On Ascension Day in 1487, in Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, a young man enjoyed a rather unexpected coronation. Besides Dublin Castle and the town’s other cathedral, dedicated to St Patrick, Christchurch was the greatest building in the city, and by extension, one of the most magnificent in all of Ireland. And on Sunday 24 May it was enjoying one of its most extraordinary moments, as a ten-year-old child, dazzlingly dressed and supported by Gerald Fitzgerald, earl of Kildare and John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln, was crowned Edward VI, king of England and France.
His name – or more likely his pseudonym – was Lambert Simnel. He could have been an orphan from Flanders or a boy called John from Oxfordshire. His father may have been a carpenter called Thomas Simnel, who specialised in fitting out the wooden components of musical organs for the colleges and churches of Oxford and its flourishing university. He may alternatively have been a baker or a cobbler. Of his mother very little is known.1 What is known is that he had turned up in Dublin the previous autumn, and since that moment had been exciting the local population with his claims about his background and personal history. He was a comely youth, with ‘courtly manners’ according to one writer, and no doubt he looked radiant in the spring light of the cathedral, when he was crowned with a small circle of gold taken from the head of a statue of the Virgin Mary, and subsequently when he was carried through the city streets on the shoulders of a local lord, to be toasted and feasted in the castle.2 The coins that were minted bearing his likeness were handsome, as was the great seal struck for him, showing the boy enthroned, holding orb and sceptre. But this was most certainly not a king of England.
Lambert Simnel was an imposter. He claimed to be Edward earl of Warwick, the young son of George duke of Clarence, who had lived for most of his life in confinement, variously at Sheriff Hutton, Margaret Beaufort’s London palace at Coldharbour and the Tower of London – which was precisely where he was on Ascension Day 1487. Warwick had been damned by his father’s rebellion against Edward IV: he had become a political and legal nonentity at the time of his father’s execution and attainder, and was more or less ignored as first Richard duke of Gloucester and then Henry Tudor staked their claims to the crown. Were it not for Clarence’s attainder he would have been the last direct male member of the royal house of York. Instead, he had gone from being a prisoner of Richard III to a prisoner of Henry VII. Nevertheless, his impersonator had managed, in less than a year, to rally behind him a worrying degree of opposition to Henry VII’s young reign. Ominously for the real king, that support was on the verge of bringing about a full-scale invasion of England.
The earliest origins of the plot to present Simnel as ‘Edward VI’ are obscure, but he seems to have emerged in Oxfordshire under the tutelage of a priest called William Simonds and the political sponsorship of three renegades from Richard III’s reign: Francis, Viscount Lovell, Robert Stillington, bishop of Bath, and John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln, who as Richard III’s nephew had been heir presumptive at the time of the battle of Bosworth. Most importantly of all, the plot was supported by Margaret, dowager duchess of Burgundy: Richard III’s older sister, who ruled the Netherlands from the palace of Mechelen, near Antwerp, on behalf of her son Philip the Fair. Margaret was a superlative politician and a strong, hard-nosed protector of what she believed to be her family’s interests. She refused to accept Henry VII’s accession as king, and she extended the protection of her court to exiles who shared her aim of undermining the callow Tudor monarchy from afar.
Henry VII had been aware for some time that there was a pretender at large in Ireland. His own experience must have prepared him for the fact that, having taken the crown by force, he would be tested by others seeking to do the same, and he reacted decisively. On 2 February 1487 he had tried to snuff out the plotting by parading the real Edward from the Tower through the streets of London. Subsequently he had commanded that Elizabeth Woodville should be stripped of her estates and sent summarily to begin a luxurious retirement at Bermondsey Abbey, while her eldest son, the marquess of Dorset, should be imprisoned in the Tower. There is nothing really to suggest that either was involved: Elizabeth, as the mother of the queen, had very little motivation for plotting to overthrow the crown, still less in the name of Clarence’s son. Dorset was temperamentally unreliable and had not been trusted to join the Bosworth campaign, but there is nothing really to suggest that he was scheming against the king. Nevertheless, Henry VII was not willing to take risks. And his caution was to prove absolutely correct. For on 4 June 1487 an army of fifteen hundred German mercenaries and four thousand Irish peasants landed at Furness on the Cumbrian coast in the far north-west of England. They were led by Simnel and his puppet master John earl of Lincoln and marshalled by the fearsome Swiss captain Martin Schwartz, a man ‘admirably skilled in the art of war’.3
They marched rapidly across the lower Cumbrian mountains and the Pennines to Wensleydale, then skirted past York to Doncaster, and on down in the direction of Newark. They kept up a terrific pace, and by 15 June they were approaching the river Trent, the traditional dividing line between the north and south of England. There could be no hesitation on the king’s part. This was a full-scale invasion, at least as severe as that which Henry himself had mounted two summers previously. The flames of beacons would have licked the air to publicise the presence of the hordes marching down the spine of England. The crown would once again be placed in jeopardy on the battlefield.
