Post-classical history


Summer 1487: ‘Stoke Field’

‘John, late Earl of Lincoln … continuing in his malicious and traitorous purpose, arrived with a great navy in Furness in Lancashire, the iiijth day of June last past, accompanied with a great multitude of strangers, with force and arms, that is to say, swords, spears, morris-pikes, bows, guns, harness, brigandines, hauberks and many other weapons.’

Act of Attainder, November 14871

Henry VII’s standing army consisted only of his new Yeomen of the Guard, with the Knights and Squires of the Body. The garrisons (600–700 troops at Calais and smaller forces at Berwick and on Jersey) were too far away to help. Awaiting an invasion, the king was forced to rely on the armed retainers of his magnates and leading gentry.

He had no means of knowing where or when his enemies intended to arrive. In early April he expected a landing in East Anglia, presumably at some place near de la Pole country, on the shore opposite Flanders. However, the news that Lincoln and Lovell had gone to Ireland made it more logical to suppose they would land somewhere along the west coast, and by 8 May the king had installed himself at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, where he waited for news.

Henry could only guess how many secret sympathizers were going to join the Yorkist army. Would the Duke of Suffolk ride to the aid of his son, with his retainers and large ‘affinity’ from East Anglia and the Thames Valley? What about all those northern gentlemen who had been made to surrender estates in the South given to them by Richard III? Would the city of York rise? Was the Earl of Northumberland about to change sides with his vast following? The king was so nervous that when he heard that the notoriously unstable Marquess of Dorset was coming to join him, he had him arrested and put in the Tower, commenting that he would not mind a little discomfort if he were a true friend. Henry’s fear that there were Yorkists everywhere came out in a proclamation he sent to the larger cities on 3 June 1487, ordering their councils to hunt down anyone who was found spreading rumours – ‘feigned, contrived and forged tidings and tales’.2 Offenders were to be put in the pillory.

On 4 June the invasion fleet made land at the desolate, treeless little island of Foulney in Morecambe Bay on the coast of what is now Cumbria, near the southern tip of the Furness Peninsula. It was an odd place to choose since it was guarded by a fortress, Peel Castle, a bastion against Scots raiders that luckily was undefended. Perhaps some of the invaders were seeking the first haven available after a stormy crossing. The fleet then sailed on, to disembark further troops and horses at Furness Fells, where they were welcomed by Sir Thomas Broughton, who brought his retainers and his Lancashire friends, including Sir Thomas Pilkington of Pilkington.

Lincoln wasted no time, marching towards York across the Pennines. This was country he knew well as a former President of the Council of the North. When his army reached Masham four days later, he sent a letter to the mayor and corporation of York, written in the name of ‘King Edward VI’. It states that since his army is weary from ‘travail of the sea and upon land’, he will be grateful for ‘relief and ease of lodging and victuals within our city’, for which he will pay.3 But although there was plenty of support inside York, the authorities were too frightened to admit him.

Several Yorkshire landowners joined the earl, such as Thomas Metcalfe of Nappa and Edward Franke of Knighton. The most important were Lord Scrope of Bolton and Lord Scrope of Masham, who later pleaded they had been forced into doing so by their tenants. Others included Sir Robert Percy of Scotton (whose father had died fighting for Richard at Bosworth), Sir Ralph Ashton of Fritton-in-Redesdale and Sir Edmund Hastings from Pickering. Abbot William Haslington of the great Cistercian abbey of Jervaulx was also implicated in some way – perhaps sending armed tenants – as he afterwards sued for a pardon. The Yorkist army had now grown to between 8,000 and 10,000 men but, as Lincoln and Lovell must have become sickeningly aware, it was not a big enough force for the job in hand. Even so, they did not lose heart.

On the night of 10 June, at Bramham Moor near Tadcaster, Lord Lovell and 2,000 followers overwhelmed a force of 400 Tudor supporters under Lord Clifford. Two days later, the two Lords Scrope made a sudden attack on one of York’s gates, Bootham Bar, but with insufficient strength, before riding away northwards: they had probably expected the gate to be opened by other ex-henchmen of King Richard whom they knew were in York, each with a large following. The Earl of Northumberland thought the situation inside the city so threatening that he stayed nearby with his powerful forces, keeping an eye on the Scropes and York instead of hurrying south to reinforce Henry.

Unfortunately for Lincoln, too many of the gentlemanly sympathizers inside York were not ready to risk their necks by joining his army before he had won a battle. If he did so, they would support him with enthusiasm. Their caution proved fatal to his cause, although it is clear that both Lincoln and Lovell expected large areas of the North to rise in support. As Bacon comments, ‘their snowball did not gather as it went’.4 One reason why so many Yorkists did not join the rising may have been the outlandish appearance of the wild, bare-legged, Irish kern, who formed the bulk of the earl’s army.

