An alternative hypothesis
The York City record specifies that the battle took place ‘on the moor beyond Newark’. The account was written the day after the battle on evidence provided to the Lord Mayor of York and the Council ‘by the mouth of a servant of Master Recorder coming straight from the said field’. This evidence is thus likely to be some of the most accurate where it relates to the practical experience of the battlefield, though it may not be the most accurate in terms of matters such as the numbers killed and captured as such information might be expected to improve substantially in the hours and days immediately after the battle. This correspondent’s journey from the battlefield to York may be expected to have followed major roads, thus from the battlefield north east to Newark to cross the Trent and then following the Great North Road to York. In his perspective, and that of those to whom he was describing the battle, a site at East Stoke can be seen clearly as ‘beyond Newark’, even though the actual site is some 4 miles to the south west of Newark. The reference to Newark as the key place is also understandable in terms of the description being to an audience more than 70 miles from the scene who would be unlikely to know East Stoke, which was a village on an east west route, but who would all be very aware of the location of Newark as that was a substantial town at the crossing of the river Trent on the main route from York to London. The reference in this account to the battle being fought on a ‘moor’, because recorded so soon after the action and on evidence from an eye witness, must be given far greater weight than has otherwise been accorded to it.
Secondly there is Molinet’s Chronicle. Although this was compiled by a Burgundian Chronicler who was neither an eye witness nor even present in England, it was written in circa 1490, thus within about three years of the battle. It is also believed that Molinet had access to those with a good knowledge of the warfare of the Wars of the Roses, with a particular Yorkist slant. This is supported by some of the detail of his accounts, which appear to derive, in part at least, from eye witnesses. Molinet describes the location of the battlefield in terms of the Yorkist rebels’ approach to the field, saying the pretender to the throne, with his army, ‘rode through the forest of Nottingham and, without entering the town, came to Newark where he crossed the river which is very broad, along which he marched through the country around two or three leagues; and, at the end of a meadow, found King Henry’s army, near a village named Stoke, and there was the upset.’ Molinet does not refer to the breaks it the campaign represented by overnight camps, and thus his failure to mention that a night intervened between the crossing of the Trent and the battle is not significant, though it does mean the march from Newark needs to be seen in two stages. The reference to the scale of the river, that the army crossed at Newark and to the fact that the road took them alongside the river for several miles is information that could only have been provided by someone present at the battle or very well aware of the detail of the landscape around Newark as it represents very well the road system in the area, where the Foss Way from Newark as far as East Stoke does indeed follow the river. The gross inaccuracy in the numbers of troops which Molinet specifies should not be taken as casting any doubt on the reliability of the preceding description of the approach to the battlefield. They were probably derived from different original sources, as indeed will have been the detailed information he provides on the battle array of the royal army. Again the topographical evidence in the account can be interpreted in terms of the approach of the original correspondent to the battlefield. The battlefield must lie at least 2 to 3 leagues (circa 6 miles) to the south west of Newark, near to East Stoke, and to have been on the south west side of a ‘meadow’. The latter description of the terrain does provide a possible problem because the York source records the battle taking place on a ‘moor’. However Molinet’s text, as presented by Bennett, has had to be not only transcribed but also translated, first in its 1935-7 publication in French and then translated from French into English. It is essential that the accuracy of the rendering of the word ‘meadow’ is checked with the original source as it is clearly a key word in terms of the interpretation of the battle, but one whose significance may not have been clear to those who transcribed and translated the original text.
The Herald’s account, as Burne pointed out, is a primary source which appears to be an eye witness account from the royal army perspective. Thus its statement that the royal army encountered and engaged the rebels ‘beside a village called Stoke, a large mile out of Newark’ must be treated as very reliable, especially given the apparent accuracy of the local geography of the information of the advance of the royal army over the proceeding days. However it is not clear exactly how close the Herald means when he says ‘beside’ Stoke. It is also important to consider that his eye witness information may represent his observation of the dead on the field, for the recording of those of note killed and captured was a responsibility of the heralds at battles, and so it may be a perspective of the field after the action rather than the events themselves, and indeed he provides no detail at all about the battle itself. It is possible therefore that his ‘beside’ represents the proximity of the final stages of the rout as much as the initial engagement of the vanguard with the rebel army.
