The Battle of Stoke (1487)


The most important, and certainly the most violent, event to take place in Elston was the Battle of Stoke, which was fought by the banks of the Trent at the western end of the parish in the summer of 1487. It was effectively the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, which Shakespeare and school history books would have us believe was the Battle of Bosworth, when Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor, ushering in the start of the glorious dynasty which included Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. But two years after Bosworth Henry VII was to find himself in the same position as Richard, facing a rebel army bent on putting the Plantagents back on the throne. In order to fully understand how the two armies came to settle the future dynasty of England on our doorstep and the full significance of the battle it is necessary to delve into the origins of the great quarrel.

The following account owes much to that written by David Baldwin in his excellent book "Stoke Field, the Last Battle of the Wars of the Roses" (pub :Pen and Sword, 2006. ISBN 1-84415-166-2)

The Hundred Years War

The beginning of the C15th was a turbulent period – a mixture of prosperity, transition, stirred by the bitter Hundred Years War with France, which had begun in 1337 and lasted till 1453. The cause for that war lay in the nature of Norman and Plantagenet kingship, in which the Plantagenet kings of England, the descendants of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, were also vassals of the French King for large parts of France. By 1337 English possessions had been reduced to Gascony, a rectangular territory with Bordeaux at its centre. Edward III had a claim to the French throne through his mother which he believed was stronger than that of the King of France. Matters came to war when the French King Philip VI confiscated Gascony in 1337 after a dispute about an adjoining piece of land. Edward invaded France twice, in 1338 and 1346, during which great defeats were inflicted on the French at Crecy and Poitiers, and resulting in the capture of the French King and the extension of English possessions extending almost to the Loire. But the death of Edward’s son, the Black Prince, turned the scales and by 1415 the French had regained all the territory they had lost.

The war was renewed with vigour by Henry V, culminating in the great victory at Agincourt in 1415, after which Henry became the heir to the French throne by his marriage to the daughter of the King of France. But Henry died in 1422 leaving his son less than one year old to succeed him and England suffered during the long minority, in which policy was bandied about between noble factions. During this period the French once more gained the ascendancy and the relief of Orleans by Joan of Arc obliged the English to abandon Paris in 1436. An English attack in Brittany failed in 1449, Bordeaux fell two years later, and the last expedition of the war by John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury resulted in defeat in 1453.

The Wars of the Roses

The beginning of the C15th was a turbulent period – a mixture of prosperity, transition, but troubled by the bitter Hundred Years’ War with France. Henry V’s victory at Agincourt (1415) had given the English control of a large part of France. Later, during Henry Vl’s reign (1421 – 1471), there emerged opposing points of view as to how control of English territory within France should be managed. The ’hawks’ believed that every attempt should be made to hold on to the French gains. The peacemakers within the English Court were in the largest faction: they believed it better to negotiate a truce rather than allow the territorial war to drag on. They were more far-sighted: they could see that ultimately the French would wrest back their lands, for they had the advantage of greater resources, and were not having to maintain a supply chain. However, they overlooked one crucial fact: damaged French pride. Despite Henry Vl’s arranged marriage (1445) to Princess Margaret of Anjou, the French would use any excuse to regain what they had lost, sooner rather than later. The excuse was provided by an attack by the English on the city of Fougères (1449); consequently the French drove the English army out of Normandy. In 1451, much of Gascony was lost. The war concluded in 1455, leaving the English owning only Calais. The war ended; Edward lll’s and later, Henry V’s huge territorial gains in France were lost and English pride humiliated, whereas French confidence was regained. The recriminations in the English court grew; the dispute between the Lancastrian and Yorkist sons and grandsons of Edward lll (who died in 1377, leaving five adult sons) festered. Each branch of the late king’s family had competing claims through seniority, legitimacy and/or the sex of their ancestors). Eventually it exploded into a bitter feud (1453) between the two sides. It was the C19th writer Sir Walter Scott who named the ensuing conflict “The Wars of the Roses”.

