Post-classical history


Winter 1520–Spring 1521: ‘A Giant Traitor’

‘There’s mischief in this man.’

Shakespeare, King Henry VIII, Act 1, scene 2

About the year 1520, when Henry VIII was just over thirty, a sculptor, probably Petro Torrigiano, made a painted, terracotta bust of him. The king has shaved off his beard, revealing a jovial, handsome face. Yet looking at it, one begins to understand Sir Thomas More’s comment to Cromwell, ‘For if the lion knew his own strength, hard were it for any man to rule him.’1 Here is someone dangerously unpredictable, with all the unpredictable ferocity of a big cat lying beneath the leonine charm. Even those who knew Henry well did not know when he was going to pounce or on whom.

Shakespeare’s account of Buckingham’s downfall in Henry VIII is in many ways surprisingly accurate. The play tells the story as a tragedy, which was exactly how contemporaries saw it – an innocent man becoming the victim of unjust suspicions produced by a fevered imagination. But whether or not Cardinal Wolsey was responsible is hard to tell. Vergil, admittedly biased, says that, ‘boiling with hatred for the Duke of Buckingham’, Wolsey had been fanning Henry’s suspicions about him since 1518.2 Branding the duke as a traitor would distract the king’s attention from the cardinal’s failure over Richard de la Pole.

Early in November 1520 one of Henry’s servants, Sir William Bulmer, came to court wearing a prominent ‘Stafford knot’ badge on his doublet which signified he had entered Buckingham’s service as well as the king’s. Enraged, Henry prosecuted Bulmer in the Star Chamber, although he was eventually forgiven. The king was no less furious with the duke, to such an extent that Buckingham thought he was going to be sent to the Tower. Always a prey to imagination, Henry, by now, had grown to hate him no less than did Wolsey. Still lacking an heir – it was clear Queen Katherine would bear no more children – he began to suspect Buckingham of having designs on his throne. He wrote to the cardinal, ordering him to keep close watch on the duke as well as on other peers.

In theory Buckingham could muster a private army of 5,000 men, although in practice he would have been hard put to find 500. At the end of November 1520, shortly after the Bulmer affair, he announced his intention of visiting his Welsh estates during the next year with three or four hundred armed retainers, in order to restore order: he also asked the cardinal for the king’s permission for his men to take ‘harness’ (armour) with them – to be worn only if needed. Plenty of people could remember how the duke’s father had gone to Wales when he revolted against Richard III, and while Henry may not have anticipated a rebellion, he was unsettled by the news. Then, towards the end of 1520, a letter, whose signature has disappeared, reached Cardinal Wolsey, suggesting there was a chance of plausibly charging Buckingham with treason.

After the Bulmer affair, Buckingham had become very uneasy about his relations with Henry and Wolsey. In November 1520 he commissioned his chancellor Robert Gilbert to order a gold cup with a cover as a New Year’s gift for the cardinal, a conciliatory gesture that indicates he sensed some sort of danger. He tried to make allies, instructing Gilbert at about the same time to take a letter to the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, telling them he had ‘as great trust in them as any child they have’.3

Ironically, the person most responsible for Buckingham’s ruin, if indirectly, was someone who saw a great deal of good in him and had known him for many years. This was the man he called ‘my ghostly father’ – meaning his confessor and spiritual adviser – Dan Nicholas Hopkyns, a Carthusian monk of Hinton Charterhouse in Somerset. (Carthusians were hermits living in community.) Dan Nicholas specialized in prophecy, perhaps inspired by the works of Savonarola, who had given ‘foreknowledge’ a respectable name. Loneliness, lack of sleep and fasting may have persuaded a man not really suited for the Carthusian life that he was able to see into the future.

