‘the lord Marquess of Exeter and the Lord Montague with a sort of their adherents of mean estate and no esti mation greatly have been commanded to the Tower … their offences be not known by light suspicion but by certain proofs and confessions.’
Thomas Cromwell, letter to Sir Thomas Wyatt, 28 November 15381
Yorkism never ceased to be a threat in Henry’s mind. This is the only possible reason for his belief in the ‘Exeter Conspiracy’. Some historians argue that his decision to destroy the Poles and Courtenays had nothing to do with their White Rose blood, yet he could not forget their claims to the throne.2 Ambassadors such as Marillac and Chapuys, who often talked to him, speak of the ‘White Rose faction’ in their reports, while Marillac says that Henry used the phrase himself. The king knew that besides disliking his religious policies, its members were urging his daughter not to swear allegiance to the statutes that bastardized her. It was logical enough for him to fear that if Reginald led an invasion on Mary’s behalf, the White Rose lords would join him.
In July 1536, the king’s son, the Duke of Richmond, who, despite his bastardy, some thought might succeed his father on the throne, had died, probably from the tuberculosis that killed his royal grandfather. He was only seventeen. Although Henry had been very fond of the boy, instead of giving him a proper funeral he ordered the Duke of Norfolk to smuggle his body out of London in a waggonload of straw and bury it as quietly as possible in the Howards’ family vault at Thetford. The reason for this heartless behaviour must surely have been that Henry feared his subjects would attribute the boy’s death to the curse incurred by the Earl of Warwick’s murder.
But in October 1537 Queen Jane Seymour gave birth to the son and heir for whom the king had always longed, the future Edward VI, an event greeted with magnificent celebrations that were brought to a close by her death twelve days later. By now Henry was forty-five – by Tudor standards well on the way to old age. He was determined that, if the boy succeeded when still a minor, he should not disappear like the young Edward V. With its two potential pretenders, the White Rose faction was an obvious threat. ‘The King told me a long time ago that he wanted to exterminate [exterminer] the House of Montague that belongs to the White Rose and the Pole family of which the Cardinal is a member,’ reported the Sieur de Castillon from London towards the end of the 1530s. ‘So far, I don’t know what he means to do about the Marquess [of Exeter] … It looks as if he is searching for any possible excuse that can be found to ruin and destroy them … I think that few lords in this country can feel safe.’3
Among England’s richest magnates, Exeter enjoyed semi-regal status throughout the West Country. In Devon his thirty-nine manors in the Exe valley formed an estate almost as large as the Duchy of Cornwall, of which he was high steward besides being lord warden of the stannaries and where he owned another eighteen manors and castles. He had a further sixteen manors in Dorset and Hampshire. Exeter also possessed several palatial residences, the most imposing being a huge moated and castellated house at Tiverton, while his ‘inn’ at London was the Red Rose in St Lawrence Poultney, once the property of the Duke of Buckingham. When not at court, however, he preferred the seclusion of his Surrey mansion at West Horsley (later acquired by Sir Walter Raleigh), although even here his household numbered over a hundred gentlemen waiters, yeomen and grooms of the chamber, not to mention more menial servants.
The marquess had always tried to keep on the right side of Henry, serving on the commission for depriving Katherineof her rank as queen in 1533. For a time he had belonged to what formed the main faction at court, united by dislike of Thomas Cromwell, his main ally being Sir Nicholas Carew, Master of the Horse.4 But when Cromwell became supreme, he spent more time in Surrey.
Links between the Courtenays and the Poles grew close, partly because of the Marchioness of Exeter’s friendship with Lady Salisbury. Yet although they were staunch Catholics who loathed Cromwell and criticized royal policies in secret, they were less a political party than a group of friends, who included Lord Montague’s brother-in-law Sir Edward Neville and, to a lesser extent, Lord de la Warr. The ‘treason’ they talked had only recently become treason under Henry’s new laws, and they did not appreciate the danger from Cromwell’s thought-police. Even so, before Reginald Pole’s challenge became an obsession with the king they had seemed safe enough. Still in favour, Exeter was granted several confiscated monasteries. Far from supporting the Pilgrimage of Grace, he and his West Country levies formed part of the Duke of Norfolk’s Army Royal.
