Post-classical history


March 1496: The Grand Prior Plans to Poison the King

‘the said Prior of St John and Sir John Tonge, and Archdeacon Hussey, the three of them being at Rome … sought ways and means of procuring the death of the King of England.’

Deposition of Bernart de Vignolles, March 14961

The Grand Prior of England of the Order of St John or ‘Knights of Rhodes’ was a pillar of the realm. A monk-knight who had taken vows of religion, he sat in the House of Lords where he ranked as premier baron of England and was styled ‘My Lord of St John’s’. His priory at Clerkenwell was one of the most magnificent religious houses in London, with valuable estates just outside the city (including St John’s Wood and Hampton Court) that brought in an annual income of over £2,300.

The Knights of Rhodes enjoyed huge prestige as Christendom’s frontline troops, who confronted the never-ending Turkish threat in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean. Their magnificent defence of the island of Rhodes in 1480, when, despite being heavily outnumbered, they beat off an unusually determined and well-led besieging army, had earned them the admiration of all Europe. Several English brethren had taken part. Since the rents from the commanderies, as their houses were known, paid for such an excellent cause, few people begrudged them their large, meticulously run estates. Occupied by a commander and a chaplain, these houses also served as recruitment centres.

The current Grand Prior was Sir John Kendal, or Fra’ John as he was known in his Order, who has been called ‘the outstanding English knight of his generation’.2 We know what he looked like from an Italian portrait medallion, which shows the profile of a tough if reflective-looking man in middle age with the long hair of the period, but little is known about his origins except that judging from heraldic evidence he belonged to a family of minor Westmorland gentry from near Kendal. Nor has much been discovered about his early career.3 What can be deduced is that during the 1460s he joined the Knights at Rhodes as a very young man, taking vows and serving a specified number of ‘caravans’ on board the Order’s galleys in the Mediterranean and Aegean, preying on Muslim shipping and raiding coastal villages in Greece or Anatolia. Once he had completed his sea caravans, he became eligible for a commandery.

He stayed on Rhodes for longer than most brethren, as Turcopolier (the officer who led the Turcopoles or native troops). He was not present at the siege of 1480, however, but instead travelled all over Europe seeking reinforcements. Four years later he was sent to Rome as a member of the Order’s legation, acquiring a working knowledge of Italian, which he spoke and wrote fluently if ungrammatically. After becoming Grand Prior of England in 1489 and returning to his native land, he visited Flanders, France and Italy a good deal, on the business of both his Order and the king, serving on the royal council. He also went on diplomatic missions to the Scots, which made it necessary for him to spend a considerable amount of time at the Border city of Berwick.

The Grand Prior employed a servant called Bernart de Vignolles who, while Fra’ John was away in Flanders, negotiating with Archduke Philip’s government, obtained leave of absence, having said he wanted to go to Normandy, to see his brother. At Rouen, on 14 March 1496, he made a long and rambling deposition before French lawyers – who no doubt alerted their government – which he then sent to one of Henry’s agents. The document contained a number of alarming allegations about his master.

The most serious allegation was that Kendal had been plotting to murder King Henry. Among those involved were his nephew Sir John Tonge, who was commander of Ribstone in Yorkshire, Dr John Hussey, Archdeacon of London, and the archdeacon’s nephew, together with a man named Lilly and another called John Atwater, and also the Grand Prior’s secretary, John Yolton. (Atwater is not to be confused with Perkin’s ally.) All of these people were implicated in the conspiracy, alleged Bernart, their object being to procure the death of the king, his children and his mother Margaret Beaufort, and anyone close to him, in particular members of his council.

According to Bernart, when Kendal, Tonge and Hussey were at Rome together a few years previously, they had consulted a Spanish astrologer called ‘mestre Jehan’ who told them he could arrange what they wanted, if they paid him: to demonstrate his power, he supposedly murdered a Turkish servant of Sultan Bayezid’s brother Cem, who was a prisoner of the pope. The three conspirators then returned to England, leaving behind a Sardinian servant of the Grand Prior, Stefano Maranecho, who gave the astrologer a large sum of money on their behalf. However, the man kept on demanding further payments, while doing nothing to earn them.

Two years later, the three had sent Bernart de Vignolles to Rome with orders to kill the astrologer, as he was telling everyone in the city that they wanted to murder the King of England. But when Bernart reached Rome, instead of killing the man he went to another astrologer, who offered to come to England by way of Santiago, disguised as a friar, and arrange for Henry’s death. Because Bernart did not have funds to pay for the journey, the astrologer made up a lethal poison. Contained in a little wooden box, this was an ointment which, so he said in a message for the Grand Prior, if smeared on the king’s doorway was guaranteed to turn anyone passing through it into a murderer who would kill him.

Opening the box when he returned to his lodgings, Bernart found ‘a vile and stinking thing’ which he threw away in disgust, but on the way back to England he bought from an apothecary at Orleans a similar wooden box which he filled with a mixture of earth, quicksilver and soot from the chimney. In London, he gave the box to the Grand Prior, warning that if it remained in the house for more than twenty-two hours he would be in grave danger – he must keep it outside. Much alarmed, Fra’ John told him to throw it as far away as possible, where no one could find it.

Three or four weeks later, when Bernart was very ill, Kendal had come to his bedside and offered him a horse and money if he would leave England. He replied that he was too weak to do so. The sickness lasted for six months but the Grand Prior kept on trying to persuade Bernart to go overseas, as though fearing that he might be arrested and, under interrogation, incriminate himself and his friends. He was delighted when Bernart asked for leave to return to France.

