Post-classical history


Henry VIII and the White Rose


Spring 1509: A Yorkist Tudor?

‘The Rose both White and Red In one Rose now doth grow.’

John Skelton, ‘A Laud and Praise made for our Sovereign Lord the King’, 15091

In a poem extolling Henry VIII’s coronation, perhaps with a certain exaggeration, Thomas More spoke of a new Messiah. Yet no monarch had ascended the throne in such tranquility since Henry VI in 1422. The new ruler could claim to be the heir of York, as indeed he was in most Englishmen’s eyes, and on more convincing grounds than the Tudors’ dubious pretensions to represent Lancaster. ‘Of Kingès line most straight his title doth record,’ wrote Skelton pointedly in his own Laud. Hall called him the ‘flower and very heir of both the said lineages’, stressing his White as well as his Red Rose blood.2

Henry even looked like his maternal grandfather, KingEdward. A handsome giant, well over six foot tall – in an age when most men were little more than five – vigorous, athletic, he possessed the same superb presence and magnetic personality. Above a long, slender throat he had a delicate, sensitive and almost girlish face framed by long, thick, auburn hair – contemporaries said it might have belonged to a pretty woman. An undistinguished portrait of 1513, which is attributed to an unknown court artist but is possibly by a French painter, shows the same, unusual, strikingly handsome looks. Yet it has to be said that his eyes are on the small side, with a bird-like watchfulness, while his odd little mouth – scarcely wider than the space between his nostrils – already has the same tight lips of later years.

In June 1509, a fortnight before his coronation, the king married his brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon. Although nearly seven years older than her new husband, she was still only twenty-four, as dignified and intelligent as she was beautiful, adaptable and sympathetic, with an instinctive understanding of her adopted country. Most of England was in ecstasies over the attractive young couple who presided over so glamorous a court. Not yet eighteen, the king gave himself up to pleasure and Queen Catherine remembered the early years of her marriage as a time of continuous feasting.

Henry’s loyal chronicler Edward Hall, who captures theidyllic existence of his court at the start of his reign, writes:

On May day then next following, in the second year of his reign His Grace being young and willing not to be idle, rose in the morning very early to fetch May or green boughs, himself fresh and richly apparelled, and clothed all his knights, squires and gentlemen in white satin, and all his Guard and Yeomen of the Crown in white sarcenet,

… And so went every man with his bow and arrows shooting to the wood, and so repaired again to the court, every man with a green bough in his hat, and at his returning many hearing of his going a Maying were desirous to see him shoot, for at that time His Grace shot as strong and as great a length as any in his guard….

From thence the whole court removed to Windsor, [King Henry] then beginning his progress, exercising himself daily in shooting, singing, dancing, wrestling, casting of the bar, playing at the recorders, flute, virginals, and in setting of songs, making of ballads, and did set two goodly Masses, every one of them five parts, which were sung often times in his chapel and afterwards in divers other places … And when he came to Woking there were kept both jousts and tourneys: the rest of this progress was spent in hunting, hawking and shooting.3

In addition, there were banquets and also masques in the Italian fashion – the first ever staged in England.

At the same time, Henry had intellectual interests. ‘You might well say he is an all round genius,’ Erasmus (soon to become the most famous scholar in Europe, who had been summoned to court) told a friend. ‘He never forgets to study and whenever he finds himself free from matters of state, he reads or discusses – he is very fond of discussions – with unusual courtesy and complete good temper. He seems more like a companion than a king.’4 As well as a humanist fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome, Henry enjoyed theology, his favourite reading being the works of Thomas Aquinas.

For all the euphoria, some people saw the new king as another usurper, despite his Yorkist blood. In the absence of printed histories there was no easily accessible acccount of how the Tudors had acquired the throne, but everyone knew they were parvenus: as late as 1541 a tailor of Colchester told a bawdy story about Owain Tudor seducing Henry V’s widow and founding the family fortunes.5 In any case, older courtiers could remember Edward IV and Richard III. A question mark still hung over the dynasty.

From the start Henry was aware of this, even during the honeymoon with his subjects. Historians sometimes call Edmund de la Pole the last Yorkist pretender, yet it was never the king’s view. Although at this stage he seemed the ideal Renaissance Man, cultivated and learned, he was haunted by a terror of rivals, real or imaginary, that persisted until the last days of his life. Had he sensed his vulnerability when a child? Had he read Flamank’s report? Or others in the same vein?

His uneasiness showed itself at once. Although there is a striking contrast between the young Henry VIII and the monster he became in middle life, they were the same man – highly strung, moody and pathologically suspicious. (In more ways than one he resembled Edward IV who killed his brother Clarence in a butt of malmsey, had his brother-in-law the Duke of Exeter thrown overboard at sea and ordered Henry VI’s murder.) Admittedly the new king took some time before getting into his stride and turning into England’s Ivan the Terrible. But the two hated ministers who had levied his father’s taxes, Dudley and Empson, were immediately thrown to the wolves. Charged with treason, they were tried and condemend on false evidence, then executed, although in law they had committed no crime – the first of Henry’s legal murders.

When a general pardon was proclaimed on 30 April, eighty people were omitted.6 The royal clemency did not extend to the White Rose. At the top of the list of those excluded were Edmund de la Pole and his brothers Richard and William. Among the others were Sir George Neville and old John Taylor, that steady Yorkist, who had been one of the brains behind the ‘Duke of York’ and who, according to the pardon, was ‘still in ward in the Tower’.

