Post-classical history


Winter 1505–6: An Ill Wind

‘And then it was agreed between the King and the Duke of Burgoyne that Edmund de la Pole should be sent home again, and so he was.’

Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London1

Even before the deterioration in Henry VII’s physical health, a lack of mental equilibrium could be discerned. As already suggested, one symptom was a feverish obsession with Edmund de la Pole. It appears that his secret agents, carefully briefed, had been in touch with the White Rose, doing their best to persuade him to come home. No doubt they used every inducement, promising that all would be forgiven. In his wretchedness, Edmund convinced himself that this was possible. After all, the Emperor Maximilian had suggested it, assuring him he would work for such an outcome. Towards the end of January 1506 he made up his mind to negotiate with the king. A stream of pompously phrased letters shows that he thought he was negotiating from a position of strength and could dictate terms.

On 28 January ‘the right excellent prince, My Lord Edmund, Duke of Suffolk’, as he styled himself, solemnly commissioned his trusty and well-beloved servants, his steward Thomas Killingworth and John Griffiths, to go to King Henry and inform him of their master’s wishes. His father’s duchy was to be restored to him, together with all his father’s estates, and also the town of Leighton Buzzard which Edward IV had forced the family to lease to the canons of Windsor. His wife, his daughter and his brother Richard were to recover all their legal rights. His brother William de la Pole was to be set at liberty, as well as every gentleman who had been imprisoned on his account. Sir George Neville’s lands were to be restored to him. Edmund also asked Henry to help him recover his liberty should Philip try and keep him a prisoner by force. However, at the time he wrote his letters, Edmund was unaware of what had happened to his gaoler, the archduke.2

At the beginning of the month, Archduke Philip had set off by sea for Spain. Heir to the Habsburg domains and the Holy Roman Empire, and – as Duke of Burgundy – ruler of the Low Countries, he had married Princess Juanna – Katherine of Aragon’s elder sister – who was the heiress to the Spanish throne. Since the death of his mother-in-law Queen Isabella, he had called himself King of Castile, much to the fury of his father-in-law, Ferdinand of Aragon. The archduke was determined to visit the country, however, and take possession of his wife’s inheritance. His fleet sailed from Zealand with great pomp: when they passed Calais at night, the ships were lit by flaming torches, their guns firing salutes and their trumpeters sounding. But while still in the Channel a fierce storm blew up, steadily mounting in intensity until Philip’s fleet was driven off course. Each vessel had to run for safety before the wind.

In England, the worst tempest within living memory began at noon on 15 January 1506, ‘the hideous wind which endured upon an xi days following, more or less in continual blowing’.3In London it ripped tiles off roofs, demolished entire houses and toppled the weathercock off the steeple of old St Paul’s cathedral. It was far worse at sea. Although her cannon were thrown overboard, for a moment Philip’s ship went gunwale under, while he was knocked off his feet by a huge wave and had to cling to the rigging. Eventually she struggled into Melcombe Regis in Dorset, opposite Weymouth. The archduke was lucky to escape with his life. A novice sailor, he had suffered miserably and insisted on going ashore to recuperate, despite his courtiers’ warnings.

According to Polydore Vergil, on learning of Philip’s arrival Henry VII was delighted, ‘scarcely able to believe his luck when he realized that divine providence had given him the means of getting his hands on Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who had been the leader of the conspiracy against him a few years previously’.4

He immediately sent the Earl of Arundel to bring Philip to London, with an escort of 300 men-at-arms bearing torches, as it was a hard winter and the roads were covered in snow. The archduke was the king’s prisoner, however sumptuously he might be entertained and despite being made a Knight of the Garter. Henry had a well-deserved name for being the toughest bargainer in Europe, and eventually Philip signed a treaty of alliance, which ended the latest commercial dispute between England and Flanders with an agreement so favourable to England that it became known in the Low Countries as the Evil Treaty – the Intercursus Malus. Above all, the archduke reluctantly agreed to hand over Edmund de la Pole.

The king agreed to do much more than spare Edmund’s life. Adrian de Croy (one of Archduke Philip’s household) told the emperor that Henry had given his master a written promise ‘sealed with his own seal’ that the earl should be pardoned unconditionally and that his estates would be restored to him.5 Venetian sources confirm this. But by pure chance the promise disappeared, after being entrusted to a man who was apparently poisoned by King Ferdinand’s ambassador in Flanders – for reasons that had nothing to do with Henry.