What should one make of this weird tale? At that date Rome was full of sinsister rumours of poisoning, used to explain the deaths of great personages that baffled physicians – although the vast majority of such deaths must have been due to natural causes. The only poisons available were belladonna and aconite, with a few other noxious herbs, none of them very effective, or arsenic which betrayed its presence by the excruciating agonies it inflicted. Yet even educated people believed that an expert poisoner was capable of killing anyone if he wanted to, and until 1491 Kendal had often been at Rome, where he was chamberlain of the hospice of St Thomas to which the Husseys also belonged.4 It is of course just possible – but only just – that the Grand Prior was both murderous and credulous, and that Bernart was telling the truth.

The second half of Bernart’s deposition was more plausible. He claimed Kendal had been in touch with the group around Warbeck, alleging that when Perkin first arrived in Flanders one of his followers had written several times to My Lord of St John’s. Bernart had seen some, though not all, of the letters. These reported how ‘the Merchant of the Ruby’ (Perkin), having found that he was unable to sell his wares in Flanders for the right price, was going to try and sell them to the King of the Romans (Maximilian) – meaning, explained Bernart, that Perkin had been unable to find enough money or men in Flanders for his invasion of England. The writer of the letters was a sergeant of the Order of St John, Fra’ Guillemin de Novion, who until recently had held a position in the Grand Prior’s household.

Bernart also said that at a commandery belonging to Fra’ John, Melchbourne in Bedfordshire, livery jackets bearing the Red Rose were stored, but that there were others in the commandery on which White Roses could be sewn. He added that a servant of Guillemin de Novion, called Pietres, had brought letters to the Grand Prior that were written in such a way as to mislead King Henry about where Perkin was going to land. My Lord of St John’s was still receiving messages from Flanders, whose contents he always communicated to Thomas Langton, Bishop of Winchester, John Hussey, Sir Thomas Tyrell and Archdeacon Hussey, even if he did not send them the text.

Two or three times a year, sometimes just after Christmas, related Bernart, My Lord of St John’s was accustomed to visit Sir Thomas Tyrell’s manor house at Avon Tyrell in Hampshire. On one occasion, when the Grand Prior said he had heard that the late King Edward had been there several times in the old days, Sir Thomas replied that he was quite right and that the king had always ‘made good cheer’ – he hoped, please God, that one day King Edward’s son was going to make no less good cheer. The present royal family had been set up with French money, he added, so there was some hope that another, just as good, might soon be put in its place. Both Bernart and Sir John Tonge were present when this conversation took place. He ended by repeating that all the men he named were implicated in the plot to murder King Henry.

The deposition denouncing the Grand Prior has only survived because it reached Henry. He endorsed it on the back, in his own hand, with the words, ‘La confession de Bernart de Vignolles’. Reading the document, he may well have thought that the plot to poison him was a malicious fabrication, but he took the second part seriously enough. Soon after Bernart sent in his deposition, the authorities raided Clerkenwell and seized Kendal’s private correspondence. They kept five letters, all written by him in April 1496, no doubt because three were addressed to men mentioned in the deposition – two to Guillemin de Novion and one to Stefano Maranecho – and because their meaning is curiously unclear, as if by deliberate design. Yet there was nothing positive to incriminate the Grand Prior, and the king was always loath to take action unless he had convincing evidence in his hands. Nor did he arrest any of the men mentioned in the deposition. Even so, in the circumstances it seems significant that on 1 July Henry issued Kendal with a general pardon for all offences committed before 17 June.5

While it is improbable that the Grand Prior had ever been the centre of a Yorkist cell, there may be an element of truth in the accusation that he was in contact with Warbeck’s circle at some stage during the young man’s first days in Flanders.6 If so, like William Stanley, he and his friends were hedging their bets, just in case Perkin really was the son of Edward IV and a Yorkist restoration took place, but had then changed their minds in the light of information about his true origins. None of their names seem to have been on the list given to Henry by Sir Robert Clifford.

The spiritual dimension can be overlooked in assessing the secret connections of Fra’ John Kendal and his friends with Yorkism. He was very conscious of the vows he had taken. (In his letters he invariably addresses fellow members of his order as ‘Spectabilis ac religiose in Christo frater praecarissime’ – ‘Most beloved noble and religious brother in Christ’.) Like the clerics mentioned in the affair, such as Bishop Langton or Archdeacon Hussey, and many other clergymen, it is not impossible that Kendal’s attitude towards the young man at Margaret’s court was to some extent dictated by conscience, which made him anxious to find out whether he really was who he claimed to be. Had Kendal become convinced beyond all doubt that this was the Duke of York he might well have fought for him.

In the event, Henry VII took no action against Fra’ John, who resumed his place on the royal council. Such a reliable administrator was too useful to lose. He never discovered that Bernart de Vignolles was a traitor, and the man remained in his service for some time to come, presumably spying on him for the king. Kendal stayed on at Clerkenwell as Grand Prior until his death nearly five years later. If Bernart had denounced him earlier, however, his career might have ended very differently.

Yet King Henry must have noted with considerable unease that at one point someone as respected as Fra’ John had accepted that Perkin really might be the Duke of York. The seizure of the Grand Prior’s correspondence in 1496 shows that despite the failure of the Yorkist invasion, the authorities suspected Warbeck was still being taken very seriously indeed. How many Englishmen remained loyal to the White Rose?

10. March 1496: The Grand Prior Plans to Poison the King

1. LP Hen VII, op. cit., II, pp. 318–23. Our only source for this episode is Bernart’s Depositum.

2. G. O’Malley, The Knights Hospitaller of the English Langue 1460– 1565, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 144.

3. Oxford DNB.

4. I. Arthurson, The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy 1491–99, Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1994, pp. 76 and 232 n. 54.

5. The Knights Hospitaller, pp. 146–50.

6. A. Wroe, Perkin, a Story of Deception, London, Jonathan Cape, 2003, pp. 166–9 and 203–4.

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