Post-classical history


Summer 1501: White Rose and White King

‘Solicited, allured and provoked by that old, venomous serpent the Duchess of Burgoyne, ever being the sower of sedition and beginner of rebellion against the King of England, or else stimulate [d] and pricked with envy … with his brother Richard [he] fled again.’

Edward Hall, The Union of the two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancaste and Yorke1

In 1501 an English courtier in the service of Emperor Maximilian told him England was tired of the ‘murders and tyrannies’ of Henry VII – a reference to Warbeck and Warwick – and argued Edmund’s claim to the throne. Maximilian replied that he would be only too willing to help ‘one of King Edward’s blood’ regain the crown of England and was ready to spend an entire year’s revenue on doing so. The courtier, a friend of Suffolk, immediately sent word to him.2

The courtier was Sir Robert Curzon, a figure who could only have existed in the late Middle Ages, a professional soldier, jousting hero and self-proclaimed knight errant. When Captain of Hammes, one of the fortresses guarding Calais, despite his duties, Curzon had often been at court and with Suffolk had taken part in the tournament held to celebrate Prince Henry’s investiture as Duke of York. Vergil says he was of humble origin and owed his career to being knighted by the king, but in fact he was of impeccable gentry stock, a Curzon of Kedleston. After repeated requests, Henry had allowed him to resign his captaincy and go on crusade, which he performed by fighting for Maximilian against the Turks in the Balkans, so gallantly that he was created a Reichsfreiherr(Baron of the Empire) and in England was often referred to as ‘My Lord Curzon’.

Suffolk received Curzon’s message shortly before the marriage of Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon. No doubt he had learned that he was expected to play a major role in the customary tournaments, which would involve expenses and further financial troubles. By now he had grown to hate Henry. While Vergil says that a need to escape from heavy debts played a part in Edmund’s decision, he makes it clear that ‘party feeling’ was the key factor. This means the earl was in touch with diehard Yorkists – and that there were more than a few of them.3 In July or August 1501, shortly before the royal wedding, Suffolk again took ship secretly, with his younger brother Richard de la Pole. This time, he made up his mind to claim the throne of England. Once more, the Yorkist cause had a leader with a better right to the throne than Henry Tudor and who possessed at least some experience of soldiering.

It was learned that a week earlier Edmund had ‘banqueted’ in London with the Marquess of Dorset, the Earl of Essex and Lord William Courtenay, who all fell under suspicion. (A banquet was not a dinner but a selection of exotic sweetmeats eaten in a luxurious setting – a celebration rather than a meal.) It was also learned that before he sailed Edmund had dined with Courtenay – son and heir of the Earl of Devon, the saviour of Exeter from the ‘Duke of York’. Courtenay was even suspected of advising Edmund to land in the West Country when he launched his invasion.4

Whatever the chronicler Hall may say, Margaret of Burgundy had nothing to do with Edmund’s defection. Although at the beginning King Henry was convinced she was behind it, because of her long record of support for the White Rose and hatred of the Tudors, there is not the slightest hint that Edmund ever tried to contact her. While she may have welcomed the news of his flight, she made no effort to help him. By now she was a disillusioned old woman, who had given up all hope of seeing any of her nephews on the English throne.

Instead of making for Malines, the earl – calling himself ‘The White Rose, Duke of Suffolk’ – made his way to Maximilian’s court at Imst in the Tyrol. The emperor, an impressive-looking man with an eagle’s nose and a lanthorn jaw, not only disliked Henry for more than once outwitting him in diplomatic matters, but also regarded the Tudor as an upstart: like many others in Europe, he had been shocked at the news of the execution of the Earl of Warwick and of Warbeck whom he was still inclined to see as the younger Prince in the Tower. Edmund’s adoption of the title ‘The White Rose’, once used by Warbeck, may have appealed to a man who, as King of the Romans, sometimes called himself ‘The White King’. Edmund denounced Henry VII as a murderer, adding that the king wanted to kill both him and his brother. He then declared he was the rightful King of England, asking Maximilian to help him overthrow the Tudor usurper. He was supported by Sir Robert Curzon, who either fled with him or met him at Imst.

