Post-classical history


September 1504: A Conversation about the Future

‘But none of them, he said, spake of my lord prince.’

John Flamank’s report to Henry VII1

Some experts on the Tudor period regard Edmund de la Pole as a mere footnote to the history of the reign, a figure without any real political significance – which is precisely how Henry VII wanted his subjects to see the earl. Yet however wretched Edmund’s adventures in Germany and the Low Countries may have been, they showed that more than a few foreign rulers accepted him as a serious claimant to the English throne. And Henry knew that a fair number of Englishmen recognized Suffolk’s claims, judging from a spy’s report from Calais that reached him during the autumn of 1504. It showed that some of his most trusted subjects thought the White Rose might become their next ruler.

Although taking just a few hours if the English Channel’s uncertain weather was kind and the tides had been properly reckoned, a crossing from Dover to Calais in the early sixteenth century, on the whole, was a thing to be dreaded. All too often it could turn into a long and frightening voyage. The clumsy little ships – tubby, clinker-built ‘cogs’ – might easily be driven off course for days on end, tacking to and fro against a contrary wind, their skippers fearful of hoisting too much sail in case a squall blew up. In a high sea, vessels like this rolled and pitched horribly, shipping an alarming amount of water, the waves drenching everybody on board and swamping the rudimentary cabins under the ‘castles’ fore and aft. Passengers and crew were profoundly thankful to make land.

Going ashore at Calais, they found themselves on English soil in a thriving English town that housed the English merchants of the Staple, a tightly knit, and to some extent intermarried, community, who controlled the export of their country’s wool, selling the bulk of it in Flanders where textile production was booming. In consequence, Calais – ‘Calis’ as it was pronounced at the time – was the entry point through which most of the foreign gold and silver earned by trade went back to England, so that its streets were full of luxury shops and expensive taverns selling best quality wine. Its merchants lived in fine, richly furnished mansions with glass windows and tall chimneys. The town was a jewel in the English Crown and Henry VII found time to visit it twice – the second occasion being in 1500 when he was paid a state visit here by Archduke Philip, who was also Duke of Burgundy.

Yet there was something claustrophobic about life at Calais. Its inhabitants felt dangerously isolated, cut off from home by rough seas and in constant fear of a siege as, understandably, the town’s occupation by the English was resented by the French. But its massive fortifications looked impregnable (even though outdated), while the land around it, known as the Marches of Calais, was defended by two particularly strong castles – Hammes and Guisnes. A widespread network of secret agents, reaching as far away as Paris, was always on the look out for any sign of hostile preparations by the French government so as to give the garrison good warning of an attack.

For Henry VII, however, ‘Calais and the Marches of Calais’ were more than just a strategic and commercial bridgehead across the Channel. The garrison was the nearest thing he possessed to a standing army. In England he merely had a bodyguard of 200 ‘yeomen’, but over in Calais he maintained a regular force of 700–800 regularly paid men-at-arms, archers and gunners. If necessary, Guisnes and Hammes could be used as maximum security gaols for state prisoners.

However, for many years Yorkist support was embedded in Calais. Although many hardliners had been hunted down and eliminated or chased away, devotion to the old royal family remained entrenched among some of the merchant families and even among the troops. The king took exceptional care when choosing the garrison’s officers. These consisted of lieutenant and deputy lieutenant, governor and deputy governor, treasurer, captain and gentleman porter, posts that were only given to trusted courtiers whom he knew well. If he could not depend on them, then he could depend on no one. Needless to say, Henry relied on spies to make absolutely certain of his officers’ loyalty. One of these agents was a certain John Flamank, the deputy governor’s son-in-law. (He was also the brother of Thomas Flamank, the lawyer who had been executed for his part in the Cornish rebellion of 1497.)

A secret report by Flamank, written in 1504, must have made uncomfortable reading for the king. It provides a rare insight into just how worried many Englishmen of standing were about the succession to the throne, even those who were most loyal to the king. It also reveals that a substantial proportion of Henry VII’s subjects heartily disliked their ruler. Even now the Tudor dynasty had not yet been securely established and some important people were taking Edmund de la Pole very seriously indeed.

The report concerns a meeting held at Calais. In attendance was the treasurer, Sir Hugh Conway, who had fought on Henry’s side at Bosworth and later been treasurer of Ireland. Another of those present was the deputy governor, Sir Richard Nanfan of Trethewell in Cornwall, Flamank’s father-in-law. ‘A very grave and ancient knight’2, Nanfan was born in 1445, had also fought for Henry at Bosworth and led several important diplomatic missions to Spain. (He employed a chaplain, a clever young man called Thomas Wolsey.) Also present at the meeting were Sir Sampson Norton, the master porter, who had been Master of the Ordinance, William Nanfan, who was probably Richard’s brother, and Flamank himself. Conway made them swear not to reveal what they were going to discuss to anybody else, except ‘to the king’s grace if need shall require’.

