Redemore Plain, Leicestershire - August 22nd 1485
He stood in the middle of the battlefield, the press of the fight slackening and the grinding, clashing sounds of metal against metal diminishing as the battle wore its way to an inevitable end.
The end, when it came, seemed to happen all of a sudden, but in reality was a gradual decline over time as the field fell deathly quiet. The roaring rush of voices, hoarse shouts and tribal cries - “A Tudor!” – “York – to me!” “Plantagenet!” “For England!” now only echoes in his ears.
Echoes which would resound in his consciousness with deafening clarity for days…months…years.
Looking around him, he knew the battle was won as the sun began to track it’s path through the second quarter of the sky. The early morning mists had rolled away under the increasing heat of the August morning, only to reveal the true breadth of death and destruction which had been wrought on this day.
The dead and dying of both armies lay strewn over the Leicestershire plain forming a grotesque, vivid tapestry of mangled, dismembered and pulverised human flesh. Verdant green fields had, in the course of a few scant hours, been transformed into a morass of mud, blood and bone. Staring out through the slit below his raised visor, he could clearly see men in his opponent’s livery capitulating, at least those still able bodied enough to realise their cause was lost. All around him men were falling on their knees in the mire, begging for mercy, whilst others were more determined to abandon their cause and flee the field, scrambling and falling over the bodies of their dead comrades in their haste to escape retribution.
Some with more success than others.
Off to the edges of the plain, he could see a score of his own men hunting down these final combatants, seeking out the key adversaries to capture, kill or ransom. They knew and would eliminate their enemy, the elation of victory giving them renewed strength in limbs debilitated by the mornings efforts.
Somehow he found himself alone in the field and, for the first time in hours, with the luxury of time and space to breathe. Finally able to relax from the threat of the next well aimed sword thrust, the fall of an axe or halberd, the stray arrow. Men of his close personal household, sensing he was now safe, had turned their attentions to the final rout, leaving him to survey the spoils of their victory.
Slowly he reached up a gauntlet clad hand, his vambrace marbled with the blood of the vanquished, and lifted off his helm.
It seemed to weigh twice as much as it had when he had placed it on his head that morning as dawn had crept over the horizon. Dropping it unceremoniously into the quagmire at his feet, he threw back his head and closed his eyes. His face was streaked with blood and sweat, and he recognised the bitter taste coursing down the back of his throat, a throat stripped raw from barking commands and harrying the charge.
That first indrawn breath after being released from the confines of his helm made him sick to the pit of his stomach, and he was immediately glad he had only eaten sparsely that morning. The familiar charnel house smell of the battlefield invaded his body like a ravaging army of its own. The visceral odour of the slaughterhouse, the foul stench of disembowelled corpses mixed with the metallic tang of fresh and congealing blood assailed his senses. He shuddered involuntarily and exhaled with effort, ridding himself of the stench of death.
He suspected he would have wounds somewhere on his body after such a furious fight and that they would undoubtedly need attention, but at that moment he could not feel any pain. There was just a bone weary exhaustion, his limbs leaden and heavy, the sensation that it was only his armour keeping him standing. Relief and exultation, although the latter much subdued at present, were the only two emotions present as he gathered his thoughts and considered what this victory meant for him.
What would now await him in London?
With the uncertainties of the past few months, he was no longer sure who would be anticipating this victory – or who would be fearing it.
Shaking his head vigorously in an effort to further release the dark hair plastered to his face and neck, his attention was caught by a commotion off to the right where a small contingent of men gathered round a corpse. As he watched with eyes narrowed into the sun, items of armour and clothing were being pulled away and discarded, a lobstered gauntlet kicked away into a scrubby bush by a booted foot, a chain mail sabaton trodden into the mud.
A broadsword, mired with bone and hair, was raised – its edge still glinting dangerously in the morning light - ready to plunge downwards. He inhaled deeply, feeling the tightness in his chest.
“Cease!” he roared, ignoring the rawness of his scoured throat.
The men clustered around the body instantly paused, turning at the sheer authority in his voice, the hoarseness rendering it almost unrecognisable as his own. Driving his own sword into the ground next to his fallen helm, he crossed the rutted ground towards the small group of armed men. They parted in silence to let him through and then – one by one, sank to their knees in sudden recognition, bowing their heads in deference to a man.
He moved closer to the partially clothed body lying supine in death, mortally wounded, eyes half open and staring into death, below a halberd injury to the skull which had opened flesh and exposed an expanse of bloody bone and brain.
Not too long ago they had locked eyes in the heat of battle – almost able to feel the laboured heat of the other’s breath. A reverent hush descended, only to be broken by a lone voice.
The voice from behind stopped him from moving further forward and distracted his attention from the body of his foe. Turning slowly, his heel sinking in the mud, he found Lord Thomas Stanley also kneeling in deference. For a few seconds he stared at him in the deafening silence, taking in the outstretched arm which was reaching towards him.
There, he noticed a remarkably clean gloved hand offering up a gold circlet or him to accept. A crown that was last seen fixed to a battle helm as its wearer charged, harried and slaughtered his way through the field. A circlet that marked out a King on a battlefield, determined to fight for his kingdom, or die in the attempt.
