The Brandon men, father Sir William Brandon and his three sons, William, Robert and Thomas, had been loyal servants to King Edward IV. The king died on 9th April 1483 and his successor was his twelve-year-old son, Edward. However, the new king’s Uncle, Richard of Gloucester had the boy and his younger brother, Richard of York, declared illegitimate due to a precontract his brother had with Lady Eleanor Butler. As the late king’s only legitimate heir, Richard was asked by Parliament to take the throne and he was crowned King on 26th June 1483.
With a new King on the throne, the loyalties of the Brandon men lasted less than a year.
During the summer of 1483 a rebellion was planned against Richard III. Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham had been convinced by Dr John Morton, Bishop of Ely, to switch his allegiance from Richard III to Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian claimant in exile. It should be noted that Dr Morton was an associate of Sir William Brandon and it is highly probable, with the following events, that Morton and Brandon spoke about Brandon’s participation and support in the rebellion. The Brandon men decided that the oldest son William, and his youngest brother Thomas, would join the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion.
The rebellion was set to begin on the 18th of October however rebels in Kent rose early and began to march to London. In response Richard III sent John Howard, Duke of Norfolk to crush the rebels. It was planned that Buckingham and his men would meet up with supporters in the West. The weather was horrid and continual rain caused the rivers Severn and Wye to break their banks, flooding the surrounding lands making it near impossible for Buckingham to progress. With his soldiers beginning to retreat Buckingham knew the cause was lost and he fled. He was betrayed and quickly arrested, beheaded in the market place at Salisbury on the 2nd of November.
At the end of 1483 or early 1484 William and Thomas Brandon left England and headed to Brittany to join Henry Tudor. The actions of the Brandon sons clearly showed that they believed themselves to be in danger. However, on the 28thMarch 1484, a general pardon was granted to William Brandon II.
It is unknown if the pardon was issued before or after William Brandon left England to join Henry Tudor. If it was before and William knew of it, it may be that he did not trust Richard III. Or perhaps it was simply too late and Brandons had no knowledge of the pardon. Either way William Brandon II and his younger brother Thomas had thrown their lot in with Henry Tudor.
Less than a month later, on the 11th April William Brandon II was being referred to as a rebel in government documents. Three months later on the 7th July an act of Attainder was passed on William Brandon II. The act stripped Brandon of all his land, manors, property and wealth, which reverted to the Crown. In addition to this, the act charged Brandon with high treason. If caught his sentence would be death.
While this was happening William’s father, Sir William Brandon fled into sanctuary at Gloucester. Unfortunately, it is unknown what Robert Brandon, the middle son, was doing during this time. Perhaps he was simply laying low, trying to keep out of Richard III’s gaze.
On the 1st of August, after fourteen years of exile, Henry Tudor set sail from France to lay claim to the English throne. He set sail from the port of Harfleur accompanied by approximately 2,000 soldiers, one of those being William Brandon II. It is unknown if Thomas Brandon accompanied Henry, there are no records of him over the next few months. If he did not travel with his brother, it may be that he remained in France with William’s wife and newborn son, the future Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
The fleet landed on the 7th of August at Mill Bay six miles west of Milford Haven located along the Pembrokeshire coastline. Over the next two weeks Henry Tudor and his men marched across England gathering support and soldiers as they went. On the 21st August Henry chose to knight several men who had shown great loyalty to him throughout his time in exile, one of these men was William Brandon II.
The Battle of Bosworth Field took place on the 22nd of August 1485. It is estimated that Henry had an army of between 5 – 8,000 soldiers and Richard III had 12 – 20,000 men. Thomas and William Stanley had a combined force of approximately 6,000 men but they had not yet committed to either side. Sir William Brandon had been chosen to be Henry’s standard-bearer.
The battle was fierce and as the battle continued Richard III, despite being told to flee, saw an opportunity to charge at Henry Tudor. As he and his men surged forward, his aim to bring down Henry, his lance pierced Sir William Brandon II and broke in half. History records that William Brandon ‘hevyd on high’ [the Tudor standard] ‘and vamisyd it, tyll with deathe’s dent he was tryken downe.’
Sir William Brandon II had given up everything to join Henry Tudor’s cause. Richard III had passed an Act of Attainder upon him, his land, his property and wealth forfeited and his life worthless. He had bid goodbye to his wife and baby son, sailed to England and ultimately given his life fighting for Henry Tudor’s cause.
Richard III and his men continued fighting and it was at this point that William Stanley and his men charged down in support of Henry Tudor and the rival armies clashed. At some point, Richard III was killed.
After Henry was declared victorious, he ordered that all those who had died to be buried, many of those being at the nearby church of St James the Greater, Dadlington. Sir William Brandon II was the only member of nobility on Henry Tudor’s side killed at Bosworth. Unfortunately, the exact location of Brandon’s grave remains unknown.
While the fortunes of the Brandon men had suffered under the reign of Richard III, with William Brandon II losing his life, when Henry VII claimed the throne fortune’s wheel turned upwards for the surviving Brandon men.
Henry VII reappointed Sir William Brandon I to the position of Marshall of the King’s Bench, of which he had been dismissed by Richard III. In addition to this he knighted Robert Brandon in 1487 and Thomas Brandon in 1497. He also trusted all three surviving Brandon men with overseeing various judicial matters across the country.
In 1499 Thomas Brandon was appointed as Master of the Horse, a position he was reappointed to under the rule of Henry VIII. In January 1503 Sir Thomas was part of a select group of ambassadors sent to meet with Maximillian I, Holy Roman Emperor in order to discuss the Emperor becoming a member of the elite Order of the Garter. He was also tasked with trying to persuade the Holy Roman Emperor not to support the staunch Yorkist, Edmund de la Pole, 3rdDuke of Suffolk.
In addition to all of this, in April 1507 Sir Thomas Brandon was elected into the Order of the Garter and also appointed as Marshal of the Court of Common Pleas.
The fortunes of the Brandon men suffered greatly under the rule of Richard III. For whatever reason the family became dissatisfied with Richard III. Perhaps they believed he did not deserve to be King, thinking instead the throne should have passed to Edward IV’s son. Or maybe they were simply unhappy with how Richard III sought to rule the country. For whatever reason the Brandon men threw their lot in with Henry Tudor. They had lost their freedom, their land and property and William Brandon II lost his life, but in 1485 their gamble paid off when Henry VII proved victorious at Bosworth. The first Tudor king proved to be a loyal King and lifted the Brandon men back to prominence.
Sarah Bryson is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours. She currently works with children with disabilities. She is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in the Brandon family who lived in England during the 14th and 15th centuries. She has previously written a book on the life of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and wife of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. She runs a website and facebook page dedicated to Tudor history. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing and Tudor costume enactment.
Brady, Maziere, The episcopal succession in England, Scotland and Ireland, A.D. 1400 to 1875: with appointments to monasteries and extracts from consistorial acts taken from mss. in public and private libraries in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Ravenna and Paris (Rome: Tipografia della Pace, 1876).
Bradley, John, John Morton: Adversary to Richard III, Power Behind the Tudors (Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2019).
