Why Does the Battle of Bosworth Matter?
This week began with the 22nd August; it may not be widely recognised, but it’s actually a fairly significant date in British – or probably more correctly in this case English – history, since it is the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, fought in 1485 between the forces of King Richard lll and Henry Tudor, subsequently King Henry Vll. The forty-odd years prior had seen the country embroiled in the Wars of the Roses, the struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster for the English throne. And that was a vicious, grinding civil war; the battle of Towton – near Tadcaster – is generally reckoned to have been the bloodiest single engagement ever fought in England – and that in the days of a small population, and (almost completely) pre explosive weapons.
Actual detail about Bosworth is in fact quite sketchy; indeed, the location itself is open to dispute, and much of what we think we know comes from Shakespeare, writing over a hundred years later (and writing a drama to draw in audiences rather than a history). Without going into all the dynastic detail, the situation in 1485 was that Richard, the former Duke of Gloucester, had manoeuvred himself in 1483 onto the throne as Richard lll, on the death of his brother Edward lV and by a smart bit of chicanery, declaring his brother’s marriage to be illegitimate, thus disinheriting his sons (who achieved fame? notoriety? as the Princes in the Tower). Henry Tudor was an indirect descendant of the Lancastrian line, and in fact had a fairly weak claim to the throne. But, the ace in his hand was his intended marriage to Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward lV; that marriage was to unite the two warring houses.
Henry had lived the first fourteen years of his life in Wales and the next fourteen in exile in Brittany and France, and he landed in Wales with an army of French mercenaries, to which he added Welsh soldiers as they marched through the country to cross into England near Shrewsbury. When the two armies came face-to-face at Bosworth, they were in fact fairly evenly matched, as far as our knowledge goes. The deciding factor was the actions of the Stanleys, Lord Stanley and his brother Sir William, who kept their force just to one side, before finally entering the fray on the side of Henry. The result was victory for Henry, crowned Henry Vll on the battlefield.
So why bother with 1485 today? Well, admittedly the main reason is that it’s mid-August, plenty are holiday and the market is pretty flat. But it is also – as I said above – a significant date. After this, dynastic changes in England occurred without the fighting that had typified the period since the Norman conquest. It really marks the end of the medieval period of English history and represents the very beginnings of what grew into the modern English (then British) state. The transitions from Tudors to Stuarts, Stuarts to Hanoverians, were effected broadly peacefully. Yes, there was a civil war and the execution of a king, but that was part of a slow but continuing process of democratisation (to use a word that didn’t exist at the time), along with the Great Reform Act, universal suffrage and all the other steps along the way with which we are familiar.
England changed on 14th October 1066 (Battle of Hastings) as the Anglo-Norman ascendancy began. After Bosworth, on 22nd August 1485, it’s not that the question of succession became less significant, but the internecine fighting of medieval times finally came to halt. Republican, monarchist or couldn’t really care, it’s worth thinking of that for a moment.
To those who come to this site purely to read about metals and economics – apologies. But it is mid-summer…