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 3: Threat or Not, That is the Question

Despite its brevity, the existence of the rebellion is of interest for several reasons; firstly, what was Wilford’s ultimate aim and ambition? Secondly, was Henry seriously worried about the appearance of this new pretender? Finally, on evaluation, is the Wilford rebellion of any importance in understanding how Henry VII governed and how he dealt with threats to the throne? A deeper assessment of the entire affair reveals that Wilford and his impact was of great importance in the fast-changing events of 1499.

Firstly, what was Ralph Wilford’s aim? Clearly, the ultimate aim could be perceived to be the dethroning of Henry in order to take the English crown. This was the very reason as to why Wilford was proclaimed to be the real Earl of Warwick: the Yorkist blood ran thicker than that of Tudor blood, thereby giving Wilford a much stronger and more valid claim. There is some dispute as to whether Wilford claimed to be Warwick or instead Warwick’s heir; in his Chronicles Robert Fabyan states that Wilford only ‘avaunced himself to be son or heir to the Earl of Warwick’s lands’.[i] Such a claim appears to be, on the face of it, quite ridiculous for the fact that Warwick himself was only a handful of years older than Wilford. However, it is possible to develop this theory further, after all, the 15th Century was a time filled with a lack of precise information with no assured method on which to fact-check. Therefore, it could be possible to consider that the general public held a limited understanding of Warwick, including his age and appearance. All that remained of Warwick by 1499 was a potent myth and the fact that he was the last full blood Yorkist who held a claim to the English throne. In an age before social media, newspapers, or television, it could be assumed that such a wild claim – that Wilford was Warwick’s son – could be believed by a more ignorant uninformed public. The events of 1486-87 provide light on this issue: even after Lambert Simnel was hailed as the Earl of Warwick, Henry took the decision to have the real Warwick paraded through the streets of London to show the population that he had, in fact, the genuine article. However, this did little good to dampen the rebels: they invaded the north of England until stopped in a heated pitched battle. The simple reason for this was that even though the local population of London may have been convinced that Henry had the real Warwick under lock and key, not all of the country were as easily persuaded.

However, even if Wilford and Patrick could convince the public at large that the real Earl of Warwick (or his son) was amongst them in Kent, what would be the next stage in the plan? Yes, public support would be needed to gather together the basis of an army, but as the other popular tax-based rebellions of Henry VII’s reign show (both the Yorkshire Rebellion in 1489 and Cornish Rebellion in 1497) simply amassing thousands of peasants could not defeat the might of a royal army. In both instances the rebellions faltered when tested with primed fighting men: in 1489 it took the Earl of Surrey dispersing the rebels, whilst in 1497 the so-called Battle of Blackheath saw the doom of the Cornish. Therefore, the vital next step that was needed was the support of key nobles, which would provide the basis for a larger assortment of soldiers and funds to pay for mercenaries.

Such noble support was the making or breaking of rebellions and revolts in the Tudor period. It was noble support – principally from Margaret of Burgundy and the de la Poles – that established Lambert Simnel as such a grave threat, and noble support that extended the duration of the Warbeck threat. Furthermore, if we are to consider successful Tudor rebellions then we have no better example than to look than at Henry Tudor’s very own invasion in 1485: he was able to defeat Richard III at Bosworth with the backing of noble support, notably with the switch on the battlefield itself when the Stanleys tipped the scales of power.

However, there is no clear indication that Wilford had any backing from the nobility. Some historians have portrayed Wilford’s claim as yet another Yorkist plot, within the mould of Simnel and Warbeck, but yet there is no evidence to suggest that Wilford and his mentor clergyman had stronger links to dissident Yorkists. Even if we theorised that this was so, the list of potential Yorkist backers is a short one. Firstly, we have the remaining de la Poles, however, at this point the senior family member – Edmund de la Pole (younger brother to the John who was killed at the Battle of Stoke Field in 1487) – had aligned himself with the Tudor state. It was only after the Wilford rebellion that Edmund fled to the continent with the – ultimately unrealised – hope that he could raise an army to invade England to take the throne: in 1499 for the first time, and then 1501 for the second time (along with his younger brother Richard). Of course, we could continue to speculate by suggesting that the de la Poles were in contact with the Wilford camp earlier in 1499, but yet at this point Edmund did not have itchy feet, and there is no evidence to link the two. Furthermore, other potential prime suspects, such as Margaret of Burgundy, must also be ruled out; Margaret herself had declared a truce with Henry VII, thereby bringing an end to her days of backing Yorkist pretenders (as in the case of Simnel and Warbeck). Other resident nobles in England would also have been wary of supporting a pretender, for they had seen how Henry had acted over Sir William Stanley’s collaboration with Warbeck, for which he was swiftly executed in 1495.

