The early period of Tudor warfare is obviously rooted in the preceding conflict known as the Wars of the Roses, although it was not named as such in any medieval or renaissance histories. The Wars of the Roses was not a singular conflict but a series of scattered battles, skirmishes, sieges, and coups between many different rival factions and extended families. From May of 1455 to June of 1487, England was divided between armed retainers and soldiers who were employed or who owed allegiance to varying earls, lords, and dukes in support of two principal families' claim to the throne, York, and the royal house of Lancaster led by King Henry VI (b.1421-1471). This is a great oversimplification of the varying factions which emerged during the war. Furthermore, it would be a fruitless exercise to attempt an abbreviated history of the Lancaster-York conflict, but the middle frames of the conflict are important to the early Tudor period of warfare and therefore worth a closer look.
A complex series of events took place in the second half of the Lancastrian-Yorkist conflict, 1464-1471. The Earl of Warwick, once a staunch Yorkist supporter of both the Duke of York and later King Edward, turned coat and joined the Lancastrian (royal) resistance led by Queen Margaret and the Prince of Wales. Adding greater ignominy, the Duke of Clarence, King Edward’s brother, conspired against him as well, marrying into the Warwick family in an attempt to carve out his own power base. Edward's youngest brother, Richard the Duke of Gloucester (b.1452-1485), remained loyal however. What followed was the period known as the Readeption; Henry VI regained his crown from October 1470 until April 1471 but it was the Queen and Earl of Warwick who truly ruled. King Edward soon returned from exile, defeating and killing the Earl of Warwick at the Battle of Barnet. In May 1471, the Yorkists decisively defeated the Lancastrians at Shrewsbury with the Prince of Wales captured and summarily executed. After Henry VI’s death in the same month, the only surviving male Lancastrian with an even distant claim to the throne was the then fourteen year old Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond.
Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, entered into the military study of the Wars of the Roses in the very final frame of the conflict, landing at Mill Bay near the mouth of Milford Haven on 7 August 1485. His landing site was crucial as it was a safe distance away from Richard III’s followers and nearby to Wales where he could draw upon his familial lineage for armed supporters.* The 2,000 soldiers who had landed with the Earl of Richmond were mostly French although he did attract additional local followers from Wales and from the few Lancastrian nobles who were not either dead or in exile. Before Bosworth, the Lancastrian-Tudor army fielded roughly 5,000 soldiers. Under the white boar banner, King Richard rallied an army of 10,000 Yorkists, mostly northerners loyal to himself and to the memory of his brother. The Ricardians utilized a large artillery contingent at Bosworth which included guns that had been purchased and maintained during King Edward's reign. Artillery had proved decisive in several battles of the Wars of the Roses including Barnet and Tewskbury in 1471. The powerful Stanley family from the northwest brought another 3,000 retainers, separated into two separate forces or battles, but they were of suspect loyalty and did not join Richard’s command.
The Stanley family’s inaction and then their sudden attack on Richard’s army as the melee reached its most critical point, ultimately doomed the Yorkist-Plantagenet regime. After many of his loyal retainers were already slain, King Richard was killed in the press of the final melee. Sir Percival Thirlwell held control of the White Boar banner even though both of his legs had been hewn off by a large polearm weapon. Likely wounded before the final stand, King Richard was slain by Welsh halberdiers who hacked him to death, “killed the boar, shaved his head”, as the contemporary Welsh poet Gluto Glyn so famously coined. Studies of his remains by the University of Leicester proved the period chronicles correct, he had suffered no less than eleven separate wounds, some likely post-mortem humiliations, including several serious wounds to the head. Total casualties at Bosworth amounted to only 100 Tudor men-at-arms, no less than 1,000 Yorkists (this number may have been much greater), with the Stanley's casualties unrecorded but probably light. The Tudors had killed a king, ended a royal dynasty, and would now attempt to build a national military along with rebuilding English politics.
*Henry Tudor’s father Edmund the Earl of Richmond was the son of Queen Catherine, Henry V’s widow, making him a step brother of King Henry VI, and Sir Owen Tudor, a prominent Welsh landholder. The Earl of Richmond supported the early Lancastrian war effort in southern Wales before his imprisonment and death in Yorkist captivity in November 1456. Sir Owen was defeated at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in February of 1461 near the Welsh border and then swiftly executed despite his ties to the royal family.
Created before Henry Tudor stunning victory at Bosworth, the original incarnation of the Yeoman of the Guard consisted of knights and soldiers serving the young Earl of Richmond during his French exile. After Bosworth, the Yeomen were molded into a bodyguard, ceremonial troop, and Tudor officer corps who represented the military authority of the king and his household. Dressed richly in soft silks and velvets, they were expected to train with the bow and be ready to array for battle on short notice. King Henry paid them prize money as an incentive to train and drill, many of the Yeomen of the Guard also practiced wrestling for fitness and as a practical form of hand-to-hand combat. While some Yeomen acted as guards, doing the duties that one would expect of a guardsmen, many were knights and nobles who were required to raise armed retinues in service to the king, not unlike the armed retainers of the Wars of the Roses who had caused such mayhem and bloodshed in 1455-1485. In the modern era, the Yeomen of the Guard still hold a place in the British Army as processional bodyguards to the reigning monarch.
