Thursday, 1 November 2012

Lambert Simnel

A quiz question: who was the only person ever to be crowned King of England in Dublin?

Answer: Lambert Simnel, said to have been the son of a carpenter from Oxford, who in 1487 was crowned as "King Edward VI" in Christ Church cathedral in Dublin - not, obviously with a crown, but with a golden chaplet taken from a statue of the Virgin Mary. He had the support of Ireland's premier nobleman, Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, of the Archbishop of Dublin and of the Irish Parliament. How did this come about?

According to the story, Lambert Simnel was born around 1475. His strong physical resemblance to the Yorkist royal family, whose dynasty had been brought to an end when Henry Tudor defeated and killed Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, was spotted by a local priest named Richard Symonds. Symonds took the boy under his wing and taught him how to behave like a royal prince, and then took him to Ireland. There he was proclaimed to be the young Earl of Warwick, the son of that Duke of Clarence who, according to legend, had been "drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine" in the Tower of London. The boy was therefore the nephew of Edward IV and Richard III and the last direct male descendant of the Plantagenet line of kings. The real Earl of Warwick was the same age as Simnel, and was currently held in the Tower by Henry VII. Simnel's claim received powerful support in Ireland, and also from John, Earl of Lincoln in England,  and from Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy. From her base in the Netherlands, where she was acting as regent for her stepdaughter, Margaret sent a fleet to support Simnel's cause, with a regiment of mercenary soldiers under a war-hardened veteran, Martin Schwarz. A force of some 8,000 men was assembled for the invasion of England. Meanwhile the real Earl of Warwick was brought out from the Tower and paraded round London so that everyone could see that Simnel's claim was fraudulent.

It will immediately occur to us that there must be more to this than meets the eye. How would a mere country priest recognise a boy as resembling a royal prince, or train him to behave like one? How could such a vast and ludicrous imposture ever fool such people as Lords Kildare and Lincoln and Duchess Margaret? It seems likely that they were not fooled. Ireland had always been strongly Yorkist in the Wars of the Roses, and as long as the Tudor hold there was weak, the Earl of Kildare and his clan (known as the Geraldines) remained in effective control. The Earl of Lincoln was the cousin of the Yorkist Kings, Edward IV and Richard III; he was Richard's nominated heir, and his dynastic claim to the throne  was far superior to Henry Tudor's. It has always been suspected that, had the revolt succeeded, young Lambert Simnel might have soon vanished from the scene, leaving Lincoln to take the crown. As for Duchess Margaret; she was the sister of Kings Edward and Richard; she doubtless regarded Henry Tudor as a mere usurper,and would support any attempt to get rid of him.

The rebel forces landed in the northwest of England.They made first for York, picking up support as they went, but were unable to take the city, and then headed south through the east midlands. By the time they encountered Henry's army at Stoke, near Newark, they probably numbered about 8,000 men. The battle which followed was much bigger than Bosworth, two years earlier, when Richard III was killed, and marks the real end of the Wars of the Roses. After a hard-fought contest, the untrained Irish levies broke and fled, Lincoln was killed and the mercenaries fought on to the last man. Total deaths were perhaps 6,000, compared with about 1,200 at Bosworth. The priest Richard Symonds disappeared into the Tudor gulag, but Henry showed commendable good sense as well as mercy in dealing with Lambert Simnel: he was forgiven and employed in the royal kitchens. Because of the perilous situation in Ireland, Henry had little option but to pardon Kildare for his manifest treason, and the power of the Geraldines in Ireland was only broken under Queen Elizabeth a century later.

The person who suffered most from the episode was the entirely innocent young Earl of Warwick. He was returned to the Tower, but when a decade later there was another rebellion by another pretender, Perkin Warbeck (who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the "Princes in the Tower"), Henry decided Warwick was too dangerous to be allowed to live. The young man was accordingly convicted of treason and executed. He was 24 years old and had been held in the Tower since the age of ten. So perished the last descendant of the Plantagenets in the direct male line.
    Warwick's sister, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, was more fortunate, at least in the short term. She was permitted to live until the age of 68 before Henry VIII decided it was high time she had her head hacked off, and accordingly arranged it. One of her sons had preceded her to the scaffold; another was condemned to death but reprieved after agreeing to plead guilty and give evidence against his family. During the reigns of the first two Tudor Kings no fewer than seven nobles who had the misfortune to bear Plantagenet blood were convicted of treason and executed. It is surprising that so much debate has always raged about the supposed murder of the "Princes in the Tower" by Richard III (which at this late time is unlikely to be resolved either way), but this series of flagrant judicial murders by the two Tudors is ignored.

1 comment:

  1. Regarding your final sentence, I don't think it's a surprise. Tudor's publicity agent did a pretty thorough job of demonizing Richard III.