Post-classical history


Winter 1524–5: A White Rose Dies

‘The White Rose died on the field of battle – I saw him lying dead with all the others.’

Macquereau, Histoire générale de l’Europe1

In October 1518 a new peace between England and France put plans for a Yorkist invasion on hold once again. More discouragement came in June 1520 after Henry VIII and Francis I had an exceptionally amiable meeting at the Field of Cloth of Gold, although the French king continued to pay the White Rose a lavish pension. When the Chevalier Baudoiche asked for the return of his mansion (perhaps because Richard had seduced his daughter), the canons of Metz cathedral gave Richard a lease for life at a low rent for a château called La Haulte Pierre near St Symphorien on condition he refurbished it, which he could afford to do in splendid style. Undoubtedly, his standing at the French court remained high. In 1518 Francis had acquired a strong-minded new mistress, the Comtesse de Châteaubriant. Born Françoise de Foix and sister of Marshal Lautrec, she was Richard’s cousin and an invaluable contact.

Never for a moment did he lose sight of his ambition to take Henry’s place on the throne. In September 1519 a priest named Edward Allen was arrested at Leicester, accused of being one of Richard’s spies, suspicion being further aroused when servants of Lord Hastings and Sir Richard Stanley brought Allen expensive food in prison – a haunch of venison – although there was no evidence to implicate their employers. The authorities were also worried about the Marquess of Dorset, but unable to find any solid proof that he supported the White Rose.

Rumours persisted that Richard was on his way with an invasion fleet. In August 1521 a totally unfounded story circulated that, accompanied by the Duke of Albany, he had landed at Dunbar and, joined by Scottish troops, was marching south towards the Border, although after their bloody humiliation at Flodden the Scots were in no mood to risk another war. Even so, during the following year Wolsey was to complain of Albany’s support for the White Rose, declaring that King Francis was encouraging him. The cardinal was more than justified. About midsummer the same year, King Francis commissioned Derick van Reydt to tell Duke Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp that should the English attack France or Scotland he intended to give Richard an invasion fleet.2 Later, he suggested that Frederick’s daughter should marry Richard if he succeeded, and Frederick was so excited that he sent his secretary to Paris to discuss the idea.

At home, Yorkist sentiment was far from dead, even though most of those who still retained it were usually wise enough not to advertise the fact. In May 1521, however, the parson of Rampisham in Dorset, Robert Sherard, told a parishioner called Agnes Clyfton that the king was unworthy of his crown – ‘the father of Henry VIII was a horsegroom and a keeper of horses’, who had no more right to the crown than Agnes because ‘he came to the throne by dint of the sword’.3 During the previous month Lord Mounteagle had arrested his own (bastard) son, together with another parson and a soldier called John Goghe (or Strydley), for planning to go abroad and join the White Rose. Goghe had boasted of meeting Richard de la Pole at Rouen, saying he was ‘a valiant man, worthy to be a great captain’.4 Admittedly, these two were obviously a most unsavoury pair, the priest accompanied by his young mistress and Goghe bragging of his success as a blackmailer.

The Duke of Buckingham’s execution that spring had horrified many of the courts of Western Europe, besides damaging Henry’s popularity at home. In August 1521 a Hanse merchant, Perpoynte Deventer, informed the English authorities that the Lieutenant Governor of Boulogne had asked him if he knew the duke’s son, commenting that a Yorkist invasion from Scotland would certainly find 50,000 supporters in England. Deventer said, too, that he had met the Duc de la Trémouille, the French king’s Lord Chamberlain, who told him that if Henry declared war the White Rose would cross the Channel. In addition, the Duc de Vendôme had told Deventer that France and Denmark were planning to help Richard raise a revolt in areas with estates that had formerly belonged to Buckingham.

In the meantime, the White Rose acquired a mistress at Metz, a certain Sebille who was considered the loveliest young woman in the city – ‘tall, straight and slender, and white as snow’, according to the chronicler Philippe de Vignolles. She was the wife of a rich goldsmith, Mâitre Nicholas, employed by Richard, who sent him on a mission to Paris so that he could seduce her. In the autumn of 1520 she fled to La Haulte Pierre to live with him, prudently bringing with her the pick of her husband’s jewels. Shortly after, Richard was acosted in the streets of Metz by the incensed Nicholas with a band of friends. Richard drew his dagger and, when the goldsmith ran for his life, threw it after him. The city council intervened, and Richard offered to give her up, on condition her husband did not beat her. Nicholas refused, hiring German assassins to kill him, but he escaped. Eventually, Sebille rejoined Richard and for the next three years they lived together at Toul in a house lent to them by the Cardinal of Lorraine.5

The romance did not make Richard lose sight of his goal in any way. In May 1521 he wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg, replying to an offer of assistance. Addressing the Margrave as ‘dearly beloved lord and uncle’, he asks him to promote ‘the most favourable understanding of our affair with our uncle of Holstein’ – the affair being an invasion of England – and thanked him for being such a good friend. Chancellor of the Empire and a man of great influence, the Margrave was a useful ally.