Dan Nicholas had impressed Buckingham by predicting in 1513 that ‘if the King of Scots came [into this realm] he would not go home again’. ‘I … asked him whether he had knowledge therof [by] prophecy, but he said to [me], “Nay, Ex Deo habeo” – ‘I have it from God’, recalled the duke. The monk proved to be right – James IV died at Flodden. Hopkyns convinced himself that Henry VIII was going to die without sons and that Buckingham would become King of England. If Dan Nicholas had not encouraged Buckingham’s dreams, and had he not spoken of them, the duke might have survived. Shakespeare in Henry VIII may be wrong in calling Hopkyns a ‘devil-monk’ because of his role in Buckingham’s ruin but he is right in saying that he ‘fed him with his prophecies’.4

Just before leaving for the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, the duke had sacked his surveyor Charles Knyvet, who was also his cousin, from the stewardship of some of his estates because he was ill-treating the tenants. Deeply resentful, Knyvet made damaging allegations about his former employer that circulated far and wide. They reached the ears of whoever wrote the letter mentioned above.

It is often assumed that the writer belonged to the ducal household at Thornbury. Yet the familiar, if respectful, tone suggests he is more likely to have been a colleague of Wolsey, while clearly he was a lawyer used to questioning suspects, as well as someone with a good knowledge of politics during the previous reign. The obvious candidate is the Lord Privy Seal, Dr Thomas Ruthal, Bishop of Durham, an oily prelate noted for avarice, whom a Venetian observer once described as ‘singing treble to Wolsey’s bass’. What makes this identification almost certain is that it was Ruthal who interrogated and groomed the witnesses for Buckingham’s trial. As an ally of the cardinal, he naturally welcomed any information that might harm the duke.

In his letter, the writer says that Wolsey already knows Knyvet. He reports that the man wants to enter royal service, which will enable him to reveal all he knows without fear of the duke, and has promised that if he joins, ‘Then will I speak, by St Mary, for it toucheth the King indeed’. The writer adds, ‘And so,

if it please your grace, of likelihood some great matter there is, or else is Charles [Knyvet], a marvellous, simple, insolent body.’

Commenting that the late Henry VII would have handled the case cautiously before acting, he advises the cardinal to send for Knyvet and ask why he has left the duke’s employment after all the good work he did for him, especially when he is a kinsman. He should also remark how he has heard from other employees whom Buckingham has dismissed that ‘in his fumes and displeasures’ the duke often rages against the king and Wolsey. Then he should order Knyvet to tell all he knew without hiding anything, while promising to protect him against Buckingham. If he refuses to repeat what he has told others, then the cardinal must terrify him by showing displeasure.5

His colleague had stumbled on just what Wolsey needed. After questioning Knyvet, he realized he had found the perfect tool with which to play on the king’s fears and bring down the duke. Even better, there was no need for him to show his hand during the last act. Unluckily for Buckingham, two powerful allies who might have defended him, his brother-in-law the Earl of Northumberland and his son-in-law the Earl of Surrey, would not be able to help him. The former was under a cloud – a few years earlier, he had been imprisoned for abducting a ward – while Surrey, towards whom the king was better disposed, was away in Ireland.

On 8 April 1521 a royal messenger arrived at Thornbury with a message from King Henry, asking the duke to come to him at Greenwich Palace. Unsuspecting, Buckingham set out with his usual entourage, never dreaming he would never see his beautiful house again. But soon he noticed he was being followed by armed men, who billeted themselves at the inns where he and his men slept en route. Only after spending a night at Windsor did Buckingham gain an inkling of what might be in store. During breakfast in the castle on 16 April he saw a royal pursuivant, Thomas Ward, loitering near his table, and enquired sharply what he was doing. Told it was on the king’s orders, he was so shaken that his face turned ashen and he could not finish his breakfast.

Buckingham and his household nonetheless continued their journey along the Thames. He rode for some of the way before boarding his great barge. Just after Westminster he landed, to call on Wolsey at his magnificently palatial inn, York Place, to be told that the cardinal was seriously ill and unable to receive him. Defiantly, he answered, ‘Well, yet will I drink of my lord’s wine ere I pass’, which he did before returning to the boat, en route for the city where he meant to go to his mansion off Candlewick Street.