Wordlessly, he took the crown from Stanley’s hands without any hesitation, fixing the man with a direct stare as he slowly placed the circlet onto his tousled, dark hair.
Stanley, brazen or foolish, did not break his gaze and was looking back with a mixture of defiance and certainty.
“Long Live the King!”
The shout came from the lips of Stanley himself, remaining on his knees before his sovereign. The rest of the men, who were watching this tableau carefully, echoed his words with enthusiasm. The cry was taken up and rippled round the rest of the field, more men, clad in armour, brigandines and salletts alike, moved inward from the outer reaches of the plain, their fighting done, their enemies dead.
The King looked down at the man still kneeling before him. He had been given good reason to doubt this particular lord’s loyalty over the past few months and there were still questions for him to answer, but not now. Silence fell for seconds only as he gathered his thoughts. The air was filled with a palpable tension, some of the men exchanged knowing glances in anticipation. One of the soldiers, his sleeve badged with a running hound, turned his head and spat on the ground in disgust, giving the kneeling man a sidelong glance loaded with contempt.
“Stanley….” the King finally spoke in a clear voice that belied the constriction in his throat. “You were tardy today. Be assured.. I will not forget that!”
Stanley had the grace to bow his head again, but said nothing. The King continued, his voice low and level, but not so quiet that he could not be heard by all those gathering around them.
“Although…..I am cognisant that you kept your honour in the end. We will talk more on this on the morrow, you can count on it.”
“Your Grace!” Stanley intoned, almost reverentially, and dipped his head even lower as if to atone for his actions.
The King turned back to face the small group of men still kneeling around the corpse of his enemy. Another knight, a familiar figure to the King, sauntered into view across the uneven field. He walked with a casual elegance which sat at odds with the unwieldy armour he was wearing,and an ease that belied the rutted and furrowed ground beneath his feet. Carrying his helm at a rakish angle under his arm, his fair hair caught gold in the sun as it climbed higher in the morning sky. Grinning, he wiped his sword on a banner picked up from the field as he crossed towards the small group clustered around the King.
The banner in his hand appeared to bear a red rose, but could equally have been blood-stained..and white.
“They are finished!” he shouted, his eyes registering both pleasure and recognition as he walked towards the King. “Most of them have surrendered – the rest we have put to the sword. I don’t think there will be many asking for pardons – half of them can’t even speak the language so we couldn’t tell if they were pleading for mercy or death! I say we should just cram them into the ships they came in and send them back to Charles. Let him feed and house them for the traitors they are – this war has cost us enough!”
The King walked over to the knight and they clasped hands, smiling grimly at each other in silent acknowledgement of a victory shared, but hard won.
“Francis,” the King breathed, a measure of relief and gratitude in his voice. “God’s Grace you are safe! Once again, I thank you for your service and loyalty in the field. We fought with honour and won the day.”
Viscount Francis Lovell bowed his blonde head in deference, blinking away the blood from a cut above his eye and settled his helm more comfortably under his arm. His brown eyes cut towards the kneeling men and with a curt movement of his head, he gestured towards the body on the ground.
“What do we do with him?”
Richard Plantagenet turned once more and looked at the body of Henry Tudor, Welsh Pretender and would-be King of England.
As well as the fatal injury to his head, he had multiple sword and dagger wounds to his torso where the soldiers had roughly begun to divest him of his armour and linens. Richard scanned around the field with practised eyes, taking in other corpses surrounding them, his brow furrowing in question.
“Fled, Your Grace, we believe.”
Another of his household knights, Rob Percy, was suddenly at his side.
He was smiling, apparent even though only his eyes showed below his upturned visor, giving a glimpse of a face spattered with blood and dirt.
He was breathing heavily and leaning on his sword.
“A small group, - three or four of them. Ratcliffe is in pursuit, we believe they may be heading back to Sutton Cheney. We will find him.”
Richard nodded curtly and began to strip off his blood soaked gauntlets, flexing his stiffened fingers and grimacing as blood came back, restoring feeling in a flood of sensation.
He was irked that this particular enemy was still at large, but looking around him at the scale of the defeat he knew that any threat he once posed was gone. Most of Tudor’s men lay dead or dying around the field, and the largest part of his army had been mercenaries and convicts supplied by the French King. Those who were not dead already would only fight for the highest purse, they owed no chivalry or loyalty to a Tudor.
He turned back to Rob.
“Continue the pursuit – under your charge. I want Jasper Tudor captured – either living or dead. But I want him in one piece, Rob!”
This last said with a clear edge to Richard’s tone, one he knew his friend would understand.
Rob bowed his head sharply in deference, snapped down his visor and turned away to reach for his lathered mount and then head back into Sutton Cheney to continue the hunt.
That done, Richard turned his attention back to the body lying prostrate before him, looking down in thoughtful silence for a moment. He cleared his throat, wincing again at the rawness there. By God, he felt he had never been more in need of a drink! Unsure if his voice would sustain a long speech, he spoke carefully to the men still gathered around him.
