Part Seventeen: Lambert Simnel & the Battle of Stoke Field

Lambert Simnel

Aaand, we’re back at it. To note, this will be my last historical post before the New Year due to travel, but we’ll reconvene the second week of January. (In the meantime, of course, if you follow the modern stuff , there will the traditional end-of-year wrap-ups next week.) Anyway. The Princes in the Tower. Henry VII. Rebellions. Before we start, if you missed the last post on evidence for the Princes’ potential survival, you can catch up here. I recommend making sure that you’ve read it since I’ve written the below on the assumption you’re clear on those events.

The Wars of the Roses is traditionally described as occurring between 1455 (with the First Battle of St Albans) and 1485 (with the Battle of Bosworth). In fact, it’s messier than that, because the first St Albans was followed by a shallow stab of peace that lasted a couple years, while Bosworth was followed by the Battle of Stoke Field in June 1487, 22 months later. The bizarre kidnapping attempt against Henry VII in 1486 aside, this battle was the culmination of the first serious uprising against Tudor authority and it was a strange episode.

But before we get there, let’s return quickly to London since we spent most of the last post running between Yorkshire and Colchester like a certain Lord Lovell. As noted, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York married in January 1486, fusing the Lancastrian and Yorkist lines. Elizabeth quickly became pregnant (with some theorizing that she in fact conceived prior to the wedding) and gave birth to a son, Arthur, in September 1486 in Winchester. The location was strategic, with Winchester being the traditional site of the legendary Camelot of King Arthur fame. The Tudors were very good at PR.

The significance of Arthur’s birth can’t be overstated. Unlike the other alternatives, Henry provided a clear line of succession, and in becoming a father, Henry now had not only himself to think of, but a son. And given that we don’t know how Elizabeth of  York really felt about her marriage, at least not at this stage, the presence of a son all but ensured that her loyalty remained with the Tudors and not her brothers, if they were still living. Bear in mind as we delve into the “Pretenders,” regardless of whether or not you believe they were authentic, it would have been nearly impossible for Elizabeth to be 100% certain given the secrecy that surrounded them, even in 1483.

It also meant that Elizabeth Woodville was grandmother to a future king, even if not by the means she might have wished. Her actions in 1487 must consider the fact that if she participated in a rebellion, she did so knowingly jeopardizing her daughter and grandson. And, not for nothing, but a Tudor prince was also a Yorkist prince thanks to his mother. Elizabeth of York, in less than a year of marriage, had fulfilled the very purpose that made her desirable in the first place – her ability to provide the bloodline of her royal house.

Elizabeth Woodville and her younger daughters were originally fixtures of Henry’s new court. They were present at the wedding, while Princess Cecily carried Arthur at his christening and Elizabeth Woodville stood as godmother. In fact, Cecily, as the eldest unmarried daughter, served as Elizabeth of York’s chief lady-in-waiting, while the younger daughters – Anne, Katherine, and Bridget – remained with their mother at first. Their cousins, Warwick and Margaret, were placed in the protection of Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. Such was the domestic landscape leading into 1487.

Also at peace with the new normal was the de la Pole family. The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk (the Duchess being Richard III’s sister) paid homage to Henry Tudor, while their sons seemingly fell in line. The first crack in the structure came in the last weeks of 1486 or first days of 1487 when Henry’s government learned that a rebellion was roused in Burgundy and supported by Ireland to replace him with the Earl of Warwick

So, first let’s tell the traditional narrative: Unhappy with a Tudor England, Lovell and Margaret hatched a plot in 1486 to overthrow Henry. The two identified a boy named Lambert Simnel who hailed from Oxford and trained him to impersonate the Earl of Warwick. After news of this spread, Lincoln, idling at Henry’s court, unexpectedly fled to Burgundy. Funds acquired and Simnel ready, the two men then took him to Ireland, which had a long history of loyalty to the House of York, and duly had him crowned King Edward VI in Dublin. In June 1487 the army landed at Furness Falls and headed towards Yorkshire, traditionally loyal to Yorkists, only to find that the city was denying them entry. They were met by the royal army under the command of the Earl of Oxford and on June 16th, the Battle of Stoke Field ended in a resounding Tudor victory, with Lincoln losing his life and Lovell disappearing into thin air.

