Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Royal Documents: Henry Tudor’s Proclamation at Bosworth Field


I have started research on my first book on the monarchy, which will be a collection of famous royal speeches and letters, and I am already finding some marvelous stuff. While going through a book of royal letters printed in 1846 (thank you, London Library!) I came across something that seems to have been forgotten: Henry Tudor’s proclamation to his troops on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field.

(Bosworth Field, the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, was fought between Henry Tudor’s Lancastrians and Richard III’s Yorkists in 1485. Henry won and went on to be crowned Henry VII while Richard III was killed in battle.)

The proclamation was originally recorded in Edward Hall’s Chronicle, one of the most important sources for the Tudor period. It was first recorded in the 1540s but was almost certainly based on earlier material found in archives. It may have been given in person by Henry but it is most likely that it was a proclamation distributed as a written document on the eve of the battle to justify Henry’s royal claim and increase popular support.

The document is absolutely fascinating. From prayer-like beginnings it builds up gradually to a rousing, inspirational end, all throughout listing the ‘goodly’ reasons behind Henry’s ‘just quarrel’ against Richard III. These include Richard’s usurpation of the crown, the dishonoring of the Royal Family, and his misgovernance of the country. It was obviously written from the Tudor perspective and in fact you can see it as the first comprehensive attempt to blacken Richard III’s name. There has been a lot of talk in the last month, after the discovery of Richard’s bones, on how Tudor propaganda shaped Richard’s malicious reputation through the ages. This proclamation is a prime example of how it was done: Henry here goes as far as saying that Richard is worse than the Emperor Nero!

So this document might be nothing more than spin, but, as is the case with most English historical documents, it is glorious spin, and it might first have been spun right on the battlefield at the dawn of the Tudor era. It also generated more spin: William Shakespeare used Hall’s Chronicle extensively as source material for his historical plays and some phrases from the speech below were lifted almost verbatim for inclusion in Richard III. You can even sense that the pathos of Henry’s speech here influenced Shakespeare’s portrayal of the virtuous Richmond in the play.

Shakespeare’s nefarious Richard III (here played by Laurence Olivier) might be partly inspired by Henry Tudor’s proclamation at Bosworth.

This is fantastic stuff, the very first burst of Tudor power and colour onto the English stage, as gripping to read today as it would have been to hear 500 years ago. The text is taken from James Orchard Halliwell’s Letters of the Kings of England, published in 1846. I have edited some passages out to focus on the salient stuff, and I have made some notes at the end to explain the meaning of some passages.

21 August 1485

"If ever God gave victory to men fighting in a just quarrel, or if He ever aided such as made war for the wealth and tuition of their own natural and nutritive country, or if He ever succoured them which adventured their lives for the relief of innocents, suppressing of malefactors and apparent offenders—no doubt, my fellows and friends, but He of his bountiful goodness will this day send us triumphant victory and a lucky journey over our proud enemy and arrogant adversary.

…Our cause is so just, that no enterprise can be of more virtue both by the laws Divine or Civil. For, what can be a more honest, goodly, or godly quarrel than to fight against a captain being a homicide and murderer of his own blood and progeny?—an extreme destroyer of his nobility, and to his and our country and the poor subjects of the same, a deadly hammer, a fiery brand and a burden intolerable?

…For he that calls himself king keeps from me the crown and government of this noble realm and country, contrary to all justice and equity. Likewise his mates and friends occupy your lands, cut down your woods, and destroy your manors; letting your wives and children range abroad for their living; which persons, for their penance and punishment, I doubt not but God of His goodness will either deliver into our hands as a great gain and booty, or cause them, being grieved and compuncted with the prick of their corrupt consciences, cowardly to fly and not abide in battle.

…For surely this rule is infallible, that as ill men daily covet to destroy the good, so God appoints the good to confound the ill. And of all worldly goods the greatest is to suppress tyrants and relieve innocence, whereof the one is ever as much hated as the other is loved.

