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In Our Time - The Battle of Bosworth Field

Friday 27 April 2012, 18:55

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's Note: This week Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Battle of Bosworth Field, the celebrated encounter between Lancastrian and Yorkist forces in August 1485. - CM

Portrait of battle


A few after the programme reflections. One of the reasons, I was told, that the evidence for domestic wars is not as plentiful as that for foreign wars is that foreign wars were audited by the Exchequer, who liked to put down what every single man was paid and when he was paid and who he was, and so for foreign wars we have a very good idea of numbers, of names, of positions in society. For domestic wars there was a war chest and a noble would come along and ask for money to help him bring his men to battle, and the war chest would be opened, coins would be passed over and a bit of paper would change hands as a receipt. Most of these bits of paper, it turns out, disappeared.

It was also pointed out that the fighting in medieval wars was very often done by a handful of people who liked fighting and were trained to fight. They were trained troops and to manipulate a horse in full armour, with weapons to hand, needed a great deal of training and the will to kill had to be cultivated. This could extend down the scale, especially with bowmen, because at that time in the fifteenth century all adult men had to do archery practice in the towns as well as in the villages, and we know that they did because of reports that we have ('we' being the historians) of the accidents that occurred!

One of the contributors said that household retainers were very important to the lord leading his troops into the main throng of battle. They were like a mafia group who had great loyalty to each other - which came way before anything else - and that cohesion could be a tremendously important factor.

Lots of talk about longbows being very slowly overtaken by guns. There's a famous painting of knights in full armour firing guns from the shoulder in the 1470s in Burgundy. Knights in full armour with guns were also common in Germany. But the transition from longbows to guns took a long time. Longbows were still taken into the field of battle in the 1560s. Even at that time they had a faster rate of fire than guns and were more accurate. Unfortunately, they could not pierce armour which is where guns trumped them. There's a painting, I was told, of a knight in a field walking around like a porcupine with arrows coming out of his armour all over the place, but he, snugly inside the metal, unhurt.

Another reason for the difficulties in finding the battlefield around Bosworth was that the soil is very acidic and therefore arrowheads, which are a great indicator of numbers and so on, were not preserved.

And finally Shakespeare, who we did not get around to, may well have modelled his character of Richard III on a book by Thomas More, who himself saw Richard III as a model monster.

Then out into a rather sunny London - a change after the rain. I was rather looking forward to walking in the rain. I got dressed up for it, i.e. raincoat, cap and decent shoes. Spent forty minutes waiting to meet a friend to talk about a book. He was waiting for me in reception; I was waiting for him in the coffee room. Neither of us had the sense to look in the other's room.

Off to the office and then to a rough cut. I wanted to get down to the Lords to vote but things dragged out. It's that sort of time of year as we're getting ready for the big South Bank Show Sky Arts Awards, which are a model monster to produce, especially in the last week or two.

But had a wonderful walk in the rain on Hampstead Heath a couple of mornings ago. Absolutely sluicing down. Most of the morning walkers, therefore, not on the Heath. Something terrific about wearing the right clothes when it's sheeting with rain and feeling pelted in the face by hard, driving rain. Not quite as good as the hailstones which drummed me up in Cumberland two weeks ago. Like white marbles they were, bouncing on the road, bouncing on the roofs of cars.

No wonder we're interested in the weather in this country. There is so very much of it.

And dictating this now from home where I'm feeling a bit fed up, because I came back to work on a script and find that I have forgotten to bring the first draft of the script back with me. So will begin to read 'Candide' instead for next week.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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    Comment number 1.

    Hello - this broadcast was a "best of class" episodes of I.O.T. thank you for facilitating - the series consistently provides the most outstanding radio content the BBC can (and should!) aspire to producing. Might I suggest the Elizabethan Magus John Dee would make a fascinating future programme (was it true visitors played in the garden of his house in Mortlake with solid gold bowls) ? And... can the I.O.T. archive be blessed with a search engine tool ? Thank you.

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    Comment number 2.

    It's appalling that a British Professsor of Mediaeval History cannot pronounce Machynlleth properly where Owain Glyndwr called a Parliament and a treaty with France was signed. Incidentally, IOT (apart from England generally) has a blind spot about Wales. Don't forget that hundreds of words the English associate so strongly with Englishness, Avon & Dover for example, are Welsh words, not to mention Cumbria,
    Melvyn. Why not correct this bias by having a programme on the kingdom of Alt Clud which Norman Davies writes about in his book 'Vanished Kingdoms' and have a panel that can accurately pronounce Welsh please! It really is not difficult.

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    Comment number 3.

    As another devotee of I.O.T, I echo the views of Richard D above with regard to the magnificence of its material over the years, and the luxurious availability of its archive; Melvyn Bragg has embodied the spirit and quality of the BBC's raison d'etre to inform culturally for a very long time. That said, most of the (British) historical subjects in I.O.T are invariably expressed through a very English perspective. In the case of Henry VII, if this programme had been produced in Wales it would have shown that, for the Welsh, the Bosworth victory meant that a Welshman was on the English throne (whereas for the English there was relief that the Wars of the Roses were over). This event was awaited ever since the 14 year old Henry accompanied his (pro-Lancastrian) uncle Jasper Tudor (Tudor being the anglicisation of Tudur, the dynasty from Anglesey who supported Owain Glyn Dŵr against Henry IV) to France in exile. When Henry landed in Wales 14 years later, it was to both collect Welsh forces en route and to rendezvous with the main force of Rhys ap Thomas from South Wales (he who slew Richard III) at Cefn Digoll. Wales was rewarded with a relatively peaceful period after this, until of course Henry's second son came to power. None of this came out from the assembled Historians. The magnetism of History is in assembling all perspectives, and if Melvyn Bragg ever has time in his very full life to discuss this aspect, I would be honoured.

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    Comment number 4.

    It was, as always, an interesting discussion. I echo the previous comments about Melvyn embodying the spirit of the BBC charter. Indeed, I refuse to answer the phone on a Thursday morning, while it is on. I should like to suggest another programme on Richard III. Why not investigate Shakespeare's evidence for the monster theory, his use of More's account and the latest evidence that seems to exonerate Richard from the deaths of the princes and implicates H7 himself? History is a contested area of knowledge and would gain a little more oomph! Also, as someone who has lived in Wales and can pronounce Machynlleth, I would not expect an English historian to be able to pronounce such a hard word(actually Mac-hunt-leth)

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    Comment number 5.

    Historians, like bankers, must surely be among the most blessed, for where one can be forever saved by the extraction of baill outs so too can the other by the dig ups of seemingly new evidence.


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