Post-classical history


Autumn 1499: Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk

‘Edmund [de la] Pole, Earl of Suffolk, son to John, Duke of Suffolk and Lady Elizabeth, sister to King Edward IV, being stout and bold of courage, and of wit rash and heady, was indicted of homicide and murder, for slaying of a mean person in his rage and fury … [and] fled to Flanders, without any licence or safe conduct given to him by the king, to the Lady Margaret, his aunt on his mother’s side.’

Edward Hall, The Union of the two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancaste and Yorke [1548]1

If Warwick’s killing brought a curse it wasted no time in striking and Henry VII soon suffered a shattering series of bereavements. In 1500 his third son, Edmund, Duke of Bedford died, not yet a year old. In 1502 Arthur, Prince of Wales died at only seventeen, so that the young Prince Henry was now the only male Tudor other than the king. In 1503 Elizabeth of York died in childbirth.

Thomas More wrote ‘A Rueful Lamentation on the Death of Queen Elizabeth’. For contemporaries, two of its lines had a hidden meaning.

‘Was I not born of old worthy lineage

Was not my mother queen, my father king?’2

There is nothing to suggest that More was a Yorkist – not yet, at any rate – but everyone knew that Henry Tudor had not been born of ‘old worthy lineage’.

The story of a curse on the Tudors was not going to fade away. Years later, Bacon heard that when Henry VIII announced his intention to divorce her, Queen Katherine declared that it was God’s judgement because her first marriage had been ‘made in blood, meaning that of the Earl of Warwick’. During the reign of Henry VIII many people thought that the curse must be responsible for the eerie proneness of Tudor males to die in childhood.

Henry VII’s own health was collapsing. He may already have contracted tuberculosis. (In 1508 he was rumoured to be in the last stages of consumption.) Whatever the reason, he had become an old man by his forties. There is no written evidence of his decline, but a portrait painted in 1505 by the Baltic artist Michael Sittow (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London) tells us a lot. This was commissioned by Emperor Maximilian’s agent, for his master to send to his widowed daughter Margaret, whom he wanted the king to marry. It is hard to believe that the bleary-eyed, thin-lipped, exhausted old face leering out of the portrait is the same person as the young gallant sketched twenty years earlier. Torrigiano’s portrait bust of about the same date shows a very different face, but it was designed to flatter. Some artists paint what they see, however, which is what Sittow seems to have done – perhaps he was given the commission because of the realism of his work. Other portraits by him are thoroughly convincing, such as that of the youthful Katherine of Aragon.

Although the calamities he experienced did not unbalance Henry’s statecraft, they did little for his mental equilibrium. It is scarcely surprising that he grew ever more suspicious of the nobility, and continued to live in dread of the White Rose. There were strong hints that his mind was unbalanced in the way he dealt with the Earl of Suffolk.

‘England has never been so tranquil and obedient as it is at present,’ reported the Spanish ambassador in January 1500. ‘There were pretenders to the English crown, but now Perkin and the Duke of Clarence’s son are executed, not a drop of doubtful Royal blood can remain, the sole Royal blood being the true blood of the King.’3 He believed there was no one left who could challenge Henry VII, and perhaps the king himself thought so, if only for a short time.

Yet Henry’s astrologer had been justified in warning him that there were two parties in his kingdom, one of which questioned his right to the throne. The ballad ‘The White Rose’, dating from about 1500 – probably to be sung as a three-part ‘carol’ – shows that nostalgia for the House of York was still flourishing at this date. There were Englishmen who continued to regard the Tudor as a usurper, and were outraged at the Earl of Warwick’s murder. He and Perkin might be dead, but the White Rose still bloomed, its new embodiment being Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk. Many must have recalled that less than twenty years earlier, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln – later killed at Stoke – had been named heir to the throne by Richard III. After the death of Warbeck and Warwick, Lincoln’s younger brother, Suffolk, was the obvious Yorkist claimant as Richard’s senior nephew.

Born about 1473, Edmund had showed no sign of disaffection, playing his role on ceremonial occasions and admired for his prowess at jousting – the great spectator sport of the age. A herald’s account gives us a clourful glimpse of him at the tournament held at Westminster in 1494 to celebrate Prince Henry’s investiture as Duke of York. He led the competitors as they rode out of Westminster Hall, his red silken banner bearing his motto, ‘For to accumplisshe’, while the crest on his tilting helm was a golden lion. During the tournament, he broke his sword on Sir Edward a Borough ‘furiously and notably’, and performed no less effectively in breaking his lance when charging his opponent. After supper, the five-year-old Princess Margaret, King Henry’s eldest daughter, awarded the prize to ‘the right noble lord, the Earl of Suffolk’, a ring of gold with a diamond.

When the tournament was resumed a few days later, again he ‘gave such a stroke to Sir Edward a Borough that his sword was almost out of his hand and bruised his gauntlet’. His opponent lost control of his horse so that many people thought that his aim had been damaged, but he recovered and managed to give Suffolk a light tap on the helmet with his own sword. This time it was Sir Edward who was given the tourney prize, another diamond ring. The earl was still only twenty-one, while the other competitors were all seasoned veterans.4

After campaigning against the French in 1492, when he took part in the siege of Boulogne, Suffolk was made a Knight of the Garter. In September 1495 the king paid him the supreme royal compliment of visiting his Oxfordshire house, Ewelme.