Lambert was ferried back to London where Henry took pity on the child and gave him a job in the royal kitchens. And Henry, of course, took none of this too seriously because he knew that the real Earl of Warwick was in Tudor custody. Nevertheless, to be safe, the boy was stashed in the Tower of London. He would remain there for the next 12 years until Henry executed him in 1499 – we’ll get into that particular issue another time.

The above is the traditional version, but it’s also the version that’s been accepted because it was the only one provided by Henry’s government. And it may very well be true. Still, it bears further scrutiny. First and foremost, this version of events presumes the deaths of Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York during the reign of Richard III. Otherwise, Warwick wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice. Secondly, this ignores the fact that Warwick was still branded by his father’s treason – not an insurmountable hurdle, but a rather significant one given that with it in place, Lincoln himself was the best available Yorkist heir. Thirdly, it casts Margaret of York as a figure so desperate for vengeance that she was willing to use a child of such lowly station that he accepted a job in the kitchens to oust a king.

In the first days of January 1487, Henry’s Council meet at Sheen Palace to address the rebellion, and not long after, messengers were sent to Ireland and Burgundy to discourage support. Next, Henry arranged a service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London and summoned the realm’s leading magnates, with a special guest star: Warwick. The goal, of course, was to show Englishmen that whoever Margaret and Lovell had was an imposter, while the real son of George of Clarence was safely under lock and key. Both of these events took place before Lincoln’s flight abroad, and he was certainly present at the St Paul’s service where Henry arranged for Warwick and Lincoln to speak to one another before his court.

Now, this is notable because Lincoln, more than anyone else present, would be able to verify whether or not the Warwick in London was the real Warwick. Henry, on the other hand, would have met “Warwick” for the first time after Bosworth in 1485, when the Earl was delivered to him from the North by none other than Lincoln. Shortly after this event, Lincoln escaped England, fled to Burgundy, and joined the rebellion to put another “Warwick” on the throne. So, did he deliver Henry an imposter in 1485? Or, was his departure merely because he knew he was only biding his time at a Tudor court? If the latter, then the question still remains: Was that the real Warwick?

If we accept the Tudor narrative, then Lincoln saw his cousin in London, then fled abroad to support a boy pretending to be him. His motivation for this could well have been to swap out of the boys after victory, and crown the actual Warwick in London. But much like the Buckingham rebellion of 1483, this scenario prompts the question of why Lincoln would ignore his own legitimate claim to the throne. After all, he was Richard III’s assumed heir, and he, unlike Warwick, was of age, so there wouldn’t be a need for a minority government. To assume that Lincoln’s actual end game was to put himself on the throne would mean that whether the actual Warwick was abroad or in London, then Lincoln planned to kill him, potentially damaging himself in the way Richard was in 1483.

The other x-factor here is Elizabeth Woodville, who, shortly after the Council meeting at Sheen, withdrew from court to Bermondsey Abbey. Debate continues to this day over whether or not this was voluntary. Certainly, she was stripped of most of her material possessions – as a king’s widow, she had financial rights, but by the time she died five years later, she was all but penniless. Some believe this was due to tension with Henry -regardless of whether or not she participated in the 1487 uprising, he had a good reason to be annoyed with her for allowing Elizabeth of York to join Richard’s court in 1484. If so, it’s strange that it took 18 months for Henry to act on his frustration. Even if a matter of optics, choosing the moment of a Yorkist rebellion to exclude well-known Yorkist face ostensibly supporting him is odd.

It’s also worth noting that at the same time as Elizabeth Woodville’s withdrawal, her eldest son, the Marquess of Dorset, was arrested and placed in the Tower of London. It’s hard to believe the two events are wholly unrelated, and indeed, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that the timing indicates Woodville involvement in the rebel plot. But if that’s the case, then it makes no sense for either to do so to put Warwick on the throne. While we don’t know what Elizabeth thought of George of Clarence, it stands to reason there was little love lost – due, in part, to his actions, she lost her father and a brother in 1469, was forced to give birth to Edward V in sanctuary, and was indirectly affected by his treason in 1477. The idea that Elizabeth preferred any Yorkist regime over a Tudor one is incongruous when you consider that her daughter was now a Tudor queen, and her grandson first-in-line to the throne. In other words, neither Elizabeth Woodville nor Dorset would be prompted into treason unless one of the “Princes” was the rebellion figurehead.

