Much has been made of Tudor elimination of the last of the Plantagenets, but there seems to be a major misunderstanding here. The key lies in the extraordinary discovery that they were not the sons of Edward IV: contrary to all expectation they were fathered by his great rival Henry VI. It seems that the Lancastrian Elizabeth Woodville met up with Henry shortly after her marriage to Edward, and then repeatedly while Henry was in the Tower. Then, seeing the end for him was imminent, in 1471 she arranged his escape. The clandestine relationship continued until Henry died for real, according to his portrait, in 1478. And so Elizabeth of York and the two princes were Lancastrians, not Yorkists. They were safe… Henry VII did not lock up or kill Lancastrian Plantagenets.
The only Plantagenet that Henry did put in the Tower was a Yorkist: Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. He was the son of the Duke of Clarence, who was the brother of both King Edward IV – and of Richard III, who Henry defeated on Bosworth Field. Edward of Warwick was the perfect replacement for Richard III. Henry lived with this for a while, keeping him under lock and key, but to test him out, he put him together with the rebel Perkin Warbeck. The two seemed to really hit it off, and so – seeing the writing on the wall – Henry chopped Edward of Warwick’s head off. But he was the only one. There was another senior Yorkist Plantagenet he did not touch: Margaret Pole, who again was fathered by the Duke of Clarence. She only fell foul of the Tudors decades later, in 1538, when her son Reginald denounced Henry VIII for the dissolution of the monasteries, and helped build an armed insurrection against him. Margaret was probably innocent of supporting Reginald, but that did not save her, and she too was then decapitated.
There was just one other important Yorkist who was left alone: Bridget of York, the last daughter of Elizabeth Woodville, born in November 1480, long after Henry VI had died for real.
Her image (although I only have an abysmally tiny version of it) suggests she was truly Edward IV’s child, and Bridget saved her skin by remaining a nun, and staying in seclusion. What, though of the other children accredited to Edward IV? The likenesses we have of three more of Edward IV’s five surviving daughters all suggest they were the children of Henry VI, that is to say – like the two Princes, they were all Lancastrians.
First, there was Cecily (conceived around 20 June 1468):
then Anne (conceived around 2 February 1474):
and third, Catherine (conceived around 14 November 1478):
So what was Henry Tudor’s reaction to this large brood of surreptitious Lancastrians? There was Henry’s wife, of course, Elizabeth of York, who he married, and who remained privileged, respected and loved by him. And then there was Cecily, who was the reserve bride, should something happen to Elizabeth, and then her two sisters Anne, and Catherine, and all of them lived as valued and privileged members of Henry’s court. He didn’t put any of them in the Tower, and chopped not of their heads off.
Superficially at least, even in public Henry was not averse to Lancastrian Plantagenets: indeed, he made it clear how much he admired his predecessor, the Lancastrian Henry VI. He praised his piety; had a volume compiled in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, of his alleged miracles; and he started building a chapel for his relics in Westminster Abbey, a shrine that became a very popular destination for pilgrims. All of this was with Henry’s blessing and encouragement.
But why take such a risk? Surely the brood could have conspired to get the throne back from him? There were various reasons Henry Tudor didn’t worry too much about that. First, he had all his potential rivals under one roof, and if one misbehaved, he could eliminate the lot at a stroke. In the meantime, they lived lives of great privilege. There was every reason for them not to rock the boat, and for Henry not to further upset the Lancastrians.
So now we have to ask, if Henry VII had no problem with four Plantagenet Princesses in his court, then why would he kill their two brothers if they were there too? It was not Lancastrians he had a problem with, it was the Yorkists. And the reason was simple to see. Edward V and his siblings could not claim to be Henry’s children and thus rightful heirs, without admitting they were illegitimate, and thus… not rightful heirs. As Lancastrians they were no threat to Henry, at least for the time being.
But weren’t the two Princes a threat to him as Yorkist claimants to the throne? Yes, but with a big caveat. They could pretend to be Edward IV’s real children, but to overthrow Henry Tudor they would need a power base outside England. Only abroad could they raise an army powerful enough to oust the Tudors, and the only nearby power bases were Burgundy and France. France, though, was resolutely Lancastrian: Louis XI was close family to Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Edward VI, so that left only Burgundy.
Burgundy was the traditional Yorkist ally. Indeed, Charles the Bold of Burgundy had married Edward IV’s sister, so he was Yorkist through and through – alas, though, he had died in 1477. His daughter Mary, who took over from him, was from a former marriage to a Bourbon. And even the continuing influence of Charles the Bold’s widow was soon balanced by another and far more powerful force: Mary married the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. And Maximilian? Where did he stand in the Yorkist/Lancastrian divide?
