Ireland’s Wars: The Earl Of Kildare And The Simnel Conspiracy

The Wars of the Roses did not come to a decisive end until the 1480’s, despite the apparent victory of the Yorkist side. As previously mentioned, the three sons of Richard, the Duke of York – Edward, George and namesake Richard – would all go on to have a huge effect on its outcome.

Edward ruled as Edward IV until 1483, save a brief period in 1470-71, when the exiled Henry VI was placed back on the throne, thanks largely to George (known better in history as the Duke of Clarence) who switched sides to the Lancaster’s, only to switch back again when it suited him, aiding his brother in winning back his throne at the Battle of Tewkesbury. One of the conspirators against the Yorkists, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, was killed during this final conflict, his title eventually passing to his young grandson Edward, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Though Clarence was resorted to the King’s favour, it didn’t save him in the end, Edward having him killed in 1478 before his own death, on suspicion that his younger brother was scheming again. Edward himself passed in 1483.

He was succeeded by his 12 year-old son, also Edward, but the young man was never crowned. His Uncle, Richard, had him and his younger brother, also Richard, imprisoned in the Tower of London as he set about disowning them of their inheritance, casting doubts on the legitimacy of their fathers marriage to their mother Elizabeth Woodville. This done, and with the line of Clarence attainted due to his treason, the crown passed to the older Richard, who became Richard III, one of the most infamous monarch’s in English history, as well as one of the shortest reigning ones.

Richard probably had his two nephews murdered – they disappeared shortly after he was crowned and were never seen again – and set about ruling. But his reign had barely lasted two years when he was challenged by Henry Tudor, a distant descendent from Edward III and the last of the Lancaster claimants, whom Thomas Royle dubbed “the last and most doubtful of the usurpers”.

The two meet in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485, where Richard was defeated and killed. Henry established a new dynasty in the aftermath, becoming Henry VII.

What does all this have to do with Ireland? Well, apart from the fact that many Irish would have fought (on both sides) during this conflict, it sets the scene for what followed. England was still a hotbed of quarrelling nobles in the 1480s, with a succession of new Kings who struggled to keep the peace in their own island, let alone effect Ireland. The fortunes of the Pale continued to falter during this time, its standing army reckoned in some sources as low as 200 men. The Irish were unable, or unwilling, to take advantage to any significant degree, but if they had, the Pale would probably have been finished.

In response to the state of affairs in Ireland, Richard III had placed most of the power in the hands of one man, Gerald Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, granting him the title of viceroy,  manors, castles and increased stipends if he would keep the peace in Ireland for him. Gerald, probably the most powerful noble in Ireland at the time, continued to hold this position of privilege during the reign of Henry VII. Though Henry recognised that Gerald was a Yorkist supporter and not to be trusted, he lacked the power to actually go over to Ireland and do anything about it. The English monarchy at the time, as I hope I have made clear, was not some kind of ultimate power capable of steamrolling over internal opposition or “oppressing” the Irish. The situation in Ireland, and the capability of the nobles there to effect the political situation in Ireland, probably scared Henry more than anything.

While the Wars of the Roses are traditionally taken to have ended at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there was really one more incident of note to play out, in 1487, which greatly involved the Earl of Kildare.

Richard Simon was an ambitious priest from Oxford at this time, who had among his pupils a young boy named Lambert Simnel (there is some dispute about the boy’s name, but this is what history has decided to call him). Simnel was a low-born peasant, probably the son of a tradesmen, but he, apparently, excelled in his education, becoming notably well spoken and studious.

Simon, a Yorkist, hatched an ambitious plan. He saw in Lambert a resemblance to Richard, the younger son of Edward IV, one of the “Princes in the Tower”. With that in mind, he began teaching and training Lambert to effect a role as this Prince, who according to rumour may have escaped his uncles assassins and captivity. At some point, the plan was changed, with Lambert instead impersonating Edward, the Earl of Warwick, who also had a claim on the crown, who was also subject to rumours of escape from the Tower.

Lambert apparently learned his role to a tee, though his understanding of what was going on is debatable. Such was the power of the facade that it seemed to work, and many people began to believe that Simnel was who Simon claimed he was – or at least were willing to suffer the pretence in order to get Henry VII off the throne.

Those plotting had a problem though: Simnel was unlikely to convince enough English nobles, and they had no military force worth talking about. With that in mind, it was decided to send Lambert to Ireland, still a hotbed of Yorkist support, and more likely to accept Simnel for what he was being presented as.