Burke, John, A genealogical and heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, enjoying territorial possessions or high official rank, but uninvested with heritable honours, Volume 1, (London: R Bently, 1834).
Calendar of the patent rolls preserved in the Public Record Office, 1476–1485 Edward IV Edward V Richard III. Great Britain.
Calendar of the patent rolls preserved in the Public Record Office, 1485–1494 Henry VII v. 1. Great Britain
Calendar of the patent rolls preserved in the Public Record Office, 1494–1509 Henry VII v. 2. Great Britain.
Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1871).
Campbell, William, Materials for a history of the reign of Henry VII: from original documents preserved in the Public Record Office (London: Longman & Co, 1873).
Clowes, William, Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records, Volume 9 (London: Clowes and Sons, 1848).
Ellis, Sir Henry, Three books of Polydore Vergil’s English History: Comprising the reigns of Henry VI., Edward IV., and Richard III (London: Camden Society, 1884).
Gairdner, James, History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third (Cambridge: University Press, 1898).
Gairdner, James, Letters and Papers Illustrative of the Reigns of Richard III and Henry VII (London: London, 1861).
Harris Nicolas, Sir Nicholas, History of the Orders of Knighthood of the British Empire; of the Order of the Guelphs of Hanover; and of the Medals, Clasps, and Crosses, Conferred for Naval and Military Services, Volume 2 (London: John Hunter, 1842).
Hutton, William, The Battle of Bosworth Field, Between Richard the Third and Henry Earl of Richmond, August 22, 1485 (Fleet Street: Nichols, Son, and Bentley, 1813).
Meyer, G.J., The Tudors The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty (New York: Delacorte Press, 2010).
Royle, Trevor, The Wars of the Roses, England’s First Civil War (United Kingdom: Abacus, 2009).
Skidmore, Chris, The Rise of the Tudors The Family That Changed English History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013).
Imagine there was a delicate, fragile, but beautifully preserved medieval jewel. It’s yours to enjoy whenever you want and to pass on to your children. Now suppose someone comes along and says they want a piece. They’ll snap it off the side and give the rest back, then you can go on looking at it, but it will always have a piece missing; a jagged edge and a noticeable chunk gone forever. And you’ve got to explain the damage to your children when you pass it on.
That is precisely what is happening at the site of the 1485 Battle of Bosworth, an event that altered the course of English and British history. The autumn of 2018 was a rollercoaster shock to the system. Within days of the Battle of Bosworth Festival Weekend, the news broke that Japanese technology firm Horiba MIRA had submitted a planning application to build a driverless car test track that would encroach onto the registered battlefield site. It seemed impossible that it would be approved, but we watched on, campaigned and screamed in vain as it slid through Hinckley and Bosworth’s planning committee with only a minimal bump; the opposition of a few councillors who were quickly removed from the committee. You can read a bit more about the meeting and the controversy here and here.
Anyway, despite the opposition of the Battlefields Trust, the Richard III Society and a petition that gathered over 15,000 supporters, it was given the go ahead. The formal, written permission was issued on the night of the meeting, which not only prevented an appeal but demonstrated that the decision had been made before the committee even sat down. Presented with a frustratingly smug fait accompli, concerned parties and individuals were left horrified at the impending destruction of the battlefield and the frightening precedent such a move sets for other heritage sites across the country.
Much was made of the minimal area to be affected, but it is the spot on the battlefield that current interpretations give as the approach route and muster point for Henry Tudor’s army. It is in the area where the largest cluster of medieval cannon balls ever found was discovered, and will be built over at least one of the find spots. So, although in percentage terms it represents a small amount of the registered battlefield, it is in the very place at which current thinking places most of the fighting. It might be small, but it is critical.
At the recent local elections, control of Hinckley and Bosworth Council changed to the Liberal Democrats, and it was their councillors who had opposed the approval of the plans. This offers a glimmer of hope for a more sympathetic ear, but it still seemed like a done deal that could not be unravelled.
But it isn’t.
The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 permits the revocation of planning permission after it has been granted and up until such time as the development is entirely completed. Section 97(1) states that ‘If it appears to the local planning authority that it is expedient to revoke or modify any permission to develop land granted on an application made under this Part, the authority may by order revoke or modify the permission to such extent as they consider expedient.’ Section 97(3a) explains that the power may be exercised ‘where the permission relates to the carrying out of building or other operations, at any time before those operations have been completed’. You can read the Act here and a parliamentary briefing on the revocation of planning permission here.
Bosworth Battlefield can still be saved, for this generation and all those that follow. There is a petition on the government’s website asking that this statutory power be used to revoke the planning permission granted at Bosworth. Unfortunately, it can only be signed by UK residents, because this is a matter of international importance that has caused outrage around the globe. If you are eligible, I ask you to sign the petition and help try to preserve this precious medieval jewel. Ask your friends and family to add their weight to the request. At 10,000 signatures, the government is required to respond. At the very least, they will then have to explain why they will not save this precious landscape. At 100,000 signatures, the petition will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons. This might represent our last chance to make it clear to the government and local planning committees everywhere that the destruction of our heritage is too high a price to pay.
Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, and mother of King Henry Vll seems to have earned a poor reputation over time. Often thought of as the cruel and conniving “Lady Margaret The King’s Mother”, she seems the epitome of the rotten mother in law. And she certainly may have been so to her son’s wife, Elizabeth of York. But what was it that made her this way? Her life as a child and a young woman were far from a fairy tale so perhaps understanding what she was forced to endure can provide us with an explanation of why she was so bitter. And perhaps we can form a different opinion of Margaret and look at her as a lady of great strength and perseverance and as a woman who believed in her cause and would pursue that cause with everything she had.
Margaret was born in May of either 1441 or 1443 in Bedfordshire England to John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso. At the time of her birth, her father had gone to France for a military expedition for King Henry Vl. However, after his return from France, he was banished from court on charges of treason. He died shortly afterwards but it is still unclear if he died of an illness or apparent suicide. Margaret would inherit all of her father’s fortunes as she was his only heir.
However, King Henry Vl would go against John Beaufort’s wishes and grant wardship of Margaret’s lands to William de la Pole, First Duke of Suffolk. De la Pole was a military commander and favorite of The King. While Margaret would remain with her mother, an attempt to marry her to de la Pole’s son was made in early 1444. She was no older than three years. Papal dispensation was granted in 1450 but the marriage was never recognized. Henry VI then granted Margaret’s lands to his own half brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor. He also decided Margaret would marry Edmund, who was eleven years older than her.
In November of 1455, the wedding took place and Margaret would become the twelve-year-old bride to the twenty-four-year-old 1st Earl of Richmond. In the 1400s, twelve was the age of consent however it was unusual for the marriage to be consummated before the age of fourteen. Consummation before age fourteen was considered a risk to the health of such a young woman. Margaret was said to be rather small with a petite frame. However, Edmund Tudor felt otherwise and chose to consummate his marriage immediately. One would have to imagine this must have been a terrifying ordeal to such a young girl, but throughout her life, Margaret consistently defended Edmund as her first husband. So perhaps he was kind and treated her well. And perhaps Margaret accepted this as her destiny, to be married off at such a young age. This was also a time of great political unrest as The War of the Roses had broken out and being a Lancastrian, there is a strong suggestion that Edmund Tudor was only interested in an heir. Whatever the situation may be, Margaret was forced to become a woman at a very young age and was able to find the strength within herself to rise up to the challenge.
