Post-classical history


1525–35: The White Rose Party

‘From off this briar pluck a white rose with me.’

Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 1, Act II, scene 41

For some years after Richard de la Pole’s death Henry VIII’s insecurity was less evident. During the early 1530s he still appeared healthy and athletic, if putting on too much weight and developing heavy jowels, hidden by his red beard. In manner he continued to be the gracious Renaissance Man he had seemed at the start of his reign, while he had developed a truly awe-inspiring presence. Beneath, lay a megalomaniac self-confidence, which was fed by awareness of his power over everyone around him.

Yet he was becoming increasingly worried about the succession. Although Queen Katherine was barren, he had sired an illegitimate son whom he was considering making his heir. The chronicler Hall describes how ‘Henry FitzRoy’ came into the world:

The King in his fresh youth was in the chains of love with a fair damsel called Elizabeth Blount, daughter to Sir John Blount, Knight, which damsel in singing and dancing and in all goodly pastimes exceeded all other, by the which goodly pastimes she won the King’s heart, and she again showed him such favour that by him she bore a goodly manchild, of beauty like to the father and mother.2

In 1525, when the boy was six, he was officially acknowledged as Henry’s son and given the semi-royal dukedoms of Richmond and Somerset, his father granting him a coat of arms that he designed personally. Henry contemplated making him King of Ireland, even obtaining a papal dispensation for him to marry his half-sister Mary. He grew up to be a handsome, intelligent and high-spirited youth with a strong resemblance to the king, who became devoted to his ‘worldly jewel’.

Yet while Richard de la Pole may have been the last man to challenge openly the Tudors’ right to the throne of England, and although it was forty years since the Yorkist cause had gone down at Bosworth, this did not mean that nostalgia for the House of York had died out. The White Rose was still alive. The king knew that, should enough Englishmen decide to reject his rule, there were Yorkist pretenders in waiting.

Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, born in 1496, belonged to one of the few great Lancastrian families to survive the Wars of the Roses; his grandfather had fought for Henry Tudor at Bosworth. However, Henry’s father, who had married one of King Edward’s daughters, had been accused of supporting the White Rose and sent to the Tower where he remained until 1509. His earldom of Devon was inherited by Courtenay, who was also heir presumptive to the English throne if the Lady Mary’s claims were disallowed – and no woman had ever occupied the throne. Significantly, in 1519 Charles V’s first minis ter suggested that Courtenay should marry one of the emperor’s nieces.3 For the moment, however, this did not arouse any fears on King Henry’s part, as Courtenay appeared timid and lacking in ambition.

At this date, the king had complete confidence in Henry Courtenay, who became a member of the Privy Council in 1520 and accompanied him at the Field of Cloth of Gold. He was made a Knight of the Garter the year after, taking the Duke of Buckingham’s stall in St George’s Chapel – and a sizable chunk of his lands – and was created Marquess of Exeter in 1525. For many years he was very much one of Henry’s innermost circle.

The other family who had Yorkist blood were the Poles, consisting of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, and her four sons: Henry, Lord Montague, and Arthur, Reginald and Geoffrey Pole. Like Courtenay these nephews of the Earl of Warwick seemed happy enough to live under a Tudor king so long as he remained well disposed towards them. After all, Margaret was the person closest to both his queen and his daughter. Yet the fact remained that had Richard III stayed on the throne and died childless, his successor in blood was Warwick whose heirs were the Poles: if Bosworth had not taken place, they might have been ruling England. Moreover, when the king ‘restored’ the countess they had been children, but now they were grown men. It was also relevant that in those early days King Henry had reason to expect the queen would still give him a son.

Not only was the countess’s daughter Ursula Pole married to the Duke of Buckingham’s heir, but her sons were close friends with the Staffords, a dangerous link when the duke fell. Lord Montague was sent to the Tower with his father-in-law Lord Bergavenny, both accused of ‘misprision’ – failing to report Buckingham’s remark that should Henry die he would make himself king. Arthur Pole was told to leave court. Henry, his imagination out of control, had decided they must be implicated in the duke’s non-existent plot and told the Venetian ambassador that the Serene Republic should not treat Reginald Pole (who had recently arrived in Venetian territory to pursue his studies) too respectfully in case he turned out to be disloyal like his brothers. But then the king recovered his equilibrium and the Poles quickly regained favour.