Welcoming Suffolk as a ‘kinsman’ (which meant he recognized him as a fellow sovereign), the emperor explained that for the moment he was unable to help because of his son’s treaty with England. Even so, he gave him a safe conduct to travel anywhere in the empire, while promising to find a way of assisting him. He invited the earl to stay at Imst and after six weeks wrote a letter to Edmund in which he offered to supply him with up to 5,000 troops under a German captain and to find ships for them.

The earl found himself a player on the international stage, recognized as a king in exile. Maximilian sent him to Aix-la-Chapelle with letters of introduction to the city fathers, promising that the ships he needed would be hired in Denmark. It seemed there was every chance of a full-scale Yorkist invasion, especially when Suffolk found another supporter in John, King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

His steward, Thomas Killingworth, went to Brunecken in the Tyrol to inform the emperor that Heinrich, Count of Ardek, had offered to find the troops, with his son as their commander, together with the necessary funds which would be made available on St George’s Day (23 April) 1502, when the force would go to Denmark to embark on ships provided by King John.5 But then the emperor – one of the most inept soldiers in Europe – decided he must take a hand. His meddling was so infuriating that Ardek withdrew his offer, thus putting an end to the latest Yorkist invasion.

Ironically, Maximilian was the House of York’s obvious ally. Superficially, he seemed no less formidable than Margaret of Burgundy, although he had no family motive for hating Henry. But the earl had not got the measure of his new friend. Impulsive, fond of theatrical gestures, Maximilian could never accept that his resources were too small for his ambitions: ruling over no more than Austria, the Low Countries, Franche Comté and a few isolated fragments of Germany, he nonetheless dreamed of being a Holy Roman Emperor who governed all Christendom. Yet if the prospect of securing a Yorkist restoration appealed to his vanity, he was, however, known throughout Europe as ‘the man of few pence’ and simply did not have enough money to subsidize an invasion force.

Henry’s frenzied reaction to yet another Yorkist challenge shows that, like Suffolk, he failed to appreciate the emptiness of Maximilian’s promises. ‘And the second Sunday of Lent [22 February 1502] was Sir Edmund de la Pole pronounced accursed at Paul’s Cross, at the sermon before noon,’ records the Chronicle of the Grey Friars.6 This ceremony of excommunication by the Church, which was repeated at Paul’s Cross every February for several years to come, reveals the extent of the king’s fury and fear.

Carefully briefed, a highly effective commission under the Earl of Oxford and Lord Willoughby de Broke had purged East Anglia of Yorkism, using more than just the usual machinery of arrests or surveillance and flooding the area with agents. Another commission had purged the adjoining counties of Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Suffolk’s retainers and tenants, his friends and neighbours – including a knight, 24 gentlemen, 15 esquires and scores of yeomen – were hauled before the local courts and placed under bonds to keep the peace, preventing them from taking any action in support of the earl. The fact that none of these people were attainted in the months that followed shows the bonds’ effectiveness – infringing them meant ruin.

In addition to small landowners, others of higher rank were rounded up in the eastern counties and the Thames Valley. ‘And soon after [the end of February 1502] was the Lord William of Devonshire, Sir James Tyrell and his eldest son, and one Wellesbourne, a servant of the said James Tyrell, taken and committed to safe keeping for favouring of the party of the Earl of Suffolk,’, a London chronicler tells us.7 William de la Pole, Edmund’s youngest brother, was also sent to the Tower, where he remained a prisoner until his death in the late 1530s. At the same time, according to Vergil, many ‘of the common people’ [de plebe hominibus] were arrested throughout the country.8

Having married a younger daughter of Edward IV, it was understandable that William Courtenay should support a Yorkist restoration. As for Sir James, in the old days one of Richard III’s most trusted henchmen, he had probably remained a staunch Yorkist (which explains why Edmund took refuge with him during his first flight) although until now he had enjoyed the king’s complete confidence. His defection came as another shock for Henry. It needed a siege by the entire Calais garrison to prize the Tyrells out of Guisnes, and James only emerged in order to negotiate terms for a safe conduct – promptly broken by Henry’s officers, who arrested him.

