Post-classical history


Summer 1495: The Yorkist Invasion

‘Yet [Perkin] determined not to leave the hope and trust he had conceived in his mad head to obtain the crown and realm of England: and so gathering a great army of valiant captains of all nations, some bankrupts, some thieves, robbers and vagabonds, which leaving their bodily labour, desiring to live only of robbery and rapine, came to be his soldier and servants.’

Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke [1548]1

Born in 1497, Edward Hall recalls not only the gossip but the tone of voice of people who lived through these years. Characteristically, he comments that Margaret of York, having met Perkin, ‘a certain young man of visage beautiful, of countenance demure, of wit subtle, crafty and pregnant’, thought she had ‘gotten God by the foot when she had the Devil by the tail’.2 Yet while the dowager duchess may have been a poor judge of pretenders, she knew the value of money.

Confident that her ‘nephew’ was going to be restored, on 10 December 1494 Margaret made him sign a document in which he promised to repay sums already owed to her in his future kingdom. Among these were the balance of her dowry, which was over 80,000 gold crowns, and a portfolio of lucrative customs concessions that she had been granted by her brother Edward IV. In addition, she was to be reimbursed for financing the Earl of Lincoln’s expedition. She would also receive the manor of Hunsdon, together with the town and castle of Scarborough, which held special significance for the House of York. (Richard III had even made it a separate county in its own right.) The document was witnessed by Sir Robert Clifford, acting as chancellor for the ‘duke’, shortly before the upsetting news came that he had fled back to England.3

In a second document, signed and sealed on 23 December, Perkin acknowledged that he owed his ‘aunt’ the vast amount of 800,000 crowns, as well as other monies that had been spent on his future restoration. It is likely that the duchess had advanced these new sums to pay for the forthcoming invasion.4 She saw him not just as her nephew but as a sound financial investment; however, in the light of Lincoln’s failure, it appears she was something of a gambler.

Far from losing heart at Clifford’s defection or at the betrayal of so many important Yorkists in what had once been her native land, Margaret sent an impassioned appeal to the pope, Alexander VI, in May 1495. Her fury at the throne of the Plantagenets having been stolen by an upstart is apparent in almost every line. She asks the pontiff to save England from the tyranny of ‘Henry … called of Richmond, of the house of Sombreset [sic], reigning against the law by the use of force, claiming to be descended from the blood of Lancaster when we all know of the many adulteries committed on both sides of his parentage’. She begs Alexander to help ‘The most illustrious Lord Richard, son of the late King Edward, legitimate son, successor and heir to his royal father the late King Edward’. We do not know whether she received any acknowledgement.5

For once, Maximilian made up his mind and decided to finance the Yorkist expedition. Perennially short of money, he was horrified by the cost, which forced him to delay an official visit to Augsburg and a Diet of the Empire. But he was as optimistic as Margaret.6 What gave the King of the Romans and the duchess such confidence was the support the ‘duke’ was receiving from Yorkists who had made their way to Malines, and the fact that so many important men in England had supported his cause despite being betrayed by Tudor spies. They believed that as soon as the Plantagenet standard was raised on English soil, thousands more would join the son of Edward IV.

Although Clifford’s defection and Stanley’s elimination were a severe blow, the trust of Maximilian and Margaret in England’s loyalty to the House of York finally nerved Perkin to embark on an invasion that he could not postpone for ever. At the end of June 1495 an expedition set sail from Flanders on board fourteen small vessels, several of which had been supplied by the Scots, such as the distinctively named Keek-Out. Despite Perkin’s backers grumbling about the cost, the entire force amounted to a thousand troops at most: some eyewitnesses reckoned they numbered only 800.7 The overall commander was Rodrigue de Lalaing, a Burgundian courtier and professional soldier.

The English government pretended that the Yorkist army was nothing but a motley collection of foreigners – Dutch, Flemish, German, Spanish, French – and that the only Englishmen among them were mercenaries or criminals on the run. In the next century the chronicler Edward Hall described them as ‘a great army of valiant captains of all nations. Some bankrupts, some false English sanctuary men, some thieves, robbers, and vagabonds, which, leaving their bodily labour, desiring to live only of robbery and rapine, came to be his servants and soldiers … this rabblement of knaves’. Vergil contemptuously refers to them as ‘these human dregs’ [hominum faece].8

In reality, the expedition included a sizeable English contingent, most of the ‘captains’ (officers) being Englishmen – Corbet, Belt, White and Malyvery (Mauleverer?). There were even several gentlemen among them, such as Sir George Neville, who was probably second in command after Lalaing, together with Edward Skelton, who came from a well-known family of Cumberland squires, Thomas Mountford, son and heir of the recently executed Sir Simon Mountford, and William Barley. The most distinguished was a Knight of Rhodes (St John), Fra’ James Keating, the former Prior of Ireland, who had been deposed by his Order for supporting the White Rose

The few ships of King Henry’s small navy patrolled the North Sea coast opposite Flanders, keeping a sharp lookout. Theoretically, they were in the right place, since it is likely that the invasion’s original destination was East Anglia where the Yorkists seem to have had many supporters, and where a reception committee may have been waiting for them. Later, a member of the expedition said they had hoped to take Yarmouth. But the Yorkist fleet was blown off course, into the Channel.

