Richard III at War
From Barnet to Bosworth, discover the bloodthirsty rise and tragic fall of the last Plantagenet king
The term ‘Wars of the Roses’ wasn’t coined until the 19th century. Instead the conflict was known to contemporaries as the ‘Cousins’ War’
It is 22 August 1485. On a Leicestershire battlefield an English king is fighting for his life. He has been betrayed and unhorsed, but unlike the rest of his army he refuses to retreat. Now alone and without his helmet, the monarch is surrounded by enemies. He receives a cut to his lower jaw. Although he fights on, he take multiple blows to the head. He is brought to his knees and a fatal blow from a halberd cuts through his skull. For good measure, a sword then slices into the back of his head.
This king is Richard III and with his death, the rule of the Plantagenet dynasty came to an end, and arguably, Medieval England itself. The battle’s victor, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was the last Lancastrian claimant to the English crown. As Henry VII, he and his descendents, which including his son Henry VIII and grandaughter Elizabeth I, would redefine the nation.
In theory, Richard should have won the Battle of Bosworth but he suffered a catastrophic defeat. As his defeat was so decisive, you might assume that Richard was not just a failed king but also a poor warrior. In fact, Richard was a highly experienced soldier who until that fateful day had never been defeated in battle. He was personally courageous and could fight vigorously despite having a disability. In an age where martial achievement was highly prized Richard was recognised, even among his enemies, as a “gallant knight”. Today he is best remembered for the murder of the Princes of the Tower, but even after his death Richard’s battlefield courage was never questioned. His military career is therefore worth exploring because it reveals a side of the king that Tudor propaganda could not dispute and it may perhaps rehabilitate some of his maligned reputation.
A military upbringing
Born on 2 October 1452, Richard was named after his father, the third Duke of York, and was the youngest surviving son ofr Cecily Neville. Nobody could have predicted that he would one day be king, but his father’s political ambitions dictated his fate.
In 1452, the Lancastrian Henry VI had been on the throne for 30 years but he was a weak monarch who lost his inherited lands in France. The year after Richard was born, the Hundred Years’ War ended in a humiliating English defeat. The calamity caused Henry to have a mental breakdown. The Duke of York, who had a strong claim to the throne, was appointed
the Realm by Parliament of England and ruled on Henry’s behalf. Although the king regained his mental faculties, York was reluctant to relinquish power and civil war broke out in 1455. The conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster became known as the Wars of the Roses and would rage for 30 years, only ending with Richard’s battlefield death at Bosworth.
Richard grew up in a tense atmosphere where military fortunes influenced his childhood. York was initially successful but after his defeat at Ludford Bridge in 1459 he sent his eldest sons into exile. The sevenyear-old Richard remained at Ludlow Castle with his mother and youngest siblings. The Lancastrians pillaged Ludlow and Cecily was reputedly “unmanly and cruelly treated” by the soldiers. Richard may have been witness to his mother’s assault.
York fought back, and Henry was captured at the Battle of Northampton but then took a drastic step. He persuaded Parliament to accept him as Henry’s heir but this brazen attempt to claim the throne led to further conflict.
Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, raised an army and the Lancastrians decisively defeated York at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460. York was killed (along with Richard’s elder brother Edmund) and his head was displayed wearing a paper crown to mock his royal ambitions. Richard, who was only eight years old, was profoundly affected by his father’s death and oversaw his formal reburial many years later.
His eldest brother Edward, Earl of March, was now the Yorkist leader and despite the setback at
Wakefield events moved quickly. Cecily sent Richard to the Burgundian Netherlands for safety but Edward won the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross on 2 February 1461. He then entered London with his powerful ally the earl of Warwick on 4 March.
Edward was proclaimed as King Edward IV and on 29 March he won a very bloody but decisive victory at Towton. The Lancastrians were routed and Richard was able to return to England.
In June that year, Edward was crowned at Westminster Abbey, and Richard became Duke of Gloucester, which was a title he would hold until he became king himself.
Four years later, the 12-year-old Richard moved to the household of Warwick, who was the most powerful nobleman in England. Edward appointed Warwick as Richard’s tutor and it was under his tutelage that he served his military apprenticeship. Over the course of five years, the young prince followed Warwick around his northern fortresses. Serving in the north of England was arduous but Richard would have been familiarised with the frequent border warfare with Scotland.
