Post-classical history

21 : Blanche Rose

The ships came into Plymouth harbour at three o’clock on 2 October 1501, having sailed through strong winds, huge rolling waves and the terrifying flash of lightning over a boiling sea. The fleet had taken five days to make its way from the Cantabrian port of Laredo, moving to the northern tip of Brittany before heading due north to the south coast of England. Despite the wretched weather, the valuable cargo had arrived safely: a fifteen-year-old Spanish princess, Katherine of Aragon, stepped off to receive the choreographed acclaim of the assembled crowd, who hailed her, according to one of her companions, as if ‘she had been the Saviour of the whole world’.1

She was certainly, in a way, the saviour of England. A marriage alliance with Ferdinand and Isabella, the joint rulers of Spain, had been more than twelve years in the making: as agreed in principle under the treaty of Medina del Campo of 1489, Katherine had already been married twice by proxy to Prince Arthur, but now she was here in person, to play her part in the creation of England’s new royal dynasty.

This was, in a sense, the high point of Henry VII’s kingship. For sixteen years he had fought a gruelling battle to maintain his grip on the crown that he had taken at Bosworth – seeing off pretenders and plots, decorating his realm with infinite symbols and reminders of Tudor triumph and, with his wife Elizabeth, diligently creating a new royal family. He had seen off dynastic conspiracies and a major tax rebellion. He had defended his crown on the battlefield and subsequently through the diplomatic networks of Europe. He had kept a tight hold on royal finance, directing much of the business of England’s revenue collection through his chamber, rather than through the exchequer – a strategy that demanded much of his time, but allowed him to ensure that he was in command of the detail of policy, and to avoid the criticisms that so many of his predecessors had faced concerning the financial feebleness of the English crown. He had sailed a large army to France and used it to extract a handsome pension. And now, to cap it all, he was about to celebrate both an alliance with a major continental power and a marriage that would be fruitful enough to secure Tudor rule for a second generation.

Arthur and Katherine were married at St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday 14 November, amid high ceremony, and with the arms of the three kingdoms traditionally claimed by the house of York – England, France and Spain – prominently displayed, alongside all the other heraldic symbols of Henry’s monarchy: the Welsh dragons, the greyhounds of Richmond and the ubiquitous rose. The whole cathedral was hung with expensive arras tapestries showing ‘noble and valiant acts’ and ‘the besieging of noble cities’. Henry and Elizabeth watched from a discreet viewing gallery – ‘a closet made properly with lattice windows’, wrote one eyewitness – hidden from the sight of the congregation, so as not to distract from the splendid young couple, who were both dressed head to toe in white satin.2 Despite their restricted view of proceedings, the king and queen would have been satisfied to hear the crowds both inside and outside St Paul’s cheering ‘King Henry!’ and ‘Prince Arthur!’ A greater victory would have been harder to imagine, and the royal family celebrated appropriately. Then, following a fortnight of masques, balls, jousts and celebration, the newlyweds were packed off to the seat of Arthur’s authority: Ludlow and the marches in his principality of Wales.

Prince Arthur’s marriage was not the only step that Henry VII had taken to extend the connections of his family. Long negotiations were also underway to marry twelve-year-old Margaret to James IV of Scotland, whose appetite for raiding and burning northern England would presumably diminish if he could be drawn into a dynastic union. The treaty was concluded two months after Arthur’s wedding celebrations, and Margaret would eventually marry the Scottish king at a magnificent service of her own, held at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh on 8 August 1503. But by that time disaster had engulfed the house of Tudor.

On 2 April 1502 Prince Arthur died at Ludlow, following a wasting disease that may have been tuberculosis, but could have been a form of cancer.3 He was only fifteen, and his wife became a widow at sixteen. Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth were devastated, and although the queen attempted to comfort her husband with words of cheer, suggesting that they were both young enough to have more children, Arthur’s death was a blow from which the king would never recover. It left all his hopes of a clean succession on the shoulders of Prince Henry, who was approaching his tenth birthday.4 Immediately, negotiations were opened by which Henry could be married to Katherine, who remained in English eyes as promising a future queen as ever. But Henry VII’s life’s experience counselled against relying on such thin hopes for the future.

