoriously. As a consequence of this battle, the War of the Roses began.
The Lancastrian’s Downfall
Throughout the following decades, the Lancastrians steadily declined. Although Richard died in battle during December 1460, his son, Edward, continued to lead the Yorkists. Unlike Henry VI, the young duke enjoyed popular support. Despite Henry still being alive, the duke was crowned Edward IV on March 4, 1461. The former king could only watch from afar as the Yorkists became the new rulers of England.
In April 1471, the Lancastrians made one final attempt to take back the English throne. During the Battle of Tewkesbury, the Yorkists crushed the Lancastrian army. The Lancastrian’s defeat proved devastating. Henry VI’s heir, Prince Edward, was killed, and Yorkists murdered Henry soon after. As a result, the direct Lancastrian line ended, and their threat to the Yorkists diminished.
Edward IV’s Death
During the last twelve years of his reign, Edward IV ruled with little opposition. Before his death in April 1483, the king entrusted his heir’s protection to his brother, Richard, Duke of Glouchester. Although Richard had been a loyal ally to Edward IV, he didn’t share this loyalty with his nephew, Edward V. Seeking to contain his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, the duke captured Edward before his coronation. Despite Elizabeth’s best efforts, Richard secured his other nephew, Prince Richard, in June.
Although Edward V was the rightful king of England, Richard argued against crowning him. Instead, the duke claimed that his nephews were illegitimate due to their father agreeing to marry another woman before Elizabeth. Fortunately for Richard, Parliament agreed with his claim. As a result, Parliament declared Edward V and Prince Richard illegitimate. Shortly after, the duke ascended to the throne as King Richard III on July 6.
Last Lancastrian Hope
As Richard III secured his throne, the remaining Lancastrian exiles resided in France. Although the faction had suffered a significant blow in April 1471, their cause continued to survive. By 1483, the Lancastrians had rallied behind Henry Tudor. Henry had a weak claim to the English throne. Through his mother, Henry descended from King Edward III through the Beauforts, an illegitimate line. However, Henry IV had barred the Beauforts from inheriting the throne.
Despite Henry Tudor’s lackluster pedigree, the Lancastrians still viewed him as a suitable claimant. As Henry gained support, Richard III’s support rapidly declined. The king’s seizure of the throne proved unpopular with his nobles. Many still viewed Edward V as their rightful king. In August, Edward and his younger brother disappeared. The king lost more support as people began to believe that Richard had murdered his nephews.
As Richard III continued to alienate his subjects, Yorkists began to defect to Henry Tudor’s side. Queen Elizabeth even offered her support to Henry. In exchange, the young Lancastrian would marry the queen’s eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, if he became king. Agreeing to this arrangement, Henry began planning an invasion of England.
Invasion of England
On August 7, 1485, Henry and his Lancastrian army landed in Milford Haven, South Wales. The Lancastrians subsequently began marching east towards Leicester. Although preoccupied with putting down rebellions to his rule, Richard III quickly shifted his focus. Upon hearing of the Lancastrian arrival, the king gathered his Yorkist supporters. By August 22, Henry and Richard’s forces met at Bosworth Field.
Battle of Bosworth Field
At the beginning of the battle, Richard III had the advantage over Henry Tudor. The king’s army of 10,000 soldiers outnumbered Henry’s 5,000 and held a superior position on Ambien Hill. As the battle commenced, certain factors began to favor the Lancastrians. Richard’s formidable ally, John Howard, died while fighting. Two Yorkist nobles, Thomas Stanley and Henry Percy, also refused to assist the king. Finally, William Stanley, Thomas’ brother, betrayed Richard by having his men attack the Yorkist’s flank.
Upon seeing the Yorkists begin to falter, Thomas Stanley and his 6,000 soldiers joined the battle on the Lancastrian’s side. Realizing that he had lost, Richard III decided to make a final, desperate charge towards Henry Tudor. As Richard galloped towards Henry, he ended up getting unhorsed. Outnumbered by Lancastrian soldiers, the king fought until he succumbed to the many sword strikes he received. Richard’s death signaled the end of the battle, and the Lancastrians emerged victoriously.
After the battle of Bosworth Field concluded, Thomas Stanley crowned Henry Tudor with Richard III’s crown. Upon his accession in October, Henry VII ended over 300 years of Plantagenet rule. In its place, the Tudor dynasty took hold. Following his marriage to Princess Elizabeth in January 1486, the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions became one. As a result, the War of the Roses finally ended, and peace returned to England after thirty years of conflict.
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Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.
Cheetham, A. (2000). The Wars of the Roses. London: Cassell.