Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  On 20th February Parliament declared her estates forfeit and granted Elizabeth Wydville a pension of 400 marks per annum. Later that spring warrants were issued to officers of the Royal Exchequer to pay all issues from the confiscated estates to Elizabeth of York. In this we may perceive the real reason why Henry VII had disparaged his mother-in-law: while she was enjoying the revenues from properties normally used to dower a queen consort, his wife was being deprived of the property appertaining to her estate. Henry had no intention of supporting two queens, and by depriving Elizabeth Wydville of her lands he rid himself at a stroke of this inconvenience. He had also deprived the Queen Dowager of funds she might use against him. That he had his suspicions about the Wydvilles is confirmed by his imprisonment of Dorset in the Tower until after the rebellion. His later treatment of Elizabeth Wydville is evidence that he had probably believed her to have been culpable.

  Having learned that she was deprived of her estates and the income from them, Elizabeth had no choice but to retire to a nunnery. Around 12th February 1487 she moved to Bermondsey Abbey, a fourteenth-century foundation long favoured by royal ladies. A beautiful, peaceful place, the abbey had elegant gardens and commanded a site on the Surrey shore of the Thames opposite the Tower of London. From its windows the ageing Queen could see across the river to the fortress wherein lay, she believed, the bodies of her sons. At Bermondsey she was assigned apartments once reserved for the use of the earls of Gloucester, and registered as a boarder.

  Some revisionists have asserted that Elizabeth was ‘banished’ to Bermondsey – though there is nothing to suggest that she went there under duress – because she had discovered that Henry had been responsible for the murder of the Princes; it is said he wanted to silence her. Bacon alleges that during her retirement it was hazardous for any person to see or speak with her, but the circumstances of her life at Bermondsey from 1487 until her death give these assertions the lie. In no sense was Elizabeth a prisoner. Henry VII continued to refer to her as his ‘right dear mother’ and she visited court from time to time. In 1489 she was present when the Queen bore a daughter, Margaret, and afterwards she helped Elizabeth of York host a reception for foreign ambassadors. In 1490 her pension was increased to £400 per annum, and over the years she was given various grants by the Exchequer, such as payment for Christmas sundries and wines. Elizabeth Wydville died at Bermondsey, with her daughters round her, on 8th June, 1492, and was buried beside Edward IV in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

  Henry’s spies soon discovered the truth about Lambert Simnel’s identity and he was proclaimed an imposter on 17th February, 1487. A few days later Lincoln fled in secret to Margaret of Burgundy in Flanders. On 29th February Henry had Warwick paraded through London, to demonstrate the falsity of Simnel’s claim. After high mass at St Paul’s, Warwick was allowed to converse with courtiers who had known him before being returned to the Tower. In March, Henry mobilised his forces in preparation for an invasion.

  Many people were nevertheless duped by Simnel’s supporters into believing in him. Some, of course, found it politically desirable to acknowledge his claims – Lincoln was one of them. By Whitsun 1487, when Lincoln landed in Ireland with an army provided by his aunt, there was panic in England at the prospect of another dynastic war. The Earl publicly recognised Simnel as his cousin Warwick, and played a prominent part when the boy was crowned ‘Edward VI’ in Dublin Cathedral on 24th May. Early in June, the rebel forces, led by Lincoln, crossed to England, but on 16th June they were massacred by Henry VII’s army at the bloody Battle of Stoke. Lincoln was killed, and Simnel was taken prisoner. Lovell disappeared; over 200 years later a skeleton thought to be his was found sitting at a desk in a walled-up room at Minster Lovell.

  The King’s victory at Stoke was seen by his contemporaries as reaffirmation by the Almighty of the divine judgement made manifest at Bosworth. It left him in a much stronger position and he could afford to be merciful to the hapless boy who had been at the centre of the conspiracy. Simnel was put to work in the royal kitchens and later promoted to be the King’s falconer, dying in 1525.