Another Tudor death occurred within months of Arthur’s. The king’s quiet and reclusive uncle Owen Tudor, the monk of Westminster, died close to the age of seventy, and was buried some time before June 1502.5 But this was nothing to the misery that followed on 11 February 1503, when Queen Elizabeth also died, following the premature birth of her last child, a girl named Katherine. The king had been told by his personal astrologer that his wife would live until the grand age of eighty. In fact, she died on her thirty-seventh birthday. Her daughter Katherine survived her only by a week. The king paid around £2,800 for a vast and solemn funeral for his wife, for which every church in London was draped in black. His sorrow was deep, almost tangible. In less than eighteen months, all his plans for the future of his dynasty had collapsed.

The shadow cast by Arthur’s death was long and dark, and it changed the whole character of Henry VII’s reign. The king’s general mood shifted from celebratory to suspicious as his fears of losing everything for which he had fought suddenly seemed closer than ever to being realised. Consequently, he began to cast a paranoid eye upon many of his subjects, regarding with naked hostility all those whom he thought might have a motive for challenging his rule.

Chief among the victims of the king’s forebodings were the de la Pole family – a large brood born to John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk and his wife, Elizabeth Plantagenet, Edward IV’s sister. The eldest of these children was the earl of Lincoln who had died in rebellion at the battle of Stoke with Lambert Simnel by his side. In the years that followed Stoke, Henry had not seen fit to damn Lincoln’s siblings on account of their brother’s violent treachery. After Arthur’s death, however, young men with Yorkist connections did not need to do much to draw upon themselves the suspicions of the king. Four de la Pole men were alive at the turn of the century: Edmund, Humphrey, William and Richard. Humphrey was a monk, and thus politically neutral. The others, however, could be considered as potentially dangerous.

First among these was Edmund de la Pole, earl of Suffolk. Although loyal during the 1490s (he helped to put down the Cornish rebels at Blackheath in 1497), close to his cousin the queen and a regular attender at court parties and great state occasions, Edmund had some cause for disgruntlement, mainly stemming from his financial troubles. Too poor to maintain himself as a duke, he had been downgraded to the rank of earl when he inherited his title in 1493, yet even in this reduced state he held his noble title on such onerous conditions that most of his yearly income was diverted to the Crown, meaning that he was ‘embarrassed by very heavy debts’.6 He had been further humiliated by involvement in a legal case brought in 1498, in which he was accused of murdering a man named Thomas Crue and told to make a grovelling apology in order to receive the royal pardon. And on top of all this he was recognised by all those who remained inclined to the house of York as a senior claimant on Edward IV’s side. In debt, in political trouble, in demand by the king’s enemies and, if we believe the account of Vergil, ‘bold, impetuous and readily roused to anger’, Suffolk began to agitate against the king.

He committed his first act of defiance on 1 July 1499 when he left England without royal permission and travelled to Picardy, trying to make contact with the Yorkist doyenne Margaret of Burgundy. This caused a serious diplomatic incident. Suffolk was eventually brought home in October, made to apologise to the king and fined £1,000 – more than a year’s income, which further crippled his finances. His friends and associates were interrogated and his wife, Margaret Scrope, was placed under royal surveillance. Then, as if any further warning to would-be plotters were required, in November 1499 Edward earl of Warwick was beheaded. King Henry was making his point.

If all this was intended to force Suffolk into obedience, however, it had precisely the opposite effect. In November 1501, as Arthur and Katherine of Aragon’s wedding was being celebrated, he once again slipped out of England, taking with him his youngest brother, Richard de la Pole, and made his way across Europe to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian at Imst. He had been assured that he would find support there for the cause that he would now openly trumpet for the next five years: his claim that he, and not a member of the Tudor family, was the rightful king of England.

