Henry VII: the greatest pretender
Few English kings were assailed by as many rival claimants to their crown as Henry VII. Yet, as Nathen Amin describes, the man who had himself seized the throne against all odds was more than up to the challenge
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Henry VII is a king often overlooked, his legacy overshadowed by those whose reigns bookended his: the much-debated Richard III and the larger-than-life Henry VIII. The enduring image of the first Tudor monarch is of a tight-fisted miser – a dreary accountant king who presided over a dark and tedious regime until his powerhouse of a son took the reins and really shook things up. Yet the reign of Henry VII was replete with drama, intrigue and conspiracy, as a series of pretenders threatened to drive him from his hard-won throne before he could even settle in.
To appreciate the first Tudor king’s issues with pretenders, we must first understand his own unlikely rise to the throne. Henry was born in Pembroke Castle on 28 January 1457, son of Margaret Beaufort, an English heiress of royal descent, and Edmund Tudor, a half-Welsh, half-French earl who had died three months earlier. Though his lineage included links with English, Welsh, French and Bavarian royalty, at the time of his birth Henry was just another noble mouth to feed, and certainly not a king in the making.
At birth, Henry was just another noble mouth to feed – certainly not a king in the making
Despite being just a child during the early phases of the Wars of the Roses, Henry was closely associated with the House of Lancaster. His half-uncle on his father’s side was King Henry VI, whose most ardent followers included the boy’s paternal uncle, Jasper Tudor, and his maternal Beaufort relations.
A series of battles between 1459 and 1471 accompanied significant political upheaval in England; the feeble Henry VI was deposed twice during this time by Edward of York (who reigned as Edward IV). By the end of May 1471, Henry VI and his sole heir, Prince Edward, were dead, and the male line of the Lancastrian-descended Beauforts had been wiped out. The upshot was that Henry Tudor, now 14 years old and previously little regarded, became viewed by the Yorkist crown as a potential threat to be neutralised.
Escape to victory
Fearing that death awaited his young nephew, Jasper Tudor acted with haste. Seizing Henry, he fled from their Yorkist pursuers through south Wales, navigating a series of underground tunnels beneath Tenby to reach a modest vessel on which they sailed for the continent. Henry spent the next 14 years in exile, anxiously peering over his shoulder for Yorkist assassins.
It was only after the death of Edward IV in 1483 that this largely unknown earl from Wales was recast as a potential English king. Dissident Yorkists alienated by rumours that Richard III had murdered Edward’s sons, the ill-fated princes in the Tower, turned their gaze across the Channel to the man who would become Henry VII. Amplifying his maternal descent from Edward III through the Beaufort line, they launched a bid to convert him into an acceptable candidate for the throne.
If a pretender is defined as “a person who claims or aspires to a title or position that someone else holds”, then nobody encapsulated that concept better than Henry Tudor in 1483. In the words of one perceptive foreign commentator, he was a man “without power, without money, without right to the crown of England, and without any reputation but what his person and deportment obtained for him”.
Following his victory over Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, Henry wasted little time in being crowned king in Westminster Abbey, before marrying Elizabeth of York and symbolically uniting the warring houses of York and Lancaster. Soon, the new queen was pregnant with an heir. After 30 years of vicious conflict, England, it seemed, was finally at peace.
Yet, as Henry’s court historian Polydore Vergil noted, the new king soon “began to be harassed by the treachery of his opponents and, assaulted frequently thereafter by the forces of his enemies and the insurrections of his own subjects, he evaded peril not without effort”. This was a pointed reference to the emergence of two pretenders who threatened the stability of the fledgling Tudor crown, and the fact that Henry enjoyed anything but universal support early in his reign.
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By 1486 it was generally presumed that the children of Edward IV had been killed, their demise paving the way for the Tudor accession. Yet a third Yorkist prince remained alive, albeit under lock and key in the Tower of London. The 11-year-old Edward, 17th Earl of Warwick, was the only surviving son of George, Duke of Clarence – scheming brother of Edward IV and Richard III, executed for treason in 1478.
With his royal blood, Warwick became a figurehead for a small band of Yorkist insurgents who sought to reverse the outcome of Bosworth. As a captive of the Tudor king, Warwick could not actually front any rebellion, so a surrogate was found: the boy later named as Lambert Simnel.
When Henry VII uncovered the conspiracy, he had the real Warwick paraded in London to prove that the Yorkists’ claimant was an imposter – but even that failed to stop the plot from gaining traction in Ireland. Of particular concern to Henry was the defection of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, Warwick’s cousin and himself a potential Yorkist candidate for the throne. Lincoln lent the plot some degree of credibility. He also brought with him the support, money and mercenaries of his aunt Margaret of York, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy.