  Who was Lambert Simnel? Born around 1475, he was described in Lincoln’s attainder as the son of an Oxford joiner and organ-maker called Thomas Simnel. Henry VII, in a letter to the Pope, claimed he was illegitimate. However, there is no trace in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English records of anyone by the name of Simnel, except for Richard Simnel, a canon of St Osyth’s Priory, Essex, in the reign of Henry VIII who was probably Lambert’s son. An account of the Battle of Stoke was written in 1487–9 by one of Henry VII’s heralds: in the original manuscript, now in the British Library, reference is made to the pretender ‘whose name was indeed John’. In a later transcription by the antiquarian John Leland that name has been changed to ‘Lambert’. It seems likely that the boy’s real name was not Lambert Simnel and that that name was chosen as a pseudonym, probably to find favour with the people of Flanders, one of whose favourite saints was St Lambert, whose reliquary in Liège Cathedral had been a gift from the late Duke of Burgundy, Margaret of York’s husband. There is no reason to believe that ‘Simnel’ had any genetic connection with the royal family, nor that he was any other than ‘common in all respects’, as he himself admitted under interrogation.

  One person who was certainly involved in the Simnel conspiracy, and suffered for it, was Bishop Stillington. He was apprehended and questioned in March 1487 but, despite not being charged with any crime, was kept under house arrest at Windsor Castle until his death in May 1491 to keep him from further mischief.

  After Stoke, Henry VII set about consolidating his position. He had his queen crowned at last – her first pregnancy and then the rebellion had obliged him to defer this, much to his subjects’ annoyance. In March 1488 he opened negotiations with Spain for the marriage of Katherine of Aragon to Prince Arthur, an alliance that would considerably increase the standing of the Tudor dynasty in Europe. But Henry was still by no means secure on his throne at this date: there is evidence that from 1488 onwards disaffected Yorkists were conspiring against him. In 1489, just as the marriage alliance with Spain was being successfully concluded, Henry began to be troubled by a new wave of rumours – probably originating with these Yorkist malcontents – that one of the Princes in the Tower still lived. Henry did not know it then but this was the opening fanfare for yet another pretender.

  This second, more serious, conspiracy probably originated with Margaret of Burgundy. In the autumn of 1491 a young man called Perkin Warbeck appeared in Ireland, calling himself the Earl of Warwick. But almost immediately, on the advice of prominent White Rose loyalists, he changed his identity to that of Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower. The pro-Yorkist Irish soon rallied to support him.

  News of this new imposture caused Henry VII the greatest concern. ‘This lad who calls himself Plantagenet’, as he referred to Warbeck, with his strong White Rose backing, posed a serious threat to the crown as more and more Yorkist partisans offered him their loyalty. In time, Warbeck would secure the recognition of most of the princes of Europe, which made him even more of a danger. In March 1492 he was welcomed as a visiting sovereign at the French court and lorded it there for several months. But in November, when England and France signed the Treaty of Etaples, Charles VIII undertook not to grant political asylum to any more pretenders to the English crown. Warbeck fled to Flanders where Margaret of Burgundy wholeheartedly acknowledged him as her long-lost nephew and feted him as the rightful King of England. Her stepson-in-law, the Archduke Maximilian, ruler of the Low Countries, followed suit.

  News of these events came, says Bacon, ‘blazing and thundering into England’, causing people to take the pretender rather more seriously and to wonder whether the Princes in the Tower had been murdered after all. Many chose to believe that Warbeck was in fact York and attached themselves to his cause. But by July 1493, Henry VII’s spies had uncovered Warbeck’s true identity, and the King was able to write to Sir Gil
bert Talbot that the pretender was just ‘another feigned lad, called Perkin Warbeck, born at Tournai in Picardy, which at his first [coming] into Ireland called himself the bastard son of King Richard, and after that the son of the Duke of Clarence, now the second son of our father, King Edward the Fourth, whom God assoil.’

  Armed with this knowledge, Henry made a formal protest to the government of Flanders about harbouring an imposter to his throne, and when this was ignored, he risked England’s commercial prosperity by imposing a ban on trade with the Low Countries. At this time English supporters of Warbeck were still making the journey to Flanders to offer him their allegiance. Maximilian ignored Henry’s remonstrances and took Warbeck to Vienna with him to represent England at his own father’s funeral. After his return to Flanders in 1493, Warbeck crossed to Ireland, intending to use it as a spring-board for an invasion of England. In October 1494, Henry VII sent the redoubtable Sir Edward Poynings to Ireland with instructions to eject the pretender. A month later the King pointedly created his second son Henry, aged three, Duke of York, in a very public ceremony.