Henry was at Kenilworth, in the east midlands, when Simnel and Lincoln landed. He threw his realm immediately into a state of martial readiness. As a royal army was assembled, Jasper duke of Bedford and John earl of Oxford were detailed to high command. The Stanleys were given an independent commission to defend their area of authority. Other loyal nobles, including Lord Lisle, Lord Scales, Sir Rhys ap Thomas and the earls of Shrewsbury and Devon, were also summoned to serve at the fore. Proclamations demanding that public order be kept were sent around the country. The king himself rode to Coventry and on to Leicester, mustering his troops and readying himself for the assault. In Leicester, Richard III’s corpse, not long in its rough grave at the church of the Greyfriars, must have reminded the king of fortune’s fickleness. Henry did not stay long in the city. By the time Simnel and Lincoln’s army had reached the Trent, he had amassed a large force of his own – perhaps twice the size of the invaders’ – which camped in the shadow of Nottingham Castle. It was the festival weekend of Corpus Christi – normally a time for processions, pageants and mystery plays. But with foreign mercenaries on the rampage in the English midlands, there was no thought for anything but beating back the enemy. ‘Like doves before a black storm,’ wrote Bernard André, quoting Virgil’s Aeneid, ‘the men at once seized their weapons. Now the royal army advanced to meet the throngs of barbarians.’4
The armies collided slightly south-east of Newark, near the lower bank of the meandering Trent, where the old Roman road cut a path directly from Leicester towards its end-point at Lincoln. On Friday 15 June the rebel army had camped overnight near the village of East Stoke – around eight thousand in total, made up of a band of highly trained foreign sell-swords carrying halberds, crossbows and long, primitive rifles known as arquebuses (or hackbuts), along with half-naked Irish backwoodsmen with spears in their hands and the various bands of northern English archers, horsemen and gunners whom the rebel leaders had managed to rally to their cause on their long march south. The royal army, packed with veterans of Bosworth and large noble retinues, overnighted around Radcliffe, several miles away in the direction of Nottingham. Henry’s scouts, sent out at first light, hastened back to the camp to inform the king that they had seen rebel troops lined up in readiness to fight on the brow of a hill near East Stoke (a place that locals simply called Stoke).
The long mornings of early June meant that even with a short march, Henry’s men reached the field by around 9 a.m. As they arrayed in battle formation facing Simnel’s far smaller force, Henry gave a speech. André later put a fancifully poetic version into the king’s mouth, but the sentiment – that Lincoln had ‘brazenly’ taken up his cause in alliance with ‘a trifling and shameless woman’, Margaret of Burgundy, and that the king now trusted ‘the same God who made us victors’ at Bosworth to ‘give us triumph’ – may well have been correct.5
The fight was begun by the rebels, with a swarm of crossbow bolts buzzing towards the royal lines. Fire was returned with interest by Henry VII’s archers. Since many of the rank and file in Simnel and Lincoln’s army were unarmoured and vulnerable Irish fighters, better used to fighting hand to hand than withstanding volleys of arrows, the result was something close to a massacre.
Rather than stand and suffer annihilation from long range, the rebels charged, and a violent mêlée at close quarters began. This suited both the sophisticated continental mercenaries and the fierce men from rural Ireland. The close fighting lasted for around an hour, but eventually Henry’s superior numbers prevailed and the enemy began to disintegrate. Both armies suffered severe losses, but it was on the rebel side that the most hideous carnage was wreaked. Perhaps four thousand of Simnel and Lincoln’s fighters were killed, many from arrow wounds, their blood pooling in great puddles about the field and running deep into a wooded hollow afterwards known as the Red Gutter. By the end, almost all of the rebel commanders and captains, including Lincoln, Martin Schwartz and Lord Lovell, lay dead. Lambert Simnel was captured and taken to the Tower, where he was treated chivalrously and eventually put to work in the king’s service. (Over the years he would work his way up from the kitchen staff to a post in falconry.) Meanwhile, Henry VII paraded from the battlefield for the second time in as many years, and took his army to the city of Lincoln to celebrate by gorging on pike, capons, sheep and ox-flesh and hanging a few of the Irish and English rank and file who had dared to rebel. News of the victory was sent across the country, being particularly well received by Henry’s supporters in London, where rumours circulated that the king had been defeated and killed. Far from it. Henry had trusted his reign to Providence, and Providence had once again appeared to vindicate his kingship. In retrospect, the battle of Stoke would take on great significance. For it was the last battle that Henry, or any other king of his dynasty, would ever have to fight to save the crown.