Matthew Lewis notes in “The Survival of the Princes in the Tower,” that a man named Bernard Andre, who would later become tutor to Prince Arthur, wrote about the 1487 rebellion, claiming that the rebels used an imposter not to imitate Warwick, but Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. In Andre’s version, the real “Princes” were killed by Richard III in 1483 and Lambert Simnel a stand-in for a dead boy, but that doesn’t make much sense because the boy in question was reportedly crowned as “Edward.” Andre’s account also notes that heralds were sent by Henry to Dublin to identify the boy in question, and at least one – an older man whose years of service likely included time at Edward IV’s court – accepted him as the late king’s son.

As the early months of 1487 wore on, Henry prepared for an invasion with Lincoln’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, by his side. By early May, he was aware that the rebels had left Flanders, and indeed, on May 5, Lincoln, Lovell, and the boy in question were welcomed into the Irish capital. Their acceptance was in large part due to Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, a staunch Yorkist. The boy was crowned King Edward, however while the later narrative alleges he was named Edward VI, there was in fact no numeral affixed in the Irish records. The only contemporary source to use a figure is from the City of York, which would make clear its allegiance to Henry. Lewis also notes that Polydore Vergil, writing about these events, uses the word “restituere” to describe the coronation, meaning “renew” or “restore.” That could be an allusion to the House of York, but it certainly wouldn’t fit for Warwick, whose claim to the crown was fresh. Indeed, it could only fit for Edward V, restored to his throne.

An early skirmish between the two armies led to a Yorkist victory, but on June 16, the Battle of Stoke Field ended with a resounding Tudor win and Lincoln’s death. In Andre’s account of the aftermath, Simnel is reported as confessing that his family was humble, while at the same time describing the boy as forced into this position by “infamous persons of his own rank.” Given that those individuals would have been Margaret of York, Lincoln, and Lovell, the former two having royal blood, that’s an odd description. Regardless, Simnel was given a position of service in Henry’s household, and he continued working at the royal court into the reign of Henry VIII, at one point becoming the latter king’s falconer.

Another factor is the presence of Elizabeth Woodville’s brother, Edward Woodville, within Henry’s army. Surely his fight for the Tudors indicates his family’s belief that the boy in question was either Warwick or an imposter. Yet, there was an episode in which he was marching through Sherwood Forest to meet up with the Earl of Northumberland and ended up retreating back to Henry. Lewis posits his behavior suggests that he was unwilling to meet the Yorkist army, and questions, “Had he been making for Northumberland’s contingent to support his nephew’s invasion, only for the earl to back out at the last minute?” Alternately, if there was reason for Elizabeth and Dorset to support the rebellion, but they were silenced quickly enough, he may well not have known anything other than the Tudor-approved description of events.

What’s also strange about Simnel is that his name wasn’t initially recorded and records of his identity are confused in early reports. Indeed, at one point he is called “John.” Notably, “Lambert” was the maiden name of Edward IV’s most famous mistress, Jane Shore, notorious for sleeping with not only the King, but Dorset and the executed Viscount Hastings. As for “Simnel,” an item called simnel cakes were eaten during Lent, which Lewis notes is worth mentioning given that this rebellion solidified over the Easter holiday. In other words, was it created out of whole cloth purposefully to be a memorable name? Given that some have theorized  the boy in question may have been Edward IV’s illegitimate son, “Lambert” may well be an indication of just that. Likewise, when the Pope later condemned the rebellion, he described the imposter as a boy of “illegitimate birth.”

Simnel’s age is also muddied. At some points he is referred to as 10 years old, making it possible that he could pass for the 12-year-old Warwick, but somewhat harder to pass for the 13-year-old York, and impossible to pass as the 16-year-old Edward V. But then, some records refer to the imposter not as a boy, but an adolescent. An incident that took place at Margaret of York’s court in 1493 may also have some significance: At the time, Margaret was supporting a second “pretender” to the throne, and two Englishmen were sent from Henry’s court to address the matter. In the presence of a youth claiming to be the real Duke of York, William Warham noted sarcastically that Margaret had now “given birth” to two princes aged 180 months, or 15 years old. The actual York would have turned 15 in 1488, before Margaret’s support of the “pretender” is recorded, but Edward V would have been 15 in 1486, when her support for the imposter in the Simnel rebellion began. That could have been clumsiness, or it could have been a rather telling slip.

