Post-classical history

THE END OF THE
WARS, 1485–99

41

THE LAST BATTLE – STOKE, 1487

MARGARET BEAUFORT • JOHN MORTON LORD OXFORD

On 30 October 1485 Margaret Beaufort attended the coronation of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey. In his Morning Remembrance, Cardinal Fisher tells us that ‘when the king her son was crowned in all that triumph and glory, she wept marvellously’.1 It was only two years since Margaret had watched King Richard’s crowning and she knew very well that Henry was far from secure. However, he strengthened his position steadily, marrying Elizabeth of York in January 1486 – as soon as Parliament had removed the stigma of bastardy fastened upon her by her uncle.

‘His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face was cheerful, particularly when speaking,’ Polydore Vergil records of Henry Tudor. He was impressive, not at all the Welsh adventurer of popular legend but half Beaufort and a quarter Valois. (The painting in the National Portrait Gallery dates from 1505 when the King’s face had been distorted by years of ill-health.) At the same time he was deeply suspicious, with reason. There were to be armed risings throughout the 1480s and 1490s while plots continued until the end of his reign. Henry never quite managed to lay the ghost of the White Rose.

Spectacular rewards went to his uncle, Jasper Tudor. Born a poverty-stricken Welsh squire, because of his Valois mother Jasper had known a very brief period of prosperity as Earl of Pembroke during the 1450s before entering on a quarter of a century’s hazardous adversity. Fleeing from Mortimer’s Cross, hunted over the Welsh mountains more than once, several times taking refuge overseas and for a time sharing the same Breton prisons as his nephew, his survival verged on the miraculous. He had sailed with Henry to Milford Haven, where his contacts among the local Welshry had proved invaluable, and had ridden with him to Bosworth Field. By now an old man of fifty-four, this once penniless fugitive was transformed into one of the greatest magnates in the whole realm. In October 1485 he was created Duke of Bedford and in 1486 he was appointed Lieutenant of Calais. Later he would be made Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland and Earl Marshal of England. He had never married, and in 1491 a bride was to be found for him in the person of the Duke of Buckingham’s widow, Catherine Woodville. Jasper would die full of years and honour in 1495.

It was probably Jasper (though no doubt with his sister-in-law Margaret’s approval) who was responsible for placing a very fine brass of his long-dead brother, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, over the latter’s tomb in the church of the Greyfriars at Caermarthen. Edmund wears the armour fashionable forty years after his death, while his epitaph proclaims proudly that he had been ‘father and brother of kings’ – neatly emphasizing the dynastic link between Henry VI and Henry VII and the fact that the Lancastrian succession was invested in the Tudors. After being moved with the tomb to St David’s Cathedral at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and then damaged by Roundhead vandals during the seventeenth century, the brass was heavily restored in Victorian times. However, it is said to be a good likeness of the original.

Although Henry VII did not base his claim to the throne on his Beaufort descent, he was nonetheless eager to remind all his subjects that he had royal blood,2 and the statute of 1397 which had legitimized the Beaufort family was re-enacted. Not only was the attainder against ‘My lady the King’s mother’ reversed by Parliament, so that she regained all her former estates, but she was given many new lands and houses in addition. By the ‘great grant’ from Henry of March 1487 she acquired properties worth well over £1,000 a year in the Midlands, in Wales and in the West Country – where she received Corfe Castle and the town of Poole in Dorset. Eventually her annual income would amount to the enormous sum of £3,000.3

Her husband and her servants profited too. Lord Stanley, now ‘the king’s right entirely beloved father’, was made Earl of Derby, Constable of England and chief steward of the Duchy of Lancaster, being given other valuable offices and rich estates as well. The earldom of Derby was almost royal, a title that had been borne by Henry IV, first of the Lancastrian kings, before he took the throne. In symbolic recognition of the new Earl’s crucial role at Bosworth, he was allowed to keep the hangings from King Richard’s tent, which remained on display at the Stanley house of Knowsley until the seventeenth century.

Dr Urswick became principal chaplain to the King and royal almoner, besides being appointed Dean of York and Master of King’s Hall, Cambridge. Later, after declining a bishopric, he was to be Dean of Windsor – the most prestigious of all English deaneries. Reginald Bray was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and, having done King Henry outstanding services as a financier and an administrator, Margaret’s receiver-general would be created a Knight of the Garter.

From the very beginning of his reign Henry VII placed the fullest confidence in his mother. Immediately after Bosworth, before leaving Leicester, he had sent troops to Sheriff Hutton to secure possession of his principal rival for the throne, the ten-year-old Earl of Warwick, Clarence’s son – the last male Plantagenet. He then entrusted the boy to Margaret, who kept him safely in her household for several months until he was moved to the Tower of London, which he was destined never to leave. As Lady Margaret’s biographers comment, ‘in the first year of his reign [she] acted as a jailer on behalf of her son’.4 Henry could not have paid her a greater compliment.