Margaret’s husband was unfortunately taken in by Yorkists and held prisoner where he would die of the plague in early November of 1456. His thirteen-year-old widow was seven months pregnant and alone. Lady Margaret was taken in by her brother in law, Jasper Tudor where she would give birth to the future King of England on January 28, 1457. However, Margaret’s labor was incredibly difficult, probably due to her small stature. The midwives were concerned that neither Margaret, nor her son Henry, would survive the birth. This must have terrified the young mother, as she would never give birth again.
Mother and son remained at Pembroke Castle until, at the age of two, Henry Tudor went to live with the Yorkist Herbert family in Wales. At age fourteen, he was forced into exile in France. Edward IV, the Yorkist King was on the throne but Margaret’s son Henry Tudor had a legitimate claim as well. Margaret Beaufort’s royal bloodline connected her to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster as well as the great King Edward III. John Beaufort, Henry’s maternal grandfather might have been next in line for the throne after John of Gaunt’s children from his first two marriages. While some may argue that Henry Tudor had no claim, the royal bloodline was indeed there.
Margaret would marry again just a year after her son’s birth. Sir Henry Stafford, second son of the 1st Duke of Buckingham,was Margaret’s husband for more than ten years. While it is believed that they enjoyed a rather harmonious marriage, Sir Henry was killed by injuries received in battle in 1471.
In June of 1472, Margaret would wed yet again, to Thomas Stanley, Lord High Constable and this marriage would allow her to return to the court of Edward IV and his Queen, Elizabeth Woodville. Edward IV was a Yorkist King with a Lancastrian wife and this would prove helpful in Margaret Beaufort’s attempts to put her son on the throne. Edward IV had married Elizabeth Woodville for love and when he died in 1483 from illness, his son Edward was in line to take the throne. But King Edward’s brother Richard took the throne from his nephew. Richard fell into dispute with the Woodville family and feared that the King’s widow, Elizabeth, would turn her son against him.
Henry Tudor was now in his mid-twenties and the only Lancastrian with royal blood. Many saw Henry as the only one fit to rule. His mother Margaret was one of them. And she had the help of Elizabeth Woodville. When Richard seized power, Elizabeth found sanctuary in Westminster. It was rumoured that the King had locked both of his nephews in the Tower of London in fear that they would steal his crown. Believing both her sons to have died in the tower, Elizabeth joined forces with Margaret Beaufort in a plot to put Henry Tudor in what they believed was his rightful place. These two strong-minded women devised a plan to marry Henry to Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, Elizabeth of York. This would unite the houses of York and Lancaster and give Henry Tudor even more claim to the throne as the people of England would have a Yorkist Queen and a Lancastrian King.
Margaret Beaufort would become the driving force behind bringing Henry Tudor to his crown. She had an affectionate relationship with her son and would send him letters as well as funds to build his army. With the support of the Woodville family, Henry engaged a small French and Scottish force. Henry also had the support of the Welsh people and was able to gather an army of 5000 troops. But some of the most important support he would gain would be that of his stepfather, Thomas Stanley. Stanley had been an early supporter of Richard III but would ultimately end up abandoning him and joining forces with Henry Tudor.
On August 22nd 1485, in the early hours of the morning, Henry Tudor and his army would march into battle and defeat Richard III in what would become known as the Battle of Bosworth. It was Henry’s stepfather himself who placed King Richard’s crown on Henry’s head after he fell from his horse and was killed.
We can imagine the joy Margaret Beaufort must have felt in knowing that her son was finally crowned King of England. She firmly believed that her son should be on the throne and had plotted successfully to put him there.
Margaret Beaufort’s childhood had been one of extraordinary difficulty. She lost her father at a very young age and forced to marry and be widowed several times. It can be understood that Margaret must have felt like all the odds were against her, yet she grew stronger from it. She was the perfect example of the devoted mother who will stop at nothing to help her child. And while this may have proved difficult for her daughter in law, she did continue to remain one of Henry’s closest advisors during his reign. We can assume the bitterness she was known for could have been from a life of constant struggle and the fear that someone would take what was hers; a son on the throne of England.
Margaret must have held the memories of her early marriage and childbirth with her. For when there were talks of her granddaughter’s marriage, Margaret became a strong advocate in assuring that the young girl did not go through the same harrowing experience of childbirth at such a young age. Margaret also played an important part in education during her life as she was the founder of several schools across England. Margaret Beaufort should continue to remain a symbol of strength for many women. She remained steadfast and determined and never lost her faith during a time of turbulent and political unrest.
The Wars of the Roses was a prolonged period of civil unrest in England, focussed on a period of just over thirty years which saw seventeen battles between rivals, the initiative swinging swiftly between the sides and the crown changing hands four times as a direct result of battles won and lost. One of the most difficult question to answer is which, amongst those seventeen engagements, was the most important in determining the course of the wars?
I’m going to count down my top five and see how it compares with yours.
5. The Battle of Ludford Bridge – 12th October 1459
I know – there wasn’t even any fighting, so how did this make my top five? This battle represented a watershed moment in the escalating conflict and was the first engagement that really pitched King Henry VI against his most powerful subject, Richard, Duke of York. Henry headed an army much larger than York’s though the numbers on each side are unknown. York was joined by his brother-in-law Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, who had encountered a force sent by Queen Margaret at Blore Heath on his way to Ludlow. Also within Ludlow’s stunning fortress were Salisbury’s namesake son the Earl of Warwick who would be remembered as the Kingmaker and York’s own family, his two oldest sons Edward, Earl of March and Edmund, Earl of Rutland ready for their first taste of battle.
The magnates arrayed against each other were not dissimilar from St Albans four years earlier. With the exception of those ensconced within Ludlow noble support was vested entirely in the king, headed by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The big difference, and the reason for Ludford’s impact, was Henry VI’s position at the front of his army under his banners. The defection of the Calais garrison under Andrew Trollope during the night left the Yorkist force exposed and caused their retreat into the night. Ludlow was sacked by the king’s army in punishment for the town’s support of its lord.
The importance of Ludford lies in the confrontation between King Henry and York. No longer was this about control of the king, a war between magnates claiming to know what was best for Henry. York was forced to back down from confronting the king himself. This may have been the very point of the court faction’s efforts to place Henry at their head and if it was, it worked perfectly. Ludford’s real impact lay in its aftermath. Even before the royal army arrived at Ludlow a Parliament had been summoned, later known as the Parliament of Devils, to punish the rebel lords. York, his two oldest sons, Salisbury, Warwick and even Salisbury’s wife were attainted and deprived of all of their titles and lands forever. The move left the Yorkist lords with nothing to lose and forced them into a corner from which attack was their only option. Ludford, or at least its aftermath, was the first battle that changed the entire landscape of the conflicts in England and made the civil war a dynastic question of the right to the throne.