When he heard of Edmund’s defection Henry’s first step was to round up and punish all those whom he could connect with the White Rose, as Suffolk’s supporters had begun to call him. Richard de la Pole had fled to the continent with Edmund. But their brother Sir William de la Pole had not. Therefore he was arrested and thrown into the Tower indefinitely. (He would eventually die there in the 1530s.) Then William, Lord Courtenay, the heir to the earldom of Devon who had married the queen’s younger sister Catherine, was also imprisoned and remained locked up for nearly a decade. Previously loyal knights including Sir James Tyrell, Sir John Wyndham and several others connected – however weakly – to the White Rose were executed. Tyrell was conveniently induced to confess to having murdered the Princes in the Tower before he died, which was one effective means of Henry reminding his subjects that Edward IV’s boys really were dead, and their cause no longer worth heralding. Beyond these grand men, dozens of other yeomen, royal servants and ordinary tradesmen were rounded up, interrogated and in many cases put miserably to death. Henry once more set to work planting spies and informants in a network fanning out across Europe. There was some good news in 1503, when the king’s most vehement foreign opponent, Margaret of Burgundy, died at Mechelen on 23 November. The same year Maximilian yielded to sustained diplomatic pressure and agreed to end his financial support for the de la Poles. Still, though, Henry could not secure Suffolk’s person. He attempted to arrange his assassination via royal agents in Calais – again to no avail.7 The English parliament of January 1504 convicted the de la Poles of ‘falsely and traitorously plotting and conspiring the death and destruction of the king our sovereign lord, and the overthrow of this his realm’, and attainted them in absentia.8 Still none of it resulted in de la Pole’s death or return, but by 1505 Henry had succeeded in squeezing the White Rose cause so hard that virtually no court or officer in Europe would proffer any financial aid. From March 1504 Richard de la Pole was locked up in Aachen as a hostage to secure debts that the family had incurred there, and only escaped in 1506. Suffolk, meanwhile, was reduced to wandering the Low Countries with an increasingly tiny group of aides and supporters, living on debt, dressed in rags and pawning his possessions for food. At home, the violent persecution of suspected White Rose sympathisers continued. By October 1505 the pathetic Suffolk was in Namur, in the custody of Maximilian’s eldest son, Philip the Fair, duke of Burgundy, and was readying himself to try and make peace with Henry VII, end his dismal penury and return home in whatever grace he could, praying that his life, at least, would be spared. But events would overtake him.

In the middle of January 1506 Philip archduke of Burgundy and his wife Joanna set sail from Flanders for Spain, where Philip was to seize possession of the crown of Castile.9 But midwinter was a bad time to be braving the northern seas. As the couple sailed, ‘an evil storm suddenly arose’. It was one of the fiercest ever known, which one London chronicler remembered as having blown ‘with such sternness that it turned over weak houses and trees’, taking the thatch and tiles from rooftops, flooding the countryside and blowing the weathercock from the top of St Paul’s Cathedral.10(It crashed into a tavern called the Black Eagle and caused considerable damage.)

Out at sea Philip and Joanna were lucky not to be drowned. Their ships were blown into port at Weymouth, where Philip, ‘little accustomed to the ocean waves’ and ‘exhausted in both body and mind’, was delighted to disembark his battered craft.11 But delight did not last long. The couple were given a splendid welcome as guests of the English king, but beneath the finery and the hospitality lay a stark political reality. Philip and Joanna were now effectively Henry’s prisoners. The terms of their release were twofold: a trade deal loaded heavily in favour of English merchants and an agreement to return Edmund de la Pole.12 By the end of March, Suffolk had been collected by English officers at Calais and transferred across the now calm Channel. On his return, Philip and Joanna were allowed to go on their way. Despite Henry’s promises that he would pardon the fugitive and return him to his former estate, Suffolk was thrown into the Tower of London. The White Rose would never see the outside world again.


