THE PRETENDERS THE LAST WHITE ROSE: DYNASTY, REBELLION AND TREASON – THE SECRET
WARS AGAINST THE TUDORS
By Desmond Seward (Constable 366pp £20)
Pole, the sons of Edward IV’s sister Elizabeth; and Henry, Lord Montagu and Reginald, Cardinal Pole, the nephews of Edward, Earl of Warwick – either challenged directly for the throne, or acted as lightning rods for the schemes of others. Locking up or even executing blue-blooded r ivals did not always help. The young Lambert Simnel was proclaimed by his Yorkist minders as the true Earl of Warwick after rumours spread of the Earl’s death in the Tower. Perkin Warbeck still more ambitiously claimed to be the younger of the two princes, Edward IV’s sons, who had disappeared into the Tower years earlier (Seward sensibly dismisses modern suggestions that he really was Richard Plantagenet).
‘ENGLISH HISTORY’, DECLARED those evergreen sages W C Sellar and R J Yeatman in 1066 and All That, ‘has always been subject to Waves of Pretenders’. Their hilarious chapter on Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck (transmuting into permutations of each other – Warmnel, Perbeck, Warmneck, Lamkin) is one of the highlights of the book. But for the ruling Tudor dynasty, as Desmond Seward reminds us in this lively and readable new study, the existence of Yorkist pretenders was no laughing matter.
The Tudors saw off the pretenders, but it was sometimes touch and go. Simnel’s supporters came within a whisker of ousting Henry VII at the Battle of Stoke Field in 1487, and Warbeck was remarkably successful at attracting heavyweight political support from the king of
Scots, the German emperor, and the dowager duchess of the Netherlands, Margaret of Burgundy, Edward IV’s sister. For all that Francis Bacon later scoffed that Warbeck was reduced to ‘the blustering affection of wild and naked people’, the inability of the Tudors to control Ireland also created a breeding ground for plots, and a recruiting ground for rebel armies.
Seward, an accomplished popular historian with a strong track record in the later medieval period, quite rightly wants to remind us that it was no foregone conclusion that the sixteenth century would be that of the Tudors, and that in an important sense the Wars of the Roses did not end on the battlefield of Bosworth. Henry VII and Henry VIII were paranoid and vindictive (the latter particularly so), but their mistrustfulness is understandable: the parvenu Tudor dynasty had shaky credentials, and significant numbers of the ruling elite had no particular interest in its continuance. As late as 1504, after he had been on the throne for nearly two decades, Henry VII received a report of a conversation among leading government officials in Calais, discussing what would happen were he to die. They assessed the prospects of various potential claimants, ‘but none of them spoke of my lord prince’ (the future Henry VIII). By that time Henry VII had lost his two other sons and his wife. It took Henry VIII nearly three decades on the throne to produce a son.
The Tudors had luck. Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, was handed over from the Netherlands by Philip of Burgundy, King of Castile, after the latter was fortuitously blown into an English port in 1506. Edmund’s brother Richard, a talented military commander and ‘Henry VIII’s most formidable rival’, was killed fighting for the French in Italy in 1525. But they also took no chances. Henry VII executed the hapless Earl of Warwick (along with Warbeck) in 1499, and Henry VIII chopped off
If the Tudors were notoriously unfecund, their Yorkist r ivals – the nephews and nieces of Edward IV and Richard III – seemed able to produce boys by the bucketload. A succession of them – Edward, Earl of Warwick, son of Edward IV’s ill-fated brother George, Duke of Clarence; John, Edmund and Richard de la the Earl of Suffolk’s head before invading France in 1513. The Tudors regularly sent assassins after Yorkist claimants, Henry VIII becoming particularly murderous after the cause of the White Rose became entwined with religious opposition to his break with Rome. The family of Reginald Pole (a Yorkist prince and a papal cardinal) was decimated in 1539 after the largely imaginary Exeter Conspiracy. In 1541, Pole’s 67-year-old mother, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, the last surviving grandchild of Richard, Duke of York, was hacked messily to death by an inexperienced headsman.
All of this represents ‘the story of a forgotten lost cause’, which Seward likens to the later lost cause of the
LITERARY REVIEW November 2010
dispossessed Stuarts. (Sellar and Yeatman had also noted the Jacobite parallel, observing, vis-à-vis Simnel and Warbeck, that pretenders ‘usually come in small waves of about two – an Old Pretender and a Young Pretender’.) Jacobite history tends to be written by Jacobite sympathisers, and Seward makes no secret of his admiration for the fidelity of Yorkist partisans or of his distaste for Henry VIII, ‘the most treacherous monarch in English history’. He has a good eye for detail, and includes chapters on unfamiliar episodes of anti-Tudorism, though he also misses some lively characters who might have made it into his story, such as Robert Branceter, the London merchant and agent of Cardinal Pole, who visited England secretly in the after math of the Pilgrimage of Grace, having earlier been Charles V’s envoy to the Shah of Persia as well as the f ir st Englishman round the Cape of Good Hope; or James ap Gruffydd ap Hywel, a Welsh Catholic adventurer, who in the 1530s retraced Warbeck’s steps across Europe, charming the crowned heads and plotting rebellion in his homeland. Not all of Seward’s interpretations are reliably up-todate. To suggest that the significance of Elizabeth Barton (the visionary nun who prophesied against Henry VIII) ‘tends to be overlooked’ shows unawareness of a raft of recent scholarship, while the observation that, after the dissolution of the monasteries, ‘the country swarmed with beggars once fed by such houses, joined by starving monks and nuns’, will raise eyebrows among professional historians. Seward’s account arguably takes too seriously the prospects for an imperial-led invasion of England in the early 1530s, and gives Henry VIII too much credit for cleverly outwitting the Pilgrims of Grace in 1536–7. He is off-target on some small points (such as validating a Protestant smear that the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wriothesly, committed suicide, or asserting that no Tudor court ever acquitted in cases of treason), as well as on some larger ones. The notion that the fall of the Duke of Buckingham in 1520 was entirely down to the scheming of Cardinal Wolsey involves accepting Seward’s proposition that i t was no big deal for Buckingham privately to threaten to chop off the king’s head. And there seems no warrant for claiming that Thomas More ‘would certainly have approved whole heartedly of Henry’s replacement by the impeccably Catholic Lady Mary’.
These quibbles aside, The Last White Rose is an entertaining and valuable exploration of a subject too often marginalised in histories of the early Tudor period. It’s a truism that victors write the history, and that history doesn’t have time for losers. But studies like this remind us that the distance between losers and winners can be paper thin, and invite us to imagine an alternative past and an altered present. To order this book at £16, see LR Bookshop on page 22
LITERARY REVIEW November 2010