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The Battle of Stoke Field: The Final Chapter of the Wars of the Roses


On a summer‘s day in 1487, the fields near the village of East Stoke in Nottinghamshire bore witness to the last great battle of the Wars of the Roses. For over three decades, this bitter dynastic struggle had pitted the Houses of York and Lancaster against each other in a fight for the English crown. Though the Lancastrian claimant Henry Tudor had won the throne two years earlier, defeating King Richard III at Bosworth Field, he now faced a renewed Yorkist challenge. The Battle of Stoke Field would decide the fate of a kingdom.

Background: The Wars of the Roses

To understand the significance of Stoke Field, we must first look back at the tangled web of the Wars of the Roses. This conflict erupted in 1455 between two branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the Lancastrians, descended from John of Gaunt, and the Yorkists, from Edmund of Langley. The rivalry was ignited by the weak rule of the Lancastrian King Henry VI and the ambitions of Richard, Duke of York.

Over the next three decades, England was torn asunder by a series of bloody battles and sudden reversals of fortune. The Yorkists initially had the upper hand, with Richard‘s son Edward IV seizing the throne in 1461. But the Lancastrians rallied, and in 1470 Edward was briefly forced into exile by his former ally, the Earl of Warwick. He returned and crushed the Lancastrians in 1471, but his early death in 1483 left the throne to his young son, Edward V.

This was the opportunity for Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to make his move. On the pretext that Edward IV‘s marriage was invalid and his children illegitimate, Richard took the throne as Richard III. But his rule was to be short-lived. In 1485, the Lancastrian claimant Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, landed in England and defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard was killed, and Henry was crowned as King Henry VII, first monarch of the Tudor dynasty.

The Yorkist Plot

But not all were content with Henry‘s victory. Yorkist loyalists, led by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, plotted to unseat the new king. De la Pole had a strong claim to be Richard III‘s successor, and he now sought to press it with arms. His co-conspirator was Francis, Viscount Lovell, a long-time friend of Richard who had already tried to overthrow Henry once before.

To give their cause legitimacy, the Yorkists found a figurehead: Lambert Simnel, a boy of humble birth who bore a resemblance to Edward, Earl of Warwick, the real Yorkist heir imprisoned by Henry in the Tower of London. The conspirators spread the story that Warwick had escaped and that Simnel was in fact the rightful king. In 1487, Simnel was crowned in Dublin as "King Edward VI", with the support of the Irish nobility under the Earl of Kildare.

The Yorkists now prepared for war. Crucially, they had the support of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV and Richard III. Margaret, a staunch enemy of Henry VII, provided money to hire mercenaries led by the veteran commander Martin Schwartz. These professional soldiers would give the rebels a fighting edge against Henry‘s army.

The Road to Stoke

As the Yorkists gathered their forces in Ireland, Henry VII moved to crush the revolt. But his efforts to prevent the rebels from landing in England failed. In June 1487, the Yorkist army, under Lincoln and Lovell and now reinforced by the Flemish and German mercenaries, set foot on English soil in Lancashire. Marching inland, they aimed to raise support for their cause and confront Henry‘s forces.

Henry in turn hastened north to meet the threat, joined by many of his key supporters:

  • John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, one of Henry‘s most experienced and loyal commanders
  • Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, Henry‘s uncle and a lynchpin of Lancastrian support in Wales
  • Rhys ap Thomas, the leading Welsh landowner who had been instrumental in Henry‘s victory at Bosworth

As the armies converged, there were skirmishes and maneuverings. Lovell led a daring night raid that scattered a contingent of Henry‘s men under Lord Clifford. The city of York, mindful of its past Yorkist sympathies, prudently shut its gates to the rebels. But there was no major engagement. The stage was set for a decisive battle.

The Armies

On the morning of June 16, 1487, the two armies confronted each other near the village of East Stoke. The composition of the forces was as follows:

Henry VII‘s Army:

  • Commanded by John de Vere, Earl of Oxford
  • Included Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford; Rhys ap Thomas; and Sir John Paston
  • Mainly infantry with some cavalry support
  • Estimated strength: 12,000-15,000 men

Yorkist Army:

  • Commanders: John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln; Francis, Viscount Lovell; Martin Schwartz
  • Lambert Simnel (the pretender "Edward VI") not present
  • Flemish and German mercenaries under Schwartz (pike, handguns, and artillery)
  • Irish forces under Thomas Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare
  • Remnants of Richard III‘s army
  • Estimated strength: 8,000-9,000 men (3,000-4,000 mercenaries)

The Battle

The battle began in earnest around mid-morning. According to legend, Oxford gave the order to attack with the words: "Let‘s go! Follow me!" Beyond this, details of the fighting are scarce in contemporary sources.

