Early Tudor Military History, 1485-1499

The Tudor age is thoroughly implanted in popular history with King Henry VIII, his many wives, and the continuation of the golden age of renaissance England at the forefront. From a warfare history viewpoint, the era is dominated by renewed wars with Scotland and France and the founding of the English navy. Little studied however (save for the Battle of Boworth), is the important middle age between the end of the dynastic civil wars, the War of the Roses, 1455-1487, and the beginning of the renaissance age of warfare in England (and by extension in Scotland and Ireland as well). King Henry VII (b.1457-1509) left a lasting legacy in regards to England's military during his relatively short reign, which included subjugating the military power of the lord and nobles; breaking up the armed retinues which were loyal to their lordships and not to the country or the crown. This was a crucial period in the post-medieval history of the country as King Henry VII and his followers decisively ended the countries' long dynastic civil war, defeated three armed rebellions against early Tudor rule, formed the Yeomen of the Guard, and laid the foundation for future English naval supremacy.

Earliest known depiction of the Yeomen of the Guard from 1527 

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 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.

Period depiction of the Battle of Barnet in 1471

It seemed that Yorkist-Lancastrian bloodshed may finally cease but King Edward died unexpectedly in April 1483 and through political maneuvering, which included legally disinheriting and then forcing the disappearances of his two nephews (which is heavily disputed), the Duke of Gloucester became King Richard III. Just two years later however, Richard would be lying dead on the battlefield at Bosworth and a new king would be crowned. The greatest twist to the war between Lancaster and York is that after such a bloody and Machiavellian struggle between the two houses, ultimately, the relatively obscure Tudors of Wales, would win the conflict.

The Welsh Dragon at Bosworth August 1488

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 an artillery contingent at Bosworth which included guns that had been purchased and maintained during King Edward's reign. Artillery had indeed proved decisive in a few battles of the Wars of the Roses, including Barnet and Tewskbury in 1471 during the Readeption. The powerful Stanley family from the northwest brought another 3,000 retainers, separated into two separate forces (battles), but they were of suspect loyalty and did not join Richard’s command.

King Richard III kills Henry Tudor's standard bearer at the Battle of Bosworth by Graham Turner
On 22 August near Ambion Hill south of Market Bosworth, the Lancastrian-Tudor army met the royal Yorkist army of Richard III. The Earl of Oxford commanded his troops well in the battle, braving a withering artillery fire before neutralizing the Duke of Norfolk’s brigade with a wedged attack formation. Norfolk was killed in this exchange, robbing Richard of an experienced and loyal commander. Despite having no prior military experience himself, Henry showed great personal courage and risked his well-being more than once to reform and inspire his soldiers on the field at Bosworth. The "high water" of King Richard's battle against the usurper came when, Richard, upon spotting the lightly defended Welsh dragon standard of the Earl of Richmond-charged with his household knights in an attempt to slay the young pretender. King Richard personally killed the Tudor prince's royal standard bearer with a lance and unhorsed another one of his bodyguards, the goliath Sir John Cheyne (standing 6'8''), narrowly missing Tudor himself before he was unhorsed and forced back to his own lines. Never shaken, Henry rallied his battle lines and held against the numerically superior Yorkists.

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.

Henry Tudor is crowned by Lord Stanley after Bosworth by R. Caton Woodville

*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 1461 near the Welsh border and then swiftly executed despite his ties to the royal family.

Yeoman of the Guard 1485-1497 & The Early Tudor Navy

Created before Henry Tudor's 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 √Čtaples. 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. By the winter of 1488, Henry had at least four state ships at sea protecting the coast in what was referred to as "pro salva custodia maris". [Currin]  The captains of some 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.

