On Bosworth Field The Reforms Grow

August 22 is one of those dates that sticks in my head while other, worthier days (family birthdays, say) are consigned to the heap of “Late March, I think – anyway, we should send the card around then.” It’s the day that, 522 years ago, Richard III of England died in battle and was replaced by Henry VII, simultaneously ending Plantagenet rule (and the Wars of the Roses) and beginning a truly monumental historians’ fight over virtually every aspect of his life and works, to wit, that he:

– Killed his nephews (or didn’t) to usurp (or not) his brother Edward IV’s throne
– Killed his wife (or didn’t)
– Helped (or didn’t) to have his other brother, the Duke of Clarence, killed
– Abetted in killing Edward IV’s predecessor, Henry VI
– Planned to marry his niece (or maybe not) who was incidentally the sister of the nephews he may have murdered (or not)
– Miscellaneous other bits of estate theft and legal chicanery.

What makes the whole business so headache-inducing is both the fact that his reputation was deliberately savaged after his death (the usual fate of kings who are the last of their particular house) and the fact that true primary sources for his reign are so scarce, albeit the ones that do exist don’t paint a wildly flattering picture either. It’s probably fair to say that the real Richard, whoever he was and whatever remains of him in the scraps and bits of truly primary material, is gone forever. There are numerous wildly differing versions all fighting for shelf space at bookstores and libraries, trying to say once and for all which of many crimes he did (or didn’t) commit. Societies do more than their bit to keep him and his era alive.

All this is interesting but ultimately infuriating; spend enough (or too much) time reading the arguments back and forth – many of them fantastic towers of speculation – and it begins to seem as if none of the possible answers could be correct. For the record, for those of you who have also waded through this historical swamp, I think he probably did kill his nephews (ultimately self-injurious and stupid? Yes – but the trouble with the jigsaw-puzzle “it doesn’t fit” approach to history is that often people do do things which are incredibly stupid and not to their advantage) and probably didn’t do most of the rest, barring the estate grabs, for which he seems to have had a knack.

But this whole sideshow is by the by. The truly fascinating part, in the “turning points in history” sense, is that at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard, in one of the few actions of his life which isn’t subject to dispute, apparently came within an ace of killing Henry VII; he made a last-ditch charge and managed to kill Henry’s standard-bearer, which meant he must have been within a few yards of the man himself. (Henry himself wasn’t fighting – he wasn’t precisely the stuff of which ballads are made. On the other hand, he lived into his fifties and died in his bed, and it’s hard to argue with results like those). It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Richard had managed to stagger forward about six feet or so further than he did and put an end to Henry.

Henry VII was, of course, father to Henry VIII, who in his quest to beget a son also begat the English Reformation and helped considerably in making the map of the world what it is today. It’s doubtful whether many of us would exist if the religious climate of Europe had been even slightly altered by an English Reformation which did not happen, or happened in a much-altered form; the historical winds that blew our ancestors together (and apart) would have been changed. Even apart from religion, the colonization and subsequent history of the North American continent would likely have gone very differently.

This might be to overspeculate – the “course of history” is changed pretty much every moment, and a lot of apparently minor actions turn out to have major repercussions. However, it’s seldom that you can pinpoint a time and place so exactly and say that if something had gone just a little a differently right there – if Richard III had managed to run a few yards further – the world map would be unrecognizable now.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Richard III really did intend to marry his niece – in which case, he might have had a falling-out with the Pope over whether he could get a dispensation and the English Reformation would have happened, only fifty years earlier. That’s the problem with historical speculation, though – once you’ve started, it’s hard to stop at a reasonable point. Real history is rarely reasonable, so why should the speculative version be?

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3 Responses to On Bosworth Field The Reforms Grow

  1. Dana says:

    It’s very strange to me that the controversy over whether Richard III actually murdered the princes or not remains so heated to this day. They have a whole multimedia presentation about it in the Tower of London, and at the end, you’re supposed to vote on who you think did it. I couldn’t, because the only thing I could think was, “How in the world do they expect me to base an actual opinion on this bunch of rumors?”

    Very interesting point about the Battle of Bosworth and the possible change in the course of history it might have sparked. Sounds like the premise of an alt-history novel to me.