The Yorkists may have hoped to use the marshy ground and a stream called the Foss Dyke to their advantage, anchoring their flanks and funneling Henry‘s men into a killing zone. If so, it was a vain hope. The royal army had the numbers and the superior position.

For three hours, the battle raged fiercely under the June sun. The Yorkists fought bravely, perhaps inspired by their belief in Simnel‘s claim, and for a time the outcome was in doubt. According to the Tudor chronicler Polydore Vergil, the Irish troops were at a disadvantage with their outdated weapons and tactics:

"The Irishmen, after their country manner, almost naked, being only armed with darts and skeins, and such other weapons of small defense, more boldly than warily, gave the onset and beginning of the fight."

Vergil also claims that the German mercenaries‘ newfangled firearms did more harm than good:

"The Almains, in whom the Earl had put a special hope for victory, because they were greatly afraid with the shot of arrows, as they had not been accustomed to such kind of fight, were very easily put to flight."

Whether this is accurate or Tudor propaganda is hard to say. What is clear is that gradually, Henry‘s numbers and the Earl of Oxford‘s generalship began to tell. The Yorkists were slowly pushed back, perhaps fighting in separate groups without central coordination.

A key moment came when several of the Yorkist leaders fell. According to Vergil, Lincoln, Schwartz, and Kildare all died fighting bravely in the thick of the action:

"Martin Schwartz and the Earl of Lincoln, and also the Earl of Kildare, which was a little suspect to be a doer in the conspiracy, were killed, manfully fighting even in the midst among the press of their enemies."

The most mysterious episode of the battle involves Lovell. The staunchly Yorkist chronicler of Croyland Abbey relates that "Lord Lovell, as it is believed, escaped by swimming across the river Trent." After that, his fate is unknown. In the 18th century, a skeleton was discovered in a secret chamber at his manor of Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, suggesting he may have gone into hiding and met his end there.

With their leaders dead or vanished, the Yorkist army disintegrated. The Annals of Croyland Abbey paint a grim picture of the aftermath:

"The rest of the rebels were killed, captured, or scattered. Everywhere were to be seen tumultuous crowds of men fleeing in all directions, fields covered with dead bodies, and blood flowing in streams…"

Contemporary sources give no precise casualty figures, but it is estimated that some 4,000 men died that day, the majority of them Yorkists. Henry‘s victory was decisive.

The Aftermath

Lambert Simnel, the Yorkist pretender, was captured after the battle. He was revealed to be a humble baker‘s son, in no way of royal blood. In a remarkable act of clemency, Henry VII spared the boy‘s life. Perhaps recognizing the value of publicly debunking the Yorkist cause, he gave Simnel a job in the royal kitchens. The pretender spent the rest of his life turning spits and basting meat, a living symbol of Yorkist defeat.

For the victors, there were rich rewards. John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, already favored for his loyalty and skill, was made Constable of the Tower of London and granted lands and offices. Rhys ap Thomas, the Welsh power-broker, was knighted on the field and made governor of Wales. Henry‘s uncle Jasper Tudor received still more estates to add to his vast holdings.

But the greatest winner was undoubtedly Henry VII himself. His throne, which had seemed so precarious just months before, was now secure. The death of Lincoln and the exposure of Simnel‘s fraud had destroyed the Yorkists‘ credibility. With their military power broken and their figureheads disgraced, they would never again pose a serious threat to Henry‘s rule.

Conclusion: The End of an Era

And so, on that blood-soaked field at East Stoke, an era came to an end. For over 30 years, the Houses of York and Lancaster had struggled for supremacy, turning England into a battleground. Thousands had died, great nobles had been toppled, kings had been made and unmade. But at Stoke, the red rose of Lancaster finally triumphed over the white rose of York.

The Wars of the Roses were over. The Tudor dynasty, which would rule England for over a century and profoundly shape its future, was secure. Bosworth had made Henry king, but Stoke had won him his kingdom. As the late scholar John Gillingham put it:

"Stoke was the battle which finally settled the Wars of the Roses. Thereafter, although there were a few flurries and false alarms, Henry VII‘s hold on the throne was never seriously threatened again."

Today, the battlefield is a peaceful scene of farmland and villages, bearing little trace of that decisive day in 1487. But for those who know the history, it remains a place of significance, where the course of English history turned on the valor and blood of men now long forgotten. The Battle of Stoke Field may not have the fame of Bosworth or Towton, but it deserves to be remembered as the final chapter in one of England‘s most tumultuous eras.


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