Post-classical history


Early 1487: Margaret of York

‘This Lady Margaret … invented and practised all mischiefs, displeasures and damages that she could devise against the King of England. And further in her fury and frantic mood … she wrought all the ways possible how to suck his blood and compass his destruction.’

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

Less than ten years earlier, there had been seven male members of the House of York. Now, only one was still alive – Warwick. Nobody resented this more than the Dowager Duchess of Burgundy. In the words of Polydore Vergil:

Margaret knew perfectly well the House of York had been destroyed by her brother Richard, yet … hating Henry [VII] with a truly insatiable hatred as she did, burning with unquenchable rage, she could never resist any scheme that might somehow do harm to the man who was the head of the rival family. Predictably, even if she thought their plan unlikely to gain much support (as turned out to be the case), when contacted by a group who had recently begun plotting against Henry she not only promised its agents she would help but took pains to put discontented English noblemen in touch with them.2

When Lord Lovell reached Burgundy, he made Margaret keener than ever to bring down Henry Tudor. The hopes of the duchess and Lovell rested on a young man whom Richard III had formally recognized as heir to the throne after the death of his only son. This was John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. A hundred and fifty years earlier, John’s direct ancestor had been a Hull merchant known as ‘atte Pool’ (gentrified into ‘de la Pole’), but his grandfather became Duke of Suffolk, while his father married Elizabeth Plantagenet, one of the Duke of York’s daughters and a sister of King Richard.

Lincoln’s father, John, Duke of Suffolk, was an ineffectual nonentity who took no part in politics but stayed on his estates, his only claims to distinction being his rank and his high-born wife, with whom he sired at least seven sons. Yet at least he had managed to survive the upheavals of the last thirty years. His funeral effigy, along with that of his duchess, may still be seen at the splendid church that stands next to their castle at Wingfield in Suffolk, a heavily fortified fourteenth-century manor house. Among the wealthiest magnates in the kingdom, the de la Poles owned land all over East Anglia and throughout the Thames valley, where their principal residence was a long since vanished mansion at Ewelme near Wallingford. They also had a family ‘inn’ or town house in London, in the parish of St Lawrence, Pulteney.

Ewelme had been acquired by the de la Poles in 1434, the duke’s father having married its heiress who was Chaucer’s granddaughter. Among many other powerful connections, through the marriage of a de la Pole girl they were related to the great French family of Foix, kings of Navarre and co-rulers of Andorra. In England the Foix were earls of Kendal – Gallicized as ‘Candale’. (In the not too distant future this link with the Foix-Candale was going to save the life of a de la Pole on the run from the Tudors.)3

John de la Pole was born about 1462. We do not know very much about him but from his short career it is clear enough that he was tough, devious and self-controlled. He did not need to be reminded of his Plantagenet blood. In 1475 he had been created a Knight of the Bath with his cousins, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York – the future ‘Princes in the Tower’, while in 1476 he attended the reburial of his grandfather the Duke of York at Fotheringay, an occasion of dazzling splendour, where the mourners included Edward IV with the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester. In 1478 he was at the young Duke of York’s wedding to the heiress of the Mowbray Dukes of Norfolk, and in 1480 he took a leading role at the christening of King Edward’s youngest daughter Bridget at Eltham Palace. He was constantly at the Yorkist court, with his wife Margaret FitzAlan, a daughter of Lord Maltravers – heir to the Earl of Arundel.4

Lincoln and his father had each played prominent roles in Richard III’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1483, Suffolk bearing the sceptre while Lincoln himself bore the orb. They could have made no more public demonstration of their support for the new king. John went on progress with Richard after the coronation, while later he was rewarded with a substantial number of confiscated estates for ‘good service’ in putting down the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion. After the death of Richard’s only son in 1484, the late king had not only recognized John, Earl of Lincoln as heir presumptive to the throne, but appointed him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and President of the Council of the North. Although Richard was a widower who hoped to remarry and beget another son and heir, in the meantime he saw Lincoln as one of the props of his regime. Obviously, he had complete trust in his young nephew, who spent a good deal of time with him.

At first it was thought that Lincoln had died with Richard III on Bosworth Field. However, he managed to survive, hastening to make peace with the man who had stolen his inheritance and despite being deprived of his great offices attended Henry VII’s coronation, riding in the royal procession, and accompanied Henry on his northern progress, which left London on 9 March 1486. In consequence, he was in York at the end of April during Lord Lovell’s abortive coup.