As the ducal barge approached London Bridge a flotilla of wherries suddenly shot out from the shore to intercept it, a hundred Yeomen of the Guard jumping on board. (Had they waited any longer, the need to ‘shoot the arches’ of the bridge would have made boarding impossible.) The Yeomen were commanded by their septuagenarian captain, Sir Henry Marney, who told Buckingham he was under arrest. He was taken ashore, to be marched to the Tower under escort.

Knyvet was already in another part of the Tower, together with the duke’s chancellor Robert Gilbert, his chaplain John Delacourt and Dan Nicholas Hopkyns. The four had been brought to London some days before the duke had been invited to visit the king at Greenwich. Here they were interrogated by Bishop Ruthall, who also groomed them to appear as witnesses. Knyvet proved so cooperative that throughout the trial he was politely referred to as ‘Charles Knyvet, Esquire’, while the others were terrified into saying what the prosecution wanted – they may have been threatened with torture. On 8 May their former patron was indicted for high treason at the Guildhall.

The gravest charge in the indictment, that he had intended ‘to exalt himself to the crown’, was based on his relationship with Dan Nicholas. Since 1512, by letter or through his chaplain Delacourt, the Carthusian had been promising the duke that Henry VIII would have no sons and he ‘should have all’. In 1514 Buckingham had visited the charterhouse at Hinton, and when the monk told him he would be King of England the duke replied, ‘he would be a just prince’. In 1517 his chancellor Gilbert had brought a message from Hopkyns that there would be a ‘change’, before next Christmas and Buckingham ‘should have the rule of all England’. When this did not happen, Buckingham had again visited Hinton in person in 1518, to be reassured that he would be king. He told Dan Nicholas he was right in warning Delacourt to keep it secret under the seal of confession: ‘if the King knew of it, he should be altogether destroyed’.

According to Robert Gilbert, the ducal chancellor from Thornbury, on his master’s orders he had bought cloth of gold and silver and silks, to bribe members of the Royal Guard into joining his cause. In 1518 Buckingham had sent him to London to obtain a licence to raise troops in the West Country, and permission to equip them with weapons and armour for use in Wales, since the duke had the intention of ‘fortifying himself against the King’. Later, Buckingham informed Gilbert he was waiting for a better time for a rebellion, which could succeed if the ‘lords of the kingdom’ would tell each other what they really thought. He had said that everything done by the late king had been wrong and he was always grumbling about what the present king was doing. He had also told Gilbert he possessed a copy of an Act of Parliament legitimizing the Duke of Somerset (and the Tudor claim to the throne) but would not give it to Henry ‘for £10,000’.6

Robert Gilbert’s deposition has survived and much of it is in the indictment. However, a good deal was omitted as it was too embarrassing, such as his claim that the duke believed the Tudors had brought a curse upon themselves: he ‘[did] grudge that the Earl of Warwick was put to death and say that God would punish it by not suffering the king’s issue to prosper’. Buckingham, Gilbert told his interrogators, thought that Wolsey had asked an evil spirit for help in keeping Henry’s favour, besides procuring women for him, and that the private lives of both Henry and his minister were so abominable that they deserved to be punished by God. He had constantly remarked that the cardinal wanted to ‘undo’ (ruin) every nobleman in England.7

The evidence given by Charles Knyvet was no less lurid. In May 1520, when they were at the Red Rose in London, discussing the imminent Field of Cloth of Gold, the duke had apparently commented that something unpleasant was likely to happen to Henry in France because ‘a certain holy monk’ had told his chaplain Delacourt that ‘neither the King nor his heirs should prosper’ and Buckingham must do his best ‘to obtain the love of the community of England because I … and my blood should prosper and have the rule’. Knyvet had warned Buckingham that the monk might be deluded by the Devil and that it was dangerous to meddle with this sort of thing but, clearly delighted by Hopkyns’s prophecy, the duke had replied that it could not possibly do him any harm. He also said that had the king died of a recent malady, he would have beheaded the cardinal at once, and that he would rather die than go on being ordered about all the time.