An amiable, unambitious, calm-tempered man who was in his early forties, Lord Montague, Reginald Pole’s elder brother, had also done his best to avoid antagonizing King Henry. He had dutifully served on the commissions that tried the Carthusians and Sir Thomas More for treason, if only in an honorary capacity, although we can guess that the whole business revolted him. (He owned copies of More’s books and enjoyed reading them.) Less unwillingly, with Exeter he was among the peers who condemned Anne Boleyn. He, too, brought a force to fight the pilgrims. Punctilious in performing his ceremonial duties as a courtier, he did so at Prince Edward’s christening in October 1537 and as a mourner at Queen Jane Seymour’s funeral in September.
After learning that King Henry had received Reginald’s insulting De Unitate during the summer of 1536, the Poles had grown alarmed, however, realizing that in the new, Henrician England they were only alive on sufferance. Montague wrote to Reginald in September, declaring that when Cromwell read extracts of the book to him he felt as if he had lost mother, wife and children. He accused his brother of wicked ingratitude towards a sovereign to whom he owed everything, as did his whole family. If he did not come home, he would lose his king’s good will, his country and his family. Lady Salisbury wrote, too, saying that because of his behaviour Henry had sent her ‘a terrible message’. The king had always been good to her and she expected her sons to serve him faithfully. Nothing had ever upset her as much as his anger, even the deaths of her husband or children. (She had recently lost her second son, Sir Arthur Pole.) ‘Do your duty or you will be my undoing,’ she ended.5
Reginald confided in his friend Contarini that when these messages from his family arrived, they upset him so much that he very nearly gave in and went back to England.)6 But then he guessed that his mother and his brother had been forced to write them in response to explicit orders from Henry which they dared not refuse. The truth was that Lady Salisbury and Lord Montague had even had to submit their letters to the King’s Council for approval, before they could be sent to Venice.
Despite their alarm, it is astonishing just how indiscreet the White Rose group allowed themselves to be. When someone rebuked the Marquess of Exeter for accepting former abbey lands, he replied, ‘good enough for a time: they must have all again one day’, by which he seems to have meant that in his opinion the monks were undoubtedly going to get them back.‘Knaves rule about the King,’ he observed, after entertaining Cromwell at West Horsley where, in his words, he gave the Lord Privy Seal ‘a summer coat and a wood knife’. Shaking his fist, the Marquess added, ‘I trust to give them a buffet one day’.
He and his friends were given daily reminders of Henry’s policies. Scores of religious houses, some of which contained their ancestors’ tombs or were places where they had been accustomed to worship, were being demolished, often blown up with gunpowder and used as quarries. The country swarmed with beggars once fed by such houses, joined by starving monks and nuns (whose minuscule pensions went unpaid), together with their former servants and labourers.
Shrines were destroyed, pilgrims vanishing from the roads.Hallowed feastdays, celebrated since time immemorial, were arbitarily removed from the calendar. If Mass was still said in parish churches, the pope (that ‘cankered and cruel serpent, the Bishop of Rome’) was regularly abused from the pulpit. A new Court of Augmentations managed the plundered lands of the abbeys, while the Court of First Fruits and Tenths exploited the revenues of the Church.
Worse than all this were the new ideas about religion coming from Germany. No doubt, for some people, they induced an exhilarating certainty that faith in Christ was by itself enough to gain eternal life. But for others such a belief was a fiendish delusion that would drag men and women down to hell – the view of the White Rose group. They thought that the bishops recently appointed by the king were agents of the Devil.