‘He fled the realm, went to Rome, never minding more to meddle with the world till the noble prince King Henry the Seventh gat him home again’ is More’s polite summary of Dr Morton’s recent adventures. He was most welcome in the new England, one of the bishops who officiated at Henry’s coronation. On 6 March 1486 he became Lord Chancellor, Dr Urswick being present at the ceremony when the King delivered the great seal into his hands. Cardinal Bourchier dying the same year, Morton succeeded him at Canterbury. Thomas More says of Archbishop Morton (inUtopia) that King Henry ‘depended much on his counsels and the government seemed chiefly to be supported by him’.

John’s nephew, Robert Morton, restored to his post as Master of the Rolls, was consecrated Bishop of Worcester early in 1487.

The third of the three exiles who had been on pilgrimage to Rome together, Dr Oliver King, returned to his former office as secretary to the monarch, ending his days as Bishop of Bath and Wells.

John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, received back all his estates and was at last recognized as hereditary Great Chamberlain of England, in which capacity he officiated triumphantly at the coronation banquet. In addition he was made Lord High Admiral of England, Constable of the Tower, and a Knight of the Garter – ironically, he was installed in the late Duke of Norfolk’s stall at St George’s Chapel. Despite his long and miserable imprisonment, he was magnanimous towards defeated enemies.

After Bosworth the captured Earl of Surrey (Norfolk’s son) and his wife were placed in Lord Oxford’s custody. Surrey was the former Sir Thomas Howard, one of King Richard’s most brutal partisans, the man who had been in charge of William Hastings’ arrest and murder, and who had dragged Jane Shore off to prison. ‘I have found mine lord of Oxenford singular very good and kind lord to mine lord and me, and steadfast in his promise, whereby he hath won mine lord’s service as long as he liveth and me to be his true beadswoman,’ wrote a relieved Lady Surrey to John Paston, six weeks after the battle. ‘For him I dreaded most and yet, as hitherto, I find him best.’5

He was now one of the three most powerful magnates in England, the others being Jasper Tudor and the Earl of Derby. When the Queen gave birth to a son, Prince Arthur, in 1486, Oxford and Derby were made godfathers. He gave as christening presents a massive silver gilt standing cup and two great silver basins.

Although Lord Oxford was reunited with his countess, seemingly none the worse for her privations under the Yorkists, the couple remained childless. At least there was an heir to the earldom, the son of his brother, George de Vere. When another old Lancastrian comrade from the Battle of Barnet and the siege of St Michael’s Mount, Lord Beaumont – whose lands had also been restored – went mad in 1487, the Oxfords took Beaumont and his wife to live with them at Hedingham. During an age when lunatics were generally regarded as being possessed by the Devil, chained up and left to rot in cellars, the Earl showed himself to be surprisingly compassionate towards madmen. One can see this from a carefully phrased letter which he wrote one midsummer some years later to the Sir John Paston of the day about his brother, William Paston, who, while serving as a household man in the Oxfords’ London house, had been afflicted by what was apparently a form of manic depression. William, according to the earl, was ‘so troubled with sickness and crazed in his mind that I may not keep him about me, wherefore I am right sorry, and at this time send him to you, praying especially that he may be kept surely and tenderly with you, to such time as God fortune him to be better assured of himself . . .’6

Clearly Oxford wanted to think that the sickness was no more than ‘midsummer madness’. One begins to understand why Lady Surrey liked him so much.

Lord Beaumont was lucky to have such friends. He may well have been sent off his head by rumours of yet more war impending. For the Earl of Oxford had another supreme service to perform for Henry VII. He was going to command the King’s vanguard in the ultimate battle of the Wars of the Roses.

In recounting how Lady Margaret had wept at her son’s coronation, Fisher makes it clear that she did so from foreboding rather than joy. Many people in the north and in Wales, who had done very well under Richard, disliked the new regime. So did the English-speaking Irish of the Pale, traditionally loyal to the House of York. In the Low Countries the late King’s sister, Margaret of York – ‘mine old lady of Burgundy’ – was ready to welcome any of his former supporters who were in need of a refuge or who required a base from which to launch an invasion of England.

During April 1486 Sir Humphrey Stafford tried to raise his native Worcestershire against Henry VII while Lord Lovell, once King Richard’s Lord Chamberlain (‘Lovell our Dog’), attempted a rebellion in the North Riding. However, their candidate for the throne, the Earl of Warwick – Clarence’s son – was a prisoner in the hands of Margaret Beaufort, and they failed to win any significant support. Sir Humphrey Stafford was dragged out of sanctuary and beheaded, though Lovell got away.