A mass trial took place at the Guildhall during the first week of May 1502, conducted by a commission that included the mayor, the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Oxford and other peers, together with several judges and a number of distinguished knights. Sir James Tyrell and Sir John Wyndham were sentenced to death, as also were a former yeoman of the crown, a herald, a London barber, a sailor and various others. Tyrell and Wyndham were beheaded on Tower Hill, but the rest suffered all the ghastly penalties reserved for treason.9 Another Yorkist supporter, Charles Ryppon, keeper of Portchester Castle, was beheaded at Winchester.

Tyrell was widely believed to have confessed before he died (perhaps to ensure a merciful death under the axe) that he had killed the Princes in the Tower. The confession, the details of which are given by Polydore Vergil and Thomas More, has been questioned by modern historians who suggest it was an invention of Henry VII, to dispel any doubts that the boys were dead and discourage the emergence of another ‘Duke of York’. Yet, in view of his own murder of the Earl of Warwick in 1499, it seems unlikely that the king should have wanted to remind his subjects of the Princes.

Always methodical, King Henry used not only spies but a species of filing system to identify potential enemies. His carefully updated lists included the names of men implicated in previous rebellions – fined, reprieved or pardoned – and those of everyone executed, since their kinsmen were likely to be hostile. It appears he made a clean sweep of Edmund’s leading supporters, which according to Vergil plunged the earl into despair, and made him abandon his plans for an invasion.10 Even so, the extent of King Henry’s fear that Suffolk might revive the Yorkist challenge was apparent from the vast sums of money he spent on ensuring Maximilian’s neutrality during the years when the earl was in imperial territory. The money was disguised as subsidies to help the emperor’s crusade against the Turks.

Suffolk stayed on at Aix-la-Chapelle until 1503, waiting for the emperor to provide him with troops, and heartened by letters from Maximilian addressed reassuringly to his ‘Very Dear and Most Beloved Cousin’. In June 1502 the emperor told ‘My Lord Curzon’ that despite having a treaty with Henry VII, secretly he would aid him as much as possible. But he then admitted his complete inability to do so by advising Curzon to ask the King of France for help. When Curzon asked, ‘how are we going to live in the meantime?’, Maximilian said he felt sure that Margaret of Burgundy would pay for their keep.

Understandably, the earl was encouraged when Arthur, Prince of Wales died in April 1502. It seemed to be divine intervention and in May Edmund told his steward Thomas Killingworth that, were the king’s second son to die, his claim to the throne would be beyond any possible doubt.11 Other people besides diehard Yorkists began to take Suffolk seriously, while Henry VII saw him as an even bigger threat. On the same day that the earl wrote to Killingworth, he informed the emperor: ‘I have been warned for certain that King H. [sic] is looking into every means of destroying me, bribing anyone he can with gold and silver.’12 He meant assassination by English agents. As Alison Hanham stresses, Edmund had ceased to believe Maximilian’s promises and abandoned any idea of invading England. But he was convinced that he merely needed to wait for the ailing king to die, before returning home for his coronation. An eleven-year-old Tudor could in no way be a threat, he assured Killingworth.13 Presumably he intended to arrange for young Henry’s disappearance.

Increasingly dependent on Henry VII’s subsidies, Maximilian replaced his promise to help Edmund become king by an assurance that he would do his best to see he recovered his duchy and his estates.14 In February 1503 he told an English embassy led by Sir Thomas Brandon that he wanted King Henry to pardon Suffolk. When they asked him to expel the earl from imperial territory he made a joke they did not catch but which sent his courtiers into roars of laughter – ‘a great laughing’. Even so, the envoys doggedly complained of the ‘aid, comfort and relief’ given by the emperor to the English ‘rebels’ at Aix.15 The Spanish ambassador, too, was demanding that Suffolk should be banished from the empire.