In May 1522 another war broke out between England and France. Henry VIII, whose grasp of international politics seems to have been unrealistic at the best of times, began to see the looming conflict between Francis and the Emperor Charles V as an opportunity to revive the Anglo-French kingdom of his predecessor Henry V. He would reign over north-western France, including Paris, and be crowned at St Denis, while the emperor as Duke of Burgundy could rule the north-east. The Duke of Bourbon, who had recently rebelled against Francis, would graciously be allowed to have the country’s central provinces.

Understandably, this made the French king take Richard de la Pole even more seriously, and once again a Yorkist invasion of England became a distinct possibility.

The situation was complicated, however, by a civil war in Scandinavia from where help for the White Rose might otherwise have been expected. Christian II of Denmark was being challenged for the Danish throne by his uncle, Duke Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp. Richard kept in touch with both sides until Frederick overthrew Christian in 1522. His success boded well for Yorkism, as the new King of Denmark was convinced that the White Rose would triumph over the Tudor.

At the end of 1522 two White Rose agents were caught in England, busily trying to recruit troops for their leader by offering higher wages than those paid by King Henry. They had already enlisted over a hundred men.6 At the start of 1523 the authorities arrested another agent, Simon Jones from Monmouth. No doubt under torture, Simon admitted that since spring the previous year he had been in England working for the ‘Roose’, who had instructed him to sound out Lord Stafford, Buckingham’s son, and the Earl of Derby. Stafford had just seen his father beheaded and his inheritance confiscated, while Derby had received slightingly few favours from the Tudor regime, but there was no evidence that Jones had managed to contact either of them.7

During the next two years, stories that a new English civil war was about to break out circulated all over Europe. In May 1523 Charles V was told that a bishop had been sent to the Tower for involvement in a Yorkist plot; ‘a hundred thousand pounds’ found in his possession were intended to finance a rising. While there was no truth in the tale, it indicates that at the very least a handful of reasonably well-informed people were expecting a Yorkist revolt.8 There were also unfounded reports that the Duke of Albany was going to invade over the Scottish Border.

In autumn 1523, 10,000 English troops got within 50 miles of Paris, but withdrew when the French repulsed the Spanish advance in the south. The English stayed in Picardy, however, where Richard led his landsknechts against them. Early in May 1524 he wrote to the French queen mother, Louise of Savoy, that he was disappointed his English opponents had retreated, since both he and his men would have shown that all they cared for was to live and die in her son’s service. He also told her, in the same letter, ‘all that I possess in the world comes from you’.9

Shortly afterwards, the English commander Sir William Fizwilliam demanded reinforcements on the grounds that ‘this wretched traitor is in the field’ and that his German troops were the best in the French army – a grudging testimony to Richard’s reputation as a soldier.10 In the same month, FitzWilliam sent the Calais pursuivant on a parley to the French commander, Charles de Bourbon, Duc de Vendôme. When the White Rose entered the tent during the parley Vendôme told the herald, ‘Behold your King!’ Terrified, the man began shouting that Richard was no such thing, until Vendôme told him to hold his tongue.11

Francis I had been serious enough in asking Richard to lead an expedition, advancing 200,000 livres. In 1522 the French responded eagerly when James, Earl of Desmond (a kinsman of the Foix) sent an envoy to their king, informing him he wanted to drive the English out of Ireland: in June 1523 the Comte de Foix-Candale arrived at the earl’s great castle of Askeaton in what is now Co. Limerick and signed a treaty with Desmond, who promised to rise against Henry VIII in support of Richard’s claims. Even though the earl’s main motive was hostility towards English rule, it appears that Yorkist sentiment was still alive in Ireland.12 Throughout the summer of 1523 Venetian observers thought there would be an expedition against England ‘led by the White Rose’, but in the autumn the republic’s government told its ambassador at Rome that the invasion had been called off.13

As late as February 1524 Richard was still hoping to take troops across the Channel, encouraged by the new King of Denmark. He needed massive sums of ready cash to hire his indispensable German landsknechts, and pay their wages on time. Unfortunately for Richard, the only man who could lend him the money was Francis I, who then decided to concentrate all his resources on another front.