Vergil’s account is, like Molinet’s, an historical compilation prepared from a range of informants, written at some time between circa 1503 – 1513. It is therefore slightly later but still almost certainly derived from eye witnesses, as Vergil was an historian working in the court of Henry VII. For other battles his account appears extremely reliable in various aspects. Although in this case he appears to confuse Newark with Nottingham at one point, which has caused considerable problems of interpretation in the past, when this is corrected by reference to the other sources then his account proves clear and valuable. His description of the location of the battlefield is from a royal perspective, in terms of the royal march to the field. The night before the battle the royal army camped ‘near the camp of his enemy, a place they call Stoke…’. The next day the army ‘advanced to the village of Stoke, halted below the earl’s camp and, on the level ground there, offered battle.’ The rebel army is then said to have deployed and ‘moved down to the fray’. From the evidence of the Herald we know that the royal camp was at Radcliffe, some eight miles from Stoke. This places in context Vergil’s description of ‘near’ and may therefore require one to take his reference to the royal army advancing ‘to’ the village of Stoke with care. Again one must consider his audience, which will have viewed the account within a national geographical perspective, knowing the location of Nottingham and Newark but not the other places, and hence ‘near’ is in this case very much a relative description. That the rebel army was indeed deployed on a hill is confirmed by Andre’s Life of Henry VII, which was written in about 1500 and hence very close to the battle and presumably also with access to eye witnesses. Although providing almost no detail of the battle or the topography of the battlefield, Andre does confirm that the rebel army was ‘arrayed on the brow of the hill’ and had already deployed when the royal army approached.
The combined evidence of these sources would indicate that the battle took place near to East Stoke, between it and Radcliffe, at the south western edge of a ‘meadow’, which might actually prove to correspond to the ‘moor’ of the York account, which is likely to be the most accurate description of the land use of the battlefield. The rebel army was deployed on a hill facing the advance of the royal army which deployed on a plain below the rebels who then advanced down the hill to engage.
The topography of the Registered Battlefield does not, on present evidence, correspond well to this description. A convincing south west facing scarp of military significance is not present and various authors struggled to identify this hill. As a result they have provided various differing interpretations as to the orientation and position of the rebel deployment in order to achieve a resolution of this problem. There is no evidence of a meadow immediately to the north east of the area between the field and East Stoke, nor of moorland in the area. It is of course possible that the latter two problems may be resolved by a detailed study of the historic terrain, for at present we have a very poor understanding of the nature of the landscape at East Stoke as it was in 1487. However, given the form of the land in the wider area, the distribution of settlements in the and the major road pattern in relation to them it is possible to suggest an alternative hypothesis as to the battle location. There is a documented area of heath or ‘moor’, known as Flintham Lings, lying in Flintham and a small part in Syerston townships. The south western edge of this heath lies 2.3 miles (3.7 km) from the centre of Stoke village. No other village intervenes and the road system leads directly through Stoke. The only continuous south west facing slope of significance to the south west of Stoke lies at the south western edge of this area of heath, which is known as Trent Hills. The general extent of the heath appears to correspond to a specific variation in the Keuper Marl geological formation which underlies the whole of this higher ground to the south west of Stoke. The heath’s north eastern extent, in the 18th century, is accurately defined, as ‘the lings’ on the pre enclosure map of Syerston. Flintham is a parliamentary enclosure of 1775 and thus the extent of the heath in the 18th century may be accurately definable from the records of enclosure. The nature of the historic land use to the south east of the heath has also still to be established.
A distance of just over 2 miles between this location and the village of Stoke need not prove a problem in the interpretation of the battle. In the case of the action at Naseby for example the royalist retreat was over a similar distance before the royalist army was finally destroyed. The pursuit and destruction of the rebel army, which was an important feature of the battle, could have taken place over such a distance, with the fleeing troops finally being cornering as they attempted to pass along the narrow corridors provided where the two main roads passed through the enclosures of East Stoke village. This is where the mass graves have been reported. In such an execution it might be expected that the final phase of the battle and the location where Henry could indeed raise his standard in victory would be on the high ground overlooking the end of the rout in the ground immediately west of East Stoke village. Hence such an interpretation can be seen to be compatible with the traditions and the slim archaeological information which is presently available.
This does not prove that the initial deployments and key action of the battle was fought on the heath in Flintham township, but it does provide a hypothesis which needs to be tested, alongside the standard site. This would need to include both detailed reconstruction of the historic landscape between Stoke and Flintham and an investigation of the battle archaeology. However it should be noted that on what is, presumably, an acid soil and thus very destructive of metal artefacts, especially of any iron artefacts such as arrowheads, the archaeological record of the battle, other than burials, may be very limited.