In 1493 Maximilian resolved his differences with France, and no longer had any reason to need the Yorkists. After Bosworth they seemed a lost cause, and offered only a disruption to the peace he had painfully established with his powerful neighbour. Louis XI couldn’t abide Yorkists. The Yorkist power base in Flanders and Burgundy was also gone. As Yorkists, Edward V and his siblings could do nothing. There was no force around capable of unseating the Tudors for them.
Henry saw also that a monarchy whose key claim to fame was the unification of the nation, of bringing together Yorkists and Lancastrians under a single leadership, there was every reason to seem to favour the children everyone thought had been fathered by Edward IV. The two Princes were best under his direct supervision, but obviously using false names so as not to attract supporters. There was no reason to kill them, to blow his image as unifier of the nation, or even worse, turn his wife into an implacable enemy by killing her brothers.
And this truce between the Tudors and the Lancastrian Plantagenets was to last until the 1530s. For a while it grew even stronger: in 1509 Henry VIII married into the family of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Hapsburg Maximilian. He wed Catherine of Aragon, sister-in-law of Maximilian’s son, Philip the Handsome. So long as Catherine of Aragon was Henry’s wife, then, Spain, Burgundy and the Low Countries were going to be pro-Henry, and even as pretend-Yorkists, the two Princes had ever diminishing chance of leverage from abroad. Once Catherine of Aragon was gone, though, replaced by Anne Boleyn, the deal was off. Henry had made the Hapsburgs, now led by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, his foes, and the two Plantagenet Princes in his court would be sought as allies against him.
For that reason, I think, one Prince died in 1532, and the other in 1534. For the first time in their lives they had a massive power base abroad, and they were a real peril for the Tudor dynasty. Henry could not dispose of them openly for fear of the stories that would come out: a little bit of arsenic would do the job far better.
Charles V, though, while all this was happening, knew exactly what was going in Henry’s court. From 1526 on, paintings of the time reveal, he had his own man in there, secretly liaising, influencing, manipulating and reporting back. His agent was Hans Holbein, and he could be trusted for three very good reasons. First, unbeknown to the rest of the world, Hans was not at all who everyone thought he was: he was Charles’ natural cousin. (That is another story, though, one of the great plots of the 1490s, and I will come to that in another post.) The second reason that Hans could be trusted was because in 1524 or 1525, Prince Richard of York (under his alias Sir Henry Gylford), had married Lady Mary Wotton.
What’s more, Mary Wotton, as her portrait reveals, both in likeness and name, was in reality Hans’ former wife, Elsbeth Binzenstuck.
We know Elsbeth far better under another name, one that – even knowing all I had learned over the past three years – stretched even my credulity to breaking point. But I will come to that. You may even have figured out who she is yourself!
Hans and Elsbeth had separated because of serious misconduct on Hans part. He ran short of cash, and entered into a bigamous marriage with a lady of rich parentage and with a very large dowry. He married under an earlier Italian alias, and in 1524 feigned death. He put it about that there had been a duel, and he had died from an injury from a crossbow bolt. No point in chasing a corpse for the dowry, then, so the family gave up, and Hans made off with the cash to Northern Europe, unsuspected, and from then on used only the name of Holbein. Elsbeth was understandably upset, and she dumped him, only to be snapped up by Prince Richard of York. After a while Hans and Elsbeth became reconciled, though, and – it seems – had another four or five children together. The bottom line, though, was that the younger Yorkist Prince had married Hans former wife and the mother of his children, and so Hans and Richard were linked, albeit uncomfortably, as family.
And the third reason? Well, the fact is that Hans swung both ways, and the great love of his life from 1509 on was based in the Holy Roman Emperor’s court. The young man was the lover of Margaret (Regent of the Netherlands and auntie to Charles V), and in 1526, perhaps partly as a cover, he married the (until now) unknown daughter of Erasmus. Erasmus in turn was a close friend of Sir Thomas More, and the one who introduced Hans into More’s circle of friends. He opened the English door for him, and he made good use of it. Meanwhile, Hans’ idol also spent time in the court of Henry VIII. Indeed, in 1526 he even painted his portrait.
There is a little further to go in this story, though, because I haven’t told you why Elizabeth Woodville slept with Henry VI…
The fact is, her husband was not fathered by a Plantagenet.
[To be continued…]