4. The Battle of Stoke Field – 16th June 1487
The inclusion of this battle may surprise some, too. It is often no more than a footnote in the telling of the Wars of the Roses, which are frequently described as having ended two years earlier. It suited the fledgling Tudor regime of Henry VII to underplay the importance of Stoke Field to detract from the very real threats that remained to his crown and so Stoke Field has been consigned to the tiniest footnotes of history, swept under the carpet.
Stoke Field’s importance is twofold. It was the last armed confrontation of the Wars of the Roses. Bosworth did not end the fighting, Stoke Field did. Never again would a Yorkist army challenge for the throne. How can the Wars of the Roses possibly have ended in 1485 when there was a battle between invading Yorkist and royalist forces in 1487? It is true that the Yorkists had around 8,000 men to the Tudor’s 12,000 and that the majority of the Yorkist army was ill-equipped Irish kerns who fell quickly under arrow fire but it is important to remember the other reason that Stoke Field was important.
The Yorkist army was led by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, a grandson of Richard, Duke of York, nephew to Edward IV and Richard III and cousin of Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen. The aim of the invading army has become somewhat muddied but they intended to place Edward, Earl of Warwick, the last grandson of Richard, Duke of York through the male line, on the throne. The thousands of Irish soldiers were led by Thomas Fitzgerald, younger brother of Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare and their presence was a powerful reminder of the latent Yorkist sympathy that would remain in Ireland for years to come. There was a professional element to the Yorkist army too; Swiss mercenaries led by Colonel Martin Schwartz, they were a very real threat, though Colonel Schwartz would fall amongst around 4,000 other Yorkist soldiers at Stoke Field. These expensive mercenaries were funded by Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, a sister of Edward IV and Richard III. Margaret was wealthy, influential and utterly committed to dislodging Henry VII from the throne he had won at her family’s expense.
Stoke Field deserves more attention than it usually receives not only because it was the last battle of over thirty years of civil war but because it reminded the fledgling Tudor dynasty that it was far from secure and that it was surrounded by enemies, from Ireland, the continent and Yorkist blood within the kingdom. Stoke Field has been largely forgotten because the early Tudor government wanted it forgotten, but Henry VII was probably never able to shake the threats that it made all too clear to him.
3. The Battle of Bosworth Field – 22nd August 1485
One of the most famous battles in English history, Bosworth’s inclusion is not contentious. Its importance lies in the demonstration of opposition to Richard III’s brief rule amongst the nobility and gentry and in the ending of the 331 years of Plantagenet rule. As we have seen, it was not the end of the Wars of the Roses, but it was the close of Plantagenet rule, the end of the House of York’s time on the throne and the dawn of the Tudor age, a period that would have an immense impact on England (whether for good or ill is a matter for discussion).
The defeat of Richard III at Bosworth had a huge impact on English history because of the questions it left unanswered too. Would Richard III have been a good king? Was he socially progressive? Would a marriage into the Portuguese royal family, who had Lancastrian blood, have served to heal the wounds that Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York’s union sought to? Would the mystery of the fate of the Princes in the Tower have been solved if Richard had lived a little longer (and precisely how would it have been solved?)? Bosworth Field left us with these questions and they are still hot topics for debate over 500 years later.
Just as Stoke Field served to remind Henry VII that he had not been accepted by all, Bosworth exposed unhealed wounds across a nation that must have believed the wars were long gone. There had been no battle for fourteen years, yet disaffected Edwardian Yorkists still viewed war as the route by which they could vent their frustration. Lancastrian sympathies, lacking a figurehead for fourteen years, were swift to emerge from hiding and gather behind Henry Tudor, drawing unhappy Yorkists to them to swell opposition to Richard. Bosworth therefore demonstrated that resorting to the field of battle had become ingrained in the English psyche as a legitimate way to resolve disputes. Many taking the field had lived and grown through the troubles of earlier years and this was something the Tudor regime would have to deal with, as Stoke Field demonstrated.
Bosworth was a defining moment in English history, but only makes number three in my list of battles of the Wars of the Roses. Its impact on wider history may be larger than my other two suggestions, but in terms of this civil war, two battles strike me as more crucial.
2. The Battle of Towton – 29th March 1461
England’s Apocalypse really needs no justification for making the list. For many, Bosworth and Towton might be vying for the number one rank and there is certainly an argument for both to take the top spot. Towton is renowned as the largest battle ever to take place of English soil, around 100,000 men possibly taking the field, with possibly slightly more on the Lancastrian side than the Yorkist. Edward, Earl of March (by now Duke of York and legal heir to the throne) led a force also made up of the Earl of Warwick and Duke of Norfolk. The Lancastrians were led by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and contained Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.
The battle was cataclysmic. It was fought on Palm Sunday in driving snow, the wind favouring the Yorkist archers but the subsequent fighting too close to call until the Duke of Norfolk’s army arrived late to the field and broke the Lancastrian’s resolve. Heralds and other reports gave a shocking figure of 29,000 casualties when the battle ended. Mass graves had to be dug in the frozen earth to house the battered corpses that littered the field.
Towton broke Lancastrian resistance to Edward and allowed him to assume the throne with a degree of security that lasted almost a decade (barring two of the civil war’s least important confrontations at Hexham and Hedgeley Moor). The crown of England had sat upon a Lancastrian head for 62 years but was now lowered onto the head of the first king of the House of York. Most people within England had known nothing but Lancastrian rule and Towton radically altered the political landscape. It tarnished anew the notion of kingship as divine and unquestionable and meant none knew what to expect from a dynastic change. Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, had not enjoyed his crown and it must have seemed likely that Edward would suffer the same continual threats and uncertainties.
What battle could have been more important than either Bosworth or Towton?
Bear with me on this one…..
1. The Battle of Wakefield – 30 December 1460
Not an obvious choice, I know, but one I think I can justify. I should probably declare an interest here, since I have a biography of Richard, Duke of York due for release on 15th April 2016, but it was researching this that convinced me of Wakefield’s crucial position within the conflicts of the Wars of the Roses.
Wakefield sits between two of the other crucial battles I have listed above, taking place after Ludford Bridge but before Towton. It came about because of the consequences of Ludford Bridge, which saw Richard, Duke of York return to England to sensationally lay claim to his cousin’s throne. The act was not welcomed and produced a stalemate that was shelved by the unsatisfactory device of parliament that allowed Henry VI to keep his throne but disinherited his son Prince Edward, making Richard and his descendants legal heirs to the crown of England. York and his sons swore loyalty to Henry and Richard was granted the trappings associated with the position of Prince of Wales. Crucially, it was made treason to attack Richard and his heirs.
In the north, Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, was gathering a huge force with the support of Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and others. This was the beginning of the massive force that would arrive at Towton to face Richard’s son, Edward but it was the Duke of York who marched north to confront them whilst his oldest son gathered reinforcements on the Welsh border. Richard stopped at his northern stronghold of Sandal Castle at Wakefield when it became clear that he was hopelessly outnumbered.