The burdens and disappointments of middle age brought about a sorry decline in Henry VII. He was forty-nine when Edmund de la Pole was finally returned to his grasp, and as his sight failed and his health began to stutter, he became increasingly withdrawn, suspicious and tyrannical. His most trusted servants and counsellors began to die. His uncle Jasper Tudor, duke of Bedford, had died in 1495, having retreated from public life since his sixtieth birthday, around four years previously. Cardinal John Morton, who had served as a faithful and diligent archbishop of Canterbury from the beginning of the reign, died in 1500. Sir Reginald Bray, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, who had been a loyal servant since long before Bosworth, expired in 1503. The king’s stepfather Thomas Stanley, earl of Derby, died in 1504. The circle of trust around the king tightened yearly. In response, Henry’s approach to government, which had always relied on heavy personal oversight, particularly with regard to financial matters, now degenerated into more or less rule by extortion. Henry came to see all external power as threatening to his own. He began to employ an extensive system of bonds and recognisances, by which wealthy and influential individuals were forced to agree to pay the king exorbitant sums in the event of his displeasure, as a means of guaranteeing their good behaviour. The system, used on a grand and virtually unprecedented scale, was associated most closely with two determined and ruthless young officers of the crown: Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, whose rule over the realm was generally loathed, and whose names were synonymous with the perversions to normal governance that afflicted the king’s final years. Henry was growing sicker, his kingdom was becoming ever more badly ruled. And by the end, he was clinging on, employing methods that had not been seen in England since the darkest days before the deposition of Richard II in 1399. During the early years of his reign Henry had proven himself an extremely successful and self-consciously majestic king, even if he had never possessed the easy bonhomie that had characterised the rule of the man he claimed to succeed, Edward IV. But by the end, he governed by fear, fortunate that the best alternative candidates for kingship were either dead, exiled or locked away in his prisons.

He died, following a lingering illness, on 21 April 1509, and was succeeded by his seventeen-year-old son, Henry VIII. The succession was a nervous, secretive affair, stage-managed by the wizened and arthritis-crippled Margaret Beaufort, by now approaching her sixty-sixth birthday but still as acute a political operative as she had ever been. The effort took its toll. She died on 29 June the same year and was buried in an astonishingly beautiful tomb in the new Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey, made by the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, who also made Henry VII’s tomb. She had lived long enough to witness the coronation of her grandson: the crowning triumph of an eventful life. Not since the accession of Henry V in 1413 had an adult (or nearly adult) king inherited the throne from his father. Margaret Beaufort, an astonishing woman in any age, had been a key player in the long struggles that were waged over the English crown. Victory and vindication were hers.

Young Henry came to the throne confident and ready to rule. He was well educated, charming and charismatic: truly a prince fit for the renaissance in courtly style, tastes and patronage that was dawning in northern Europe. He had been blessed with the fair colouring and radiant good looks of his grandfather Edward IV: tall, handsome, well built and dashing, here was a king who saw his subjects as peers and allies around whom he had grown up, rather than semi-alien enemies to be suspected and persecuted. One of the new king’s first acts was to issue a general pardon, although pointedly excluding the de la Poles, the detested Empson and Dudley, and around eighty named others. Shortly afterwards he married his brother’s twenty-three-year-old widow, Katherine of Aragon. And then, as soon as possible following the deaths of his father and grandmother, the new king – modelling himself on his legendary ancestor Henry V – began planning for a war in France. Over the course of a century all of the French lands traditionally claimed by English kings had been lost. Like his Plantagenet forebears, young Henry made it his ambition to win them back.

Beginning in 1512 Henry would send armies over the Channel to torment the French. If not especially successful, these campaigns were at least highly enjoyable to a military society that had had precious little opportunity to fight abroad since the 1450s. Here was a young king who seemed naturally to understand the style and much of the art of kingship from the very beginning. For emulating Henry V was not a challenge limited solely to the mind of Henry VIII. In 1513–14, a book entitled The First English Life of Henry V had been published, lauding the memory of the hero of Agincourt for the explicit purpose of guiding the new king towards ‘the example of [ Henry V’s] great wisdom and discretion’, and praying that he might be ‘provoked in his said war’ against the French.13 (In this, the author found a much more willing audience than the Italian humanist Tito Livio Frulovisi, whose Vita Henrici Quinti had been ignored by Henry VI in the 1430s.)

