The battle of Stoke Field, 1487 – the real last battle of the Wars of the Roses
Two years after Bosworth, Henry VII took to the battlefield one last time in 1487 to challenge an imposter posing as Richard III’s nephew. How close was he to losing his crown? Julian Humphrys explores this bitter clash of steel
In 1487, some former supporters of Richard III declared that the imposter ‘Lambert Simnel’ was actually Edward, son of the late Duke of Clarence. Crowning him ‘King Edward VI’, they invaded England in a bid to overthrow the Tudor king Henry VII.
On 16 June 1487, in what became the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, their army of Irish levies, Swiss and German mercenaries and a few diehard Yorkists was crushed by Henry VII's forces near Newark
Battle of Stoke Field facts
When | 16 June 1487
Where | East Stoke, Nottinghamshire
Who | Royalists (Henry VII, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Oxford, Lord Strange, c15,000 men) versus rebels (Earl of Lincoln, Thomas Fitzgerald, Lord Lovell, Martin Schwarz, c8,000 men)
Why | Attempt to overthrow Henry VII
Who won | Decisive royalist victory
Henry VII may have won the crown at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, but there was no guarantee that he would be able to hold onto it – especially as enough disgruntled supporters of the late Richard III remained to make yet another rebellion a distinct possibility.
One potential figurehead for such a rebellion was the ten-year old Edward, Earl of Warwick. As the son of Richard’s elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, Warwick had a valid claim to the throne, so Henry wasted no time in placing him in ‘protective custody’ in the Tower of London. Nevertheless, Henry was soon faced with two uprisings – one in the Midlands under Humphrey Stafford, and one in the north led by Richard III’s old friend Francis, Viscount Lovell.
As things turned out, neither rising attracted much support and both quickly collapsed. Stafford was dragged out of sanctuary and executed, but Lovell escaped to the Low Countries, where he made his way to the court of Margaret, the dowager Duchess of Burgundy – who was sister to Edward IV and Richard III, and an implacable enemy of the Tudor regime. Lovell was joined there by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. He was the son of one of Richard III’s sisters, and as such had a claim to the throne himself.
The right figurehead
These Ricardian exiles believed that the fact they lacked a credible alternative to Henry VII had been a major factor in the failure of their 1486 risings. The obvious candidate was Warwick, but he was locked up in the Tower. But in 1486 an opportunity came their way, when a boy turned up in Ireland declaring that he was the real Earl of Warwick.
The lad, who has gone down in history as ‘Lambert Simnel’, later turned out to be an Oxford artisan’s son who had been tutored in courtly manners by a local priest, and who may well have been planted on the Irish by Lovell. Nevertheless, the substantial pro-Yorkist faction in Ireland was only too willing to recognise the boy as ‘King Edward VI’. Lincoln and Lovell now had the royal figurehead they desperately needed if they were to have any chance of toppling the Tudor king.
Lincoln and Lovell set sail for Dublin in April 1487, taking with them 2,000 Swiss and German mercenaries paid for by Margaret of Burgundy and commanded by Martin Schwarz, one of the most feared and famous warriors of his age. An Augsburg shoemaker turned soldier, Schwarz had made his reputation fighting for Margaret’s late husband, Charles the Bold of Burgundy, before entering the service of Maximilian, the future Holy Roman Emperor.
On their arrival in Ireland Lincoln and Lovell moved quickly; on 24 May, they had Simnel crowned as Edward VI in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral and, reinforced by 4,000 Irish troops under Thomas Fitzgerald, they set sail for England. On 4 June, the rebels landed near Barrow-in-Furness, close to where one of their supporters, Sir Thomas Broughton, had extensive holdings of land. Marching south with the young ‘king’ at their head, they crossed the Pennines into Yorkshire.
A few old Yorkist families, including the Scropes of Masham, joined their cause, but they failed to gather anything like the support they had hoped for. It must also have been a blow when the citizens of York, supposedly Richard III’s favoured city, declared their loyalty to Henry. But there was no going back now. As the Tudor writer Polydore Vergil put it, although Lincoln saw his following was small “he resolved none the less to try the fortunes of war, recalling two years earlier that Henry, with a small number of soldiers, had conquered the great army of King Richard”.
Determined to do or die, Lincoln pressed on southwards down the Great North Road towards the crossing of the Trent at Newark. He scattered some royalists near Tadcaster and forced the Earl of Northumberland (who had been shadowing the rebels with a royalist force) to break off his pursuit by ordering the Scropes to mount a diversionary attack on York.
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But Henry had not been idle. After parading the captive ‘Earl of Warwick’ through the streets of London to prove that Simnel was nothing more than an imposter, he advanced to Nottingham where he linked up with the forces of his stepbrother, Lord Strange. With perhaps 15,000 men now under his command, Henry carried on in the direction of Newark and on 15 June his army pitched camp near the river Trent at Radcliffe.
