This article was first published in the November 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine
On 27 May 1541 Margaret, Countess of Salisbury – over 70 and the only surviving Plantagenet – was awoken at the Tower of London and told she was to die at 7am. “When informed of her sentence, she found it very strange, not knowing her crime, but she walked to a place in front of the Tower where there was no scaffold but only a small block,” reported Chapuys, the ambassador to England of the Holy Roman Emperor. The executioner’s place was taken by a clumsy young man, who hacked her head and shoulders to pieces. Margaret’s rank saved her from being burned alive, the statutory penalty for female traitors, suffered by several women during Henry VIII’s reign.
Why was Margaret killed? Chapuys says that she and her son Lord Montague were executed because they were “the last of the White Rose faction”. The White Rose was the symbol of the House of York, who during the Wars of the Roses vied for the crown against the red-rosed House of Lancaster. Both groups were branches of the Plantagenet dynasty who had ruled England since the 12th century. It is commonly said that these wars ended with Richard III’s death at Bosworth Field in 1485, after which the victorious Henry Tudor became King Henry VII. Yet the execution of the Countess of Salisbury shows that the Wars of the Roses did not end at Bosworth and indicates that it is wrong to assume the inevitability of the Tudors.
For decades this new, self-invented, royal family was challenged by pretenders with Plantagenet blood. And it only survived because of a highly sophisticated spy network and a ruthless use of legal murder. The impact of plot after plot on Henry VII and his son and successor, Henry VIII, on their behaviour and on their policies has never, until now, been properly investigated.
While the last male Plantagenet, the young Earl of Warwick (Richard III’s nephew and legal heir) was alive, there could be no real security for Henry Tudor. In 1486 the Yorkists Lord Lovell and Sir Humphrey Stafford raised an ineffectual revolt in Warwick’s name in Yorkshire and the Midlands. The following year the Earl of Lincoln and Lord Lovell led a much more serious rising and, although Lincoln was defeated and killed at Stoke, the battle could easily have gone the other way.
Yet it was not just Warwick who caused problems for Henry Tudor. Henry’s great adversary, Richard III, had succeeded to the throne from his own brother Edward IV in 1483. While Richard was on the throne, Edward’s son and heir, Edward V, and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, disappeared in mysterious circumstances in the Tower of London. Though it was widely assumed that Richard had had the princes murdered, Henry VII was, throughout the 1490s, threatened by someone impersonating the younger prince. The impersonator, Perkin Warbeck from Hainault (now part of Belgium), was so convincing that Richard III’s own sister, Margaret of Burgundy, believed that her nephew had returned from the dead. Indeed, the chronicler Hall said she thought she had “gotten God by the foot when she had the Devil by the tail”.
Aided in turn by Charles VIII of France, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian and James IV of Scotland, Warbeck was supported by a powerful Yorkist underground that included the Lord Chamberlain, Sir William Stanley. Yet Warbeck’s formidable backers couldn’t prevent him being caught and imprisoned in the Tower along with the Earl of Warwick.
Henry had the pair executed in 1499. This may have rid him of a grave threat but it also, in the eyes of many, brought down a curse upon the Tudors: None of their sons, it was claimed, would reach manhood.
Ironically, it was a far more trivial incident that finally pushed the king towards a nervous collapse. Just before Warwick died, a lunatic appeared on the scene, claiming to be the doomed earl. According to the Spanish ambassador, within a fortnight of learning of the new imposter, Henry looked 20 years older.
Rash and heady
Then in 1501 a new White Rose emerged to challenge Henry. This time it was another nephew of Richard III, Edmund de la Pole, the Earl of Suffolk, whom Hall described as “stout and bold of courage, and of wit rash and heady”. De la Pole fled to Austria where Emperor Maximilian promised to help him gain the crown. Henry VII became obsessed with de la Pole, spending vast sums on trying to catch him, before he was handed over in 1506 and incarcerated in the Tower. By the time the king died in 1509, he was so unbalanced that he kept his own son under surveillance.
The behaviour of Henry VIII can only be understood in light of what happened before he came to the throne. He can never have forgotten how his uncle Edward V had disappeared in the Tower. A spy, who had been present at a discussion by leading courtiers on who would most likely succeed Henry VII recalled that they thought it would be either Edmund de la Pole or the Duke of Buckingham, “but none of them, he said, spake of my lord prince”. Henry VIII’s paranoia may have been fuelled by reading this report when he became king.
On his accession in 1509, Henry VIII issued a general pardon. Yet he omitted numerous Yorkists, including Edmund de la Pole and his brothers, and John Taylor, who had been one of the brains behind the Warbeck rebellion. Another Yorkist, John Parleben, who returned from exile hoping for clemency, was immediately arrested. Described by the Privy Council as “one of the most errant traitors and railers against the king’s father beyond the seas”, Henry gave orders he should never receive a pardon even if one had already been issued. Parleben almost certainly went to the gallows.
