Post-classical history

Overview: The White Rose, 1485–1547

‘“The White Rose is most true

This garden to rule by rightwise law.”

The Lily White Rose methought I saw.’

The Lily White Rose, c.15001

At Bosworth on 22 August 1485, at the head of his Knights and Squires of the Body, Richard III charged down on Henry Tudor’s puny army in the field below. Killing Henry’s standard-bearer, Richard hacked his way towards him – the two may even have exchanged blows. At the very last moment one of the king’s followers, Sir William Stanley, changed sides in the battle. Galloping across the field with 3,000 troops, he annihilated Richard and the royal household. Henry owed his life and his throne to treachery.

As Shakespeare imagines the scene, after the battle Sir William’s brother Lord Stanley offers the dead king’s crown to Henry with the words, ‘Wear it, enjoy it and make much of it’. Yet while it could be argued that nobody ever wore the English crown with greater skill or made more of it, Henry did not always enjoy the experience. ‘From the start [Henry VII] was threatened with plots by fresh opponents,’ says Polydore Vergil, a contemporary historian. ‘He had to cope with armed uprisings by enemies who were also his subjects, surviving with difficulty.’2 The future of the Tudor dynasty was uncertain, even in his son’s time.3

Henry’s campaign had been a desperate gamble. Most of his followers were ex-Yorkists, outraged by Richard’s seizure of the throne, who supported him only because no other pretender was available. His claim to be king (through his mother, last member of a bastard branch of Lancaster) was far from convincing, even if he was crowned at Westminster Abbey by the same Archbishop of Canterbury who had crowned Richard III only two years earlier – and even if Parliament had passed an Act recognizing him as king. ‘For all his high words about his just title, it was in fact as shaky as could be without being non-existent.’ This is a good description of Henry’s position in 1485. ‘Thereafter, most revolts which he faced were similar pieces of high politicking about which family to put on the throne. His policy was to murder or neutralise as many likely rivals as possible, a policy which his son took up in mid life.’4

There was still a Plantagenet heir after Bosworth and many Englishmen were uneasy about replacing a dynasty that had ruled for over 300 years. 1486 saw a rising in support of Richard III’s young nephew Edward, Earl of Warwick, while the following year Lord Lincoln led a revolt in the earl’s name, using a boy called Lambert Simnel to impersonate him. During the 1490s the Tudors were threatened by Perkin Warbeck, who, encouraged by the Yorkist underground, posed as one of the Princes in the Tower and called himself the ‘White Rose’. Indeed, there were so many plots against the Tudor king that a court poet compared the first twelve years of his reign to the Labours of Hercules.

Early in 1499 an astrologer’s warning of yet more danger from the Yorkists caused Henry VII to suffer a complete nervous collapse, and a Spanish envoy reported that he had aged twenty years in a fortnight. Shortly afterwards, he decided to kill Warwick, the last male Plantagenet. Unluckily for the king, the earl’s legal murder gave rise to the widespread rumour that his execution had brought a curse on the Tudors, dooming their male children to an early death. In any case Yorkism persisted – as a belief that there were men with a much better right to represent the Plantagenets than this new, self-invented royal family – and another White Rose soon emerged to claim the throne.

Another title for this book could have been ‘The Shadow of Richard III’. As a boy Henry VIII must have known that if his father died, his line would probably disappear: as a king without a male heir, he became convinced that his own death would mean the end of the Tudors. When eventually he did father a son, he feared that if he died too soon the child might go the same way as Edward V. That is why anyone with Plantagenet blood lived under a death sentence, no English king having sent so many men – or women – to the scaffold. ‘These, and many other such deaths, were a testimony to the profound disquiet that haunted Henry throughout his life,’ comments Lucy Wooding. ‘It was a direct inheritance from his father.’5

Henry VIII’s disquiet first showed itself in 1513. When about to invade France he had Edmund de la Pole executed, to prevent him from being proclaimed king in his absence, while for the next decade Tudor agents tried to murder Richard de la Pole, Edmund’s successor as the White Rose. Although Richard, the last man to challenge Henry VIII openly for the throne, was killed at Pavia in 1525 when fighting for the French, the king grew increasingly suspicious of any nobleman with Yorkist blood. Revealingly, the Treason Act of 1534 denounced as traitors those who wrote or said he was a ‘usurper of the crown’.

During the early1530s England was rocked by Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the Church’s break from Rome, and by new laws that increased the powers of the crown. No one disliked the changes more than Katherine’s supporters, who included the White Rose party, by now centred around two families, the Courtenays and the Poles. The head of the Courtenays, the Marquess of Exeter, was a grandson of King Edward IV. The Poles, headed by Lord Montague, consisted of the four sons of Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury (sister of the Earl of Warwick who had been Richard III’s heir). They hoped to replace Henry with his daughter Mary, with Reginald Pole as a Yorkist king consort, and their ally Bishop Fisher implored the imperial ambassador to ask Charles V to come and overthrow Henry VIII, whom he claimed was even more unpopular than Richard. But the revolt never took place as the plotters lacked a leader.

In 1536 a rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace broke out in Lincolnshire, and then in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumberland, with 30,000 men demanding an end to religious innovations and the dismissal of Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer. The king tricked them into dispersing, before taking a savage revenge. This was the most dangerous moment of Henry VIII’s reign and had it come to a fight he might easily have been toppled. But the White Rose families made the fatal mistake of sitting on the fence.

Next year Pope Paul IV appointed Reginald Pole to lead a ‘mission’ to force Henry VIII to bring England back to Rome or depose him. Pole hoped to revive the Pilgrimage of Grace, but was too late. In 1539 he led another unsuccessful mission, to persuade Charles V to invade England. Henry’s reaction was to exterminate the White Rose families and their supporters, send assassins to kill Pole and execute his mother, the Countess of Salisbury – the last living Plantagenet. Even then, the king did not feel secure, destroying the Howards because he feared they would try and take the throne from his young son.

For over half a century after Bosworth the White Rose kept on producing pretenders, men who were either open or potential rivals for the throne. But while this is their story, the story of a forgotten lost cause, the underlying theme is the fear that the White Rose inspired in the first two Tudors. In Henry VII, suspicion turned into a disease, a sinister legacy he bequeathed to Henry VIII in whom it festered until it became mania.

Overview: The White Rose, 1485–1547

1. R.T. Davies (ed.), Medieval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology, London, Faber & Faber, 1963, no. 156.

2. P. Vergil, The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil AD 1485–1537, Camden Society, 1950, p. 9.

3. ‘The spectre of possible rivals, true or false, haunted Henry VII all the days, and maybe the nights, of his life, and inflamed the heated imagination of his son after him; many guilty and innocent heads were to roll so that the Tudors might sleep more easily.’ S.B. Chrimes, Lancastrians, Yorkists and Henry VII, London, Macmillan, 1964, p. 158

4. A. Fletcher and D. MacCulloch, Tudor Rebellions, London and New York, Longmans, 1997, p. 116.

5. L. Wooding, Henry VIII, London, Routledge, 2009, p. 18.

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