This weekend, I was reading David and Goliath, the newest book out by journalist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. Without giving away too much of Mr. Gladwell’s amazing book, his overly simplified premise is that underdogs are not as disadvantaged as one might typically assume. In fact, Mr. Gladwell argues that underdogs win more often than you would normally expect them to. So why is that? Mr. Gladwell argues that it is because the so-called “disadvantaged” actually have some very real advantages that aren’t obvious at first glance. Those advantages may take ingenuity, creativity, perseverance, and a whole lot of hard work to come by, but they are advantages all the same, advantages capable of turning the tide of a conflict. Mr. Gladwell’s primary example, the Biblical story of David and Goliath, shows that someone seemingly handicapped (David – smaller, weaker, inexperienced, young, and lacking typical weaponry) can overcome a “superior force” (Goliath – enormous, strong, experienced) because David used his wits and played the game by his own rules, using a fast and accurate weapon (his sling) at a distance that protected himself from harm while effectively killing the slower, massive Goliath who was prepared for hand-to-hand combat, not a hurtling rock.
I thought about that a lot on a long car ride and began to apply it to my current area of research: the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. That was certainly a case of an underdog prevailing against a “superior” force. While exact numbers are unknown, it is thought that Henry Tudor (eventually Henry VII) had one half to one third as many soldiers fighting for him as King Richard III did. Richard’s force was disciplined, experienced, well supplied with the most up to date weapons, armor and shields, possessed a large cavalry and artillery, had rich and experienced northern lords to command his army, and had the “home team advantage” of being the anointed king instead of the usurper. Henry, on the other hand, had spent virtually no time in his native land, spoke Welsh better than English, bribed nobility to join his side, and had essentially no military experience himself. And yet Henry prevailed and with what scholars today believe to be relatively minimal loss of life. Why was that?
As with most historical underdog victories, the real reason may be hard to ascertain, but I have some theories. First of all, however unprepared Henry’s men might have appeared when compared to Richard’s army, Henry had hired professional fighting men and paid them well, so they were financially motivated to see their employer win the fight. They were scrappy and had more varied experience from their fighting careers on the continent than Richard’s troops did. Richard, on the other hand, relied solely on the loyalty of his men as their sovereign and found that in the end, loyalty alone was insufficient motivation to keep his men on his side and in the battle.
Henry’s men were smaller in number and more nimble. They could move quickly and eventually out flanked Richard’s vanguard in the earliest stages of the battle, which gave the momentum to the rebel force. They also used the geography to achieve this, using the marshy land between the armies to protect their flank, to avoid the direct line of fire from Richard’s artillery, and to spin Richard’s vanguard around by attacking their far right flank, flipping them around, and attacking them from behind.
I found it intriguing to apply Mr. Gladwell’s theories to a historical issue and see how they align. I think this case fits his book’s premise very well. The “disadvantaged” may not be as weak as they initially seem. By using some cunning, extraordinary effort, and persistence, the underdog can, and often does, come out on top!
Is there another historical event that also supports Mr. Gladwell’s theory?