On 3 July it sailed into the tiny harbour of Deal, little more than a village, on the Kentish coast. An advance party of several hundred landed, apparently all Englishmen, who expected to be welcomed by local Yorkists. They intended to capture the nearby town of Sandwich, then an important port, which would make a useful beachhead. According to the Spanish envoy at the Tudor court, having heard the rumours about Perkin’s real identity which the king had spread far and wide, the local Kentishmen joked that he ought to go home to his father and mother in France.9 Vergil, however, says they were in two minds whether to join him or not when they saw his ships on the horizon, but – recalling that most of their previous uprisings had turned out badly – decided to stay loyal to Henry VII and ambush ‘the feigned duke’.10

After making friendly overtures to the invaders and enticing them ashore by offering to bring barrels of beer down to the beach – although they failed to persuade the suspicious Perkin to accompany them – a band of armed countrymen led by the Mayor of Sandwich shot volley after volley of arrows into the Yorkists at close range. They killed 150 and wounded many more, before attacking at close quarters with bills.11 The less badly wounded tried to run back to their ships, but most were cut to pieces, while others drowned. A further 150 were taken prisoner, including most of the English captains, although Neville, Barley and the Irishman Keating managed to get back on board. ‘And after the said discomfiture the said rebels within the said ships drew up their sails and sailed westward,’ says a contemporary chronicler, who was writing a little later.12

On 11 July a Norfolk man called Robert Albon returned to his home at Yarmouth and reported to the corporation how at Canterbury he had spoken with the captured ‘English captains of the king’s rebels’. One of them, Belt, had told him that while he knew himself to be ‘a dead man’, his friends would ‘have Yarmouth or they shall die for it’. Albon warned the corporation to put the town on a state of defence without delay – the rebels’ fleet might arrive that night or the next at the latest.13

The following day another Yarmouth correspondent informed Sir John Paston that the ‘Admiral’s Deputy’ had intercepted a ship off Normandy, a hoy from Dordrecht, which was carrying eight horses with a consignment of saddles and bridles, intended for the rebels: the Dutch crew had been imprisoned, but eight or nine Englishmen on board had got ashore in the ship’s boat and run off into the countryside. In the meantime, says the writer, Paston could depend on the authorities at Yarmouth sending word to him at once if they saw any suspicious vessels.14

Shortly after the expedition sailed, Maximilian received a report that it had landed in England and been joined by a great host of Yorkist supporters. Overjoyed, he told a Venetian embassy during an audience at Worms how confident he felt that, after regaining his kingdom, the Duke of York would attack the King of France. ‘To this effect have we received every promise and certainty from the duke aforesaid.’15 A week later, Maximilian was still optimistic, after another false report. The duke had arrived with his fleet near London but, because the population around the capital was unfriendly and prevented him from attacking the usurper’s army, had decided to move his troops to a more welcoming area, explained Maximilian. He stressed that the duke was keen to attack the enemy, and from the way he was conducting the campaign there was every chance of his winning a decisive victory and putting an end to Henry Tudor.16

Meanwhile, the men who had been captured during the skirmish at Deal were brought to London by the Sheriff of Kent, tied up in carts or dragged along at the end of a rope. The Englishmen among them were put in the dungeons of the Tower, while foreigners went to Newgate. The trials lasted from 16 to 24 July.17 ‘The King thought that to punish a few for example was gentlemen’s pay’ and he wanted to reduce Perkin’s forces to ‘rabble and scum’ explained Francis Bacon, about what then took place – ‘he therefore hanged them all for the greater terror’.18 They were executed along the coasts of Kent, Sussex, Essex and Norfolk, on tall gallows where their bodies could be easily seen from the sea. However, their captains’ heads were stuck up on London Bridge. Henry had never previously reacted so savagely, but he had suffered a bad fright. If the Yorkist fleet had not been blown off course, it might have made land in a more welcoming spot and set off a very dangerous rising.

