Monday, August 22, 2011

The Legacy of Bosworth

On this date in 1485 was fought the Battle of Bosworth Field, in which Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (subsequently King Henry VII), heir of the Lancastrian line, defeated the Yorkist usurper of the throne, King Richard III (portrait at left). It would prove to be a watershed event in English history; many, in fact, point to it as the line of demarcation between medieval and modern England. Richard, who was slain in the melee, holds the distinction of being the last English king to die upon the battlefield. Richard is also regarded as the last of the Plantagenet line, whose dynastic rule had extended through thirteen monarchs and endured for more than three centuries.

For Henry’s part, his claim to the throne, though legitimate, was somewhat tenuous: on his father’s side, he was descended from Henry V’s widowed Queen, Catherine of France, but this connection served merely to buttress the real claim, which came via his mother’s heritage as the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, noted son of King Edward III. This link was solidified beyond all doubting (if not quite all disputing) when Henry married Princess Elizabeth, the only surviving child of Edward IV and heiress of the rival House of York. The battle, the marriage, and a few subsequent skirmishes brought an end to the Wars of the Roses, which had torn England apart for three decades. Despite changes in houses or family names, the heirs of Henry Tudor retain the crown of England to this day, as evidenced in the current Royal Arms by the inclusion (at the lower portion) of the red and white Tudor Rose.

It is impossible even to imagine how English and world history might have been altered by a different outcome at Bosworth Field. Without Henry VII, there could have been (most notably) no Henry VIII, and no Elizabeth I. There would have been no English Reformation, or at any rate, there would surely have been a decidedly different one, for better or for worse. And not to be forgotten is the extent to which the arts flourished under the Tudors. The Renaissance was first introduced into England during the reign of Henry VII. Both the strikingly vivid bust of Henry and the paired funeral effigies of Henry and his wife, Elizabeth, shown below, are the work of Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano.

Architectural innovation flourished under both Henry VII and VIII—indeed the royal house of Tudor lent its name to an enduring architectural style. Henry VIII is remembered for his patronage of the great portrait artist Hans Holbein, and the Tudor-dominated sixteenth century gave rise to incomparable luminaries in both music (e.g. Thomas Tallis, William Byrd) and literature (e.g. Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare), thus enriching by incalculable degrees the cultural heritage of England, the West, and, indeed, the World.

All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire divisions,
O, now let Richmond [i.e. Henry] and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac’d peace,
With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days!

—William Shakespeare, from King Richard the Third