The Yorkist cause gained momentum: in 1452 the rule of King Henry Vl’s (son of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and descendant of Edward lll) was openly challenged at Dartford in Kent by Richard, Duke of York (another of Edward lll’s descendants), who hoped to change the King’s mind and force him to take a more aggressive line with France, by confronting him militarily. There was no battle, for York realised that although he had the power to defeat Henry, most of the aristocracy still supported the King. Later, however, the King’s position was further weakened by his bouts of insanity. He recovered, but the challenges to his authority grew in strength. His attempts at reconciliation between the court factions were defeated at the surprise battle at St. Alban’s; Henry’s entourage of court officials, scribes, and priests, were totally unprepared for any military confrontation as they progressed through the town, going north. The Duke of York, once again, led the rebel attack. Henry received a slight arrow wound during the affray and sought refuge in a cottage. York found him, and declared his allegiance to him: he had lost much in France, and knew he had little chance of regaining anything unless he showed publicly his support for Henry. The latter now had little choice but to accept the Yorkist faction as the power within his court. He was further weakened by another bout of insanity, but again, he recovered and had regained his authority by February 1456.

Richard of York’s claim to the crown

The Yorkists may have felt that they were now in a strong position, but the murderous feuding and mistrust surfaced again within the court. Henry thought that he had settled these quarrels when he initiated reparations, which were then blessed at a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in March 1458. This accord did not last. There was another military confrontation at Blore Heath near Market Drayton in September, which the Yorkists won. A royal edict branded them as traitors; their support ebbed away, and they fled – only to re-assemble in June 1460.

On 10th July, the Yorkist force met the King’s army at Northampton, hoping to present petitions to Henry. An audience was refused; a battle followed and the Yorkists again won. Again, Henry forgave them. When Richard, Duke of York returned to England, to rejoin his victorious supporters, he surprised everyone by saying that he was the rightful king, not Henry. He argued that he was descended from an elder son of Edward lll. However, the nobility refused to depose an anointed monarch. A deal was eventually brokered by the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville. It was agreed that Henry should remain king for his life time and that York would become the protector. The latter would become king at Henry’s death, and his sons the future line of succession.

The Yorkists’ fatal mistake was that they ignored Henry Vl’s wife, Queen Margaret (of Anjou); she was not going to allow her son (Edward Tudor) to lose his inheritance. She rallied forces in the north of the country. York, with the Duke of Salisbury, marched north to deal with this threat to their plans, but with only part of their army. The clash at Wakefield on the penultimate day of December 1460 resulted in the Duke of York’s death, and his head being displayed with a paper crown on the gate of Micklegate Bar, in the City of York, and Salisbury’s death in Pontefract a few days later. Margaret, flushed with victory, marched south and defeated The Earl of Warwick’s forces at a further Battle of St. Alban’s (February 1461). The demoralised Yorkists now turned to York’s son, Edward, who was declared King Edward lV on 3rd March. Margaret could not afford to maintain her army and was afraid of alienating London, so she marched North. The Yorkists pursued her promptly. They managed to cross the River Aire at Ferrybridge, close to Pontefract and clashed with the Lancastrian army at Towton, some 10 miles nearer the city of York. It was an appalling battle, taking place on Palm Sunday, March 29th. There was huge loss of life (20,000 – 28,000); the Yorkists were victorious this time. Margaret and her followers had taken refuge in the city of York, some 15 miles away, whilst the battle took place. She then fled north to Scotland and remained there in exile; she could not raise another army.

Warwick’s rebellion

Edward lV secretly married Elizabeth Woodville in 1467. She was the daughter of the 1st Earl Rivers and the first commoner to marry an English sovereign. Meanwhile, his staunch ally, the Earl of Warwick (Richard Neville) was negotiating on his behalf – so he thought - for the hand of a French princess, to be Edward’s queen. He undoubtedly felt slighted by the king, when he heard of this marriage. His situation seemed even more uncomfortable when he became aware that the king had made alliances between his (Warwick’s) relations and members of the Woodville family. Perhaps the final straw was Edward lV’s decision to give Warwick’s sister Margaret as bride to the Duke of Burgundy in 1468. The rift grew. Warwick began his insurgency by stirring a rebellion in the north of England in 1469. It was led by one ‘Robin of Redesdale’; this could have been either Warwick’s trusted lieutenant Sir John Conyers, or his brother Sir William. “Robin’s” force marched southwards and clashed with the King’s army at Edgecote, near Banbury, soundly defeating it. Its leaders were executed and King Edward was taken into custody, being confined at Middleham Castle, near York. This was a serious error: Warwick soon realized that he could not dictate to an anointed king and had to release him. Surprisingly, Edward did not charge him with treason. Warwick still could not get his way. The king, realizing he was threatened yet again by Warwick, quickly moved against him militarily. He defeated him at the battle of Empingham; Warwick with The Duke of Clarence fled to France rather than face humiliation. King Louis Xl of France was quick to realize that he had an opportunity to ferment trouble in England. In 1470, he arranged a meeting between Warwick and the latter’s old adversary Queen Margaret, Henry Vl’s wife. He persuaded them to work together, with the aim of invading England, restoring Henry to the throne and arranging the marriage of Margaret’s son (Edward Tudor) to Warwick’s younger daughter, Anne.

