Tuesday 29 November 2011

How To Murder Your Tudor Royal Relatives – King Henry VIII

So how many of his own relatives do you think that King Henry VIII murdered?  Well of course he would probably argue that he had them legally executed and that after all he was the king? Most of us these days would be horrified at the idea of sending one of our nearest and dearest to the block, but even now the police will always have a good look at the relatives first if someone is found dead in suspicious circumstances.  Medieval monarchs were known for being fairly ruthless when it came to removing obstacles in their path, but it has to be said that when it came to permanently taking out his relations when they crossed him, Henry Tudor was in a class of his own.  So who were these unfortunate family members who met their ends on the scaffold on either Tower Green or Tower Hill?

Henry VIII was only the second king of a new dynasty; a dynasty that was founded on a very weak claim to the throne and by defeating the previous incumbent, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth.  His father Henry VII had been fairly restrained when it came to executing relations, but that could have partly been due to the fact that he had not been blessed with very many.  Henry VIII was determined to secure his new Tudor dynasty which meant eliminating any possible rivals for the throne as well as filling his own nursery with healthy Tudor sons to succeed him.  History was to prove, however, that he would be rather more successful with the former than with the latter.  His father Henry VII had married the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth of York to both strengthen his claim to the throne and to bring to an end the years of military conflict that was called the ‘War of the Roses’.  Elizabeth of York came from a much larger family than her husband and those that survived into Henry VIII’s reign arguably had a stronger claim to the throne than he did.

Henry VIII

The first family victim of Henry VIII proved to be Edmund de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk who was beheaded in 1513.  Edmund de la Pole was the son of Elizabeth of York, Duchess of Suffolk, a daughter of Richard Duke of York and also sister to King Edward IV.  His elder brother John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln had been named as the heir to the throne by Richard III, but after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 he pledged his allegiance to the new monarch Henry VII.  He soon rebelled, however, and joined the campaign to put Lambert Simnel on the throne in 1487 and was killed at the Battle of Stoke.  This left Edmund as the most serious Yorkist claimant to the English throne, and in 1491 Henry VII allowed him to succeed to the title of Duke of Suffolk, although he was later demoted back down to being an Earl.  In 1501 he decided to shake the dust of the English court off his shoes and escaped abroad to live at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian.

But fate was not kind to Edmund de la Pole, as Maximilian’s son Philip of Burgundy’s ship was blown off course and stranded him on English shores during his journey to lay claim to the throne of Castile and was captured by Henry VII.  As Philip of Burgundy really didn’t have time to hang around the English Court, he entered into a bit of horse brokering with Henry, and agreed to exchange Edmund de la Pole in return for his freedom, as long as there was an agreement that the Earl of Suffolk would not be physically harmed.  Edmund de la Pole was to be safe as long as Henry VII was alive, but as soon as Henry VIII took the throne his days were numbered.  Totally lacking his father’s scruples Henry had this potential threat to his security executed in 1513, his flimsy excuse being that he needed to ensure that nobody could take it into their heads to make the Earl of Suffolk a focus for rebellion while he was away campaigning in France.

The next royal relative to meet their end courtesy of the axe was Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham in 1521.  The Duke of Buckingham was a cousin of Henry VIII’s mother, as he was a son of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and Katherine Woodville, who was the sister of Henry’s maternal grandmother.  His father Henry Stafford had also been executed by Richard III, so you could say that this grisly fate ran in the family.  During the reign of Henry VII, Edward Stafford has his father’s lands and titles returned to him and took an active part in the life of the court.  He married Lady Eleanor Percy and they had four children together.  All was going swimmingly until 1510 when the Duke discovered that Henry VIII was having an affair with his sister, the Countess of Huntingdon. The Countess’s enraged husband packed her off to a convent, but it is thought that Henry carried on seeing her until 1513.  The royal cousins patched up their quarrel, but around 1520 Henry VIII launched an investigation against the Duke of Buckingham on suspicion of his having been involved in treasonous activities.  He was arrested and tried in 1521 on charges of plotting the King’s death and listening to prophecies that foretold the King’s death.  It would seem that Henry VIII had already decided on the outcome of the trial, as he personally questioned some of the witnesses. The Duke of Buckingham was executed on Tower Hill on May 17th 1521, and an Act of Attainder was brought against him in 1523.

In probably what was the most infamous act of his blood stained reign, Henry VIII had another cousin, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, executed in 1541.  Margaret Pole was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and Isobel Neville, and her brother Edward, Earl of Warwick had been executed in the wake of the Perkin Warbeck rebellion by King Henry VII.  She was married off to Sir Richard Pole, a relative of Henry VII’s mother Margaret Beaufort, and they had five children.  For much of her life she was very much in favour at the Tudor court, and was governess to the young Princess Mary.  She fell out of favour during the reign of Anne Boleyn as she remained fiercely loyal to her royal charge, but was reinstated after the fall and execution of the queen. One of Margaret’s sons, Reginald Pole was vehemently opposed to the King’s divorce and had written to Henry VIII from Italy clearly and with great scholarship outlining his objections to the divorce and the changes in the royal succession.  He was made a Cardinal by the Pope in 1536 and named as the papal legate to England.  Henry VIII took umbrage at what he perceived as Reginald Pole’s lack of support and arrested his brother Lord Montague and his mother, Margaret Poles on suspicion of treason.

Montague was executed on Tower Hill in 1538, but his mother was held in custody at a house belonging to the Earl of Southampton until early 1539, when she was taken and imprisoned in the Tower of London. She suffered greatly while in prison, as she was by this time an elderly lady of 67, and was not even given enough clothing to keep her warm, but it was generally thought that she would eventually be released.  However, in 1541, following a rebellion led by Sir John Neville in Yorkshire, Henry VIII decided to summarily execute the Countess. The legend is that she refused to lay her head on the block as she asserted that she was no traitor and had committed no crime, and so was pursued around the scaffold by the headsman who had to hack the poor old woman to death.  However, it is also said, and perhaps more likely, that the executioner was a novice who thoroughly botched the job, hacking at the Countess’s neck and shoulders before managing to sever her head. Whichever version is the correct one, it would be true to say that Margaret Pole did not have an easy passing from this life.

So, as you can see, Henry VIII was more than prepared to eliminate any perceived or real rival to his throne and power, and being a blood relative was not enough to save your skin.  Of course, Henry VIII’s most famous victims were two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, but they probably deserve an article all too themselves!

Henry VIII image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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