Post-classical history


1533–4: Rebellion?

‘Your Majesty should try every means possible to have near you, or somewhere under your control, the son of the Princess’s Governess, the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, to whom in the opinion of many people here the realm should belong.’

Eustache Chapuys to Charles V, 27 September 15331

England was shaken to the core by Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, and by the questioning of spiritual certainties that resulted from the king’s religious policies. Secular traditions were questioned almost as much. Sitting in seven sessions between 1529 and 1536, the ‘Reformation Parliament’ enacted new laws that increased the crown’s powers enormously. An administrative revolution had been imposed by Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, who bribed, bullied and cajoled MPs into passing the necessary bills. Sometimes the king himself came and addressed both Houses.

Courts were set up to control England’s landowners more firmly. The Court of Wards and the Court of General Surveyors were staffed by high-handed officials, and similar courts were established for Wales and the Welsh Marches. The crown’s new intrusiveness, its meddling with day-to-day life, did not endear it to ordinary people. Men were encouraged to report disloyal comments by neighbours to the local justices of the peace, who were ordered to send denunciations to London without delay. Cromwell’s spies seemed to be listening at every keyhole.

The Henrician revolution, the creeping ‘increase in governance’, unsettled everybody – nobility, gentry and common folk. There was unease all over England. Many people began to hope that King Henry would soon be succeeded by his daughter Mary who, despite the grim reputation she later gained, enjoyed extraordinary popularity in the 1530s. However, the king had no intention of letting a girl follow him to the throne, bringing an end to the Tudor dynasty.

Among those who helped to revive the cause of the White Rose was a most unlikely Yorkist – Katherine of Aragon. A friend of Lady Salisbury and Lady Exeter, the former queen warmly encouraged the Yorkist cause. In her eyes the heir to the English throne was her daughter Mary, and she was determined to ensure her succession. No woman had ever ruled Katherine’s adopted country, but she did not see this as an obstacle: her mother and her sister had both been sovereigns. Should the king beget other children, then Mary must fight them. A consort who represented the House of York would be a vital ally in such a situation and in consequence the aims of the ‘Aragonese faction’ coincided with those of the White Rose families.

Aware that her marriage to Prince Arthur had been the cause of Warwick’s death, Katherine suffered from a guilty conscience, believing ‘Divine justice had punished the sin of her father King Ferdinand’. It was Lady Salisbury who first explained the situation to her. Years later, the countess’s son Reginald Pole wrote that the queen felt ‘very much bound to recompense and requite us for the detriment that we had received on her account’. By ‘detriment’, he meant his uncle Warwick’s murder. With so many of her children dead in infancy, Katherine was understandably inclined to share the belief that the earl’s killing had brought a curse upon the Tudors.2

‘You can have no conception of just how strongly people here want Your Majesty to send troops,’ Eustache Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, wrote to Charles V in the summer of 1533. A subtle cleric from Savoy in his mid-forties, an exceptionally able lawyer whose experience included presiding over legal tribunals and interrogating witnesses, and also a scholar who was yet another of Erasmus’s innumerable friends, Chapuys had been carefully selected for his post by the emperor. King Henry took a great liking to the new envoy, frequently chatting with him and never guessing during his long stay in England that he was a dedicated enemy.

Almost modern in his skills as an intelligence gatherer, Chapuys listened to opinions as widely as possible, from broad-ranging circles, knowing how to make his contacts trust him and talk freely.‘Every day I am approached … by Englishmen of distinction, education and intelligence, who inform me the late King Richard was never hated as much as is this King by his subjects,’ he reported.3 Exceeding his instructions in a way that would have shocked the emperor had he known of it, Chapuys methodically encouraged and coordinated this hostility, creating a very dangerous situation.4

Since 1531 (after being told he and his friends would be thrown in the Thames if they continued to oppose royal policy), John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester had been in close, if discreet, touch with Chapuys. Although a conservative theologian and an ascetic – he kept a skull on the altar when saying Mass – Fisher was also a keen humanist who had been taught Greek by Erasmus. He had gained an international reputation by his eloquent attacks on Martin Luther, while at the same time he was an admirer of Savonarola (whose ideas had seen a revival during the 1520s), realizing that the Church was in urgent need of reform. Alone among English bishops, Fisher understood where Henry’s policies were heading and that nothing short of his deposition could save England from what would one day be called Protestantism. Moreover, he realized the potential strength of the White Rose–Aragonese faction.