Yet if the last clash of armies had taken place, the danger was not quite over. For almost as soon as Simnel had been captured, another pretender was produced, who would trouble the Tudor king for many years to come.
Late in 1491 a Breton merchant by the name of Pregent Meno set sail from Lisbon to Ireland to sell silks. He washed up in Cork, on the rugged south-eastern tail of the country: a marshy town that spread out across several islands, in which shops and houses stood higgledy-piggledy beside one another in a grid of warren-like streets. Here walked exiles and plotters: dissidents who had reason to hate the regime of the English king across the sea, and who were constantly on the watch for ways in which they could harm him.
Accompanying Meno on his silk-selling mission was a young man from northern France by the name of Pierrechon de Werbecque. Around seventeen years old, Pierrechon (his full name was mockingly part-anglicised by his enemies to ‘Perkin Warbeck’) had been born in Tournai, in the borderlands between France and the Netherlands, in about 1474. He had, said Vergil, a ‘sharp and artful mind’ and spoke English as well as several other languages.6 He had been apprenticed by his parents to other merchants and from the age of about ten had lived an itinerant life in the trading towns of western Europe, from Antwerp to Lisbon, where he met Meno. Finally he arrived in Ireland and came to the attention of the former mayor of Cork, John Atwater, a central figure in the network of Yorkist sympathisers in the town. Whether they saw in Warbeck a likeness to another famous young man, or whether they simply found him an enterprising lad who could be bent to their purposes – or both – they took him into their confidence and convinced him to join them in a plot. Just as Lambert Simnel had been set up as an imposter, so too would Warbeck be. Only this time, rather than impersonating Edward earl of Warwick, the subject of the pretence would be the younger of the Princes in the Tower, Richard duke of York.
Richard, had he been alive in late 1491, would have been seventeen, like Warbeck, and of the perfect age to assume the crown. It was a matter of general agreement that he was dead – Henry VII’s first parliament had condemned Richard III for ‘shedding infants’ blood, with many other wrongs, odious offences and abominations against God and man’.7 But since a body had never been found nor a murderer brought to justice, it was still possible for those who wished to convince themselves that Richard had escaped the Tower to do so.8 This was precisely the wilful gullibility on which the rebels of Cork depended when they set up Warbeck to impersonate the lost prince.
Once he was established as ‘Richard’, Warbeck was shown to the earl of Desmond, who responded with enthusiastic support. Then he was effectively hawked around western Europe to anyone who wished to annoy and harass the Tudor king.
The first to make use of him was the twenty-one-year-old Charles VIII of France, whose initial great project as king was to marry – more or less illegally – Anne of Brittany, four years old and the heir to her ailing father Francis II’s duchy. By marrying Anne, Charles intended to annex Brittany to France and strike down forever its independence from the French crown. Henry VII was long acquainted with Duke Francis from his years in exile and was understandably inclined to offer his support to the Bretons. Charles thus followed a well-trodden path in international diplomacy. Since the outbreak of the English civil wars in the 1450s, foreign rulers had understood the value of holding or sheltering alternative claimants to the English crown. (Most recently, Francis II had harboured Henry Tudor, while the dukes of Burgundy had supported Edward IV, and Margaret of Anjou had set up her renegade Lancastrian court during the 1460s under the protection of Louis XI of France.) Most credible claimants to the crown had been killed, but that inconvenient fact aside, the policy was still a sensible one. Thus from March 1492 Perkin Warbeck was put up by the French court.