If this be true who will spare yonder tyrant, Richard Duke of Gloucester, untruly calling himself king, considering that he has violated and broken both the law of God and man? What virtue is in him who was the confusion of his brother and the murderer of his nephews? What mercy is in him who flees his trusty friends as well as extreme enemies? Who can have confidence in him who puts distrust in all men?

The banner of Henry Tudor used at the Battle of Bosworth (not the actual one!) It includes the cross of St George, for England, and the red dragon of Wales, to mark Henry’s ancestry.

If you have not read, I have heard clerks say that Tarquin the Proud for the vice of the body lost the Kingdom of Rome, and the name of Tarquin was banished from the city forever. Yet was not his fault so detestable as the fact of cruel Nero which slew his own mother? Behold yonder Richard, which is both Tarquin and Nero! Yea, a tyrant more than Nero, for he has not only murdered his nephew, being his King and sovereign lord, bastarded his noble brethren, and defamed his virtuous and womanly mother (1), but also compassed all the means and ways that he could invent how to rape his own niece under the pretence of a cloaked matrimony, which lady I have sworn and promised to take to my mate and wife, as you all know and believe (2).

…Long we have sought the furious boar, and now we have found him (3). Wherefore, let us not fear to enter into the toil, where we may surely slay him, for God knows that we have lived in the vales of misery, tossing our ships in the dangerous storms. Let us not now dread to set up our sails in fair weather, having with us both it and good fortune.

…And this remember, that before us be enemies, and on either side of us be such as I neither surely trust nor greatly believe (4). Backward we cannot flee, so that here we stand, like sheep in a fold, circumsepted and compassed between our enemies and doubtful friends. Therefore, let all fear be set aside, and like sworn brethren let us join in one. For this day shall be the end of our travail and the gain of our labour, either by honourable death or famous victory; and, as I trust, the battle shall not be so sour as the profit shall be sweet.  

Remember that victory is not gotten with the multitude of men, but with courages of hearts and valiantness of minds. The smaller that our number is, the more glory is to us if we vanquish. If we be overcome, no laud is to be attributed to the victors, considering that ten men fought against one (5). And if we die so glorious a death in so good a quarrel, neither fretting pain nor cankering oblivion shall be able to obfuscate or raze out of the book of fame either our names or our godly attempt.

Though it looks like a painting, this is actually a photo of a diorama of the Battle of Bosworth Field kept at the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre in Warwickshire. (Click for larger view)
One thing I assure you, that in so just and good and so notable a quarrel you shall find me this day rather a dead carrion on the cold ground than a free prisoner on a carpet in a lady’s chamber. Let us therefore fight like invincible giants, and set on our enemies like untimorous tigers, and banish all fear like ramping lions. And now advance forward! True men against traitors, pitiful persons against murderers, true inheritors against usurpers, the scourges of God against tyrants!

Display my banner with a good courage, march forth like strong and robust champions, and begin the battle like hardy conquerors! The battle is at hand, and the victory approaches, and if we shamefully retreat or cowardly flee let us and all our posterity be destroyed and dishonoured forever!

This is the day of gain, and this is the time of loss. Get this day victory and be conquerors, and lose this day’s battle and be villains. And therefore, in the name of God and Saint George, let every man courageously advance forth his standard!"

(1) In the process of becoming King, Richard had declared Edward IV’s marriage to Queen Elizabeth Woodwille invalid and their children to be bastards.

(2) Henry is referring here to Elizabeth of York. After Richard’s wife and only son died in 1484-1485 he looked into the possibility of marrying his niece, Elizabeth of York, daughter of his dead brother King Edward IV. Elizabeth was eventually married to Henry Tudor who here proclaims his intention to do so.

(3) The white boar was the personal badge of Richard III.

(4) He is probably referring to Lord Stanley, a political opportunist who held his men until he could see how the battle developed so as to be able to be on the victor’s side. He joined on Henry’s side after the battle began to go the way of the Lancastrians.

(5) Henry’s force was half the size of Richard’s. It was only after the intervention of Lord Stanley that the Lancastrian force was able to defeat the Yorkists.

"Let us therefore fight like invincible giants,
and set on our enemies like untimorous tigers,
and banish all fear like ramping lions!"

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