Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: The Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion and Treason, The Secret Wars Against the Tudors by Desmond Seward

In many respects thanks to rudimentary world history courses and William Shakespeare's Richard III, we are taught that Henry VII won the Battle of Bosworth Field, married Princess Elizabeth of York, uniting the warring houses of Lancaster and York and they all lived happily ever after in the new Tudor dynasty.    Oh, yes there are those pesky pretenders to the throne, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck and  well rounded history courses will point out that the last battle of the War of the Roses took place in 1487 at the Battle of Stoke, but, all in all, Henry VII had a trouble-free reign leaving a secure future for his heir, Henry VIII, right?     Right?

As Desmond Seward in his exhaustively thorough new book,aThe Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion and Treason, The Secret Wars Against the Tudors brings to light many attempts to topple the very fragile Tudor dynasty.   Throughout his reign, Henry VII faced constant threats to his regime and his son, Henry VIII, faced not persons pretending to be the true King of England, but persons who actually had royal blood and were the true heirs to the Yorkist claims to the throne.

The Thespian commends Mr. Seward for his thoroughness in describing every instance of rebellion against Henry VII and Henry VIII.   However, that is part of the problem with this book.    It is fascinating to learn of an assassination attempt on Henry VII when he visited York in 1486 and to have detailed analysis of the attempts to put on the throne  Lambert Simnel, put forth as the imprisoned Edward Plantagenet,  Earl of Warwick and the travels and travails of the fascinating Perkin Warbeck who was backed as Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two Princes in the Tower.    It becomes mind-numbing to read in great detail every single name of every single person involved in the more minor rebellions such as that of the Grand Prior of the Order of St. John who plotted to poison Henry VII in 1496.

Despite these faults, the Thespian is grateful to Mr. Seward for bringing forward the truly fragile nature of the Tudor dynasty.    Simply having several children, including male heirs, did not a secure throne achieve.   One needs only look at the entire history of the 15th century battles between Henry VI who had one son who died at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and his cousin Richard, Duke of York's family, whose eldest son took the throne as Edward IV, to see the history of instability in the English throne.    Even Edward IV having two sons when he died did not lead to a secure succession with the usurpation by Edward IV's heretofore perfectly loyal brother, Richard III.   Richard only had one son and he predeceased him.    

In 1502, the fragility of the Tudor dynasty became a crisis.   Arthur, Prince of Wales died unexpectedly a few months after the diplomatic triumph of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.   The youngest son of Henry VII, Prince Edmund had died in 1500.    In 1503, Queen Elizabeth of York died of complications of childbirth and her latest baby, Princess Katherine died as well.    Henry VII is left with one son and two daughters.    It is at this point that the remaining members of the Yorkist blood royal begin to plot to take the throne.  

As Mr. Seward points out there are a few different branches of the Yorkist blood at the turn of the 16th century.    The closest to the throne, Edward, Earl of Warrick, son of Edward IV's brother, George, Duke of Clarence, had been imprisoned in the Tower of London since Henry VII came to the throne.   He was executed in 1499 following an escape attempt with the also imprisoned pretender, Perkin Warbeck.  

Warrick had a sister, Margaret, who was married to a cousin of the Tudors, Richard Pole who had been knighted following the Battle of Stoke.   Margaret was the mother of Henry, Lord Montague, Reginald, her most famous child who became the last catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sir Geoffrey Pole.

 Another family with royal blood were the Courtenays.   William Courtenay, who became Earl of Devonshire, married Queen Elizabeth of York's youngest sister, Princess Katherine.   They had one surviving son, Henry Courteney who would rise in favor under his cousin, Henry VIII and be created Marquis of Exeter.   The third family that caused the most difficulty to both Henry VII and Henry VIII were the de la Poles, Earls of Suffolk.

The de la Poles had married into the Yorkist royal family when John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk married Edward IV and Richard III's sister, Elizabeth Plantagenet.     His son, another John, Earl of Lincoln had been named heir presumptive to the throne by Richard III.   John, Earl of Lincoln died at the Battle of Stoke.    His younger brother, Edmund de la Pole, was reconciled to the Tudor king and there are numerous records of his presence at court.    Following the death of the Earl of Warrick, which was considered by many to be judicial murder he rebelled against Henry VII and left the country.    He had a grievance in that his father's lands had become forfeit to the crown due to the attainder for treason.   However, he changed his mind, returned to England and was fined a huge sum of money.   From that point the de la Poles were less in favor.

