Last week I noted how I would post all chapters of my short eBook Ralph Wilford: Henry VII’s Forgotten Pretender. The first chapter provides a contextual overview of the reign of Henry VII up to the year of 1499. The remaining chapters will posted in the near future.

Chapter 1 – The Fears of Henry VII

Henry VII’s twenty-four year reign (1485-1509) was one filled with threats and fears. He was the first Tudor of what would become a three-generation dynasty and his entire royal work was focussed on establishing the family as the rightful rulers of the English kingdom. The reasons for this insecurity and paranoia can be traced to Henry’s backstory before becoming king on the battlefield at Bosworth in 1485, and in the wider historical context of the generational struggle of the Wars of the Roses. The decades long feud between two competing political factions – Lancastrian and Yorkist – destabilised royal authority in the kingdom due to rising and falling fortunes from the 1450s to the 1480s. Kings came and went, and with each change the profile of Henry Tudor – a relatively forgotten outsider – rose to a position in which he became the final Lancastrian claimant for the crown.

The political position of England in the early 1480s appeared calm and settled: the Yorkist king Edward IV (1461-1470; 1471-1483) had expelled or executed all opponents to his rule, and he appeared set to remain on the throne for decades to come. His premature death in 1483 – before turning the age of 41 – reignited the Wars of the Roses, setting off a civil war within the Yorkists. His heir, the young boy Edward V, was taken from his mother’s family (the much reviled Woodvilles) and was placed in the custody of Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. There was nothing to suggest that Richard would be anything other than a careful protector of the young king, such was his long-enduring loyal service; however, Richard made a play for the throne himself by having Edward V and his younger brother (Richard, Duke of York) declared illegitimate. The Duke of Gloucester became Richard III, whilst the young boys were locked in the Tower of London and heard of no more.

The mystery of the so-called ‘Princes in the Tower’ and the events of 1483 provided a platform that raised the forgotten Henry Tudor to the status of a claimant for the throne of England. Richard’s brutal actions alienated many supporters and close allies, leading to an exodus of key political players who trumpeted the right of Henry to rule. In many ways, this highlights just how desperate the political nation of England was in this period, for old Lancastrians, disgruntled Yorkists, and outraged Woodvilles began to form an interesting and potentially explosive alliance with Henry. Furthermore, the Tudor claim was incredibly weak: the male line of the Tudors was not traced to any drop of English royal blood (although Henry’s grandfather, Owen Tudor, had married the former English queen Catherine of Valois after the death of her husband, Henry V in 1422). The royal claim, then, was traced through his mother – Margaret Beaufort – which stretched back to John of Gaunt in the 14th Century. However, the Beauforts were originally bastards of Gaunt who were later legitimised, a fact that tarnished their royal credentials. 

Such was the basis of Henry Tudor’s claim: weak and fragmented. All of this provides insight as to why he was on the fringes of political consciousness for so many years; in 1471 he and his uncle Jasper escaped England to flee to Brittany. He remained across the Channel for over a decade, during which time he seemingly disappeared into anonymity. It was only the events of 1483 that completely changed Henry’s fortunes, from which he was able to capitalise on the collapse of faith in Richard’s rule. In 1485 he managed to take his new allies – with the backing of financial support from the French – across the sea to land in Wales, the ancestral homeland of the Tudors. In August Henry and Richard met on the battlefield at Bosworth, and despite being initially outnumbered Henry was able to achieve victory after the influential Stanley family switched sides.

It was a meteoric rise to prominence from the position of a forgotten noble of a vanquished line to become king of all of England. The times make the man, so it is claimed; in the instance of Henry Tudor it is entirely true. An understanding of the context of the Wars of the Roses is crucial in understanding Henry VII, particularly his desires and fears. His exile in Brittany and troubles in taking the throne sheds light on the choices that he made during his twenty-four year reign, particularly on how he chose to deal with the threats from aggrieved Yorkists who looked to avenge the death of Richard III.

Henry VII faced several major threats and rebellions throughout his reign. Many were inspired and engineered by dissident Yorkists, as was the case with the Lambert Simnel Rebellion in 1486-87 (plotted by John de la Pole, nephew and heir apparent of Richard III, along with Richard’s sister, Margaret of Burgundy) which culminated in the Battle of Stoke Field in 1487. Of a similar magnitude was Perkin Warbeck, who throughout the 1490s was courted by foreign monarchs in France, Burgundy, the Holy Roman Empire, and Scotland, all giving Henry a serious issue with regards to stability. Warbeck himself attempted several doomed invasions, with the final one taking place in the west-country in 1497, before his final capture and incarceration in the Tower. Both Simnel and Warbeck were pretenders: posturing as other nobles or fallen princes; Simnel posed as the Earl of Warwick (the last full-blooded male Plantagenet) whilst Warbeck posed as Edward V’s younger brother, Richard of York (one of the missing princes from 1483). Other nobles also plotted against the Tudors, including Lovell and the Stafford brothers in 1486, and Edmund de la Pole (younger brother to John) in the 1500s. Furthermore, there were the tax-based risings of the Yorkshire Rebellion (1489) and the Cornish Rebellion of 1497. In short, Henry was paranoid and concerned of the continuation of threats.

Henry’s own weak claim to the throne appeared to have invited challenge. Such was the weakness of the Tudor line that there were many others who could legitimately challenge and hail themselves as the rightful king. The de la Pole brothers held a claim through their mother, who was a sister to Edward IV and Richard III. More importantly, there was one person who had a stronger link than anyone – either Henry or the de la Poles – that of Edward, Earl of Warwick. Edward was the son of George, Duke of Clarence (brother of Edward VI and Richard III) and therefore was a full-blooded male descendant. However, poor Edward was a mere boy when Henry VII came to power in 1485, and Henry made sure to have Edward tucked away in the Tower of London for safe-keeping. Throughout the first fourteen years of the Tudor dynasty pretenders would claim to be Warwick, or would hail him as the one true king. It was a continual source of annoyance to Henry and it presented him with a problem: could he execute an innocent young man in order to strengthen his own hold on the crown?

Henry continually balked at this brutal choice, that is until the events of 1499. It is at the beginning of this year that the enigmatic and unknown Ralph Wilford entered the scene.