The invasion scare lasted for about three weeks, while the whereabouts of the Yorkist fleet continued to be unknown. In fact, it had sailed to Ireland, where its leader took refuge with his old mentor, the Earl of Desmond, whose household would have been a sobering experience after the decorous courts of Paris, Malines and Vienna. In Bacon’s words, ‘there was nothing left for Perkin but the blustering affection of wild and naked people’.19 Yet the political scene had changed, isolating Desmond. There was a new, English deputy, Henry’s able henchman Sir Edward Poynings, who had arrived with 700 troops, arresting his predecessor, the supposedly all powerful Earl of Kildare, and sending him to London for imprisonment in the Tower. Even so, as yet Desmond took no notice of Poynings, as he had a grudge to settle with King Henry.

After Perkin’s departure from Ireland in 1492, the Earl of Desmond had been reconciled with Henry VII, bribed by reinstatement as Constable of Limerick. Now, however, he was in a state of outrage at the arrest of his cousin and brother-in-law Kildare, which questioned the FitzGerald family’s right to rule the Irish. In any case, as an evergreen Yorkist he was delighted by the return of a young man whom he insisted on treating as Duke of York – and no doubt as King of England and Lord of Ireland as well. To Desmond Perkin’s arrival seemed heaven sent. Clearly, he expected that, as in Simnel’s day, a reinforcement of crack troops would arrive from Burgundy and that he would be able to employ them in his unending struggle with the hated Butlers, his foremost rivals, who were staunch supporters of King Henry.20

The Duke of York did more than add legal justification for war against Poynings, he brought eleven ships. He swiftly added another, an English vessel, the Christopher of Plymouth, which his men had boarded and seized when it put in at the little port of Youghal, an area of miniature Cork that was controlled by Desmond. For his part, the earl had an army consisting of approximately 400 lightly armoured horsemen (riding bareback), 3,000 kern with knives and javelins, about 500 gallowglasses with long-handled battle axes and perhaps sixty to eighty men who had crossbows or primitive arquebuses.21

Together, the earl and the duke decided to capture the seaport of Waterford, always a thorn in Desmond’s side. A bastion of loyalty to the English Lordship of Ireland, it had been the only place in the country that refused to recognize Lambert Simnel in 1487. On 23 July 1495 the earl and Warbeck invested the port by land and sea. But the Waterford men were accustomed to visitations of this sort, and possessed cannon they knew how to use. Aware that Sir Edward Poynings was on his way to relieve them, they fought with the utmost determination, launching sortie after sortie. Even so, at one point, when Desmond’s wild kern were assaulting the walls and Warbeck’s flotilla sailed into the harbour, it seemed that Waterford might fall. However, after one of the ships was sunk by gunfire from the bastion known as Reginald’s Tower, the rest of the flotilla beat a hasty retreat out to sea. Then Poynings’ fleet was sighted. On 3 August the besiegers were forced to raise the siege and flee, several of their vessels being captured.

The earl retired into a remote stronghold, protected by impassable bogs and forest, but Perkin could not abandon his fleet or his followers. For a short time, he anchored in the Haven of Cork, going ashore, and the mayor – his old ally John Atwater – smuggled him inside the city for suitable entertainment. However, a lookout sighted the fleets of Poynings and the Waterford men sailing towards the Haven, whereupon the ‘Duke of York’ and his ships hastily put to sea again. Despite the ingrained Yorkism of many Irish, it had become too risky to stay in Irish waters.

In retrospect, the Yorkist invasion of England in 1495 was of course an anticlimax. It failed to stir up the widespread rising of which the Tudor king had been afraid for the last three years, while further trouble in Ireland was prevented by the redoubtable Sir Edward Poynings. Yet the episode gave Henry VII some extremely anxious moments, even after learning of his enemy’s flight from Waterford. Where, he must have wondered, was the duke now? For several days, the whereabouts of the Yorkist fleet remained a complete mystery.

8. Summer 1495: The Yorkist Invasion

1. Hall, op. cit., pp. 471–2.

2. Ibid., p. 462.

3. J. Gairdner, The History of the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third, Cambridge, 1898, pp. 291–2.

4. Ibid., p. 292.

5. Memorials, op. cit., pp. 393–9.

6. CSP Ven, vol. I, 648.

7. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 205.

8. Hall, op. cit., p. 472; Vergil B, p. 80.

9. CSP Sp, vol. I, 98.

10. Vergil, op. cit., p. 84.

11. Chroniques de Jean Molinet, op. cit., vol 1, pp. 421–2.

12. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 205.

13. Paston Letters, op. cit., p. 936.

14. Ibid., p. 937.

15. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. I, 649.

16. Ibid., vol. I, 651.

17. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 205.

18. Bacon, op. cit., p. 119.

19. Ibid., p. 124.

20. A.M.McCormack, The Earldom of Desmond 1463–1583, Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2005, p. 62.

21. L. Price, ‘Armed Forces of the Irish Chiefs in the Early Sixteenth Century’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarians of Ireland, 62 (1932).

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