1486-87: Lambert Simnel

Duration

One month

Location

Ireland; invasion of England through Lancashire

Main aims/causes

Dynastic rebellion. Attempt by Yorkists to place a pretender on the throne

Subsidiary causes

Dissatisfaction of Yorkist faction with their treatment by Henry VII, especially loss of lands and hope of preferment

Leadership

  • First: Richard Symonds, Oxford priest
  • Later: Backing from Irish Earl of Kildare, who has Simnel crowned king in Dublin; Earl of Lincoln

Outcomes

  • Simnel captured – spared, but his status as pretender made clear by being given job in king’s kitchen
  • Symonds escapes execution but is imprisoned for life

Level of threat              

High – despite lack of significant support from commons in England, Yorkists have Irish military aid and are able to raise sufficient funds to hire a mercenary army. Rebellion took place early in Henry’s reign; few actively supported him and the Battle of East Stoke was pretty closely fought

Narrative

In retrospect, it is easy to see the Battle of Bosworth as decisive and marking the end of the Wars of the Roses. This is not how it appeared to contemporaries; there had been several rounds of dynastic upheaval and the throne had repeatedly changed hands. Henry VII, moreover, had a very weak claim to it; his greatest advantage over the Yorkists was that almost all of the claimants on the Yorkist side were dead.

It was against this background that Lambert Simnel emerged in Oxford, for long a town with pronounced Yorkist sympathies. Simnel was the student of an Oxford priest, Richard Symonds, who saw in him some resemblance to the family of Richard III. Simnel was taught good manners and bearing and was claimed to be Edward, Earl of Warwick, Richard III’s nephew and arguably legitimate heir to the throne.

Simnel’s claim was supported by the Earl of Lincoln, who had been the Yorkist heir in Richard’s reign; many historians suspect he planned to claim the throne himself.

With Lincoln’s help, Simnel was taken to Dublin in January 1487, which was [i] mostly Yorkist in sentiment and [ii] well out of the reach of Henry VII. He was acclaimed by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, who had been Lord Deputy – de facto ruler of Ireland – since 1479. Kildare had Simnel crowned in Dublin as Edward VI while Lincoln raised support in Flanders from Margaret of York, the Duchess of Burgundy. He was joined there by Viscount Lovell.

Henry responded by putting the real Edward of Warwick on show, but the Yorkist forces landed in Lancashire.

Simnel’s army consisted of

  • 2,000 German mercenaries paid for by Burgundy
  • About 4,500 ill-disciplined Irish kerns (light infantry) sent by Kildare
  • A much smaller force of Yorkists under the command of half a dozen local gentry which joined after they landed in England

It’s very notable that no major English noble declared for Simnel and that the rebels failed to raise enthusiasm for their cause despite landing in the Yorkist heartland only two years into Henry VII’s reign and touring widely – Simnel marched through England for two weeks. The Earl of Northumberland, the leading Yorkist in the north, refused to join the rebellion and instead led Henry’s forces in the area.

In June 1487 the rebels met Henry in battle at East Stoke in the Midlands.

The battle was close. Henry had 12,000 men to the rebels’ 8,000, but not all were fully committed to his cause. It was only when Lincoln, the Irish leader, Geraldine, and the German mercenary commander were killed that it became clear that the rebels would lose. It is likely that, had Simnel’s forces won, and Henry been killed, many undeclared nobles would have switched their allegiance back to the Yorkists.

Lovell escaped and was never heard from again. Simnel was captured and put into the king’s service in the royal kitchens. Many captured Irish troops were hanged, but the king chose to punish the other Yorkist leaders with fines rather than arrests.

Reasons for failure

  • Simnel was not clearly legitimate and was only 12 years old – a child, not an inspiring leader
  • Simnel depended on foreign support – Germans and Irishmen – and this made it much harder to raise support in England. He seemed to be a puppet for foreign interests
  • Yorkist leadership very weak after Bosworth, eg Duke of Norfolk was killed there
  • Henry’s treatment of the Yorkist nobility after Bosworth was effective. Few were executed or left without hope. He confiscated land but allowed men such as the Earl of Surrey to prove their loyalty and regain their property. This limited the number desperate enough to rebel. Especially key was Northumberland’s decision to stay loyal – he had fought for Richard at Bosworth
  • Exhaustion and poverty – the north had been devastated by war and most were focused on survival for themselves and their families, not another bout of dynastic fighting. Like many of the rebellions in this period, therefore, there was no common enthusiasm for the cause among all classes
  • Bad behaviour of the undisciplined Irish troops

Key stats, quotes & views

  • The difficulty of ruling in Ireland is shown by the fact that Henry had to reinstate Kildare as Lord Deputy despite his support for Simnel – and his outright treason in having him crowned king. No other Irish magnate was powerful enough to hold the country down

If you want to show Simnel was not a threat

  • Simnel’s lack of support in England can be gauged by the fact that he raised no more than 1,500 men there in two weeks, despite landing in the Yorkist heartland

If you want to show Simnel was a threat

  • The Battle of East Stoke was closely fought and lasted for 3 hours – a long time in this period. While Henry had the bigger and more experienced and better equipped army, it was by no means absolutely certain he would win. Had he lost, he could have lost his throne
  • Although the Yorkists had little support from major nobles, the same was true of Henry’s army. His only two big supporters were Oxford and Derby. Northumberland joined Henry’s army but his loyalty was so suspect he and his troops were never ordered into battle
  • “That such a ridiculous scheme almost succeeded shows how fragile was Henry’s grip on the crown.”
    • Roger Turvey
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