It was the women of these families, the Countess of Salisbury and the Marchioness of Exeter, who gradually transformed the White Rose cause into a faction. They were motivated by loyalty to Queen Katherine, forming part of what is sometimes called the ‘Aragonese’ faction. We know a fair amount about Lady Salisbury, but comparatively little about Lady Exeter. Born Gertrude Blount in 1502, she was the daughter of the fourth Lord Mountjoy, whose family had always served the Tudors faithfully, and of his Spanish wife who was once one of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting.

Katherine of Aragon had become very popular, inspiring not just loyalty but affection in all who came in contact with her. Endearingly, amid the splendours of Tudor court life, she made her husband’s shirts. One imagines her as short and dumpy, with a radiant, heart-warming smile. But although she was intelligent, humorous and companionable, at the end of 1525 or the beginning of 1526 the king stopped sharing her bed. Forty when he was thirty-two, she had lost her looks and, crucially, she could not give him an heir: her three sons had died very quickly. If Henry recalled Warwick’s curse that God would not allow Tudor male children to live, he saw it as a curse on Katherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur, not on himself. Despite legitimizing Bessie Blount’s son, he needed a lawfully begotten heir who would ensure his dynasty’s survival.

The Church could annul a wedding and the king was convinced he had found grounds in a text from Leviticus warning that it was sinful for a man to marry his brother’s wife: if he did, they would be childless.4 When the queen insisted her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, Henry refused to believe it. The real reason why he wanted a divorce, however, was because he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn (no beauty but a devastatingly attractive brunette), who refused to become his mistress. The king’s ‘great matter’ dragged on, partly because Katherine was the emperor’s aunt and the pope did not wish to offend him, especially after imperial troops occupied Rome in 1527.

Henry’s subjects were shocked by his behaviour. The ‘common people daily murmured and spoke their foolish fantasies,’ admitted Edward Hall. ‘But the affairs of Princes be not ordered by the common people.’5 They were outraged at the prospect of the Lady Mary being bastardized, just as Edward IV’s children had been bastardized by King Richard. The queen’s defenders included Thomas Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (who published seven books and a flow of tracts on the subject), and three other bishops, together with the London Carthusians and the Observant Franciscans, as well as the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. Among many other supporters were the Courtenays and the Poles, although they were wise enough to keep their opinions to themselves.

An especially influential defender was Elizabeth Barton, a young ‘holy woman’ in the tradition of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, who in earlier times might have been canonized. A former servant girl born in 1506, after being cured of a serious disease by a vision she believed to be miraculous, Elizabeth had entered a Benedictine nunnery at Canterbury, where she continued to see visions that made her famous all over England. Whether she was a hysteric or a saint, the ‘Nun of Kent’ was revered. Summoned twice to the royal presence, she told Henry he would incur speedy damnation if he divorced his wife and married Anne Boleyn. He tried to buy her off, promising to make her an abbess despite her youth, but she declined the offer.

To a certain extent Elizabeth was manipulated by her confessor Dr Edward Bocking, a monk of Christchurch, Canterbury and one of the queen’s most fervent advocates; she spoke in similar vein to Thomas More, Archbishop Warham and Bishop Fisher – who wept for joy on hearing her – and other influential clergy. In addition, she published a number of what must have been luridly sensational books which the authorities later destroyed. The gist of her message was that, within a month of marrying Anne, King Henry would not only lose his crown and die miserably, but he would go to Hell: she had been granted a vision of the spectacularly nasty place being prepared for him. A Franciscan friar, Richard Rich, repeated her revelations about the king to Lady Salisbury and Lady Exeter, who almost certainly believed in them.6

In 1531 two Cornish gentlemen named Kendall and Quyntrell, supported by armed friends, declared they were ready to rise for the Marquess of Exeter, whom they said would become king if Henry married Anne Boleyn, ‘or else it should cost a thousand men’s lives’.7 It was also alleged that Exeter’s servants – presumably Kendall and Quyntrell – were claiming he ‘shall wear the garland at the last’.8 In consequence, Exeter was banished from court. He may even have been sent to the Tower on suspicion of treason but, if so, he was soon released. Henry VIII was still sane enough to realize that the Marquess was temperamentally incapable of plotting against him.

The royal divorce dragged on for six years, discussed by all England, the king growing more determined than ever. Pressure was brought to bear on the outspoken Bishop Fisher, a fiery preacher and indefatigable pamphleteer, who was threatened with physical violence more than once as well as with arrest. In 1531 someone fired a gun at his London residence. Undeterred, in the end, he became the only man who dared to defend the queen’s marriage in public.

