‘Suspicions among thoughts are like bats amongst birds: they ever fly by twilight.’
Sir Francis Bacon, Essays – Of Suspicion.
From the start, King Henry distrusted England’s great nobles, continuing his father’s policy of appointing as his ministers new men who came from modest backgrounds. Methodically, he reduced the magnates’ influence in the same way that Henry VII had done, excluding them from any real power while parading them on great occasions as if they were pieces of court furniture. Like his father, he was secretly afraid that some great nobleman might suddenly rise up against him and revive the Wars of the Roses or, at the very least, might try to seize the throne should he die young.
Still hoping that Queen Katherine was going to bear him a son and heir, he cannot have failed to note the worrying rumours about a threat to an infant king north of the Border. In 1515 the Duke of Albany returned from exile in France to become Regent of Scotland for his two-year-old cousin, James V. ‘Many were alarmed by the prospect, knowing how strong is the lust for power,’ Vergil tells us. ‘As the duke was of King James’s blood and would inherit the realm should he die, there seemed to be a real risk that driven by the desire to reign he might arrange for the child’s death.’ One Scottish noble warned the queen that the little king’s life was in danger after being put in the care of a man who desperately wanted the throne – ‘entrusting a sheep to a wolf ’.1 Although in fact the duke proved to be an excellent regent, the Queen of Scots was Henry VIII’s sister, and the king was aware of her concern. It was an uncomfortable reminder of how vulnerable a son of his might be in a similar situation.
Beyond any question, England’s leading magnate was ‘The right high and mighty prince, Edward, Duke of Buckingham, Earl of Hereford, Stafford and Northampton’, as he styled himself. Edward Stafford (or Bohun, a surname he preferred) had been born in 1478 and when his father’s revolt against Richard III was crushed had spent two years in hiding disguised as a girl. After Bosworth his titles and estates were restored to him but, while he was appointed to great ceremonial offices by Henry VII and given a high profile on state occasions, he was deliberately excluded from any sort of political power.
Until 1513 the only surviving duke in the realm and the greatest landowner in the whole country with estates in 24 shires (that included 12 castles and 124 manors), Buckingham was hereditary Lord High Constable of England, an office inherited from his Bohun forebears that, in theory, made him commander-in-chief of the king’s armies. His father had been beheaded for rebelling against Richard III, his grand father and great-grandfather had been killed in battle. Descended from many men who had fought by William the Conqueror’s side at Hastings, inheritor of a score of lesser peerages whose titles he did not bother to use, this giant pachyderm of a magnate embodied the old nobility. Such a man was scarcely to be overawed by a Tudor, even though that Tudor was his crowned and anointed sovereign, and the king knew it.
Edward Stafford may not have had any Yorkist blood, but he certainly possessed Plantagenet blood, being descended from Edward III through the female line, from the heiress of Edward’s fifth son, the Duke of Gloucester. His claim to the throne was as good as the king’s. The men at the secret conference in Calais in 1504 had seen him as the most likely successor to Henry VII, and after Queen Katherine’s failure to produce a son he was regarded throughout Europe as the most likely successor to Henry VIII. In 1519 the Venetian ambassador, Sebastian Giustinian, reported that ‘should the King die without male heirs, the Duke could easily get the crown’.2 Henry was well aware of such gossip.