Conway began by warning Sir Richard that he was in grave danger and should thank God he had so far escaped, adding that he knew the identity of the men sent to murder the deputy governor and who was behind them. Naturally, Nanfan wanted to know at once who they were, but Conway said he would tell him later. Everybody present had enemies at Calais, he explained, especially among those who had secured their posts through the influence of the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Daubeney. ‘I and master porter [are] as far into the dance as ye be.’ The only possible reason for their enmity that he could think of – he suggested with a perhaps assumed naïveté – was that ‘we follow the king’s pleasure’.

Conway then hinted that Lord Daubeney’s loyalty to the dynasty might be suspect – ‘hard it is to know men’s minds if God should send a sudden change’. Sir Richard broke in at this point, to say that he would swear on the sacrament that the chamberlain (who had also fought for Henry at Bosworth) was as loyal to the king as any man living. Sir Sampson Norton agreed with him. Nanfan conceded, however, that Giles Daubeney had been very ‘shlake’ (slack) on at least one occasion, when he had failed to disperse the Cornish rebels of 1499 before they reached Kent, a failure that angered Henry.

After further discussion, Sir Hugh was forced to retract and to admit that ‘my lord chamberlain … loveth the king as well as any man living’. He added, however, that ‘it hath been seen that change of worlds hath caused change of mind’. Perhaps he was afraid that he might be replaced by one of Daubeney’s numerous protégés.

What he really wanted to talk about was something more serious still. He went on to remind the meeting that ‘the king’s grace is but a weak man and sickly, not likely to be long lived’, and only recently had fallen dangerously ill at his manor of Wanstead in Surrey. At the time, Sir Hugh had found himself ‘among many great personages’, who were discussing what would happen should Henry die. He did not give the meeting their names, but he recalled how ‘some of them spoke of my lord of Buckingham, saying that he was a noble man and would be a royal ruler’, reported Flamank. ‘Others there were that spoke, he said, likewise of your traitor, Edmund de la Pole, but none of them, he said, spoke of my lord prince’ – by this Sir Hugh meant the late Prince Arthur.

Clearly, the ‘great personages’ who were cited by the treasurer remembered all too well how Edward V had been turned off the throne and murdered when he was twelve. (After twenty years the late Richard of Gloucester’s coup still cast a very long shadow.) In 1504, the new heir to the throne, the Duke of York – the future Henry VIII – at thirteen was only a little younger. His younger brother Edmund had died only recently so that, apart from his widowed father, he was the sole surviving member of a dynasty which might easily be supposed to be on the edge of extinction.

When Sir Sampson asked him if he had told the king, Conway asked to be allowed to finish. Since his arrival at Calais, he continued, he had repeated what he had just said to Sir Nicholas Vaux, lieutenant of Guisnes and to Sir Anthony Browne, lieutenant of the castle at Calais. Both had given him the same answer: they felt safe enough in their fortresses ‘and should be sure to make their peace how so ever the world turn’. The entire meeting then vehemently insisted that Conway should tell the king.

‘If you knew King Harry, our master, as I do, you would beware how … you broke to him … any such matters, for he would take it to be said but of envy, ill will and malice,’ replied Sir Hugh. He then explained how this sort of thing had got him into trouble before. In 1486, hearing in confidence from a friend that Richard III’s former henchman Lord Lovell, in sanctuary at Colchester, was plotting mischief, he had immediately told Sir Reginald Bray, who had brought him to the king. When Henry asked him to name his source, Conway had refused because he had been sworn to secrecy by his informant, so that his warning only served to irritate the king.

Sir Richard Nanfan reluctantly agreed that Henry was a little too prone to question warnings. He recalled that when he and Sir Sampson reported their suspicions about Sir James Tyrell – the murderer of the Princes in the Tower, who had recently been executed as a de la Pole supporter – the council refused to believe them, saying they were motivated by malice. When Nanfan had written to the king that Sir Robert Clifford was going round Calais insisting that Perkin Warbeck was Edward IV’s son – ‘Never words went colder to my heart than they did’ – Henry had demanded proof from Sir Richard, who made Clifford repeat it in front of the town marshal, ‘Else I had like to be put to a great plunge’ – by which he means he would probably have been hanged. The meeting was forced to admit that Conway would need much firmer evidence for his allegations.