There was no question of the archduke being allowed to leave until Suffolk had been handed over. As quickly as possible, Philip’s officers went to Mechlin, where by now the earl was confined, and on 16 March he was brought to Calais. According toVergil, Edmund was not especially worried, confident that Philip would soon persuade Henry to forgive him and give back his estates. Escorted across the Channel to Dover a week later by Sir John Wiltshire and six men-at-arms in full armour from the Calais garrison, the White Rose was at once taken to London where his illusions were immediately dispelled. He disappeared into a cell at the Tower, probably tethered by a chain, despite Henry’s promises and even though Vergil described it as ‘honourable confinement’.6

The king ordered Edmund to be interrogated, hinting at torture if he did not cooperate. In the event, he gave full details about his followers and any steps they had taken to forward his cause. Among names he supplied were those of Lord Bergavenny and Sir Thomas Green of Greens Norton in Northamptonshire, who were arrested and taken to the Tower for questioning. Nothing could be proved, however, because Edmund had not accused them of plotting but merely included them among his supporters. Although Bergavenny was soon released, Sir Thomas fell ill, dying in the Tower. Vergil comments that King Henry suspected that in both cases the earl was not telling the truth – conceivably, he named them for the sake of revenge, but it is more likely he did so to give the impresssion he was cooperating and to avoid torture.7

Suffolk implicated two other magnates, however, whose treatment was so severe as to imply there was evidence they had been ready to rise for him. The Chronicle of Calais tells us what happened to the Marquess of Dorset and Lord William Courtenay, ‘which were both of kin to the late Queen Elizabeth and her blood’ and had been in the Tower for a long time. In October 1507 the pair were taken across the Channel, where they were ‘kept prisoners in the castle of Calais as long as King Henry VII lived and should have been put to death if he had lived longer’.8

For by then the king was a very sick man indeed. During the last three years of his life he fell ill annually, always in the spring, a progressive collapse in his physical health that was accompanied by an unmistakeable decline in mental powers. As early as 1502 Vergil noticed he was treating his subjects much more harshly and saying he wanted to frighten them into loyalty.9

Despite the apparent security of his regime, with the current White Rose firmly under lock and key, Henry did not feel safe. There are indications that, after decades of fighting off Yorkist pretenders, his paranoia had grown so intense that he began to see his own son and heir as a potential rival. Ironically, the hope of the Tudors was kept under close surveillance, guarded so strictly that he was all but under lock and key. (Perhaps his father, no mean judge of character, realized that his son was a very dangerous young man.)

The end of Henry VII’s reign was a thoroughly unhappy time for England and not just for the king. Driven by increasing avarice, Henry used the bonds he had developed to deter potential rebels (ruinous fines hanging over their heads) to screw money out of all and sundry. By now, his principal ministers were two ruthless young careerists, Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, both brutal extortioners. ‘As for Empson and Dudley’s mills, they did grind more than ever, so that it was a strange thing to see what golden showers poured down on the King’s treasury,’ comments Bacon. ‘Belike he thought to leave his son a kingdom and such a mass of treasure as he might choose his greatness where he would.’10

Although the rich of whatever political hue suffered – blameless country gentlemen with large estates and rich city aldermen were favourite targets – there are indications that those who had long-standing Yorkist links were singled out in particular. Dudley, awaiting execution after Henry’s death, wrote a ‘Petition’, citing victims of the late king’s extortion. Among them were the Earl of Northumberland whose father’s loyalty had always been suspect; the Abbot of Furness, a friend and neighbour of Sir Thomas Broughton; and William Catesby of Northampton, the son and heir of Richard III’s henchman.11

Meanwhile, the fate of the Yorkist pretender, the White Rose, could not have been unhappier. At any moment he might be taken from the Tower and executed as a traitor – there was no need for a trial since he had been condemned to death during his exile. At some time in 1507 his faithful steward Killingworth sent a ‘memorial’ to Emperor Maximilian in which he says that, should the King of England die, then ‘the lord Duke Edmund will be in the greatest danger [maximo pericolo]’.12 All Europe knew that Henry VII’s health had been giving cause for alarm.

The king died on 21 April 1509. He had succeeded in keeping his throne by unremitting vigilance, never able to relax for a moment and enjoy what he had won, because of the threat from the White Rose. On his deathbed, however, Henry revealed to his son that he felt guilty about certain acts of injustice that he had committed during his reign, particularly the Earl of Warwick’s death, and he asked him to restore Warwick’s sister Margaret to her inheritance.13

16. Winter 1505–6: An Ill Wind

1. Chronicle of the Grey Friars, op. cit., p. 28.

2. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 278–85.

3. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 261.

4. Vergil, op. cit., p. 136.

5. CSP Sp, op. cit., vol. I, 456.

6. Vergil, op. cit., p. 136.

7. Ibid., pp. 138–40.

8. The Chronicle of Calais, p. 126.

9. Vergil, op. cit., p. 126.

10. Bacon, op. cit., pp. 182–3.

11. C.J. Harrison, ‘The Petition of Edmund Dudley’, English Historical Review, 87 (1972).

12. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. I, p. 319.

13. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. 5, 575.

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