The ‘Band of Pensioners’ (today’s Gentlemen-at-Arms) were founded at this time, as a bodyguard against assassins. Insecurity can also be seen in the way the new king wooed his Yorkist cousins. For example, the sister of the executed Earl of Warwick, Margaret Plantagenet, (who, as we have seen, was to fall foul of Henry’s paranoia in 1541) was created Countess of Salisbury and given her mother’s estates, on condition she forgave any injury done to her by Henry’s father.
In 1513, before crossing the channel with an invasion fleet, Henry VIII ordered the execution of Edmund de la Pole, who had been in the Tower since 1506. Henry feared a coup while he was away in France, and Edmund had indeed been in touch with his brother Richard to organise a rebellion.
Richard de la Pole frightened Henry VIII even more than Warbeck had frightened Henry VII. In exile since 1500 when aged about 19, Richard was a veteran commander of landsknechts (German mercenaries) who had fought the Spaniards in Navarre and Italy. After his brother Edmund’s death, Louis XII of France recognised Richard as king of England and in 1514 gave him 12,000 landsknechts for an invasion. Yet the landing was called off when Louis unexpectedly made peace with Henry.
Richard took refuge at Metz in Lorraine, where assassins hired by Henry’s agents tried to kill him again and again, but without success. In 1516 the French authorities caught an English desperado who confessed to having been sent to murder Richard. Widely reported, the incident made Henry look criminal and foolish all over Europe. For the moment he abandoned assassination.
Henry could not kill Richard de la Pole, but he was able to destroy the greatest landowner in England, the Duke of Buckingham. Descended from Edward III in the female line, Buckingham had an excellent claim to the throne. The Venetian ambassador noted that “should the king die without male heirs, the duke could easily get the crown”. When Buckingham’s resentful servants revealed that a monk had assured the duke he would be king, Buckingham was arrested without warning. “You have said as a traitor should be said unto, but I was never none”, Buckingham told the jury of peers who were bullied into condemning him to death for treason in May 1521. The duke’s only crime lay in having said that Henry and his children might die young, in which case he would inherit the realm. He went to the scaffold purely because of the king’s fevered imagination. Although Richard de la Pole, the last White Rose to challenge Henry openly, was killed at the battle of Pavia in 1525, Henry’s fears verged on clinical paranoia during the later years of his reign. Significantly, the Treason Act of 1534 denounced those who should write or say he was a “usurper of the crown”.
No one disliked the religious changes of the 1530s more than the ‘Aragonese party’ who supported Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and her daughter the Lady Mary against his new bride, Anne Boleyn. The Aragonese party included the White Rose faction, which centred around two families. One was the Courtenays whose head, the Marquess of Exeter, was a grandson of Edward IV. The other, headed by Lord Montague, consisted of the Poles (a different family from the de la Poles), including the four sons of Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury.
The Aragonese party wanted Henry replaced by his daughter Mary, with Lord Montague’s brother Reginald Pole as king consort. In 1533 the imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, reported that “innumerable people from all walks of life”, including Bishop John Fisher, were begging him to tell the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to invade England and overthrow the king, who was “even more unpopular than King Richard had been”. Chapuy also reported that many saw Pole as the real Yorkist heir to the throne.
Bishop Fisher led the opposition to Henry’s repudiation of papal authority. The king dealt ruthlessly with those who resisted it, and Fisher was sent to the Tower, together with the former lord chancellor Thomas More, who also opposed Henry’s religious policies. Both men were executed in 1535.
Although they undoubtedly died for their loyalty to the pope, Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, informed Francis I of France that they had been punished because of “their treasons, conspiracies and practices” and planning “the destruction of the king”. It sounds as if he had got wind of Fisher’s words to Chapuys. Thomas More too would probably have welcomed Henry’s overthrow, as it would mean an end to the break with Rome.
Henry’s darkest hour
Resistance to Henry didn’t die with Fisher and More. In 1536, 30,000 English northerners rose in the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’, demanding that the king should dismiss Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer. It was the most dangerous moment of Henry’s reign, but the king was able to trick the rebels into dispersing. By that time Reginald Pole (in effect, the new White Rose) had fled to Italy, and been made a cardinal by Pope Paul IV. Early in 1537 the pope gave Pole a ‘mission’ to make Henry return to papal obedience, and even to depose him. Reginald hoped to revive the Pilgrimage, but failed to reach England. He then tried to persuade Emperor Charles V to launch an invasion. Henry made unavailing efforts to have him murdered or kidnapped, writing “we would be very glad to have the said Pole by some means trussed up and conveyed to Calais”.
