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Bosworth, by Chris Skidmore - review

25 May 2013

9:00 AM

25 May 2013

9:00 AM

Bosworth Chris Skidmore

Weidenfeld, pp.437, £20

Although Richard III was five foot eight, his spine was so twisted he stood a foot shorter. Imagine him hacking his way towards Henry Tudor at the battle of Bosworth; a furious human pretzel, ‘small in body and feeble of limb’, as a contemporary noted, he cut his way towards his rival ‘until his last breath’.

Earlier this year, five million people watched the Channel 4 programme The King Under the Car Park which first revealed that Richard really did have slight bones, and one shoulder higher than the other, as the earliest sources had always claimed. It caught the national imagination with the details of the injuries he suffered at Bosworth bringing the violence of the battle to life. Chris Skidmore’s Bosworth could scarcely have been published at a better moment, and it is just the right book for all those whose interest has been piqued by the archaeology.

For admirers of Richard III, including all those who were convinced that tales of his twisted spine was Tudor propaganda, there is little comfort in Skidmore’s narrative. He expresses few doubts that Richard did away with his young nephews, the Princes in the Tower, in 1483. Nor does one warm to a king with henchmen like ‘the black knight’, who, tradition has it, punished offenders by rolling them downhill in spiked barrels. According to Skidmore, by the summer of 1485, Richard was haemorrhaging support so badly that even the servant who had dressed the king for his coronation abandoned him. Even so, England was not simply there for the taking by the obscure Henry Tudor.

Henry’s sole blood claim to the throne came through his mother’s illegitimate descent from John of Gaunt, which amounted to no claim at all. His army was an invasion force, backed by France, and over half the men in it were French, with the rest made up of Scots and Welsh, as well as English. In his rallying speech at Bosworth Richard condemned Henry as an ‘unknown Welshman’, come to ‘overcome and oppress’ England with his ‘fainthearted Frenchmen’. But as Henry reminded them, there was no hope for their survival or escape without victory. The ships that had delivered them from France had sailed away: ‘Backward we cannot fly, so that here we stand like sheep in a fold circumcepted and compassed between our enemies and doubtful friends.’

Pre-eminent amongst Henry’s ‘doubtful friends’ was his stepfather Thomas, Lord Stanley, whose eldest son was Richard’s hostage. Stanley’s vast force — larger than Henry’s entire army — was ranged on the hills above the opposing armies and neither side was certain whom he would chose to back and when. A shout from Richard’s greatest ally the Duke of Norfolk, and the whistle of arrows, announced the battle’s beginning. One of the most startling revelations concerning what followed is that it was a woman’s hand that then guided the manoeuvres of Henry Tudor’s army.

The Venetian-born Christine de Pizan is well known for her poetry and allegorical works, but she was also the author of a work on military warfare, The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry (c.1410). Henry’s commander, the Earl of Oxford, confronted and defeated Norfolk’s attack using a series of classic manoeuvres lifted from her manual, and in gratitude later commissioned William Caxton to translate and publish it.

After his ally Norfolk was killed, Richard decided to end the battle quickly with a direct attack on Henry, whom he spotted standing away from the body of his army, surrounded by a small guard. As Richard’s cavalry thundered down the hill, their standards streaming, Henry looked up and saw the crowned figure of the king galloping towards him. The hand-to-hand fighting was ferocious and Henry’s men were on the point of despair when Lord Stanley’s brother Sir William chose to engage his forces on Henry’s side. Richard, shouting ‘Treason! Treason! Treason!’. continued battling towards Henry until, ‘fighting manfully in the midst of his enemie, he was slain’. Skidmore describes in forensic detail exactly what happened, using evidence from the bones, contemporary descriptions and his knowledge of medieval warfare to build a vivid picture of the death of the last Plantagenet king.

Bosworth is also the story of Henry Tudor’s youth and of Richard III’s usurpation. And it is certainly now the definitive account of the battle that, in 1485, marked the last successful invasion of England.

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