In September 1520, ‘walking in his gallery at Bletchingley’ with Lord Bergavenny (one of his sons-in-law), Buckingham had complained of the king’s councillors and said that should Henry die, then ‘he meant to have the rule in England, whoever would say the contrary’. He warned that if Bergavenny repeated this remark, he would strike him over the head with his sword. In November, at East Greenwich, Buckingham had told Knyvet that during the row over his employing Bulmer he had thought for a moment that he might be sent to the Tower, and had decided that if Henry gave the order for this, he would do what his father had meant to do to Richard III – kneel before the king and stab him. Placing his hand on his dagger, said Knyvet, ‘This he swore by the blood of Our Lord’.8

Another charge – made by others too – was that after the king’s most recent illness, when the duke had declared that ‘if it had happened well’ (meaning if Henry had died) he would have chopped off the Lord Cardinal’s head, he had also said how, given the chance, he would do the same to the king. Anyone acquainted with Buckingham and his temper knew that such outbursts meant very little. But they were taken with the outmost seriousness by Henry, who personally examined the four witnesses. According to a note written on the back of a letter by the royal secretary Richard Pace, the king, after examing them, became convinced that Buckingham was going to be found guilty and would be condemned by the Lords. Pace added that the crisis was so grave that Parliament was going to be summoned to deal with ‘the matter’.

On 13 May 1521 the duke was taken to Westminster by barge for his trial, under strong guard, amid fears that his retainers might attempt to rescue him. Had he escaped, there could have been another battle of Stoke. Scaffolding was errected in Westminster Hall for the seventeen peers who were to be his jurors. They were presided over by his son-in-law’s father, the old Duke of Norfolk, once a trusted henchman of Richard III.

‘Sir Edward, Duke of Buckingham, hold up thy hand,’ he was told by the crown attorney, after being led to the Bar with the Tower axe carried before him. ‘Thou art indicted of high treason, for that thou traitorously hast conspired and imagined as far as in thee lay, to shorten the life of our sovereign lord the King. Of this treason, how wilt thou acquit thee?’ ‘By my peers,’ replied Buckingham. When the indictment had been read, he said angrily, ‘It is false and untrue, and conspired, and forged to bring me to my death.’9

Buckingham then defended himself against the charges with surprising eloquence. In response, the depositions made by the four witnesses were read out, Knevet reading his own. When the duke then demanded that all the witnesses be produced, they were called but, very unfairly, he was not allowed to cross-examine any of them. However, he was permitted to make another speech in his own defence, lasting for an hour and creating a considerable impression.

The jury retired, ‘conferring a great while’. Eventually, each peer gave his verdict to Norfolk, who wrote against each name, ‘Dicit quod est cupabilis’ (‘he says he is guilty’). Knowing the king was determined he should die, not one of them dared to dissent. Then they returned to Westminster Hall, each repeating their verdict. ‘The Duke was brought to the Bar, sore chafing, and sweat marvellously.’ After a long silence, with tears rolling down his face, old Norfolk informed the defendant he had been found guilty of high treason, then read out the statutory sentence for a convicted traitor:

You shall be led to the King’s prison and there laid on a hurdle and so drawn to the place of execution, and there to be hanged, cut down alive, your members to be cut off and cast into the fire, your bowels burned before you, your head smitten off, and your body quartered and divided at the King’s will, and may God have mercy on your soul.10

Although both verdict and sentence may no doubt have been technically sound according to the law of the land, morally they amounted to murder. A recent American biographer of Buckingham has argued that sixteenth-century England always accepted such decisions without question.11 However, this was simply not true, as, for example, had been amply demonstrated by the revulsion at Warwick’s fate. ‘If all the patterns of a lawless prince had been lost in the world, they might have been found in this king,’ Sir Walter Raleigh later observed of Henry VIII.