  Meanwhile, Henry’s agents had discovered and rounded up Warbeck’s chief supporters in England. Most were arrested late in 1494, but the biggest fish of all, Sir William Stanley, brother of the Earl of Derby, and brother-in-law to the king’s mother, was netted in January 1495 and executed the following month. This deprived the pretender of any cohesive support in England.

  By March 1495 Maximilian was beginning to grow weary of his guest, who had been forced to return from Ireland to Flanders, and he urged Warbeck to invade England and take what he claimed was his birthright. That summer, Henry VII had his realm placed on invasion alert, and in July Warbeck’s pathetic attempt to land at Deal was foiled by soldiers guarding the coast. After returning for a short while to Flanders, Warbeck attempted Ireland once more, but was driven away by Poynings at Waterford in late July, 1495.

  James IV of Scotland now expressed himself sympathetic to Warbeck’s cause, glad to have an opportunity of embarrassing Henry VII. In November the pretender took refuge at the Scottish court where he was royally received and given one of the King’s kinswomen as his wife, though in February 1496 Maximilian withdrew his support under the terms of a treaty, the ‘Magnus Intercursus’, he had signed with Henry VII, which restored trade between the two countries.

  By now, Warbeck’s credibility had been badly impaired. In 1496 James planned an invasion of England, not so much on Warbeck’s behalf but to suit his own ends. In the event, Scots incursion, mounted in September, turned out to be no more than a border raid, over in twenty-four hours. James was disgusted when the squeamish Warbeck expressed outrage over the needless pillaging and destruction of English property, and thereafter made it clear to the pretender that his presence in Scotland was not welcome.

  In June 1497 Henry VII successfully quelled a rebellion by the men of Cornwall against the harsh taxes levied to finance the country’s defences against the Scots. To avoid war, Henry instructed his envoys in Scotland to press for Warbeck’s extradition, and a day after they did so he was expelled from Scotland with his wife, and sailed to Cork in Ireland. On 7th September, having dodged Poynings’ forces, he landed at Cornwall and marched with his supporters on Exeter, gathering an army of yeomen and country folk on the way. Henry VII, learning of his advance, sent a great force against him, following behind himself with reinforcements. On 17th September Warbeck laid siege to Exeter but the city was ably defended by the Earl of Devon, and he was driven off the next day. Three days later he moved to Taunton, where he learned that the royal army was bearing down on him, and, abandoning his ragged force to their fate, he escaped and galloped south for the coast, but was apprehended on 5th October and brought before King Henry.

  Henry was remarkably lenient with Warbeck. He sent him to London, extracted a confession from him without resorting to torture, and initially placed him in the Tower. After a short time he allowed him to live under guard at court, but not to sleep with his wife, who lived under the Queen’s protection. Warbeck was at court for eighteen months, but by June 1498 the silken chains that bound him had begun to chafe and he tried to escape. He was caught within hours, and this time Henry VII was not so forbearing. He had Warbeck placed in close confinement in the Tower, cut off from the light of day. Men who saw him a year later were shocked at how the experience had aged him.

  Yet still it did not sap his penchant for intrigue. In a cell near him the Earl of Warwick lived out his dreary existence. It seems almost certain that in August 1499 an agent provocateur was planted amongst the gaolers by the government to lure both Warbeck and Warwick into conspiracy, with a view to annihilating two threats to the security of the realm. Why else should Warwick, who had been kept so solitary and close that it was rumoured he was dead be housed in close proximity to the perilous Warbeck and allowed to communicate with him?

  The government’s ploy worked: the two prisoners plotted to escape and overthrow the King. On 12th November, 1499, the Council were told of this and ordered the arrest of both men. Four days later Warbeck was tried and condemned to death. Warwick was arraigned and sentenced on 19th November. Of him, it was said by Vergil that he could not tell a goose from a capon, and it was believed by many that he had not had the wits to resist being led into the conspiracy, nor had he had any treasonous intent.

