Earlier this month I noted how I would post all chapters of my short eBook Ralph Wilford: Henry VII’s Forgotten Pretender. The first chapter provided a contextual overview of the reign of Henry VII up to the year of 1499. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the “rebellion” itself. The remaining chapters will posted in the near future.

Chapter 2: The Ralph Wilford “Rebellion”

The exploits of the pretenders Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel are well known and documented, but the same cannot be said for Ralph Wilford. Yet despite his modern obscurity, Wilford’s name can be traced back over hundreds of years in the pages of history books, with Sir Francis Bacon outlining the events in his significant work on Henry VII: History of the Reign of King Henry VII. Originally published in 1622, Bacon’s work was one of the first to provide a clear understanding of Henry’s rule, thereby influencing generations of future historians. Along with establishing the key patterns of Henry’s reign – his style of governance, the relationship with nobles, and his entanglements with foreign rules – other incidents are also explained; some of which failed to find traction in later histories. One of these less celebrated and noted incidents includes the supposed rebellion of Ralph Wilford.

Such is the mystique of Wilford that much of his involvement in Henry’s reign is now forgotten, with historians over the centuries in disagreement about the spelling of his surname; ‘Wulford’ is utilised in many online entries, whilst ‘Wilford’ is the settled spelling utilised by academic historians, with Sir Francis Bacon himself using this spelling. In Polydore Vergil’s 16th Century influential work Anglica Historia the historian refrains from any surname, noting that the ‘name, as far as I know, is not recorded’.[i] One useful barometer of an event’s supposed importance is in its inclusion in specifications and syllabuses in the classroom; recent textbooks published with the cooperation of the exam board AQA for A-level History completely fail to address or even mention (even briefly) the Wilford rebellion. This includes the Cathy Lee textbook Britain, 1483-1529 (2008) which was used by thousands of students across the UK over a series of years (which also managed to confuse the Cornish Rebellion of 1497 with the later uprising of the same year that involved Perkin Warbeck),[ii] the ‘Access to History’ book Henry VII by Caroline Rodgers and Roger Turvey (2005), as well as the more recent The Tudors: England 1485-1603 textbook (2015) by Michael Tillbrook. In many ways, Wilford presents a significant challenge: there is both a lack of clear evidence and a lack of interest from the academic community. But yet the affair is of importance to the historian in understanding Henry VII and the decisions that he later took in the year of 1499.

Ralph Wilford was a twenty-year old (others give his age as nineteen years) who was another pretender for the English throne. The man that he pretended to be – similar to Lambert Simnel – was Edward, Earl of Warwick. However, although there are many key similarities with the Lambert Simnel imposture, there are also major differences: Simnel’s rebellion amounted to a major invasion force leading to a pitched battle at Stoke Field in 1487. Wilford’s rebellion can hardly be credited with such a title, for it was snuffed out early-on before developing into something more significant.

Wilford is described as the son of a cordwainer, with the region of his upbringing given by writers as that of London, with Bacon himself suggesting Suffolk as the home county. Bacon describes Wilford as ‘a young man’ who was ‘taught and set up by an Augustinian friar called Patrick’.[iii] The similarity with the Simnel imposture here is clear: another clergyman (in Simnel’s case it was Richard Symonds) who groomed a younger male to live out a problematical and dangerous fantasy. The relationship between mentor and mentee is intriguing, although the lack of evidence means that we never fully understand its true nature. In the more recently published Winter King Thomas Penn states that Wilford was ‘brainwashed into believing he was Warwick’,[iv] although Gairdner’s older history is more charitable by stating that Wilford was ‘educated’ by the Augustinian friar to impersonate royalty.[v] If we believe this to be true, it suggests a long-term relationship between Wilford and Patrick stretching back to Wilford’s youth over several years. Most historians are in agreement that it was clergyman who was the ‘instigator of the deception’.[vi]

They travelled to Kent in order to set the groundwork for the rebellion, by confiding in prominent influential locals. During this period Kent was touted as the great hope of rebels, with Warbeck landing near Deal in 1495, and the Cornish attempting to establish links with the region in 1497.[vii] This reputation stretched back to the infamous Cade’s Rebellion of 1450, in which the county’s men featured heavily. Vergil also noted the peculiarity of the region, stating that Kent was ‘a county on other occasions not deaf to innovations’.[viii] However, the appeal of the Cornishmen in 1497 was futile, and Wilford himself was to find the same lack of positive response two years later.

Wilford was declared to be the true Warwick, and Patrick ‘alleged that by good Fortune, he had escaped out of the Tower’.[ix] However, their attempts to persuade completely failed; Bacon explains that ‘they were both presently apprehended’, leading to swift, brutal punishment.[x] Henry was prompt in putting out the fire, and appears to have been assisted by his burgeoning network of ‘nimble scouts and spies’ that had been established over the subsequent decade to deal with threats.[xi] The execution of Wilford, in many ways, highlights his lack of tolerance for new threats, although the friar was ‘condemned to perpetual imprisonment’ on account of being a clergyman.[xii] The speed is of interest: Wilford was proclaimed, arrested, sentenced, and executed within the first two months of 1499 (executed on Shrove Tuesday in February 1499) at St Thomas a Waterings (near Southwark, in Surrey).[xiii]

This brutal end concludes the story of Ralph Wilford: a rebellion that failed to get off the ground, in what Gairdner calls a ‘rash and hopeless’ affair.[xiv] But yet question marks about the whole episode remain.

[i] Polydore Vergil, Anglica Historia, 1555 edition. Available at: http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/polverg/26eng.html (Accessed: 2 July 2019).

[ii] This apparent mistake on the part of the author is assessed in my article ‘An Abuse of History: The Mistaken Case of the Rebellions of 1497’, published in The Cornish Banner (2013).

[iii] Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of King Henry VII (Jordan: Hesperus Press, 2007), p.134.

[iv] Thomas Penn, Winter King (St Ives: Allen Lane, 2011), p.125.

[v] James Gairdner, Henry the Seventh, London, Macmillan, 1899 edition. Available at: https://tudorhistory.org/secondary/henry7/contents.html (Accessed: 19 June 2019).

[vi] P.R. Cavill, ‘A Perspective on the Church-State Confrontation of 1515’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 63, No. 4, October 2012, p.659.

[vii] Philip Payton, Cornwall: A History (UK: Cornwall Editions, 2004), p.109.

[viii] Vergil, 1555.

[ix] Thomas Burnet, Some Farther Proofs Whereby It Appears That the Pretender is Truly James the Third, 1745 edition, p.83. Available at: http://booksdownload.energiagratis.com.mx/33465690/268580-download-ebook-some-farther-proofs-whereby-it-appears-that-the-pretender-is-truly-james-the-third-the.html (Accessed: 18 June 2019).

[x] Bacon, 2007, p.134.

[xi] Bacon, 2007, p.87.

[xii] Bacon, 2007, p.134.

[xiii] Burnet, 1745, p.83.

[xiv] Gairdner, 1899.