Henry treated Warbeck’s accommodation in France as though it were an outright declaration of war. The previous year parliament had voted him a substantial grant of taxation to send troops to assist with the defence of Brittany. Now the money was turned to a more aggressive purpose. During the summer English ships were sent to harass the Normandy coast. In September, although it was late in the year and a dangerous time for campaigning, Henry himself took ship on the south coast, heading to Calais with a very large army of perhaps fifteen thousand men at his back. They spent a few days in camp before marching twenty miles down the coast to the nearest French city of significance, which happened to be the port town of Boulogne. Four columns of English troops descended on the town and laid siege to it. According to Vergil, ‘There was a resolute garrison in the town, which energetically defended it. But before there was a recourse to hard fighting, behold suddenly a rumour spread through the camp that peace had been arranged.’9 So it had. Charles’s aim was to annex Brittany, not to involve himself in a resuscitated version of the Hundred Years War, and he was quite happy to pay Henry to accept his wishes. The result was the treaty of Étaples, sealed on November 1492, by which Henry stood down his invasion and withdrew from Breton matters, and Charles agreed to pay the English a vast indemnity for their war expenses, along with the promise of a very generous pension of fifty thousand gold crowns a year for the following fifteen years. Crucially, he also agreed to stop assisting pretenders to Henry’s throne. After three months of campaigning and virtually no bloodshed (save for the death of a rather overzealous knight by the name of John Savage, who was ambushed by French soldiers in front of Boulogne, fought back rather too lustily rather than submitting and was killed), Henry took his army back across the Channel in a sort of triumph.
Henry’s uncompromising actions ensured that the court of Charles VIII was only a temporary stop for Warbeck. He would not, however, be thwarted, and as the treaty of Étaples closed doors in France, the pretender moved on: this time making his way to the court that had become the main European focus of anti-Tudor sentiment: the circle of the arch-schemer of the Netherlands, Margaret of York, dowager duchess of Burgundy.
For Margaret to embrace Perkin Warbeck as her own nephew – surely knowing full well that he was a fraud – was a mark of her political ruthlessness and devotion to the memory of her brothers. Despite Henry VII’s marriage to her niece, Margaret would never accept that he had the right to rule, and was happy to pursue any means of discomfiting him. ‘What people commonly say is true,’ wrote Bernard André. ‘Envy never dies.’10 Certainly it never died at Mechelen, and Margaret welcomed Warbeck to her dazzling court, schooling him on his backstory from her own memories of life as a member of the house of York and introducing him to the great men in her continental circle. Chief among these was Maximilian, king of Germany, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1493 at a ceremony to which Warbeck was invited. Here was another player to whom he appeared to be a well-placed pawn. The man styling himself as Richard IV was treated with the reverence due to a real king, travelling a while with Maximilian, while Margaret made contact with dissidents in England, attempting to stir them to rebellion in the name of the pretender. Slowly but surely, the plot to promote this young man, and place him on the English throne, was gathering momentum.
None of this was in the slightest bit amusing to Henry VII. According to Vergil, ‘Henry feared that unless the deception was quickly recognised as such by all, some great upheaval would occur.’11 Most disturbingly, the king began to receive reports that the rebel circle in the Netherlands had connections in England, some perilously close to the royal household. Those rumoured to be in treasonable contact with Warbeck included the ambitious and shifty John Ratcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter, Sir Robert Clifford and William Worsley, the dean of St Paul’s. In the spring of 1493, the king learned that this lordly cabal had sent Clifford to the Low Countries to meet Warbeck, assess whether he was really Richard duke of York, and (if satisfied with what he saw) inform him to expect a warm welcome if he should decide to cross the Channel and claim his throne.
In response Henry flew into a state of high defence, lasting for nearly eighteen months, during which he sent spies to the continent to feed back information about Warbeck and the rebels, and attempted to plant undercover agents in his circle. He also placed the English ports under tight surveillance, circulated propaganda both at home and abroad to rubbish the pretender’s claims to royal stock, and imposed trade embargoes against the merchant towns of the Netherlands. Young Prince Henry’s elevation to duke of York in November 1494 was part of this strategy of undermining Warbeck: creating a legitimate princely duke of York meant there was less room for a false one.
Yet Prince Henry’s investiture as duke of York did not end Warbeck’s conspiracy. Rather, the danger seemed to creep ever closer to the crown. Late in 1494 Henry’s agents managed to ‘turn’ Sir Robert Clifford from the pretender’s cause, milking from him a huge amount of intelligence in the process. The most shocking revelation was that a supposed Yorkist sympathiser was to be found at the heart of the royal household and family: Sir William Stanley, the king’s chamberlain and step-uncle, the hero of Bosworth and brother to the kingmaker Thomas earl of Derby, had supposedly been heard to say of Warbeck that ‘he would never take up arms against the young man, if he knew for certain that he was indeed the son of Edward’.12 If Englishmen of the highest rank were prepared to believe that Richard was alive, and might return to reclaim his crown, then Henry could not afford to treat Warbeck with anything other than deadly seriousness.
