Post-classical history


Autumn 1499: Bringing Down a Curse

‘The tragic destiny of the House of York made it necessary for Earl Edward to perish, so as to make absolutely sure that no male representative of his family remained alive.’

Polydore Vergil, Anglica Historia1

In Westminster Hall on 21 October 1497 Henry VII was welcomed back to his capital by its mayor, aldermen and commoners. Much to their surprise, Perkin was there too, instead of languishing in a dungeon. During the next few weeks, well guarded, he was regularly paraded on a horse through the main streets of the city, some of the crowd yelling abuse as he passed.2 According to Soncino, the Milanese envoy, he was made ‘a spectacle for everybody and every day he is led through London’.3

On 28 November Warbeck was forced to accompany one of his supporters when the man was taken to the Tower. This was the former sergeant furrier to the king, who had been caught disguised as a hermit. A few days later, the furrier and another rebel, once a yeoman to the queen, were tried and condemned to death, the former being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn although the other escaped with a mere hanging – it seems that betraying the queen was not so heinous an offence as betraying King Henry.

Soon after, the former White Rose signed a confession in which he admitted his real identity and described how he had been persuaded to impersonate the Duke of York. This was printed for circulation.4 He also wrote to his mother at Tournai, declaring: ‘The king of England is now holding me, to whom I have told the truth of the matter, most humbly beseeching him that he will please to pardon the harm I have done him.’ This letter was given equally wide distribution, probably with the confession.5

Despite all the trouble he had given, for the moment his only punishment was mockery. The Venetian ambassador reported having seen Perkin and his wife in ‘a chamber of the King’s palace’, adding that Henry was treating the couple well enough, but would not let them sleep together.6 Perkin was never allowed into the royal presence, although occasionally the king took a surreptitious look at him from a window.

One theory for Henry’s behaviour is that he wanted to make the White Rose an object of derision, as the best way of demolishing his claims. Another is that he really was Edward IV’s son and Henry felt uneasy about executing him out of hand: some Yorkists remained convinced he was the White Rose, bullied into signing a false confession. There is a more subtle possibility, however. After his victory at Stoke, the king had regretted being unable to interrogate the late Earl of Suffolk and discover the full extent of his conspiracy. By keeping Perkin on display, he may have hoped to lure Yorkist supporters into plotting a rescue and revealing themselves.

Warbeck’s nerve broke after eight months. About midnight on Saturday 9 June 1498, having persuaded the two yeomen warders who were his guards into giving him keys, he ‘stole away out of the court, the king being then at Westminster’, a London chronicler records.7 He had only gone a short distance when he realized he was being pursued and that the roads were picketed. Instead of making for the coast as expected, he fled inland up the Thames – one source says he hid in the reeds – as far as Sheen (Richmond) where he threw himself on the mercy of the prior of the Carthusian monastery. The prior went to Henry and begged for the young man’s life, which was granted. Brought back to London on Friday 15 June, he was placed in the stocks in Westminster Hall, on top of a pile of empty wine barrels. The following Monday he was again set in the stocks, on a scaffold in Cheapside opposite The King’s Head tavern. Then he was taken to the Tower.

‘The same hour he was arrested, the King of England sent one of his gentlemen of the bedchamber to bring me the news,’ reported the Spanish ambassador to Ferdinand and Isabella.8 Hoping to secure a bride from Spain for his eldest son, Prince Arthur, King Henry was anxious that the Spaniards should believe beyond any shadow of doubt that he was secure on his throne: they were not going to waste a daughter on a dynasty that might be toppled. The incident shows how much import ance both Henry and international opinion still set on Perkin, however ridiculous he pretended to think him. During Perkin’s brief escape, the king had sent letters to every port on the south coast, ordering them to search for the fugitive. He had been very worried indeed.