Meanwhile in England, Edward lV’s rule was becoming unpopular. He had to march north with his army to quell a rebellion in which Warwick’s brother-in-law, Lord Fitzhugh, was involved. Warwick returned from France with an army in September 1470. Edward was quickly deposed and fled to Holland with a few followers and Henry was restored to the throne – briefly. In April of the following year, Edward landed at Ravenspur, on the Humber and marched inland, gathering support on the way. He should have easily been defeated, but Warwick’s forces and his supporters were in different areas of the country. The Duke of Clarence thought it wise to offer support to Edward, as he held lands that had originally been in Lancastrian hands. He realised that he would lose them if the Lancastrians under Henry ruled the country, so he readily agreed to support Edward. Thus the suddenly reinforced army marched on London; Edward freed his wife and son - and deposed Henry again. Warwick marched quickly to attack Edward lV’s forces, but although Edward’s army was the smaller, it defeated and killed Warwick at Barnet. Meanwhile, Queen Margaret landed at Weymouth at the beginning of May 1471 and quickly raised an army. It marched north and reached Tewkesbury. There it was trapped by King Edward lV’s forces and defeated, Margaret captured and her son, Edward Tudor, killed. The victorious army marched to London. The night after its arrival, Henry Vl died.

Francis Lovel

Francis Lovel (born November 1456) was to play an important role in the Battle of Stoke. As a teenager, his wardship had effectively passed from Lancastrian to Yorkist hands. Edward lV lodged it with his sister Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Suffolk (de la Pole). He took control of his inheritance late in 1477. He quickly gained experience handling court affairs and later, in battle, as he accompanied Richard, Duke of Gloucester in his invasion of Scotland. Gloucester knighted him at Berwick and he was further honoured when he was made Viscount Lovel by Edward lV.

Edward lV’s death in April 1483, aged only 40 led to a dramatic change in Lovel’s fortunes: Richard of Gloucester became Richard lll. Suddenly Lovel was placed in a position of enormous power and influence as Chamberlain. It was a tenuous position however, for Richard was not a popular king in the south of the country and Henry Tudor, son of Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor, resident in France, was preparing to invade England. This happened in 1485. Lovel was sent south to Southampton to prepare ships to repel Henry, but, unexpectedly, Henry landed in Wales with his force, so Lovel rushed to Bosworth to support his king, who had assembled a powerful army there. The clash with the Lancastrians had an unexpected outcome: the death of Richard III and Henry Tudor being declared the new King.
Henry Vll may well have thought that Francis Lovel was a man he could do with as a member of his court, for his considerable sphere of influence ran from the north to the south of the country. Maybe this was why he made no attempt to detain him, even though he knew that he had sought sanctuary - but where was uncertain. He still hoped he could ultimately cultivate his loyalty. Lovel, however, was resolute: he was only interested in deposing the new King Henry.

The King set about fostering support throughout the country; he began a ‘royal progress’ with his court, moving steadily north, resting at Lincoln for Holy Week in 1486. It may be that he had reached Yorkshire when he heard that Lovel was stirring trouble in the north of that county and that discontent was being fermented in Worcestershire by the Stafford brothers, who had also fled from Bosworth with Lovel. Despite being threatened while in York, the militarily weak Henry despatched a force to the north, instructing its leaders to offer an amnesty to all who would lay down their arms. Lovel slipped away. This was followed by the collapse of the Staffords’ insurrection in the south. There seemed to be no appetite for further war; those in the north who had supported Richard lll realised that they might well be allowed to keep their lands and estates if they ‘behaved.’ Meanwhile, Lovel had gone to the Burgundian Netherlands (early 1487), where lived Duchess Margaret, wife of Charles the Bold and sister of the late Richard lll. She had lost out heavily financially in England when Henry became king. Lovel hoped to foster her hatred of Henry.