Yet it was impossible to oppose Henry without an armedrising, as he was not a tyrant in the legal sense: ‘Where a Borgia used poison, a Tudor used the law’.7 During the Wars of the Roses both sides had employed Bills of Attainder against opponents but never as a means of stifling opposition to peacetime policies. (Nor had they executed a single woman.) But in these days people risked the scaffold if they voiced any resentment. In 1538 the Benedictine prior of Lenton in Nottinghamshire, realizing that his house would be dissolved, was reported as saying of King Henry, ‘The Devil is in him, for he is past grace: he will never amend in this world. I warrant him to have as shameful a death as ever King had in England. A vengeance on him.’ Within a few weeks of the report reaching the authorities the prior was hanged, drawn and quartered.8
As time went on, Lord Montague grew even blunter than the Marquess of Exeter in expressing his disgust at the new England being created by Henry, declaring that the ‘King and his whole issue stand accursed’. (He did not mean Mary but Henry’s short-lived sons – a reference to Warwick’s curse.) Another of Montague’s comments was: ‘The King gloried with the title to be Supreme Head next to God, yet he had a sore leg that no poor man would be glad of, and that he should not live long for all his authority next God’s.’ When Sir Geoffrey received a court post, Montague fell out with him, saying that ever since he had been a boy he had disliked King Henry and that he was quite sure His Grace would end up by going mad.9
But in October 1537 Geoffrey Pole was forbidden to come to court. (It was on the same day as the christening of Prince Edward, who, ironically enough, was carried by the Marchioness of Exeter throughout the ceremony.) Perhaps someone had reported Geoffrey shouting ‘By God’s blood’ on hearing that Peter Mewtas had planned to kill Reginald, and accused him of declaring that he would have stuck his dagger into the man even had Mewtas been standing next to the king. ‘Geoffrey, God loveth us well that will not suffer us to come amongst them, for none rule about the court but knaves,’ Montague told him when he came home.
We know from Geoffrey that there were moments when his brother’s thoughts turned to armed rebellion, even if it was only day dreaming. On one occasion Montague said he would rather live in the West Country than Hampshire, as the Marquess of Exeter possessed such a big following in the West, and that he regretted the death of his father-in-law Lord Bergavenny because he could easily have raised ten thousand men.10 Lord Montague’s servants echoed his opinions, in hoping that ‘My Lady Mary and the Cardinal Pole would marry’. Clearly, they knew the White Rose programme. One of them promised that he would shoot anyone who killed Reginald; when he confessed this to the family chaplain, John Collins, he received a blessing instead of a reprimand.
The most outspoken member of the White Rose circle was Sir Edward Neville, once a favourite companion in the tilting yard of the king, whom he had come to loathe. Montague’s brother-in-law and one of Exeter’s closest friends, Neville sang songs in the gardens at West Horsley, adding words aimed at Cromwell, such as: ‘knaves should be put down and lords should reign one day’. Sensing his dislike, Henry ordered Neville to keep away from Exeter, although only later did he learn that Sir Edward had several times observed, ‘His Highness was a beast and worse than a beast’.11 Neville detested Henry’s courtiers as much as their master. ‘God’s blood, I am made a fool among them, but I laugh and make merry to pass the time,’ he grumbled to Sir Geoffrey when they happened to be at court together at Westminster. ‘The King keepeth a sort of knaves here that we dare neither look nor speak. And if I were able to live, I would rather live any life in the world [than] tarry in the Privy Chamber.’12
It is surprising that any Pole or Courtenay, let alone Neville, dared to stay a moment longer in Henrician England when they were in such obvious danger. Reginald could have given them refuge. Yet it meant leaving behind rank and position, beautiful mansions and estates. (Even Sir Geoffrey, a younger son, had married an heiress and owned a fine ‘L’-shaped house at Lordington in Sussex, beneath the Downs.) The prospect of penniless exile was scarcely an alluring one. Nevertheless, Lord Montague thought of taking refuge with the cardinal in Rome at least once, remarking, ‘The King to be revenged of Reynold, I fear, will kill us all’.