Once inside the Tower Perkin found himself in a cell, chained by his neck and ankles. De Puebla, the Spanish ambassador, saw him two months later, when he was brought to court to tell the Bishop of Cambrai (Archduke Philip’s envoy) that he was not Edward IV’s son and had tricked everybody, including most of Europe’s rulers. ‘He is kept with the greatest care in a tower where he sees neither sun nor moon,’ wrote de Puebla. ‘He is so much changed that I, and everybody else here, feel his hlife is going to be a very short one. He will have to pay for what he has done.’9

‘After Perkin had been shut up in the Tower, for once the country seemed to be in a thoroughly peaceful condition,’ Polydore Vergil informs us. ‘Although there were plenty of people who wanted a change, nobody was prepared to do anything about it until a certain little friar called Patrick, a member of the Augustinian Order did so by persuading a young man to pretend he was the Earl of Warwick.’10

‘A young fellow of the age of nineteen years, which was the son of a cordwainer [shoemaker] dwelling at the Bull in Bishopsgate street,’ is how a London chronicler describes the wretched Ralph Wilford.11 Early in 1499 Wilford, who was a Cambridge undergraduate and quite plainly crazy, deluded himself into believing he was Warwick and, abetted by his tutor Friar Patrick, wandered round the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, asking men to come to the aid of their rightful king. Caught by the Earl of Oxford, the pair were sent to London, Wilford being hanged on 12 February on a gallows by the Thames – where he hung in his shirt for several days – while the friar was condemned to life imprisonment. But the incident reminded the king that Warwick was still a threat.

It was not only Henry who thought so. ‘Ferdinand, King of Spain, would never make full conclusion of the matrimony to be had between Prince Arthur and the lady Katherine his daughter nor send her into England as long as this earl lived’, the chroncicler Hall informs us. ‘For he imagined that as long as any Earl of Warwick lived, that England should never be purged or cleansed of civil war and privy sedition, so much was the name of Warwick in other regions had in fear and jealousy.’12

According to a Spanish envoy, who wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella in March 1499, the constant strain took its toll on Henry VII. ‘A few days ago the King asked for a priest who had foretold the death of King Edward and the end of King Richard, to tell him in what manner his latter end would come,’ he reported. ‘The priest, according to common report, told the King that his life would be in great danger during the whole year and informed him, besides many other unpleasant things, that there are two parties of very different creeds in his kingdom.’

This priest was the Italian astrologer Guglielmo Parron, at this period much trusted by Henry, who often asked him to look into the future.13 The writer adds that the priest indiscreetly had told the secret to some friends, one of whom was immediately placed in confinement to prevent him from putting the rumour into circulation, although the other evaded arrest.

Coming after the Wilford affair, however ridiculous, the astrologer’s prophecy and the fact that it might become widely known shocked the king to the depths of his being. ‘Henry has aged so much during the last two weeks that he looks twenty years older,’ reported the Spaniard, who was generally an objective observer. It is significant that Vergil says many Englishmen still wanted a change of ruler, even though there seemed to be no obvious pretender. Henry knew this. He suffered a complete nervous collapse.

Since 1498 France and England had been on better terms, the French agreeing to expel all Yorkist refugees. In July 1499 they handed over John Taylor. Commenting that here was the man ‘who had thought up Perkin’s expedition to Ireland when the latter first claimed to be King Edward’s son’, the Milanese ambassador said he suspected Henry of valuing his capture at more than ‘100,000 crowns’ – a large sum for someone so notoriously avaricious.14 Brought back to England under guard, Taylor went straight to the Tower of London, where he spent the rest of his life. (He was still there in 1509.) Surprisingly, this dangerous Yorkist escaped execution. It is not inconceivable, in view of what happened next, that Taylor saved his life by acting as an informer.

King Ferdinand’s insistence on Warwick’s elimination prevailed. According to the earl’s nephew, Cardinal Pole, the Spanish king told Henry he did not believe the Tudor dynasty could survive if Warwick stayed alive, and would not let his daughter make a marriage that might endanger her life. Pole also mentions ‘some disturbances which took place at this time, owing to the favour and good will borne by the people to my mother’s brother the Earl of Warwick’, but unfortunately he does not elaborate.15 Other contemporary sources confirm the rumours of King Ferdinand’s intervention.

