Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The cowardice (or not) of Henry Tudor

I'm a few days late with this, since the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth was on August 22nd, but I want to talk about something that I regard as a modern popular misconception, and an interesting example of the effect of romantic fiction and wishful thinking.

King Henry VII - no coward he

Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII (1485-1509), is often charged these days with what a modern general would term cowardice in the face of the enemy. During the final climactic moments at Bosworth, when Richard III and his household knights were galloping directly at Henry and his bodyguard in a last-ditch effort to kill the pretender and end the battle, he is said to have cowered behind his men until the Stanleys arrived to save his bacon. Richard, as the chronicler Polydore Vergil put it, 'was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies'. As the recent discovery of Richard's remains under the famous Leicestershire car park has proved, the last Plantagenet certainly suffered an extremely painful death on the field.

I can already hear the distant rumble of Ricardian cannon, so let me state clearly that my intent is not to denigrate Richard in any way (God forbid), or whitewash Henry. I'm fully aware that Henry had a cold and ruthless aspect to his personality, and that he did some dark, devious things to cling onto the throne he had won in such spectacularly unlikely fashion. But cling on to it he did, and left England a more peaceful and prosperous country than he found it.

Put simply, there is no reference to his cowardice in any of the handful of contemporary or near-contemporary sources that describe the battle. Quite the reverse. Polydore Vergil, in the same account in which he describes Richard's heroic demise, says the following:

"Henry perceived King Richard come upon him, and because all his hope was then in valiancy of arms, he received him with great courage...Henry abode the brunt far longer than his own soldiers would have weened (thought possible)..."

There are also fragments of a letter written by an archer who actually fought at the battle and helped to repel Richard's final charge. The archer, who was one of Henry's French mercenaries and bore the fabulous name of Colinet Leboeuf, describes Richard as shouting "These French traitors are today the cause of our realm's ruin" in his last moments. The letter also says of Henry:

"He wanted to be on foot in the midst of us (the French) and in part was the reason why the battle was won."

In other words, Henry tried to put himself among his bodyguard instead of behind them, and his brave show was partially the reason why they stood their ground long enough for the Stanleys to come to the rescue. This version accords with Vergil's, and you can imagine the thin line of footmen, supported by a few mounted knights (including William Brandon, who was killed by Richard in single combat) waiting with their hearts in their mouths as the grim tide of Yorkist steel and coat-armour rolled towards them.

So where did the popular notion of Henry's yellow streak come from? In part, perhaps, from his own slightly shady behaviour when he was king: the backdating of his reign, allowing him to attaint those who had fought for Richard at Bosworth, was a sly act, and the trial and execution of poor Edward, Earl of Warwick and last of the direct male Plantagenet line, was pretty much a put-up job instigated by the king.  

More significant (in my view) is the influence of historical fiction. As an aspiring writer myself, I can appreciate the influence of powerful and emotive writing, and the last fifty years or so has witnessed a burst of novels written from a firmly pro-Richard III perspective. This includes works by Josephine Tey, Jean Plaidy, Sandra Worth and (perhaps most famously) Sharon Kay Penman and her excellent book "The Sunne in Splendour".

Here is the description of Bosworth, taken from Plaidy's "The Goldsmith's Wife":

"...Richard, his axe in his mailed fist, rode forward, straight towards that spot where, surrounded by a few supporters, Henry Tudor cowered in terror.
   Richard laughed in desperate relief. The day was not lost. Once Henry Tudor lay dead, all those who supported him would turn back to Richard. Stanley and Northumberland should go the way of all traitors.
   As for the Welshman, Richard could laugh - the crafty Welshman, cunning as a monkey, was timid as a mouse before the roar of the English lion..."

You get the idea. Apart from the bizzare image of Richard laughing hysterically as he rode to his doom, and the dubious monkey reference, Plaidy's sympathies are all too clear. Richard III is a knightly hero, and once you make a man a hero, you inevitably have to cast his enemy as a villain. A cowardly villain, of course. Josephine Tey's "Daughter of Time" is no less damning of Henry, and makes a great fuss of how 'shabby' a person he was, and the awful state of his teeth (though to be fair, they were apparently quite shocking).

None of this fluff, enjoyable as it is to read, has any obvious foundation in reality. Whatever you think of the first Tudor, no man who attempts an invasion with a ragbag army of mercenaries and exiles, and takes on an army twice to three times the size of his, led by a vastly more experienced general, can be labelled a coward. As a true-blue craven myself, I would have stayed in Brittany and looked for a good dentist.

I rest my case!


  1. Replies
    1. This is a good, objective view. Whether in agreement or not, whether Ricardian or Tudorite, it's fair. (Still laughing about Brittany - tell me, was there a good dental system in Brittany?)


    2. I hope so! For the sake of my gnashers :)

  2. Prmary sources trump fiction always. Thanks for your research.

  3. Well-balanced piece unclouded by romantic notions of royal lineage as writ. Much chronicled court info is dubious at best and oft subject to propaganda to substantiate claim to titles, estates and thrones. Step further back in time and take your pick of several kings scattered across England and then say which should be the true King/Queen of England, Wales or Scotland. All three quite separate countries with differing peoples and own languages. I guess because I live not far from Pembroke Castle I'm inclined toward Henry VII as a warrior who was vastly outnumbered man for man and still beat the cr*p out of Richard and his men. But then, so did Drake against the Spanish Armada, and Nelson against the French: both outnumbered and outgunned but won with cunning and true grit heroism! I endeavour to do so and admire authors who pen historical novels devoid of sympathy to one cause or another, and yet still manage to convey essence of emotion and depict the struggles from both sides of a divide. Too many authors follow what is already writ within existing novels and utilise as their means of research instead of embarking on research from scratch. Just my take on much of what I read.

    1. Thanks Francine: interesting and thoughtful response. Myself, I doubt that Henry was a military man by inclination, but he could play the soldier when required, and knew he had to stand his ground at Bosworth.

  4. Well balanced, logical and proper sources. Thank you, David.

  5. Great article, I hope one day that fiction stops with their depiction of Henry as a coward or a miserly king, I had to laugh at Plaidy's excerpt (to be fair, in Penman's Sunne even though she doesn't like him she at least didn't let that show too much, he was pretty neutral which was a relief). He was a great ruler, I find him and his reign way more fascinating than the one of his son.

    1. Thanks! :) Me too, Henry VIII bores me to be honest. Probably due to over-exposure.

  6. I'd just written my account of the battle for my historical fiction novel 'Jasper' (about Jasper Tudor) when I read this post and am pleased to confirm I have done a year of research to make sure it is as factual as possible. (Starting on 'Henry' now!)