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, whilst Chapter 3 delves into the issue as to how much of a threat this rebellion actually was.

Chapter 4: The Execution of Warwick

As long as Warwick lived, more and more pretenders could – and would – appear. The Simnels and the Wilfords would not die, and perhaps they would continue to plague the reigns of Henry’s children and grandchildren. The Tudor claim to the throne – such as it was, resting on the strength of the female Beaufort line – could always be contested by those who had Plantagenet blood in their veins. This fear was pragmatically explained to Henry by his astrologer, Dr. William Parron:

It is expedient that one man should die for the people, and the whole nation perish not, for an insurrection cannot occur in any state without the deaths of a great part of the people and the destruction of many great families with their property.[i]

To avoid the decision to kill Warwick would invite problems in the future, and therefore Henry had to act as a strong king in order to protect the greater well-being of the kingdom. The only decision left to him was to kill Warwick to rid himself of this fear, once and for all.

The details of the fall of Warwick and Warbeck are hazy and inconsistent; despite the different versions they all end in the same way, with both being executed. It is clear that Henry was not prepared to allow Warwick to live on to continue to be a symbolic rallying cry for future possible rebellions, or even as a figure that others could posture as (as was the case with Simnel and Wilford). The death, furthermore, was to be made as open and public as possible. Henry wanted to sound out a shot around the land, to put paid to the notion of any future pretender. A hushed-up murder of Warwick behind closed doors, similar to the fate that befall Richard III’s nephews in 1483, would not do. Henry wanted everything to be clear cut for all of the nation to see: that Warwick was dead and there would be no resurrection. As Weir notes, ‘Moral issues aside, Warwick had to be seen to be dead’.[ii]

The chief problem was not the choice to have Warwick removed but rather how it would be done. If Warwick was executed without a clear charge Henry would open himself up to accusations of tyranny, the very thing that he used to state his own case for kingship in response to the actions of Richard’s reign in 1483-85. As Henry Tudor himself reputedly stated before the battle of Bosworth in 1485: ‘so God appointed the good to confound the ill, and of all worldly goods the greatest is to suppress tyrants and relieve innocents, whereof the one is ever as much hated as the other is beloved.’ Therefore, an alternative was needed.

The official story states that it was Warwick and Warbeck themselves who schemed to escape from the Tower in order to lead a rebellion against the Tudor state, with one plan suggesting that Warwick would flee to Flanders in order to raise an army to declare himself as the rightful king. However, despite Warwick pleading guilty at his trial in November 1499, there is enough evidence to suggest that the whole conspiracy was engineered by the government. For example, one of the men involved in the conspiracy – Cleymound – was later released without charge; Weir believes that he was an ‘agent provocateur’, placed in the Tower to ensure that the conspiracy would escalate to such heights to bring out brutal legal reaction.[iii] Perhaps most important is the character of the Earl of Warwick himself: kept in custody throughout the majority of his life, he is portrayed as a naïve simpleton who could never have plotted his escape and usurpation of the crown. Vergil highlights this aspect in his Anglica Historia:

Earl Edward, who had been imprisoned since childhood, so far removed from the sight of man and beast that he could not easily tell a chicken from a goose.[iv]

There are many other disputes about the level of Henry’s involvement and whether or not it was a collaborative endeavour between the English and Spanish monarchs. Clearly the Spanish alliance was a key factor in Henry’s mind, and the removal of such threats strengthened his claim to allow for a smoother transition to allow his son Arthur to marry Catherine of Aragon. Therefore it is believable that Henry VII – well-versed as he was in the dark arts of realpolitik – sent Warwick to his grave on trumped up and unjust charges, all to maintain his English crown. Therefore, it is not on the grounds that Henry was morally clean that the Ashdown-Hill thesis is refuted, but rather that the order of events is wrong. Wilford was not willed into existence in order to kill Warwick and Warbeck, but rather Wilford’s appearance provided Henry with the mindset that Warwick must be removed entirely to prevent future pretenders.

In November, Warbeck was condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. At the end of the month Warwick was beheaded on Tower Hill, thereby bringing an end to the fourteen years of rumour and threat that had circulated in Henry VII’s consciousness. Henry’s plan was successful, with both Warwick and Warbeck ‘sunk by the same storm’.[v]

Of course, other threats would remain: the de la Poles held a claim to the throne, as did other nobles (notably that of the Duke of Buckingham, who himself would feel the wrath of Henry VIII and face execution in 1521). In the summer of 1501, Edmund de la Pole fled to the continent for the second time, along with his younger brother Richard. It seemed as if Henry would need to go back to the drawing-board once again in order to counter this threat, and Thomas Penn’s recent work highlights the severity of this fear. However, Edmund was unable to convince foreign backers to provide him with an army, and in 1506 Henry VII struck a fortuitous deal with Philip of Burgundy which saw Edmund return to England under lock and key (before his eventual execution during the reign of Henry VIII).

Although Warwick’s execution in 1499 did not fully remove the political board of possible claimants to the throne, it did cement Henry VII’s hold on power. There were no further pretenders after Wilford during his reign, and despite the brutal manner in which he dealt with the threats in 1499, the murder of Wilford, Warbeck, and Warwick brought him breathing space. It was the foundation of this shedding of blood that Henry was able to forge ahead with his alliance to Spain, with the marriage of Arthur to Catherine taking place in 1502. However, such is the constant wheel of fortune in history, that Arthur was not to live beyond a handful of months after the marriage, thereby throwing all of Henry’s succession plans into turmoil and jeopardising the Spanish connection once more. Those who are superstitious might credit the notion of a ‘Tudor curse’; that Warwick’s murder damned the Tudors in their attempts to firmly establish their dynasty on the English throne.

[i] Weir, 2014, p.336.

[ii] Weir, 2014, p.336.

[iii] Weir, 2014, p.337.

[iv] Vergil, 1555.

[v] Vergil, 1555.