Henry VIII’s purpose as king, however, was to be more than simply Henry V reborn. The new king was also, as the poets and propagandists of the new reign pointed out gleefully, the living manifestation of the Tudors’ self-made myth: Henry was, to quote his tutor John Skelton, ‘the rose both red and white’. He was neither Lancaster nor York, but both: the heir of both Henry VI and Richard duke of York; unity personified. The Tudor rose continued to abound as a motif of his reign: it adorned buildings and decorated royal palaces; it was painted in choirbooks and illustrated manuscripts prepared for the king’s library; it was even doodled on the king’s private prayer roll.14 Hope, which had been long frozen under the later rule of Henry VII, was reawakened by the accession of his son.

Yet under his bluff and bold exterior, Henry VIII could be as ruthless as his father had been. Although his position was much improved as a king who had legitimately inherited his crown, rather than having wrenched it from a dying rival on a battlefield, he could not afford wholly to ignore the dynastic vulnerabilities that had occupied his father’s mind so feverishly. In the Tower, Edmund de la Pole was a potentially toxic prisoner, while Richard de la Pole remained at large, somewhere across the sea. Ageing Yorkist diehards might still harbour a grudge, and while Henry VIII could afford to be magnanimous in his newly acquired kingship – he restored George duke of Clarence’s daughter Margaret Pole to her estates and promoted her to a position of dignity and independence, giving her the old family title of countess of Salisbury – he knew he was not wholly free of the enemies whom his father had made. And he was prepared to act swiftly and savagely if necessary to contain them.

The catalyst was Henry’s war in France. As a young, thrusting king with an urge to prove himself and a talented and rising new first minister by the name of Thomas Wolsey, Henry launched a second invasion of France in 1513, which he led himself, while Queen Katherine stayed at home as regent to oversee renewed hostilities with the Scottish king James IV.15 But Henry could not in good conscience go over to France and risk his life in battle in the knowledge that he held in captivity a man who had very recently claimed the crown of England for himself. ‘It was feared that when the king was out of the country, the people might perhaps be eager for a revolution; they might snatch Edmund forcibly from the Tower [and] give him his liberty,’ wrote Vergil.16

Shortly before the king embarked for France, he gave the order that Edmund de la Pole, erstwhile earl of Suffolk, should have his stay in the prison abruptly terminated. On 4 May 1513 the White Rose was taken out of prison, hauled up to Tower Hill and summarily beheaded.


There was, however, one more left. One White Rose had been lopped off, but another grew from the same stem. Richard de la Pole had been loose ever since absconding from England with his brother in 1501. After his brother’s capture and repatriation he had wound up in Buda, in the kingdom of Hungary, where he made an unlikely success of his career in exile, under the protection of King Ladislaus II, who paid him a pension until 1516 and made sure that he stayed far beyond the reach of the frustrated English kings. Financially secure and warlike by nature, Richard distinguished himself on the battlefield, fighting in the wars that raged in the unstable kingdoms and fiefdoms of northern Italy, southern France and the Spanish peninsula. He was a talented and brave captain, well respected by those who saw him fight, and he quickly made powerful friends, including the French dauphin, Francis. From 1513, when his brother was killed, he claimed the title of duke of Suffolk and adopted the nickname White Rose – or variations thereof, including Blanche Rose and La Rosa Blancha.17

As ever, in continental politics and war, the possession of a rival claimant to the English throne was a great boon for anyone who wished to vex the king of England. Thus, when Henry VIII invaded France in 1513, Louis XII recognised Richard de la Pole as the rightful king of England. The transaction was clear: if Henry wished to reopen the foreign wars of his Plantagenet ancestors, then in return Louis was more than happy to reopen the question of the English succession. In 1514 he equipped de la Pole with an army of twelve thousand men, much larger than the force that had accompanied Henry VII when he crossed the sea and successfully deposed Richard III in 1485. They were rumoured to be ready to depart from Normandy in June 1514, and it is very possible that they would have done so had not Henry VIII decided against sending another expensive army to France that summer, choosing instead to make a peace with the ageing French king, by which Henry’s eighteen-year-old sister Mary married Louis and became queen of France. (She would hold the position for only three months, since Louis died on New Year’s Day 1515, to be succeeded by his cousin Francis I.)

