Post-classical history


Henry VIII’s lifelong fear that there would be an attempt to oust his dynasty came true when King Edward VI died from tuberculosis on 6 July 1553. At the time, England’s real ruler was John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (the son of Henry VII’s extortioner), who persuaded Edward on his deathbed to name as his successor Lady Jane Grey, a great-grandaughter of the first Tudor king and a convinced Protestant. Dudley’s real motive was that she had married his son only six weeks before, but the country did not want the Tudors to be replaced by a dynasty of Dudleys. Ignoring the proclamation of ‘Queen Jane’, 20,000 men rallied to the Lady Mary, who quickly established her right to the throne and was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 1 October.

To some extent the new queen’s accession was a belated triumph for the survivors of the White Rose party. Despite her ferocity towards anyone unwise enough to profess the Protestant faith, she was the warmest hearted of the Tudors and never forgot the White Rose’s support for her mother Queen Katherine and for herself. Exeter’s son, the Earl of Devon, was released from the Tower, and when Mary’s first Parliament met, his attainder was reversed so that he regained the Courtenay estates. His mother became a lady-in-waiting. The attainder of Lord Montague’s two daughters was also reversed and they recovered some of Lady Salisbury’s lands, specifically in recognition of the services she had rendered the queen during her ‘tender age’. Margaret’s daughter Ursula and her husband Lord Stafford were given back the Duke of Buckingham’s great house at Thornbury.

The thirty-seven-year-old virgin queen was in need of a king consort. She did not choose a Yorkist husband, however. Although she enquired whether Reginald Pole could be dispensed from his orders, she decided that at fifty-three he was too old. Edward Courtenay, whom she created Earl of Devon and who was privileged to bear the sword of state at her coronation, was so seriously considered, despite being twelve years younger than the queen, that he established a semi-royal household. His candidature was strongly supported by the Lord Chancellor, Bishop Steven Gardiner, and Mary herself took an affectionate interest in him. But after his long imprisonment he plunged into debauchery and lost his chance. Finally, she chose Philip of Spain, although he was just as young as Courtenay.

The Spaniard was a disastrous choice and her marriage, rather than the burning of heretics, made many Englishmen turn against Queen Mary, despite the popularity with which she had begun her reign. They disliked intensely the prospect of becoming part of the Habsburg Empire. Hoping to replace Mary with her sister Elizabeth, and with Edward Courtenay as king consort, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger led a rebellion early in 1554 that was only defeated by the queen’s courage. At first Courtenay supported the plot, but then he lost his nerve and blurted it out to Lord Chancellor Gardiner.1

After another spell in the Tower, Courtenay was banished from England, to wander through Italy ‘frequenting courtesans’. The last of his line, Edward died at Padua in September 1556, worn out by overindulgence in women and wine, although some thought he had been poisoned by Spanish agents. (He might have survived had he accepted Michael Throckmorton’s invitation to stay with him at Mantua.) Two months before his death a crackbrained schoolmaster named Cleobury impersonated the earl at Yaxley, a village in Suffolk, proclaiming ‘the Lady Elizabeth Queen and her beloved bedfellow, Lord Courtenay, King’. Cleobury had even found a few followers, but they did not turn up on the day and he was quickly arrested and executed – a story recalling Ralph Wilford’s impersonation of the Earl of Warwick in 1499.2

Another ludicrous incident occurred in April 1557 when Thomas Stafford, who was one of the Duke of Buckingham’s grandsons, landed in Yorkshire with several hundred men, seized Scarborough and proclaimed himself Lord Protector. Although he was not even the duke’s heir, Thomas had already had a seal made bearing the royal arms, declaring to anybody who would listen to him that he was heir to the throne. However, local levies under the Earl of Westmorland recaptured the castle almost immediately and he was executed at Tyburn the following month.3

Cardinal Pole came home as papal legate in November 1554, warmly welcomed by Mary and her Habsburg husband, ‘King Philip’. Later in the month, he formally reconciled England to the papacy. After Philip’s departure in 1555, never to return, Reginald became the queen’s most trusted confidant, presiding over a restoration of English Catholicism in the light of the Council of Trent, envisaging a new, Catholic translation of the Bible, with seminaries in every diocese to ensure that priests were properly trained. On 20 March 1556 he was finally ordained as a priest himself, and consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury two days later. He even saved a few Protestants from the fire – he wanted to spare Cranmer but was overruled by Mary – and in his Book of MartyrsFoxe admits that Pole was ‘none of the bloody and cruel sort of Papists’.

But time and the future Queen Elizabeth were against his attempts to introduce the Counter-Reformation, and his health was failing. As a bitter irony he was ordered by Paul IV to return to Rome and face charges of heresy, although Mary refused to let him leave the country. He died in 1558 on the same day as the queen. The last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole was the only man to occupy the see of St Augustine who might conceivably have been King of England.

A final, ghostly whisper came from the White Rose in 1562 when Elizabeth I fell ill with smallpox and it looked as if she might die. Her heir presumptive, Mary, Queen of Scots, was a Catholic so the Calvinist Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, whose mother had been Lord Montague’s daughter, was proposed as a successor by the Protestant leaders in England. The news so angered Hastings’s papist cousin Arthur Pole, Sir Geoffrey’s eldest son, that Pole offered his support to Queen Mary, graciously offering to forego his own claim to the throne on condition she created him Duke of Clarence: there was even talk of him marry ing her. Caught plotting against Elizabeth, Arthur Pole was found guilty of treason, but the queen spared his life because of his royal blood, and he died in the Tower at some unknown date during 1570 – the ultimate Yorkist prisoner.4

In their staunch fidelity to a dispossessed royal family, and in their adherence to Common Law and disgust at the setting aside of the obvious heir to the throne, the last Yorkists foreshadowed the Jacobites. Supporters of the exiled House of Stuart may have been aware of this when they adopted the White Rose as their own emblem – James II had been Duke of York before he became king. However, there was no Sir Walter Scott to immor-talize their sixteenth-century predecessors.

Although Mary and Elizabeth were in turn threatened by rivals (the former by her sister, the latter by her Scottish cousin), neither of them appears to have been particularly frightened by the situation. By their time, their dynasty’s right to the throne was established beyond question, so that they had no sense of being parvenus. Indeed, Elizabeth’s triumphant reign made it seem that the Tudors had been predestined to rule England. In consequence, the cult of the Tudor age has largely obscured the Yorkist pretenders (except, perhaps, for Perkin Warbeck) and concealed the dread in which the White Rose was held by Henry VII and Henry VII.


1. D.M. Loades, Two Tudor Conspiracies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 21–3, 45–6.

2. Ibid., p. 225.

3. A. Rowntree (ed.), History of Scarborough, London, Dent, 1931, p. 214.

4. Oxford DNB: H. Pierce, ‘Arthur Pole’.

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