After 40 years of civil war, the Wars of the Roses culminated with the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485, which resulted in the defeat of King Richard III of York and the accession of Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII.
The Wars of the Roses started in the mid-1440’s and seemed to end in 1471 when the Yorkists were defeated at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury. In the aftermath of the battle, the pious King Henry VI and his only son, Edward, were both killed, leaving no direct heirs to the House of Lancaster and the usurping York king, Edward IV, in command. Henry Tudor and his uncle, Jasper Tudor, had a very weak claim to the throne through Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was a distant descendant of John of Gaunt through a previously illegitimate line. The Tudors fled to Brittany, where they were taken into custody by the duke, Francis II.
When the Lancastrian king Edward IV died in 1483, he left his 12-year-old son, Edward V, king, with a second son, Richard of Shrewsbury, as backup. The king’s council, fearful that the dowager queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and her family might try to seize power, turned to the young king’s uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and asked him to assume the role of Protector and de facto ruler of the country during Edward V’s minority. Richard did so, took Edward V into his custody, and arrested and executed several members of the Woodville family. He then set about convincing parliament to declare Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to Edward IV invalid, rendering their children illegitimate and therefore disqualifying them from the throne. He was proclaimed King Richard III on June 26, 1483. The former Edward V and his younger brother were confined to the Tower of London and disappeared. Many believe that Richard had them murdered.
Richard was unpopular, and the Lancastrians saw their chance to get the throne back. Lady Margaret Beaufort put her son, Henry, forward as a candidate for the throne, and she managed to gain the support of the Duke of Buckingham. They met with bad luck from the outset: Buckingham wound up trapped by a swollen river and was captured and executed; Henry tried to land in England in October but his fleet was scattered by a storm. Henry returned to Brittany to bide his time, and there he promised to marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, in order to unite the two warring houses.
Eventually, Henry was able to assemble 2000 men and set sail for England once again on August 1, 1485. He landed near Milford Haven in Wales on August 7 and quickly captured Dale Castle. Soldiers and military leaders from Richard’s side started deserting and joining Henry, who was a popular figure in Wales. He and his growing army crossed the English border on August 15 or 16, about the same time the Yorkist army started to gather. Henry took a leisurely route to London, gathering supporters along the way, while Richard called up his loyal supporters.
The armies finally met on August 22. The fighting was fierce, and it seemed like Richard, the seasoned warrior, might have the advantage over the more inexperienced Henry. But when Richard attempted to attack Henry directly, he found himself separated from his main force. Sir William Stanley, a commander who’d been sitting on the sidelines with several thousand men, trying to decide whom he should support, made up his mind at that point and joined the fight on Henry’s side, pushing back Richard’s outnumbered group. Richard’s horse became mired in the mud and he had to continue the fight on foot, although several of his followers offered him their own mounts—and escape. He was killed on the battlefield, and his army disintegrated as soon as the word spread.
Henry was now King Henry VII, and he immediately had Richard’s kingship declared illegal, and Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage declared valid. Henry duly married Elizabeth of York, ending the Wars of the Roses and establishing the Tudor dynasty.