Sources are unclear precisely what happened next but it is likely that a truce was agreed for the Christmas period. Richard seems to have been tricked into believing men were joining his side when in fact their sympathies were with the queen so that he thought he had more men than he ever did. There was possibly an attack on a foraging party from Sandal Castle that caused Richard to sally out to confront the Lancastrian army who had probably broken the truce. Those he believed were with him instantly turned on Richard and the battle was brief and decisive. Richard was killed, as was his 17 year-old son Edmund. The Earl of Salisbury was captured but beheaded the following day. The three heads were famously placed on spikes outside York, on Micklegate Bar, with a paper crown mockingly fixed to York’s head.
It might be significant enough that Richard, Duke of York fell at Wakefield. He was the most powerful man in England and legally heir to the throne, but the impact was far wider than that. The Battle of Wakefield took place at a time when matters were at their most complex. Richard, Duke of York held the legal right, granted by Parliament and enshrined in statute. Queen Margaret surely felt that she held the moral right. Her son had been disinherited by the force of York’s will and was still the rightful heir.
Margaret may have been acting to protect her son, but in legal terms her attack on Richard was treason. It made her and her army outlaws, legitimate targets for reprisals and it damaged their position and cause. The first engagement of the Wars of the Roses at St Albans had left the sons of the Duke of Somset, Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford swearing to have their revenge. Five years later they each got it. Somerset saw York killed. Northumberland’s old enemy Salisbury was executed and Clifford supposedly took great delight in slaying the seventeen-year-old Edmund. In satisfying their long quest for vengeance, these men unleashed more sons baying for revenge. Edward, Earl of March would seek to avenge his father and brother. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick wanted revenge for his father’s treatment. Neither were men to wait five months, let alone five years, for what they wanted.
Towton was a direct consequence of Wakefield. Edward and Warwick were whipped into a frenzy and had the law on their side. Wakefield escalated the conflict to a new level, giving Edward permission, as he saw it, to unseat Henry and slaughter his followers. Margaret believed she had the initiative after destroying a foe she had feared for a decade or more, certain that right was on her side as she sought to win back her son’s birth right. It was Wakefield that caused Edward to proclaim himself King of England and bring the dynastic rivalry unsatisfactorily shelved by his father into sharp focus.
Both sides had a degree of right on their side, but neither would back down. This was now a war for the crown between Lancaster and York in a way it had never been before. Wakefield’s impact did not end there, though. York was almost certainly killed during the fighting. His body was then posthumously beheaded and mocked with the paper crown. Edmund was captured but rather than being held and ransomed he is killed in an act of simple vengeance. Salisbury was reportedly dragged from his prison cell by a mob and beheaded without trial or the intervention of any Lancastrian noble to protect him. Warfare was being radically altered by the queen’s army. Chivalry was dealt a fatal blow at Wakefield. No longer would the bodies of the most noble dead be respected – they were weapons in a propaganda war. Capture did not afford valuable individuals the protection of their captor but risked summary murder. Even those taken prisoner could be left to mob justice at a point when traditional chivalry required their captor to protect them. Nobles, previously targets for capture rather than killing, were targeted for death above the common soldiery. Wakefield was a clear demonstration of the changing nature of warfare in England in the mid fifteenth century.
So there you have it; my top five battles of the Wars of the Roses. I’m not suggesting my choices are definitive and I’d love to hear what you think. Probably the most notable omissions, sitting at numbers six and seven respectively, are Tewkesbury and Barnet. They saw the deaths of hugely important figures – Prince Edward at Tewkesbury, ending the Lancastrian male line, and the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick at Barnet, a man who dominated politics in England for over a decade. My choices were made within the context of the civil war and taking account of their wider impacts on the political situation and it is clear that some of the less well-known encounters probably had the widest bearing on future events.
What would you consider to be the most important battle of the Wars of the Roses?
Matt’s latest book, Richard, Duke of York, King By Right, is released by Amberley Publishing on 15th April 2016 and will reveal a very different man from the one who has passed into myth amongst the stories of the Wars of the Roses.
Matthew Lewis has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.
Pinpointing the beginning and end of the Wars of the Roses has always been problematical. One thing is certain. On 22nd August 1485, the House of York lost its grip on power, but it was far from destroyed, and the infant Tudor regime was not as secure as it was to lead the world to believe. York persisted; and Henry VII was to find himself haunted and in need of a new kind of solution.
As early as Easter 1486 a Yorkist uprising threatened Henry’s fragile grip on power. Francis, Viscount Lovell, erstwhile friend of King Richard III, and the Stafford Brothers, Sir Humphrey and Thomas, tried to kindle revolt. Lovell attempted to raise the north as Henry approached on his progress and the Staffords cultivated support from their power base in the south of the Midlands.
The Stafford brothers managed to enter, seize and hold Worcester, but the north stuttered in the king’s presence and Lovell was forced to flee. As Henry stormed southward, the Staffords fled Worcester to sanctuary in Culham, from which Henry had them dragged forcibly by Sir John Savage. This incident led to Henry procuring the Pope’s approval for the removal of the right of sanctuary in treason cases. Sir Humphrey was hanged, Thomas was bound to good behaviour and Lovell fled to the court of Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV and Richard III who was to become a magnet for Yorkist hopes.
What had been missing from this early attempted revolt was a figurehead. The rebellion was nominally in favour of Edward, Earl of Warwick, the young son of George, Duke of Clarence, nephew of Edward IV and Richard III. Warwick, though, was under Henry’s control in the Tower of London and this lack of a figurehead was to prove a death blow to the revolt.
The following year, an attempt was made to correct this flaw. Lord Lovell landed at Furness with a large force of professional Swiss mercenaries, paid for by Margaret of Burgundy, an army of Irish kerns supplied by the Earl of Kildare, reflecting lingering Yorkist affection in the Pale of Ireland that was to buck Tudor rule for many years, and two Yorkist figureheads.
John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln was the eldest nephew of Edward IV and Richard III, son of their sister Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk. John was approaching his mid twenties and had been working in the Council of the North under his uncle Richard. He may have been named Richard’s heir following the death of the Prince of Wales and was the senior male Yorkist in terms of age.
The second figure was Edward, Earl of Warwick. The twelve year old senior male-line Yorkist heir who was safely tucked up in the Tower of London. This boy had been crowned King Edward VI in a lavish ceremony in Dublin before the invading army left Ireland. This rebellion not only had a figurehead, but noble support and even a spare.
The invaders were met on their landing by a handful of loyal Yorkist gentry and they headed for safe ground, marching toward York to recruit more support, but the sight of the bare chested, bare legged Irish kerns disconcerted the authorities of York, who closed their gates to the rebels. Turning south, the large army was forced to seek a confrontation with Henry without further help.
The king, no doubt slightly bemused by the appearance of the boy he thought he had locked up safely, paraded Edward, Earl of Warwick through London before mustering an army to meet the rebels at the Battle of Stoke Field on 16th June 1487. Henry’s army was around 12,000 strong and led by the Earl of Oxford, who had led Henry’s own invading army at Bosworth. Lincoln had around 8,000 men. King Henry remained at the rear of the battle with his uncle Jasper keeping an escape route open for him. He was not to need it.
The battle was close for some time, with some of Oxford’s men fleeing the field, until the tide turned. Around half the Yorkist army was slain, with the Irish warriors taking the brunt of the losses, though the Swiss mercenary leader Colonel Martin Schwartz was amongst the casualties and appears on the memorial that marks the location of the battle. Lincoln was also killed during the fighting. Lord Lovell was injured and last spied crossing the Trent as he fled. He was never seen nor heard of again and vanishes from the historical record. In spite of a wealth of speculation, a safe passage through Scotland, which may or may not have been collected, and a mysterious story of a skeleton bricked up at the Lovell manor of Minster Lovell, his fate is unknown.
The boy was captured and Henry ‘discovered’ that he was, in fact, an Oxfordshire boy named Lambert Simnell. Holding him up as an innocent pawn of the bitter Yorkists, Henry pardoned the boy, famously putting him to work in the royal kitchens as a spit boy. Lambert was last heard of as a royal falconer to Henry VIII in the mid 1520’s. His true identity remains a matter of doubt and discussion to this day. Dr John Ashdown-Hill’s next book may prove very interesting as he examines Lambert’s story more closely.
Small plots were continually uncovered by Henry VII’s busy network of spies. Men like Abbot Sant, Edward Franke and Thomas Rothwell are forgotten, but kept the fires of Yorkist hope alive, and kept Henry VII dancing on hot coals. The Yorkist threat seemed at least quietened, if not yet quite destroyed. John de la Pole had four remaining brothers, though one was in holy orders and was never to impact upon the political scene. John’s younger brother inherited the Dukedom of Suffolk on their father’s death in 1491, though in 1493 Henry VII downgraded the title to that of an Earl; something of a slap in the face to a family no longer posing a present threat but perhaps a hint that all was not as rosy as the Tudor iconography would like us to believe.
The mid-1490’s saw the next serious threat to Henry from a Yorkist cause that refused to die. A new Pretender emerged on the Continent, perhaps under the tutelage of Margaret of Burgundy. Known to history as Perkin Warbeck, he presented himself to the courts of Europe as Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, younger son of Edward IV and one of the infamous Princes in the Tower. Much has been written elsewhere about Warbeck and I shall not delve too deeply into that part of the story here.
Suffice it to say that Perkin gained a great deal of support, which perhaps had less to do with his true identity than with European leaders’ desire to destabilise the English king. By now, most of them owed Henry huge sums of money so had a financial interest in seeing him squirm a little. It is in the face of this threat that Henry VII took a radical step, the context of which is often overlooked.
Now, aged three and a half, Henry’s second son and namesake was propelled from the obscurity of his mother’s household onto the fraught playing field of politics. On All Saints Day 1494, as Warbeck proved an increasing nuisance and men of Cornwall marched on London, Henry was elaborately, conspicuously and pointedly created Duke of York at Westminster, being made a Knight of the Bath at the same time. This was a clear antidote to Warbeck’s assertion to entitlement to the support of the House of York. In an ancient echo of Tony Blair’s tactics twenty years ago, to prove that there is nothing new under the sun, Henry set about sculpting a New House of York to eclipse the memory of the Old. I’ve tried to arrive at a clever parallel between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the Tudor father and son, but kept hearing the Steptoe and Son theme tune in my head instead, so I gave up on that idea.
It also served to remind those clinging to hope that the cause of the Princes, Edward V and the old Duke of York, was dead, politically certainly, though it carried with it the connotation of physical demise too. Furthermore, it marked York, as it still does today, as very clearly second string, a subservient house.
Henry even looked like his grandfather. He was his mother’s son, the embodiment of the House of York. The old look with a new feel. Perhaps this physical similarity was the father of the idea.
If we look at those who surrounded Henry as Duke of York it is clear what his father was trying to do. If we leap ahead to look at those who joined Henry in the lists of a tournament shortly after his coronation, as mentioned in a previous blog, as a young king, it was an advertisement and affirmation of his Yorkist credentials. The effect is clear to see. Charles Brandon, one of Henry’s closest friends, later his brother-in-law and Duke of Suffolk, was the son of Sir William Brandon, who had died at Bosworth whilst carrying Henry Tudor’s standard. Sir William had been Edward IV’s Master of the Horse. He had abandoned the House of York under Richard III, under something of a criminal cloud according to the Paston Letters, but his Yorkist credentials were impeccable. The Howard family were mainstays of Henry’s rule but were old Yorkists. John Howard had died at Bosworth fighting for Richard III. His son, Thomas, who was to become second Duke, had fought at Bosworth for Richard but survived. Now, he was suddenly of use and was placed with the young Duke of York. Henry Bourchier, 2nd Earl of Essex was descended from Edward III but was also a nephew of Elizabeth Woodville. William Courtenay, Earl of Devon was married to Catherine of York, sixth daughter of Edward IV, and Arthur Plantagenet was an illegitimate son of Edward IV who was to become very close to his nephew, Henry VIII.
This was Henry VII’s clear step onto the front foot in response to the emergence of a serious threat from the House of York. He simply created a new one. Anyone deemed safe enough was placed around the new Duke to add an air of credibility to the new establishment. A side effect of this was that later betrayals by the House of York were to be viewed by Henry VIII as personal attacks and betrayals, which perhaps exaggerated and magnified his response to those threats.
Warbeck turned out to be a prolonged threat. He wasn’t captured until 1497, when he ‘confessed’ to being an imposter. In 1499, Warbeck was almost certainly used by Henry VII to entrap Edward, Earl of Warwick, now 24. The two were caught plotting to escape the Tower and executed. Warwick was the last of the legitimate male line of York and his removal was a requirement of Catherine of Aragon’s marriage to Arthur, something she was later to believe had cursed her. Judicial murder struck off two thorns with one axe.
Henry VII, having secured the marriage of his heir Arthur to Catherine, now resurrected another Yorkist tradition. It is striking the extent to which he reached back in his attempts to move forward. Just as Edward IV had sent his son to Ludlow to preside over a court of his own as Prince of Wales, so Arthur was despatched to demonstrate the new regime’s solid link to the past. The Tudors were new, but rooted in an old stability. Tony Blair was turning 500 year old tricks in the 1990’s.
Still, though, the petals of the Tudor rose were not without pests. Just before Arthur and Catherine’s wedding, Edmund and Richard de la Pole, younger brothers of John, fled to the court of Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor. Earlier, Sir Robert Curzon had told Maximilian that England was fed up with Henry’s “murders and tyrannies”, proposing Edmund as a rival claimant. Maximilian responded that he would do all that he could to see “one of Edward’s blood” returned to the throne. Doubtless this encouragement reached Edmund and Richard and directed their flight.
The brother they left behind, Sir William de la Pole, was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London in spite of his failure to join his brothers. For allowing Edmund to pass through Calais, Sir James Tyrell was ordered to submit to arrest. Calais was besieged when he refused until a promise of safe passage to an audience with the king caused him and his son to emerge, only for that assurance to evaporate as they were roughly taken into custody. Tyrell was tortured in the Tower for news on Edmund, though there is no record that he was ever even asked about the fate of the Princes in the Tower, nor that he confessed to arranging their murder.