Sir Geoffrey was the only member of the White Rose faction who ever seriously planned to leave the country. Although he was heavily in debt, his motives had more to do with fear of the king than moneylenders. Nervous and overstrung, he had grown terrified. Several times he asked the sea captain Hugh Holland (who brought his warning to Reginald) to take him over to Flanders, but Hugh refused, not wanting to risk being accused of aiding and betting the flight of someone who might be proclaimed a traitor. Eventually, he went to see a family friend, old Dr Croftes, the Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral, who had taken the Oath of Supremacy with the utmost reluctance and had himself thought of emigrating. He lent Geoffrey twenty gold nobles when he told him he wanted to go abroad because he feared for his life.
But next day he received a letter from Dr Croftes, saying that Our Lady had appeared to him in a dream during the night, and had warned that if Sir Geoffrey should leave England his departure would ruin the entire Pole family. So Geoffrey decided to stay, paying back the twenty nobles. Croftes then went to Lord Montague’s steward, telling him that his master’s brother was in severe financial trouble and Montague paid off Geoffrey’s debts. Plainly on close terms with Sir Geoffrey, Dr Croftes lent him a book. It was Thomas More’s History of King Richard the Third; perhaps Croftes had chosen it as a study in tyranny that suited the times. It may be significant that another copy was found in Lord Exeter’s possession.
Among the Poles’ clerical friends was John Helyar, rector of East Meon and the vicar of Warblington in Hampshire. Lady Salisbury’s chaplain at Warblington Castle and an Oxford educated theologian, he violently disapproved of the king’s religious policies, and in the summer of 1535 (before the cardinal’s first mission) had asked Sir Geoffrey to persuade Hugh Holland to take him over to France, a trip that had duly taken place. Helyar claimed that he wanted to study at the University of Paris, but there were rumours that he had fled after ‘traitorous words’. Joining the cardinal at Rome, he was given a job running the city’s English Hospice. He kept in touch with the Poles, corresponding with Geoffrey. English agents in Rome quickly identified Helyar as a sworn enemy of the Henrician regime.13
‘Pity it is that the folly of one brainsick Pole or, to say better, of one witless fool should be the ruin of so great a family,’ commented Thomas Cromwell ominously in his angry letter to Michael Throckmorton of late 1537. Admittedly, on another occasion the Lord Privy Seal had reported to his master that the Poles ‘had offended little save that he [Reginald] is of their kin’. Yet Cromwell realized that it was now in his power to destroy the White Rose party because the king had come to regard them as a threat. For a time, however, his spies had difficulty in obtaining any evidence. He sent his nephew to ask Exeter to be ‘frank and open in certain things’, tacitly offering a pardon if he would provide information to convict the Pole brothers, but the marquess contemptuously declined. Then, almost by accident, the Lord Privy Seal found a way.
Early in 1538 a failed schoolmaster from Grantham called Gervaise Tyndale arrived at Warblington, saying that he had come to recuperate at ‘the surgeon house’, which was the little village hospital maintained by Lady Salisbury. In reality he was one of Cromwell’s spies, sent to ferret out evidence. A declared Reformer, shouting his hatred of popery from the rooftops, he found an ideal source of information in the doctor who ran the hospital, Richard Eyre, another Evangelical. Eyre told him that the countess not only dismissed servants who inclined to the New Learning, but that she forbade her tenants to read the New Testament in English. Eyre also confided that besides taking messages to Helyar, his neighbour Hugh Holland ‘conveyeth letters to Master Pole the Cardinal, and all the secrets of the realm of England is known to the Bishop of Rome’. When Tyndale quarrelled with every priest for miles around, so much angry gossip ensued that Sir Geoffrey went to see Cromwell. He admitted that he had corresponded with Helyar, but only to give him news of the village, and for a while this defused the situation.
The catalyst in what happened next was the king’s illness in May 1538, when a floating thrombosis lodged in his lung. For nearly a fortnight it looked as if his death was imminent. Courtiers asked each other who would take his place on the throne – the baby Prince Edward or the Lady Mary. As soon as the king recovered, the Lord Privy Seal no doubt reported these discussions, making Henry more prone than ever to suspicion of plots against him. By now Cromwell’s agents must have learned about the White Rose dream of Mary becoming queen with Reginald Pole as king consort.