‘Martin Schwartz was deceived, for when he took this voyage upon him, he was comforted and promised by th’Earl of Lincoln that great strength of this land after their landing would have resorted unto the said earl,’ records The Great Chronicle of London.

But when he was far entered and saw no such resort, then he knew well he was deceived, wherefore he said unto th’earl, ‘Sir, I now see well that ye have deceived yourself and also me but, that notwithstanding, all such promise as I made unto my lady [Margaret] the duchess I shall perform’, exhorting th’earl to do the same. And upon this sped them towards the field with as good courage as he had twenty-thousand men more.5

The earl decided that his only chance was to advance south as fast as possible, on the east side of the Pennines, and catch Henry before he could concentrate his full strength. He had only a few hundred mounted men-at-arms but Schwartz’s landsknechts rode horses, while the kern could trot like ponies, so that he was able to cover 200 miles in five days. His route went through Rotheram, Mansfield and Southwell – taking him across the battlefield of Towton, which in 1461 had seen the Yorkists’ greatest victory. Although small, this was a formidable army.

Outside Doncaster, Lincoln’s troops ran into a troop of lances commanded by Lord Scales who, after three days of skirmishing in and around Sherwood Forest, retreated in confusion on 14 June, towards Nottingham. Encouraged, the earl and his men pushed on, fording the River Trent at Fiskerton, not far from Newark, to camp for the night on an escarpment near the little village of East Stoke. Yet Scales had seriously delayed him, gaining time for reinforcements to reach Henry.

As soon as the news of Lincoln’s landing reached Henry at Kenilworth, he marched north with equal speed, hoping to intercept him, going by way of Coventry, Leicester and Loughborough, picking up levies as he went. Vergil attributes Henry’s swift reaction to concern that any delay might allow Lincoln ‘to assemble greater forces’.6 But near Nottingham the king got hopelessly lost, with the result that he and his army were forced to spend the night of 12 June in a wood. Nor, according to his herald, did they manage to reach the city next day, wandering aimlessly – Henry was lucky to find a bed for himself in the isolated village of Radcliffe.

Lincoln’s sympathizers spread defeatist rumours to deter others from joining Henry. According to The Great Chronicle of London,

by subtle ways men were set atween the place of the field and many of the king’s subjects which were coming towards his Grace, showing unto them that the king had lost the field and was fled. By such subtle means and report, many a true man to the king turned back again, and some men of name rode unto sanctuary, and tarried them there till to them was brought better tidings.7

A Burgundian source states that among those who deserted Henry was Lord Welles, who brought the stories to London where they were credited to such an extent that Yorkists emerged from hiding, attacking and robbing royal officials and known Tudor supporters, shouting, ‘Long live Warwick! King Edward!’8

Matters improved for the king, however, when, on 14 June, he and the royal army at last reached Nottingham, camping outside. Here his army was doubled in size by the Earl of Derby’s contingent of 6,000 well-equipped men who were commanded by Derby’s son, Lord Strange. Henry’s troops already included those brought by the Earls of Oxford, Shrewsbury and Devon, and by his uncle Jasper, Duke of Bedford.

Early on the morning of 15 June the Tudor army marched along the banks of the Trent, to engage the Yorkists at Stoke. Both sides sent out scouts to locate their enemy but, while Henry’s spies were no doubt busy enough, one can scarcely accept the claim made by the chronicler Edward Hall in the following reign, that the king had been ‘in his [the Earl of Lincoln’s] bosom and knew every hour what the Earl did’.9 We have no proper report of the ensuing battle. The only descriptions we possess are a sketchy casualty list drawn up by a Tudor herald, some details from an unreliable Burgundian chronicler and what Vergil was told twenty years later. There have been several reconstructions, however. What follows is a summary.10

The two forces went into action at about 9 a.m. on 16 June. Lincoln’s Yorkists, less than 9,000, occupied an excellent defensive position on an escarpment, a low hill south-west of East Stoke, with their rear and one flank guarded by the Trent. The pikemen dismounted, forming their customary square. Then, despite its advantages, the earl suddenly abandoned the high ground, moving down to engage the royal troops as quickly as possible, as the bulk of Henry VII’s 12,000 men had not yet formed up. Well over a mile away the king took no part in the fighting. After almost being killed at Bosworth, he had no intention of risking his life – his death would mean the speedy disappearance of his baby son and the immediate extinction of the Tudor dynasty.

