Adapted from James Baldwin
This famous legend and rhyme are based on the demise of England’s King Richard III, whose defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 has been immortalized by Shakespeare’s famous line: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” The story is a nice foil for “King Alfred and the Cakes.” It reminds us that little duties neglected bring great downfalls.
King Richard the Third was preparing for the fight of his life. An army led by Henry, Earl of Richmond, was marching against him. The contest would determine who would rule England.
The morning of the battle, Richard sent a groom to make sure his favorite horse was ready.
“Shoe him quickly,” the groom told the blacksmith. The king wishes to ride at the head of his troops.”
“You’ll have to wait,” the blacksmith answered. “I’ve shoed the king’s whole army the last few days and now I’ve got to go get more iron.”
“I can’t wait,” the groom shouted impatiently. “The king’s enemies are advancing right now, and we must meet them on the field. Make do with what you have.”
So the blacksmith bent to his task. From a bar of iron he made four horseshoes. He hammered and shaped and fitted them to the horse’s feet. Then he began to nail them on. But after he had fastened three shoes, he found he did not have enough nails for the fourth.
“I need one or two more nails,” he said, “and it will take some time to hammer them out.”
“I told you I can’t wait,” the groom said impatiently. “I hear the trumpets now. Can’t you just use what you’ve got?”
“I can put the shoe on, but it won’t be as secure as the others.”
“Well, then, just nail it on,” the groom cried. “And hurry, or King Richard will be angry with us both.”
The armies clashed, and Richard was in the thick of the battle. He rode up and down the field, cheering his men and fighting his foes. “Press forward! Press forward!” he yelled, urging his troops toward Henry’s lines.
Far away, at the other side of the field, he saw some of his men falling back. If others saw them, they too might retreat. So Richard spurred his horse and galloped toward the broken line, calling on his soldiers to turn and fight.
He was barely halfway across the field when one of the horse’s shoes flew off. The horse stumbled and fell, and Richard was thrown to the ground.
Before the king could grab at the reins, the frightened animal rose and galloped away. Richard looked around him. He saw that his soldiers were turning and running, and Henry’s troops were closing around him.
He waved his sword in the air. “A horse!” he shouted. “A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
But there was no horse for him. His army had fallen to pieces, and his troops were busy trying to save themselves. A moment later Henry’s soldiers were upon Richard, and the battle was over.
And since that time, people have said,
For want of a nail, a shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost,
For want of a horse, a battle was lost,
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.