At about the same time, in May or June, Tyndale and Eyre sent Cromwell a denunciation of the popish regime at Warblington Castle. While it told him nothing he did not know already, he was very interested in an allegation that Hugh Holland had acted as courier between the Poles and the cardinal. The seaman was swiftly arrested, at Bockmer. As he was being taken away to London, hands bound behind him and feet tied beneath his horse’s belly, he met Geoffrey Pole on the road, arriving from Sussex. Holland prophesied that Geoffrey would soonfollow him.
Phlegmatic as ever, Lord Montague did not appear particularly worried, commenting that he always burned his correspondence. Panic stricken, Geoffrey, who did not, gave Montague’s chaplain John Collins his signet ring, sending him to Lordington with instructions to burn his own letters.
Under interrogation that may have included torture (at the Tower the rack was used on stubborn witnesseses) Holland implicated Sir Geoffrey up to the hilt. He only testified that besides organizing Helyar’s flight abroad Geoffrey had kept in touch with Reginald, but repeated his messages by word of mouth, such as the warnings about assassins. ‘Show him the world in England waxeth all crooked, God’s law is turned upside down, abbeys and churches overthrown, and he is taken for a traitor,’ had been another warning. ‘And I think they will cast down parish churches and all at the last.’14
Geoffrey Pole was arrested without any warning on 29 August 1538. He was kept in a damp and filthy cell at the Tower for two months, his examination deliberately postponed until 26 October so that he could be demoralized by loneliness and darkness, dirt, hunger and vermin. Interrogated seven times, he was asked fifty-nine questions and threatened with the rack, and then offered a pardon if he would cooperate – which of course meant betraying his brother and Exeter. The man who relentlessly asked question after question was William, Earl of Southampton, who had been ordered by the king to extract the right answers. A portrait drawing of Southampton in the Royal Collection shows a face that is noticeably brutal even by Tudor standards.
After his first interrogation, Geoffrey tried to commitsuicide in his cell, stabbing himself in the chest with a knife, but failed. ‘Sir Geoffrey Pole was examined in the Tower by my lord Admiral [Southampton],’ wrote John Husee to Lord Lisle on 28 October. ‘They say that he was so in despair that he would have murdered himself and has hurt himself sore.’15 His wife, Dame Constance, was also questioned. Taken to the Tower for interrogation, she was allowed to see her husband, Afterwards she wrote to Montague, warning him that his brother was on the verge of a complete collapse and that he might blurt out something so dangerous that it might destroy the entire Pole family.
Probably Geoffrey knew what had been done in May that year to Friar John Forrest, a Franciscan who denied the royal supremacy. (Once Katherine of Aragon’s chaplain, he was well known to the White Rose party.) According to the gloating Hall, Forrest ‘was hanged in chains by the middle and armholes all quick [alive] and under the gallows was made a fire’. A wooden statue of a saint was put on top of the faggots. ‘This friar when he saw the fire come and that present death was at hand, caught hold upon the ladder, which he would not let go.’ Adding the statue to the fire was a nice example of Henry’s sense of humour.16
Perhaps Geoffrey, who may have been among the crowd watching the execution, feared that he might die in the same way. He broke. No jury ever dared to acquit anybody accused of treason and he realized that his only hope was to secure a royal pardon by slavishly cooperating with his questioners and telling them everything he knew, even inventing evidence if necessary. First, he wrote to the king, begging for forgiveness, and then he repeated critical remarks made by every male member of the White Rose party, including all Montague’s comments about Henry. The authorities had got what they needed – not very much, but enough for their purpose.
On 4 November Exeter and Montague were arrested and sent to the Tower, soon followed by their wives and children. So were Sir Edward Neville, Dr Croftes and John Collins, the chaplain from Bockmer. On 28 November Cromwell wrote to Sir Thomas Wyatt that the Marquess of Exeter and Lord Montague had been committed to the Tower for ‘sundry great crimes’; not because of mere suspicion, but because of evidence and confessions.17 Cromwell was lying, however. Nothing serious could be proved against them, however much they may have detested King Henry. The usual show trials of the two noblemen by their peers came first, with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Audley, presiding. Montague’s took place on 2 December and that of Exeter the next day. Both pleaded not guilty to the indictments, although they knew very well that it would make not the slightest difference to the outcome.
