The Song of Lady Bessy

The Song of Lady Bessy
   The Song of Lady Bessy is one of several ballads inspired by the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD. The poem was written by someone associated with the Stanley family, for Thomas STANLEY, Lord Stanley, and his brother Sir William STANLEY are central characters. A possible author is Humphrey Brereton, who hailed from the Stanley-dominated county of Cheshire and who also figures prominently in the story. Although the earliest extant text of the ballad dates from about 1600, and many of the poem’s more romantic touches seem Elizabethan in origin, The Song of Lady Bessy was probably written during the reign of HENRY VII (1485–1509), for it ends by praying God to “save and keep our comely Queen,” Henry VII’s wife ELIZABETH OF YORK, the “Lady Bessy” of the title.
   The ballad begins with Elizabeth appealing to Lord Stanley to help her resist the marriage proposal of her uncle RICHARD III. Rather than marry her brothers’murderer, Elizabeth is ready to kill herself. Stanley enlists the aid of his brother, his sons, and other former servants of EDWARD IV, Elizabeth’s late father. The conspirators meet secretly in LONDON on 3 May 1485 and agree to support the cause of Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, who has sworn to marry Elizabeth upon coming to the throne. Elizabeth and the Stanleys dispatch Brereton with money and messages for Richmond, who is found at “Bigeram” abbey. Richmond agrees to come to England by Michaelmas, and Stanley withdraws from London, leaving his son Lord Strange in the king’s hands. On Richmond’s arrival, Sir William Stanley openly defies the king’s summons, and Lord Stanley meets with the earl and promises to help him win the throne and Lady Bessy. At Bosworth, Richard orders Lord Strange’s execution when he sees Stanley’s men waiting in the distance. Sir William Harrington pleads for Strange’s life, which is spared when the sudden onset of battle distracts the king. The poem next describes the death of John HOWARD, duke of Norfolk, and the flight of other lords in Richard’s army during the noise and confusion of combat. When Harrington urges Richard to flee, the king responds: Give me my battle-axe in my hand, And set my crown on my head so high! For by Him that made both sun and moon, King of England this day I will die! (Bennett, p. 175)
   Richard is slain and his mangled body is carried to Leicester, where Lady Bessy rebukes it for the murder of her brothers—“How like you the killing of my brethren dear? Welcome, gentle uncle, home” (Rowse, p. 255). The poem appears to contain several memories of actual events; for instance, the ballad states that “The shots of guns were so fierce” (Rowse, p. 254), a detail confirmed by the later finding on the field of ARTILLERY balls, perhaps from the serpentines Richmond was known to possess. The poem is also the only description we have of the plotting conducted in England against Richard in the months before the Battle of Bosworth Field. Nonetheless, because much of what the poem relates cannot be verified or is demonstrably untrue, it has only limited use as a source for the battle, and it is, like the other Bosworth ballads, considered pure fiction by some modern historians.
   See also The Ballad of Bosworth Field; Princes in the Tower; The Rose of England; Usurpation of 1483
   Further Reading: Bennett, Michael, The Battle of Bosworth (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985); Rowse,A. L., Bosworth Field: From Medieval to Tudor England (Garden City,NY: Doubleday, 1966).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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