In 1510, while Queen Katherine was pregnant, the king strayed. His reputed mistress was Lady FitzWalter, the former Lady Elizabeth Stafford, who was Buckingham’s sister.3 To avert suspicion from Henry one of his courtiers, Sir William Compton, pretended to pursue her. A lady-in-waiting was so outraged that she explained the situation to the duke, who shortly afterwards found Sir William in his sister’s apartments. Furious, he snarled, ‘Women of the Stafford family are no game for Comptons, no, nor for Tudors either.’ It was a blunt reminder that in his eyes the Tudors were parvenus. Shortly after the ensuing recriminations, the king angrily rebuked Buckingham, who left court. Lady FitzWalter’s husband dragged her away for a spell in a convent, which suggests that he believed she had been unfaithful. But Henry appeared to forget the incident.4
Stafford lived with staggering opulence and display, never going on a journey without a ‘travelling household’ of sixty horsemen. His full household numbered between 130 and 150, all of whom ate and lodged at his expense. On the feast of the Epiphany 1508 he had given dinner to no less than 459 people, and he often entertained on a similarly sumptuous a scale. He dressed in priceless silks, velvets and furs (including Russian sables), and in cloth of gold or silver, sewn with a multitude of little family badges in gold, notably the Stafford knots and the Bohun swans and antelopes and the Bohun motto, ‘God and the Swann’.
For many years Stafford had been building a new castle-palace with two courtyards at Thornbury in Gloucestershire. Although never completed, enough remains to give us some idea of how splendid he intended it to be, especially the large and beautiful oriel windows. It had a garden with a huge orchard criss-crossed by alleys, with summerhouses in the trees, thirteen fishponds and a park containing 700 deer. While intended to be defensible against troops without artillery, it was very much a great house as well as a castle, with large, luxurious rooms. Much of what survives is where the duke and his wife, Alianore Percy, daughter of the fourth Earl of Northumberland, spent most of their time, with the duchess’s apartments on the ground floor.
Thornbury was merely one of Stafford’s palatial residences, and others he used most included Bletchingley in Surrey, Penshurst in Kent and Newport in Monmouthshire. He also owned the castles of Tunbridge in Kent, Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire, Maxstoke in Warwickshire, Stafford in Staffordshire, and Brecon in Wales (where he was Prince of Brecknock). His London ‘inn’ or mansion was the Red Rose, near the church of St Lawrence, Pultney, just off Candlewick Street. During the summer of 1519 King Henry, together with the entire court, spent several days as his guests at Penshurst. (This is the only one of the duke’s houses that still conveys something of his magnificence.)
The duke was not without some good qualities. He got on well with many of his kindred. After his son married Ursula Pole, the Countess of Salisbury’s daughter, her brothers spent so much time with Buckingham that they were mistaken for his nephews. He was genuinely religious, an admirer of the Carthusians, and at their behest he paid the expenses of a boy at Oxford who wanted to become a priest.5 Despite his litigiousness he had a sense of justice – we know that he had been deeply shocked by the Earl of Warwick’s execution. And, as he would one day prove, he also possessed both dignity and courage.
On the other hand, he was a difficult man, not merely proud and hot-tempered but aggressive and revengeful, always at law over some dispute. A contemporarary portrait shows a heavy, unmistakeably obstinate face. He was constantly falling out with his own household, sometimes arresting and imprisoning them illegally, confiscating their goods and chattels, instituting nearly fifty court cases against former employees.6 He suspected everybody of trying to cheat him, possibly because he knew he was running seriously into debt; his estates had been badly run for generations. By the end of his career he was being forced to sell large amounts of land.
Buckingham quarrelled as much with equals as he did with servants. In a legal battle over an adjoining estate at Thornbury, he stated that Lord Berkeley’s wife was a witch and that Berkeley would end up feeding pigs, the job for which he was best fitted, adding that his lordship’s only other qualities were greed and coveting what did not belong to him.7 During a long-running feud – as usual, over land – with Thomas Lucas, a former solicitor general, he sued for libel, alleging that Lucas had declared ‘he set not by the Duke two pins’ and that Buckingham ‘had no more conscience than a dog’. Although the duke won the case, he was awarded a derisive £40 out of the £1,000 he had claimed in damages.8
As a landlord he was notably harsh, ruthless over rents and a relentless ‘encloser’ of land – at Thornbury alone a thousand acres – which involved the destruction of dozens of little farms and reduced the farmers to beggary. Wherever possible he brought back serfdom: his officials methodically investigated his tenants’ ancestry, reclaiming them as ‘bond men’ if their forebears had been serfs and enforcing the old, feudal bond service. In Wales, where because of years of neglect his estates were in chaos and rents seldom paid, such measures provoked armed resistance.
