I am not so blind that I cannot see the shadow of the axe when it is hanging over my own neck. — Robert Baratheon to Ned Stark (Game of Thrones Chapter 33)
Ned Stark baulked at the idea of assassinating a pregnant young girl. But then it was Ned’s political naivete coupled with his sense of honour that brought about his downfall. Daenerys Targaryen was a true threat to Robert’s throne, and Daenerys with an heir, especially a son, even more so. Robert Baratheon’s pursuit of the remaining Targaryens mirrors the anxiety any king would face with a rival claimant at large.
Any living rival claimants, be they secure in the king’s power or be they in exile, could become the focus for potential rebellion. England was torn apart by warring factions from the Anarchy to the Wars of the Roses, until the defeat of the last York King Richard III ended the bloodshed for good. Or so they thought. The marriage of the first Henry Tudor, Henry VII, to the daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, was supposed to seal the alliance between York and Lancaster and heal the wounds of decades of war. Yet the York line had not ended, nor was the new Tudor dynasty completely secure.
Henry VII has been dealt some reverse propaganda of late, largely invented by Ricardian “controversy”. The supposed “murderous” Henry VII is said to have relentlessly hunted the last of the Yorks and slain them, even down to Richard III’s illegitimate son John of Gloucester, to protect his fragile dynasty. Yet the last three York children were still in Tudor’s care. John of Gloucester was removed from the position of Captain of Calais, but not persecuted further, and was granted a small annuity. His later death is a mystery, although in the 17th century George Buck claimed Tudor had done away with him, with no accompanying evidence. As an illegitimate child he posed no threat, and there were no signs Richard was ever planning on naming him an heir. But it was Margaret and Edward Plantagenet, the orphaned children of George Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville, that had a claim to the throne that was, in fact, technically stronger than their Uncle Richard’s claim. So much so that Richard could not name Edward Plantagenet as his heir after Richard’s own son had died as he had claimed that his brother Clarence’s attainder barred the young Earl of Warwick from the throne.
In 1485, after Henry VII took the throne, Margaret was kept at court, but young Warwick was sent to the Tower. Henry VII had no desire to execute a child. Imprisonment was not an ideal solution for a ten year-old boy, but we can speculate that Tudor thought it better than death. But in 1499, the choice was no longer entirely Henry’s. His early reign had been far from settled, and the presence of one Perkin Warbeck, a pretender claiming to be one of the missing Princes in the Tower, the young Richard Duke of York, posed a serious threat. The fact that neither Richard III nor Henry VII sought to at least find a scapegoat, if not an answer, led to the former’s downfall and the latter unintentionally giving his rivals a focus for rebellion. With no bodies ever having been buried, Yorkists could imagine that at least one of the Princes lived.
But why did Henry VII execute Edward Plantagenet who was, at this point, allegedly mentally impaired and certainly emotionally damaged after a long imprisonment, that had never posed an actual threat to the throne himself? It was in fact the impending nuptials of Henry’s heir, Arthur Tudor, that forced his hand. Ferdinand and Isabella of Castille, the “Catholic Monarchs” and parents of Katherine of Aragon, sent Henry a message implying that if the marriage were to go ahead, all rival claimants to the throne must be removed. This meant both Edward Plantagenet and Perkin Warbeck. Henry had not truly considered executing even Warbeck at this point; he had in fact taken a Spanish ambassador to the tower to visit Warbeck in the hopes of reassuring the Spanish that he was no threat. It was to no avail. If Tudor wanted to secure an alliance for his heir with one of the greatest dynasties in Europe, this was the terrible price he had to pay. Henry mourned Edward along with the people of England, while the Spanish ambassador gloated that “there does not remain a drop of doubtful royal blood”, and the blood remained on Tudor’s hands.
But we need to take a look at our man of the week, Henry VIII. In defending the unfair “murderous” label applied to Henry VII, we can easily pass the buck to his actually murderous son Henry VIII. But opinions on Henry’s crimes constantly evolve, to a point where each is neatly attributed to either his desperate quest for an heir or a nasty knock on the head, then sanitised, and then a supposedly evil henchman is found as a convenient scapegoat. He did not, after all, offend the Ricardians in any way.
Henry VIII’s persecution of the Courtenay and Pole families, the “Exeter Conspiracy” of 1538 is usually imagined to be Henry’s effort to finally stamp out the last of the York line. Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, and Henry Pole, Lord Montague could possibly have been seen as threats to the throne. But in reality the White Rose had withered long ago. Three decades into his reign, with the security of an heir and a couple of daughters as bargaining pieces, being deposed could hardly have been at the heights of Henry’s many anxieties. Exeter mainly stuck in Henry’s craw because he owned vast estates, descended from one of the daughters of Edward IV and was seen by some as a possible contender to the throne. Pole, on the other hand, had been placed under suspicion by the activities of his brother Reginald Pole.
Reginald Pole had opposed “The King’s Great Matter”, his divorce and abandonment of Queen Katherine of Aragon, and had been living in exile in Rome. The rift between Reginald and Henry increased over the years as Reginald publicly opposed Henry’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, was made a cardinal in Rome for his effort and was involved in intrigues with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the French King Francis I.
Henry Courtenay and Henry Pole had no stomach for Reginald Pole’s defiance. Indeed, Pole and his mother, the Countess of Salisbury, were ready to write to Reginald at the request of Henry VIII’s council, and express their horror at his treasonous activities. The Countess of Salisbury was, of course, Margaret Plantagenet, now Margaret Pole, the daughter of the Duke of Clarence. She had stayed in favour with the Tudors since Henry VII took her to court in 1485, serving Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon, and later Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary Tudor. There was no reason to think that the Countess who had been with the Tudors for nearly five decades would be involved in any conspiracy against her king.
But Margaret was implicated in the Exeter Conspiracy. Her son Geoffrey, who had been communicating with Reginald, was arrested and claimed that his brother Henry Pole and Henry Courtenay had been parties to his correspondence with Reginald. Courtenay and Pole were arrested along with many members of their family, and a 65 year-old Margaret Pole. In 1539 many of them were executed, Geoffrey Pole was pardoned, and Margaret Pole lived out her last two years in the Tower before being beheaded in 1540 at the age of 67.
The Poles were not destroyed for their York blood. They died for the perceived crimes of Reginald Pole. Exeter was a nuisance. So was Nicholas Carew. Their downfall, usually blamed on Cromwell, was swift and calculated. John Matusiak notes that the alleged conspiracy was “far from demonstrating the fragility of the king’s dynastic position” but “was actually proof of it’s inherent strength.” The Poles were hardly a drop in the ocean of blood spilled in the reign of King Henry VIII.
For an excellent analysis of Henry VII’s early reign and a good general overview of the Tudor reign, read Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle.
For a detailed look at Henry VIII’s politics, read Henry VIII The Life and Rule of England’s Nero by John Matusiak.
By Olga Hughes. Olga loathes Henry VIII with a consuming passion that is disturbing. She runs the online magazine Nerdalicious with her partner C.S. Hughes.