Michael Jones. Bosworth 1485: The Battle That Transformed England. New York: Pegasus Books, 2015. Maps. 256 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60598-859-7.
Reviewed by Basit Hammad Qureshi (University of Minnesota)
Published on H-War (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Spurred perhaps by the resurgence of interest in King Richard III (r. 1483-85) following the 2012 discovery of his skeletal remains in Leicester, the present book is a reissue of Michael K. Jones’s 2002 work, Bosworth, 1485: Psychology of a Battle. Apart from different pagination, a few missing images, and a new preface, wherein Jones surveys some of the recent archaeological and textual research advancing Ricardian studies, the 2015 edition is unchanged from its 2002 incarnation. The present book is, therefore, of minimal benefit to those already familiar with Jones’s original publication. To newcomers, however, there is much of interest here.
Despite the title of the book, Jones’s focus is not on the Battle of Bosworth per se, which receives sustained treatment in only two of the book’s seven chapters. Rather, Jones has structured this book as an investigation of the psychological character of Richard III. It is an investigation, furthermore, of how Richard’s contemporaries might have perceived him before the triumphant Tudor dynasty maligned his memory. This analytical framework is presented as a new sort of battle history that seeks to illuminate the deeper significance of Bosworth through a greater understanding of the thought-worlds of the battle’s participants. Jones’s ultimate aim is to rehabilitate Richard as an eminently capable and confident individual who genuinely believed in the legitimacy of his cause, whose supporters felt much the same, and who only lost at Bosworth due to ill fortune rather than incompetence or cowardice. In this effort, Jones works against William Shakespeare’s influential portrait of the last Plantagenet king in the historical play Richard III. The theatrical rendition is one that, Jones argues, still holds sway over popular and scholarly understandings of Richard and the battle in which he perished.
Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the subject matter. It is divided into two parts. Jones first explores how Shakespeare’s narrative of Bosworth was crafted not to preserve historical truths, as such. The narrative’s purpose was to provide its Tudor-era audience with a dramatic and satisfyingly moralistic vision of the downfall of Richard III and subsequent accession of Henry Tudor (as King Henry VII). Jones demonstrates that numerous aspects of the Shakespearean account of the battle, such as the hurried disarray of Richard’s war camp, appear implausible when considered in comparative context with known realities of medieval military warfare or other textual sources. This is similarly the case with various post-Shakespearean elaborations of the battle’s proceedings, such as the situation of Richard’s forces atop Ambion Hill. In the second part of the chapter, skepticism is directed toward Tudor-era depictions of Richard’s physical deformities and moral depravities. Jones contends that these mutually reinforcing characterizations were part of a Tudor program of propaganda designed to bolster the dynasty’s own legitimacy by defaming Richard as an illegitimate usurper whose profound wickedness was reflected in both deeds and appearance. The chapter concludes with a short examination of Richard’s possible role in the alleged 1483 murder of his young nephews, the princes in the tower. Although Jones takes no particular position on the issue of Richard’s involvement, the author does defend the murder as being acceptable to medieval persons. This claim, as well as the insistence that, in contrast, modern actors would never find such actions to be tolerable, provides a credulous end to what is otherwise an effective dismantling of the various historical caricatures of Richard III.
Having cleared the tableau of some problematic assumptions, Jones offers in the next three chapters a reappraisal of Richard’s character. Chapter 2 makes the case for the enduring influence of the memory of Richard’s father—Richard, Duke of York—upon the son. In various commemorative materials at the family home of Fotheringhay as well as at the religious community at Clare of which the family was a patron, Richard’s father was portrayed as a valiant, confident, and resolute general. His various triumphs, such as at Pontoise in 1441, and his legitimate claim to the Crown were thwarted only by betrayal from within. Although little direct evidence remains for Richard III’s engagement with such materials, Jones constructs, through careful contextualization with aristocratic family practices, a plausible case for the profound impact of the heroicized memory of Richard, Duke of York, on his youngest son, Richard III. A belief in the righteousness of his father’s cause as well as a stalwart desire to follow in his father’s footsteps would propel Richard III in life.
Chapter 3 deals centrally with the role of Richard III’s mother, Cecily Neville, in promoting familial interests, first under her husband and then under her first royal son, King Edward IV. Following a discussion of her agency as matriarch of the family, Jones recounts the charge of illegitimacy that hounded Edward IV’s reign after 1469. Jones identifies the origin as Cecily’s own admission of adultery in court, an outburst inspired by her irritation toward Edward’s unsanctioned earlier marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, a member of a middling aristocratic family. In addition to defying Cecily’s plans, the marriage had brought, in the eyes of some contemporaries, shame on the royal house of York. Jones dedicates much of this chapter toward making the case for Edward’s adulterous conception. Yet the surviving body of evidence does not prove convincing, despite Jones’s attempts to wring something from it. Whatever the veracity of Edward’s parentage, what is important from the perspective of Richard III is that the accusation of adultery cast an influential shadow of illegitimacy over his elder brother’s reign. Jones persuasively shows how this would have influenced Richard III’s belief in the legitimacy of his own efforts.
Chapter 4 first explores the contested circumstances of Richard III’s accession to the throne of England in 1483. Jones asserts that Richard III initially sought to bolster his position by establishing the illegitimacy of Edward IV’s line on account of Edward’s adulterous conception. The adultery claim was eventually abandoned in favor of an allegation that a preexisting marital contract had invalidated Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and, thus, illegitimated their children. Jones briefly relays the story of the later 1483 attempt to rescue the imprisoned princes in the tower before devoting the remainder of the chapter to an investigation of Richard III’s martial and chivalric self-image. Particular attention is given to Richard III’s expressed desire to embark on a crusade. Jones argues that Richard’s desire was genuine, though it remains unclear how Jones has parsed this intentionality from what appears to be a rather conventional invocation of a three-century tradition of political rhetoric on the part of Latin Christian monarchs.