Henry had felt uneasy about him for a long time. In 1513 he created his friend Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk, partly to stress that the de la Poles had forfeited their duchy, but also to deprive Buckingham of his status as England’s only duke. The king began to worry increasingly about Buckingham’s wealth, power and royal blood, a worry that was fuelled by his own lack of a son. For Warwick’s curse struck again and again. Apart from a daughter Princess Mary, born in 1516, all his children by Katherine of Aragon died in early infancy and the man most likely to succeed him was Buckingham. Henry’s worries were understood only too well by his new minister, Thomas Wolsey.
Keen on enjoying himself, disliking the drudgery of administration, the king entrusted the affairs of state to Wolsey. The architect of Henry’s splendid victory in France, Wolsey had been appointed almoner (chief chaplain) in 1509, although he did not become a member of the council for another two years. ‘A fine looking man, he is very learned, unusually persuasive, exceptionally able and quite inexhaustible,’ reported the Venetian envoy.9 The last of England’s great ecclesiastical statesmen, a superb administrator and diplomat, Wolsey made himself indispens able, and in 1515 he became Lord Chancellor. During the same year – already Archbishop of York, Bishop of Lincoln and Tournai – he was created a cardinal at Henry’s request.
Although humbly born (the son of an Ipswich butcher), he was unpleasantly arrogant with all save his king and queen. Skelton conveys his bullying manner in the law courts:
… in the Chamber of Stars
All matters there he mars,
Clapping his rod in the board,
No man dare speak a word:
For he hath all the saying without any renaying.
He rolleth in his records,
And saith, ‘How say ye, My Lords?
Is not my reason good? …’
He ruleth all the roost
With bragging and with boast …
At the Common Pleas
Or at the King’s Bench,
He wringeth them such a wrench
That all our learned men
Dare not set their pen
To plead a true trial
Within Westminster Hall.10
He was just as overbearing outside the courts.
In 1515 Polydore Vergil wrote to a friend at Rome that Wolsey had grown so tyrannical and so heartily disliked by most Englishmen that he could not last much longer. Vergil’s letter was intercepted by the cardinal’s men and he spent several months in the Tower until Pope Leo interceded for him. Other critics received similar treatment. No one loathed Wolsey more than the old nobility, who detested the way he lorded it over them. But Wolsey was able to discover exactly what his master wanted and make it happen. For nearly two decades Henry VIII would not hear a word against him.
The king was glad to have a strong man at his side. The cardinal was more than just a wise adviser. Not only did he relieve Henry of chores and business, but his network of spies watched for the slightest signs of disaffection. Here was someone who could be relied on to keep Henry safe from the White Rose and Richard de la Pole. Yet Wolsey knew he must produce some sort of result if he was going to soothe the king’s chronic insecurity. His own future depended on it. While he might not be able to eliminate Suffolk, he could at least demonstrate his loyalty and ingenuity by inventing another ‘great traitor’ and then destroying him. Providentially, a perfect candidate for the role played into his hands.
Despising Wolsey as an upstart, the Duke of Buckingham was infuriated by his pretentious behaviour, grumbling at having to be ‘subservient to so base and uncivil a fellow’.11 Nor did he bother to conceal his disapproval of the cardinal’s conduct of foreign affairs, unaware that these were in fact the king’s own policies. He complained bitterly about the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, where Henry met Francis I: not only was he opposed to an alliance with France, but he took a violent dislike to the French king – a dislike that was reciprocated. He also begrudged having to spend so much money on equipping his retinue. He was embittered, too, that a great noble such as himself should not be allowed more influence in the royal council. There were rumours that he wanted to assassinate Wolsey.12 However, despite having friends who shared his views, Buckingham was in no way the head of a faction.