The Yeomen of the Guard were reinforced by a new force, the Band of Pensioners or Spears. (It still exists, as the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms.) ‘This year [1509], the King ordained fifty Gentlemen to be Spears, every [one] of them to have an archer, a demi-lance and a costrel, and every spear to have three great horses to be attendant on his person.’ (A demi-lance was a foot soldier with a half-pike, a costrel a servant with a sword.) Unlike the yeomen, the Spears were recruited exclusively from the upper gentry as their equipment was so expensive: ‘they and their horses were apparelled and trapped in cloth of gold [and] silver and goldsmiths’ work, and their servants [were] richly apparelled also’.7 Although on campaign they served as a military unit, off duty these gentlemen were indistinguishable from other courtiers while forming a bodyguard in the modern sense – ready to deal with any would-be assassin.

Similarly, Knights of the Garter were asked to replace their oath to defend the priestly College of Windsor. Instead, they took a new oath in which they swore to fight for Henry’s ‘honours, quarrels, rights, dominions and cause’ – a phrase that tacitly included his claim to the throne against pretenders.8

Insecurity can be seen, too, in the way he tried to win his Yorkist kindred’s support during these early years. The Earlof Warwick’s sister, Margaret Plantagenet, had been married off to the son of a half-sister of Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who insisted on the match, although it would have been wiser to send the girl into a nunnery. Her husband was Sir Richard Pole of Medmenham in Buckinghamshire (no relation of the de la Poles), a committed Tudor henchman, who had died in 1504, leaving her in reduced circumstances.

According to Margaret’s son, Reginald Pole, Henry VIII felt guilty about Warwick’s death. Almost as soon as he came to the throne he gave Margaret an annuity of £100. In 1513 he even granted her petition to reverse Warwick’s attainder, presumably after instructing her to petition, and then created her Countess of Salisbury (one of her brother’s titles) in her own right, restoring many of her Neville mother’s family estates. He did so, however, on condition she forgave any injuries done to her by his father, by which he could only have meant her brother’s killing. Margaret’s eldest son was later created Lord Montague, a Neville title. In 1516 she was invited to become one of the godmothers to the Princess Mary, Henry’s daughter, and shortly after, appointed governess of the princess’s household.

Although omitted from the general pardon, the husband of Catherine Plantagenet (one of the late Queen Elizabeth’s sisters) Lord William Courtenay – who by now had become Earl of Devon – was soon released from the Tower. He did not enjoy his inheritance for long, dying in 1511. However, his son Edward, a grandchild of Edward IV, was created Marquess of Exeter. Another supporter of Suffolk to be set free was the Marquess of Dorset, whose marquisate was restored to him.

Yet one day Henry was to turn on his White Rose cousins. Despite the amiability he showed during the early years of his reign, he had already revealed his merciless streak. A well-known Yorkist, John Parleben, putting too much trust in rumours of the new ruler’s good nature, had unwisely come home and tried to obtain a pardon. Described by the Privy Council in October 1510 as ‘one of the most errant traitors and railers against the King’s father beyond the seas’, he was immediately arrested, Henry giving express orders that Parleben should never receive a pardon even if one had already been issued and sealed.9 Presumably, he swiftly ended up on the gallows.

Eager to cut a figure on the European stage, Henry hoped to revive the Hundred Years’ War and make good his Plantagenet ancestors’ claim to the throne of France. A first expedition of 12,000 troops to conquer Guienne in 1512 ended in abject failure. Leaving the English soldiers in their camp on the coast of Guipuzcoa, King Ferdinand cynically used them to distract the French while he conquered southern Navarre, and they succumbed to the local wine before being struck down by dysentery. Finally they mutinied, insisting on being shipped home.

Nevertheless, encouraged by his new minister, Thomas Wolsey, at midsummer 1513 Henry VIII invaded France with an impressively large army that included the Yeomen and the new Bodyguard, who both fought as units on the campaign. Marching out from Calais, in August he routed a small French force that his cavalry caught by surprise, so swiftly that the engagement was called the ‘battle of the Spurs’. He went on to capture the little town of Thérouanne and in September, after a siege lasting only a week, the city of Tournai.

The Scots took advantage of Henry’s absence to invade Northern England, but the seventy-year-old Earl of Surrey annihilated them at Flodden, James IV himself being among the dead, along with the better part of the Scottish nobility. (In reward, Surrey was restored to his family dukedom of Norfolk.) Delighted by his own successes in France – however modest they may have been, they were the first English victories over the French for nearly a century – the king came home in triumph, more popular than ever with his subjects.

Yet when Louis XII had responded to the English invasion by giving Edmund de la Pole’s brother Richard an important military command, Henry had feared an anti-Tudor coup were he himself to be taken prisoner. Just before crossing to France, he gave orders for Edmund’s execution. There was no need for a trial as an Act of Attainder had condemned the earl to death in 1502. Taken from his cell to Tower Hill, he was discreetly beheaded on 4 May 1513.10

Edmund’s elimination prepared the way for another, more formidable, White Rose.

17. Spring 1509: A Yorkist Tudor?

1. P. Henderson (ed.), The Complete Poems of John Skelton, Laureate, London and Toronto, J.M. Dent, 1948, p. 13.

2. Hall, op. cit., p. 1.

3 Ibid., p. 519.

4. Erasmus, Opus Epistolarum Desiderii Erasmi Roterdami (ed. P.S. and M.H. Allen and W.W. Garrod) vol. III, ep. 657, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1906–58, 12 vols.

5. M. Bennet, ‘Table Tittle Tattle and the Tudor View of History’, in K. Dockray and P. Fleming (eds), People, Places and Perspectives: Essays on Later Medieval and Tudor England in Honour of Ralph A. Griffiths, Stroud, Nonsuch Publishing, 2005.

6. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. I (i), p. 11.

7. Hall, op. cit., p. 512.

8. S. Angelo (ed.), Chivalry in the Renaissance, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1990, p. 110.

9. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. I (i), 596.

10. Ibid., vol. I (ii), 2072.

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