Lambert Simnel: Richard III’s heir who 'had a stronger claim to the throne than Henry VII'
In 1486, a year after Henry VII had killed Richard III at the battle of Bosworth and seized the crown, a young man claiming to be a Yorkist prince appeared, as if from nowhere, to oust the usurper and reclaim the throne for the legitimate royal family...
Claiming to be Richard III’s heir and the rightful king of England, this boy – supposedly Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of Richard III’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence – was crowned king of England in Dublin Cathedral, despite the Tudor government insisting that his real name was Lambert Simnel and that he was an imposter.
Author and historian John Ashdown-Hill questions the generally accepted Tudor view that this boy was a mere pretender to the throne.
In The Dublin King, Ashdown-Hill uses previously unpublished information to uncover the true identity of the Yorkist heir, who he concludes had a stronger claim to the throne than Henry VII. He also debunks the belief by some that the so-called ‘Dublin King’ himself claimed to be one of the ‘princes in the Tower’.
Here, Ashdown-Hill reveals the two conflicting life stories of Edward, 17th Earl of Warwick…
Born: 25 February 1475, Warwick Castle
Died: Officially beheaded for treason, Tower Hill, 28 November 1499 – but his conflicting life story disputes this
Family: The third of four children of George, Duke of Clarence and his wife, Isabel Neville. Edward’s maternal grandfather was the famous ‘Kingmaker’ Earl of Warwick. His father’s brothers were the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III. Edward’s eldest sibling, Anne, and his younger brother, Richard, both died soon after being born. His mother, Isabel Duchess of Clarence, also died soon after Richard’s birth
Famous for: Reputedly spending his teenage years as Henry VII’s prisoner in the Tower of London, and suffering from a mental disability
Life: Edward’s father, George, believed his enemy Elizabeth Woodville (consort of his brother, Edward IV) was behind the poisoning of his wife and younger son. He became scared about the future of his surviving children – and himself.
Fear for his children led to plans to smuggle Edward out of the country - and to contacts with Ireland. Fear for his own future prompted George’s campaign against Elizabeth Woodville and her children. This resulted in George’s imprisonment and execution. Thus, as his third birthday approached, Edward Earl of Warwick found himself orphaned.
His uncle, Edward IV, sent for him. But King Edward IV had not seen his nephew and namesake for three years. Could the king have recognised the little boy who was handed over to him and then brought up as Earl of Warwick at the Tower of London?
In 1483, following the death of Edward IV, Richard III was offered the crown on the grounds that Edward IV had been legally married to Eleanor Talbot, daughter of Lord Shrewsbury. Thus Edward IV’s subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous and their children were illegitimate.
Richard III assumed care of young Warwick (then aged eight). He housed him at Sheriff Hutton Castle near York, with other Yorkist princes and princesses, and began training Warwick for a future position of power and influence.
In 1485 Richard III was killed at the battle of Bosworth. The usurper Henry VII had no real claim to the throne. To improve his weak position Henry decided to marry Elizabeth of York (eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville). He revoked the act of Parliament which stated that Edward IV’s real wife had been Eleanor Talbot, and then represented Elizabeth to the nation as the Yorkist heiress.
But Henry VII was worried about Warwick. In 1470 King Henry VI had recognised George Duke of Clarence as the next Lancastrian heir to the throne after his own son. As Henry VI and his son had died in 1471, and George had died in 1478, by 1485 Warwick was the legitimate Lancastrian heir – a claim arguably unaffected by his father’s execution at the hands of a Yorkist king.
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So Henry VII took charge of Warwick. First he was placed under the guardianship of Henry VII’s own mother, and later he was consigned to the Tower of London.
But curiously, at the same time an alternative ‘son of Clarence’ was being entertained in Mechelen, at the palace of his putative aunt, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy: Margaret’s Edward Earl of Warwick had apparently been brought up in Ireland. Had George’s plot to smuggle his son and heir abroad in 1476 therefore succeeded?
Henry VII’s prisoner, or Margaret of York’s guest – which of the two Earls of Warwick was genuine?
Margaret’s ‘Warwick’ returned to Ireland with an army and key Yorkist supporters, led by Warwick’s cousin, the Earl of Lincoln. In Ireland they combined forces with the great Earl of Kildare – former friend and deputy of Warwick’s father.
On 24 May 1487, Margaret’s ‘Warwick’ was crowned ‘Edward VI, King of England’ at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. Henry VII’s anxious government sent servants to inspect the new king. They hoped to prove the boy a fraud, but when the servants met ‘Edward VI’ they were confused.
Later, Henry VII’s government announced that the boy crowned in Dublin was an impostor, named either ‘John [BLANK]’ or ‘Lambert Simnel’. But the government’s accounts of the ‘pretender’ were also confused. Fortunately for Henry VII, when ‘Edward VI’ invaded England, he was defeated at the battle of Stoke – and possibly captured – although one account says he escaped! The young prisoner became a servant in Henry VII’s kitchen under the name of ‘Lambert Simnel’.
Meanwhile, the official Earl of Warwick remained in the Tower. In 1499 he was condemned to death, to clear the path for the projected marriage of Henry VII’s son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, to the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon. His body was buried at Bisham Priory.
So which is the true story of Edward Earl of Warwick?
If the remains of the young man executed by Henry VII in 1499 could be rediscovered on the site of Bisham Priory, DNA research (similar to my 2004 discovery which prompted the search for, and subsequent identification of, the remains of Richard III) could potentially be used to clarify the truth.
John Ashdown-Hill is a freelance historian with a PhD in history. His book, The Dublin King: The True Story of Edward Earl of Warwick, Lambert Simnel and the 'Princes in the Tower' is published by The History Press.
This article was published by HistoryExtra in 2015