Henry VII & The Pretenders

On the 22nd August 1485 a 331 year old dynasty came to an end with the death of the last Plantagenet, King Richard III. His death at the Battle of Bosworth changed everything for his successor Henry Tudor, now known as King Henry VII. For Henry this brought to an end years of exile in Brittany, always under threat from the ruling Yorkist house, as he was now the most powerful man in England. During the 15th century though the balance of power could change in a blink of an eye, but with his coronation in October 1485 and subsequent marriage to Elizabeth of York in 1486 (which symbolically combined the Lancastrian and Yorkist houses ending the Wars of the Roses) his position seemed relatively strong.

Henry VII
Henry VII c.1505

Cue the pretenders who were a thorn in Henry’s side and effected the legitimacy of his reign. It was Lambert Simnel & Perkin Warbeck though who were to prove the biggest pretenders to threaten Henry’s crown and the Tudor dynasty.

Pretender 1: Lambert Simnel

Lambert Simnel was definitely a pawn and not a player. In 1486 not long into Henry’s reign, he was being paraded as Edward Earl of Warwick by bitter exiled Yorkists. The real Warwick was a Plantagenet claimant who was already under Henry’s control and living in the Tower of London. Henry decided to have the real Warwick paraded through London to show that Simnel was just a pretender, but this did nothing to quell the problem as Simnel was even crowned as Edward VI whilst in Ireland. He had powerful backing from John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln and Margaret Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, aunt to the real Warwick. Things really came to a head by 1487 when the rebels turned into a fighting force with “Simnel, Lincoln, and a mixed force of Yorkist diehards, 1500 German mercenaries, and about 4000 poorly armed Irish kerne (light infantry)” landing in Furness and beginning their journey into England and gaining recruits on the way. Henry was barely into his reign at this point and was not as well established as he would go on to become, but he prepared well and met the rebels head on, defeating them in the Battle of Stoke in June 1487. His second big battle in 2 years. It was apparent that Simnel was not a key driving force of the rebellion so Henry spared him, allowing him to become a royal servant. The defeat of this first pretender helped secure Henry’s position, showing that he wouldn’t be going anywhere without a fight.

An illustration of Lambert Simnel riding on the shoulders of supporters in Ireland courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the CC BY-SA 4.0 License

Pretender 2: Perkin Warbeck

Warbeck would turn out to be a much bigger problem for Henry. A chancer at heart, Warbeck originally came from Tournai, France where his parents were a part of the merchant class. He was well learned and travelled around Europe going to Antwerp and Lisbon. He began his impersonation in around 1491 after arriving in Cork, Ireland where exiled Yorkists asked him to impersonate Richard, Duke of York (one of the Princes in the Tower who disappeared along with his brother Edward V in 1483). Warbeck took on the role, and was soon centre stage at the royal courts of Europe. Warbeck would be protected at one time or another by Charles VIII of France, Margaret of Dowager Duchess of Burgundy (yep her again, she reallllly hated Henry), Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and James IV of Scotland (who would actually go on to marry Henry’s daughter Margaret Tudor). It’s thought the “old loyalties to the house of York in general, and to young Duke Richard in particular, sustained the conspiracy across a wide geographical and social range“.  Warbeck evaded Henry for 6 years, travelling Europe and making (ultimately not very successful) attempts to invade. The winds finally turned in Henry’s favour though, as Warbeck and his rebels piggybacked on the revolt in Cornwall to their detriment as their siege of Exeter failed. Rebels began to run for cover, with Warbeck ending up seeking sanctuary in Beaulieu Abbey, but he surrendered on the promise of pardon and admitted he was an imposter. Henry finally had the pretender in his grasp, after parading him around Warbeck tried to escape but was found quickly giving Henry the reason he needed to imprison Warbeck in the Tower of London. There the story comes to a grisly end as Warbeck and the real Edward, Earl of Warwick were soon involved in a conspiracy to escape. This was uncovered and both were executed on Henry’s orders.

Drawing of Perkin Warbeck c.15th Century

Henry VII was a king by conquest and despite the threats of the pretenders kept his throne for 24 years before dying peacefully in 1509. His legacy is often overlooked due to his son Henry VIII’s dramatic reign, but if not for the strength of character of Henry VII the Tudor dynasty could have been finished off before it had even begun. It’s easy in hindsight to say the pretenders were no match for Henry, but they were a real threat to the Tudor dynasty, and one Henry successfully dealt with. As recorded in Anglica Historia “He well knew how to maintain his royal majesty and all which appertains to kingship at every time and in every place. He was most fortunate in war, although he was constitutionally more inclined to peace than to war.”

What are your thoughts on the pretenders? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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Tudor Rose courtesy of Ipankonin under the CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Oxford National Biography: Simnel, Lambert by Michael J. Bennett

Oxford National Biography: Warbeck, Perkin by S.J.Gunn

Oxford National Biograpy: Henry VII by S.J.Gunn






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