As stated, Gerald Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, was the main power in Ireland at the time, allied with the other branch of the family ruling in Desmond, whom he had eclipsed and with marriage ties to nearly every major native Irish family, from the Burkes of Connaught to the O’Neills of Ulster. A very powerful figure, Gerald was, despite his support for the Yorkist side, essentially untouchable, free from any kind of prosecution from England. When Henry had invited the Earl to London in order to discuss matters in Ireland, the Earl had simply refused to go, “mistrusting” Henry’s intentions.

Lambert Simnel was presented before the Earl of Kildare in Dublin shortly after his arrival. Whether the Earl believed his claims is up for debate, but it doubtful that he had gotten into the position that he held by being very gullible. More likely he saw through the deception, but figured that Simnel could prove very useful. He backed Simnel’s claim, along with most of the Pale’s inhabitants, still very much in the Yorkist camp. Some did dispute Simnel’s claims – not least because he was only 10-11, while the real Earl of Warwick was 15 – but they were in the minority. Other parts of Ireland also refused to buy into Simnel’s legitimacy, such as the town of Waterford, whose support for Henry is noted in several sources.

With the Earl onside, Simnel had gone from some make-believe pretender to a genuine threat to the crown. The Earl and other Irish nobles set about raising an army from Ireland to serve the “Prince”, one that would eventually be made up mostly of “kerns”, lightly armoured infantry, ones who probably had much experience from the incessant Irish border wars and tribal conflicts. But Simnel’s cause would get another boost from outside Ireland.

John de la Pole was the Earl of Lincoln, and had formerly been designated as the heir of Richard III. Though he had been reconciled with the new regime of the Tudors, he harboured grander designs, and joined the conspiracy to put Simnel on the throne. Fleeing England, he travelled to Burgundy where he met the Dowager Duchess of the region, Margaret, who happened to be the sister of Edward the IV and Richard III. She had a famous hatred of Henry for disinheriting her family of the throne. Convincing her that he had taken part in the “escape” of the Earl of Warwick and that Simnel was worth supporting, he got her to pony up the cash to hire 2’000 Flemish and Swiss mercenary troops to join the cause (though, she probably didn’t buy this story, seeing the whole affair as a way of striking at the Tudors). Led by Martin Schwartz, a notable military leader of the day, they would have been battle-hardened heavy infantry, experienced in warfare throughout the Low Countries and in the service of the Holy Roman Empire. These would have been “landsknecht” troops, trained in the Swiss style, with an emphasis in rigid formation and the use of pikes and “zweihander” (two-handed) swords.  A substantial force secured, Lincoln travelled with Schwartz and his men to Ireland.

This was to be a diverse coalition of troops, and with the Flemish as the core and the Irish as the force multiplier, it probably numbered around 8’000 men. To partake in an invasion of England this might seem like a small number, but most of the battles of the day, including Bosworth Field, were fought with such numbers. It is important to remember that crowns could be won and lost on the outcome of a single engagement. If Lincoln and Simnel could prevail over Henry in the open field of battle, they could then march to London and seize power, even if Henry was still alive. Perception was an important thing: a King had to be strong enough to defeat his enemies and if not, he could rapidly lose much of his support. It had happened over and over again in the War of the Roses.

So, Simnel had become a threat, one that Henry was probably all too aware of at that present moment in time. Ireland was not far away after all and Simnel’s supporters probably wanted as much publicity as they could get, in order to stoke up unrest and attract support from others in England. With Lincoln and the force he had helped muster arriving in Ireland in early May – also a sign of Henry VII’s naval impotence, something his son would go a long way towards rectifying in later years – the conspirators took one further step, with Simnel being crowned King in Dublin’s Christchurch cathedral on May 24th of that year, named Edward VI. Henry was able to deter any support in his heartlands in south England by publically producing the real Earl of Warwick, but this would have little effect on Ireland.

With a few of Richard III’s former supports also in tow, the time was deemed ripe, and Simnel’s army set sail, landing at Piel Island, Lancaster on June 5th.

They marched southwards, covering a rapid distance in a very short amount of time, indicating that the force had some experience of marching at any rate. Lincoln appears to have been the commander-in-chief, with Thomas Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare’s brother, in charge of the Irish. Henry, quickly made aware of the threat, rapidly began to assemble his own troops, ordering subordinate elsewhere in the country to intercept Lincoln and Simnel.

