JOHN DE LA POLE EARL OF LINCOLN AND ELSTON CHAPEL – A POSSIBLE BURIAL PLACE?

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The Last Stand of Martin Schwartz and his German Mercenaries at the Battle of Stoke Field 16th June 1487.  Unknown artist Cassell’s Century Edition History of England c.1901.

The battle of Stoke Field fought on the  16th June 1487 has been discussed elsewhere extensively so there is no need for me to go into it here.  I would recommend for those who have not already done so, to read Lambert Simnel and the Battle of Stoke by Michael Bennett and Stoke Field The Last Battle of the Wars of the Roses by David Baldwin should they wish to delve more into the story.   I want instead to focus on the aftermath of that awful day with its tragic outcome  –  the final fall of the House of York and the destruction of its last leaders –  but mostly the lost burial place of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln (c.1460-1487) whose parents were John de La Pole,  Duke of Suffolk and Elizabeth Plantagenet, sister to two kings.   At the end of the battle, as per usual, the vast majority of the dead would have been buried in huge pits not far from where they fell.  It is believed because of the elevated levels of parts of the churchyard of St Oswald’s,  East Stoke,  that some of the more fortunate,  if that is the right word, may have been taken there for burial in consecrated ground where they lie today.  Let us hope so.

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St Oswald’s East Stoke.  Because of the elevated areas in the churchyard it’s believed that some of the dead were brought from the battlefield for burial here.  Could Lincoln have been among these..? Photo Viona Fearn @flikr.

Quite often though, the families of the higher status dead would somehow be able to retrieve their dead, take them home and give them honourable burial.  I will return to this point later.   As an example the body of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, slain at  Bosworth in 1485,  was laid to rest at Thetford Priory while the bodies of Richard Neville,  Earl of Warwick aka The Kingmaker and his brother John Neville,  Marquess of Montague were both retrieved after Barnet in 1471 to be entombed with their ancestors at Bisham Abbey.  These names are the ones that spring to mind but there are many others including those returned to England after dying abroad such as Edward, Duke of York who fell at Agincourt and was brought home for burial in the family mausoleum at Fotheringhay.  However we do know, thanks to Virgil,  that the terminally suspicious Henry,  taken aback at the ferocity and resolution of the smaller rebel army, assumed  that there ‘must be yet further members of the conspiracy who at an opportune time and place would join with them’ gave instructions that Lincoln was to be taken alive to enable Henry to  get to the bottom of things.   No doubt he was peeved when his plan went awry,  Lincoln falling in the midst of the battle,  and did this, in turn, lead to him in a fit of pique,  to order the burial of Lincoln in a common burial pit?  In any event it is reported by some historians that the dead Yorkist leader was buried there and then on the battlefield (1) If so what the thoughts of his parents were on an already tragic situation made even worse by the totally unacceptable burial place of their eldest son are unrecorded.   The callousness of the treatment of Lincoln’s body is on a par with that of the dishonourable treatment we know was meted out to the slain Richard III with many wounds to his body dealt after he was dead and long past harm.   But finally Richard was handed over to the friars of Greyfriars in Leicester,  who were then able to give him a decent if hasty burial with the usual funeral rites of the time. With hindsight is it possible that the dead king narrowly missed being buried unceremoniously on Bosworth battlefield because it been necessary to have his remains displayed as proof that he was indeed dead? Because sadly Henry’s callous treatment of his  fallen enemy two years later, if true, leads me to conclude that he was indeed capable of making these quite shocking and at the very least spiteful decisions.  Let’s make no mistake about it by 15th standards the burial of a fallen leader of high status on unconsecrated ground at a time when it was fully expected for all Christian people to be buried on hallowed ground would have been considered heinous and it’s inconceivable that the burial of Lincoln would have taken place on the battlefield without the authority of Henry VII.    These were the days when to conform to the strong Christian beliefs of the times strenuous efforts were made, as much as humanly possible,  to return the dead to their homes for burial by their family and even the poorest of people would have hoped to be buried in their own communities where the prayers of their families and friends could assist them through purgatory (2).  Of course in a battlefield situation with many thousands of men dying in one day it would be difficult to conform to these ideals in the immediate aftermath of battle for the rank and file but certainly in cases of those of high status, being easily recognisable,  it would have been achievable to return them to their homes and families even if this entailed moving them great distances.     Should you want to read more on this subject I recommend Where are the dead of Medieval Battles? A preliminary survey written by Anne Curry and Glenn Foard where the matter is covered in detail.

