My recent dives into William Shakespeare’s historical plays revolving around the Wars of the Roses has nudged me to dig a little deeper into the grand finale of that civil war: the Battle of Bosworth. On August 22, 1485, the war between Lancaster and York ended with the death of Richard III, and the crowning of Henry VII signaled the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. There are ten years between the original printing of this book and this updated edition. During that time, some remarkable battlefield forensics have brought to light a wealth of incredible historical knowledge, not least of which includes the 2012 discovery of the remains of Richard himself 527 years later. This, in turn, gave rise to a better understanding of whether or not there was any truth to his physical deformities as depicted by Shakespeare, and more importantly, a forensic understanding of the wounds he suffered in his final moments. We know exactly what weapons delivered him unto death, and where they struck him down. Likewise, we still do not know elements such as troop deployments and formations. Much is still in the realm of educated conjecture.
The author of this book, historian Michael Jones, reveals early on how his own understanding of the battle begins with a fearful and nervous Richard that Shakespeare presented. This image evolved to one of a confident Richard who believed he was in the right, who was honoring the legacy of his father and brother, and who believed he could maintain his rule against a usurper. And so, contrary to the villain so thoroughly destroyed in reputation by the Bard, this book offers a chivalric interpretation to Richard. Perception like that changes everything about how a battle is understood, and ultimately how an entire era unfolds and transforms. It’s an interpretation I wanted in place so that I could compare that paranoiac version of history with Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It’s a character assessment more in line with what Richard might have believed of himself, which makes it even more compelling when you consider that few are ever the villain in their own story. Some could easily call this revisionist history. Many on “Team Tudor” will certainly do so, likely dismissing this work outright. Given the complexities involved, I’d say that’s a crude but accurate label, especially given that history is always being revised when new understanding comes to light.
Part of what this book does to deconstruct the damage of Shakespeare is to put Richard back into his historical setting and timeline. This includes an understanding that royal children rarely saw their father. Since Richard was eight when his father was killed, the mythology of him was likely stronger than the reality by the time Richard took the throne, made stronger if the allegations of Edward IV being illegitimate have any bearing in truth. Jones points out that when it comes to royal dynasties, the execution of children from a rival faction was common in the Middle Ages, not nearly the heinous act of pure evil we perceive today. And he even points out ideas and events from Shakespeare’s play that were likely drawn from other battles and historical sources. The rituals of preparing for war were as important as a battle itself, and some of these are discussed in full, painting a very different picture of Shakespeare’s villain-in-chief.
I don’t want to cover all of the points of argument and supposition here, preferring to leave something for readers to discover. Suffice it to say, this is a book that spotlights conjectures based on known facts and educated likelihoods. It’s hard to nail it down any further than that given the accuracy of records and the he said / she said nature of English politics of that time.
For those looking for an introduction to the historical Richard or to this era as a whole, I would recommend starting elsewhere. But for those who are versed in Shakespeare’s Richard III and some basic understanding of the era and its players, one can easily jump in and follow along. Ultimately, the point is that if you change the perspective of both Richard and his circumstances, the entire battle changes. The same can be said of Henry Tudor and his comrades at arms, who are also examined in some detail here. Personally, I find the nuances far more satisfying, though I accept that there are a great many things we’ll never know for certain. And that’s just the politics. The entire discussion of the battle itself is equally detailed and surmised. A medievalist / swordfighter like myself could never pass up a discussion like this. If you enjoy wading into the minutiae, this is a fascinating little book crammed with ideas that should give historian, professional or otherwise, something to think about.