A new dawn
At the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485, Henry Tudor’s army overcame that of the king of England, Richard III, to become the unlikeliest figure to wear the English crown.
Henry was a minor Welsh earl with a slight claim to the throne, able to exploit discontent with Richard’s seizure of the crown to launch his own bid for power. Due to a timely intervention from his Stanley in-laws and a general lack of fervour for Richard’s kingship, against expectations the day swung Tudor’s way. He acceded to the throne as Henry VII and initiated one of the most storied periods in English history.
Yet, Henry’s ascendancy at the end of a turbulent conflict known as the Wars of the Roses could not be the end of the story, no matter how hard he and his supporters pressed the matter. He had inherited something of a poisoned chalice.
As the Lancastrian heir, Henry’s rise had been through the presumed demise of the so-called Princes in the Tower, Edward V and his brother Richard of York, and though he married their sister Elizabeth to symbolically unite the warring houses, not everyone was content with the rushed dynastic settlement. Within two years of Henry’s accession, his first challenger emerged.
In early 1487, rumours reached the royal court in London that a rebellion was forming fronted by senior Yorkist claimant, Edward, Earl of Warwick. This Warwick was the nephew of Edward IV and Richard III, a direct male-line Plantagenet descendant who had nevertheless been overlooked for the throne in recent years owing to the treason of his father, George, Duke of Clarence. The problem was, Warwick was safely under lock and key in the Tower of London, which raises the question of just who was the ten-year-old boy now put forward as a potential king?
After the rebellion stuttered in England, the small band of rebels around the apparent boy prince fled to Ireland. The Yorkists had deep connections to Ireland, where Warwick’s father Clarence had been born in Dublin. When a boy purporting to be Warwick was presented to them, the Irish roundly accepted him as the rightful king of England, and on 24 May 1487 he was crowned as much in Dublin Cathedral.
The Irish, of course, had no inkling that in London, Henry VII had already paraded the real Warwick around court. The leading light of the rebellion at this juncture were the earl of Lincoln, a bonafide Yorkist magnate with a claim to the throne of his own, and Francis Lovell, a close adherent of Richard III who thirsted for vengeance on the Tudor king. In June 1487, an army fronted by Lincoln formed chiefly from Irish recruits and German mercenaries invaded northern England.
Though they found support difficult to raise, the rebel army continued to march south until on 16 June 1487 on a field in rural Nottinghamshire, they found their path blocked by a formidable royal force. The battle that followed was hard fought, but gradually the superior numbers and equipment of Henry VII’s men paid off, and the rebels were crushed. The Irishmen were poorly equipped compared to the Tudor forces, and were slaughtered in their thousands. Among those killed was the earl of Lincoln and Martin Schwartz, the commander of the Germans.
The boy king, meanwhile, was taken alive. In the subsequent investigation, it was revealed his name was Lambert Simnel, a tradesman’s son from Oxford who had been trained by a wayward priest. He had formed part of a complex Oxfordshire-based conspiracy that ultimately found a captive audience in Ireland.
Rather than face execution, Henry VII determined the boy was too young to have committed any offence personally, and put him to work in the royal kitchens. He was eventually promoted to trainer of the king’s hawks, and was still alive deep into the reign of Henry VIII, perhaps the clearest indication that he was not of royal blood.
Four years after the Simnel affair, another pretender surfaced again in Ireland. It was initially claimed he was a bastard son of Richard III before he was declared Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower presumed dead for the past 8 years. History remembers this pretender as Perkin Warbeck.
For several years, Warbeck claimed that, as Prince Richard, he had been spared death in the Tower by a compassionate assassin and spirited abroad. He remained in hiding until his royal identity was revealed whilst wandering the streets of Cork. Between 1491 and 1497, he gained support from various European powers who sought to unsettle Henry VII for their own purpose, including France, Burgundy and Scotland. In particular he received recognition from the woman he referred to as his aunt, Margaret of York, the sister of Richard III and Edward IV.
Warbeck was, however, repeatedly unable to garner any noteworthy support within England itself, where uncertainty about his claims was enough to stall the nobility into declaring for him. After several invasion attempts failed, Warbeck finally landed in Cornwall in September 1497 and marched as far inland as Taunton before he lost his nerve. He was soon captured by Henry VII’s men after hiding in a Hampshire abbey.
During interrogation, he admitted his name was Piers Osbek and he was a native of Tournai. He was not the younger Prince in the Tower, but a man convinced to live a lie by a small cabal of men still loyal to the memory of Richard III. Having obtained his confession, Henry permitted Warbeck to live freely around court where he was roundly mocked.
Fresh accusations surfaced two years later, however, that he was plotting anew. This time, the conspiracy involved breaking Edward of Warwick out of the Tower. This time, there was no reprieve. On 23 November 1499, Warbeck was hanged at Tyburn like a common thief, confessing on the gallows a final time that he had been but an imposter. Debate about his real identity, however, persists to the present day.
Following Warbeck to the grave was Edward of Warwick, the most potent threat to the Tudor crown and implicated, perhaps unfairly, in the former’s final schemes. Unlike Warbeck, the earl was beheaded on Tower Hill and buried with his ancestors at the king’s expense, a clear concession to his uncontested royal bearing.
Warbeck and Warwick’s executions were a direct consequence of the emergence of a third, lesser-known, pretender in early 1499. This time around, there would be no need for bloody slaughter or a procession of executions. In fact, he was quickly forgotten, not even meriting mention in most contemporary chronicles. This was Ralph Wilford, a 19 or 20 year-old son of a London cordwainer starting foolishly claiming he was Warwick.
Wilford tried to rouse the people of Kent to make him king, but his crusade barely lasted a fortnight before he was rounded up. He confessed that he had dreamt of the deception whilst at school in Cambridge. Henry VII had dealt mercifully with Simnel and Warbeck when they first came into his possession, but Wilford was treated more harshly, a sign of a king losing patience.
On 12 February 1499, wearing just his shirt, Wilford was hanged just outside London, his body left for the next four days as a deterrent to anyone using the principal route between the city and Canterbury. His only accomplishment, aside from earning a brutal death, was to trigger the demise of Warbeck and the real Warwick later in the year.
The stress of kingship
Henry was a king who never ruled easily, a fate he shared with other usurpers. Multiple plots and conspiracies took their toll on his mental and physical state, and it was even said by one Spanish ambassador during this period that the king ‘has aged so much during the last two weeks that he seems to be twenty years older’.
The Tudor crown rested wearily on Henry’s head during his 24 year reign, but in the end, he survived every attempt at overthrow and defeated his enemies to become the first monarch in nearly a century to pass on the crown uncontested to his heir.
Nathen Amin is an author and researcher from Carmarthenshire, West Wales, who focuses on the 15th century and the reign of Henry VII. He wrote the first full-length biography of the Beaufort family, ‘The House of Beaufort’, followed by ‘Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders; Simnel, Warbeck and Warwick‘ in April 2021 – published by Amberley Publishing in paperback on 15 October 2022.
As of 2020, he is a trustee and founding member of the Henry Tudor Trust, and in 2022 was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.