Francis Bacon later wrote that Henry mourned Lincoln’s death at Stoke Field, hoping instead that the young man would be captured so that he could question him. Indeed, given that Lincoln flew the coop shortly after coming face-to-face with “Warwick” in January 1487, and if we assume Henry was at least partially in the dark about what happened to any of the Yorkist princes, then he likely did want to question Lincoln.

It’s impossible to say with what happened with any certainty, but it’s worth considering that would have been on purpose. Much like the Titulus Regius wasn’t just revoked, but destroyed by Henry in 1485, the records for the Irish Parliamentary session for 1487 were ordered destroyed by the Tudor government on pain of prosecution. And not for nothing, but the boy presented as an object of ridicule and pity in London in the rebellion’s aftermath could have been literally anyone – we only have the Tudor regime’s word that he was in fact “Lambert Simnel.”

Now, to level-set on all of this: I don’t find Elizabeth Woodville’s retirement to Bermondsey Abbey or even Dorset’s arrest to be overly persuasive one way or the other. In Dorset’s case, Henry had well-established reasons for mistrusting his motives given that the man tried to break from his cause after his mother and sisters left sanctuary in 1484. As for Elizabeth, I’m agnostic on whether this retirement was forced – frankly, I think it could be argued either way. If it was forced, then the timing is strange. That could be due to her potential involvement if the claimant was really Edward V, or it could be for more the mundane reason that Henry liked saving money and maintaining Elizabeth Woodville was expensive.

But I don’t think we can rule out of the possibility that Elizabeth retired of her own accord. Regardless of whether you think she was a schemer, there’s little from her life during her husband’s reign to actually suggest that. She emerges in the historical records abnormally only when it was a necessity – such as when she was grappling with the messiness of Edward V’s accession in 1483. But after leaving sanctuary, her whereabouts are largely unknown. She certainly wasn’t throwing elbows at Richard’s court. And similarly, from 1485-1487, she appeared for major occasions such as her grandson’s christening, but otherwise isn’t noted much. I think it’s very possible that she followed the model of her mother-in-law, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, and chose to spend her last years in solitude. Such was normal procedure for high-born, even royal, women in the Middle Ages.

What’s stranger, and potentially more telling, is Lincoln’s behavior, as discussed. I don’t believe the assertion that Lincoln’s true aim in this rebellion was claiming the throne himself. He would have had a better shot of doing so in his own name than using Warwick’s. If we accept that the rebellion was formed around Warwick, then we are left with that face-to-face meeting at St Paul’s Cathedral before Lincoln fled England. He either knew that the boy was an imposter, potentially because he had delivered him as such in 1485. Or, he knew he was the real Warwick and joined the rebellion in the hopes of swapping the boys out. If the latter, then he would have to have hoped that nothing happened to the boy while the rebellion was ongoing.

That last bit is rather telling, though, if you accept that Richard III killed the “Princes,” because if he did then murdering royal children was very much on the table by 1487 and why would Lincoln be so confident that the real Warwick wouldn’t be quietly killed to eliminate a risk to Henry’s family? That line of thought begs whether the “Princes” were in fact still alive, in which case, if we accept it was an “Edward” crown in Dublin, then the real rebellion figurehead had to have been Edward V.

An alternate version of events would then have Henry and his government learning that Margaret and Lovell were planning an invasion around a Yorkist prince. They obviously can’t acknowledge even the possibility that either Edward V or York is still alive, so they make a show of Warwick, as though he is the figurehead. They bring him forth, force Lincoln to meet with him publicly, and Lincoln flees. The rebels make it to Ireland where Kildare accepts the boy in question as a son of Edward IV. Henry, unclear on what exactly is going on, sends haralds to suss out the landscape, and at least one of them recognizes the boy in question as Edward IV’s son. The boy is “restored” to the throne as King Edward. The two armies meet, Lincoln is killed, Lovell escapes, and Edward V is killed, escapes, or is captured. Most likely killed given that the next “Pretender” would claim to be York. The army would have had plenty of young boys in its entourage, and one of them is claimed and presented as “Lambert Simnel,” an imposter for the Earl of Warwick, who is the safest figurehead for the Tudor government given that they have possession of the real one.

