Wars of the Roses – Pretenders – Simnel

A Pageant of Kings: Henry VII -- He hanged his dogs as traitors!

Henry pardoned young Simnel, acknowledging that he had been a mere puppet in the hands of adults, and gave him a job in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner. When he grew older, he became a falconer. He died around 1525.

The Wars of the Roses were fought sporadically between 1455 and 1486 between the two rival Plantagenet houses of Lancaster and York. Virtually all the leading participants were related and they are also known as the ‘cousins’ wars’ in which, over less than 25 years, the crown of England changed hands no less than five times. As in all civil wars, no quarter was given or expected, and the battle of Towtown on Palm Sunday in March 1461 has claim to be the bloodiest on English soil. Fought in a raging snowstorm it, and many other ferocious battles, wiped out entire dynasties. Unusually for the medieval era, the viciousness displayed swept away aristocrats as well as the common soldiery. After the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, Henry VI’s stepfather, Owen Tudor, was beheaded in Hereford and a mad woman combed his hair and placed his severed head at the market cross, surrounded by 100 candles. The final victory went to a relatively remote Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, who defeated the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. He married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York to unite the two houses.

Henry’s claim was to the throne was shaky: he was half Welsh and half French and was most closely related to the French royal family as great-grandson of Charles VI. In England he was merely the great-great-great grandson of Edward III. But he was backed by French and Breton silver, his army boosted by mercenaries – and most importantly – he had won a clear victory at Bosworth.

That bloodbath had ended the Wars of the Roses and put Henry VII on the throne, but his troubles were far from over. He was beset by enemies at home and at the court of Burgundy, and in the spring of 1487 a serious insurrection was launched from Ireland.

In the spring of the previous year a priest took to Ireland a 10- or 11-year-old boy, Lambert Simnel. The lad had been born around 1477 and his real name is not known – contemporary records call him John. According to subsequent legends he was the son of a baker, or an organ builder, or a tradesman. He was certainly of humble origin. He was taken as a pupil by an Oxford-trained priest, Richard Simon (or Symonds or Simons or Symonds) with ambitions to be a king-maker in such turbulent but opportunistic times. He tutored the handsome boy in courtly manners and gave him an excellent education. Simon noticed a striking resemblance between Lambert and the supposedly murdered sons of Edward IV, so he initially intended to present Simnel as Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV, the younger of the vanished princes in the Tower. However, when he heard rumours that the Earl of Warwick, a boy of the same age and of similar appearance to his pupil, had died during imprisonment, he changed his mind and put forward Simnel as the Earl. Warwick was the son of the Duke of Clarence, King Edward IV’s brother, and as such had been the nephew of two Yorkist kings. The real Edward had not died and was safely locked in the Tower, but Yorkist propaganda now claimed that the prisoner was an imposter. That claim was widely promoted by Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, who was sister of both Edward IV and Richard III. She was supported by several nobles, including John De la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, who was himself the son of Elizabeth, another of the sisters of the two Yorkist kings. However, Lincoln’s claim was too tenuous and an attempt to raise a rebellion in north and west England in 1486 came to nothing. Lincoln had fled the English court in March and although he doubted Simnel’s claim, he saw in him an opportunity for revenge and personal advancement. Lincoln was joined by a number of rebel English Lords at Mechelen, including Richard III’s loyal supporter, Francis Lord Lovell, Sir Richard Harleston, the former governor of Jersey and Thomas David, a captain of the English garrison at Calais.

The indomitable Margaret provided between 1,500 and 2,000 German, Swiss and Flemish mercenaries under Captain Martin Swartz. They were mostly foot soldiers carrying bill and pike, with some crossbowmen and a few who carried the relatively new firearm, the arquibusier. The rebel army was put together in Ireland, where opposition to Henry Tudor was strong. Simon took the boy to Ireland, now claiming that Warwick had escaped the Tower and taken refuge under his care. He presented him to the Irish governmental head, the Earl of Kildare, who was willing to swallow the story as it gave him a pretext to invade England and overthrow Henry. The frightened and bemused Simnel was crowned King Edward VI of England in Dublin 24 May 1487. By then the Yorkist fleet had arrived in Dublin. Kildare and his brother Thomas Fitzgerald of Laccagh, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, recruited 4,500 Irish mercenaries, lightly armoured infantry, for the cause.

