Battle of Stoke Field
Stoke is the third of the battles that can claim to be the last of the Wars of the Roses . The others are Tewkesbury where Edward IV secured the throne for the Yorkists for twelve years, and Bosworth , where Henry Tudor grabbed the crown from Richard III .
Stoke Field was the last throw of the dice for the Yorkist cause, or elements of it – when the rebel army marched through the North the city of York stayed loyal to Henry, who after all had married Elizabeth of York and united the two houses.
Margaret of Burgundy financed the rebellion, providing Lords Lovell and Lincoln with 1,500 German, Swiss and Flemish mercenaries under their captain Martin Schwarz. They gathered support in Ireland in the late spring of 1487, using Lambert Simnel, a poor dupe with a physical resemblance to the imprisoned Yorkist claimant to the throne 15-year-old Edward Earl of Warwick, as a figurehead. In May Simnel as Warwick was crowned Edward VI in Dublin.
The men recruited to the cause in Ireland were lightly- or un-armoured infantry numbering around 4,000. With their force increased, Lovell and Lincoln crossed the Irish Sea to land in Lancashire’s Furness peninsula. After some minor skirmishes and much manoeuvring the rebel army, little increased since landing, and Henry VII’s army of around 12,000 men, met at Stoke Field, near to Newark in Nottingham .
Lincoln with some 8,000 men knew he was outnumbered, and his tactics showed desperation. With his army holding the high ground Lincoln might have been expected to await the royal army. But instead he charged, either spurred by the uneven losses of the early exchange of arrow-fire (half his army were the ill-equipped Irish) or more plausibly seeking to strike the royal vanguard of the Earl of Oxford before it linked up with Henry’s division arriving behind it and Lord Strange’s further still to the rear.
Battle commenced around 9am, and was fiercely fought for three hours or more. Lincoln’s charge at first worked, pushing Oxford back, but a counter-attack by Oxford’s cavalry succeeded, and the rebel advantage was lost.
Schwarz and Lincoln died fighting as battle turned to rout. The rebel soldiers were cut down as they tried to gain the crossing of the River Trent at Fiskerton to their rear. Captured English and Irish soldiers of common rank were hanged without mercy, but the mercenaries had their pay taken off them and were allowed to leave, perhaps a political move to avoid vendettas. Most of the rebel nobles were spared, but ruined by having their lands taken. The Yorkists are thought to have lost more than 4,000 dead, the royal forces far less than half that number.
Two romantic tales adorn the aftermath of the battle. The first concerns Lambert Simnel, put into service in his kitchens by Henry VII , a clever move as it demonstrated clemency without risk as the Simnel card could not have been played again anyhow. Simnel went up in the world later, becoming one of Henry’s hawk handlers.
The second concerns Lord Lovell. He was last seen swimming the Trent to escape, and may have drowned. But another legend has it that he reached his ancestral home, and spent the rest of his life in hiding in a secret room.
Stoke Field made Henry VII’s position stronger by neutralising a generation of those who might have led the struggle against him. It was also a propaganda coup on two levels, demonstrating the royal military power, and giving him the opportunity to be seen as generous to poor Lambert Simnel, giving hope of a more just and peaceful future after the long wars and grasping reigns of Edward IV and Richard III.
Henry was one of the sharpest minds to have held the crown. Where Edward IV tended to let the lowly soldiery go and execute captured noble rebels, Henry at Stoke Field did the opposite. By doing this he avoided a plague of new blood-feuds with the nobility, and showed the repercussions for the common herd - the bulk of all rebel armies - of going against him. England was Tudor for 116 more years.
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