Apart from speaking contemptuously of the king, and dreaming hopefully that he was dead, the only ‘evidence’ against Lord Montague was of having said to Geoffrey, ‘I like well the doings of Cardinal Pole, and I would we were both over the sea for this world will one day come to stripes.’ A similar allegation of having spoken such words was to be made against all the accused. It was damning enough, however, in the context of Reginald’s efforts to launch an invasion and stir up rebellion against Henry VIII. Inevitably, Montague was found guilty of high treason and condemned to death. In a way the sentence came as a relief to him. ‘I have lived in prison these last six years,’ he had declared while being questioned – a revealing comment on the terrifying claustrophobia of life in Henrician England.
The Marquess’s trial was more dramatic, according to Richard Moryson in a pamphlet written shortly afterwards. In court Exeter accused Sir Geoffrey ‘with frenzy, with folly and madness’. Geoffrey retorted that he had certainly been frenzied when he planned to act as a traitor in company with the accused, ‘disobedient to my God, false to my Prince and enemy to my native land’. He added, ‘I was also out of my wit and stricken with a sore kind of madness when I chose rather to kill myself than to charge them with such treasons as I knew would cost them their lives.’ But God had saved him from killing himself. ‘His work [is] that I have declared myself, my brother, the Marquess, with the rest, to be traitors.’
If Moryson can be believed, ‘The Marquess was stiff at the Bar and stood fast in denial of most things laid to his charge, yet in some he failed and staggered, in such sort that all men might see his countenance to avouch that [which] his tongue could not without much faltering deny.’ But although a distinguished scholar Moryson was also a government agent.18 Despite allegations that he approved of Cardinal Pole’s activities, the only charges that could be brought against Exeter were of having said, ‘I trust once to have a fair day upon these knaves which rule about the King, and I trust to see a merry world one day’, and of making a similar remark on another occasion. Unlike Montague there was no record of any derogatory words about King Henry. He had done nothing that was a crime under the Treason Act. But, inevitably, the Marquess too was found guilty.
Tried on 4 December, Sir Edward Neville remained defiant until the end, refusing to admit that he had committed any treason. Also tried on that day were poor old Dr Croftes from Chichester Cathedral and Collins the Bockmer chaplain, together with Hugh Holland, the sea captain. In court the two priests bravely declared their loyalty to the pope, well aware it would bring them a death sentence, Collins admitting in addition that he had prophesied, ‘The King will hang in hell one day for the plucking down of abbeys’. The pair were found guilty of the treasonable offence of denying the royal supremacy, while Hugh Holland was condemned for communicating with a traitor beyond the seas.
On 9 December, a day of strong wind and pelting rain, the Marquess of Exeter and Lord Montague were beheaded on a sodden scaffold on Tower Hill. ‘They had been so linked by God in sincere affection during their lives that He would not at the last hour let them be separated, both dying together in the cause of God,’ Reginald wrote years later to Exeter’s son.19 Sir Edward Neville was beheaded with them. ‘And the two priests and Holland were drawn to Tyburn and there hanged and quartered’ is Hall’s laconic record of their own, more agonizing, deaths on the same day.20
Attempts to incriminate the marchioness failed, although she was one of the few members of the White Rose party who had wanted a full-scale rebellion. Her correspondence with Chapuys was treason in every sense, but luckily for her the authorities knew nothing about it. When they claimed that treasonable motives must have lain behind her visits to the Nun of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, she said that she had gone to see the nun because she was worried about her children’s health – almost certainly a lie but a convincing one. Even so, she remained a prisoner in the Tower until 1540.