  2. Sonetka says:

    Same here – I went through a phase where I was reading everything I could on it, and by the time I was done I was starting to have serious doubts as to whether any of these people had actually existed at all :). I mean, everything was under debate, EVERYTHING, and the sources were so frankly biased one way or the other to begin with. But admittedly, I was fascinated; maybe it just appeals to the kind of mind that likes puzzle-solving; loose ends are very bothersome.

    I think it could make a good alt-novel as well – alas, I don’t have nearly the historical chops to write it, or if I did, I’d probably set it fifty years after the battle, at most – any longer and the ripple effect would just be too much to handle. Even then there’d have to be a lot of leaps of faith; writing Richard would be hellishly difficult because you’d basically have to invent him. (Sort of like Anne Boleyn – I have a lot of novels about her and while there’s a lot of evidence on certain portions of her life, there are also these huge gaping blanks that everyone fills in with wildly different stuff. It’s a little depressing to realize that if we got a chance to meet either the real Richard III or Anne Boleyn in the flesh, they’d probably be horrendously boring by comparison with people’s speculations).

  3. Matthew says:

    Bosworth is a really good what if. Not only the English Reformation of Henry VIII would have played out in a completely different field, but the vast economic reforms that a lot of people forget that Henry VII implemented. England had been bankrupted by Edward IV (Richard’s brother and Henry’s father-in-law), or more accurately, by his in-laws (who were pretty much regarded as nasty gold-diggers even by Lancastrians). Henry VII may have been a lousy soldier and had no military talent to speak of, but he was a fiscal giant who put the shaky English economy on the sure footing needed for his son Henry VIII to belive he could give the papacy the bird. He also implemented a great number of legal reforms, modernizing and legitimizing it. Whatever you might think of him as an individual, or whether you thought he might even be a murderer, he was a hell of an administrator. This is actually not unlike one of the other watershed what ifs changing dynasties in England.

    Let’s go back a bit to 1066. A few years earlier, Harold Godwinson, English nobleman and talented soldier has his ship blown badly off course in the British Channel, ending up in enemy territory in France. He gets rescued by his king’s kinsman, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, and they actually become friends. They pal around, for a while, Harold helps William out with a border dispute, and to cement things up they swear an oath of friendship. Harold agrees to support William’s claim to the English throne when the grossly incompetent current king finally dies. This “broken promise” I consider one of the great tragic misunderstandings. The way I read it, Harold was promising his support in the English fashion, essentially promising his support with the Witan, the group of Saxon nobles who would be deciding on the monarch when the childless king died. He’d have Harold’s vote in Congress in other words. William however took this as a promise of support in the French fashion, in otherwords swearing of fealty as a vassal. So both saw the other as treacherous. This might have been settled differently if not for the untimely intervention of the last great Viking hero Harald Hadrada, who is in interesting story himself, invaded the north of England. As the more immediate threat Godwinson went and got him first (incidently ending the Viking Age once and for all) and then force marched his tired troops all the way down England, whereupon they set up an orderly defensive Saxon shield wall.

    William had some fancy new technology up his sleeves though, mounted knights. They charged the shield wall, and got thoroughly slaughtered. Seriously, horses running uphill into an disciplined infantry wielding naginata looking axes capable of gutting horses in one hit? It was ugly. Further evidence of William’s not-so-brightness is he kept having his archers shoot at the shield wall, where they hit, you guessed it: shields. All this culminated in William having his horse gutted from under him, and we were one axe hit from declaring Harold Godwinson one of the greatest military minds of the middle ages, capable of fighting a two front war from both the last great Viking horde and a Norman invastion over the course of a few weeks. Instead William somehow survived, and rallied his fleeing troops. The shield wall had broken as the Saxons were rushing down to butcher the Normans and got caught with their pants down. Godwinson got an arrow in the eye and that was pretty much the end of Saxon civilization. William was another of those not impressive as a warrior, but one hell of an administrator, and over the course of his life imprinted Normans onto England once and for all. Every British Monarch for almost a thousand years has been descended from William, imagine what kind of map things might look like if the Saxons had pulled it off.

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