This frail, bony-faced ascetic became one of the king’s most formidable enemies. In autumn 1533 Chapuys twice quoted him as wanting the emperor to send troops (and, by inference, depose Henry), a deed that he said would please God more than any crusade against the Turk. On the second occasion the bishop advised prompt action, assuring the ambassador that the majority of Englishmen shared his views and expected Charles V to intervene: they preferred an invasion to a trade embargo that might cause a far worse upheaval – a small seaborne force should be enough to topple King Henry. ‘Innumerable people from all walks of life keep on telling me this, to such an extent that they are almost deafening me,’ added Chapuys.5

Chapuys also advised Charles to have Reginald Pole at his court, or somewhere else under his control, as so many people in England saw him as the rightful successor to the throne. The ambassador emphasized that the young man and his brothers had many relatives and allies among the English nobility, besides a large party of supporters – which surely meant Yorkist sympathizers. Among the allies was the Marquess of Exeter, who begged Chapuys to ask the emperor to come and rescue the country from Henry.

The ambassador also named as a potential ally Lord Bergavenny (Edmund de la Pole’s old friend) whom he had recently met at court.

One of the most powerful, wise and prudent lords of England, [he] is ill-pleased with the King because he detained him so long in prison with the Duke of Buckingham, his father-in-law, who left therin his person, while Bergavenny left his feathers – that is to say, a great part of his revenue, which he will be glad to get back again by any means and revenge himself.

Chapuys grumbled that they had been unable to talk properly because Cromwell had walked as close behind them as possible, trying to overhear their conversation.6

Chapuys explained that Katherine of Aragon wanted Reginald to marry Mary, because of his Yorkist descent. Although she expressed surprising affection for Henry on her deathbed (she went on making his shirts to the end), Katherine was convinced he ought to be deposed. Whatever happened, she wanted her daughter to succeed him. She was a little worried about cutting out Exeter as he was the next male heir to Edward IV after Henry, but the ambassador cited the bastardization of King Edward’s children in 1483 by Bishop Stillington, acting on behalf of Richard of Gloucester. Again and again, Chapuys stressed Reginald’s right to the throne.7 Whether or not the ambassador was familiar with the saga of the White Rose under the Tudors, it certainly appears that he had talked to a canon lawyer with Yorkist sympathies.

The Lady Mary was of course crucial. Only seventeen in 1533, yet highly educated, even erudite, and already with a political sense, she knew that her father’s divorce meant the loss of her inheritance. Even so, many saw her as their next ruler. Very different in aspect from the sour, pinched figure of later years, she was an attractive girl, possessing some of her father’s Yorkist good looks, with strong features – apart from a snub nose – and red-gold hair, and something of her mother’s warmth and dignity. We know from her household’s accounts for this year that her guests included Reginald’s brothers Lord Montague and Sir Geoffrey Pole, the Earls of Oxford and Essex, and Lord Sandys, all men who disliked Henry’s policies. Among women visitors were Lady Bergavenny, the Countess of Derby and Lady Kingston, whose husbands held similar opinions.8 No doubt Mary was surrounded by Cromwell’s spies, and careful not to discuss her future in public.

Bishop Fisher’s plan was not unrealistic; it was potentially as great a threat as any faced by Henry VII. Nothing so menacing had ever emerged before, while it was supported by far more magnates than were to take part in the Pilgrimage of Grace: in 1533 a larger percentage of peers and gentry were ready to rise in revolt than had supported York against Lancaster in 1461 and brought down Henry VI.

Cromwell sensed something very dangerous was at foot without being able to identify what it was. This may have been the reason for a number of otherwise inexplicable attacks on several peers who were known to be friends of the Lady Mary. In 1534 Lord Dacre of the North was falsely accused of having had treason able dealings with the Scots, while in 1535 Lord Bray was charged with dabbling in alchemy (not even a crime) and Lord Darcy was forbidden to leave London. Although omitted from the charges listed in Fisher’s attainder, Cromwell claimed after his execution that the bishop had been trying to start a rebellion.9

But however many people may have hated King Henry and wanted the rebellion to happen, it never took place. Threatened by the Lutheran princes in Germany, with his long-running struggle against France and his never-ending war on the Turkish front, the emperor simply could not afford to waste valuable troops on helping the Yorkists who, while they might be able to find a candidate for the throne, all too obviously lacked a military leader. Had they possessed someone such as Richard de la Pole, matters might have taken a very different turn. The only possible candidate, Lord Darcy, was too ill and too old for the role, and in any case he had never been an outstanding soldier.