  Warbeck was executed on 23rd November, 1499, at Tyburn, after publicly swearing that he was not the son of Edward IV. His scaffold confession was afterwards printed and widely circulated by order of the King. Warwick was beheaded on Tower Hill a few days later, although most people believed him innocent. His death was deemed necessary, not so much because of his involvement with Warbeck, but because Ferdinand of Aragon was refusing to allow his daughter Katherine to come to England while he lived, a potential threat to the crown. The deaths of Warwick and Warbeck certainly removed the worst menaces to Henry VII’s security. There were no more imposters after 1499.

  The fact that Perkin Warbeck managed to maintain his imposture for so long has, over the years, led many writers to assert that he was indeed Richard of York, or at least a scion of the House of York. ‘This,’ wrote Bacon, ‘was a finer counterfeit stone than Lambert Simnel. He was a youth of fine favour and shape. He had been from his childhood such a wanderer it was hard to hunt out his nest and parents.’ Bacon felt sure that some hushed-up scandal was attached to Warbeck’s birth; he had learned that Edward IV had stood godfather to the son of a converted Jew, and assumed that this son was really the King’s bastard, fostered on a Jewish family. The truth of the matter was that the King had stood godfather to the Jewish Sir Edward Brampton on his conversion to the Christian faith, and Sir Edward was later Warbeck’s employer. On the false assumption that Warbeck was Edward IV’s bastard, Bacon wrote: ‘It was ordained that the winding ivy of a Plantagenet should kill the true tree itself.’

  What impressed people about Warbeck were his dignity, his regal bearing, his knowledge of court matters and of the royal house. His acceptance by a succession of European crowned heads led many to believe that he must indeed be York, or at least a bastard of the house of York. His appearance seemed to confirm this: a drawing of him survives in the French manuscript known as the ‘Receuil d’Arras’ and shows a young man with long fair hair, a minor squint or cast in one eye and features bearing a strong resemblance to those of Edward IV. In 1497 the Venetian ambassador saw Warbeck at Henry VII’s court and described him as a ‘well-favoured young man, 23 years old’, thus placing his birthdate around 1473–4 – York was born in August 1473. But the Milanese ambassador thought him ‘not handsome; indeed, his left eye rather lacks lustre, but he is intelligent and well-spoken’. His attributes were all, alas, skin deep, for while he was clever enough to maintain his imposture for several years, when it came to prosecuting his claims he showed himself inept and cowardly, faults that would bring about his ruin.

  Warbeck, posing as York, was ever ready to recount the tale of what had
happened to him in the Tower. In the autumn of 1493 he described this in a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, in which he declared that he was indeed the son of Edward IV, that his name was Richard Plantagenet, and that he had been secretly spared by the murderers of his brother, Edward V. He was careful not to accuse either Richard III or Henry VII of the murder. Once his brother was dead, he said, he had been entrusted ‘to a gentleman who had received orders to destroy him but who, taking pity on his innocence, had preserved his life and made him swear on the sacrament not to disclose for a certain number of years his birth and lineage’. From 1483–91 he had lived abroad in a variety of places and been in the care of two guardians, until one died and the other – Sir Edward Brampton – returned to England, leaving him at a loose end in Portugal. It was at this point that he went to Ireland and was recognised as the long-lost Duke of York. How the Irish recognised York, who had spent his life until the murder in England and was not well-known even there, is not satisfactorily explained.

  This unsubstantiated account received short shrift from the Spanish sovereigns, who did not believe it, as is proved by a note to that effect written on the letter. Nevertheless, other monarchs did recognise Warbeck as York, affirming they had seen birthmarks that satisfied them of his identity.

  The possibility that Yorkist blood did flow in Warbeck’s veins cannot be discounted, although the evidence for it is tenuous. Recognition by other princes was not proof of his identity, since they undoubtedly found it to their advantage politically to acknowledge his claim, given the fact that all of them, at one time or other, desired to embarrass Henry VII.

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