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When it comes to royal mysteries, not much compares to the Battle of Bosworth and the death of King Richard III during the Wars of the Roses in 15th century England. But archaeology is solving these mysteries even though new difficulties continue to be faced today.
Fought between 1455 and 1487, the Wars of the Roses literally wiped out the male lines of the House of York and the House of Lancaster as both battled for the throne.
Born three years prior to the beginning of the hostilities in 1452, Richard III would grow up during the conflict, which took the lives of his father and one of his brothers in 1460.
In 1471, an 18-year-old Richard would play a crucial role in two battles that helped his brother Edward IV regain the throne. Since Edward was the first Yorkist king, that means Richard is also considered a Yorkist.
Unfortunately, Edward would die in 1483 and would be briefly succeeded by his young son. But that son and his brother would both be declared illegitimate. Known as the Princes in the Tower, Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury were sent to live in the residences at the Tower of London, where they would disappear under mysterious circumstances. Richard III then agreed to take the throne and he has been a suspect in the princes’ disappearance ever since even though there is no evidence that he did anything to them.
Regardless, the lack of evidence did not stop the suspicion that Richard had the boys murdered for his own gain, which only fueled resistance to his rule by the House of Lancaster.
Henry Tudor would soon champion the Lancaster cause and challenge Richard.
Just outside of Leicestershire on Bosworth Field in August of 1485, the forces of Henry and Richard would engage each other in a bloody battle that would change the course of England to the present day.
Whilst seeking to engage Henry, Richard charged on horseback only to get stuck in the marsh. There, he met his end, thus becoming the last king of England to be killed in battle. Henry would be crowned King Henry VII on Crown Hill by the Stanleys of Cheshire, who waited to join the battle at a crucial moment on the side of whoever had the best chance of winning. The Stanleys continue to be a prominent English family today.
Henry married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York shortly after the battle to unite the two decimated houses, even combining the white and red rose symbols unique to either house to create the Tudor Rose.
Henry would have Richard’s body stripped naked and displayed, only to inter the corpse in the Church of the Grey Friars. The church would be demolished in 1538, and Richard’s tomb would be lost to history.
But for centuries, the exact location of the battlefield had also been a mystery until archaeologists made a serious effort to find it despite the Leicestershire County Council officially deeming Ambion Hill the battlefield site.
Thanks to excavations by determined researchers, the actual site of the Bosworth battlefield is two miles to the southwest of Ambion Hill at Fenn Lane Farm, confirmed by the finding of dozens of lead round shot and a silver-gilt badge depicting a boar, Richard’s personal emblem. These new findings have completely changed the narrative of the battle, according to author Mike Ingram, who independently investigated the site and is currently Chair of the Northampton Battlefield Society.
“Over the years, particularly since the discovery of the actual battlefield, the narrative of the battle has evolved,” Ingram told Heritage Daily. “Most previous historians writing about Bosworth based their theories on the belief that the battle was fought on Ambion Hill and this affected how the contemporary sources were interpreted. The discovery of the actual battlefield, two and a half miles [3.6km] southwest of the traditional site, has shown that the contemporary sources must be interpreted in a different way to how they were interpreted previously.”
Indeed, one cannot imagine the armies in position and their locations during crucial points in the battle without knowing the geography of the battlefield. That’s why historians have to re-examine contemporary sources and set the record straight. A hill located on the traditional site may not have existed on the true site. The same goes for other geographical features that would affect how the battle played out. It turns out that Ambion Hill was the site of Richard III’s camp and his army charged from the foot of the hill to the real battlefield.
“Although the eventual outcome is the same, how that outcome was achieved can now be shown to be very different,” Ingram said. “The line of finds running parallel to Fenn Lane now shows exactly where the two armies fought, which in turn shows the geography of the battle. The discovery of this and the location of the marsh, particularly in relation to the main battle line, allows greater understanding not only of the course of the battle but of the approximate location of Henry Tudor himself. From there and by studying the landscape and sources it is relatively simple to identify William Stanley’s location, the likely route of Richard III’s final charge and his subsequent death.”
This new information also sheds new light on previously discounted source material.
“There are also a number of other sources, such as the Ballad of Bosworth Fielde and the Song of Lady Bessiye, which did not make any sense when it was thought the battle was fought on Ambion Hill and were therefore discounted,” Ingram says. “However, the relocation of the site shows that these same sources are now, for the most part, correct and they can now be used to give additional detail to the narrative.”
Sadly, a piece of the newly found battlefield is about to be destroyed by development, which is a cause of concern for Ingram because we risk forgetting our history and being unable to experience a part of it for ourselves. This is why he believes England should protect its battlefields the way the United States protects theirs.
I fear for all our battlefields as it seems they are no longer considered important. As Culture Secretary I would make UK battlefields into National Parks, just like the Americans and Japanese.
I would also make sure that more British history is taught in schools. The success of Game of Thrones and Horrible Histories etc. shows there is an appetite. If we are ever going to plan for the future we must first understand our past and take the lessons learned from it. We must also preserve what little of our actual past remains and not let it be destroyed in the name of progress. To truly understand a battle you must walk in the footsteps of those were there and a virtual reality version of our past will never replace the sense of place felt when standing on the spots where history was actually made! Quite rightly, we have made much of World War One and Two battlefields and all those who lost their lives in far off fields in recent years. But here in England, many more lives were lost fighting for and defending democracy. Surely they are worth remembering too?
And so, archaeology can literally change history and give us a greater understanding of it. The Battle of Bosworth ended the Wars of the Roses and marked the beginning of the English Renaissance. Henry VII would father a boy who became Henry VIII. Henry VIII would go on to have three of his wives executed and buried at the Tower of London in his desperate attempt to sire a male heir.
Eventually, however, his daughter Elizabeth would take the throne as Elizabeth I and would reign for 45 years. The current royal family is related to Elizabeth I and Henry VIII through common ancestor Henry VII, whose daughter Margaret had a son named James who would succeed Elizabeth I after her death in 1603, marking the beginning of the Stuart rule. The throne would then be passed to the House of Hanover, which became the current House of Windsor.
As for Richard III, archaeologists would discover his tomb under a parking lot in 2012 where the Church of the Grey Friars once stood. The remains featured evidence of scoliosis, a spinal affliction Richard lived with, as well as clear battlefield wounds matching how the last Yorkist king was killed after being struck in the head by a hard halberd blow that was said to be so brutal that it drove his crown into his skull. It was a violent end to the young life of the 32-year-old monarch.
It’s yet another example of how archaeology is still helping us discover our history and continues finding answers to the mysteries that have endured for so long.