The biggest deterrent was Henry himself, who cowed opponents by his terrifying personality and political skills. Visits to both Houses of Parliament, where he listened to debates for hours on end, and their members’ readiness to pass the bills he wanted, gave him a misleading aura of popularity. Opponents were further demoralized by a fear that Cromwell’s agents were spying on them, knowing that the slightest hint of disloyalty would result in immediate arrest and probably ruin. Despite this, some Yorkists – especially Darcy – still persisted in hoping against hope for a rising.

Encouragingly, across the Irish Sea during the summer of 1534 the FitzGeralds rose after hearing a false rumour that the Earl of Kildare, currently imprisoned in the Tower, had been executed. The earl’s son, popularly known as ‘Silken Thomas’, sent an embassy to Charles V, offering to rule Ireland as a fief of the Holy See if the emperor would support him with troops to fight the ‘English schismatics’. Even though the rebels murdered the Archbishop of Dublin, the rising was welcomed in England with noticeable warmth, much to the alarm of Henry VIII and Cromwell, Chapuys commenting cheerfully that certainly ‘it made a very good beginning’.10 However, despite for a moment threatening Dublin itself, the FitzGeralds were defeated. Silken Thomas and his five uncles were captured through treachery, to be hanged at Tyburn two years later.

‘A year ago I wrote to Your Majesty the same thing,’ Chapuys wrote on 3 November 1534, replying to a query from Charles about a letter from the Spanish consul at Venice, which he enclosed in cypher. (The consul was suggesting that Reginald Pole might be able to take over England, and save Queen Katherine and Princess Mary from King Henry.) Chapuys repeated that Katherine was most anxious for her daughter to marry Pole, insisting the English would at once show strong support for him, ‘especially as there are innumerable good personages who hold that the true title to this Kingdom belongs to the Duke of Clarence’s family’. He urged an immediate invasion. Affairs were in such a state, he said, that everyone in England would welcome an imperial army, ‘especially if the said Lord Reynold were in it’.

Chapuys then mentioned Reginald’s younger brother, Sir Geoffrey Pole, who often came to see him – rather too often thought the ambassador, who had warned him to keep away for fear of attracting the attention of Cromwell’s spies. ‘He does not cease, like so many others, to beseech me to write to Your Majesty of the facility with which this King might be conquered, and that all the people look for nothing else.’ Chapuys had been careful to mention Reginald to Geoffrey on only one occasion: ‘long ago, I told him that Reginald would do better to beg for his bread than come back to all the trouble over here, where he might easily be given the same treatment as the Bishop of Rochester or worse.’ But he was shrewd enough to realize that Sir Geoffrey was a lightweight, dangerously unstable and indiscreet, if an extremely useful source of information.11

Two elderly but formidable peers, who had been young men when Richard III was king, became more influential with the White Rose party at this time. Steady supporters of Queen Katherine, both would have liked to see the deposition of the present monarch. One, already mentioned, was Lord Darcy de Darcy, KG.

Born in the 1460s, Darcy was a fierce old veteran of ancient family from Templehurst in Yorkshire, ennobled by Henry VIII. For many years the steward to the young Earl of Westmorland, whose widowed mother he married, as Warden of the East Marches he had seen plenty of fighting on the Scottish Border. A Northener to his fingertips, Darcy was called the ‘Key to the North’ because he understood its people so well.12 Although he had signed a petition to the pope for Henry’s divorce, he was horrified by it, as well as by the king’s religious policies, which he attributed to his new minister Thomas Cromwell – the ‘vicegerent’. In 1532 at a private meeting of notables held by the Duke of Norfolk, Darcy insisted that the pope was the supreme judge in all spiritual matters, later telling the House of Lords that Parliament had no right to meddle with religion.