On 19 May Lady Oxford wrote to her husband’s old ally, John Paston, in his capacity as Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk.

I am credibly informed that Francis, late Lord Lovell is now of late resorted to the Isle of Ely to the intent, by all likelihood, to get him shipping and passage in your coasts, or else to resort again to sanctuary if he may. I therefore heartily desire . . . that ye in all goodly haste endeavour yourself that such watch or other means be used and had in the ports and creeks . . . to the taking of the same late Lord Lovell. And what pleasure ye may do to the King’s Grace in this matter I am sure is not to you unknown.

The Countess had good reason to dislike Yorkists, but despite all her precautions Lovell succeeded in escaping to Burgundy.

Early in the spring of 1487 a priest brought an Oxford organ-builder’s son called Lambert Simnel to Dublin, pretending that the boy was the Earl of Warwick. Lambert was immediately hailed as king by the Irish Chancellor, Sir Thomas FitzGerald of Lackagh, a brother of the Earl of Kildare who was the most powerful man in Ireland. The FitzGeralds quickly contacted the Yorkist dissidents who had taken refuge in Flanders. Their leaders were Lord Lovell and John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, whom Richard III had recognized as his heir presumptive. The Yorkists and the FitzGeralds agreed that they should invade England together as soon as possible. They were warmly encouraged by Margaret of York who, according to Vergil, ‘pursued Henry [VII] with insatiable hatred and with fiery wrath never desisted from every scheme which might harm him’. She gave them money and troops.

On Whit Sunday 1487 (24 May) Lambert, after having been recognized formally as its sovereign by the Irish Parliament, was crowned and anointed as ‘King Edward VI’ by the Archbishop of Dublin in Christchurch Cathedral. No proper crown was available so a diadem was borrowed from a statue of the Virgin. Another important Irish prelate, the Dominican Bishop of Meath, preached the coronation sermon.

Always on the alert, despite conflicting information from his many spies, Henry VII had already begun to suspect that a Yorkist invasion was imminent. His first concern was for the safety of the Queen and his mother. ‘We pray you that, giving your attendance upon our said dearest wife and lady mother, ye come with them to us’, he wrote urgently to the Queen’s chamberlain, the Earl of Ormonde.7 On 13 May the King summoned Lord Oxford to Kenilworth Castle, to discuss how they should prepare for the looming campaign.

By that time Lord Lovell and the Earl of Lincoln had landed at Dublin with a band of Yorkist diehards. They were accompanied by 2,000 Swiss and German mercenaries under the renowned Colonel Martin Schwarz (once an Augsburg cobbler), who had been hired by ‘mine old lady of Burgundy’. Reinforced by the FitzGeralds, they sailed across to Lancashire, landing on the Furness peninsula, not far from Lancaster, on 4 June.

The Yorkist strategy seems to have been to march as far south as possible after crossing the Pennines before giving battle. Although the citizens of York failed to respond to a letter sent to them from Masham by ‘Edward VI’, and beat off an attempt to occupy their city by the two Lord Scropes, the Earl of Lincoln was surprisingly confident. Probably he was counting not only on the excellent quality of his troops but on the intervention of secret allies as at Bosworth once the two armies were engaged. Nothing else can explain his extraordinary optimism. Vergil was convinced that Lincoln (who may have planted Lambert Simnel on the Irish) was planning to seize the throne for himself as soon as Henry VII had been defeated. But Lambert was far too unconvincing a pretender to win much support, and no more than a score of knights and squires joined the Yorkists. Moreover, as a commander Lincoln was scarcely in the same league as the Earl of Oxford.

Christopher Urswick brought King Henry the news that the Yorkist expedition had landed in Lancashire. Although no overall figures are available, it is clear that the King had sufficient support from his magnates to be able to assemble an impressively large army. Vergil names more than sixty gentlemen of substance who served in it, and afterwards an unprecedented number of knights were created. It included 6,000 men provided by the Stanleys alone, the King’s stepfather sending every retainer and well-wisher he could muster under his son, Lord Strange. Among the other peers who rallied to the King was William Hastings’ son Edward, who had been restored to his father’s barony and estates. Archbishop Morton, accompanied by his nephew, the Bishop of Worcester, brought a substantial force of retainers and of tenants from his wide estates. So did the Courtenay Bishop of Winchester.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of Worcester and Winchester were the first prelates to bring troops to a battle during the Wars of the Roses. However, it will be remembered that Dr Morton was no stranger to battlefields and might even be described as a veteran campaigner. He had been present at the second St Albans and Towton, had been besieged in the grim Northumbrian sieges of the 1460s, had been taken prisoner at Tewkesbury, and had been amid the collapse of the Duke of Buckingham’s disastrous rebellion four years before. Although nearly seventy by now, John Morton was leaving nothing to chance – he did not underestimate the danger from the Yorkists. He rode with his troops as far as Loughborough in Leicestershire before handing over command to his nephew, Robert. They were going to fight in the front ranks, in Lord Oxford’s contingent.