Despite this show of loyalty, the earl had secretly helped the Staffords and Lovell to escape from Colchester. While at York he was visited in his lodgings by rebels from Middleham and for a moment even considered joining them before deciding that Lovell’s desperate attempt was bound to fail.5 He continued to dissemble, riding south with the royal progress on the return to London. Because of Lincoln’s claim to the throne Henry watched him closely but was inclined to believe in his loyalty because of his deferential manner. Lincoln was present at the baptism of Henry’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, on 20 September 1486, then went to Greenwich at the start of November for the feast of All Hallows. After this, he left court to go back to his estates where he spent Advent and kept the twelve days of Christmas.6

It is more than likely that he was already in touch with Lord Lovell, whom he must have known for years. Lovell had been his father’s ward after the Earl of Warwick’s death in 1471, while he could scarcely have avoided seeing him at King Richard’s court. Lincoln may also have been in contact with Margaret of Burgundy.

He returned to the capital for a Privy Council that Henry had summoned urgently at the royal palace of Sheen. When it met on 2 February 1487, it was told that a serious plot had been discovered, supported by people of high rank, and that a rising was imminent. The earl sat calmly through the discussions without betraying his involvement.

Someone who may perhaps have encouraged him to join and recover his inheritance was his mother. Apart from the odd reference in contemporary legal documents – and her aloof marble effigy in Wingfield church – we know nothing about the Duchess of Suffolk. Nevertheless, the third anonymous writer who contributed to the continuation of the Croyland Chronicle says specifically that ‘King Edward’s sister Elizabeth’ longed for Henry VII’s overthrow and joined the conspiracy, but gives no further details.7While it is plausible that a Plantagenet such as the duchess should have resented the upstart Tudor, we have no other information about her involvement.

The first solid evidence of insurrection appears in a writ of 8 February 1487 for the arrest of ‘Henry Bodrugan, Knight, and John Be[au]mont and others, who have withdrawn themselves into private places in those counties and stir up sedition and rebellion’. The counties were Devon and Cornwall. In the event, Sir Richard Edgecombe, the Sheriff of Devon to whom the writ was sent, had little difficulty in preventing any local disturbances. However, Bodrugan and Beaumont evaded all attempts to capture them, and no one knew their whereabouts.

Alarming news arrived of trouble in Ireland, where the House of York was remembered warmly. Towards the end of 1486 or the start of 1487 a young priest from Oxford named Richard Simonds had arrived in Dublin. He was accompanied by a young boy, Lambert Simnel, the son of an Oxford joiner (or, possibly, organ-builder), whom he had abducted from his parents and was hoping to pass off as the Earl of Warwick.8 ‘This crafty and subtle priest brought up his scholar with princely behaviour and manners [and] literature, declaring to this child what lineage he was of and progeny,’ says The Book of Howth.9 The lords of the Irish Pale were completely taken in, accepting that the boy really was Warwick.

King Henry reacted swiftly. The day after the news arrived, a Sunday, Lord Derby took the real Earl of Warwick out of the Tower of London, parading him through the streets and then bringing him into St Paul’s where he was presented to a large assembly that included the entire convocation and the chancellor, Archbishop Morton, as well as the mayor and corporation. After spending a night with Morton at Lambeth Palace, he paid a visit to Sheen, under escort, where for a few days Lincoln spoke to him daily as someone who could vouch that he really was Warwick. Then his guards took him back to the Tower. This would turn out to be his last outing from prison. As a calculated piece of public relations it was not entirely effective, since Henry’s opponents were able to pretend that the boy was merely someone impersonating the earl.

Despite the counter-propaganda campaign, the king’s agents soon informed him that Lord Lovell, although still in Flanders, was in close touch with the Irish lords. This forced Henry to accept that a major conspiracy must be in the offing. It may also explain the savage way in which he turned against his mother-in-law. Edward IV’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville, was a tragic figure who epitomized the dangerous life led by those of high rank during the Wars of the Roses, even by women. She was said to have ensnared the king into marrying her by refusing to sleep with him, even when he held a dagger at her throat, although Elizabeth and her mother were also accused of effecting the marriage by ‘sorcery and witchcraft’ in an Act passed by Richard III’s Parliament. Her father, Earl Rivers, had been beheaded in 1469, her brother the second earl in 1483. Her son, Edward V, was deposed and bastardized, disappearing with his brother the Duke of York. She seemed to have embarked on a more serene life, however, when her daughter Elizabeth of York had married Henry, being lavishly provided for by the restoration of the valuable estates which formed her jointure.