So we can see how abhorrent this act would have been considered even in those brutal days.  Now here’s a thing – oddly enough the unorthodox,  inappropriate burial place of Lincoln was not recorded in any of the contemporary accounts of the battle, such as the Heralds Account,  which is exactly where you would expect to find it.  For example the city of York’s account of the rebellion written in June 1487 does not single out Lincoln for mention other than he was present with Lovell and  that  ‘ther was a soore batell, in the which therl of Lincolne and many othre aswell Ynglisshmen as Irissh to the nombre of 5000 wer slain and murdered….’  The Heralds Report written 1488/89 recorded  ‘…and there was slain the Earl of Lincoln, John, and diverse other  gentleman….’  The French Chronicler Jean Molinet writing c.1490 wrote  ‘There died the Earl of Lincoln, most noble and renowned in arms,  Sir Martin Schwartz,  a most enterprising knight and of greatest courage. ‘ How about the judgemental Bernard André who penned the Life of Henry VII? He wrote ‘the Earl of Lincoln, moreover, came to an end worthy of his deeds, for he was slain in the field… ‘   You would have thought he, after writing so fulsomely about the Tudor king,  would have delighted in spreading the whereabouts of the ignoble burial place of the fallen Yorkist leader who had had the sheer gall to challenge Henry VII!.   Vergil writing in c.1503-13 merely tells us that Lincoln was slain amongst the other Yorkist leaders.    So no mention anywhere, you will note,  of Lincoln being interred on the battlefield.  Of course the crux of the matter/problem is that wherever it was that Lincoln was buried it was not noted at the time.  But whether this should lead us to conclude he was therefore buried on the battlefield and just left there –  something which has never happened to a high status person before as far as I know – I remain unconvinced.  

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John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln’s parents: John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and Elizabeth Plantagenet.  This is their tomb and effigy in Wingfield Church, Suffolk.

However where there is a dearth of actual facts you can always rely on local folklore to fill you in with the missing minutiae.     And this is indeed what happened with Lincoln for a  local tradition evolved that not only was Lincoln buried on the battlefield but that a willow stake were driven into his body – why? did they fear he would rise vampirelike on the stroke of midnight to forever haunt the poor, hapless locals?   Another version metes out the same fate to Martin Schwartz.    Now call me sceptical if you like but I find this rather hard to swallow although it may have indeed happened for all I know.    However as shown above I can find no primary source for this but a book written in 1828 about Stoke Field  by R P Shilton has repeated this tale.  Shilton described how in an area known as Willow Rundle there were two ancient willow trees  which had grown from the willow stakes that were driven into the mens bodies.  It is unclear whether he himself saw the trees, willows have very long lifespans apparently, or whether he was merely informed that once they had grown there.  However it would hardly be surprising to find willow trees growing in an area known as Willow Rundle would it? (3).    You honestly couldn’t make it up –  oh!  but wait you actually could.  However moving on….  Also to be found at Willow Rundle, which was situated on the southern side of Elston Lane which leads to Elston Village, is an ancient spring (for clarity I would point out that so  garbled are these tales that I’m not sure if the area was known as Willow Rundle or the spring itself?)    Willow Rundle  for some reason,  seems to have been quite a breeding ground of lurid folklore including one about the spring suddenly gushing forth from nowhere after a Yorkist soldier by the name of –  wait for it  – Willie Rundle –  quelle surprise – who dying from his wounds prayed to his patron saint for a drink.  This old chestnut is easily put to bed because the spring had already been there centuries before when it was used to provide water for a nearby  leper house.  To be honest I think we can safely put both those tales out to pasture as well as a couple of others.   However  all is not lost for there is another tradition,  one which actually sounds quite plausible this time,  and that is near to the spot where it is said Lincoln fell stands an ancient chapel known as Elston Chapel and that it is to this place he was taken for burial.     Built in the 12th century it’s quite small and modest,  as chapels tend to be, comprising of only a nave and small chancel but is it possible that Lincoln was taken there for burial?