Chapter 5 shifts the focus to Henry Tudor. The chapter aims to deconstruct the teleological mythos of Henry Tudor’s victory. Jones positions Henry as the individual with the comparatively tenuous claim to the throne, whose forces and supporters only precariously positioned him to win at Bosworth on that fateful day. Jones contrasts the life experiences and resulting psychological characters of Richard III and Henry Tudor thusly: “Richard [was] a mover and shaker, accustomed to wresting the initiative and acting upon events; Henry [was] a watcher and waiter, holding fast while his fate [was] decided by others” (pp. 137-138). Jones’s warranted skepticism of the surviving source-base’s interest in portraying Richard as the villain is not matched here with a similar skepticism of the source-base’s interest in portraying Henry Tudor as the unlikely hero. Would the depiction of Henry’s eventual triumph as a divinely ordained victory against monumental odds not also constitute a rhetorical strategy that deserves interpretive caution? The inconsistent treatment of source authenticity is not, unfortunately, an isolated issue.
In chapter 6, we arrive at the Battle of Bosworth itself, which took place on August 22, 1485. Beyond emphasizing Richard III’s confidence and competency leading up to and during the battle, Jones provides three major correctives to the popular narrative of Bosworth. First, in what is the most compelling part of the book, Jones marshals scattered archival references, observations on the extant topography, and keen comparisons with late medieval cultural practices to relocate the traditional site of the battle. From Ambion Hill, a location for which the evidentiary base is marginal, Jones moves the battle eight miles to the west on a plain near Atherstone, with the later stages of the engagement continuing eastward into the hamlets of Atterton and Fenny Drayton. Although the location of the battle has now been further revised, Jones’s analysis of the surviving evidence is an exemplar of how an integrative approach to military history—inclusive of contributions from archaeology, social history, cultural history, and religious history—can shed light on otherwise obscured matters. Second, Jones draws our attention to the pre-battle ceremonial in which Richard likely engaged. These rituals, most prominently a battlefield coronation replete with anointing oil and the crown of Edward the Confessor, served to bolster the morale of Richard’s men by publicly affirming the legitimacy of his cause. Third, Jones examines the fateful cavalry charge by Richard III. Drawing on a neglected source—a nineteenth-century excerpt of a non-extant letter allegedly produced at Leicester by a French soldier on the day after the battle—Jones argues for the central role of the Swiss pike-wall in turning the tide of the battle. Allegedly unfamiliar with the tactic, Richard led his cavalry to shatter upon the pike-wall. Richard refused to retreat from the ensuing chaos, remaining defiant to his end. He was cut down on the field of battle soon after.
In the final chapter, Jones illustrates the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth. Henry Tudor’s victory resulted in a time of great uncertainty. Much of the realm not only had supported Richard’s kingship but also had expected a resounding Tudor defeat. Moreover, a “sweating sickness” beset London soon after Henry’s accession, inconveniently insinuating for contemporaries that God had passed judgment on recent events. Henry’s legitimacy as the new king stood on shaky ground. Jones sketches a few of Henry’s responses to these challenges, and then the chapter circles back to Richard III, reiterating that the events at Bosworth were anything but inevitable or even expected. The book concludes with an appendix of the aforementioned letter of the French soldier, a series of helpful maps, a brief timeline of important battles, a genealogical chart for the houses of York and Lancaster, and the endnotes.
Jones’s book is written with verve that is sure to satisfy enthusiasts. However, it is difficult to recommend the work as a reliable reference for scholars. Jones himself makes this point. In the original 2002 preface, preserved in the present edition, Jones writes that his book is meant to be “a quite sensational [story]” for general readers and “whether in an academic sense it is ‘true’ or not is not ultimately important” (p. 7). Is this, then, a work of history or of historical fiction? If “history is about tangibility” (p. 1), as Jones writes in the new preface, then presumably this book, which he describes as “an exploration of the intangible factors” behind Bosworth (p. 15), is not intended to be read as a historical account. Jones indicates that his work draws on considerable scholarship and primary source material. However, source citations are frequently missing for various key assertions, complicating the effort to follow up on such claims. Even in-text “names, dates and factual detail are kept to a minimum” in order to tell a rousing tale (pp. 7-8). Although the overarching argument of the book—that we should discard the Shakespearean caricature of Richard III and understand him as a confident and sincere king in his own right—is highly persuasive, individual arguments often rely on an aggregate of circumstantial evidence that proves suggestive at best. To Jones’s credit, he does not require his reader to accept any particular conclusion in order to have them believably follow along the main narrative. In the end, given the effectiveness of Tudor-era propaganda, the “real” Richard III risks being consigned to evidentiary oblivion. Jones’s effort is a welcome bulwark against such an outcome. Bosworth 1485 is a useful point of entry into the subject matter, but those seeking a critical and well-sourced rehabilitation of Richard III must advance their studies elsewhere.
. Michael Hicks offers a similar criticism in his review of the original publication. Michael Hicks, review of Bosworth, 1485: Psychology of a Battle, by Michael K. Jones, The English Historical Review 118, no. 476 (2003): pp. 488-490.
. For the revised location of the battle, see Glenn Foard and Anne Curry, Bosworth 1485: A Battlefield Rediscovered (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013).
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Basit Hammad Qureshi. Review of Jones, Michael, Bosworth 1485: The Battle That Transformed England.
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