Stoke Campaign June 1487 

In Dublin, Ireland, the events which transpired in the spring of 1487 soon constituted a serious threat to the security of the realm and to Henry’s tenuous grasp on the English throne. A Ten year old boy, Lambert Simnel, was crowned King Edward VI in May and confirmed as such by a good number of Irish nobles, members of parliament, and the clergy. This was all despite the fact that the real Edward of Warwick (b.1475-1499), son of the Duke of Clarence, was alive and in Tudor custody at the Tower of London. Armed support came from Sir Thomas FitzGerald of Lackagh, who had served briefly as the Lord Chancellor of Ireland for both Richard III and Henry VII and whose Geraldine familial dynasty effectively ruled a portion of southern Ireland. The military commander of the rebellion was the Earl of Lincoln, John de la Pole, twenty eight years old, Lincoln was roughly the same age as the Earl of Richmond had been in 1485. Lincoln was a dangerous man to the Tudor dynasty, especially true after the birth of Prince Arthur Tudor in 1486. An heir to the powerful Duke of Suffolk with Plantagenet (royal) blood in his veins, Lincoln had been made his uncle Richard's heir before his death at Bosworth. The young rebel's aunt, Margaret the Duchess of Burgundy (b.1446-1503), sister to both kings Edward and Richard, furnished him with a mercenary army greatly bolstering the military power of the Lincoln-Simnel faction. One can only surmise that his Yorkist aunt's boon was actually clandestine support to stake his own claim to the crown, regardless, Lincoln would have pretended to publicly support his little Irish king.

Artist' depiction of Lambert Simnel's coronation in Dublin, May 1487

Landing at Furness, Lancashire, Lincoln’s army captured a token Tudor fortress on Piel Island before advancing inland. An Act of Attainder against the Earl of Lincoln from November of 1487, described the rebel army as follows, “[the Earl of Lincoln] arrived with a great navy in Furness in Lancashire, the iiijth day of June last past, accompanied with a great multitude of strangers, with force and arms, that is to say, swords, spears, morris-pikes, bows, guns, harness, brigandines, hauberks and many other weapons.” The aforementioned strangers consisted of between 3,000-5,000 Irish men-at-arms and kern (light) infantry along with German-Swiss mercenaries led by the professional soldier Martin Schwartz. Armed with eighteen foot pikes, the mercenaries were well paid, drilled, and seasoned soldiers. Most had experience fighting in Burgundy, the Flemish territories, and in Germany during the many continental conflicts of c.1465-1483. At Furness, they were joined by the armed following of Lord Francis Lovell, a Ricardian loyalist and Bosworth veteran who had attempted an ultimately failed and bloodless revolt against King Henry in April-May of 1486.

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.

†This general region of northern England was the site of several major battles during the Wars of the Roses including Wakefield in 1460 and Ferrybridge & Towton in March of 1461. Bramham Moor was also the site of a battle in 1408 where the final Percy (Northumberland) rebellion was put down, the Earl of Northumberland (b.1341-1408) being defeated and killed in battle with the royalist army of Henry IV.

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.

Battle of Stoke Field 16 June 1487

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 a crucial weapon on the battlefield.

Oxford's vanguard at Stoke, miniatures by Percy Miniatures

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 an 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.

 Perkin the Pretender & Cornish Rebellions of 1497 

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.

Battle of Blackheath by Mark Short
Soon after their first failed attempt, the Tudor vanguard led by Lord Daubeney successfully crossed the bridge and engaged the ill-armed Cornish. The retinues of the Earl of Oxford, Duke of Suffolk (father to Lincoln of Stoke Field) and the Earl of Essex, surrounded the Cornish on all sides whilst Daubeney’s vanguard did the butcher’s work. 2,000 rebels were killed in the fighting, 1,500 were taken captive, and their leaders were quickly executed. The Yeomen of the Guard saw certain combat at Blackheath as some were awarded with royal grants and incomes for their service on the field of battle. [Anita Rosamund Hewerdine]

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.

Suggested Further Reading

The Yeomen of the King’s Guard 1485-1547 By: Anita Rosamund Hewerdine (London School of Economics & Political Science, University of London 1996). Cited.

The Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion, and Treason By: Desmond Seward (Constable & Robinson, 2010).

The King’s Army into the Partes of Bretaigne: Henry VII and the Breton Wars, 1489–1491. War in History, 7(4), 379–412. By: J. M. Currin (2000). “ Cited.

Notes on the Perkin Warbeck Insurrection  By: J.E. Cussans (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Vol. 1, University of Cambridge Press) Accessed 1/18/21. Cited.

The Wars of the Roses: A Concise History By: Charles Ross (Thames & Hudson, 1986). Cited.

17 June 1497–Battle of Blackheath By: Claire Ridgeway (Tudor Society.com) Accessed 1/20/21.

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