1485 Battle of Bosworth

Chapter 4 : Henry's March

Unsurprisingly, after six wretched days in a tiny mediaeval boat, Henry kissed the ground on arriving, and recited a psalm. He also practised his sword arm by knighting eight of his men. As soon as the men had disembarked, the French, apparently a little nervous about their reception, the fleet shipped anchor and sailed for home. Henry must do or die.

The Lancastrian armies under Marguerite of Anjou had gained a bad reputation for their lawlessness – a reputation that had probably cost her husband his Crown when London closed its gates against her after her victory at St Albans in 1461. Henry was determined that no such taint would cling to his men. They were exhorted to behave properly, and pay the proper price for everything they wanted, nor were they to occupy any lodgings other than those assigned to them, and presumably paid for, by his harbinger (the official charged with finding food and lodgings). To be on the safe side, the French troops were kept separate from the Welshmen who joined as Henry began his march.

The invading force set out the next morning, and was speedily joined by many of Jasper Tudor’s former affinity, although Henry was still not sure of the plans of Sir Rhys ap Thomas and the Herberts. The Herberts controlled the south east corner of the country, and thus the crossings of the Severn at Gloucester and Tewkesbury. Henry therefore chose to travel north – probably with an additional hope, if not certainty, of meeting the Stanleys who controlled the north-east corner of Wales, around the border with Cheshire.

The terrain of south and west Wales is not easy country for marching – hilly, rocky and remote, even in the twenty-first century, for Henry and his men, it was an endurance test. By the 10th August, the army reached Cardigan and Henry sent out his own Commissions of Array, although not, of course, with the Great Seal attached, merely his signet. Failure to respond would be met with ‘grievous displeasure.’

He opens uncompromisingly with the words ‘By the King’ and goes on to appeal to Welsh sentiment - the Welsh had been horribly oppressed, first by the depredations of Edward I, and then by the Penal Laws introduced following Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion. He had come to deliver the Welsh from their ‘miserable servitude’.

Of course, Richard had not left his coasts entirely unguarded. On Henry’s arrival, a beacon of warning had been lit, which alerted his Constable of Pembroke Castle, Richard Williams. Williams achieved the extremely arduous feat of riding the 210 miles to Nottingham in just four days. Thus, by 11th August, Richard knew that he must fight to hold his Crown. It was probably a relief to know that within a few days, or weeks at most, the waiting would be over. Richard certainly claimed to be pleased that the moment had come, and that seems a very reasonable reaction.

Richard now sent out follow-ups to his earlier the Commissions, commanding immediate musters, on pain of forfeiture. Norfolk and his son, Surrey, were to muster at Bury (Suffolk) on 16th August, before travelling toward Nottingham. Norfolk was due to bring 1,000 men, but many East Anglians had been part of Oxford’s affinity before Howard was given pre-eminence in the region and recruitment wasn’t easy.

Accounts of the battle, written, of course, from the perspective of the winners, suggest that men were slow to muster for Richard. In an attempt to coerce the Stanleys, and prevent them supporting Thomas’ step-son, Richard held Thomas’ own son, Lord Strange, hostage. Apparently, whilst this led Thomas to continue to equivocate – he raised men but did not declare his purpose, it goaded William into Henry’s camp. This was fortunate, as, when Henry, now strengthened by Sir Rhys ap Thomas, and a contingent of men from North Wales, reached the town of Shrewsbury, to cross the Severn into England, the town gates were closed against him and the town bailiff, Thomas Mitton, announced that, as he had sworn allegiance to Richard, he could not allow Richmond to pass.

The closure of the town of Gloucester to the Lancastrians in 1471, preventing the crossing of the Severn, had proved disastrous for them – would the same be the case for Henry at Shrewsbury? Henry assured the bailiff that he and his men would do no damage and that they would not interfere with his oath, but Mitton was adamant.

The next morning however, there was a change of heart. In Chris Skidmore’s account of the battle (Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors), he explains the reasoning for believing that this was due to the intervention of Sir William Stanley.

Henry and his men passed through – apparently with Henry stepping his horse carefully over Mitton’s body, to preserve the word of the man’s oath – although the same story is told in other circumstances of other men, so may be apocryphal. Impressed by Henry, or perhaps cowed by Sir William, the town then paid £4 4s 10d for soldiers for him.

Richard was still in the environs of Nottingham. He received the unwelcome news that the city of York had not received any Commissions of Array. Since summoning the men of Yorkshire was the job of the Earl of Northumberland, Richard may have begun to feel distinctly uneasy. He immediately requested that the city send 400 men and returned to Nottingham Castle where more bad news awaited – Henry had passed into England unchecked.

Shadowing Henry’s route, but somewhat to the north, was Thomas Stanley, with his own men. He passed through Lichfield in Staffordshire on 15th August. Between them was William Stanley. He had been issued with Commissions of Array in January, and he now used that power to raise men for a force that, since Richard had already declared him a traitor, was probably designed for Henry.

Henry and William Stanley met at Stafford on 19th August, but, although William promised support, he did not join his force to Henry’s. Henry moved onto Lichfield, which greeted him warmly, presumably suitably prepared by Thomas Stanley four days before. Nevertheless, from Henry’s point of view, the actions of Thomas Stanley could be seen negatively – he was ahead of Henry, blocking the main route to London down the Roman road of Watling Street (the modern A5).