In April the French forces in northern Italy were routed at Sesia and at midsummer the Duc de Bourbon invaded southeastern France with imperial troops, at first carrying all before him, only to be driven back into Italy along the Riviera in headlong retreat. Richard was among the French army that pursued Bourbon. Crossing the Alps, in October 1524 King Francis invested Pavia, which he besieged throughout the winter, despite unceasing rain and outbreaks of disease that decimated his men. The king and his nobles stayed in local castles or villas, however, so Richard, who was in command of the infantry, must have been reasonably comfortable. His men included the famous Black Band, 5,000 landsknechts under their captain, Georg Langenmantel and François, Count of Lambec – the Duke of Lorraine’s nineteen-year-old brother.

The decisive confrontation between the French forces and an imperial army that had recently arrived to relieve Pavia took place on 25 February 1525. Among the enemy’s reinforcements were 15,000 pikemen and arquebusiers commanded by the great Swabian soldier of fortune, Georg von Frundsberg – the ‘Father of Landsknechts’. During the final stages of a confused but ferocious battle, the French were wiped out by Frundsberg’s arquebusiers, who shot them down from behind trees or bushes, and in one of the worst defeats ever suffered by a French army, King Francis was taken prisoner. The French right wing, the Black Band under the command of the White Rose and François de Lorraine, was overwhelmed in a pincer attack on both flanks by numerically superior forces led by Frundsberg himself. Richard and François fought to the death.

The pair were interred in a fine tomb in the cloister of a church at Pavia. The White Rose’s enemy the Duc de Bourbon, whom he had known in Paris, attended the funeral wearing mourning. An exile himself, who had also lost everything in his native land, the Frenchman felt a certain sympathy. When news of Richard’s death reached Metz, the cathedral’s canons instituted an annual Requiem Mass for the repose of his soul. He left a daughter called Marguerite whose mother was a Flemish lady, said by some to be the daughter of the Chevalier Baudoiche who had lent him his mansion. Brought up at King Francis’s expense, a good marriage was arranged for her and she became a lady-in-waiting to his sister, the Queen of Navarre. Clearly, Francis remembered his old comrade in arms with affection.14

According to an eighteenth-century historian (who does not give his source), when King Henry was woken at Whitehall before dawn on 9 March to be given the news of the battle of Pavia, he jumped out of bed, fell to his knees and thanked God. ‘My friend,’ he told the emperor’s messenger, ‘you are like the Angel Gabriel, who announced the coming of Christ.’ Then he called for wine to be brought. After this, in response to repeated questions by the king, the messenger, who had himself fought in the battle, described how Francis I had been disarmed and taken prisoner. He went on to describe the slaughter of the French army. ‘And Richard de la Pole?’ demanded the king. ‘The White Rose died on the field of battle,’ answered the messenger. ‘I saw him lying dead with all the others.’ ‘God have mercy on his soul!’ Henry cried exultantly. ‘All the enemies of England are gone – give him more wine.’15

Bonfires blazed in every London street and conduits flowed with wine; during a High Mass at St Paul’s the Te Deum was sung. Although Pavia had ruined his pro-French policy, Wolsey himself celebrated the Mass in the Sarum rite, the most splendid in all Western Christendom, with twenty ministers in gold vestments at the altar. Officially, the service was to thank God for the defeat of a ruler who was at war with England. But it was also a thanksgiving for Richard’s death. Having known the depth of Henry’s terror, the cardinal understood his relief.

Richard de la Pole possessed all the qualities needed in a sixteenth-century king. A gifted commander who impressed Francis I enough to be entrusted with half the French army at Pavia, he was Henry VIII’s most formidable rival. Had he succeeded in invading England with his landsknechts, he might well have ousted the Tudor. One can understand why the king had been so wary of him.

21. Winter 1524–5: A White Rose Dies

1. R. Macquereau, Histoire générale de l’Europe, Louvain, 1765, p. 231

2. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. III (ii), 2340.

3. Ibid., vol. III (i), 1313.

4. Ibid., 1221.

5. For Philippe de Vignolles, see LP Hen VIII, vol. III (i), appendix to preface, ccccxliii.

6. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. III (ii), 2768.

7. Ibid., 2769.

8. CSP Sp, op. cit., 219.

9. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. IV (i), 317.

10. Ibid., 324.

11. Ibid., 335.

12. LP Hen VIII, vol. III (ii), 3118; A.M. McCormack, The Earldom of Desmond, Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2005, p. 64.

13. CSP Ven op. cit., 1520–26, vol. III, (1120–26), 742.

14. For Marguerite de la Pole, see G. de La Rivoire de La Batie, Armorial de Dauphiné, Lyons, 1867, pp. 106–7.

15. Macquereau, Histoire générale de l’Europe, p. 231.

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