Yet there was an unpleasantly opportunistic side to Elizabeth Woodville that made it reasonable to suspect her. She had made her peace with King Richard, the murderer of her sons, and in 1485 had tried to persuade the Marquess of Dorset, a son by an earlier marriage, to do the same and desert Henry Tudor. King Henry must have thought that his mother-in-law was involved in the plot since he confiscated her entire jointure, giving the estates to her daughter Elizabeth. She was packed off to an undignified retirement on a paltry annuity at the convent at Bermondsey, where she died five years later.10

Someone definitely involved was the elderly Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, who had been in such favour with King Richard that he was imprisoned after Bosworth. Despite receiving a pardon on account of his ‘great age, long infirmity and feebleness’ and officiating at Henry’s coronation, he never accepted the Tudor regime. Perhaps the real brains behind the conspirators, when he heard what had happened to the dowager queen he bolted, taking refuge at Oxford. On 7 March Henry wrote to the university, demanding Stillington be handed over. For a time the university refused, saying it was in breach of their privileges, but after some weeks they surrendered him. Because of ‘benefit of clergy’, he could not be tortured and revealed little about the plot. However, he was imprisoned at Windsor until shortly before his death in 1491.11

The council meeting and suspicions about his mother-in-law, let alone the flight of Bishop Stillington, cannot have enhanced Henry VII’s sense of security. Lovell and the Staffords had been openly Yorkist, but secret enemies were now being identified. How many more did he have? He had no means of finding out the depths of his unpopularity, although the agents he employed must have sent in worrying reports. During the previous year he had refused to believe Hugh Conway’s warning about Lovell, but he had learned his lesson. However, soon he received an even more unpleasant surprise.

Despite the danger of being denounced by an informer, John de la Pole kept his nerve, staying until the very end of the council. When he left Sheen on 9 March, he told the court he was returning to Suffolk, but when he got there, he immediately boarded a boat for Flanders. He sailed in the nick of time, lucky to have escaped detection.

Shortly after de la Pole’s departure, Henry’s secret agents learned that servants of the Earl of Lincoln, disguised as merchants, were on mysterious business in the North. One of the agents, James Tait, spotted them in Doncaster on 25 March, identifying the group as Lincoln’s men because one rode a striking grey horse that he remembered seeing in the earl’s household during the royal visit to York the previous year. Tait discovered their saddlebags were full of gold and silver coin, but could not find out why. All he was able to learn was that they were on their way to Hull and would visit Sir Thomas Mauleverer of Allerton Mauleverer (who had recently been made to hand back lands in Devon granted to him by Richard III), and then going to York where they would meet the Prior of Tynemouth at the Boar Inn. In fact, they were recruiting for the rising. On 31 March Tait sent a report on their suspicious behaviour to York, forwarded to the king the same day.12

The Act of Attainder later passed by Parliament refers to a lost document that describes a crucial meeting on 19 March between Lincoln and others in Flanders, just ten days after he left Sheen. The others can only have been Lord Lovell and Margaret of Burgundy, and a representative of Maximilian, King of the Romans, who was the husband of Margaret’s stepdaughter. The meeting discussed ways of eliminating Henry Tudor. Those present resolved to exploit the Yorkist sympathies of the Irish Pale, of which they were kept informed by secret messengers from Dublin.

The Pale was the English-speaking area of Ireland, stretching 60 miles from Dundalk to Dublin and 40 miles inland, which possessed English institutions such as law courts and city corporations and its own fiercely independent parliament. The real ruler of the ‘Lordship of Ireland’ – not yet a kingdom – was the Lord Deputy, Garret Mór FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, who owned vast tracts of land inside and outside the Pale. Like other Irishmen, he found it hard to accept the sovereignty of someone who was not a Plantagenet. By now Palesmen believed the boy in the Tower of London must be an impostor because Margaret of York had recognized Simnel as her nephew. He was accepted as genuine by Kildare and the Irish peers, as well as by the Lord Chancellor of Ireland (Sir Thomas FitzGerald of Lackagh, Kildare’s brother), the Archbishop of Dublin, the Bishops of Meath and Kildare, the Lord Chief Justice, and the Prior of Kilmainham – head of the Irish Knights of St John.

On 5 May Lincoln and Lovell landed in Ireland, accompanied by a regiment of 2,000 Swabian and Swiss landsknechts in striped and slashed uniforms, hired with money lent by Margaret. They were commanded by a famous colonel, Martin Schwartz, origin ally a cobbler from Nuremburg, who had been ennobled by Maximilian for his distinguished services on many battlefields. Most of Schwartz’s regiment were foot soldiers armed with an eighteen-foot long pike, although some carried a huge zweihänder (a two-handed sword for cutting down enemy cavalry or for hewing a way through pikes), while about one in eight were crossbowmen or arquebusiers.13 The presence of such troops, the most professional in Western Europe, must have strengthened the Yorkist leaders’ determination.