Only Henry’s advance guard, 6,000 picked men who were led by his most reliable commander, the Earl of Oxford, faced the Yorkists. Realizing that this force was isolated from the rest of the royal army, Lincoln hoped to annihilate it before the main body came up and joined in the engagement. As he lacked archers, he began the combat with a volley of quarrels from his Geman arbalestiers, after which he attacked with his entire force. Schwartz’s gaudily uniformed pikemen loped downhill four deep to a deafening roll of drums while the wild kern ran beside them, yelling the FitzGerald war cry, ‘Crom abu!’. At the same time, his mounted men-at-arms launched their own charge.

Having never before encountered eighteen-foot German pikes and two-handed swords, or Irish javelins, the advance guard was understandably shaken. A sizeable number of men bolted, shouting that the battle was lost. Had the rest of the advance guard done so, too, it is more than likely that the Yorkist sympathizers in the remainder of the Tudor army would have turned on King Henry. For a moment, everthing was in the balance.

Despite substantial losses, most of the advance guard managed to survive the initial impact of the Yorksit charge, standing their ground, hacking and thusting at their opponents. At the same time, Oxford, a highly experienced solider with iron nerves, made full use of his archers’ superior fire-power, which was a new experience for foreign troops. After two hours of murderous hand-to-hand combat, the odds started to turn in the advance guard’s favour.

Unlike the landsknechts, who were equipped with steel hel-mets and breast-plates, the Irish had no protective covering other than frieze mantels, while those of their opponents not in armour wore ‘jacks’ made of thick layers of deerskin. In any case, the Irishmen’s dirks and long-handed axes proved to be no match for the royal army’s swords, bills and pole-axes, let alone for its bows. The kern began to drop like flies beneath the arrows, suffering horrific casualties that demoralized their German comrades.

After three hours, the Irish broke and finally the Germans ran, but there was no escape. Fleeing along a narrow ravine that led to the Trent, so many of them were killed before they reached the river, it became known by locals as ‘Red Gutter’. (It has been suggested that the ravine was blocked by an upturned wagon or gun cart.11) Others drowned in the Trent. Lincoln, Sir Thomas FitzGerald of Lackagh, Martin Schwartz and Sir Robert Percy were all killed, with about 4,000 of their men – almost half their army. Even so, fighting with the utmost ferocity they had cut down at least half of Oxford’s vanguard. The battle was over by midday. There is a tradition that the Yorkist leaders were buried with green willow staves driven through their hearts.

The only Yorkist leaders who escaped were Lord Lovell and Sir Thomas Broughton. Lovell was seen trying to swim his horse across the Trent: some said he drowned because the bank was too steep – the heavy armour worn by men of his rank cannot have helped him. Others suspected he got away safely, to hide in his great mansion by the Windrush. Bacon tells of a legend that he ‘lived long after in a cave or vault’,12 and when part of Minster Lovell was demolished around the year 1700 (at least eighty years after Bacon was writing), a richly dressed skeleton was found in a cellar, seated at a table, giving rise to a gruesome story that, locked in for the sake of concealment, Lovell had starved to death.

In reality, both Lovell and Broughton succeeded in escaping to Scotland, where they were given refuge by James III, as his successor James IV gave them letters of safe conduct during the following year,13 After this the pair disappear completely, neither being involved in later conspiracies.14 It is not impossible that, sheltered by Yorkist supporters, Francis Lovell made his way back to die in hiding at his beautiful house. Because of his friendship with Richard III and mysterious end, he has left a sinister name, but no one can deny his courage or his loyalty. An enamelled brass plate bearing his arms (with the crest of a faithful dog) still hangs in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. It has hung there ever since he was made a Knight of the Garter by King Richard in 1484.

Henry VII rode up with the rest of his army after the battle was over. There were no important prisoners to behead and he behaved with calculated moderation. Some of the Lancashire and Yorkist gentlemen who escaped, such as Thomas Metcalfe, Richard Middleton and Rowland Robinson, were attainted or fined. Sir Edmund Hastings received a pardon. The two Lords Scrope were imprisoned for a time and fined, but kept the bulk of their estates. When released, neither was allowed to travel north of the Trent, preventing them from returning home.

Although the king hanged a batch of less important prisoners at Lincoln, together with men found guilty of spreading rumours of his defeat, he stuck to a policy of mildness – he did not want to antagonize the North Country by overreacting as Richard III had done in the South after the Duke of Buckingham’s revolt. When he went on progress through Yorkshire and Durham, an alarmingly large number of people came to him in search of letters of pardon, which they obtained without too much difficulty. If they had not ridden with Lincoln, clearly they had been involved in the rising in some way or other – some must have come from among the Scropes’ followers or from those who had planned to take over York. Henry’s clemency reveals his fundamental insecurity.

