Thursday, May 5, 2022

"A Horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" by Jeri Westerson

 In 1485, King Richard III of England was unhorsed and killed on Bosworth field. Poor Richard. He lost his life and his dynasty. The crown went to Welsh Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who became Henry VII of England, father to the infamous and ubiquitous Henry VIII.

Who was Richard? Was he really the villain he is portrayed to be in Shakespeare's tragic play (whence the title's quote comes)? Was he the diabolical instigator of the murders of the Princes in the Tower? Or is he really the innocent as portrayed in Josephine Tey's 1951 novella The Daughter of Time?

Earliest surviving portrait of Richard III, 1520

I doubt we'll ever know the real truth, though I tend to think that he was, perhaps, a little of both. He was a medieval man, after all, seeking the highest place in the land. But he was a loyal and accomplished warrior, fighting to restore his brother, King Edward IV to the throne during the War of the Roses. He was appointed to many posts under his brother's reign, in recognition of his loyalty and service: Constable of England, Chief Justice of North Wales, Chief Steward and Chamberlain of Wales, High Sheriff of Cumberland for life, Great Chamberlain, Lord High Admiral of England, Lieutenant of the North and Commander-in-Chief against the Scots and hereditary Warden of the West Marches, and later Lord Protector when his brother the king died and his young son, King Edward V and Richard’s nephew was a bit too young to rule. In other words, he was no slouch.

The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, painted by Sir John Everett Millais 

However, he seemed to be surrounded by conspirators, whether actual or imagined, and many were executed for treason. And the Princes in the Tower were later declared illegitimate because Edward IV was supposedly married first to Eleanor Butler and therefore made his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the princes, invalid. The princes just sort of...disappeared, and no one knows what happened to them, though much speculation has plagued historians ever since.

Rebellion was afoot, though, and when Richard went to his fateful battle at Bosworth field it was all going to be settled one way or another. Or was it? History is a funny thing. Yes, it's based on documents and firsthand and thirdhand accounts. To the victor go the spoils, but records are there and the information available offers only a glimpse that is sometimes interpreted one way and then another. That's what makes it interesting. In fact, sometimes new archaeological information comes to light. Not only do historians have to re-evaluate where exactly was the battleground, but because of artifacts found, they had to reconsider how the battle was fought.

Alf Oliver's farm will never be the same. This is the fellow who has an arable farm just off the old Roman road from Atherstone to Leicester in England. According to a 2017 article in the London Times, to get to Alf's farm:

" drive south and west from the Bosworth visitor centre on Ambion Hill, which is now, rather awkwardly, two miles adrift of the true site. Past a farm selling “battlefield beef” you park in a lane, tramp round one small field with a dip, cross a drainage ditch and arrive at a flat, triangular ploughed field exposed to the elements on all sides."

Richard III's boar badge from Bosworth, British Museum

The exact location of the battle of Bosworth Field where Richard III lost his crown and his life and made way for the reign of the Tudors, was unknown. Archaeologists finally located it October 2016 but were reluctant to give its exact location before they had a chance to dig it up for artifacts. And artifacts they found! Boar badges, Richard’s talisman, were found. Bones, weaponry. And, most interesting, they also discovered cannon balls and shot leading historians to the conclusion that heavy movable artillery were used much earlier for battles than expected, as well as the use of “gonners”. That will change a lot of author’s fiction for that time period. Perhaps that horse was blown out from under Richard with a cannonball!

Now, since I was invested in researching and writing about the late fourteenth century in my medieval mystery series, we can further turn this around to the reign of Richard II.   

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, painted later c. 1593 

In his household, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster had the court poet Geoffrey Chaucer as a loyal friend and servant. Was it because he liked the poet or liked his sister-in-law more? For the duke entertained Chaucer’s sister-in-law Katherine Swynford as his mistress for over twenty-five years, and even married her a year after his second wife, Constanza of Castille, died. Katherine wasn’t his first mistress. When he was a young man he took one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting as a mistress, Marie de St. Hiliare, and had a daughter with her, named Blanche Plantagenet. All told, he had about fourteen children both legitimate and ill-, with nine living into adulthood. His illegitimate children from Katherine Swynford were made legitimate by King Richard II when John finally married her, but they were barred from inheriting the throne.

Meanwhile, King Richard II had a falling out with the duke’s legitimate son Henry Bolingbroke and kicked him out of the country. But it is Lancaster who gets the last laugh. By the end of the century, Richard is forced to abdicate and is then left to starve to death in Lancaster’s favorite castle, Pontefract. Lancaster’s son Henry seized the throne and thus the royal House of Lancaster began. Unfortunately, the venerable duke was in his grave by then.

But speaking of inheriting the throne, Gaunt’s eldest son by Katherine Swynford, John, had a granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, whose son became Henry VII and took the throne from the last Plantagenet, Richard III. And Henry VII in turn married Elizabeth of York (who was also related to John of Gaunt), thus ending the York and Lancaster feud known as the War of the Roses, and allowing Gaunt's and Katherine's descendants to get the throne at last.


Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, and will be releasing her humorous medieval caper Oswald the Thief at the end of May 2022. Her newest mystery series set in Tudor England, Courting Dragons; A King's Fool Mystery with Henry VIII's real court jester Will Somers as protagonist, will be released January 2023. See all of her books--including an urban fantasy, a werewolf mystery series, a gaslamp-steampunk fantasy, and a LGBTQ rom-com mystery series--at

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