May 6th, 2011

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.

* * * * *

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.
* * * * *
A gallery of Richards:

Laurence Olivier

Ian McKellen

Anthony Sher

Al Pacino

Jonathan Slinger

and finally a Yorkist propaganda picture:

Richard III by a court painter

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17 Responses to “bin Laden and the Boar”

  1. Paul Gottlieb says:

    The mystery writer Josephine Tey, in her book “The Daughter of Time” presents the Yorkist case very powerfully. In fact the rumors the Richard killed the young princes seems to be the 15th Century version of “He used his wife as a human shield.”

  2. The main evidence that Richard killed the princes is that they disappeared from sight in the summer of 1483 shortly after Richard’s accession. He had them declared illegitimate (= valueless) and three of their Woodville cousins executed. It was common gossip in London – we have the diary of London merchant – that the boys had been murdered. Richard could have stilled the damaging rumours at any time in the next two years by producing them but did not. The supposition was damaging – he lost the crown because at Bosworth the Percys did nothing and the Stanleys and Welsh chiefs switched to the Tudors. Poor morale on the Yorkist side had something to do with this.

    Tey’s book is a good novel.

  3. Bernard Yomtov says:

    I just flat love this stuff.

    Talk of anointed kings reminds me of Richard II:

    Not all the water in the rough rude sea
    Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
    The breath of worldly men cannot depose
    The deputy elected by the Lord:
    For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
    To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
    God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
    A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
    Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

    Substitute Tudor for his distant cousin Bolingbroke, and Richard III might have spoken those words, and been just as wrong as Richard II.

  4. larry birnbaum says:

    “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.”

    I don’t agree. I think the model we’re pursuing here is what the Israelis did after Munich. And I think the way in which this was done was aimed at conveying that intention.

  5. Bernard: A little difficult for Richard III to say given that he’d reached the throne by murders of legitimate kings, first (probably) of the feeble Henry VI by his brother Edward and then of Edward’s sons. No, it’s Richard that matches Bolingbroke.

    Larry: In what way have the Israelis succeeded in de-legitimating Black September among Palestinians or Arabs generally? Is there no myth? I don’t see how the operational success of subsequent Mossad revenge assassinations affect my claim about OBL’s propaganda win. Still less their their possible effect on the sponsorship of terrorist groups by Fatah and the PLO in the 1970s; al-Qaeda doesn’t have a mainstream nationalist or state sponsor that way, and what moderate Muslims think is irrelevant to it.

    I hope you are wrong in thinking that the Obama administration is planning any similar wave of assassinations of al-Q suspects all over the place, or that the security services of the countries in which it would take place would tolerate it. Mossad acted alone and to general disapproval.

  6. CharleyCarp says:

    So, what does it mean that William Savage was executed 10 years later for being too sympathetic to Perkin Warbeck?

    I suppose nearly all of us with English ancestry are connected to Bosworth in some way. My ancestor John Savage was married to the Stanley boys’ sister, but had openly taken the Tudor side and was in charge of the left wing at Bosworth.

  7. Bernard Yomtov says:


    Well, that is a point. Good speech nonetheless, from an underrated (IMO) play.

  8. MandT says:

    “As leader of a small gang, he declared war on the mightiest power in the world” – My ancestor, Gráinne O’Malley, probably would have agree with this sentiment and had the opportunity to tell the first Queen Elizabeth as much.

  9. larry birnbaum says:

    I don’t think vengeance is the issue; deterrence is the issue. Israelis abroad are a much easier target than in Israel itself. Yet terrorist attacks on them aren’t very frequent.

    We clearly stated that the troops were ordered to kill bin Laden; and we let it be known that he was unarmed.

    In sum I believe that deterrence has proven effective; and I think the government thinks so too.

  10. CharleyCarp says:

    (It was the Savage nephew, not brother-in-law, at Bosworth.)

  11. Altoid says:

    Not vengeance or deterrence, I think, but unfinished business. Though no one really articulated it that way, and that was a chance missed. It let the early reaction be dominated by what I thought was unseemly jubilation and triumphalism rather than a more appropriate kind of grim satisfaction at finally doing an overdue deed. I think Obama’s decision not to release the pics and his talk about not needing to spike it in the end zone were meant in part to retrieve the discourse after it had gone atavistic (Bill Clinton would have known the right tone to set from the start, but that’s another issue). In that context, releasing the pictures would have been too much reminiscent of the prize photos people used to take of dead Indians or the ones they took showing the handiwork of lynch mobs. And would have awakened memories of the Saddam Hussein pictures, which were a PR disaster.

    And I have to agree with James that war was the wrong framing in response to what really was a monstrous crime that the *perpetrator* wanted to frame as an act of war. You generally should think twice about adopting language the perpetrators want to use themselves. But that’s water that flowed under the bridge a decade ago.

    It does, however, seem important to me to acknowledge that we can’t ever force the reactions and thoughts of others, individuals or groups, to be what we want them to be, no matter how desperately we want to. This is very frustrating and often frightening. One of the best expositions I know of this reaction is in All the King’s Men, in the Cass Mastern diary section. The plantation mistress can control what her slaves say, but not what they think; it drives her mad.

  12. dad23g says:

    Henry VI’s title is questionable. The title goes back to Edward III, whose first four sons to survive infancy were Edward the Black Prince, Lionel of Antwerp, John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley. On Edward III’s death, the title passed to the Black Prince’s son, Richard II, who was deposed (and starved to death) by John of Gaunt’s son Henry IV. Henry IV’s title is therefore questionable, and Henry V (his son) and then Henry VI are also questionable claimants. The York line, including Richard III, is descended from the elder lien of Lionel and from the younger line of Edmund. So to say that the York line gained the throne by dethroning a legitimate Henry VI is a stretch.

  13. Mrs Tilton says:

    to die like a Ghazi in a hail of bullets

    Like a Shahid, surely? Isn’t a Ghazi a victorious warrior for the faith*?

    * Or sometimes against it; I’ve always relished the irony of Mustafa Kemal being accorded the title.

  14. Barry says:

    larry birnbaum

    “I don’t think vengeance is the issue; deterrence is the issue. Israelis abroad are a much easier target than in Israel itself. Yet terrorist attacks on them aren’t very frequent.”

    And Americans abroad are an easier target than in the USA itself.

  15. Bernard: there are some nice Toutube clips of Fiona Shaw’s sensational performance as Richard II; unfortunately not the “anointed king” scene.
    dad23g: Good point, but I’m portraying Shakespeare’s position, not mine, and he clearly makes Richard III an usurper. His long-range narrative may be that English kingship was corrupted with Richard II’s deposition. Henry V’s braggadocio doesn’t quite heal the damage, and with Richard III we are in Darth Vader territory. Shakespeare ducks the far too dangerous problem of portraying the cautious bureaucrat Henry VII as restorer; he’s nothing in the play. Henry’s actual and successful policy was to portray his dynasty as reuniting the houses of Lancaster and York by his marriage to Elizabeth of York, a daughter of Edward IV. Hence the bi-coloured Tudor rose.

  16. CharleyCarp says:

    Edward III ended up in power after a coup — sure it would have come to him eventually, but then maybe it wouldn’t have: princes didn’t always outlive their fathers. And Edward II only was king because, decades earlier, Arthur Duke of Brittany was killed (perhaps — who doubts it, really) by his uncle John.

  17. Vadranor says:


    Five sons of Edward III made it into adulthood; the four you list plus Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who was the youngest. You may recall that the opening scene in Richard II is a dispute over who was responsible for the murder of Gloucester.