I have a odd personal interest in the death of Osama bin Laden. My ancestor William Wimberley was in at the death of King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the final battle – though the participants didn’t of course know this – of the Wars of the Roses.
William Wimberley was, according to quite solid family history, a retainer of the Cheshire magnate Lord Thomas Stanley. Stanley and his brother William showed up at the battle with a large force, but having previously promised their support to both sides, were in a tricky position. One of Lord Stanley’s sons was a hostage in Richard’s camp. At the crisis of the battle, Richard launched a do-or-die cavalry charge directly at Henry, who was riding over to Stanley to get him to join in. At this point – when it was too late for Richard to order an execution – the Stanleys threw their men into the fray on Henry Tudor’s side. In single combat Richard, an impressive warrior, would probably have killed Henry, and did kill his standard-bearer. But he was driven off into boggy ground, unhorsed, surrounded and killed by a group of the Stanley infantry.
The Stanleys were of course rewarded, and their retainers. My ancestor got the land of some deceased Yorkist in Lincolnshire, and entered the ranks of the minor gentry and recorded history. Before he wasn’t a gentleman on a horse with a name but a man-at-arms on foot. He must have been fairly senior to have been rewarded with land, so think of an NCO. He would I think have worn fairly good armour, unlike the Welsh archers or English halberdiers making up the bulk of the force.
It was a smallish battle: under 10,000 on either side. The Stanley forces are often cited as 6,000, but the 3,000 of the Tudor court historian Polydore Vergil looks more credible. Whatever the total, the number of Stanley men-at-arms would have been quite low; perhaps a couple of hundred. Although physically quite small, Richard was a very experienced and dangerous fighting man, in the best armour money could buy. I don’t think a common soldier without armour would have dared to get close to him. So I suggest that he was killed by one or more Stanley men-at-arms, out of a group of a few hundred including my ancestor.
There is no family legend about William Wimberley and Richard’s death. But then, nobody came forward to claim it. A nobleman would have bragged; anybody else would have thought twice. Killing anointed kings is bad juju. The victor Henry might reward you, but then again might decide to make a nasty example pour décourager les autres. And the merry-go-round would, on past experience, soon bring another Yorkist back to the throne, and he certainly would try to make an example of you. Best lie low and enjoy your anonymous share of the general loot. After the battle, Lord Stanley brought the crown that Richard had worn over his helmet to Henry, claiming to have found it in a hawthorn bush. A likely story, don’t you think? “Squaddies kill king in hand-to hand fight, miss big gold crown”. Henry, characteristically. made no effort to dig out the truth for either reward or punishment.
Richard’s death was not surprising. In the early Middle Ages, indeed up to Agincourt, common soldiers tried to capture nobles and even kings in battle for ransom, quite apart from the difficulty of getting through their costly carapaces. The incentives changed in the Wars of the Roses: in a civil war, the victors could simply seize the lands of dead foes. So not only did more nobles die in battle, the aftermaths of battles – see the Lancastrian victory of Wakefield and the Yorkist of Tewkesbury – were punctuated with the spilling of blue blood. Both Richard and Henry knew that one of them would not survive the day.
Henry ordered minimal respect to Richard’s body. Polydore Vergil again:
Richard’s naked body was slung over a horse, its head, arms and legs dangling, and was brought to the Franciscan monastery at Leicester, a sorry spectacle but a sight worthy of the man’s life, and there it was given burial two days later, without any funeral ceremony.
During the two days in Leicester, Richard’s body was exhibited, more or less naked, to prove he was actually dead.Ten years later, Henry – now pursuing a “look forward” national unity agenda – softened and anted up £50 for an alabaster monument that has since disappeared.
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The story has a few parallels to Obama and bin Laden – postmortem, eerily so. Henry treated Richard as the Wicked King of Shakespeare’s magnificent Tudor propaganda; he was happy that his soldiers saved him the trouble and embarrassment of an execution, with or without show trial. That was unremarkable for the time, and Richard was undoubtedly king, usurper or not. Obama had more choices. I still think that Obama has paid bin Laden too much respect in treating him as an enemy commander-in-chief like Richard Crouchback and not as a criminal.
Bin Laden won the propaganda battle right to the end. As leader of a small jihadist gang, he declared war on the mightiest power in the world – and got it to declare war back. It was only by a whisker that Bush walked back from declaring this war as a crusade, the mirror image of jihad. His tiny forces ineffective and in retreat, bin Laden managed to die like a Ghazi in a hail of bullets, not muttering into his beard as a broken old man in a Dutch prison like Milošević. The mythmaking will soon begin.
It will never end. There’s a society in England devoted to rehabilitating the reputation of Richard III. In the fine parish church at Fotheringhay, home to a major Yorkist castle in the Wars of the Roses (and later the prison and execution ground for Mary Queen of Scots), the quite recent kneelers in the pews are embroidered with white roses.
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A gallery of Richards:
and finally a Yorkist propaganda picture: