The Tudor regime’s obvious insecurity gave it good cause to value very highly indeed the steadfast loyalty and the proven military abilities of John, Earl of Oxford. Although we now know with hindsight that his victory over Lincoln at Stoke in 1487 had been the last pitched battle of the Wars of the Roses, for many years there seemed to be every reason why Henry VII should never for one moment relax his vigilance against Yorkist plots or rebellions. This is why Sir Francis Bacon claims (in his history of Henry’s reign) that Lord Oxford was the King’s ‘principal servant both for war and peace’. Oxford was generally acknowledged to be the finest soldier in the land, a man who, as Bacon says, was ‘well famed and loved among the people’, and the firmest guarantee of the regime’s survival.1
King Henry lived in constant fear of the White Rose. When in April 1489 a mob lynched the Earl of Northumberland near Topcliffe in Yorkshire during a protest against new taxation to pay for a war in Brittany, and a riot ensued in which the rebels seized York, the King at once suspected that behind the rising there lay a dangerous plot to overthrow him. Certainly, the anonymous author of the Great Chronicle of London thought that the Earl of Northumberland had been killed because the Yorkshiremen bore him ‘deadly malice for the disappointing of King Richard at Bosworth Field’, while some among the handful of gentry who joined the rising (such as Sir John Egremont) were former servants of the late King. Henry hastily assembled an army and marched north as quickly as he could, half a dozen East Anglian knights being summoned by the Earl of Oxford ‘to meet with my lord at Cambridge with 30 men a-piece of them’, according to Sir John Paston. However, the rebels had fled before the royal army even reached York. Despite its unmistakeably Yorkist undertones – Egremont took refuge with Margaret of York in Flanders – the King realized that the revolt really had been no more than an unusually murderous protest against high taxation. Nevertheless, he was very much aware that he could not afford to take any chances.2
Henry had enemies in the most unlikely places, even in the cloisters. At the end of December 1489 the Abbot of Abingdon, John Sant, and others were found guilty of conspiring to overthrow him. In the spring of 1486 the Abbot had given sanctuary to a Yorkist fugitive, Sir Humphrey Stafford, at one of his abbey’s dependent houses, Culham Priory. In January 1487 he had sent money ‘to the help and aid of John, then earl of Lincoln’. At the beginning of December 1489, the Abbot had plotted to secure the release of the Earl of Warwick, ‘and to have levied war against the king our said sovereign lord to th’entent to have destroyed his most royal person, and intending to put this whole realm into confusion’. Abingdon was one of the richest Benedictine abbeys in England, and its extremely influential abbot had a seat in the House of Lords. At least one other Abingdon monk was involved in the plot, together with a handful of townsmen and a priest from London. The group were not hardline Yorkists who had lost office and favour but ordinary honest men who were outraged at the way in which the last male member of the ancient ruling family of Plantagenet had been set aside and deprived of the throne. Many others must have thought like them.3 The townsmen seem to have been hanged but, as a cleric Abbot Sant escaped the gallows. He was pardoned in 1493 on condition that, as long as he lived, he should say Mass daily for the King’s well being. Henry had a sense of humour.
The Earl of Oxford was wholly successful in restoring the former influence of the de Vere family throughout East Anglia, presumably with the King’s full approval. (As the region nearest Flanders it was an area where Yorkist agents might be expected to land.) There is a pleasant letter sent by the bailiffs of Yarmouth to Sir John Paston in the autumn of 1491 in which they ask him to put in a kind word for them with ‘our old special good lord of Oxford’, to whom they have sent a porpoise – ‘and if we had any other dainties to do him a pleasure, we would, that knoweth God’.4
In October 1492 Oxford accompanied King Henry to Calais. He commanded the English army’s vanguard during a campaign in Picardy which lasted only a few days and was present at a very brief siege of the port of Boulogne. Both campaign and siege were speedily terminated by the French promising to pay Henry a pension of the sort it had paid to Edward IV, the Earl being among the signatories of the treaty.
Then, in Bacon’s words, Henry VII ‘began again to be haunted with spirits by the magic and curious arts of the lady Margaret [of] York, who raised up the ghost of Richard, duke of York, second son to King Edward the Fourth, to walk and vex the king’. The ghost was Perkin Warbeck, whose impersonation of the younger of the Princes in the Tower attracted Yorkist support for some years and posed a serious threat. Frequently there were rumours of invasion. These invariably concerned Oxford who, as Admiral of England, was responsible for guarding the entire coastline, and not merely that of East Anglia.
‘Pierrequin Werbecque’ was born in Tournai in about 1474, the son of a boatman. He arrived in Ireland in 1491 as the servant of a Breton silk merchant and, while walking through the streets of Cork dressed in his master’s splendid clothes, was taken for a member of the Yorkist royal family. Some English Yorkists in Cork made him pretend to be the Duke of York, teaching him English; he claimed that he had been spared by his ‘brother’ Edward V’s murderer, on condition he lived abroad without revealing his name. In 1492 he went to France to seek help but had to leave in November after Charles VIII’s treaty with England.5
Accompanied by Sir George Nevill and other Yorkist diehards, Perkin moved to Flanders. Here Margaret of York welcomed him as her nephew, acclaiming him as the ‘White Rose’. It was now that he became a real threat to King Henry. He travelled to Vienna where King Maximilian recognized him as ‘Richard IV’. Margaret and Maximilian supplied money for an invasion, an extremely dangerous plot being mounted against Henry in England. Among the conspirators were Lord Fitzwalter, the Prior of St John’s, the Deans of York and St Paul’s, and several rich knights – including Sir William Stanley who, after leading that decisive charge at Bosworth, had been made royal chamberlain but had grown dissatisfied. (It is highly significant that so experienced a politician as William Stanley should think that Perkin had a good chance of toppling the Tudor King.)