But Suffolk was his own worst enemy. He was haughty, not terribly intelligent, a nobleman ‘of an hasty and choleric disposition’ who had an uncontrollable temper, and Vergil calls him. ‘bold, impetuous, readily roused to anger’.5 Despite having been at Oxford, he was more or less illiterate, to judge from his few surviving letters. It has been suggested he felt close to his first cousin, Queen Elizabeth, which was why he stayed loyal to her husband for some years.6 Yet there is no evidence for such affection other than his frequent attendance at court. In reality, he nursed a grievance. When his father, the Duke of Suffolk, had died in 1491 the de la Pole lands became forfeit to the crown under Lincoln’s attainder as a traitor. The king allowed Edmund to inherit them, but only on payment (in instalments) of £5,000, which forced him to mortgage a large proportion of his heritage. He was then reduced to the rank of earl on the pretext that his estates were so diminished and impoverished that he could not afford to be a duke.

In consequence, Edmund had been plunged into debt, besides feeling insulted by his ‘degradation’. At the same time he was very conscious of his royal blood, having been treated as a close kinsman by Edward IV and Richard III. There is no reason to think he had designs on the throne while Warbeck and Warwick were alive but, given his royal background and his brother Lincoln’s rebellion, it was understandable that Henry should wish to keep a close eye on him.

The earl’s loyalty was pushed to breaking point during the autumn of 1499. After dining in London with his kinsman Lord William Courtenay and other friends, near the Tower, in a fit of rage he killed a ‘mean person’ named Thomas Crue. Indicted for murder, he had to ‘plead’ in the law courts before being pardoned by Henry VII, and, as ‘a prince of blood royal’, he felt resentful that he had been tried at all. The fact that his victim was a plaintiff in a case under investigation by the King’s Council made him fear he might be charged again. On 1 July 1499 he fled the country. The date suggests he was implicated in the plot to rescue Warbeck and Warwick from the Tower – we know he believed that Warbeck really was Edward IV’s son.

On hearing that Edmund had left England secretly – like his brother Lincoln before him – the king assumed he was on his way to Margaret of Burgundy. The previous year she had sent Henry an apology for any wrong she might have done him, but he was convinced that as soon as the earl reached Malines she would make her nephew claim the throne – if he had not done so already. This new threat emerged just as the Warbeck– Warwick business was reaching a crisis.

On 20 August Henry sent writs to the sheriffs of Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, and to the wardens of the Cinque Ports, ordering them to prevent anyone from leaving the kingdom without royal permission, in case they planned to join the earl. The principal Tudor henchman in East Anglia, Lord Oxford, was clearly following royal orders when, on the same day, he asked Sir John Paston to find out who had left the area with Suffolk: Paston was also told to arrest those who had escorted him to the coast but stayed behind, as well as anybody else who had known of his flight. The letter’s clumsy prose obscures the sophistication of the security machine it set in motion – information gathering and close surveillance of the region by a wide network of experienced agents, accompanied by systematic interrogation of suspects.

Edmund had not gone to his aunt Margaret as the king supposed, but to Guisnes, one of the two castles guarding Calais, as a guest of its captain, Sir James Tyrell, once a loyal henchman of the House of York. He soon left English territory for St Omer, across the border in Burgundian Artois, where he begged its governor to give him refuge. Henry reacted by sending the comptroller of his household, Sir Richard Guildford, and an experienced diplomat, Richard Hatton, to Brussels to see Archduke Philip, who was the Duke of Burgundy. Having made it plain to Archduke Philip that there would be another full-scale trade war if he did not help, they then went to see Suffolk at St Omer.

They told Suffolk that every European sovereign was bound by treaty to repatriate English rebels, and that if he became a mercenary fighting for another country he would commit treason, and never see England again. Should he return, however, his escapade would be forgiven. He gave in and went home,7 and was able to produce such a convincing excuse for his behaviour that the king pardoned him.8

Even so, Edmund was fined £1,000. Still more damaging from his point of view, King Henry rehabilitated the Howard family – out of favour since 1485 – and helped them to build up their power in East Anglia at the expense of the de la Poles. Distrusted by the king, growing poorer every day and losing local influence, he was being driven further and further down the social scale.

13. Autumn 1499: Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk

1. Hall, op. cit., p. 495.

2. Sir Thomas More, ‘A Rueful Lamentation on the Death of Queen Elizabeth’, in R.S.Sylvester (ed.), The Complete Works of St Thomas More, Yale, Yale University Press, vol. 1, p. 9.

3. CSP Sp, op. cit., vol. I, 249.

4. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 397, 400–1.

5. Vergil, op. cit., p. 127.

6. Cunningham, Henry VII, pp. 187–8.

7. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 131–4.

8. Vergil, op. cit., p. 123.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

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