One example from Tudor records indicates that Sir Charles Somerset, serving as the captain of the Yeomen Guard, was reimbursed by the royal treasury for supplying bows and arrows to royalist troops under his command during the Tudor campaign to northern France in the autumn of 1492. The only military action to come out of this renewed French campaign was a brief siege of Boulogne in October which was called off after the Treaty of Étaples. Other records show that various Yeomen fielded substantial armed retinues consisting of lances, archers, and men-at-arms. Not merely bodyguards or ceremonial troops in this early period, the Tudor yeomen took up a critical role in state security that needed to be filled after Henry had curbed noble power. Historian Charles Ross in Wars of the Roses: A Concise History, writes of Henry VII’s policies towards the militarized nobility, “[he] set about disciplining and intimidating the [nobles] by a systematic use of suspended sentences of attainder, and by forcing them to enter into a terrifying system of bonds and recognizances, which threatened them with crushing financial penalties if they misbehaved or offended the king.”
A small informal navy developed during the early Tudor period which proved to lay the groundwork for later naval policy. Privately owned ships were contracted to patrol the northern coasts watching for Scottish raiders and for would-be Yorkist seaborne invasions launched across the Irish Sea to the west. The captains of these ships were reimbursed for their service and were essentially early state sanctioned privateers. One such ship, Gabriel of Fowey, sailed with a crew of 170 soldiers and would have been quite the formidable coast guard vessel. Another ship, the Gregory Ismay of Dartmouth, was contracted by the English government in January 1497 to aid in a campaign against Scotland which never materialized.
On 10 June at Bramham Moor, Tadcaster†, Lord Lovell and 2,000 Yorkist rebels attacked and routed a Tudor advance guard commanded by Baron Clifford, who barely escaped capture or death. This engagement was rather heated and may be counted as a separate battle entirely, although little else is known. Just days later, the city of York was threatened by a large armed following led by Baron Scrope of Bolton and his kinsmen Baron Scrope of Masham, both of whom were old Yorkist die-hards from the north. They attacked the city gates at Bootham but were driven off by the sizeable host of the Earl of Northumberland. This was followed by several skirmishes against Lord Scale’s cavalry detachment in and around Sherwood Forest near Doncaster. Tudor forces were defeated but retreated in good order back to Nottingham on 14 June, precipitating the Yorkist (rebel) crossing of the River Trent and encampment near the small village of East Stoke.
Despite some initial victories, both from a military and propaganda standpoint, few lords with significant armed followings or the common people, came to support Lincoln’s uprising. On the march to meet the rebel army of “strangers” was the royal army led by John de Vere, Earl of Oxford (b.1444-1513), the nineteen year old Earl of Shrewsbury, a favorite of King Henry who had been made a captain in the royal army just before Stoke, the Earl of Devon, and Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford. The senior Tudor commander was Oxford, an old soldier who had been involved in some of the critical battles of the Wars of the Roses. His father and brother had been executed by the high constable of England, the Earl of Worcester, in 1462 for treason against King Edward. At the Battle of Barnet, his soldiers fought well but retired from the field before a victory could be attained. During the Readeption, Oxford was made high constable, swiftly trying and executing the Earl of Worcester who had done the same to his father and brother nine years previously. In late 1473, Oxford led a Lancastrian raid which took St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall, but after a four month siege he was wounded and forced to surrender in 1474. Imprisoned in northern France for nearly ten years, he escaped Yorkist custody in August of 1484 and quickly joined the Earl of Richmond in Brittany.
King Henry’s ranks swelled further with the addition of the Earl of Derby’s 6,000 men-at-arms commanded by his son, Lord Strange, following their arrival at Nottingham on 14 June. Lord Strange had been at Bosworth in 1485 as a hostage of King Richard, a vain Yorkist attempt to keep his family off the field. It is likely that the royal army would have numbered as many as 10,000-14,000 soldiers before the Battle of Stoke, though it is always problematic to accurately pinpoint troop numbers during the Wars of the Roses. The rebel army had no more than 8,000-10,000 soldiers, but the contest would have been fairly even as it was Oxford’s vanguard, 8,000-10,000 men-at-arms and archers, who did the bulk of the fighting.
Arrayed atop a slight hill, Lincoln’s army formed into a tight block, led in the front by the German and Swiss mercenaries four deep and supported by the Irish light infantry on their flank. Cavalry were likely involved but none of the major sources place them on the field specifically or hint at their numbers. The Tudor army had the advantage with their heavy cavalry armed with lances and riding armored horses, whilst the rebels likely utilized mounted skirmishers and archers, known as ‘prickers’. Oxford opened the battle with a storm of arrows causing grave casualties and forcing Lincoln’s host to saunter down the hill and charge toward the Tudor lines, Oxford’s star banner quartered in red and yellow, would have been clearly visible across the open field outside of Stoke. Lincoln’s soldiers utilized guns (arquebusier) and crossbows before their charge but were low or entirely lacking in trained archers to great disadvantage. Even in the penultimate tilt of the Wars of the Roses, the English longbow was the decisive weapon in deciding a victor on the battlefield.