When Henry finally had a son, the future Edward VI, in 1537 he grew even more maniacally suspicious, fearful that if he died too soon the boy might vanish like Edward V. The “traitorous practices of Mr Pole” therefore doomed the White Rose families whose leaders, Exeter and Montague, were accused of plotting against the king and his son, and executed for a conspiracy existing only in the minds of Henry VIII and Cromwell.
When the two were posthumously tried in 1539, Montague’s mother, the Countess of Salisbury, was included in the proceedings. Here Thomas Cromwell produced a tabard found in her coffer, with the royal arms of England joined with those of the Pole family. A contemporary wrote that it proved “Pole intended to have married my Lady Mary and betwixt them should arise the old doctrine of Christ”. Two years later the countess was beheaded, but a stream of agents failed to assassinate Reginald Pole in Italy.
The last victims of Henry’s mania were the Duke of Norfolk and his son the Earl of Surrey, condemned in 1547 for planning to seize the throne, despite scant evidence to back up the charge. Although neither had Yorkist blood, in Henry’s eyes they reincarnated Suffolks, Poles and Courtenays – and Richard III.
Yorkist blood was still important, even after Henry VIII’s death. As late as 1562 Arthur Pole, the Countess of Salisbury’s grandson, wrote to Mary, Queen of Scots offering to forego his rights and help her replace Mary’s sister and successor, Elizabeth, as queen of England if she would create him Duke of Clarence. Mary’s advisers were so interested that they thought he might make a king consort. However, Arthur was caught and sent to the Tower where he died in about 1570, Elizabeth sparing his life because of his royal blood.
Desmond Seward is author of The Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion and Treason – The Secret Wars Against the Tudors, which was published by Constable in September.
His mission: To murder Henry Tudor in York Minster
In March 1486 Lord Lovell rose for Richard III’s nephew, the Earl of Warwick, in Yorkshire as did Sir Humphrey Stafford in Worcestershire. Lovell tried to attack Henry VII, who was at York for Easter, but his little army disintegrated when royal heralds promised free pardons. Even so, on 23 April, his men only just failed to assassinate the king – at Mass in the Minster or at dinner. Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey occupied Worcester, the revolt spread to neighbouring countries, and riots broke out in London. However, it collapsed at news of Lovell’s failure. Stafford was hanged, drawn and quartered, although Lord Lovell got away.
Threat level: Moderate
His mission: To put Lambert Simnel on the throne
In spring 1487 another of Richard III’s nephews, the Earl of Lincoln, and Lord Lovell invaded from Ireland. They proclaimed the Earl of Warwick ‘King Edward VI’ – using a boy called Lambert Simnel to impersonate him (the real Warwick was then in Henry VII’s captivity). They had 4,000 Irish soldiers and 2,000 German landsknechts (pikemen and swordsmen who were the period’s crack troops) but not enough English Yorkists joined in. Yet on 16 June at Stoke, three miles south of Newark, charging downhill they almost broke Henry VII’s advance guard under Lord Oxford, before it rallied and annihilated them. Lincoln was killed. It was Henry’s most dangerous moment after the battle of Bosworth.
Threat level: Severe
Sir William Stanley
His mission: To stab his old friend in arms, Henry VII, in the back
William Stanley had won Bosworth for Henry VII and, as lord chamberlain, was the most influential man in England. Although well-rewarded, he was dissatisfied. His allies included other courtiers – Lord Fitzwalter, steward of the Household and Sir Gilbert Debenham, knight of the King’s Body. Stanley supported the invasion of the imposter Perkin Warbeck, believing him to be the Duke of York (one of the two princes who had disappeared in the Tower of London). He and his allies planned to murder Henry VII. However since 1493 their contact with Warbeck had been Sir Robert Clifford, in reality a double agent. Thanks to Clifford, Henry discovered everything and had Stanley arrested and executed with his fellow plotters in January 1495. The king had been saved by his spy network.
Threat level: Severe
Richard de la Pole
His Mission: To unseat Henry VIII with 12,000 mercenaries
In 1514 the French king Louis XII gave Richard de la Pole 12,000 Landsknechts to mount an expedition to conquer England. Spending so much money on hiring such a big force shows that Louis had a high opinion of Richard and believed an invasion might succeed – veteran professional soldiers should easily rout raw English levies. A fleet assembled at St Malo and Richard was about to sail when Louis unexpectedly made peace with Henry VIII.
Threat level: Severe
His Mission: To sail up the Thames and rescue Katherine of Aragon
In autumn 1534 Lord Darcy told the imperial ambassador to ask the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to send an invasion force, claiming that at least 600 lords and rich gentlemen in the north of England would welcome it. Darcy then proposed that Charles send an expedition up the Thames to rescue the emperor’s cousin Mary from Greenwich, while his own men rescued the recently divorced Katherine of Aragon from Kimbolton. He also asked for a company of arquebusiers, with which he would start a rising when he returned to Yorkshire. But the emperor dismissed his plan as impracticable.
Threat level: High