Having been the ward of the de la Pole family, Lovel’s ties with it were strong; John de la Pole had lost the position of ‘President of the Council of the North’ with the defeat of his uncle, Richard lll. Initially he had appeared to accept the new regime of Henry Vll, but in March of 1487, he had gone to the Continent, where he met up with Lovel, who had been plotting with Duchess Margaret of Burgundy (Warwick’s sister) to finally defeat Henry. Margaret provided funds which were used to hire the services of one Martin Schwartz, who commanded a considerable number (2000?) of German and Swiss mercenaries. This army was shipped to Ireland, where a force of ‘kernes’ had been assembled. These Irish soldiers carried little or no armour, but were famed for their expert handling of short swords in hand to hand fighting. They were under the control of Sir Thomas Geraldine. There may well have been a detachment of troops from Duchess Margaret’s forces as well. There was certainly a contingent of Yorkist soldiers. Thus an invasion force was assembled. It had the potential to defeat Henry - if it could be controlled effectively; communication must have been a major problem.

Lambert Simnel

Perhaps it was because the Yorkists saw that Henry VII was having a worrying measure of success in establishing his power base that they felt it necessary to create a figurehead for their supporters to rally round. The background to the Simnel plot is largely lost to history. Polydore Vergil, Henry Vll’s Court Historian, records that Lambert Simnel was the ward of a priest, Richard Simons. He decided to bring up the boy to understand courtly manners. He was encouraged to impersonate a young prince, and the boy readily took to his new role. Who decided that he should impersonate Edward, Earl of Warwick? Edward Warwick had been imprisoned in the Tower of London since the Battle of Bosworth. Simnel was about the same age as the boy. It is doubtful that Simons made this choice. There must have been considerable financial support for such a venture, and those involved must have had a close working knowledge of the Yorkist court which Henry Vll had ousted. They would have chosen who was to be impersonated with great care. The facts point to the close involvement of Lovel and his fellow conspirators.

Lambert Simnel was taken to Ireland in the autumn of 1486, where he was presented to a considerable number of nobles as Edward, Earl of Warwick. Support for the House of York was historically strong in Ireland. Possibly, the fact that he was an imposter might have been obvious to the nobles. However, how many would actually know what he looked like? If he was surrounded and obviously accepted by the well known powerful members of the Yorkist entourage, who amongst the Irish lords could say with any measure of authority that he wasn’t the young Edward Warwick? His ready acceptance as the ‘young earl’ would ease the switch of identity when the real Earl was released after the successful conclusion of the plot. Supporters arrived from England; confidence in the future success of the venture blossomed. The boy was crowned ‘King Edward VI’ in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin on 24th May, 1487.

Henry was deeply alarmed, but prepared for the forthcoming conflict with equanimity. He assumed that the Irish contingent would land in England somewhere in the west, and the invaders from the continent would land somewhere in East Anglia, near the de la Poles’ native Suffolk, where they could raise yet more support. Henry ordered his army to muster in the midlands; from there it could be sent to wherever the invaders landed. When he heard that the Irish kerns under Lord Geraldine, Schwartz’s mercenaries, and possibly some of Margaret of Burgundy’s troops, had assembled in Ireland, he stood down his troops. He took measures to make sure that his army would be fed, if and when it moved north to meet the threat. Meanwhile, he retired to Kenilworth Castle.

