Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, England, 22 August 1485. From The Century Edition of Cassell's History of England, published 1901. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Slaughter and forgetting

Strange echoes at Bosworth Field

Artillery Row

Bosworth Field is a beautiful place. This is the original middle England; not neat columns of bungalows leading inexorably to the M25, but a point of near convergence for Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. All around it valleys gently undulate across county boundaries, their crests ridden by pretty villages and closely tended hedgerows.

It’s a mass grave as conceived by Alan Titchmarsh

But nobody goes to Bosworth for the scenery. They go because it is the cradle of one England and the grave of another. Crops bend to the breeze, fed by soil, much corroded iron and the dust of slaughtered men’s bones. 

Despite the past horrors of the battle fought there, it feels peaceful. The heritage railway that chugs gently across the site every hour on the hour gives a flavour of the atmosphere. It’s a mass grave as conceived by Alan Titchmarsh.

However, Bosworth has a problem. Nobody can remember exactly where the battle actually took place. All of the description above might in fact apply to a host of locations within several miles’ radius of that which is signposted as “Bosworth Field”. Indeed current speculation places the battleground on private land some way away from the visitor centre. 

Interestingly, this isn’t a problem of a place lost in the midst of time either — confusion set in barely a day after the event. The report of the defeat near the village of Dadlington that first reached Yorkist loyalists in the North referred to the king’s death at the “Battle of Redemore”. Nowadays, nobody even knows where Redemore was. The first recorded use of the name Bosworth Field was by Henry Tudor some decades later.

Since then, multiple sites have been posited, and multiple myths about the battle have evolved. Exhibitions at the visitor centre are couched in rather glorious contortions of tenses: “it is there that Richard might have been camped had he been at the foot of the hill” etc. It seems that even the result of the battle — settled though it was in August 1485 — is still up for grabs: at the end of the exhibition visitors are encouraged to cast a “vote” for either Henry or Richard by placing a counter in one of two boxes. “How much more civilised we are in deciding great questions now”, I suppose, is the message — although it occurs to me that the little plastic token would afford me as little defence against a cruise missile as it would against a pole axe.

Tellingly, there is no option to vote for Lord Stanley. It strikes me that he was clearly the most important man on the field that day: his decision to withhold troops from Richard and send his brother to support Henry changed the battle irrevocably. In all the fantasy that surrounded and still surrounds Bosworth, Stanley seems to be the only figure who was interested in the gruesomeness of political reality. As such, he is considered by both “sides” to be a bit of an embarrassment. But then the English have always disdained the cold, hard exercise of actual power — unless, of course, it happens in far off lands of which they claim to know nothing. 

This squeamishness is perhaps why, whilst other nations have a guilty pride in their Richelieus and Bismarcks and Metternichs, England has never produced an equivalent statesman (or woman, despite what the practitioners of 80s juju who currently masquerade as the Conservative and Unionist Party might think).

All history making has always been the making of myth

But that was the Bosworth of then. No wonder details like location were quickly and conveniently lost when the actual, grubby circumstances of this historical sea change were a source of shame to both usurper and usurped. One consequence of this is that the Bosworth of today is surrounded by the paraphernalia of false Bosworths past: there is the Richard III memorial stone — now moved from the place where it falsely claimed he fell to dwell in perpetuity by the gift shop; there is the Roman trough, which masqueraded as the king’s coffin, until he was awkwardly discovered — sans any form of casket — underneath that car park in Leicester; there is the well, once the main attraction on what was supposed to be the battlefield, but now reached by a footpath that goes in the opposite direction to the current suggested site.

This final false relic is particularly affecting. It was built on top of a spring at which the last Plantagenet was supposed to have supped his final drink on that hot August day. In 1813 an epitaph in Latin — which refers to Richard as a king but Henry, rather bitchily, merely as “Earl of Richmond” — was carved into a plaque on the stone cairn that now covers the stream. It was composed by Reverend Samuel Parr, a man now also, appropriately, forgotten, but known as “the Whig Dr Johnson” in his day. It’s a memorial to myth, to the shifting sands that mean even an inscription carved into stone to the greater glory of established historical fact can become a curious tribute to a falsehood. It’s a very English Ozymandius. 

Yet none of this is to do a visit to Bosworth down. Quite the opposite in fact. I heartily commend this motley collection of Bosworth Fields to you — for it is a place where an important realisation rings truer than anywhere else in England: that in history, the slide into myth is an inevitability. Bosworth Field embraced that long ago. 

Bosworth is special because the mature acknowledgement of myth’s existence and validity — of learning to live with legend — is now only rarely owned up to. Empiricism has never been a flattering or, frankly, particularly helpful measure of truth more generally: in the historical sphere it is worse than useless.

Despite this, a “here’s what really happened” school of history and its proponents dominate much popular presentation of the past, deceiving either their audience or themselves that the necessarily partial creation which they present is unambiguously correct, as opposed to merely a perpetuation of the myth cycle that makes up all history or, indeed, any other form of storytelling. No matter how solemnly — and sometimes you can almost feel the heaviness of heart involved — a history thread or book or article purports to present “the facts” or “the real truth”, you can be sure that beneath its title some form of myth construction will occur.

Yet history has a funny sense of humour, not unlike those twists of fate or divine whim that so often feature in, well, myths. As many people on Twitter can say “historian here” as they like: in due time it is inevitable that they will be awarded no more respect than the ancient scholars they mock. Perhaps even less. All history making has always been the making of myth: Herodotus, Bede and Marx all knew that, and they were greater historians for it. How much poorer — and stupider — we are to pretend we do otherwise.

Back to Bosworth: it is on an imagined version of that field that Shakespeare, the great merger of myth and history in English, has Richard III state that “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues”. It is a good place to remind ourselves that history hath them too. 

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