Stanley’s reported wavering was a hard blow to Henry VII, but he dealt with it swiftly. Despite the risk of antagonising Derby, the king put Sir William on trial at Westminster Hall on 30 and 31 January 1495. Stanley was ‘condemned of a capital crime and put to death’ by beheading on 16 February. Meanwhile, security measures were stepped up even further, both at home – where coastal defences were sufficient to repel an attempted landing at Deal, in Kent, on 3 July – and in Ireland, where Sir Edward Poynings was sent with a mandate to impose royal discipline by severe and authoritarian means.
Still Warbeck remained at large. Following his aborted invasion of Kent, he sailed via a now hostile Ireland to the kingdom of the Scots, and sought the protection of King James IV. ‘The inhabitants there, deceived by his hints and inventions, believed him to be [ Richard IV ] and tenaciously adhered to him,’ wrote André.13 The truth was that once again he served as a tool for a greater lord’s anti-English ambition. And once again he was a failure. James IV recognised him as ‘Prince Richard of England’ and gave him shelter, men, a handsome expense account for clothes, servants and horses, and an aristocratic wife – in the form of Lady Katherine Gordon, daughter of an earl and the king’s distant cousin.14 In September 1496 the Scots invaded the north of England on Warbeck’s behalf, burning and pillaging the unfortunate villages of the border country. But the sight of the pretender’s flag provoked only apathy in the hearts of the Englishmen who saw it, and almost as soon as they had come, James and his would-be prince were scuttling back over the border, having achieved precisely nothing.
Henry’s response to Scottish backing for the irritant Warbeck was uncompromising. The parliament of January 1497 granted heavy taxation for the purpose of sending a massive military force north ‘for the proper correction of [ James IV’s] cruel and wicked deeds’. The invasion, intended for summer, never materialised, because the weight of the taxation on Henry’s English subjects provoked a tax rebellion in June of the same year, in which thousands of Cornishmen marched all the way to Blackheath and had to be routed by a military force under Giles, Lord Daubeney, Sir William Stanley’s successor as lord chamberlain. However, the seriousness of Henry’s intentions convinced James IV that Warbeck was probably more trouble than he was worth, and the young masquerader was packed off to continue his adventures elsewhere. Warbeck sailed for Cork in July 1497, and two months later he made what would be his final play for recognition, invading Cornwall at Land’s End in the rather forlorn hope of rekindling the rebellious spirit of the early summer. A few thousand restless yokels gathered beneath his banner and laid siege to Exeter, but they were easily scattered by Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon, and by the end of the month Warbeck was captured. At Taunton on 5 October he was brought before the king. At last he admitted that he was not Richard IV, and offered up a full confession of his origins, bringing a formal end to his pretensions.
Like Simnel, Warbeck was kept honourably at the royal court once he had been exposed as a fraud. His wife, Lady Katherine, joined the queen’s service and was treated extremely well ‘on account of her nobility’.15 Warbeck, however, lacked the good sense that had led Simnel to behave himself in royal service. In June 1498, while he was travelling with the royal court, he attempted to escape. He was recaptured at Sheen and – after twice being humiliatingly displayed in the stocks and made to confess his imposture again in public – he was thrown into the Tower of London for the rest of his life. As it transpired, that would not be a very long time. One of his fellow captives was Edward earl of Warwick – the man whom Simnel had impersonated. Warwick was now twenty-four and it would seem that his long imprisonment had addled his brain: Polydore Vergil wrote that he had been ‘so far removed from the sight of man and beast that he could not easily tell a chicken from a goose’.16 In the autumn of 1499 a plot was concocted between the two prisoners and a few citizens of London (possibly agents provocateurs) who planned to break them out of the Tower and put Edward on the throne in Henry’s place. Escaping – or even plotting escape – was a serious crime and the punishment could be harsh. Both men were tried in Westminster Hall before John de Vere, earl of Oxford, holding court in his capacity as lord high steward. Warwick was beheaded on Tower Hill on 28 November 1499, and Warbeck was hanged at Tyburn, having been forced to confess for the final time that he was no Plantagenet, but an adventurer, an imposter and a fraud. As the century drew to a close, noble heads still rolled and traitors’ legs still kicked pathetically in the breeze beneath the hangman’s noose. If the cycle of violence that had engulfed the English crown for nearly five decades seemed finally to be coming to an end, it was only because there were so few candidates left to kill.