The Tudor Society

The Tudors’ Journey to Bosworth: Part 1 by Tony Riches

Pembroke Castle

Pembroke Castle

Henry Tudor’s return from exile to victory at Bosworth has to be one of the greatest moments in the history of the Tudor dynasty. So why is the Bosworth story so often told from the perspective of Richard III, with Henry depicted as lucky to have won?

I was born within sight of Pembroke Castle and have always been intrigued by the small room where the thirteen-year-old Lady Margaret Beaufort gave birth to the future king, Henry Tudor. I’ve also stood on the remote beach at Mill Bay near Milford Haven imagining how Henry would have felt as he approached with his uncle Jasper and his mercenary army.

All I knew about Jasper’s father, Henry’s grandfather, Owen Tudor, was that he’d been a Welsh servant who somehow married the young widow of King Henry V, Queen Catherine of Valois. Inspired to write a historical fiction trilogy about them, I wanted to research their stories in as much detail as possible and to sort out the many myths from the facts.

As part of the research, I decided to follow the journey of Jasper Tudor and his young nephew Henry from Tenby in Wales to their fourteen-year exile in Brittany - and ultimately their return to victory at the Battle of Bosworth.

Wales was no longer safe for the Tudors by 1471. The Lancastrian cause was lost with King Henry VI apparently murdered in his chapel in the Tower of London, then cam news that Prince Edward, the Lancastrian heir to the throne, had been killed by York’s forces in the battle of Tewkesbury.

Jasper and Henry Tudor found themselves besieged in Pembroke Castle, then, at the eleventh hour, the siege was broken by a band of Welsh rebels led by Dafydd ap Thomas. It would only be a matter of time before York’s men returned in force, so the only option for Jasper and Henry was to seek sanctuary in France.

Tenby, the nearest town where they could hope to find a ship, was full of York’s men, so even their escape would be risky. The legend which has endured over the centuries is that they were hidden in a cellar belonging to a Tenby wine merchant named Thomas White, then escaped to the harbour at night through a secret tunnel.

It was easy enough to find the location of Thomas White’s house in Tenby, as there is a small bronze plaque on the wall outside what is now Boots the Chemists in Tenby High Street. Under a Tudor rose the plaque reads:

By tradition Henry Tudor with his uncle Jasper Tudor Earl of Pembroke was hidden in the cellar on this site before escaping to Brittany in 1471. In 1485 he landed at Dale and defeated Richard III at Bosworth to take the throne as the first Tudor monarch.

In Crackwell Street to the rear of Boots the Tenby Civic Society have also mounted a blue plaque on the wall which reads:

It is said that Henry Tudor (Later King Henry VII) escaped through a tunnel here in 1471 when he fled to France.

The manager of Boots kindly agreed to show me the tunnels and we started in the extensive basement cellars, now used as store-rooms. As we entered the tunnels, deep under the street, we were plunged into darkness and had to rely on torches. I saw the roof of the tunnel closest to the entrance had been rebuilt with bricks, and the remains of an ancient fireplace, complete with chimney. This seemed an odd luxury to have in a tunnel and could be further evidence for its use in the past to hide people who might need a fire for warmth.

Further down the tunnel the roof was roughly hewn through bedrock. This looked to have been done centuries ago, as there was calcification of the surface, which must have taken a long time to form. Unfortunately the tunnel had several exits which were bricked up, but although it wasn’t possible to follow the trail to the harbour, I could see the stories of how the Tudor’s escaped from Tenby could be true.

After emerging back into the bright sunshine I went to pay my respects to the good friend of the Tudors, Thomas White. Visiting the church and looking into his sculpted face reminds me he was a real person, who left his mark on the town and helped change the history of Britain.

The day of the Tudor’s escape doesn’t seem more than five centuries away as I walk from the church in the high street, down the narrow lane with uneven stone steps. I pass the timber-framed Tudor merchant’s house, now a Tudor museum, and see men preparing their boats in the sheltered harbour. It was from here that Jasper and Henry sailed into their long exile, to return to claim the English throne.

Tenby Tudor Merchant's House

Tenby Harbour with spire of St John's Church in the background

I have sailed from this harbour many times, including in complete darkness to catch the tide, just as the Tudors would have done. There are perilous rocks just below the surface as you head out into the Bristol Channel bound for the equally hazardous Land’s End, which their ship had to navigate before they could even begin heading for the uncertain welcome they might receive in Brittany.

There is a great sense of freedom as you leave the confines of the little town with its narrow streets and pass the monastic island of Caldey before heading out into open water. I can imagine Jasper and Henry Tudor would have stood at the ship’s rail and watched as the last pinpricks of light disappeared from view. They must have felt relieved to escape but also sadness to be leaving their troubled country as refugees, owning only what they could carry and with no idea of when, if ever, they would be able to return.

In the second part of this journey I chose instead to sail for Brittany from the shorter route of the safe harbour of Portsmouth, passing on the way the bright yellow buoy marking the site of the tragic sinking of a warship belonging to Henry Tudor’s son – the Mary Rose.

Tony Riches is a full-time author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction books. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors.

For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and his WordPress website and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

Here are the blurbs for Tony's first two books of his "Tudor Trilogy":

Owen: Book 1 of the Tudor Trilogy

England 1422: Owen Tudor, a Welsh servant, waits in Windsor Castle to meet his new mistress, the beautiful and lonely Queen Catherine of Valois, widow of the warrior king, Henry V. Her infant son is crowned King of England and France, and while the country simmers on the brink of civil war, Owen becomes her protector.

They fall in love, risking Owen’s life and Queen Catherine’s reputation—but how do they found the dynasty which changes British history – the Tudors?

This is the first historical novel to fully explore the amazing life of Owen Tudor, grandfather of King Henry VII and the great-grandfather of King Henry VIII. Set against a background of the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York, which develops into what have become known as the Wars of the Roses, Owen’s story deserves to be told.

Owen - Book One of the Tudor Trilogy from Tony Riches is a new addition to the story of the Tudors and the great historical fiction tradition of C J Sansom, Conn Iggulden, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel.

Jasper: Book 2 of the Tudor Trilogy

Following the best-selling historical fiction novel OWEN – Book One of The Tudor Trilogy, this is the story, based on actual events, of Owen’s son Jasper Tudor, who changes the history of England forever.

England 1461: The young King Edward of York takes the country by force from King Henry VI of Lancaster. Sir Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, flees the massacre of his Welsh army at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross and plans a rebellion to return his half-brother King Henry to the throne.

When King Henry is imprisoned by Edward in the Tower of London and murdered, Jasper escapes to Brittany with his young nephew, Henry Tudor. After the sudden death of King Edward and the mysterious disappearance of his sons, a new king, Edward’s brother Richard III takes the English Throne. With nothing but his wits and charm, Jasper sees his chance to make young Henry Tudor king with a daring and reckless invasion of England.

Set in the often brutal world of fifteenth century England, Wales, Scotland, France, Burgundy and Brittany, during the Wars of the Roses, this fast-paced story is one of courage and adventure, love and belief in the destiny of the Tudors.

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