As Professor Ross stresses, the battle about to take place could have gone either way.8 Treachery might have lost it for Henry VII just as treachery had lost Bosworth for Richard III. Obviously the King suspected some sort of plot. There can be no other explanation for his ordering Oxford to place the Marquess of Dorset under arrest before he could join the royal army.

Despite being outnumbered, Lord Lincoln, the enemy commander, was only too eager to give battle. At 9 a.m. on 16 June the Yorkists, about 9,000 strong, engaged the royal army which was in three columns drawn up in echelon (one behind the other) outside the village of Stoke, a few miles from Newark. Schwarz’s landsknechts were obviously professionals to their fingertips, while Lincoln’s followers and the Irish gentlemen were well armed. However, the barefooted, saffron-shirted Irish kern who formed the bulk of their force were a different matter, being without any form of armour and equipped merely with axes, long knives and javelins.

The Earl of Oxford commanded the King’s vanguard or front column, which alone engaged the enemy. Clearly Lincoln’s men fought with great courage, but the unarmoured Irish suffered appalling casualties, one report saying that 4,000 of them were killed. Eventually Oxford won the day with a final determined charge. Schwarz’s men fought to the death by the side of their colonel. Among the many other casualties were Lincoln and Sir Thomas FitzGerald. Lord Lovell – King Richard’s old friend – was last seen swimming his horse across the River Trent.

The Yorkist diehards would never again dare to challenge the Tudors in armed confrontation, and they went underground. Yet their cause was far from dead. Nor had Henry’s victory been a foregone conclusion. Northern noblemen had joined the rebellion, such as the two Lord Scropes, while the Bishop of St Asaph, Dr Richard Redmayne, was suspected of involvement. Significantly, when a mistaken rumour that Henry had been defeated reached London, riots broke out in favour of the Earl of Warwick. A City chronicler tells of ‘false Englishmen . . . which untrue persons said that the king was lost and the field was lost’. Yorkists emerged from their sanctuaries to attack royal officials, shouting that Warwick was King. If the Earl had been old enough and of the same calibre as his uncles, he could have escaped from the Tower of London, and there might easily have been another Yorkist restoration.

The climax of this nervous year of 1487 was the coronation of the Queen, Elizabeth of York, on St Catherine’s Day (25 November) in Westminster Abbey. During the ceremony the office of High Steward of England was shared by the men who had become the three most powerful magnates in the kingdom – Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford. On the Friday before, Margaret accompanied Elizabeth in her gilded barge as she was rowed up the Thames from the Palace of Greenwich to the Tower. On the day itself, attended by ‘a goodly sight of ladies and gentlewomen’, she watched from a stand between the pulpit and the high altar as Archbishop Morton placed the crown upon her daughter-in-law’s head. She also attended Elizabeth’s coronation banquet.

Someone who was conspicuously absent from both ceremonies was Elizabeth’s mother, the Queen Dowager Elizabeth Woodville. At first King Henry had treated her very well, restoring property that had been taken from her by King Richard – there was talk of marrying her to the widowed James III of Scotland. But early in 1487 Henry confiscated her widow’s jointure and sent her into retirement with the nuns of Bermondsey, where she died in 1492. It is not known why the King suddenly turned against his mother-in-law. Vergil thought it was because of Henry’s lasting resentment at her having reconciled herself to King Richard, after he had murdered her children, but it is much more likely that she had been suspected of intriguing with Lambert Simnel’s Yorkist supporters, as had her son Dorset. There is some evidence that she was again on good terms with Henry by early 1488. No doubt, like Dorset, Elizabeth Woodville succeeded in proving her innocence, though she never recovered her jointure or emerged from the convent at Bermondsey.

Margaret Beaufort occupied a far more prominent role in public life than any queen mother. When she gave a gift of 20s to the heralds at Greenwich during the Christmas festivities of 1487, they cried in their archaic Norman French, ‘Largesse from the high, puissant and excellent princess, mother of the king our sovereign lord, the countess of Richmond.’9 On the twelfth day of Christmas the courtiers noticed that she was wearing exactly the same clothes as the Queen, her daughter-in-law, even the same coronet. Soon she began to sign herself ‘Margaret R’, which might be read either as ‘Margaret Richmond’ or as ‘Margaret Regina’.10 In many ways she was the first of the Tudor dynasty.

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