Henry decided Warwick would have to die. Although there is no hard evidence, it really does look as if he used Perkin to destroy him. Realizing it was very likely that the former would try to escape, the king waited and watched until, as he had hoped, a plot emerged which involved the earl. In Bacon’s words, ‘it was ordained that this winding ivy of a Plantagenet should kill the true tree itself ’.16

At first the conspiracy centred around Warwick. His education had been deliberately neglected and as a result, after years of close confinement, he was pathetically simple minded. He possessed so little knowledge of the world outside the Tower that according to the chronicler Hall he could not even tell a goose from a chicken. The prime movers were two impoverished gentlemen: John Cleymond, the earl’s servant, and Thomas Astwode, who had been pardoned on the gallows in 1495 for supporting Perkin and was now in the service of the Constable of the Tower, Sir Simon Digby. The real brains behind the plot – if that is the right description – was Astwode, encouraged throughout by Cleymond who was almost certainly a double agent in the king’s pay. Fairly soon, Astwode succeeded in recruiting over twenty conspirators.

Some of these were long-term Yorkist sympathizers, such as Thomas Warde, who had been in Richard III’s service, and Thomas Masborough, who had been King Edward’s master bowyer. Others were former followers of the ‘Duke of York’, like the priest William Lounde, who, from sanctuary, sent his old master a gold ducat with tooth marks – a recognized token between them. Half a dozen of the constable’s servants were also recruited, presumably by Astwode, and included four of Perkin’s warders. There was also John Fynche, haberdasher of Honey Lane in the parish of All Hallows, who had been in trouble before on account of Yorkist proclivities. An astrologer, he prophesied that the ‘Bear’ would soon be heard rattling his chains within the bounds of the city – the Bear being the badge of the earls of Warwick

The scheme Astwode decided on was to kill the constable and seize the Tower, and then smuggle Warwick and Perkin on board a merchant ship carrying a cargo of woollen cloth, which would take them over to the continent. Perkin’s room was below the earl’s so the two were able to talk to each other through a hole bored in the floor. Apparently Warwick agreed to help Perkin gain the throne if he really was the Duke of York. If he was not, then the earl would take the throne for himself.

It may well have been Perkin who suggested such imaginative additions as taking cash and jewels from the royal treasury and blowing up part of the building as a diversion to enable them to reach the boat which was anchored at a nearby wharf on the Thames. Once safely abroad, they could use the funds they had taken from the treasury to finance a rising. Won over by Perkin’s no doubt lavish promises of reward, three of Digby’s servants besides Astwode – Walter Bluet, Thomas Strangwysshe and ‘Long Roger’ – agreed to help Astwode murder him during the night and steal his keys.

It is surprising such a conspiracy could have found any support at all, with a half-baked plan that involved two pretenders to the same throne. Even so, the poor young Earl of Warwick, a prisoner since the age of ten, living in constant terror of being put to death at any moment, was overjoyed at the prospect. ‘My lord, you are well-minded in what danger, sadness and duress you here remain, but you [must] help yourself,’ the treacherous Cleymond told him soothingly. ‘I will take you out of all danger.’ Then as reassurance he gave him a hanger – a short sword – which was probably the first weapon Warwick had ever owned.

On 3 August the plot was betrayed to Sir Simon Digby, but by whom is unknown. The informant was rumoured to be Perkin after losing his nerve, but is more likely to have been Cleymond. Although Henry and his council were informed, no attempt to arrest the conspirators was made for three weeks – which indicates that the plot had been under close surveillance from an early stage. As usual, the king was obsessed with identifying every single one of his enemies, which would explain why he waited for so long before ordering their arrest – he was determined to catch as many as possible. He succeeded, judging from the mass of names in the indictments.17

Perkin was tried first, on 16 November in ‘the White Hall at Westminster’, along with John Taylor, John Atwater – the former mayor of Cork – and the latter’s son Philip. Found guilty, all four were condemned to be ‘drawn on hurdles from the Tower throughout London to the Tyburn, and there to be hanged and cut down quick [alive] and their bowels to be taken out and burned, their heads to be struck off and [their bodies] quartered’.18 There was a certain logic in trying Warbeck with his first supporters.

The bulk of the remaining prisoners were tried at the Guildhall during the rest of November. Nearly all were found guilty of treason and condemned to death, yet only Astwode, Fynche and one or two others went to the scaffold. John Taylor’s sentence was altered to imprisonment for life, while others were outlawed or given a spell in prison but eventually received pardons. The master bowyer Masborough escaped with being committed to the Tower, although usually the king was particularly severe with renegade servants of the crown. Most significantly, John Cleymond was not even sent for trial.