Such an alarming state of anarchy existed in Buckingham’s Welsh lordships that the king became concerned that the crown had lost control of the region. In 1518 Henry sent the duke a formal rebuke, complaining that bonds for good behaviour were not being enforced because of ‘your default and negligence’. As a result, ‘many and divers murders, rapes, robberies, riots and other misdemeanours have been of late and daily be committed … to our no little displeasure’.13 The situation was so bad that English fugitives from justice, often violent criminals, were taking refuge in the Welsh Marches.
The splendour of Buckingham’s hospitality at Penshurst in 1519, which cost him the enormous sum of nearly £1,500, was another reminder of his semi-regal pretensions. The scale of the princely entertainment offered to the guests may well have irritated King Henry, who in any case must have felt unhappy at seeing the royal arms of England quartering those of Stafford so prominently displayed, whether carved over gateways or on the stained-glass windows – a public statement of the duke’s Plantagenet descent. This was the same year that Buckingham’s son Henry married Ursula Pole, Clarence’s granddaughter, which brought Yorkist blood intothe family.
The old aristocracy’s exclusion from office and hatred of Wolsey would have made many of them welcome a conspiracy led by the duke. They knew how popular he was14 and that, if he wanted, he might perhaps bring down the cardinal and even King Henry. The magnates sensed the Tudors’ vulnerability, aware that more than once it had looked likely that the de la Poles might replace them. But Buckingham’s pride, touchiness and difficult character made it impossible for him to be a leader.
A firm believer in the curse brought upon the Tudors by the Earl of Warwick’s execution, Edward Stafford thought it highly probable that one day he or his son would be king. Yet it is extremely unlikely that he ever thought of speeding up the process. This can be seen from the record of a meeting he held with some of his council at Thornbury after dinner (late in the morning) on 26 October 1520. Those present were Master Thomas Wotton, dean of his chapel; Mr George Poley, his almoner; Dr Jenyns, his surveyor particular; Thomas Moscroff, his counsellor in physic; Mr John Delacourt, his chaplain; and Thomas Cade, his receiver-general.
When they sat down, the duke told them that while he had asked them to bring their ledgers, he did not intend to discuss business. Perhaps they were surprised to see him wearing a beard, he continued. It was because ‘I make a vow unto God that it shall never be shaven until such time as I have been at Jerusalem.’ If he could obtain royal permission to go to the Holy City, it would make him happier than if the king gave him £10,000. Mr Poley, Mr Delacourt and Sir William Curteys, his Master of Works, had promised to go with him. In his absence, the council would run his estates. But while he hoped to get permission for his pilgrimage fairly soon, he did not think he would be able to set off for another two years.15
This scarcely sounds like the behaviour of a man who was plotting a rebellion.
19. 1519–Autumn 1520: The Duke of Buckingham
1. Vergil, op. cit., p. 239
2. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. II, 1287.
3. Some sources suggest the lady was another of Buckingham’s sisters, Lady Hastings.
4. CSP Sp, op. cit., supplement to vols I and II, 8, 39–40.
5. E.M. Thompson, History of the Somerset Carthusians, London, 1895, p. 281.
6. C. Rawcliffe, The Staffords, Earls of Stafford and Dukes of Buckingham, 1394–1521, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 244–51.
7. Sir J. MacLean (ed.), The Berkeley Manuscripts: Lives of the Berkeleys, Gloucester, 1883, vol. II, pp. 206, 215.
8. B.J. Harris, Edward Stafford, Third Duke of Buckingham 1478– 1521, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1988, London, 1948 pp. 147–8.
9. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. II, 1287.
10. Complete Poems of John Skelton, pp. 313–4.
11. Vergil, op. cit., p. 263.
12. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. III, 209.
13. C.A.J. Skeel, Council in the Marches of Wales, London, Hugh Rees Ltd, 1904, pp. 35–6.
14. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. II, 564.
15. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. III (i), 1284.