The following morning, guided by some local men, the royal army continued its march northeastwards along the Fosse Way in search of the rebels who by now had crossed the Trent and taken up a position near the village of East Stoke. Exactly where the rebels were or how they got there isn’t known for certain. Local tradition has it that they forded the Trent (which was much wider and shallower than it is today) at Fiskerton, four miles southwest of Newark, but it seems more likely that they simply crossed the bridge in Newark and then headed south. They probably then deployed on some high ground just to the southwest of East Stoke.
In the same way that a key component in Henry Tudor’s army at Bosworth had been a unit of French mercenaries, the core of the rebel force at East Stoke was, without doubt, Martin Schwarz’s 2,000 professional soldiers, many of them equipped with the long pikes that were all the rage on the continent. Although perhaps 2,000 English were also present, the rest of Lincoln’s army was made up of Fitzgerald’s Irish, lightly armed men whose lack of body armour would make them highly vulnerable to the deadly arrows of Henry’s archers.
Meanwhile the advancing royalist army was strung out along the Fosse Way. The vanguard, under the Earl of Oxford, was in the lead, followed by the main body under Henry and his uncle, Jasper Tudor, and then the rearguard, commanded by Lord Strange. At about 9am, Oxford’s vanguard approached the rebel lines. He may have had as many as 6,000 infantry under his command, flanked by two wings of mounted troops under Lord Scales and Sir John Savage. Like Oxford, Scales and Savage were both Bosworth veterans, and Scales’s cavalry had already seen action in the campaign, harassing the rebels as they marched south through Sherwood Forest.
Probably hoping to defeat the royal vanguard before the rest of Henry’s army could arrive on the scene, Lincoln led his troops down the hill in an all-out attack on Oxford’s men. Two years earlier, the defeat of Richard III’s vanguard at Bosworth may have led to defections and desertions amongst the rest of his army, and no doubt Lincoln was hoping to create a similar situation at East Stoke.
The ensuing battle was extremely hard fought and Oxford’s vanguard, which seems to have been the only part of Henry’s army to take part in the fighting, was initially very hard pressed, especially by Schwarz’s seasoned professionals. Fitzgerald’s Irish didn’t fare so well. According to one Burgundian chronicler the unarmoured Irish “could not withstand the shooting of the English archers … and, although they displayed great bravery … they were routed and defeated, shot through and full of arrows like hedgehogs”.
As rebel losses mounted, Lincoln’s attack began to run out of steam. Seizing the moment, Oxford ordered a counterattack of his own. Although most of Schwarz’s mercenaries stood their ground and fought to the last, the rest of the rebel army broke, some fleeing through East Stoke (where mass graves have been discovered), and others making for the ford at Fiskerton. Many of the rebel casualties must have occurred during the rout, especially as the Tudor army included a large contingent of mounted troops who were ideally suited for a pursuit.
Of the rebel leaders, only Lovell escaped. Lincoln, Schwarz and Fitzgerald were all killed, as were as many as 4,000 of their men. Henry is said to have been furious when he learned of Lincoln’s death, for he had ordered that the earl should be taken alive no doubt so he could ‘question’ him to discover the names of any other nobles with whom he had been plotting. As Polydore Vergil put it, “it is said that the soldiers declined to spare the earl, fearful lest by chance, it would happen that the sparing of one man’s life would lead to the loss of many”.
Lambert Simnel was captured, but Henry spared his life, setting him to work in the royal kitchens, and he eventually rose to become a royal falconer. It’s tempting to wonder what would have become of Simnel had his army actually succeeded in toppling the Tudors. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Lincoln, who had designs on the throne of his own, would have ensured that the young boy’s reign was an extremely short one.
The battle itself can be regarded as the final clash of the Wars of the Roses. Henry’s victory strengthened his grip on the crown and, although he had other rebellions to face and another pretender in the form of Perkin Warbeck he never had to personally take the field against a rival again.
Who was Perkin Warbeck?
Between 1490 and 1497, Henry VII was plagued by another pretender: ‘Perkin Warbeck’, who claimed to be Richard, the younger son of Edward IV.
At one time or another, Warbeck would receive the support of Margaret of Burgundy, Charles VIII of France, Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire and James IV of Scotland, all of whom saw Warbeck as a golden opportunity to make life difficult for their Tudor rival.
Some powerful men in England also toyed with supporting him, notably William Stanley, a veteran of Bosworth who was executed in 1495 after getting involved in a pro-Warbeck plot.
After two earlier failed invasions of England, Warbeck landed in Cornwall in 1497. He attracted a fair degree of support but lost his nerve and surrendered. After confessing that he was actually the son of a Tournai civic official he was initially treated leniently but was eventually imprisoned in the Tower.
Julian Humphrys is a historian and battlefields expert
This content first appeared in the March 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed
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