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For want of a nail, Henry became king of England


Legend a traditional story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly regarded as historical.

The well-known legend, “For Want of a Horseshoe Nail,” chronicles the demise of England’s King Richard III following his 1485 defeat in the battle of Bosworth Field. That overthrow was later immortalized by Shakespeare’s famous line: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

This centuries-old “For Want of a Nail” legend illustrates how one small wrong decision can create a ripple effect that results in massive and often permanent change. One popular version of that legend reads:

A blacksmith was shoeing a horse. “Shoe him quickly, for the king wishes to ride him into battle,” said the groom who had brought the mount. “Do you think there will be a battle?” asked the blacksmith. “Most certainly, and very soon,” answered the groom. “King Richard the Third is preparing for the fight of his life. An army led by Henry, Earl of Richmond, is even now advancing, and all are ready for the fight. Today will decide whether Richard or Henry shall be king of England.”

The smith went to work. From a bar of iron he made four horseshoes. These he hammered and shaped and fitted to the horse’s feet and began to nail them on. But after nailing on just two of the shoes, he found that he didn’t have enough nails for the other two. “I have only six nails,” he said, “and it will take a little time to hammer out ten more. “Oh well,” said the groom, “won’t six nails do? Put three in each shoe. I hear the trumpets now. King Richard will be impatient.” “Three nails in each shoe will hold them on,” said the smith. “Yes, I think we may risk it.” So he quickly finished the shoeing and the groom hurried to lead the horse to the king.

The battle had been raging for some time. King Richard rode hither and thither, cheering his men and fighting his foes. His enemy, Henry, who wished to be king, was pressing him hard.

Far away, at the other side of the field, King Richard saw his men falling back; without the king’s help they would soon be beaten. So he spurred his horse to ride to their aid. He was hardly halfway across the stony field when one of the horse’s shoes flew off. The horse was lamed on a rock. Then another shoe came off. The horse stumbled, and his rider was thrown heavily to the ground. Before the king could grab the reins, his frightened horse, although lame, had galloped away. The king looked and saw his soldiers were turning and running, and that the battle was everywhere going against him. As he waved his sword in the air, he shouted, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” But there was no horse for him. His army had fallen to pieces; his troops were intent on saving themselves. A moment later Henry’s soldiers were upon Richard; the battle was over. Henry became King of England.

Since then, history teachers have taught,

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, the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This story and rhyme teach a lesson: When mishandled, even minor tasks can create major catastrophes.

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at or visit

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