- Michael J. Bennett
Simnel, Lambert (b. 1476/7, d. after 1534), impostor and claimant to the English throne, was born probably in Oxford, the son of Thomas Simnel, a carpenter, organ maker, or cobbler. His origins are obscure, even in official accounts; his mother is unknown and he may have been illegitimate. Nothing is known of his upbringing.
Simnel's identity cannot be established with any certainty. Over the winter of 1486–7 a pretender claiming to be Edward, earl of Warwick, son and heir of George, duke of Clarence, the last surviving male of the house of York, was being acknowledged in Dublin. The Tudor regime rapidly set out to unmask the impostor. He was stated to be the son of an organ builder at the University of Oxford and the earliest documentation about him that names him says he was the son of Thomas Simnel, lately of Oxford, a joiner. These accounts do have a certain consistency. A Thomas Simnel worked in Oxford in the late 1470s and held a tenement on the conduit towards St Thomas's Chapel from Osney Abbey in 1479. The organ builder William Wooton was a neighbour, suggesting Thomas Simnel was a carpenter by trade who built organs. He was probably Flemish. His son was described by the historian Polydore Vergil in his account of the plot as 'a comely youth, and well favoured, not without some extraordinary dignity and grace of aspect' (DNB). With his father probably dead by 1496, Lambert Simnel was an ideal candidate to play the impostor.
Simnel was put forward by former Yorkists, disgruntled with the new king, Henry VII. The mystery surrounding the fate of Edward IV's sons provided fertile ground for pretence. There may have been similar uncertainty as to the fate of Warwick. In 1485 Henry transferred him from Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire to the Tower of London, but in 1486 there were reports of his escape. To add to the confusion, stories may have continued to circulate that Clarence had plotted in 1478 to have his son sent for safety to Ireland, and to have his place in the nursery taken by a local child. William or Richard Simonds, a priest, was brought before John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury, at convocation on 17 February 1487 and confessed to having organized the imposture late the previous year and then taken Simnel to Ireland. On 2 February the king's council had decided to parade the real Warwick through the city from the Tower to St Paul's Cathedral. If Henry hoped that he would settle minds by presenting Warwick in this way, he was to be disappointed. John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln, another nephew of Edward IV and possible claimant to the throne, supported Simnel, declaring him to be the real Warwick. Simnel's plot was now escalating as other people offered support because it suited their own agenda.
Almost all that is known about Simnel derives from sources close to the Tudor regime. It had some incentive to appear to know more than it really did about the plot, and even to resort to disinformation. With its comical and exotic sound, Lambert Simnel's name appears custom-made to provoke derision and the herald who witnessed his capture said that his 'name was indeed John'. There is some confusion about whether Simnel affected to be Warwick or Richard, duke of York, the younger of Edward IV's sons. Bernard André, Henry's panegyrist, who said that Simnel claimed to be York, was certainly muddled. Perhaps, as Vergil states, the conspiracy shifted its focus early on from York to Warwick. In Vergil's account, however, the priestly mentor is named Richard Simonds, not William Simonds. Vergil's insistence that the plot was hatched by a single priest likewise sits uneasily with his statement that the king regretted Lincoln's death in battle because it prevented his plumbing the depths of the conspiracy. None the less, the official line on Simnel has a certain economy and is not wholly lacking in corroboration.
The plot was set in train in 1486, if not earlier. With a floating population of clerks and scholars, Oxford was a natural location for a conspiracy based on impersonation. While it may have originated in the mind of a single priest, who is said to have refined Simnel's manners at Oxford, it is perhaps no coincidence that two of the leaders of the subsequent revolt had their principal seats near the town: Lincoln at Ewelme and Francis Lovell, Viscount Lovell at Minster Lovell. Then there was Robert Stillington, bishop of Bath, who had retired to his old college at Oxford after the battle of Bosworth, whom Henry had good reason to suspect of involvement in a plot on behalf of Clarence's son. The king summoned him in February 1487 to answer charges regarding certain conspiracies.