Among the Engilsh supporters who greeted Lincoln and Lovell at Dublin were Sir Henry Bodrugan and John and John Beaumont from Cornwall, by Sir Richard Harleston, once governor of Guernsey, and Thomas David, formerly captain of the Calais garrison. They too had valuable military experience.

Although the two English leaders knew that Simnel was an impostor, as did Duchess Margaret, they made a convincing pretence of believing he was the real Earl of Warwick. On 24 May, Whit Sunday, Simnel was proclaimed King Edward VI at Christchurch Cathedral by the Bishop of Meath in a sermon, after which he was crowned with a circlet taken from a statue of the Virgin in St Mary’s church near Dame Gate. Lincoln and Lovell had been present at two coronations and no doubt gave advice on how to do it. The one notable who refused to take part in the ceremony or give it his blessing was the Italian Archbishop of Armagh, warned by a letter from Morton that Simnel was a fraud – the infuriated Lord Lincoln had to be restrained from knocking him down. Then, so that the crowds might all see the boy, he was carried through the streets from the cathedral to Dublin Castle on the shoulders of a giant of a man called Great Darcy of Platten.

Apparently, Lincoln and Lovell meant to keep up the pretence that Lambert Simnel was Warwick – ‘Edward VI’ – until they defeated Henry. No one knows what they planned to do afterwards. Had they won, the boy might have been replaced as king by the real Warwick, but it is more likely John de la Pole was going to claime the throne – the Chronicle of Calais comments that Margaret of York ‘would have made him King of England’14 – and become John II. This was also what Polydore Vergil heard from those who were well informed.15

What strategy should they use? One possibility was to lure Henry into crossing over to Ireland and attacking them. Yet if they stayed there too long, they would run out of money and be unable to pay their landsknechts. Their best chance was an immediate invasion of England. Encouragingly, the Irish raised four or five thousand troops for the expedition. Save for a handful of axe-wielding gallowglasses these were half-naked kern armed only with javelins and long knives, yet they were Kildare’s men with a tribal loyalty to him and to his brother, Sir Thomas FitzGerald of Lackagh, who was their commander.

A further reason to invade was that having advanced funds to hire the landsknechts, Margaret of Burgundy wanted a return on her investment. She now gave Lincoln still more money to hire ships for the invasion. Judging from how much a later Yorkist expedition cost her, she must have lent him something like a million gold crowns. A notoriously hard woman where money was concerned, the duchess insisted on a bond being drawn up, to ensure the earl would pay her back in full – as soon as he had conquered England.

Lincoln and Lovell calculated that they would be joined by a host of northern Englishmen. All in all, they stood a better chance of overthrowing Henry VII than the Tudor had ever had of defeating King Richard.

3. Early 1487: Margaret of York

1. E. Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families …, London, 1809, p. 430.

2. Vergil op. cit., pp. 14–16.

3. Margaret de la Pole, daughter of Sir John de la Pole, a younger bother of William, first Duke of Suffolk – married Jean de Foix, Earl of Kendal (‘Cumbria’), whose duather Anne became the Queen of Ladislas II of Hungary. GEC, vol. VIII, p. 150.

4. W.E.A. Moorhen, ‘The Career of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln’, The Ricardian, Journal of the Richard III Society, 13 (2003).

5. H.T. Riley (trans.), Ingulph’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland, 1854, pp. 513–14.

6. L. Attreed, York House Books, Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1991, vol. 2, p. 54.

7. Riley, Ingulph’s Chronicle, op. cit., p. 514.

8. M. Bennett, Lambert Simnel and the Battle of Stoke, Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987.

9. J.S. Brewer (ed.), The Book of Howth, in Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts, 6 vols, London, Public Record Office, 1867, vol. 5, pp.188–9.

10. Materials, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 273.

11. W.E. Hampton, ‘The Later Career of Robert Stillington’, in J. Petre (ed.), Richard III: Crown and People, London, Richard III Society, 1975–81, pp. 162–8.

12. York House Books, op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 540–2.

13. H. Delbruck, Die Nenzeit, vol. IV of Geshicte der Kriegskunst, Berlin, 1920.

14. J. Nichols (ed.), The Chronicle of Calais in the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, Camden Society, Old Series, 35, London, 1846, p. 1.

15. Vergil, op. cit., p. 23.

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