In military terms this would have been invaluable for a prince who was being taught the art of warfare in a tough environment by a highly experienced commander.
However, the fraught politics of the era returned and Richard witnessed the disintegrating relationship between Warwick and Edward. In 1464, Edward married Elizabeth Woodville who was a relatively lowborn noblewoman. Warwick, who had been a staunch Yorkist, disapproved of the match and resented Edward’s patronage of the Woodville family.
Richard returned to court in 1469 but Warwick revolted in the same year and captured Edward before imprisoning him. The king was released in September 1469 and it is possible that Richard negotiated with his former mentor to free his brother. Edward soon appointed Richard to the high military post of Constable of England. In September 1470, Warwick revolted again and Edward and Richard fled to the Netherlands. Warwick released Henry VI from captivity in the Tower of London and restored him in a spectacular volte-face that earned him the sobriquet of ‘Kingmaker’. Edward received Burgundian support and landed in England with Richard in March 1471. His military training was about to be put to the test.
Battle of Barnet
Edward, who was a daring military commander, quickly outmanoeuvred Warwick and successfully took London. Henry VI was recaptured and Warwick offered battle 16 kilometres from the capital near Barnet in Hertfordshire on 14 April 1471. This was Richard’s first major battle and he would have to fight his former tutor. Chroniclers
Richard’s brother, King Edward IV, was supposedly 6’5”, making him the tallest British monarch of all time
for the Battle of Barnet name no Yorkist commanders, other than Edward IV, but it is assumed that Richard played an important role.
The Yorkists were outnumbered and the battlefield was shrouded in fog, which was made worse by smoke from artillery fire. Richard reputedly commanded Edward’s right flank and he got lost in the fog while trying to find the duke of Exeter’s Lancastrian soldiers. Despite the danger, he managed to manoeuvre around Warwick’s left flank and put pressure on the Lancastrians. Edward was then able to fight from the centre and Warwick’s men were outflanked. The Lancastrians began to fight each other in the fog and a rout ensued where Warwick was killed.
The death of the Kingmaker was a blow to the Lancastrians and Edward was now on the offensive. Barnet was also a success for Richard who been slightly wounded. His military apprenticeship was over and he accompanied his brother to destroy the last serious Lancastrian resistance in England.
Clash at Tewkesbury
Henry VI, who had been forced to accompany Edward to Barnet, was sent back to the Tower and the Yorkist brothers pursued the Lancastrians across England. Henry VI’S heir, Prince Edward of Westminster – his son by Margaret of Anjou – had landed in the southwest and linked up with the duke of Somerset and earl of Devon to form an army. The Lancastrians aimed to link up with Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke in Wales by crossing the River Severn at Gloucester.
However, the Lancastrians were refused entry into Richard’s ducal capital and they marched north to the next crossing at Tewkesbury.
The Yorkists hotly pursued the Lancastrians and caught them forming an irregular battle line on 4 May 1471. The battlefield was on formidable high ground that was dominated by streams, ditches, hedges and woods. Tewkesbury Abbey was behind the Lancastrian positions and it was in this difficult terrain that Richard fought his first confirmed command.
Richard led the Yorkist vanguard and immediately began an assault. The terrain bogged down the attack and the Lancastrians retaliated with arrows and cannon fire before Somerset charged the Yorkist right flank. Richard rallied his men and reformed his lines to face Somerset. His counterattack was so strong that the Lancastrians faltered. Edward then unleashed spearmen from a hidden position against Somerset’s division and the Lancastrians fled. The ground they ran over became known as the Bloody
Meadow for the fierce fighting that occurred there.
Edward now attacked from the centre while Richard assaulted the unprotected Lancastrian right flank.
With the battle turning against him,
Somerset personally killed Lord
Wenlock in anger because his
“The ground they ran over became known as the Bloody Meadow for the fierce fighting that occurred there”
The most famous portrait of Richard III takes from the late 16th century and is probably a copy of an original likeness Richard III famously fought at Bosworth wearing a crown on his helmet, which would have made him highly visible on the battlefield The Battle of Barnet was Richard’s first command, leading the vanguard