The rebel invasion

The rebel army – with Lambert Simnel -- landed in the north west of England, possibly near Furness, on the 4th June. They marched into Yorkshire, through the Dales and into the Vale of York. They had hoped to increase the size of the army as they passed through, recruiting on the way, but it did not happen. A message was sent ahead to York, asking for support in the form of food and shelter. However, the mayor had recently sworn loyalty to Henry, so the rebels were told that the gates of the city would be shut against them and that the residents would defend the walls. So the army passed the city, and headed slightly west, towards Boroughbridge. It successfully attacked a Tudor force led by Lord Clifford, seizing their arms and monies – no doubt boosting its confidence. King Henry alerted his supporters, who mobilized their troops; his army began its march north, passing from Leicestershire into Nottinghamshire. It was swelled by a considerable number of loyal noblemen, bringing with them their own troops. Of note is the Earl of Oxford, who had fought valiantly at Bosworth. However, not all expected support materialized, as other landowners ‘hedged their bets’, not wishing to expose themselves to yet another round of loss of men , equipment and possible sequestration of their estates - and death - should Henry be defeated. War weariness was hardly surprising.

The route of the rebel forces as they moved south is not recorded, nor is it known as to where they crossed the Trent. It is likely that it was forded at Fiskerton, close to Southwell; the river was far shallower at that point than it is now. There is no physical evidence remaining of how the battle progressed, except for what has been unearthed, and the accounts of the battle, which were written down months after the engagement. It is very likely that these would have been heavily tainted by exaggeration, political expediency and colourful imagination. What accounts do exist were written by Molinet and that which is recorded in the ‘York House Books’. David Baldwin* also points out that it is important to examine the military practices of the period, for the commanding officers would have been well versed in the tactics promoted by these. His scholarly account of how he believed the battle proceeded is fascinating reading, and can briefly be summarized as follows:

Having forded the Trent, the Yorkist forces climbed the escarpment in front of them. Now, the sharp slope is about a mile from the river, but the course of the latter may have shifted during the 600 years since the battle. Adjacent, on the slope was the parish church of St. Oswald’s, with the village of Stoke, then a little to its east, but close-by. (The village centre has moved and now straddles the Fosse [old A46]. Outlines of the medieval village are visible in the fields to the south of Church Lane). This gave the Yorkists a commanding position: height, with a good view east and southeast with a source of food and water from the nearby river. The vanguard of Henry’s army (he was not present initially), under the command of the Earl of Oxford, approached from the south west, and took up positions along what is now known as Trent Lane: this gradually climbs the slope towards the edge of the escarpment, from an easterly direction. The troops formed a defensive line, about 2/3rds of a mile long, down to the Roman Fosse. ). “The Earl of Oxford’s contingent would have consisted of a core of men at arms, supported by archers and billmen in approximately equal numbers”* It is believed (not necessarily fact) that the line of troops stopped there, to allow the main Lancastrian force under Henry’s command to approach and join in the battle. “Henry was fortunate that his army was led by veteran warriors of the calibre of the Earl of Oxford and Sir Henry Woodville.”* The rest of the army was coming from Nottingham, along the Fosse Way, from the West, but didn’t arrive until after the fighting was well under way.

The Battle of Stoke

The battle started at 9.00 on Saturday, 16th June 1487. The Yorkist force, about 8000 men, under the overall command of the Earl of Lincoln and Viscount Lovel, made the first move. It can only be assumed that the Yorkist commanders calculated that they outnumbered Oxford’s troops. Possibly knowing that Henry’s main force had not yet arrived, they decided to take the initiative, and attacked, hoping to destroy his vanguard, and thus be able to meet the rest of the army on more numerically equal terms. If this was the case, it was a fatal mistake; they ignored the golden rule of such combat. They left their strong position on high ground and moved down the slope to engage Oxford’s troops. “They almost certainly knew of Jean de Bueil’s warning that everywhere and on all occasions that foot-soldiers march against their enemy face to face, those who march lose and those who remain standing still holding firm, win. [But] Oxford’s force was undoubtedly well drilled and included some of the men who had fought at Bosworth”* As they approached Oxford’s line, the latter’s archers (about 1800) loosed a withering storm of arrows. There would have been an exchange of fire from arquebuses, the primitive artillery of the period, but these took a considerable time to reload and therefore would have been of limited use. Crossbows were devastatingly effective, even against armour, but could only be fired about four times a minute, as they had to be re-tensioned by winding them up after each shot. Hand to hand fighting began; Oxford’s troops were severely tested, but managed to hold their ground after initially being beaten back. “It is likely that the Royalists had many more horsemen than their opponents, but most would have dismounted and fought as infantry.... the battle of Stoke, like other conflicts of the period, would have been fought largely in the ‘English Manner,’ on foot”* Fighting with only partial armour and a heavy helmet on in warm June weather must have been uncomfortable and restricting. It is difficult to imagine just how long they could keep on wielding heavy weapons, attacking others and parrying blows to defend themselves, even with partial armour, in quite warm conditions. David Baldwin believes that the soldiers must have retired from the fray at intervals, just as Oxford’s and the Duke of Norfolk’s troops had done at Bosworth Field, to be replaced by those who had just rested. He records that Lord Bacon said it lasted three hours; unbroken, murderous fighting for that length of time must have been almost beyond endurance, even for the fittest of men.