Mr. Seward goes into detail the various ways in which the reports to the courts of Maximillian, Holy Roman Emperor, and Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy seemed to favor the White Rose claims.   However, favoring did not always translate into financial backing for the needed troops to back those claims.    Edmund fled to the court of Emperor Maximillian again a few years later and when Archduke Phillip, the new Duke of Burgundy was unexpectedly washed up on England's shores while traveling to Spain to claim his wife's throne in 1506, one of the deals negotiated was the return of Edmund de la Pole.    Edmund was duly returned and fully cooperated naming several members of the aristocracy as his backers.    Edmund remained in prison until the reign of Henry VIII and was executed in 1513 during the preparations for the French War and as a direct result of the French King, Louis XII deciding to give a military command to Edmund's brother, Richard de la Pole.

Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 and issued a general pardon.   However, that pardon did not extend to those who had supported Edmund de la Pole, such as his brothers Richard and William de la Pole and William Courtenay, Earl of Devonshire.     Henry VIII rehabilitated Margaret Plantagenet giving her some of her family's lands, creating her Countess of Salisbury in her own right and appointing her godmother and governess of the Princess Mary.   He also raised his cousin, Henry Courtenay first to his father's title of Earl of Devonshire and then to Marquis of Exeter in June 1525.    Yet, as Mr. Seward points out having royal blood was a dangerous thing during the reign of Henry VIII.

Mr. Seward spends a good amount discussing Richard de la Pole's travels on the continent.   He remained at the French court, styling himself the White Rose.  It was in the service of King Francois I, that he died at the Battle of Pavia.  

The book includes the fall of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who died primarily due to trumped up charges that he planned to take the throne.   Then he turns to the circumstances behind the rarely mentioned in general Tudor history Exeter Conspiracy.

Henry VIII's quest for a male heir is generally looked upon through his marital history.   What becomes clear in a book such as Mr. Seward's is that the security of a male heir was paramount in the 16th century.    And a genuine threat was perceived by the mere existence of Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury's children.  

Her second son, Reginald Pole was a talented scholar.  Henry VIII had sponsored his continental education and he rose in the Catholic church.   However, during the King's Great Matter, Henry VIII's annulment proceedings against Katherine of Aragon, Reginald took Katherine's side, writing polemics against Henry VIII's arguments.   Reginald was also considered a threat because, while he eventually rose to the rank of Cardinal, he never took priestly vows and therefore he could have been released from his role in the church.   He was constantly put forth as a potential husband for the Princess Mary.    Mr. Seward discusses the assassination and kidnapping attempts made on Reginald Pole and also that Reginald genuinely was trying to raise funds to potentially remove Henry VIII from the throne.

Into this was the innocence of the rest of his family.   Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury, while remaining a staunch supporter of Katherine of Aragon and Princess Mary, dutifully wrote letters to Reginald condemning his actions.   Reginald's eldest brother, Henry, Lord Montague had been steadfastly loyal to the King participating in many of the glittering events and supporting the King in his annulment.   Their cousin, Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter, from whom the Conspiracy takes its name, had been even more loyal, serving as a military commander and judge in the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion.  

Yet, Henry VIII had finally succeeding in producing a male heir, the future King Edward VI.   Those with Yorkist blood were potentially a threat to the young prince.   And the Yorkist families had run afoul of the "new" men who had risen to power, such as Thomas Cromwell.  These men had earned their positions at court by ability and not by noble blood.

Henry VIII had Lord Montague and the Marquis of Exeter brought to trial and executed.  A few years later he had the elderly Countess of Salisbury executed as well.   Montague's young son, disappears into the Tower records.   Exeter's son would grow up in the Tower of London and be released during the reign of Queen Mary I only to be caught up in another rebellion leading to his exile and death.

Seward ends his book with the fall of the house of Howard which solidified the reformist position in the council that was proposed to govern during Edward VI's minority.

Overall, this is a very thorough book covering many aspects of Henry VII and Henry VIII's reigns that tend to get short shrift in more general biographies.   However, The Thespian cannot wholly recommend this book.  Why?   For the simple reason that it is poorly edited and contains numerous basic errors of fact.    A few examples:  Seward states that Prince Arthur was 17 when he died - he was 15, he names the Marquis of Exeter as Edward Courtenay - he was Henry, his son was Edward,  and the book names him correctly at a later point, he states that Gertrude Blount, the Marchioness of Exeter was half Spanish.  This later one is repeated by historians that were writing 20 or more years ago.  According to Burke's peerage she was fully English the daughter of his first wife, Elizabeth Say.    These are just a few of the errors there a a few more.     When a book contains basic errors of facts, no matter how valuable the material, The Thespian cannot give it her full stamp of approval.

Desmond Seward is a medieval historian whose previous books are A Brief History of the Hundred Years War and A Brief History of the Wars of the Roses.    His current book,DThe Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion and Treason, The Secret Wars Against the Tudors was published by Constable Press in 2010.

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