I’m always interested to read books about lesser-known characters in periods I’ve read a lot about. I’ve read countless books about Henry VIII, his six wives, Mary, Queen of Scots & Elizabeth. In recent years I’ve enjoyed books about Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Elizabeth Raleigh & Bess of Hardwick. Not the usual suspects.
Desmond Seward’s new book is about the Yorkist pretenders to the throne who disturbed the peace of Henry VII & Henry VIII. As Shakespeare said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 & almost immediately his flimsy claim to the throne was under attack from those loyal to the House of York. Henry’s claim was based on the illegitimate Lancastrian descent of his mother, Margaret Beaufort, & he was reluctant to admit that his marriage to Elizabeth of York was a way of strengthening this claim. Rumours about the fate of the Princes in the Tower, Edward V & Richard, Duke of York, had contributed to the downfall of Richard III, who was widely suspected of murdering them. The uncertainty about their fate would have repercussions throughout the reign of Henry VII.
Richard III’s nephew, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was another pretender to be feared. Richard had made him his heir after the death of his own son & within two years of Bosworth, Henry was forced to confront Lincoln at the Battle of Stoke. Lincoln was killed but Henry could not rest easy as almost immediately a young boy called Lambert Simnel appeared, claiming to be Edward, Earl of Warwick, another nephew of Richard III. Henry knew that Warwick was safely imprisoned in the Tower of London but Simnel was taken to Ireland where there were many Yorkist supporters & he was proclaimed King. Henry had little trouble quashing this attempt & he realised that Simnel was just a pawn in the hands of ambitious men. He put the boy to work in his kitchens rather than executing him. Henry wasn’t always so merciful.
The next pretender was much more dangerous. Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, who escaped when his brother was murdered by Richard III’s henchmen & made his way to Burgundy. Here he was taken up by Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, a sister of Richard III. Margaret hated Henry & would be a thorn in his side for years as she encouraged any Yorkist pretender who came her way. Warbeck was certainly an enigma. He had a certain resemblance to his supposed father, Edward IV, spoke good English & knew a considerable amount about life at the English Court. Henry accused Margaret of training Warbeck but he was also acknowledged by other rulers. James IV of Scotland supported him, marrying him to one of his relatives, Lady Katherine Gordon. James wasn’t averse to tormenting Henry as the Scots & the English hated each other but he does seem to have believed that Warbeck was the Duke of York. Unfortunately, Warbeck’s “subjects” objected to an army of Scots & other mercenaries pillaging & stealing on their way south from Scotland & Warbeck’s attempts foundered through bad planning, bad luck & lack of money. He was finally captured by Henry & imprisoned in the Tower with the young Earl of Warwick. Henry was content to let both young men rot in the Tower until he decided to marry his son Arthur to the daughter of Isabella & Ferdinand of Spain. The Spanish monarchs were reluctant to let their daughter marry into a dynasty so insecure on the throne. Henry decided Warwick must die & fabricated a conspiracy that embroiled Warwick & Perkin Warbeck as well. Both men were executed in 1499.
As one White Rose (the symbol of the House of York) was cut down, others took their place. The Earl of Lincoln’s brothers, the de la Poles, plotted against Henry VII & Henry VIII, with the help of their Aunt Margaret in Burgundy & other Yorkists in England. Richard de la Pole was the most formidable of these brothers. He spent most of his life in exile in Europe but was a formidable soldier & had the backing of the King of France. Lack of money was his problem as well as the fact that he was only ever a pawn in the ambitions of European monarchs who wanted to get the better of Henry VIII. His death, fighting for the King of France at the Battle of Pavia in 1516, delighted Henry VIII.
The Earl of Warwick’s sister Margaret had been married to a Tudor sympathiser, Richard Pole. Margaret was initially quite a favourite of Henry VIII. He restored some of her property, created her Countess of Somerset in her own right & made her governess to his daughter, Mary. She was very close to Mary & Katherine of Aragon & it was Henry’s attempt to divorce Katherine & renounce the authority of the Pope that led to a breach between Margaret & the King. Margaret’s sons, Richard, Geoffrey & Reginald would all inspire plots to depose Henry VIII & replace him on the throne with his daughter, Mary, who would marry one of these cousins & restore the Catholic faith to England. The Yorkist cause had become entwined with the desire of many people to turn back the religious changes Henry had made. Henry’s paranoia eventually led to Margaret’s imprisonment in the Tower & she was eventually executed on a trumped-up charge in 1541 at the age of 68.
The Last White Rose is the fascinating story of all these pretenders to the throne. Several of the conspiracies almost succeeded. How different the history of England would have been if that had happened.