Lincoln appears to have a bit of knowledge of military tactics. On the 10th he defeated a force of 400 Lancastrians at Bramham Moor, before dealing ingeniously with the army of the Earl of Northumberland. Detaching a small part of his own force under a Lord Scrope, he ordered them to launch attacks into York before moving northwards, which drew Northumberland’s force towards them, leaving the main army of Lincoln unmolested and free to continue towards the main prize in the south.

In Nottingham he encountered a force of Lancastrian cavalry under a Lord Scales and there followed three days of skirmishing around Sherwood Forest. In this Lincoln probably erred, perhaps thinking he faced a more substantial force then he did. The delay would prove crucial, as it allowed Henry time to assemble his southern army and march north to face the pretender. If Lincoln had kept going, he may have been able to face Henry closer to London and with the enemy having less men.

On the 16th of June, having crossed the Trent River, the two armies met. Lincoln and his army had the high ground of a hill near East Stoke, with the River Trent curving around it, cutting off any possible retreat. This location may have been chosen with Schwartz’s mercenaries in mind – with little loyalty to count on, they often turned and ran at the first sign of defeat.

Whatever the reason, Lincoln took the initiative and abandoned the high ground in order to attack. Why he did this is debatable. Simnel perhaps would have to have been seen as the attacker, reclaiming his “rightful” throne. Maybe they simply saw an advantage and hoped to exploit it with a quick assault. Maybe, with their backs to a wall of water, they did not want to be further hemmed in. Maybe they were provoked by arrows.

Either way, it was a bad move. Without the need to attack uphill, Henry’s army met Lincoln’s on a more equal footing. The Battle of Stoke Field, as it became known, probably lasted around three hours, following the traditional course of warfare at the time – missile troops attacking first, then the main clash of infantry, a breaking, then a rout.

The Irish troops, lightly armoured and perhaps unused to fighting in set-piece battles of this size, suffered badly against the more heavily armoured knights and men-at-arms of Henry, cut down in droves. The Flemish and Swiss mercenaries likely gave a better account of themselves, but outnumbered – Henry perhaps had 12’000 men present – it was simply a matter of time before things turned against them decisively. After three hours of combat, Lincoln’s army broke. The Irish may have attempted to escape across the Trent, with many drowning, while others fought to the last man, the destiny of mercenaries on the losing side. Among the dead in the slaughter that followed were Lincoln, Thomas Fitzgerald and Schwartz along with nearly all the other Yorkist commanders. In truth, it was likely that Lincoln’s army only fought the vanguard of Henry, under the Earl of Oxford, with Henry’s own force arriving late to the battle.

It was a decisive victory for Henry, not just in a military sense, but in the deaths of the main players who had faced him. Not only had he won his crown, he had now defended it against rival claimants. Simnel was captured alive, but Henry, apparently viewing the peasant boy as beneath his contempt, spared him and actually gave him employment in the royal kitchens. Henry realised that Simnel was just a helpless pawn in the plans of others, and his act of clemency was not unpopular.  Richard Simons was not so lucky. His priestly status saved his life, but he spent the rest of his days in prison.

Others who gained clemency, more out of necessity then mercy, were the Irish nobles who had supported Simnel. The Earl of Kildare had wisely decided not to join Lincoln and Simnel in their invasion, staying safe in the Pale while events were decided. Henry, realising that an attack on Ireland was unfeasible and that the Earl was still too powerful to confront, pardoned him. Stability was key, and Henry could not easily deal with an openly hostile Ireland, which had so often been the bedrock of usurpation attempts. He was openly gracious to the citizens of Waterford, whom he rewarded by giving them license to “seize for the use of their city the ships and merchandise of the rebel citizens of Dublin”. The residents of the Pale blamed the Earl of Kildare for their impropriety: Henry does not appear to have cared.

Stoke Field was the last pitched battle of the War of the Roses, the fight that finally secured Henry’s throne in a military sense. It illustrates the power that the Anglo-Irish nobles could wield, and how easily a King could be unseated if events went the right way. It was a demonstration of the weakness of Irish kerns in set battles, and of the strength of landsknecht mercenaries, whose involvement probably kept the entire affair going as long as it did. In the end, numbers were the critical element as Henry was able to defeat Lincoln.

The entire affair has one bizarre bookend: In 1489 the Earl of Kildare and several other Irish lords did meet with the King in England, and according to one source, the Earl was waited on by none other than Simnel himself, the boy whom he had once acknowledged as King.

If this happened, it was a calculated insult towards Gerald, whose life will form the basis for the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, Politics, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Earl Of Kildare And The Simnel Conspiracy

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Knockdoe, The All-Ireland Battle | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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