‘You have said as a traitor should be said unto, but I was never none,’ the duke told the court calmly. ‘But my lords I nothing malign [you] for that you have done to me, but the eternal God forgive you my death, and I do [too].’ He added, with the curious fatalism of Tudor victims of state, ‘I shall never sue to the King for life, howbeit he is a gracious prince.’ Buckingham ended by saying, ‘I desire you, my lords, and all my fellows to pray for me.’ Then he was taken back to the Tower, the axe displayed with its edge towards him where he sat in the barge. Shakespeare refines movingly the words attributed by Hall:12 ‘When I came hither, I was lord high constable, And Duke of Buckingham: now, poor Edward Bohun.’ (Henry VIII, Act II, scene 1)

His son-in-law Lord Bergavenny (once Edmund de la Pole’s boon companion) was committed to the Tower for not having reported the duke’s alleged threats against the king. This made him guilty of the crime called ‘misprision of treason’ and he was only released on payment of a huge fine. This so impoverished Bergavenny that, years afterwards, the imperial ambassador would comment sardonically that he had ‘lost all his feathers’.

The Carthusians of Hinton wrote to the Lord Chamberlain, asking that Dan Nicholas should be sent to some other charterhouse, ‘there to be punished for his offences as long as shall please the King’s noble grace’.13 According to tradition, poor Hopkyns died from grief. Nothing more is known about the other witnesses.

On 17 May 1521 Buckingham was escorted by 500 troops to Tower Hill, where he was beheaded, dying on the block with notable courage despite a messy execution that took three strokes of the axe to cut off his head. As had been done with Warwick and Suffolk before him, his corpse – reunited to his head – was buried in the church of the Austin Friars. Even Hall, a fanatical supporter of everything done by King Henry, admitted that many of the watching crowd (who may have included Hall himself) were in tears.

At the next Parliament an Act of Attainder was passed, disinheriting Buckingham’s heirs and confiscating his estates. Yet another indignity had already been inflicted, the duke’s posthumous ‘degradation’ from the Order of the Garter. His garter-plate and banner with the arms of England (the display of which gave Henry so much offence) were taken down from over his former stall in St George’s Chapel at Windsor. Then the heralds solemnly kicked the insignia out of the chapel before throwing them into a ditch.

More than a few of Buckingham’s contemporaries felt sorry for him. Having read the chronicles of Hall and the Elizabethan historian Stowe, Shakespeare hints at this pity, although he shifts most of the blame for his destruction from Henry on to Wolsey. While there was not the slightest sign of protest, the incident contributed to the king’s growing unpopularity. Some of his subjects began to realize he was no longer the young god whom they had worshipped at his accession in 1509 and that they had an alarmingly ruthless ruler.

Edward Stafford’s only ‘crime’ lay in speaking of the possibility that Henry VIII and his children might die young, and that he would inherit the crown.

20. Winter 1520–Spring 1521: ‘A Giant Traitor’

1. W. Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More, London, J.M. Dent, 1906, p. 14

2. Vergil, op. cit., p. 278

3. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. III (i), 1070.

4. William Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act 2, Sc 1.

5. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. III (i), 1283.

6. Ibid., 1284.

7. In J.S. Brewer, The Reign of Henry VIII from his Accession to the Death of Wolsey, ed. J. Gairdner, London, 1884, vol. 1, pp. 391–2.

8. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. III (i), 1284.

9. Hall, op. cit., p. 623.

10. Ibid., p. 624.

11. Harris, Edward Stafford, op. cit., pp. 192–3.

12. Hall, op. cit., p. 624.

13. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. VI, 1164; Thompson, History of the Somerset Carthusians, p. 284.

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