Even so, Henry was shocked when Fisher’s cook, who had almost certainly been bribed by the Boleyn family, made a crude attempt to poison the bishop, by putting a white powder (arsenic) in the soup served at dinner. Several of the bishop’s guests died in agony at the dining table, while he himself suffered from excruciating stomach pain: luckily he had only swallowed a mouthful. However convenient his death might have been, the king gave his immediate assent to an Act of Parliament that was macabre even by sixteenth-century standards – perhaps he feared a smilar attempt on his own life. In Hall’s words, ‘whosoever did poison any person should be boiled to the death’. The chronicler goes on to relate with relish how Fisher’s cook ‘was boiled in Smithfield … the Wednesday following, to the terrible example of all other’.9

In May 1533 Archbishop Cranmer annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine and very soon afterwards Anne Boleyn became Henry’s wife. At the end of the month she was crowned queen. During the procession to her coronation at Westminster Abbey by her friend the Archbishop, men in the crowds refused to take their hats off, and the ‘goggle eyed whore’, as they called her, grew increasingly unpopular as time went by. On one occasion the congregation of a London church walked out when the priest prayed for Queen Anne. Reports from Justices of the Peace throughout the country came flooding in, that men of all classes were saying the king was no better than a lecher and that they would never accept any queen other than Katherine.

In July the Nun of Kent was arrested. As soon as Parliament met, which was early in the following year, she was attainted and declared guilty of treason, together with nine of her closest associates (Dr Bocking and another monk from Canterbury, two friars, two parsons and some laymen). The bill of attainder did away with the need for a trial, which might have proved troublesome as it was by no means certain that a jury would find them guilty. All were duly hanged at Tyburn in April 1534, the men drawn and quartered. Elizabeth escaped burning, which was the normal penalty for women found guilty of treason, but her head was stuck up with the others on Tower Bridge.

Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher had also been accused of supporting her. More escaped by pretending he had always thought of Elizabeth as ‘a wicked woman’. Fisher, who openly accepted that her visions were genuine, was convicted, but only of failing to inform the authorities – for misprision. This was not a capital offence and he avoided any punishment by pointing out that the nun had told the king exactly what she had told him.

Elizabeth Barton’s political significance tends to be overlooked, yet Henry VIII had been in no doubt about the danger she posed.10 Hall devoted six pages of his folio chronicle to this ‘new found saint and hypocrite called the Maid of Kent’, quoting from her attainder. She was charged with saying ‘there was a root with three branches and till they were plucked up it should never be merry in England’. The root had been Cardinal Wolsey, while the branches were the king, the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk (Charles Brandon). The attainder claimed that the nun’s followers had decided that, after marrying Anne Boleyn, Henry was no longer king in the eyes of God, and they had tried to bring others round to their opinion. They had wanted to sow ‘a secret rupture and grudge in the heart of the King’s subjects’ over the divorce, and to start a rebellion.

One of those executed, Henry Gold, a Kentish parson, had been specifically charged with secretly visiting ‘the Lady Katherine, Princess Dowager’ (the ex-queen) in order to recruit her help in replacing Henry on the throne with his daughter, the Lady Mary, who ‘should prosper and reign in this realm and have many friends to sustain and maintain her’.11 The charge contained the kernel of what became the White Rose group’s long-term plan, although wish list is perhaps a better description than plan. This was to overthrow Henry, make Mary queen and give her a husband with Yorkist blood, who would be king consort.

The scheme ignored the Marquess of Exeter’s own chances of elbowing Mary aside in the event of Henry’s death, which seemed far from distant in view of his regular bouts of ill health. Yet while there are hints that until the birth of the future Edward VI Exeter hoped he might inherit the throne, he would almost certainly have accepted a White Rose solution. On the other hand, incapable of plotting, he would do nothing to help the Lady Mary replace her father, dutifully serving the king as one of the commissioners for Queen Katherine’s formal deposition in 1533 – and, three years later, for her successor’s trial. Meanwhile, Lady Salisbury and Lady Exeter remained in secret contact with the so-called ‘princess dowager’, not daring to visit her because her household was full of spies.

22. 1525–35: The White Rose Party

1. Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4.

2. Hall, op. cit., p. 703.

3. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. III (i), 386.

4. Leviticus 20: 21.

5. Hall, op. cit., p. 782.

6. G.W. Bernard, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, pp. 87–101.

7. M.H. and R. Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace 1536–1537 and the Exeter Conspiracy, 2 vols, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1916, vol. II, p. 181.

8. LP Hen VIII, vol. XIII (ii), 961.

9. Hall, op. cit., pp. 780–1.

10. Ibid., pp. 808–14.

11. Ibid., p. 813.

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