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How flooding affected the life of Richard III

An engraving of Richard III (1452-1485) from the 1800s

An engraving of Richard III (1452-1485) from the 1800s

Press release issued: 15 February 2013

The Battle of Bosworth Field may never have occurred if Henry Tudor’s first attempt to seize the throne from Richard III, two years earlier, hadn’t been thwarted by the inclement weather of October 1483, a researcher investigating historical sea floods at the University of Bristol has discovered.

Ros Smith, a PhD student in Bristol's School of Geographical Sciences, was aware of a great storm and flood in the Severn Estuary in 1483, but it wasn’t until she read Shakespeare’s Richard III that she realised its historical significance.

Shakespeare’s play, and the chronicles that he used to research historical events, document a coordinated attempt to confront Richard III in 1483.  Two armies set out, one led by the Duke of Buckingham and one by the Earl of Richmond (later to become Henry VII), but both failed to meet with Richard.

Shakespeare described how the Duke of Buckingham had amassed an army of Welshmen and aimed to cross the River Severn to confront Richard III at Salisbury but, due to flooding of the river, this became impossible: "by sudden floods and fall of waters, Buckingham’s army is dispers’d and scatter’d".

Further to this, Ros noted that the chronicles report that the Earl of Richmond had set sail from Brittany at the same time, with a 5,000 strong army, in an attempt to fight Richard for the crown, but, due to a great storm off the South West coast of England: "The Bretagne navy [was] dispers’d by tempest".

Ros Smith said: "The combination of storm and flooding in the Severn Estuary was a significant event and led to the drowning of more than 200 people.  Yet it would hardly have been mentioned in the chronicles if it hadn’t disrupted the plans of Dukes and Earls."

The Duke of Buckingham lost his head, but in 1485 the Earl of Richmond landed safely in Pembrokeshire and, with his strengthened army, battled with and defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, to become Henry VII.

About the Cabot Institute

The Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol carries out fundamental and responsive research on risks and uncertainties in a changing environment.  Our interests include natural hazards, food and energy security, resilience and governance, and human impacts on the environment. Our research fuses rigorous statistical and numerical modelling with a deep understanding of interconnected social, environmental and engineered systems – past, present and future. We seek to engage wider society – listening to, exploring with, and challenging our stakeholders to develop a shared response to 21st Century challenges.