Simnel was crowned “Edward, King of England” in Dublin’s Holy Trinity Cathedral on 24 May 1487. Within weeks, a largely Irish army landed in Lancashire, bolstered by some German troops and a handful of English Yorkists.
Henry VII moved decisively to confront the threat. On 16 June 1487, his army met the invading force at Stoke Field in Nottinghamshire where, one chronicler noted, “both sides fought with the bitterest energy”. Unlike at Bosworth, the might of the royal army made headway, and the ill-equipped rebels were “stricken down and slain like dull and brute beasts”. Lincoln was killed and the pretender captured. The Tudor crown was saved.
In the investigation that followed, royal officials revealed the identity of the boy to whom the rebels had rallied as the 10-yearold son of Thomas Simnel, an Oxford joiner. It’s been suggested that the name “Lambert Simnel” was an eccentric invention designed to hide his true royal lineage, but there is ample evidence that the given name Lambert was in use in 15th-century England. Lambert Fossdyke was abbot of Croyland Abbey in 1484, for example, and the chancery rolls contain references to Lambert Brancaster, Lambert Salter and Lambert Pevy. Similarly, the surname Simnel had precedents: a Roger Symnell, a Richard Symnel and, pertinently, a Thomas Simnel of Oxford can be traced.
What of the boy’s fate? As a mere child who had little influence in the plot, Henry VII ruled him to be just an “innocent lad” who was “too young to have committed any offence” himself. So the king put Lambert Simnel to work in the royal kitchens; he was later promoted to train Henry’s hawks. We know that he was still alive more than 40 years after the plot, though he maintained a low profile for the remainder of his life.
Listen: Nathen Amin discusses the plots and conspiracies that threatened to unseat Henry VII from his throne, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Henry VII’s troubles did not end with victory at Stoke Field. During the winter of 1491, a remarkably well-dressed figure with a sharp mind and flowing blond locks confidently glided through the streets of Cork, Ireland. The young man, then in his mid-teens, arrived suddenly and without warning, attracting curious glances with every step. Rumours quickly circulated that he was the bastard son of Richard III. Then the claims were adjusted, and word spread that he was in fact Richard of York, younger son of Edward IV, presumed dead for the past eight years.
This second pretender, remembered by history as Perkin Warbeck, was quickly lauded by a small group of agitators as the rightful king. However, he found support among the Irish hard to command, and accepted an invitation to France, then in a state of war with England. Henry VII had himself risen to power through the agency of the French crown, so was acutely aware that foreign meddling could trigger a change of incumbent on the English throne.
Rather than waiting for a second invasion, Henry went on the offensive, crossing the Channel in October 1492 at the head of what was probably the largest English army of the 15th century. There were other reasons for the invasion besides the plot, but during negotiations with the French king one of Henry’s main demands was Warbeck’s expulsion from France. This was agreed – but the conspiracy was far from over.
Warbeck now sought refuge in Flanders at the court of his “aunt”, Margaret of York. Margaret had freely given support to Simnel without ever meeting him and now, having encountered Warbeck in person, she rallied to his cause. Tudor chroniclers treated this warm reception with scorn, Vergil declaring that “so great was her pleasure that her happiness seemed to have disturbed the balance of her mind”.
Margaret even wrote on her new protégé’s behalf to Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, claiming that “when I gazed on this only male Remnant of our family – who had come through so many perils and misfortunes – I was deeply moved, and out of this natural affection, into which both necessity and the rights of blood were drawing me, I embraced him as my only nephew and my only son”. It was to no avail: the Spanish monarchs dismissed her claims.
Warbeck was able to raise a modest army in Flanders and, in the summer of 1495, sailed to England in a bid to win his supposed birthright. His claim to be the son of a popular Yorkist king, however, proved of little merit to a dubious audience. When Warbeck’s men landed at Deal in Kent, they were ambushed by the local populace and slain, while the pretender looked on aghast from his ship. Raising anchor, Warbeck sailed to Ireland, where he was likewise rebuffed by the people of Waterford. In November he surfaced in Scotland, where the ambitious young King James IV was enthusiastic about war with England. Using Warbeck’s cause as justification, James called Henry VII “our extreme and mortal enemy”.
In September 1496, Warbeck once more attempted to enter England, this time from the north. Just as in Kent, however, this second invasion proved to be a humiliating farce. Shocked by the ferocity of border warfare, and alarmed at the lack of support for his cause, Warbeck fled from the front lines on the first day. Having squandered the support provided by James IV, Warbeck quietly left Scotland the following summer. But in September 1497 he arrived in Cornwall to chance one final throw of the dice.
