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.
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.