The second important recruit was John Hussey, whose father had been a judge in Edward IV’s day. Now in his sixties, he himself had first risen to prominence by helping to put down Lord Lovell’s rising in 1486. A former henchman of Messers Empson and Dudley, Hussey had then made himself so useful to Henry VIII that he had been rewarded with large grants of land and created a peer. He was sufficiently trusted to be appointed chamberlain to the recently bastardized Lady Mary in 1533, after which he and his wife had become indignant at the girl’s shabby treatment.13

During the summer of 1534 Lord Darcy and Lord Hussey dined together at Hussey’s house in London, with Darcy’s friend, Sir Robert Constable of Flamborough – a wealthy Northern magnate who was a Knight of the Body to the king although his father had fought for Richard at Bosworth. The main topic discussed was their shared revulsion at a sermon given by the chaplain to an evangelical Yorkshire landowner, Sir Ralph Bigod, in which the priest – a keen follower of the New Learning – had attacked the cult of the Virgin Mary. All agreed that they could never be heretics but were going to live and die as Christian men.14

On another occasion, in the garden of his house at Sleaford in Lincolnshire, when discussing the appearance of heresy in Yorkshire, Hussey confided to an acquaintance, that although the new doctrines did not appear to be making much progress there, ‘a few particular persons’ were nonetheless hoping to make the king bring them in, to such a point that one day it would clearly become necessary to take up arms in defence of the Catholic Faith, because the situation ‘will never mend without we fight’.15

By autumn both Darcy and Hussey were in touch with Eustache Chapuys, urging him to persuade the emperor to invade England where his troops would be certain of an enthusiastic welcome, especially in the North Country where, so Darcy claimed, there were at least 600 lords and rich gentlemen who shared their opinions. In September Darcy proposed to the ambassador that Charles should send a small expedition up the Thames to rescue the Lady Mary, who was then at Greenwich, while his own men would free Queen Katherine from Kimbolton. In addition, he asked to be given a small force of arquebusiers and money to pay them, so that he could start a rising as soon as he was able to obtain permission from the authorities to return to Yorkshire. The English were so discontented with Henry’s regime that they would rush to join the revolt. Even if both Darcy and Chapuys exaggerated, this was the first suggestion of armed action by the White Rose since the death of Richard de la Pole.

Lords Darcy and Hussey were far from alone among English peers in hoping for a revolt that would topple Henry VIII. The Earl of Northumberland’s doctor brought Chapuys a secret message from his master, saying the king was about to lose his throne. (Once betrothed to Anne Boleyn, the earl had fainted when she was condemned to death, while he had other reasons for hating Henry.) A similar message arrived from Darcy’s brother-in-law, Lord Sandys, the Lord Chamberlain and Deputy of Calais, who had a considerable reputation as a soldier. Other peers must have thought the same way without caring to inform Chapuys, for example the earls of Derby and Essex, and perhaps the Lords Dacre of the North and Bray. It was the same mood of discontented neo-feudalism that, in the previous century, had helped to bring about the Wars of the Roses.

At about this time, ‘the good old lord’ (Darcy’s name in the imperial code book) presented Chapuys with an enamelled gold pansy and, as that well-informed ambassador must have known, the pansy was the badge of the Pole family. At Christmas Darcy sent him a magnificent sword, which Chapuys interpreted as meaning the time had come for an armed rising. The old warrior was the sort of man who spoke to everyone in his neighbourhood, of every class, and he realized that the North was seething with indignation: if the commons rose in sufficient numbers, the gentry and clergy should be able to take command. But just as Richard de la Pole, Perkin Warbeck and the Earl of Lincoln had known – and Henry Tudor in 1485 – Darcy realized that foreign troops and foreign money were needed if there was to be any chance of success.

The Emperor Charles was not convinced of the viability of Darcy’s plan, however. While he wanted his cousin Mary to inherit the throne and disapproved of Henry VIII, he was equally anxious to avoid the Anglo-French alliance that would almost certainly result if he meddled too much in English affairs. He therefore did nothing, although he told his ambassador to encourage ‘the good old lord’. But while the authorities had no inkling of Darcy’s intentions, they were suspicious of him because of his open opposition to the king’s policies and he was not allowed to return home until the summer of 1535.

23. 1533–4: Rebellion?

1. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. VI, 1164.

2. CSP Ven, op. cit., vol. V, 575.

3. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. VI, 508.

4. G.R. Elton, Reform and Reformation: England 1509–1558, London, Edward Arnold, 1977, p. 122.

5. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. VI, 1164.

6. Ibid., 1164.

7. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. VII, 136.

8. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. VI, 1540.

9. J.J. Scarisbrick, ‘Fisher, Henry VIII and the Reformation Crisis’, in B. Bradshaw and E. Duffy (eds), Humanism, Reform and the Reformation: The Career of Bishop John Fisher, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 163.

10. CSP Spain, V (i), 86..

11. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. VII, 1095.

12. Oxford DNB.

13. Oxford DNB.

14. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XII (i), 576.

15. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. VIII, 35.

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