Lacking sufficient armor, the Irish, German-Swiss, and the low ranking infantry in Lincoln’s ranks soon sustained high casualties. For more than three hours the melee raged on, as in many battles of this era, combat often halted or was slowed as tired men shrunk to the rear and rested while fresh soldiers were brought to the front. The Duke of Bedford was probably held in the rear, funneling fresh troops to fill any gaps. It is certain that hundreds would have fallen wounded or dead at Stoke in just the first round of arrow, gun, and artillery fire. In fact, the bloodshed at Stoke Field may have conceivably eclipsed Bosworth, but this cannot be confirmed for certain. Fighting bravely, the rebel army stood their ground, hacking and slashing for their lives but began to melt away in the face of superior numbers. Some drowned attempting to cross the Trent though others did make good on their escape. Hundreds of the fleeing rebels were herded into a small ravine known to history as the ‘Red Gutter’, where they were cut down to the last man.Lincoln, Schwartz, and FitzGerald were all slain in the melee, as was Sir Robert Percy of Scotton, a Yorkist loyalist whose father had died at Bosworth fighting for Richard III. They were among the 4,000 rebels who were killed on the field at Stoke. Lord Lovell escaped but his whereabouts thereafter could never be confirmed. Oxford’s army suffered between 2,000-4,000 casualties but no period or modern sources can discern a accurate total number of Tudor casualties. Unlike Bosworth, where Henry was in the thick of the melee and was nearly killed, he watched the Battle of Stoke unfold from a safe distance, his Yeomen of the Guard posted nearby to ensure his safety. It is unclear if any Yeomen participated in the actual battle but it seems improbable. Ruminating on his bible verses, “woe to the land whose king is a youth”, and King Richard’s policy towards his own nephews, the Tudor monarch was unwilling to risk his young prince's life playing “warrior king” on the bloody field at Stoke. King Henry showed remarkable mercy following Stoke, pardoning many of the rebel lords and knights who had not been killed in the battle. Lambert Simnel was apprehended and taken into the king’s household where he worked in the kitchens and later as falconer until his death during the later reign of King Henry VIII.
Further intrigues and rebellions affected Henry’s reign following Stoke, a good deal of which was centered around the pretender King Edward IV, who was actually Perkin Warbeck, a Flemish merchant who bore a striking resemblance to the Duke of Clarence and King Edward. He began to drum up diplomatic and military support in Ireland, Scotland, and France beginning in 1491 by claiming that he was the youngest of the missing Yorkist heirs. One attempted invasion of Kent in July of 1495 failed when his retinue were immediately harried upon landing by the local militia. Kentish locals killed dozens and captured another 150, all of whom were executed shortly after. Warbeck was spared a similar fate because he did not disembark with his men. [J.E. Cussans] Later in the month, Warbeck and a retinue of 400 armed followers attempted to take Waterford in Ireland but were defeated after an eleven day siege in early August. The cities’ defenders sank two of Warbeck's armed vessels which had sailed up the River Suir to the Flemish pretenders' defense, the first recorded use of cannons in medieval Ireland. Read more about Ireland's oldest cannon here.
In the summer of 1497, resistance to increased taxes in Cornwall which had been levied to finance yet another conflict with Scotland and to combat Perkin Warbeck’s outrages (amongst other grievances), soon fomented into a open revolt against the Tudor regime. A disorganized but armed anti-tax mob soon threatened the outskirts of the city of London for a brief spell. Gaining the support of one noble, Baron Audley, and led by a lawyer, Thomas Flamank, and a blacksmith, Michael An Gof, the tax resisters soon warranted a military response when their army grew to a rabble of 15,000 before shrinking dramatically following the muster and mobilization of as many as 25,000 Tudor loyalists. At the Battle of Blackheath or Battle of Deptford Bridge, 17 June 1497, the Tudor army engaged in a heated confrontation with the remaining Cornish rebels still in arms. According to Francis Bacon, 300 Tudor soldiers were killed in the fight, most of those slain were shot down attempting to cross the bridge at Deptford, victims of the superior Cornish longbowmen.
Seeing an opportunity arise in the wake of the bitter defeat of the first Cornish rebellion, Warbeck sailed from Scotland on The Cuckoo, a fitting name that matched his bizarre skill for causing the Tudor regime so many fits without actually accomplishing anything. In September of 1497, Warbeck’s band of rebels sailed for England with tacit Scottish support. Raising around 3000 soldiers, he besieged the walled city of Exeter for two days in an effort to bolster support for his cause but lacking the manpower or siege weapons the attempt floundered and they quickly broke the siege. Warbeck was captured less than a fortnight after his half-cocked rebellion and begged for clemency, which Henry at first granted. Soon desperate however, Warbeck and the genuine Earl of Warwick attempted to escape the Tower and were both executed. With their deaths in November of 1499, any substantial domestic resistance to the Tudor regime all but ended until the reign of Henry VIII.