“These Tudors have spread rumour and calumny against my good name, but even knowing this I will not countenance desecration of the dead. That has no honour and we are honourable men. We won a fair battle -” his eyes flicked carefully to Stanley for a second before continuing. “Henry Tudor lost his life and in different circumstances any of us could be lying there.”
He paused, almost as if for dramatic effect. Battle hardened eyes from around the field fixed on him intently.
This last was shouted over his shoulder without even turning his gaze from the body.
Stanley rose from his knees quickly, mud caking his shiny greaves, and moved to stand beside his King.
“Find a litter, take the body of Henry Tudor into Leicester.”
He did not wait for Stanley to reply but pressed on. He felt a sudden need to be away from this field now that the task was done. “Ask his mother where she would like his body interred. I will be happy to comply with her wishes – within reason. She remains in your close care?”
“Yes, your Grace.”
There was a moments pause.
“Good. I was not sure if you would have released her in anticipation of my losing the day.”
Richard turned his head slowly and his narrowed, dark eyes surveyed Stanley’s face, searching for the most imperceptible of reactions.
“Your Grace,” Stanley replied coolly, “I stood back from the main lines to ensure that I could best deploy my men and effect the most strategic charge. I saw the tide of battle turn and knew we could finish it quickly. Northumberland…”
Richard raised his hand quickly to cut him off but continued fix him with a fierce intensity from beneath the circlet on his head. The circlet that had fallen from his own battle helm when he had dropped it on the ground, and which this man, this man who could so easily have turned traitor, had just returned to him from the field.
The circlet that had marked him out on the battlefield and ensured that Henry Tudor had seen him coming. He had been able to watch Richard charge ever nearer, hacking his way through Tudor’s retinue, smashing into and felling his own standard bearer. Had watched the red dragon of Cadwallader fall under the thrashing hooves of his powerful, white destrier.
They had been close enough to read what was behind each other’s eyes.
Richard saw fear and had raised his sword.
That was when another Stanley arrived, brother to the burly man before him, well briefed in which way the tide had turned. The field was already won and all he did was deny Richard the victory of killing the enemy himself. A discussion he fully intended to have with both men, there was no doubt of that.
He needed to deal with this treacherous and powerful pair, to ensure he had their affinity, but keep a light hand on the reins at all times.
“Of course you did,” he agreed lightly. “Your strategy worked today – you chose well. As to your motives….I am sure we can discuss those at length back at Westminster. We have more pressing matters to attend to now.”
He turned away again and walked towards the remainder of his personal retinue of men who had begun to gather by the body of Henry Tudor. He was gratified to see that many of his closest and truest friends were still alive.
“God Save King Richard. God bless the House of York!” they cried upon seeing him, swords, pikes and halberds raised in joyful appreciation, of the victory and of their own survival.
Richard smiled as he walked through them, touched one or two of them on the shoulder or arm in familiar acknowledgement of their loyalty and service, exchanged the odd quiet word.
With purpose, he headed back toward the marsh where he had fallen from his war horse, White Surrey.
He had to admit that he was half hoping to find the horse unfettered but still alive on the field, but was both unsurprised and saddened as his eye was drawn to a large mound, covered in his bloodied standard of the White Boar.
White Surrey lay on his side in the marshy ground where he had fallen. His form was badly mutilated, his white coat spattered with blood and gore. One of his hind legs was broken, the bone protruding at an impossible angle. Another of his legs was still sunk deep in the mud, which had no doubt led to his stumble, and the King’s fall.
He also appeared to have suffered a dagger thrust to one of his eyes. Richard had no doubt that the mercenaries who had not been successful in hacking the rider to death had recognised the animal’s livery and taken out their rage on his brave beast.
Other than the injury to his eye, the animals face was unmarked and Richard sank down in the mud himself to pay homage to his fallen steed. He placed his hand on the animal’s head, between the eyes where the chamfron had been ripped away and stroked gently down to the nostrils and the soft whiskered muzzle.
Three hours ago was it?
He had given the animal his usual treat, a small apple – he could still feel the soft wetness on his hand as the horse had devoured it whole, managing not to bite his owner’s hand with ferocious yellow teeth.
“My noble friend - sleep well.” he whispered quietly.
Tears filled his eyes suddenly, not just for the memory of the foes he had faced astride this magnificent beast and in sadness for the death it had suffered, but in realisation of others he would be unable to share this victory with. He had a sudden clear vision of a bright face, smiling up at him. Of a small hand, gently placed on White Surrey’s muzzle, where his hand was now. He could almost feel the warmth of her.
“Anne,” he whispered under his breath, more a short prayer than an exclamation. Swallowing hard to hold back his emotions, he brushed his eyes with the back of his hand as he stood up. With sustained effort, he gathered himself together and turned on his heel making to walk back to his men.
“Catesby! Brackenbury!” he called loudly. ”Gather the men! We march with the fallen into Leicester to proclaim a victory for York over Lancaster on Redemore Plain.“
The men cheered in celebratory acknowledgement and a flurry of activity followed as they readied to ride out from the field.
Richard turned towards Stanley’s men who were loading the vanquished into a litter, and watching them, he added, almost absently.
“And a horse, I need a horse.”