In 1504 Henry ensured the passing of an Act of Parliament giving the towns of the Hansa League exceptional trading advantages very much to the disadvantage of English merchants. The only condition was that the Earl of Suffolk must not be allowed to take up residence in them, or be given help in any way whatsoever. This extraordinary gesture, detrimental to England’s commercial interests, was prompted by Maximilian’s lack of cooperation. Once again, it shows how frightened the king was of Suffolk.16

As has been seen, when Edmund was cursed at St Paul’s Cross Sir Robert Curzon was cursed with him. But the knight errant turned traitor. Hall infers that for some time Curzon had been working for King Henry who, ‘like a wily fox’, included his name in the cursing to convince the earl of his loyalty.17 Vergil, too, suggests that while remaining at Edmund’s side, Curzon sent Henry the names of the leading Yorkists: Edmund’s brother William, Courtenay, Tyrell and Sir John Wyndham.18 He may also have implicated Lord Bergavenny and Sir Thomas Green who were arrested, although nothing could be proved and so they were released. ‘Soon after, Curzon, when he saw time, returned into England and withal into wonted favour with the king, but worse favour with the people,’ is Francis Bacon’s reconstruction. ‘Upon whose return the earl was much dismayed and seeing himself destitute of hopes, the lady Margaret [of Burgundy] also by tract of time and bad success being now become cool in these attempts.’19

Vergil, Hall and Bacon were convinced that Sir Robert had been a double agent all the time, yet the public anathema at Paul’s Cross makes this unlikely – unless Hall’s theory is correct. So, too, does the fact that those who had pledged large sums for his good behaviour forfeited their money. It is more likely that Henry’s spies contacted Curzon, offering him a huge bribe to change sides. The date when Curzon left Suffolk is unknown – certainly not before 1504 – but in 1506 the king settled an enormous annuity on him and he was frequently at court until well into the next reign.

There was at least one other informer among the little group of Yorkists around the earl at Aix, who by now were almost starving. A report by one of Henry’s spies has survived from about 1503. Possibly an agent of Sir Richard Guildford, ordered by the king to keep close watch on them, he seems to have been singularly inept. Although claiming to be expert at consulting astrologers, he could not find anyone to cast Suffolk’s horoscope as he did not know the date of his birth. Nor was he able to learn what sort of help the earl expected or where it was going to come from, or any details about ships or who would rally to him when he landed in England. The agent claimed, however, that he had done his best to dissuade Edmund from launching an invasion, telling him not to do so until he was sure of really solid support. ‘Trust not the commons for in them without their heads [leaders] never was nor shall be steadfastness.’20

During the summer of 1503 Maximilian asked the Master of the Hunt at Guelders to inform the authorities at Aix that he had ceased to encourage the Earl of Suffolk in his struggle against the King of England. He was also to add that the emperor could not in any way be responsible for Suffolk’s debts but, as he pitied the earl’s miserable state and because he had sent him to Aix with letters of recommendation, he would pay 3,000 Rhenish florins towards settling them.21 Unfortunately, the imperial treasury did not forward even this inadequate sum.

Instructions signed – and probably to some extent dictated – by the king in 1503 to an agent who was to contact a ‘Messire Charles’ reveal his continuing obsession with the earl. The agent, Sir John Wiltshire, was the Controller of Calais. His instructions are in French, so he can show them to ‘Messire Charles’ who is in Henry’s pay. His first job was to learn the plans of the ‘rebels’ through Charles’s spies. He was to find out the name of every rebel so that Maximilian could be asked to banish them from his territories: if he heard that George Neville had not yet been expelled from Maastricht, he should see it was done as soon as possible. He was also to bribe Edmund de la Pole’s household to inform on their master. ‘If any other of the gentlemen and servants of the said Edmund de la Pole desire to have pardon and absolution, the King will be pleased to give them their lives so long as they tell everything they know.’22 Wiltshire was almost certainly ordered to arrange for the earl’s assassination.

Meanwhile, the last Yorkists who remained active in England were being methodically hunted down. In May four of them, including two sailors, were tried at the Guildhall and executed at Tyburn. Yet Henry VII still did not feel safe, although by now he had very little to fear from the White Rose.

Pursued by German creditors and English assassins, Suffolk had fled from Aix-la-Chapelle, leaving his brother Richard as security for the monies he owed. Towards Easter 1504, crossing the imperial frontier he set out for the coast, seeking shelter with George, Duke of Saxony. While travelling through Guelderland, he was arrested and imprisoned at Hattem Isel by Duke Charles of Guelders, who tried to sell him to King Henry but asked for such an exorbitant sum that the negotiations ended in failure