Edmund began to call himself The White Rose, Duke of Suffolk and openly proclaimed his right to the throne. He found support from King John of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The Chronicle of the Grey Friars records that on 22nd February 1502 “was Sir Edmund de la Pole pronounced accursed at St Paul’s Cross, at the sermon before noon”.
Things got worse for the new dynasty. On 2nd April 1502 Prince Arthur died. It is possible that the panic this fostered drove the trials on 2nd May 1502 of Sir James Tyrell, Sir John Wyndham and others. Tyrell and Wyndham were beheaded on Tower Hill, with several others hung drawn and quartered at Tyburn for their support of the de la Poles. It is also feasible that this same panic caused Henry to suggest to an ambassador that he was considering claiming Tyrell had confessed to the murder of the Princes. The ambassador apparently advised strongly against it and the matter was taken no further, but it is telling that at a time of crisis for the House of Tudor, it was the House of York that was perceived as the very real threat. The Princes again became an issue. Henry again avoided publically stating that they were dead. This remains odd to me, but is another story altogether.
In 1504, the threat Henry felt from The White Rose was again in evidence. He signed a trade treaty with the Hanseatic League so detrimental to English merchants that the only reason he could possibly have agreed was the provision that they offer no support or refuge to Edmund de la Pole. Edmund, though, was finding Maximilian’s means did not match his promises and support and money were beginning to dry up.
Also in 1504, John Flamank reported to the king a discussion that had taken place in Calais amongst several of the leading figures of the town. They reportedly spoke of what would happen after Henry’s death, Flamank reporting that they said “the king’s grace is but a weak man and sickly, not likely to be long lived … Some of them spoke of my lord of Buckingham, saying that he was a noble man and would be a royal ruler. Others there were that spoke, he said, likewise of your traitor, Edmund de la Pole, but none of them, he said, spoke of my lord prince.” The “my lord prince” in question was Henry VIII, and his father was surely disturbed that he was overlooked at a discussion of the succession. It did not bode well for Tudor security.
Matters took a turn in Henry’s favour in January 1506 by sheer luck. Maximilian’s son, Archduke Philip, ruler of Burgundy, heir to the Hapsburg empire and the Holy Roman Emperor title was shipwrecked on England’s south coast by a storm en route to see his wife, the heiress to the Spanish throne. This was a prize catch for which Henry had an important use in mind. Virgil wrote that Henry was “scarcely able to believe his luck when he realized that divine providence had given him the means of getting his hands on Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who had been the leader of the conspiracy against him a few years previously”.
Philip was forced to sign a treaty resolving the current trade disputes in England’s favour, but was also required to give up Edmund de la Pole, and Henry made it clear that Philip would not leave England until Edmund was in the king’s custody. Edmund was collected from Mechlen and delivered to Calais, apparently on the promise that he would not be harmed, but that he would be fully pardoned and restored to his lands. Edmund, though, was bundled off to the Tower.
Henry VII died on 21st April 1509. For Henry VIII’s coronation, John Skelton wrote “The Rose both White and Red \ In one Rose now doth grow”. Edward Hall called the new king the “flower and very heir of both said lineages”. But the White Rose had not yet been properly reconciled. On 30th April 1509, to celebrate his coronation, Henry issued a general pardon that had been provided for in his father’s will, which excluded just 80 people. Top of the list was Edmund de la Pole, followed by his brothers Richard, who was still at large on the continent, and William, still languishing in the Tower.
In 1513, as Henry prepared to invade France, Louis XII offered Richard de la Pole support. Fearing the resurgence of the White Rose threat, Henry took advantage of Edmund’s outstanding attainder to have him quietly executed on Tower Green on 4th May 1513, just before leaving for France and in spite of his father’s promise the Edmund would not be harmed.
Henry VIII identified himself strongly with Henry V, in tapestry, in art and in his continental ambition. Almost a hundred years after the Agincourt campaign, Henry was trying to emulate the great warrior king. As Henry V prepared to leave in 1415, he was faced with a threat of rebellion known as The Southampton Plot. Richard of Conisburgh, Earl of Cambridge, the grandfather of Edward IV and Richard III, was a ringleader and was executed just before Henry V set sail. Perhaps Henry VIII sought to replicate the Agincourt campaign no precisely that he believed he required a Yorkist sacrifice to ensure success. Or maybe it simply marks the level of the threat of the White Rose that persisted.
But Henry VIII had left a lose end that Henry V had not. A White Rose in exile.
Richard de la Pole now styled himself The White Rose and Duke of Suffolk. Louis recognised him as King of England. In his mid-30’s, Richard was a natural soldier and was proving his military worth to Louis in Italy in an attempt to win further aid. In 1514, Louis provided Richard with vast sums of money and a huge army. John, Duke of Albany, Regent of Scotland agreed to take Richard to Scotland to launch his invasion. All was set. Just as Richard was about to sail, Louis signed a peace treaty with Henry and the attack was called off.
When Louis died in 1515, Richard’s close friend the Dauphin became Francis I. Henry seems to be have been genuinely concerned. He set Thomas Wolsey to oversee Sir Edward Poynings and the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Worcester, tasking them with arranging the assassination of Richard de la Pole. That men of such standing were appointed to this task is a mark of the threat that Henry perceived.
Percheval de Matte, Captain Symonde Francoyse and Robert Latimer are all recorded as being hired to complete the task. All failed, and for a decade Richard evaded Henry’s agents, moving frequently and attracting Yorkist stragglers to his court in exile.
On 25 February 1525, Richard commanded the right wing of Francis’s French army at the Battle of Pavia in Italy. The French army was crushed by that of the Holy Roman Emperor. Francis was captured and Richard was killed. When news reached Henry, bonfires blazed throughout London and a Te Deum was celebrated at St Paul’s. It’s hard to know whether Henry was more excited that Francis was a prisoner and his kingdom exposed or that Richard de la Pole, The White Rose, was dead.
The final chapter of the de la Pole threat closed in 1538. Sir William de la Pole died, still a prisoner in the Tower. His 37 year incarceration remains the longest stay in the Tower’s history.
Another branch of the still broad Yorkist family proved to be the most persistent thorn in the Tudor side. Edward, Earl of Warwick had a sister, Margaret. Shortly after Henry VII came to power she was married to a cousin of the new king, Sir Richard Pole, to neutralise her as a focus for disaffection. Sir Richard died before Henry VII did, but Henry VIII, perhaps encouraged by a guilty Catherine of Aragorn, restored Margaret to power shortly after his coronation. She was created Countess of Salisbury, one of her parents’ titles, in her own right, became a lady in waiting to Catherine and an outspoken supporter of Princess Mary. Margaret had four sons, who were men by the time Richard de la Pole was killed at Pavia in 1525. One of her daughters, Ursula, was married to the son of the Duke of Buckingham, whose fall in 1521 had cast a shadow of suspicion over the Poles.
Reginald Pole was Margaret’s second son, born in 1500 at Stourton Castle near Stourbridge. From an early age he was drawn to the church and Henry VIII contributed toward the cost of the young man’s education, perhaps happy to see some White Rose blood soak away into the clergy. When Reginald was 21, Henry encouraged and subsidised his six year period of study at Padua in Italy, where he met and befriended Erasmus. After his return to England in 1527, appointments and patronage denoted great royal favour.