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The simple and unassuming interior of Elson.  Could Henry VII have allowed the quiet burial of Lincoln to take place here? Photo historicengland.org.

 Could Henry have ordered Lincoln’s burial in this small unassuming chapel thinking upon the lines that no doubt both the burial and grave would soon be forgotten about in such an unpretentious setting and without name or  monument?  Which,  if so,  is actually what transpired.  Interestingly in a place of such simplicity a painting uncovered on the north wall by restoration work depicts a coat of arms.  

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Elston Chapel.  Small and unpretentious  – could Henry VII allowed the quiet burial of John de la Pole here? 

Of course the fly in the ointment in this version is that surely either Lincoln’s parents or his wife, Margaret,  would have had his body retrieved if they had known about his burial in the humble chapel? Unless of course they were never informed.  Margaret  was the daughter of Thomas Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel and Margaret Woodville, the sister of Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, thus both she and her deceased husband were cousins to Henry Tudor’s wife, Elizabeth of York.    Would these familial links have played a part in softening Henry’s hard stance enabling a more suitable burial place for Lincoln than one on the battlefield?   Perhaps the original story about his burial upon the battlefield of Stoke is true – but I would say minus the willow part.  If so it was a shabby, dishonourable and quite shocking act which  reflects badly on Henry Tudor who seemed to be capable of mean hearted acts at times of his greatest triumphs.  He famously predated the beginning of his reign to the day before Bosworth so that those who fought for their rightful king could be labelled as traitors.  Did he also have the body of a person of royal linage, John de la Pole Earl of Lincoln, cousin to his wife,  buried in an unmarked grave on the battlefield at Stoke?  I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here  – that he allowed Lincoln an honourable if simple burial in Elston Chapel.

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Henry VII.  Artist known.  National Portrait Gallery.

  1. Pole, John de la, Earl of Lincoln. Oxford DNB. Rosemary Horrox.
  2.  Where are the dead of Medieval Battles? A Preliminary Survey.  Anne Curry and Glenn Foad.
  3.  ‘The Battle of Stoke or Burham Fight’ R P Shilton. 1828.

If you have enjoyed this post you might also like:

WAS ‘LAMBERT SIMNEL’ A TUDOR HOAX?

SIR HENRY BODRUGAN – A LINK TO RICHARD III, EDWARD V, COLDRIDGE AND THE DUBLIN KING

THE MYSTERIOUS DUBLIN KING AND THE BATTLE OF STOKE

St Andrew’s Church, Wingfield and the Tombs of the de la Poles

WAS HENRY VII A RELUCTANT BRIDEGROOM?

MINSTER LOVELL HALL, HOME TO FRANCIS LOVELL VISCOUNT LOVELL

3 thoughts on “JOHN DE LA POLE EARL OF LINCOLN AND ELSTON CHAPEL – A POSSIBLE BURIAL PLACE?

  1. Perhaps I’m too much of an old romantic (if romantic is inappropriate in this instance) in that I’m inclined to believe the willow story. If only because if a proper Christian burial in a church/chapel had taken place, I can see no reason for secrecy. Yes, it would have been a rather lowly burial for a man of Lincoln’s birthright, but it was still proper and acceptable to the Church, and his family would surely have eventually had the right to move him to their own place of choice. The fact that there’s not a single whisper makes me hesitate to dismiss the willow story.

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