The Cornish had recently risen in rebellion against Henry VII and, having been crushed at the battle of Blackheath, were simmering in resentment. It was this anger, not the strength of Warbeck’s claim to the throne, that drew them to his colours. His meagre numbers bolstered by a modest array of vengeful Cornishmen, Warbeck marched through the West Country with intent. Upon reaching Taunton, however, word arrived that a formidable royal army was heading in their direction, fronted by an armour-clad king. Rather than stand and fight, Warbeck lost his nerve and surrendered.
As with Simnel, Henry granted Warbeck his life – though, following a failed escape attempt, the latter was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Seventeen months later, Warbeck was accused of conspiring with the Earl of Warwick, sealing both their fates. On 23 November 1499, Perkin Warbeck was hanged like a commoner at Tyburn, his body then hastily buried in an unmarked grave. Warwick was beheaded on Tower Hill.
One question has captivated historians over the five centuries since these events unfolded: was Warbeck truly the prince he claimed to be? During his time at large, the story peddled by “Prince Richard” was that, while his brother Edward V was “miserably put to death”, the younger boy had been permitted to escape by a compassionate assassin. In a frustratingly vague account, he gave no indication who it was that ordered his brother’s murder, and mentioned no names or dates that can be corroborated.
After his capture, however, Warbeck confessed to being an imposter from Tournai, son of John Osbeck rather than Edward IV; tellingly, he confirmed this story on the gallows, moments before his death. This revelation has been questioned by some, who consider that it was contrived by the Tudor regime. However, there is an abundance of evidence in the Tournai historical record to support its accuracy, and independent investigations conducted by the French and Spanish also concluded that he was a fraud.
Only one man emerged victorious from these years of strife – Henry, the original pretender
In the end, however, Warbeck’s identity matters not. Only one man emerged victorious from these years of strife – the original pretender, Henry VII. Between 1485 and 1499, Henry had invaded England, seized the crown in battle, married the princess, established a thriving dynasty, replenished the treasury, earned continental recognition from his peers and the papacy, suppressed a Cornish rebellion, and vanquished two serious challenges for his throne.
When later describing the character of Henry VII, Polydore Vergil noted how “his spirit was distinguished, wise and prudent; his mind was brave and resolute and never, even at moments of the greatest danger, deserted him”. It seems an apt summary of the greatest pretender of them all.
The war that rose from the dead
The battle of Bosworth is often regarded as the end point of the Wars of the Roses. But, argues Nathen Amin, the conflict rumbled on for another 20 years
On wresting the crown from Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, Henry VII sought to present himself as the unity candidate – the man chosen by God to reconcile the houses of York and Lancaster. Three decades of chaos and bloodletting were over – or so Henry hoped. The new king even adopted as his emblem the red rose, a little-known Lancastrian badge. This was combined with the white rose of his Yorkist-descended wife, Elizabeth, to create a double rose – a very visual symbol of reconciliation, peace and harmony.
Yet victory at Bosworth in 1485 did not bring to England “smooth-faced peace, with smiling aplenty and fair prosperous days”, as Shakespeare would later claim. Before the Wars of the Roses could truly be brought to a close, Henry had to navigate a tricky reign, crushing Yorkist pretenders and rebels, subduing a haughty nobility, replenishing the treasury, and outwitting his continental rivals to prevent the kind of foreign-backed deposition that had befallen previous kings of England. That a fierce pitched battle for the crown was fought two years after Bosworth at Stoke Field proves that the Wars of the Roses smouldered on after the demise of Richard III.
So if this long civil war didn’t reach its climax in 1485, when did it come to an end? There is a solid argument that the wars concluded only with the death of Henry VII. The final years of his reign were tough for those subjects fearful of falling foul of an avaricious king, and for the monarch himself, anxiety-ridden over his dynasty’s future. With only one male heir – two sons having already died – the Tudor succession rested on fragile foundations.
Despite myriad illnesses towards the end of his life, Henry VII lived until April 1509, by which point his handsome, strong and scholarly heir was 17 years old and on the cusp of adulthood. By fending off his adversaries, Henry was able to accomplish what no English monarch had achieved for decades – the peaceful transferral of his crown to a son old enough to rule without a regent: Henry VIII. Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III had all failed where the first Tudor king succeeded.
Despite attempts by historians to draw a line under the Wars of the Roses after Bosworth Field, this acrimonious conflict between implacable factions only truly ended with the accession of the popular, part-Lancastrian, part-Yorkist Henry VIII. As the poet John Skelto put it around the time of the younger Henry’s coronation: “The Rose both white and red, In one rose now doth grow.”
Nathen Amin is an author and historical researcher. His latest book is Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders: Simnel, Warbeck and Warwick (Amberley, 2021)
This article was first published in the May 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine