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The Battle of Stoke Field: The Story Behind Nottinghamshire's Only Registered Battlefield

1 June 20 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Jay Wilkinson

It was the battle that finally ended the War of the Roses, the bloody civil struggle for control of the throne that plagued England for decades, and has been described as one of the defining moments in the country’s history. With this month marking the 533rd anniversary of the events that took place on Nottinghamshire’s only registered battlefield, we take a look at the story behind The Battle of Stoke Field

When George R.R. Martin first started writing A Game of Thrones, there was one period in English history that he drew upon above all others for inspiration. Over a half a millenia later, it’s almost impossible to envision just how devastating the impact of the War of the Roses was on the country. Lasting over three decades, the series of dynastic civil wars fought between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, both branches of the same royal House of Plantagenet, featured inescapable brutality; during the Battle of Towton alone, 3% of the entire male population of England was killed during a single day. Though they included no fire-breathing dragons or walking undead, the events of the long-running conflict featured a string of weak or nefarious monarchs, chivalrous princes slaughtered in their prime, plenty of cloak-and-dagger scheming and the complete destruction of the male lines of both families. In every sense, the War of the Roses was one of, if not the definitive turning point in the history of England, bringing an end to both the Middle Ages and the Plantagenet reign – which had endured for over three centuries – and establishing a Tudor dynasty that would radically and permanently alter the course of English history.   

The details of the war itself could fill this entire magazine, so complex and eclectic were the array of characters, houses, events and battles. But suffice to say, three decades of sporadic civil war had seen King Henry VI murdered, lengthy periods of instability, the involvement of Scotland, France and Burgundy, the crown of England changing hands six times and twenty major military engagements which had led to most of the key figures who had initiated the conflict murdered, executed or killed in battle. To return to the Game of Thrones analogy, think Season Eight (without the terrible writing): Ned, Robb, Ramsay, Joffrey, Tommen, Stannis, Tywin, Roose and Robert are all dead and gone, but the carnage continues unabated. 

While the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 is often seen as the war’s definitive latter-period engagement, owing to the defeat and death of Richard III, the last king of the House of York (as well as the last English monarch to die in battle), the war rumbled on. The victor at Bosworth, Henry Tudor – now King Henry VII – sits uneasily on the throne. His attempts to gain the acceptance of the York faction through marriage to their heiress, Elizabeth of York, hasn’t had the desired effect, and his clasp of power remains far from secure. 

Next in line on the seemingly endless conveyor belt of Yorkist claimants to the throne was the Queen’s cousin, Edward, Earl of Warwick. The young boy was brought to the attention of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln who, having previously been named as royal heir under Richard III, saw an opportunity for revenge and lent his support to the cause. Except the boy they had wasn’t actually Edward at all, but rather an imposter named Lambert Simnel. Unbeknownst to the would-be rebels, the real Edward, who had displayed signs of a mental disability and was described by chronicler Edward Hall as not being able to “discern a goose from a capon”, had been locked in the Tower of London by Henry. Ten-year-old Lambert was nothing more than the son of a baker or tradesman, and had inexplicably been selected as the figurehead around which to mount one last chance of snatching the English throne for the House of York. 

The stage had been set, and it would be all or nothing for Lincoln and the Yorkists in Nottingham

Ireland had always been a hotbed of Yorkist support, so it was there that Lincoln and his cohorts headed in May 1487, recruiting 4,500 Irish mercenaries and drumming up the support of the Irish nobility and clergy. Less than three weeks after arriving, Lambert Simnel, the imposter boy-King, was crowned King Edward VI in Dublin, before the newly bolstered ranks sailed back to Lancashire. 

After being joined by a number of local gentry, the Yorkist army covered over 200 miles in five days during a series of forced marches. Their ambitions were clear: to catch Henry Tudor off-guard and seize the throne before he had the chance to mount a suitable defence. A skirmish outside Tadcaster resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Yorkists, and Lincoln further outmaneuvered Henry’s army by drawing elements of them northward with a diversion that left the route south open for the bulk of his forces. Nearing Doncaster, they encountered Lancastrian cavalry who, after three days of skirmishing through Sherwood Forest, were forced back toward Nottingham. 

But the cavalry had done enough, providing Henry sufficient time to receive desperately-needed reinforcements. Those three days proved crucial, as Henry’s army now not only outnumbered Lincoln’s, and were better armed, better equipped and under much more experienced leadership. Both sides had done all they could to prepare for what would be the final battle of the War of the Roses. The stage had been set, and it would be all or nothing for Lincoln and the Yorkists in Nottingham. 

East Stoke was a quiet village about half a mile east of the River Trent, and about six miles south-west of Newark. Once the site of a Roman settlement, it had since become a quaint, relatively insignificant town surrounded by rolling arable farmland. But on the evening of 15 June 1487, it was host to Henry VII, King of England, and the next day it would witness one of the bloodiest battles in the country’s history. After hearing news that Lincoln had crossed the Trent, King Henry set his battle lines, under the command of the Earl of Oxford – who had masterminded the victory at Bosworth – in three sections. Before the day’s killing had begun, a series of unusual lights in the sky were interpreted as ill omens by some of the Lancastrian soldiers, leading many to flee in panic. Oxford was able to restore a semblance of order, and soon the army of around 12,000 men was in good array. The battlefield, surrounded on three sides by the winding Trent, was set. 

The Yorkists, assembled in a single concreted block of some 8,000 soldiers, had seized the high ground but found themselves under the devastating assault from volley after volley of Lancastrian arrows. The mercenaries they’d picked up in Ireland were mostly kerns, whose light armour made them highly mobile but extremely vulnerable to missiles. Deciding to surrender their vantage point, they launched forward in attack, hoping to break the Lancastrian line and roll Henry’s army up like a carpet. 

With only the vanguard engaged, the Yorkists found themselves heavily out-numbered, but their core of what Colin Pendrill described as “well-trained foreign mercenaries” fought bravely, concentrating their attacks with discipline and ferocity. Badly shaken but holding, thanks to Oxford’s rallying, the fight was bitterly contested for over three hours. Henry’s mercenaries weren’t the only Europeans on the field, as Lincoln was able to bring 2,000 German and Swiss troops, many equipped with the latest handguns and under the command of Martin Schwartz, into the fray. 

The final death toll is thought to be over 7,000 and to this day the ravine is still known locally as the Bloody Gutter, with the River Trent said to have run red for three days after the battle

But it was the presence of the more traditional archers in the Lancastrian army that made the decisive impact, repeatedly firing volleys of arrows into the Yorkist position, just as they had done at the battle’s opening. Attrition would be the deciding factor, as the relentless shower of missiles finally caused Lincoln’s army to break and flee. Trapped on three sides by the Trent and unable to retreat, the German and Swiss mercenaries fought on valiantly, but were eventually slaughtered along with their commander Schwartz. According to Jean Molinet, by the end of the battle they were “filled with arrows like hedgehogs.”

The surviving Yorkists fled in blind panic towards the Trent and down a ravine, where the day’s most barbaric slaughter took place. Most of the soldiers were butchered mercilessly, including all but two of the Yorkist commanders. Neither of them were Lincoln, who was found amongst the dead at the battle’s end. The country had seen three decades of war, and craved a definitive conclusion; no matter how, the War of the Roses was going to end on Stoke Field. The final death toll is thought to be over 7,000 and to this day the ravine is still known locally as the Bloody Gutter, with the River Trent said to have run red for three days after the battle. 

Victorious, Henry Tudor, now undisputed King Henry VII of England, captured the ten-year-old Lambert Simnel. Realising he was merely a puppet in the attempted coup, he was granted a full pardon and, in acknowledgement of the lack of threat he now posed, given a job in the royal kitchen. The same can’t be said for the real Edward, however, who was beheaded at the Tower of London, the last victim of that elongated, blood-stained struggle for power.  

When the last body had been stripped of its armour and valuables, and the blood had finally washed clear from the killing grounds, England was left pondering the outcome at Stoke Field, something medieval historian Dr. Emma Wells calls, “history’s greatest might-have-been.” Henry VII’s claim to the throne had been tenuous at best, and it’s testament to the decimation of the royal lineage over the previous thirty years that he was ever in a position to become King. But his reign is remembered as successful, restoring faith and strength in the monarchy, reinforcing the judicial system, bolstering the treasury and successfully denying all other claimants to his throne. He left the crown in a much healthier position than he found it, and it’s impossible to imagine how different England would have been had he not established the Tudor dynasty. A change of outcome at Stoke Field would mean his successor, Henry VIII, would never have been king; no Henry VIII means no break from Rome, no Reformation and no Church of England. It’s clear to see that the lessons of betrayal, security and ruthlessness learnt at so expensive a cost to the father were not wasted on the son. 

But Henry VII did win, establishing a royal Tudor house that would change the face of England more than any other before or since. The what-ifs and might-have-beens died along with 7,000 men, Lancastrian hopes and the Plantagenet dynasty on that one sanguinary June day on the blood-soaked fields of Nottinghamshire. 

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