On 5 June, accompanied by Lincoln and Lovell, Simnel was landed on Piel Island near Furness, Lancashire, and were joined by some English supporters. Most local nobles, apart from Sir Thomas Broughton, stayed away. The pretender’s army advanced through Yorkshire, picking up recruits as they went, and swelled to between 7,000 and 8,000, including some English knights and their retinues. By forced marches they covered over 200 miles in five days. On the night of 10 June, at Bramham Moor outside Tadcaster, Lovell led 2,000 men on a night attack against 400 Lancastrians under Lord Clifford, and easily overwhelmed them. Lincoln then outmanoeuvred Henry’s northern army, under the Earl of Northumberland, by ordering a force under John, Lord Scrope, to mount a diversionary attack on Bootham Bar, York, on 12 June. Scrope then withdrew northwards, drawing Northumberland’s army after him.

From Doncaster a Royalist force of some 6,000 men under Sir Edward Woodville challenged the main rebel force but retreated when they saw they were outnumbered. For three days the rebels advanced through Sherwood, skirmishing all the way. Nottingham was evacuated as they approached. But the fighting had delayed the Yorkists, allowing time for reinforcements under Lord Strange to bolster the city’s defences and deter the rebel advance. Near Farnsfield the rebels turned off the Nottingham road and headed towards Newark into the security of the Earl of Lincoln’s lands.

Henry was at Kenilworth but swiftly set off for Nottingham. He arrived there on 14 June and found that the rebels were at Southwell, 12 miles to the north-east. Henry moved to Radcliffe, between Nottingham and Bingham, the following day, while the rebel army crossed the Trent by the ford below Fiskerton and took up a position on an open escarpment some 1,500yds south of East Stoke. Here the king met them on the morning of the 16th as he was marching towards Newark. The rebels had an advantage in numbers, perhaps 9,000 to 6,000, but apart from the German mercenaries their soldiers were not well armed or trained. The English army was split into three parts of fairly equal size. The van, with heavy cavalry, was under the Earl of Oxford. Their two great advantages were their better armour and their large number of longbowmen.

Battle of Stoke - 1487

Battle of Stoke – 1487

Lincoln and the rebels had camped overnight on the high ground south and west of the village of East Stoke above the Fosse Way. The two sides were facing each other by 9 a.m. and rather than wait for the rest of the royal army, Oxford began a withering bow fire upon the rebels on the higher ground in front of him. The unarmoured Irish suffered gravely under the hail of arrows and Lincoln was forced to charge down the hill rather than stand his ground.

For three hours the battle was fiercely contested. The rebels were well served by the German mercenaries and the English shuddered under the shock of the initial charge. But after a while their poor equipment and armour, and the lack of training amongst the Irish levies, saw the fight swing to the English. A counter-attack by Oxford was enough to break the resistance of much of the rebel army. Unable to retreat, the German and Swiss mercenaries fought on, mainly to the death. Their commander, Martin Swartz, and Lincoln were killed, as were Broughton and Fitzgerald. Of the Yorkist commanders, only Lord Lovell escaped, by swimming the Trent and, according to legend, died hidden in a secret room at his house. He was never seen publicly again. The terrified Simnel was captured.

The rebels were slaughtered in a gully at the foot of the ridge and in the marshy fields. Between 4,000 and 5,000 died either in the battle or in the aftermath as the fugitives were hunted down. All captured Irish or English rebel soldiers were immediately hanged. The Irish nobles who had supported Simnel were spared, as Henry needed their support to govern Ireland effectively. The German mercenaries who survived the grim slaughter were allowed to go free but without their pay. Most of those who died on the field were buried in mass graves on the same day.

Simon avoided execution due to his priestly status, but was imprisoned for life. Henry pardoned young Simnel, acknowledging that he had been a mere puppet in the hands of adults, and gave him a job in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner. When he grew older, he became a falconer. He died around 1525.

The rebels had inflicted heavy casualties on Henry’s army, possibly as many as 2,000 men. But his victory at Stoke secured the safety of the Tudor dynasty. The threat was not over, however. Another pretender emerged.

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