Sir Hugh told the meeting that each and every one of them was in very grave danger. They did not have strongholds where they could take refuge (like Vaux or Browne), while they had too many enemies in Calais ‘that will be glad to destroy and murder us all’. Moreover, it had been written that Henry’s reign would last no longer than Edward IV’s – which had been little more than twenty-two years – but did not specify his source.

Terrified the conversation might be reported to the king, Conway’s hearers angrily refused to believe the prophecy, protesting their loyalty to Henry VII and the Tudors. Norton told him to burn the book in which the prophesy was written, adding that he hoped its writer would come to a bad end. ‘I pray you, leave off this prophesying about the king,’ said Sir Richard, who added that Conway was talking about things he himself had never heard of before. ‘My prayer is that I live day neither hour longer than the king’s grace, and [that] his children shall have and enjoy the realm of England.’

In response, Conway insisted that he was only mentioning such matters for the good of the king and his children, as well as for the safety of Calais. Nothing would ever be achieved without open and honest discussion. There could be no security so long as ‘The Lady Luse’ was in the castle: ‘for the castle is the key of this town: he that is therin being of a contrary mind may let men enough in one night to destroy us all while we shall be in our beds sleeping’. Elizabeth Lucy – ‘The Lady Luse’ – was the wife of Sir Anthony Browne, lieutenant of the castle or citadel of Calais. A niece of the late Warwick the Kingmaker (her father, the Marquess Montagu, had been killed at the battle of Barnet in 1471), she had her own ideas about the succession. Once King Henry was dead, continued Conway, ‘she being in the castle here and Edmund de la Pole her cousin at his liberty … she would help him in his cause with all her power and … let him come into this town by the postern [gate] of the castle, to the destruction of us all’.

Sir Hugh was saying that even now – nearly twenty years after Bosworth – Calais remained full of irreconcilable Yorkists who had never accepted the Tudor regime. He and his colleagues must never relax their guard in case King Henry should die unexpectedly. He also added that Calais was on the opposite side of the Channel to Kent, where he knew Suffolk had powerful supporters, such as Sir Richard Guildford.

Sir Richard Nanfan declared unctuously – for the third time and no doubt for the record – that he prayed to God he would not live to see the king’s death, but whatever happened they must ensure that Calais stayed in the hands of ‘my lord prince’. With luck they could ‘destroy all the captains and ringleaders that be of ill and contrary mind’. It should be easy enough to manage the others.

Flamank then summarizes everything he has so far reported, while insisting that the Nanfans and Norton could all give the king a much better account of the discussion. He undermines his credibility, however, by adding that he has heard both Norton and William Nanfan mention that Sir Hugh Conway had said several times that there would be no more popes in Rome after the present one, and no more kings in Ireland after Henry VII. He finishes by describing a conversation in which the treasurer confided to him how he had suggested to both Sir Richard and Norton that, since it was so difficult to find out what was happening in England, it would be a good idea to employ a reliable man ‘to lie about the court … he may all times send us [news] how the world goeth’. Conway was ready to pay half the cost, ‘for God knoweth how suddenly a change may [be]fall’.

Without doubt, the report was deliberately biased against Sir Hugh Conway, perhaps an attempt by Flamank and Norton to secure his dismissal. He is portrayed as hopelessly unballanced, to the point of hysteria, while references to his dislike of Lord Daubeney may have been invented to cause bad blood. Conceivably, Sir Richard Nanfan, who made all those carefully noted professions of loyalty, was the document’s real author, even if he did not write it himself.

What made the report convincing was that during the previous year Sir Richard Guildford had been denounced by another spy as ready to welcome Suffolk. A former controller of the household, Guildford had been with Henry in Brittany and fought for him at Bosworth. Although probably unfounded, the accusation was given just a little substance by his being heavily in debt and facing ruin. The king gave him the benefit of the doubt, however, although in 1505 he had him arrested and sent to Fleet prison for not keeping proper accounts when Master of the Ordnance. Guildford’s career was over. Next year he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he died. Reservations about his loyalty may well have had something to do with his downfall.

When the reliability of key supporters such as Guildford was in doubt, it is no wonder Henry VII went in fear of Suffolk.

15. September 1504: A Conversation about the Future

1. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 231–40.

2. G. Cavendish, Thomas Wolsey, late Cardinal, his Life and Death written by George Cavendish, his Gentleman Usher, London, Folio Society, 1999, p. 33.

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