Furthermore, even if we were to extend the speculation to suppose that Wilford did have backing from a mysterious noble, the whole order of events is more expressive of an amateur production rather than a full-blooded threat; Wilford’s venture into Kent indicates more a desperate attempt rather than a Machiavellian plan. Both pretender and mentor naively openly declared that they were a rival to the throne, seemingly without any further plan beyond this. All of this leaves us with the clear judgement that Wilford was operating without noble backing. His simple and ineffective plan was too desperate to rouse and convince the public in the county of Kent, thereby confirming Ashdown-Hill’s assessment that Wilford had ‘little or no real chance of ever acquiring the crown’.[ii]

All of this leads us on to the second question: was Henry seriously worried by the appearance and claims of Ralph Wilford? Firstly, it can never be underestimated just how slapstick the plot of Wilford and his mentor was: a lack of noble support or public backing doomed the entire enterprise before it even started. This could lead us to presume that Henry was not bothered in the slightest about a small, insignificant threat. However, Henry VII has been interpreted by many historians to have been a cautious man and ruler, as can be seen with his preparation with dealing with the Cornish rebels in 1497. Even with the confidence of an assured victory, Henry was keen to ensure that his wife and children were safely tucked away in the Tower of London just in case things went wrong and the royal army failed.[iii] Although the Cornish were easily dealt with, this demonstrates that Henry was cautious in his approach to dealing with threats. It is probable, then, that Henry would have treated the Wilford with similar respect.

There is evidence to suggest that the strain of the Wilford incident exerted a heavy toll on the king. The remarks of the Spanish ambassador – Pedro de Ayala – from early 1499 about the appearance of the English king is revealing:

Henry has aged so much during the last two weeks that he looks twenty years older.[iv]

Despite the absence of Wilford from textbooks there have been a few notable historians over the decades who believe the Wilford event of early 1499 had a profound impact on Henry VII. In 1899, Gairdner states how Wilford ‘touched the king in the sorest point of his apprehensions’.[v] Weir also notes how Henry was ‘unnerved by the Ralph Wilford affair’,[vi] whilst Penn’s more recent history is also clear on the issue:

For Henry the episode, which bore so many hallmarks of the Lambert Simnel case twelve years before, was traumatic. Outwardly calm, his body betrayed him. He seemed to age twenty years in two weeks.[vii]

However, the key reason for this strain was not the severity of the Wilford threat, but rather the wider implications. Over the years Henry had established himself with a series of treaties with foreign monarchs, and none was more important than that of Medina del Campo with the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella. At the heart of this treaty was a proposed marriage alliance, with Henry’s eldest son Arthur marrying Catherine of Aragon. In the context of the period, this was a smart move by Henry; Spain was the booming power of Europe, having started to exploit their territorial conquests in the New World. However, the appearance of a new pretender worried Henry in terms of how it would be received by his Spanish allies. Weir notes how Ferdinand and Isabella may have looked across the sea with suspicion and concern, stating how ‘their faith in the security of the English throne had been shaken’.[viii] It is an argument supported by other historians; as far back as John Speed in the 17th Century it was noted that the Wilford imposture ‘wakened…the eyes of the Castilians…that there seemed no sure ground of succession if that the Earl of Warwick were not made away’.[ix] If the Spanish retreated from their commitment to the marriage it would consign a decade of diplomatic gains to the bin.

Perhaps, then, this was the great fear for Henry that placed such heavy physical and mental exertion on him. It may also explain as to why Henry acted in such a brutal manner when dealing with Wilford in early 1499. In 1487, having captured Lambert Simnel, the boy worked his life in the royal kitchens, before reputedly becoming one of Henry’s falconers. However, Wilford was provided no such opportunity: as soon as he raised his head he was captured and executed. The Henry of 1499 was no longer willing to stomach any further challenge to his crown.

