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Henry VII crushed Margaret of Burgundy’s bid for power

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Friday, 30 November 2012

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This edited article about King Henry VII originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 790 published on 5th March1977.

Lambert Simnel, picture,  image, illustration

Henry VII put Lammbert Simnel to work in the Royal kitchen by C L Doughty

He won his crown on the battlefield of Bosworth and at once his troubles began. But Henry VII, founder of the great dynasty that culminated in the incomparable reign of his grandaughter, Elizabeth I, was a born survivor.

He needed to be, not least because two impostors made every effort to grab his throne. This is their story.

England had been split by the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster and York for thirty years and the fact that we now know that the Battle of Bosworth Field, fought in 1485, ended those wars, does not mean that those living at the time realised it.

Richard III had been killed at that battle, and why should Henry Tudor, the upstart Welshman with not such a good claim to the throne as Richard, be any luckier? True, he promptly married Elizabeth, daughter of Richard’s brother, Edward IV, which caused the nation as a whole to sigh with relief as it united Lancaster – Henry was a Lancastrian – and York.

But, the diehard Yorkists wanted revenge for Bosworth; especially a grim, warped old woman named Margaret, who was Edward IV’s sister. She now lived in Burgundy and was prepared to back any rival of Henry’s, even an impostor. That she was Henry’s aunt by marriage meant nothing to her for her desire for revenge had warped her soul.

The first impostor on the scene was a boy named Lambert Simnel. That no one is sure if he was a baker’s son or a joiner’s son (for little is certain about his early life), only makes the story the more remarkable.

Somehow an unscrupulous, ambitious priest named Simmons got hold of the pleasant-looking boy and decided to teach him to impersonate the Earl of Warwick who happened to be in the Tower of London at the time. He was the son of the dead Duke of Clarence, and young Warwick, whose father had been murdered, had a better claim to the throne than Henry.

Simmons took his likely lad to Ireland, which teemed with Yorkists. These bitter exiles persuaded the ruling barons to crown Simnel “Edward VI”. Meanwhile, Margaret of Burgundy heard the glad tidings and hired 2,000 tough German mercenaries under an even tougher leader, Martin Schwarz, to back King Simnel when he invaded England.

Henry, still insecure on his throne, prepared for the worst. He had the real Earl of Warwick paraded through the streets of London, but in the days before television, photographs, or even newspapers, this was not enough to convince everyone, especially those at a distance. Even though most sensible people saw through the Yorkist plot, and doubtless cursed both Lancaster and York, support for the pretender grew outside the capital.

Led by a nephew of Richard III, the Yorkists and their German helpers invaded Lancashire with Simnel as their mascot.

They headed for Yorkshire where Richard III had been popular, then met Henry at Stoke Field in Nottinghamshire. A ferocious battle ended in the total rout of the rebels, but Henry had been in real danger.

Even so, he treated Simnel leniently. Though Simmons was imprisoned for life, the youth was put into the royal kitchen as a turnspit, and later Henry made him his falconer, the keeper of the royal hawks. He was lucky.

The next impostor was an even greater threat. His name has come down to us as Perkin Warbeck and he seems to have been a son of a Belgian from Tournai who had travelled in aristocratic circles. By means which remain obscure, Perkin came into the orbit of Margaret of Burgundy, who was overjoyed to find a personable young fraud who really looked like a prince.

He also looked quite like Richard of York. Most people assumed that Richard and his brother had been murdered in the Tower by Richard III, but here was a splendid chance to claim that one prince had escaped and to proclaim him “Richard IV!”

Henry knew all about Perkin and his origins. The youth had already made the by now traditional trip to Ireland, where many were not to be deceived a second time. Yet Warbeck, too, was “crowned” in Ireland, provoking the comment from Henry: “I think ye will crown apes in Ireland at the last.” Far more important was the fact that Margaret was Perkin’s champion, and so Perkin became the symbol of the Yorkist cause.

Henry rounded up as many suspects as he could, helped by his excellent secret service. Then he heard that Perkin had landed in Kent with 300 men, who proved no match for the furious local populace, aghast that someone should want to disrupt a nation again. Henry was never greatly loved, but he always had the mass of the people on his side.

Perkin now fled to Scotland, where James IV, to suit his own ends, backed him and gave him his cousin as a bride, after which the Scottish king unsuccessfully invaded England. Meanwhile, in 1497 – and let us note that Perkin had been seeking the throne since 1491 – the Cornish revolted against heavy taxation for a Scottish war that was so far from their homes.

They marched on London, but were defeated. Henry treated them so leniently, that when Perkin turned up in their midst some months later, they were willing to try their luck again.

It spelled their doom, for though they reached Taunton in Somerset – having failed to take Exeter – Henry was marching down on them. The 10,000 ragged, ill-disciplined peasants could be no match for the Royal forces, though Perkins posing as “Richard IV” tried his best to cheer them the night before the battle. Alas, for the Cornishmen, Perkin deserted them the next morning; and this time Henry dealt ruthlessly with the rebels.

Perkin was luckier, being shown off in the streets of London, and confessing his sins so completely that even Margaret of Burgundy felt impelled to ask Henry’s pardon and led a blameless life thereafter.

That should have been the end of this second troublemaker’s career, for Henry was prepared to allow the youth his freedom.

But Perkin proceeded to try and escape and found himself in the Tower. Incredibly, he tried again, this time to help the Earl of Warwick gain the crown. And this time Henry was forced to act and both Perkin and Warwick were executed.

Perkin Warbeck remains a remarkable impostor whose career has its mysteries, but also many triumphs.

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