For some weeks Sir Geoffrey Pole, who had also been found guilty of treason, remained in his cell at the Tower. By now he was dangerously unbalanced. On 28 December he made another unsuccessful effort to commit suicide, on this occasion trying to suffocate himself with a cushion, and when his wife petitioned for his release she wrote that he was ‘as good as dead’. Early in 1539 Geoffrey at last received the pardon for which he had worked so hard. He was set free and allowed to go home, but could not settle down. He was a haunted man in a permanent frenzy, and the following year he attacked and badly wounded a Sussex gentleman who had borne witness against him, after which he fled to Flanders. Eventually, he made his way to Rome, throwing himself on the mercy of his brother the cardinal who forgave him. He then settled at Liège, where he received a pension from the kindly Erard de la Marck and where his family joined him.
There was another victim of the ‘Exeter Conspiracy’. Sir Nicholas Carew, the Master of the Horse, had been Henry’s closest friend since they were small boys, so expert in the tournament that the king had given him a tilting yard of his own at Greenwich in which to practise. After a rakish youth – Wolsey thought him a bad influence – he had settled down, frequently leading embassies to France where he was a great favourite of Francis I. As Master of the Horse he was a member of the King’s Council and therefore someone of real political importance.
But on 31 December Henry’s old jousting and hunting companion was accused of involvement and arrested. Shortly before his arrest the king had finally turned against him in a fit of childish pique after an angry argument over the result of a game of bowls. According to Chapuys, he was caught when a letter found among the marchioness’s papers supposedly proved that he, too, belonged to the White Rose party and the ‘conspiracy’. In reality, he was guilty only of having stayed unshakeably loyal to Katherine of Aragon and her daughter, despite the fact that he owed his glittering career entirely to King Henry. This heinous fault had been compounded by a witness claiming during the recent trials that Carew had often been at West Horsley and had regularly corresponded with Lord Montague.
At his trial in February 1539 Carew was charged with abetting Exeter – although how was not specified – and with discussing with him ‘the change of the world’. There were also rumours that he had regularly smuggled letters of support to Queen Katherine and the Lady Mary: Chapuys suspected that Carew’s destruction was part of the campaign to isolate Mary as he had always shown a chivalrous loyalty to her.
Desperately trying to save his life, Sir Nicholas recalled how the late marquess had seemed cast down on hearing of Prince Edward’s birth, which ended his tenuous hopes of succeeding to the throne. His White Rose friends had all been conservatives in religion, so Carew converted to the new Henrician form of Christianity, ostentatiously reading the Bible in English – ‘in the prison of the Tower, where he first savoured the likeness and sweeetness of God’s most holy word,’ as Hall unctuously puts it.21 However, he was disappointed if he hoped for a pardon.
For Henry had made up his mind that his old friend was one of the principal members of ‘that faction’, and Sir Nicholas was duly beheaded on Tower Hill in March. As Lord Montague had shrewdly observed to Geoffrey Pole, ‘the King never made man but he destroyed him again, either with displeasure or the sword’.22 Although Lady Carew was reduced to penury by the attainder, characteristically Henry sent agents to Carew’s widow to take back the diamonds and pearls, once Queen Katherine’s property, that he had given her when her husband was in favour.
As a plan of action, the ‘Exeter Conspiracy’ existed only in the head of Henry VIII. What had worried the coldly calculating Lord Privy Seal, however, was the mere fact that a White Rose faction should exist at all. ‘Henry’s reaction was predictably savage, and Cromwell’s predictably thorough, but they had a reality to react against.’23 The reality was a potential and not a plot, however. Had the emperor sent an invasion force to England, it would easily have found an unguarded landing place along the South Coast, while there was reason to suspect that the West was dangerously disaffected. ‘This is a perilous country,’ the Dean of Exeter, Dr Simon Heynes, had reported to Henry in 1537. ‘For God’s love, let the King look to it in time.’24
While it is certainly possible that in their wilder moments Exeter and Montague might sometimes have dreamed of a rising, if only to save themselves, both men were much too negative and incompetent to have organized one. In any case, they had missed their only chance during the Pilgrimage of Grace. The fact of the matter was that Cromwell saw a chance to fuel his master’s paranoia and rid himself of two powerful opponents, poisoning Henry’s mind with a minimum of ‘proof’. This consisted of no more than Sir Geoffrey’s crazed babbling, together with reports of one or two scattered incidents that had been sent in by agents.