On 21 November the Earl of Oxford, Lord High Steward of England, presided over a grand jury of twenty-two peers that had assembled in the great hall at Westminster to try the Earl of Warwick, who stood indicted for treason. (Among the peers was John Kendal, Prior of St John’s, who had once flirted with the idea of a Yorkist restoration.) Warwick was charged with having plotted with Perkin to raise a rebellion and overthrow the king. The bewildered young man, who was not even cross-examined, admitted he could not deny the charge and threw himself on the king’s mercy, after which the last male representative of a dynasty that had ruled the country for three centuries was condemned to suffer a traitor’s death. Although the first Plantagenet to suffer in this way, it was the fate he must always have expected since Bosworth.

On Saturday 23 November Perkin and John Atwater, with halters round their necks, were drawn through the muddy streets to Tyburn, where a small scaffold had been erected and a great multitude was assembled. The crowd seem to have felt sorry for Perkin, which may explain why he was spared castration and disembowelment.19 From the scaffold he told them that he had been born a foreigner as he had already confessed, that he was not Edward IV’s second son, and that John Atwater had forced him to take on the Duke of York’s identity, and finally he asked God and the king for forgiveness. Then he was hanged. When Atwater took his turn on the scaffold, he told the crowd that what Perkin had said was true. Their bodies were buried at the Austin Friars’ church, their heads stuck up on London Bridge.

A few went on believing that the young man really had been the duke, convinced that ‘Perkin Warbeck’ was a false identity foisted on him and that his ‘confession’ was untrue. Among them were the Earl of Suffolk and his steward Thomas Killingworth. In 1508 Thomas wrote to his master, referring to the ‘abusion King H. hath made against the Duke of York, that he was a counterfeit’ and insisting he had been ‘right King of England’.20 However, these sceptics were in a minority.

‘This was the end of this little cockatrice of a king,’ comments Bacon, adding that his conspiracy had been ‘one of the longest plays of that kind that hath been in memory’. Yet he thought the play might have ended differently, if Perkin had not been faced with such a tough opponent as Henry VII.21

On the following Thursday, between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, the Earl of Warwick was led out from the Tower by two men, on to Tower Hill, where he was beheaded. Instead of being displayed on London Bridge as that of a traitor, his head was reunited with his corpse in a coffin and taken back into the Tower. ‘And at the next tide following the body was conveyed by water unto Bisham, a place of religion, and there, by his ancestors, interred and buried,’ records the London chronicler.22 King Henry was trying to behave with as much decency as possible in the circumstances.

While the king had strengthened the Tudor dynasty’s future by killing Warwick, he made himself deeply unpopular. There were rumours that he had used Perkin to trap the earl. ‘The entire population mourned the handsome youth’s death,’ says Vergil. Normally a partisan of Henry, he adds, ‘Why this unfortunate boy should have been sent to prison for no fault of his own but purely on account of his family, why he was kept there for so long, and what he could have possibly done in prison that made him deserve to die – these things people found hard to understand.’23

Knowing that the earl had been a simple soul, more than a little childish, every informed person in England was convinced that he was innocent of any plot against the king. Remembering Edward IV’s sons, they were inclined to think of Warwick as the third Prince in the Tower. Many believed that by his murder – for that is what it was – King Henry had brought a curse upon his own family.

12. Autumn 1499: Bringing Down a Curse

1. Vergil, op. cit., p. 118.

2. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 219.

3. CSP Milan, op. cit., vol. I, 550.

4. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 219.

5. Gairdner, Richard III, op. cit., pp. 229–30.

6. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. I, 760.

7. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 223.

8. CSP Sp, op. cit., vol. I, 198.

9. Ibid., 221.

10. Vergil, op. cit., p. 116.

11. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 225.

12. Hall, op. cit., p. 491.

13. CSP Sp, op. cit., vol. I, 221.

14. CSP Milan,. vol I, 799.

15. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. V, 575.

16. Bacon, op. cit., p. 160.

17. Arthurson, ‘Espionage and Intelligence’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 1991, pp. 202–18.

18. Plumpton Corr, op. cit., p. 141.

19. Chroniques de Jean Molinet, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 467.

20. LP Hen VII, op. cit., p. 1.

21. Bacon, op. cit., p. 160.

22. Chronicles of London, op. cit., pp. 227–8.

23. Vergil, op. cit., p. 118.

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