Henry VII defused the plot by bribing one of the Yorkists in Flanders, Sir Robert Clifford, with a pardon and £500. Clifford returned to England and revealed the names of those involved; most of them were executed, including Stanley. Perkin’s invasion was postponed until July 1495.
Sir John Paston, working closely with Lord Oxford, was informed on 11 July that the ‘Admiral’s Deputy’ had intercepted a Burgundian vessel off the Norman coast carrying horses, though eight or nine Englishmen on board had fled in the ship’s boat. ‘And as for the ships with the king’s rebels, they be forth out of Camber [in Sussex] westward.’ The next day 300 men landed at Deal but were quickly killed or rounded up by the Kentishmen. Perkin lost his nerve, sailing to Ireland instead. After failing to capture Waterford, he sailed on to Scotland where James IV gave him a royal welcome as ‘Prince Richard of England’ and married him to his cousin, Katherine Gordon. But all that came of Perkin’s time with the Scots was a puny raid on Northumberland in September 1496.
Perkin was not the only danger. In the summer of 1497 Cornwall rebelled against King Henry’s taxes. A Cornish army marched up to London, meeting no resistance on the way, and threatened the City. The Earl of Oxford was commander-in-chief of the three royal forces that routed the rebels at Blackheath just outside, killing a thousand Cornishmen. It was to be his last battle.6
Perkin finally left Scotland in the autumn of 1497, sailing to Ireland. Here he found only hostility, the FitzGeralds having at last made peace with King Henry. He made his final throw in September, landing in Cornwall with 300 men. A rabble joined him, Cornishmen still smarting over their defeat at Blackheath. After two unsuccessful attacks on Exeter, he marched as far as Taunton but, learning that a royal army was only twenty miles away, he abandoned his men and fled to the Abbey of Beaulieu in Hampshire where he took sanctuary.
He soon surrendered to Henry on being promised both life and liberty. After being paraded through the streets and making a full confession, he was treated surprisingly well, almost as a member of the court. Foolishly, he attempted to escape from London in June 1498 but was quickly recaptured. He was placed in the stocks on a scaffold at Westminster, racked, and then thrown into a windowless cell in the Tower. The Spanish ambassador, who met Perkin two months later, thought him ‘so much changed that I, and all other persons here, believe that his life will be very short’.
The regime could never relax its guard against Yorkist plots. During the spring of 1499 yet another false Earl of Warwick appeared, this time on Lord Oxford’s doorstep, on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk. Apprehended, he was brought before the Earl and questioned. According to theGreat Chronicle of London, the young man’s real name was Ralph Wulford or Wilford, the son of a London shoemaker ‘dwelling at the Black Bull in Bishopsgate’. He confessed that while studying at Cambridge he had dreamt that if he called himself the Duke of Clarence’s son he would become King – ‘after which confession he was sent up to the king and from him to prison, and upon that arraigned and convicted of treason, and finally upon Shrove Tuesday hanged at St Thomas Watering in his shirt . . .’7
Ralph Wulford was plainly insane, but he demonstrated just how widely Warwick’s right to the throne was recognized by the country at large. Between them, Wulford and Perkin destroyed the Earl of Warwick – it ‘was ordained that this winding-ivy of a Plantagenet should kill the true tree itself’, observes Bacon. For Henry VII could see only one solution. Lord Oxford was entrusted with Warwick’s legal murder and appointed Lord High Steward of England so that he could preside over his trial. Poor Warwick, who may have been mentally defective, had almost certainly been tricked into plotting with Perkin, although the latter was by now a broken man. The Earl and Perkin were accused of plotting to break out of the Tower by bribing their keepers and killing the Lieutenant, with the intention of escaping abroad and overthrowing King Henry. On 27 November 1499 Warwick appeared before the court of the Lord High Steward in Westminster Hall, to be informed by Lord Oxford that it had considered the findings of a grand jury and found him guilty of treason, which the Earl admitted. Early in October Warwick was beheaded on Tower Hill.
Bacon believed that Henry VII had had the Earl of Warwick executed because Ferdinand of Spain had told him that while a last male Plantagenet remained alive, the Tudors had no guarantee of surviving on the throne of England, and that in such circumstances he could not possibly let his daughter, Catherine of Aragon, marry Henry’s son.8
Perkin Warbeck had been tried on 16 November, found guilty and hanged a fortnight later. He was spared disembowlment and quartering, to avoid upsetting the London mob. ‘This was the end of this little cockatrice of a [pretended] King’ is Bacon’s comment. He thought that Perkin had been very dangerous indeed, and that the story might well have had another ending if he had not been faced by such a tough opponent as Henry VII.
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Even after the elimination of Warbeck and Warwick there were other Yorkist pretenders. Earlier that year, 1499, Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln – a younger brother of the Earl of Lincoln whom Richard III recognized as his heir and who fell at Stoke – had fled from England. Correctly, it was at once feared that Edmund was going to claim the throne. In August Lord Oxford wrote to one of the Pastons, telling him to try to find out who had accompanied the Earl abroad and what his intentions were. He also instructed Paston to keep a watch for ‘any suspect person nigh unto the sea-coasts which shall seem unto you to be of the same affinity . . .’ Edmund de la Pole would be a serious nuisance for some years to come.
Yet though a ‘White Rose’ faction would continue to scheme and plot until long after Henry VII’s death, the King had learnt how to control the English magnates – by suspended threats of attainder or ruinous fines, and by restricting their recruitment of retainers. When he died in 1509 he had laid the foundation of the mighty Tudor monarchy. The Wars of the Roses were over.