In this reality, the real Edward V successfully made it to Burgundy in 1485, most likely with Lovell after he made his mad dash to Yorkshire. If that was the case, then Lincoln was able to successfully leave him behind when he was summoned to London after Bosworth, possible given the secrecy around his presence, and Lovell was able to gain custody after his slip from Colchester before fleeing abroad. Margaret then safeguarded him through the early months of 1486 while she and Lovell organized the rebellion.

If this happened, then the delay between the 1487 rebellion and the next “Pretender” rebellion formed around York makes sense – the real York would have turned 14 in August of that year and Margaret of York may well have wanted to wait for 1) the right moment and 2) the boy to grow up a bit, thus galvanizing more confident support.

Now, it’s possible that Warwick was the actual figurehead, but that’s complicated by later support of a York pretender. If we accept this possibility, then we have to assume that Margaret didn’t know where the real York was in 1486/1487, otherwise she wouldn’t have supported Warwick over one of Edward IV’s sons. In this scenario, the real Warwick was replaced with an imposter by Lincoln in Yorkshire before he met Henry in London in 1485, and for over a year, a fake Warwick was held. But this has two rather significant wrenches in the forms of Elizabeth of York and Margaret Beaufort, both of whom would have recognized the real Warwick. Indeed, considering that Lincoln and Elizabeth of York were both summoned south at the same time, she would had to have known the plot and known for that same period of time that the Warwick her husband held was fake. Not impossible given we don’t know what her loyalties were, at least in the beginning, but certainly harder to accept. And Margaret Beaufort served Elizabeth Woodville as a lady-in-waiting for years – given that George of Clarence’s children joined the royal nursery after they were orphaned in 1478, she would have known the real Warwick and seem him as recently as 1483.

There’s a more complicated theory put forth by Lewis that it was George of Clarence who performed the swap, safeguarding his son from his brother back in 1477. In this version, the real Warwick was ferreted out of England to either Burgundy or Ireland when he was still a toddler, and the two people privy to this information were Margaret of York (known to be devoted to George in life) and, you guessed it, Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare. Under this scenario, either Margaret or Kildare held the real Warwick for close to a decade, thus prompting the rebellion to launch in 1487. The motivation behind George moving Warwick in the first place was less about paternal protection (after all, he left his daughter behind), but protecting the very thing that may well have finally pushed Edward IV to execute him: the Lancastrian line.

As you may recall, when the old Warwick – Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick – joined forces with Marguerite of Anjou in 1470, arranged the marriage of Prince Edward and Anne Neville, and then successfully restored Henry VI, their peace offering to George of Clarence was offering him a place in the line of succession if Prince Edward died without children. Well, Prince Edward did, so under a Lancastrian government, George of Clarence was thus the true king. Ostensibly that didn’t matter much under a Yorkist government, but that didn’t mean a treasonous George of Clarence didn’t put Edward IV at risk, particularly when he began running his mouth in 1477. Thus, Clarence moving his son out of England was also safeguarding the true Lancastrian line. If so, the “real” Warwick would have been unrecognizable, and easily killed and imprisoned by the Tudors in 1487 without the public being any the wiser.

Now, that simple fact about Clarence and Warwick is worth considering in the context of the traditional Tudor narrative, because it may also help explain why Henry handled Warwick so harshly. Yes, the “Princes” alive were a threat to him, but given that he had established himself as the Lancastrian heir, Warwick posed a double-threat: a potential Lancastrian and Yorkist prince. If he was in fact used in this rebellion, and given the support of Lincoln, then it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a king of an unsteady country. Warwick was too risky, and thus he was kept in the Tower and eventually executed.

However this played out, it was a murky, confusing rebellion presented as a simple, almost farcical event by the victors. The question of Margaret of York and her motivation remains another important consideration, but I’m of the opinion that her role in this rebellion is better illuminated by the events of the next Pretender fiasco, so we’ll have to save that for the next post. In the meantime, happy holidays! We’ll reconvene on history in January 🙂

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