As the morning progressed the centre of the battle moved gradually to the north, towards Stoke. The whole area, which is well drained and facing south east would have been useful farmland - as now. It would have been devoid of hedges and trees, and used for mediaeval strip farming, with some scrub here and there. Visibility would have been much less restricted than it is now. It is assumed that the Earl of Oxford’s troops were reinforced by Henry’s army as it arrived at the battle site during the course of the morning. The Lancastrian army reorganised; The Yorkists were increasingly outnumbered and severely weakened. Under such heavy counterattack, their formations broke up, terror took hold, and they began to run, many towards the top of the escarpment and down what is locally known as ‘Red Gutter’ (where large numbers were caught and cut down), others towards or across the Fosse Way, which passed the eastern extreme of the medieval village of Stoke. It became a rout; it is likely that the Lancastrian army’s mounted soldiers who had been fighting on foot, rushed back for their horses, mounted them, and gave chase, knowing that victory was theirs, their adrenalin high, revenge their intention, swinging their swords and axes, cutting down any fleeing soldiers they could find. Estimates of the number killed in the battle vary considerably; there is no way of verifying them. They range from between 4000 and 7000. It is said that the casualties on the royalist side were few – hundreds, not thousands. The majority of the rebel’s commanders were killed during the battle, despite Henry giving the order to try to take them alive. Francis, Lord Lovel escaped, it is believed, across the Trent

The Battlefield today

What evidence of the conflict has been found ? Remarkably little. Why? In the C15th, metal armour and weapons were extremely valuable. As soon as the battle was over, the victorious soldiers would have scoured the field for the weapons of the fallen, wrenched arrows from the fallen bodies to recover the metal heads, removed all valuables, armour and other equipment. What they missed, the local populace would retrieve later. Each body would be checked before being taken to the burial pits, at the northern end of the battlefield. Near the summit of Burham Hill is the Burrand Bush Stone, which is supposed to mark the site where Henry VII raised his standard after the battle. Unfortunately, this is on private land, and cannot be accessed. There is a memorial in the churchyard at East Stoke, placed there in 1987 to Sir Thomas Geraldine, John de la Pole (Earl of Lincoln), Martin Schwartz, and all those who perished in the conflict. The church has been much altered since the late C15th. Much of it is C18th, although the chancel has some late C14th windows.

The Willow Rundle is the site of a trough that used to be fed by a spring, situated on the southern side of the western length of the now (unfortunately) truncated Elston Lane. This runs from the old A46 as it enters East Stoke from the south west, and used to be a direct way into Elston village. The trough can be easily located, as it is immediately opposite the footpath which runs diagonally from near the Old Rectory in East Stoke to Elston Lane. Recently, the spring which feeds it has run dry for the first time in recorded history. This is a result of earth movements associated with the construction of the new road, very close by - despite promises made by the contractors to protect sites such as this.

There are different stories attached to this spring: one being that a fatally wounded soldier prayed to his patron saint as he was dying, asking for water, and immediately the water gushed from this spot; another, that Martin Schwartz and the Earl of Lincoln were buried in its vicinity, and willow stakes were driven through their corpses. R. P. Shilton, in his book ‘The Battle of Stoke or Burham Fight’ (1828), records that there were two willow trees, which reputedly grew from these stakes, near this spot. However, there is no evidence of them today.

* from David Baldwin’s book “Stoke Field, the Last Battle of the Wars of the Roses”, Pub: Pen and Sword, 2006. ISBN 1-84415-166-2