Edmund’s dream of toppling the Tudors had turned into a squalid, hand-to-mouth existence of beggary or imprisonment. Throughout, he knew Henry was in unrelenting pursuit, and that two great powers, Spain and France were doing their best to help the king to catch him. For the moment, however, he seemed safe so long as he could remain in Guelderland or the Low Countries, even when in July 1505 Hattem was captured by the troops of Archduke Philip and he became the archduke’s prisoner. A Venetian envoy, writing from Antwerp the following month, informed the Signoria that the Flemish believed Philip would use Suffolk to ‘keep the bit in Henry’s mouth’.23

Apart from a few servants, Edmund’s household had dwindled to his chaplain ‘Sir Walter Blasset’, his steward Thomas Killingworth and another retainer named Thomas Griffiths. The only gentleman left was that irrepressible Yorkist Sir George Neville (pardoned three times by King Henry), who was now calling himself ‘Lord Neville.’ They must all have been very shaken by Curzon’s defection. They were also in financial peril, facing arrest for debt. Living in an inn at Zwolle, they could not pay the bill. ‘None of my friends will help me with a penny,’ the earl wrote to his steward.24 By now he had been forced to pawn even his signet ring, while both he and ‘Lord Neville’ were in rags.

There was a ray of hope during the summer of 1505, however. In July we find him writing to Paul Zachtlevant as ‘My most faithful friend’ Zachtlevant was a wealthy Baltic merchant at Amsterdam with commercial interests in Denmark, who had been one of the main backers behind Warbeck’s abortive invasion in 1495. Determined to recover his money, he planned to present King Henry with documents signed by Warbeck or else persuade the Duke of Pomerania and the King of Denmark to impound English shipping: he wanted Suffolk to authenticate the documents. He also threatened that if Henry would not pay, then he would help to finance the earl’s cause.

Despite his abject poverty, Suffolk was too proud to beg Zachtlevant for ready cash. Instead, his steward Killingworth suggested to ‘Mr Paul’ that the first step was to restore his master’s credibility by paying his bills. He also asked for money to buy him new clothes. Probably during the second half of 1505 – no date is specified – the steward wrote a letter to the earl, describing what he had extracted from Mr Paul, which included satin for doublets and cloth for two pairs of hose – velvet for a gown was also promised. There was also a bonnet for Neville. So far nothing had been said, however, about settling the innkeeper’s bill at Zwolle – ‘an ye had therin spoken plainly to him it had been otherwise, for he is a kind and a friendly man’.

Unfortunately, nothing came of the high hopes aroused by ‘Mr Paul’. As for Archduke Philip, ‘He was my good lord and would do for me many things, but I cannot perceive it,’ Edmund wrote at the end of November 1505. ‘I lie here in pain and shame, and also spend [only] what I can get of my friends, and I have nothing but fair words.’25

Yet for all Suffolk’s miserable circumstances the Venetian envoy at Amsterdam, Vincenzo Quirini, was still taking him seriously as a pretender. The next month he reported having heard (presumably from Venetian merchants in London) that ‘the people of England love and long for him’. Quirini thought that even now Edmund might deal a blow against King Henry who, he claimed, saw him as ‘a great thorn in his eye’ and remained desperate to lay hands on him.26

14. Summer 1501: White Rose and White King

1. Hall, op. cit., p. 495.

2. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol, I, p. 134.

3. Vergil, op. cit., p. 123.

4. LP Hen VII, vol. I, op. cit., p. 266.

5. Ibid., pp. 137–8.

6. J.G. Nichols (ed.), Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London, Camden Society, Old Series 53, London, 1852, p. 127.

7. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 55.

8. Vergil, op. cit., p. 125.

9. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 256.

10. Vergil, op. cit., p. 126.

11. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. I, p. 180.

12. Ibid., p. 184.

13. A. Hanham, ‘Edmund de la Pole, defector’, in Journal of the Society for Renaissance Studies, 2 (1988), p. 244.

14. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 134–51.

15. Ibid., pp. 205–6.

16. W. Busch, England under the Tudors, vol. I, p. 179.

17. Hall, op. cit., p. 496.

18. Vergil, op. cit., p. 122.

19. Bacon, op. cit., p. 180.

20. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. I, p. 228.

21. Ibid., p. 188.

22. Ibid., p. 220–5.

23. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. I, 849 and 851.

24. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. I, p. 254.

25. Ibid., p. 276.

26. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. I, 861.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!