It was for this reason that Henry appears to have consulted guidance in terms of what the future might bring. In March 1499 he spoke with a priest whose advice Henry valued due to having ‘accurately foretold the deaths of Edward IV and Richard III’:

The soothsayer warned him that his life would be in danger all that year, for there were two parties with very different creeds in the land – those who were loyal to the Tudor dynasty, and those who wanted to see the House of York restored – and that conspiracies against the throne would ensure.[x]

This so-called prophecy clearly provided Henry with many sleepless nights, thereby ‘haunting his mind’.[xi]

If it was not the Wilford incident that caused this fear and introspection then what were the other likely causes? 1499 was a busy year for Henry: a third son, Edmund, was born (in May), whilst he also frantically attempted to arrange a proxy marriage between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon to cement the Spanish alliance (which also occurred in May). In the summer Edmund de la Pole fled from England for the very first time, but was coaxed to return home by September. However, all of these events happened after the Spanish ambassador’s remarks about Henry’s appearance. Therefore, the most likely candidate was the Wilford rebellion itself. Of course, we could synthesise many of these events: that the pressure of attempting to keep the Medina Del Campo treaty in-tact whilst also seeing the emergence of a new threat was enough to push Henry over the edge in terms of mental and physical fatigue. In this manner, we could view the Wilford plot as the catalyst rather than the primary cause.

However, such an interpretation is contested by the theory of John Ashdown-Hill, who goes further when asking the question as to where ‘does the unfortunate Ralph Wilford fit into the wider story of post-1485 Yorkist claimants to the throne’.[xii] He outlines the ridiculousness and futility of the plot, and therefore suggests that there must have been something more behind it in the form of a cunning Tudor conspiracy:

The likeliest explanation for Ralph’s claim therefore appears to be that those who wished to bring about the deaths of Henry VII’s Earl of Warwick and of ‘Richard of England’ thought that producing a third (and obviously false) Yorkist pretender they could first further undermine the claim of ‘Richard’, and second, bring about the executions of all three Yorkist claimants. It is therefore possible that the inspiration for the claim of Ralph Wilford secretly came from the ‘Tudor’ government.[xiii]

Such a bold claim is intriguing for several reasons. Clearly, Henry had the motive: to rid himself of Warwick and other threats once and for all. This was especially more concerning due to the short length of time before his eldest son Arthur was to marry Catherine of Aragon. A clean-sweep of Yorkist threats would appease Ferdinand and Isabella and show the strength of the Tudor state. Henry would not be the first ruler and certainly not the last to fabricate a perceived threat in order to justify brutal reprisals. However, it is not possible to entirely trust Ashdown-Hill’s theory and it needs unpicking to make better sense of it. If Henry’s chief motive was to convince the Spanish monarchs that he was in complete control of the English political situation, why would it be in his interest to conjure up yet another threat? There was no need to create Wilford when he already had Warwick and Warbeck under lock and key; all he simply needed to do was to push the issue regarding the danger of leaving them incarcerated in order to remove them completely from the picture. This is exactly what happened in the summer of 1499.

Therefore, we cannot simply suppose that Henry fabricated Wilford into existence in order to end the lives of Warwick and Warbeck, however, despite Wilford’s origins the end result is the same: Henry was convinced that he would never be safe until Warwick was murdered. It is for this reason that the Wilford Rebellion plays an important part in the shaping of Henry’s thinking and as to why the events of 1499 unfolded as they did.

[i] Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France, in Two Parts, 1811 edition, p.686. Available at: https://archive.org/details/cu31924027941529/page/n4 (Accessed: 11 June 2019).

[ii] John Ashdown-Hill, The Wars of the Roses (UK: Amberley Publishing, 2015).

[iii] Bacon, 2007, p.114-115.

[iv] Cited in Desmond Seward, The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors (UK, Constable, 2011).

[v] Gairdner, 1899.

[vi] Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen (Croydon: Vintage, 2014), p.336.

[vii] Penn, 2011, p.37.

[viii] Weir, 2014, p.335.

[ix] Cited in Spedding et al (eds.), The Works of Francis Bacon (Volume 6: Literary & Professional Works 1) (USA: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[x] Weir, 2014, p.336.

[xi] Gairdner, 1899.

[xii] Ashdown-Hill, 2015.

[xiii] Ashdown-Hill, 2015.