During autumn 1486 there were reports of a Yorkist pretender overseas, though Simnel need not have been the only horse in the race. By the end of 1486 he was established in Ireland, with the backing first of Thomas Fitzgerald, chancellor of Ireland, and later of his brother Gerald Fitzgerald, eighth earl of Kildare, the king's deputy, and Walter Fitzsimons, the archbishop of Dublin. According to André, Henry sent a herald to question him on his background, and indeed in March a payment was made to Falcon pursuivant for a mission to Ireland in the king's service. Simnel must have had some former courtiers in his entourage. Lovell, who had been at large since Bosworth, may already have been active in the conspiracy. Simonds confessed that after he took the boy to Ireland he had been with Lovell in the Furness Fells in north Lancashire, to reconnoitre a suitable landing place. Early in 1487, too, Margaret of York, dowager duchess of Burgundy and Clarence's sister, began to lend support to the enterprise, providing a base for defectors and financial assistance. Shortly after the February council, Lincoln slipped out of England and joined his aunt at Mechelen in the province of Antwerp. By the end of April, Lincoln, Lovell, and other Yorkist exiles, and a company of German mercenaries under the Swiss captain Martin Schwartz, sailed to Ireland. With the arrival in Dublin of Lincoln, the stage was set for a most remarkable piece of theatre, the coronation of the young boy in Holy Trinity on 24 May. The fact of the coronation, and the reference to the king as Edward VI, attests that the focus of the impersonation was now Warwick. A parliament was held in Dublin in the new king's name, and coins struck. Proclamations were issued. Henry was later to make fun of the gullibility of the Irish, claiming that they would crown apes at last. The men of the city of Waterford, which remained loyal during the revolt, likewise mocked the Dubliners for taking an organ maker's son as their king.
The invasion of England was a serious affair. Simnel, Lincoln, and a mixed force of Yorkist diehards, 1500 German mercenaries, and about 4000 poorly armed Irish kerne (light infantry), landed in Furness on 4 June. From its secure beachhead the army moved rapidly eastwards, crossing the Pennines into Wensleydale, where it found recruits among the local gentry. On 8 June a letter in the name of ‘Edward VI’ was dispatched from Masham to York, advertising his cause and seeking 'relief and ease of lodgings and victuals' (York City archives, House Book 6, fol. 97). Two local magnates—John Scrope, fifth Baron Scrope of Bolton, and Thomas Scrope, sixth Baron Scrope of Masham—led a company of horsemen to York and proclaimed the new king at Bootham bar; but the city held firm for Henry. Meanwhile the main rebel host had pressed south, desperately hoping to skittle the Tudor regime by the speed of their advance.
Henry was well-prepared, having positioned himself strategically to raise support, and advanced purposefully northwards from Leicester. There were some moments of unease, and not all the forces summoned arrived on time. Rumours of a rebel victory prompted some Londoners to take to the streets on Simnel's behalf. None the less, by the time the king left Nottingham on 15 June he had at his command twice as many men as his opponents. On the morning of 16 June the rebels crossed the Trent upstream from Newark and positioned themselves on the hillside overlooking the road from Nottingham. The battle of Stoke was a sharp and brutal encounter. Lincoln, who was regarded as the real leader of the rebellion, was slain, but Lovell escaped and fled to Scotland. A herald, who was at the battle and wrote an early account of it, records that 'the lad' whom the 'rebels called King Edward' was captured by Robert Bellingham (BL, Cotton MS Julius B XII, fol. 29r).
According to Vergil, Henry spared Simnel, and put him to service, first in the scullery, and later as a falconer. The Book of Howth, a later compilation drawing on family tradition, repeats this story, adding the detail that Henry had his new scullion formally presented to a group of Irish lords to underline the folly of their actions in 1487. Vergil reports that Simnel was still alive at the time of writing, 1534. For a royal servant, Lambert remains oddly elusive. The only known documentation of his later life is the issue of robes to him at the funeral of Sir Thomas Lovell, courtier and counsellor of Henry VII, in 1525. Given the rarity of the surname in England, Richard Simnel, canon of St Osith's in Essex at the time of the dissolution in 1539, may have been his son.
- M. Bennett, Lambert Simnel and the battle of Stoke, pbk edn (1993)
- The Anglica historia of Polydore Vergil, ad 1485–1537, ed. and trans. D. Hay, CS, 3rd ser., 74 (1950)
- BL, Cotton MS Julius B XII, fols. 27v–29v
- M. T. Hayden, ‘Lambert Simnel in Ireland’, Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review, 4 (1915), 622–38
- G. Smith, ‘Lambert Simnel and the king from Dublin’, The Ricardian, 10 (1994–6), 498–536
- RotP, 6.397–8
- D. Wilkins, ed., Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae (1737), 3.618
- Bodl. Oxf., MS Wood F. 10, fol. 197r
- BL, Add. MS 12462, fol. 10r
- W. Campbell, ed., Materials for a history of the reign of Henry VII, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 60 (1873–7)
- York City archives, house book 6, fol. 97