The peace was well timed, and averted the threat of a Yorkist invasion, but it was still clear that under Richard de la Pole’s tenacious challenge Henry VIII was no more able to ignore the threat of the White Rose than his father had been. Before long he had resorted to much the same tactics as the old king: hiring assassins, commissioning spies to work the European channels, and applying diplomatic pressure to try and keep the White Rose at bay. But none of it worked. Like Henry VIII, Francis I was a young, thrusting and lively king determined to make an impression. More importantly, he was friendly with Richard de la Pole, so support for the White Rose continued. There were rumours of an invasion under or a rising in the name of the would-be Richard IV in 1516, 1521, 1522, 1523 and 1524. None ever came to fruition, but Henry and his ministers were seldom allowed to forget that every move abroad came at a potential price in domestic harmony. And in the end, only the unexpected outcome of a battle fought halfway across Europe would bring Henry VIII the dynastic security he so badly craved.


Before the sun had risen on 24 February 1525, a French army led in person by Francis I was moving around the walls of Pavia, a heavily fortified military town in the heart of Lombardy, some twenty miles south of Milan. More than twenty thousand men had been camped out in siege formation around Pavia for nearly four months, attempting to starve out the nine thousand men, mainly mercenaries, who were inside the city walls. They were about to be confronted by an equally mighty relieving force of fighters loyal to the Spanish emperor Charles V, with whom Francis was pursuing what would be a long, complex and bloody war for domination of the Italian peninsula. From first light the assault began: the crash of cannon and arquebus mingling with the rumble of cavalry hoofs as two gigantic armies flew into one another with utter ferocity.

Richard de la Pole was in command of the French infantry, fighting alongside another experienced and capable captain, François de Lorraine, who commanded a crack unit of mercenary landsknechts known as the Black Band. But 24 February was not to prove a blessed day for either man. During a battle that raged for nearly four hours the French army was split and finally routed by a fierce and brilliantly organised Spanish imperial effort. Francis I was knocked from his horse and pinned to the ground before being chivalrously picked up and taken as a prisoner for Charles V. The casualties on the French side were appalling, and included many commanders and captains. The French lost a miserable field, and with it their position in Lombardy, from which they would retreat at great speed almost as soon as the battle was over. And by the end of the battle, Richard de la Pole – the White Rose, last remaining grandson of Richard duke of York and rival king of England – lay dead.

The shock and scale of the French defeat stunned many in Europe. But it absolutely delighted Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey. French fortunes in war, which had ridden so high for so long, now stood in tatters: their king a humiliated captive, their armies destroyed. Henry could now seriously begin to plot a repeat of the feats of his ancestor Henry V: to storm France, recover the ancient Plantagenet patrimony and restore English rule from Normandy to Gascony. He could even fantasise, if his allies should prove themselves agreeable, about taking back the crown of France which Henry VI had last worn in Paris in 1431. And all of this could be conceived without the tiresome prospect of a French king conjuring up another puppet claimant to the English throne. De la Pole was dead! The price of war abroad need no longer be plotting and intrigue at home. Now conquest would not have to be weighed against dynastic security. The ghosts of the previous century could finally be forgotten.

A French historian writing in the eighteenth century described – or perhaps imagined – the conversation between Henry VIII and the messenger who found the king in bed during the early days of March 1525 and told him the outcome of the battle of Pavia. Having discoursed at length about the capture of Francis I and the destruction of the French army, the messenger went on to report the wonderful news about the last White Rose. ‘God have mercy on his soul!’ Henry is said to have exclaimed. ‘All the enemies of England are gone.’ And then, pointing to the messenger, he cried, ‘Give him more wine!’18

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!