Richard Simons, the Oxford cleric who had trained Lambert Simnel to impersonate Warwick, could not be executed because he was a priest, but disappeared into perpetual imprisonment. Henry was more merciful towards the boy. ‘Lambert is still alive today,’ wrote Polydore Vergil twenty years later. ‘He has been promoted to the post of falconer to the king, having previously been a turnspit and worked at various other menial jobs in the royal kitchens.’15 This magnanimity was designed to demonstrate a self-confidence on Henry’s part, which, in reality, he was far from feeling.

Although the king had won at Stoke, he might just as easily have lost. Only a small part of his army were involved in the fighting, which indicates that, as at Bosworth, their leaders were awaiting the outcome. According to Vergil, Henry regretted that Lincoln had not been captured because he wanted to discover from him the full extent of the conspiracy. Before the battle, noticing how confident the Yorkists appeared, he suspected they must have allies among the royal troops and had given orders for the earl to be taken alive. Vergil heard that these orders were disobeyed because some of Henry’s men were terrified Lincoln might incriminate them.

The king knew the earl might well have found more supporters, and that there had been a growing groundswell of support for him all over the North Country. What was so alarming was the challenge coming within less than two years of Bosworth. Still more disturbing, when rumours circulated in London that Henry Tudor had been defeated, there was a breakout by the Yorkists in sanctuary at Westminster, while mobs rioted in the streets, shouting the name he dreaded most of all – ‘Warwick! Warwick!’

Although the king could scarcely be expected to draft an Act of Parliament, the Attainder passed in November echoes the frenzied anger of Richard III on learning that the Duke of Buckingham had risen against him. It complains that:

notwithstanding the great and sovereign kindness that our sovereign liege lord that now is, at divers sundry times, continually showed to the said late earl … but the contrary to kind and natural remembrance, his faith, truth and allegiance, [he] conspired and imagined the most dolorous and lamentable murder, death and destruction of the royal person16

Henry arranged for his wife, Elizabeth of York, to be crowned queen on 25 November, while Parliament was sitting. It was a gesture of insecurity – he wanted to remind England that his consort had Plantagenet blood. Unfortunately, there were other people with the same blood, and not just the Earl of Warwick. They included Elizabeth’s sisters, together with Lincoln’s brothers.

Most menacing of all was the Duchess Margaret in Burgundy. Bernard André, a French scholar in Henry’s service, says the king was convinced that Lincoln had only acted as he did because of her encouragement. During the recent campaign, Henry described her to his courtiers as: ‘That stupid, brazen woman, who despite knowing perfectly well her family was destroyed by her brother Richard, hates my own family with such bitterness that, deliberately ignoring the fact that her niece is my dear wife, she remains bent on destroying myself and my children.’17 It was only a matter of time before this implacable enemy stirred up another dangerous plot.

Bacon believed Henry felt so unsafe that he distrusted even his wife, Elizabeth – ‘he showed himself no very indulgent husband towards her, though she was beautiful, gentle and fruitful … his aversion towards the house of York was so predominant in him as it found place not only in his wars and councils, but in his chamber and bed’.18

4. Summer 1487: ‘Stoke Field’

1. Rot. Parl., vol. VI, 397.

2. P.L. Hughes and J.F. Larkin (eds), Tudor Royal Proclamations, 3 vols, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1964–9, vol. 1, pp. 12–13.

3. York House Books, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 570.

4. Bacon, op. cit., p. 34.

5. The Great Chronicle of London, ed. A.H. Thomas and I.D. Thornley, London, G.W. Jones, 1938, p. 241.

6. Vergil, op. cit., p. 22.

7. Great Chronicle, op. cit., p. 242.

8. J. Molinet, see G. Doutrepont and O. Jodogne (eds), Chroniques de Jean Molinet (1474–1507), 3 vols, Brussels, Académie royale de Belgique, 1935–7, vol. 1, pp. 362–5.

9. Hall, op. cit., p. 434.

10. J. Leland, De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea, 6 vols, London, 1770, vol. IV, p. 210.

11. A.H. Burne, The Battlefields of England, London, Penguin, 1996, p. 314

12. Bacon, op. cit., p. 35.

13. J.M. Thompson, J.B. Paul and others (eds), Registrum Magni Sigilli Regnum Scotorum: Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scottish Record Society, 1882–1914, vol. 2 (1424– 1513), p. 370.

14. D. Baldwin, ‘What Happened to Lord Lovell?’, The Ricardian, 89 (June 1985).

15. Vergil, op. cit., p. 24.

16. Rot. Parl., op. cit., vol. VI, 397.

17. B. André, De Vita atque gestis Henrici Septimi Historia, in Memorials, pp. 49–52.

18. Bacon, op. cit., p. 20.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!