Chapter 6 : The Battle
Standard practice was to divide an army into three sections or ‘battles’ as they are rather confusingly known. The largest, the vanguard, at the front; the mid-section with the overall commander; and a rearguard. The battles might fight in a columnar fashion, or with a wide front, with the rearguard on the left-wing. As mentioned, Norfolk commanded the vanguard for Richard, and it is possible, but by no means certain, that Northumberland had the rearguard. Richard’s artillery was probably centre-front.
Richard’s troops were probably arranged in the wide-front pattern, with Norfolk on the right hand side.The exact location of the Stanleys is unknown, but appears to still have been equivocal.
Henry’s deployment is even more uncertain than Richard’s, but may have had Oxford facing Norfolk.
It appears that Henry’s men under Oxford advanced first, keeping marshy ground to the right, which would protect his men from a flanking attack. They also manoeuvred to avoid Richard’s artillery fire.
As was customary, during the early stages, neither Richard nor Henry were in the main battle area – Oxford and Norfolk were taking the brunt of it. Northumberland’s role is unclear – it is possible he did nothing at all, but it is also possible that he advanced towards Henry, then turned his troops to fight with him. The latter does not seem likely, given that he was arrested after the battle, but his almost immediate release and restoration to office suggest inaction was his decision.
Henry, it seems, had only a small group of men around him as Oxford had the majority of troops in his battle. Richard, seeing this, determined to make an end of the matter by taking his horse (generally, commanders fought on foot), and, with a group of his crack troops headed for Henry’s standard. In hand-to-hand fighting, Henry’s standard-bearer, Sir William Brandon, was killed.
At this point, Sir William Stanley finally made a move, and joined Henry’s men. Richard was killed in the thick of the fighting. According to the chronicler, John Rous, Richard’s last words were ‘treason, treason, treason’. It is apparent that Richard did not have as much wholehearted support as he would have liked – whatever the current revisionist views of him might be, in the fifteenth century he failed to command the support of enough of his nobles and gentry to defeat a relative stranger, with an army containing a good proportion of Frenchmen.
With Richard dead, there was no incentive to fight on. Lovell, Lincoln and Ratcliffe fled the field, and Thomas Stanley suddenly found his sword, chasing down a few fleeing Yorkists although unlike in some of the earlier actions in the wars, particularly the Yorkist victories of Towton and Tewkesbury, there was minimal slaughter of losers, most were just permitted to leave, whilst the more valuable ones such as Surrey and Northumberland, were taken prisoner. The only execution ordered was of Sir William Catesby.
The numbers of dead are as widely guestimated as the numbers of participants – ranging from 1,000 on Richard’s side and 100 on Henry’s to 300 in total or 10,000 in total. The new King later sent out orders that no-one returning from the battlefield, regardless of which side he had fought on, was to be ‘robbe(d) or spoyle(d)’ but instead left peacefully to return home complete with horse and any accoutrements.
It has long been said, and there is no evidence to refute it, that Richard’s crown was found in a thorn bush and was placed on Henry’s head by one or other of the Stanleys, the traditional location being at a place now known as Crown Hill. Certainly the emblem of a crown in a bush was used by Henry.
The battle concluded, Henry travelled to Leicester, no doubt wearing his new crown. Richard’s body was also taken there, and, as was not unusual, was subject to post-mortem insult. One account says that it was naked, another that there was a cloth to cover his ‘privy member’, and a third that it was covered in black cloth from the waist down.
It was displayed to pubic view to prove that Richard was dead, as Henry VI’s body had been in 1471. The purpose being to prevent rumours of escape from gaining credence. Richard’s body was buried in the Greyfriars Church in Leicester, probably on 25th August, the day Henry departed for Coventry.
Henry made a formal entry to London on 3rd September and was crowned as Henry VII on 30th October.