After the death of Cardinal Wolsey in 1529, Reginald was offered the Archbishopric of York, but refused it. In a private audience with Henry, he argued eloquently and firmly against the divorce from Catherine of Aragon, causing Henry to storm out, slamming the door behind him. In 1532, Reginald left England, a decision that perhaps saved him from the fate of More and other critics of the King’s Great Matter. In 1535, he was again in Padua, where he received a letter from Henry asking for his opinion on the divorce again, clearly hoping that Reginald’s growing influence in Rome could serve the English king. There is a fascinating series of exchanges recorded in the state papers, with Henry eagerly nudging Reginald for his response and Pole asking Henry to bear with him just a little longer. It is uncertain whether Reginald had not yet finished writing, wrestling with his conscience or plucking up courage.
It took Reginald a year to reply. That was because he sent back not a letter, but a book. Known as De Unitate – A Defence of the Church’s Unity, it was written for Henry’s eyes only and was very definitely not what he had been hoping for. De Unitate tore apart Henry’s argument for the divorce, but then continued on to condemn a quarter of a century of poor rule and wasteful policies. Lord Montague, Reginald’s oldest brother, wrote to him slamming the danger he had placed the rest of the family in and Margaret wrote to her son of “a terrible message” that Henry had sent her.
In 1537 Reginald was created a Cardinal so that he could visit England as a Papal Legate. Significantly, he was never ordained as a priest because Papist plots began to revolve around marrying Reginald to Princess Mary to unite the White Rose and the Tudor Rose and restore England to Roman Catholicism. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, apparently did not view Reginald as a valid candidate for the throne of England, referring to him as “El Ingles que esta en Venicia,” “the Englishman who stays in Venice”. Charles had his own idea of marrying Princess Mary to Don Luis, the infante of Portugal, and placing him on Henry’s throne.
Pope Paul III, though, had identified Pole as the man to achieve his end. He was given 10,000 ducats to recruit men in Flanders and Germany with the aim of kindling revolt in England. Under the guise of a peaceful visit as Papal Legate, Pole was to spark rebellion, marry Princess Mary and take Henry’s throne. Bergenroth wrote that “The “soldier of the true faith,” the pretender to the hand of the Princess Mary, and the candidate for the English crown was therefore made a cardinal in appearance, the Pope taking care that he should not enter even the lowest degree of holy orders, and content himself with having the tonsure shaved on his head.”
In France, Francis I was only put off from supporting Pole by his own desire to snatch a chuck of England for himself.
One thing is perfectly clear. By the mid 1530’s, England was viewed as fair game. The throne was up for grabs. The only question was who would succeed in the smash and grab of Henry VIII’s failing kingdom.
Reginald did not get to England and by the end of 1537, Henry was advertising a reward of 100,000 gold crowns to anyone who brought Reginald to him, dead or alive.
During the following year, the White Rose faction in England appeared to throw caution to the wind. Henry Courtenay, the Marquess of Exeter, a grandson of Edward IV was only outdone in his criticism of the newly emerging England by Henry Pole, Lord Montague, who said that “the King and his whole issue stand accursed”. On 29th August 1538 Geoffrey Pole, Margaret’s third son, was suddenly arrested. He was, by turns, interrogated, threatened with the rack and offered a pardon to provide the “right” answers. After his first interrogation, Geoffrey tried to commit suicide in his cell in the Tower by stabbing himself with a knife, but failed to do enough damage.
On 4th November Exeter and Montague were arrested. Montague was tried on 2nd December and Exeter on 3rd. Both pleaded not guilty, but both surely knew that it would make no difference. When found guilty and condemned to death, Montague told the court “I have lived in prison these last six years”.
Montague, Exeter and Sir Edward Neville were beheaded on Tower Hill. Two priest and a sailor who had been accused of carrying messages to Reginald, were amongst others hung drawn and quartered at Tyburn on the same day for their part in the affair. On 28th December, Geoffrey again attempted suicide, only to fail once more. Released the following year, he fled to Flanders, no doubt haunted by his experiences and the guilt of delivering his brother to the executioner’s block. The Exeter Conspiracy was almost certainly a figment of Henry VIII’s paranoiac fear but the king reacted savagely and it demonstrated the consuming fear he still had of the White Rose faction.
In February 1539, Henry wrote to Charles V that he had only narrowly escaped a plot to murder him, his son and his daughters and to place Exeter on the throne. At around the same time, Reginald arrived in Toledo for an audience with Charles to ask his backing for a Papal plot to invade England. Charles tactfully declined to help. A few months later, Countess Margaret was included in an attainder passed against those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Exeter Conspiracy.
In the autumn of 1539, there was a further shock when Countess Margaret, aged 65, was suddenly arrested and taken to the Tower without even a change of clothing. Her grandson, Montague’s son Henry, was also incarcerated there at the time. She remained in the Tower until 1541. In an echo of 1415 and of 1513, Henry had crushed a rebellion in the north and was planning to visit James V of Scotland. Before leaving, he had several prisoners executed, adding, apparently at the last minute, Countess Margaret Pole to the list. She was awoken early in the morning on 27th May and told that she would be executed at 7am. Bemused, she walked to the block and knelt. The inexperienced executioner slammed the axe into her shoulder, taking half a dozen more blows to complete his task. If anyone is unclear precisely why Henry VIII’s procurement of the skilled French executioner who dispatched Anne Boleyn was considered a mercy, it was because this was the likely and not infrequent alternative. The 67 year old Countess later became a Catholic saint for her martyrdom and these words were found carved into the wall of her cell:
For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor Make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!
Henry VIII died on 28th January 1547. His son, Edward VI died on 6th July 1553 aged just 15. In November 1554, with Queen Mary installed, Reginald Pole returned to England as Papal Legate, becoming Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury with the Catholic restoration.
On 17th November 1558, Reginald died, aged 58, on the very same day as Queen Mary, so did not live to see Elizabeth return Protestantism to England, but the White Rose threat outlasted Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. The influence of the threat, real or imagined, is perhaps as easy to overstate as it is to understate. One strand of the House of York survived quietly until today, leading from a daughter of Edward IV to Michael Ibsen, never having rocked the boat. It is certain, though, that the House of York’s threat to the throne, which perhaps saw its birth in Ludlow in 1459, did not end at Bosworth, nor even at Stoke Field. It ended quietly, in a bed, nearly 75 years after the Tudor dawn. The neat 30 year Wars of the Roses was a Tudor construct to draw a veil over generations of failure to rid themselves of shadows cast by the House of York. Henry VIII created England as a European super power by sleight of hand. The Tudor’s security was similarly a sleight of hand, a grand trick played as much upon themselves as the nation to hide desperate fears that haunted them for three quarters of a century.
For lots more detail on these events, I recommend Desmond Seward’s The Last White Rose.
Matt has written a history of the Wars of the Roses looking at the key players in the civil war which is available via Amberley Publishing and can be found on Amazon. His latest book Medieval Britain in 100 Facts can also be found there.