‘Bosworth – Psychology of a Battle’ by Michael Jones

Everyone knows about Richard III: the scheming, duplicitous, evil crookback who murdered his nephews to steal the throne. Or do they?

Shakespeare’s notorious villain has been so ingrained in our minds for centuries that the “winter of our discontent” and the horse worth more than a kingdom are practically viewed as historical facts. Perhaps inevitably, it’s become something of a fashion among historians and novelists to attempt a rehabilitation of Richard, from Josephine Tey and Sharon Penman to Philippa Langley and Gregory, and Michael Jones’s ‘Bosworth: The Battle that Transformed England’ continues to mine this rich vein. This should come as no surprise, for Jones was closely involved in the project to hunt out Richard’s grave and has written another book on that topic, and his expertise shines through ‘Bosworth’.

The title is perhaps a little misleading, but readers who might be turned off by the prospect of military history shouldn’t be – the book is actually a fascinating exploration of the wider, European and historical context of Bosworth, and an intriguing psychological consideration of Richard himself. As Jones says, Richard “is not the bloody usurper of legend but has an altogether higher purpose, to reclaim his family’s regal dignity.” And it’s this family that really matters in Jones’s portrayal of Richard – particularly his father and namesake, Richard, Duke of York, who was killed by Lancastrian forces at Wakefield when his youngest son was just eight years old. Jones says “A mythology is bigger than a memory, and Richard grew up in its shadow. As its power gained a hold on his imagination, he came to see himself in this mythic father’s likeness and thus as his true heir.” There’s a tragic parallel highlighted between Richard’s final, fatal charge from the high ground into Henry Tudor’s army, and Richard of York’s own fatal charge at Wakefield, with Jones suggesting a moving inevitability about Richard III’s fate. This theory lends the book real emotional depth and transforms what might have been a somewhat dry discussion of whether Ambion Hill really was the site of Bosworth into a tense, gripping drama about a son’s struggle to live up to his family name.

Jones also sets about interrogating other myths made gospel by Shakespeare, arguing that many of the elements found in the play actually originated in the Battle of Courtrai, over a hundred and eighty years prior to Bosworth. The sequence of the battle, Richard’s failure to celebrate Mass, the portents, and even the desperate cry for a horse can all be found in accounts of this battle. It makes for compelling reading, as if we’re watching a crime scene investigator pick apart the testimonies of unreliable witnesses, with all the suspicion and curiosity that creates.

If the book has a fault, it’s that it is unashamedly Ricardian. This isn’t a surprise, but it does mean that Henry Tudor only really gets a look in about halfway through, and it would have been interesting to see the same depth of character study applied to both commanders. Jones’s preference for Richard also leads him to discuss the theory of Edward IV’s supposed bastardy as if it’s true, which certainly allowed Richard to justify his own kingship, but perhaps ought to be considered as one of many possibilities rather than the definitive one, a point only really paid lip service to here.

That said, ‘Bosworth’ remains an entertaining, incisive account of one of the most iconic moments in Tudor history. Using Shakespeare’s portrayal as a frame for the narrative is a really effective choice, allowing Jones to make a convincing case for Richard as more of a Hamlet figure than a Claudius; at the end, he wonders what kind of tragedy Shakespeare might have written if not for the Tudor queen on the throne. He concludes “Here, instead of the evil loner, we glimpse a Richard who could be the flawed, but ultimately tragic hero … a courageous, determined and energetic man caught up in a family drama and shadowed by its legacy.” Now, if only we had a time machine …

By Naomi Kelsey

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  1. Reymie Lum says:

    This book would offer wonderful insight into Richard III final moments

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