One such report was of how, late during the previous year, just after Prince Edward’s birth, some Courtenay tenants had told West Country neighbours at Bere Regis in Dorset, ‘the King hath but a little season to come and then my Lord Marquess shall be King, and then all shall be cured’.25 This report was not referred to in the indictment, but it is more that likely that Cromwell brought it to Henry’s attention. To an over-excited mind, the tenants’ opinions must have seemed to confirm Dr Heynes’s warning about serious disaffection in the West Country. According to Chapuys, Cromwell claimed that Exeter had intended to marry his son to the Lady Mary. No doubt he had also told the king of the marquess’s intention and emphasized that if such a marriage had taken place there would not have been much future for Prince Edward.
Henry convinced himself he had escaped death by a very narrow margin indeed. In February 1539 he sent detailed instructions to Sir Thomas Wyatt in Spain to tell Charles V ‘how by the Cardinal’s counsel’ Exeter and Montague had been planning to murder him, with his son and daughters, and that the marquess had intended to take his place ‘these last ten years’ – Sir Geoffrey Pole’s evidence had proved this beyond any reasonable doubt.26 Embarrassed, nevertheless, by the total lack of documentary evidence for his unhinged version of events, Henry told the French ambassador, Castillon, of a newly discovered correspondence between Exeter, Montague and the cardinal, which confirmed their guilt. (If it ever existed, the letters have never been produced.) Castillon commented sardonically that the king and Cromwell wanted to put the dead men on trial after their execution.27
Just how alarming Henry VIII had become may be seen from a letter of January 1539 in which a terrified Castillon begs to be recalled, because the king realizes the French are going to refuse his requests – presumably for assurances that King Francis should abandon his new alliance with the emperor. Although Henry had often chatted with Castillon in a friendly way, laughing at his jokes, the Frenchman says he is dealing with ‘the most dangerous and cruel man in the world’, who despite his being an ambassador will punish him for the refusal. The king ‘is in a fury and has neither reason not understanding’.28
28. Autumn 1538: The ‘Exeter Conspiracy’
1. Merriman, Thomas Cromwell, op. cit., vol. 2, no. 281
2. M.L. Busch, ‘The Tudors and the Royal Race’, in History, 55 (1971), pp. 37–48.
3. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIII (ii), 753.
4. E.W. Ives, ‘Faction at the Court of Henry VIII: The Fall of Anne Boleyn’, in History, 57 (1972), pp. 169–88.
5. Mayer, Correspondence of Reginald Pole, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 118–19.
6. Ibid., p. 118.
7. T.E. Bindoff, Tudor England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1950, p. 108.
8. Elton, Policy and Police, op. cit., pp. 350 and 359 n. 4.
9. Dodds and Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 293.
10. Bernard, The King’s Reformation, op. cit., p. 431.
11. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIII (ii), 804.
12. Ibid., 804.
13. For Helyar, see Oxford DNB.
14. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIII (ii), 797.
15. M. St Clair Byrne, The Lisle Letters, 6 vols, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981, vol. 5, no. 259.
16. Hall, op. cit., p. 826.
17. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIII (ii), 924.
18. R. Morison, An Invective ayenst [against] Treason, London, 1539.
19. CSP Ven., op. cit., vol. V, 806.
20. Hall, op. cit., p. 827.
21. Ibid., p. 827.
22. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIII (ii), 960.
23. Elton, Reform and Reformation, p. 281.
24. J. A.Youings, ‘The Council of the West’, in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, fifth series, 10 (1960), p. 45.
25. Bernard, The King’s Reformation, op. cit., p. 419.
26. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XIV (i), 280.
27. Ibid., 280.
28. Ibid., 144.