Saturday 19 January 2013

Mystery People of History - Lambert Simnel

It is said that on 24 May 1487, a youth known as Lambert Simnel was crowned as King Edward VI in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin in a bid to wrest the crown of England from the new Tudor monarch Henry VII. England in the latter part of 15th century had been torn apart by the War of the Roses, where the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions battled each other for supremacy and the crown passed back and forth between them several times.  It seemed in 1485 that when the Lancastrian Henry VII defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth that the country was at last settled politically and it was the end of the battles and turmoil.  However, the Yorkist faction had not been entirely quashed and was still eager to seize power again and put a Yorkist claimant on the throne.  But who were the surviving claimants to the throne that the Yorkists could still fight for?   Richard III’s only son Edward of Middleham had died before his father, so Richard named his nephew John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln as his heir.  However, Lincoln had come to an accord with Henry VII and seemed to have thrown his lot in with the Lancastrians. Another potential heir was the young Edward, Earl of Warwick who was the only surviving son of the late Duke of Clarence.  Clarence was the brother of both Edward IV and Richard III and he had been executed by Edward IV in 1478 for treason. After Bosworth, Henry VII removed Warwick from Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire and had him brought to the Tower of London.

Lambert Simnel in Ireland - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Lambert Simnel in Ireland

There were also still many rumours circulating that at least one of the sons of Edward IV was still alive, and was possibly in hiding on the Continent or, possibly, in Ireland. These two young princes, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York had last been seen in public when they were living in the Tower of London in 1483 prior to Richard III seizing the throne. The sightings of the two young boys had petered out and there were strong rumours that they had been murdered, possibly by their uncle, Richard III.  So it was perhaps unsurprising that Henry VII had to put down rebellions raised in favour of these supposed Yorkist claimants to the English throne.  The first of these was in 1487 and was centred on a pretender known to history as Lambert Simnel. But Lambert Simnel is one of the real mystery people of history as, for a start, we do not even know if he really ever existed.

Back in the 15th century communications were not as good as they are now and there was certainly no global news flashing information across the miles in seconds.  For information on the events happening in these tumultuous years, we need to rely on the chroniclers of the time, many of whom were writing years after the event.  It is also worth bearing in mind that history tends to favour the victors and these chroniclers were writing for a Tudor monarchy. There are several chronicles that cover this period of Henry VII’s reign and they all give out conflicting information about the youth crowned in Dublin, as some say he was a genuine pretender and some say he was an imposter. The chronicle written closest to the event was that of Jean Molinet in 1490 and Molinet stated that the Irish King was the real Earl of Warwick. The story of Lambert Simnel most commonly used today comes from Polydore Vergil’s ‘Anglica Historia’ written between 1503 and 1513 which puts forward the belief that Lambert Simnel was a counterfeit Earl of Warwick. Then Bernard Andre wrote a life of Henry VII in 1500 that stated that Lambert Simnel was an impersonator of Richard, Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower.

So let us look at the story of Lambert Simnel from the very beginning. The pretender was thought to have been born around 1477 and came from humble origins.  His real name is actually not known, as in some contemporary records he has been referred to as John and we cannot be sure that Simnel was his surname. His parentage has also been questioned, with his father being named variously as a baker, a tradesman and even an organ builder. Indeed, it has even been proposed that the character of Lambert Simnel was a fake and constructed by Henry VII as a political ruse to deflect attention away from genuine Yorkist pretenders to the throne, such as the two missing princes.  The story goes that when Lambert Simnel was a young child he was taken in as a pupil by a priest called Roger Simon in Oxford. But again we have discrepancies as this priest is sometimes also known as Richard Symonds. Apparently Simon was much struck by the similarity in appearance between Lambert Simnel and the two young sons of Edward IV and decided that he would school him in courtly manners and knowledge of the Yorkist Court so that he could be used as an imposter for one of the missing princes. It is said that he initially intended to pass him off as the vanished Richard Duke of York, but that after he heard rumours that the Duke of Clarence’s son the Earl of Warwick had died in the Tower of London, he decided to change tack. It absurd to think that a lowly priest in Oxford could possibly educate a young lad to impersonate a prince, so Simon must have been in the pay of someone important who was still adhering to the Yorkist cause, most probably the Earl of Lincoln or Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV.

Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin  where Simnel was crowned
Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin  where Simnel was crowned

Simon then reputedly spread a rumour that Warwick had escaped from the Tower and was now under his protection. He then took Lambert Simnel to Ireland in early 1487 where there was still a strong Yorkist faction. He managed to get Simnel presented to the Earl of Kildare who was ruling Ireland on behalf of Henry VII at the time.  The Earl of Kildare either was taken in by the imposture or chose to buy into the story and agreed to back an invasion of England based on Simnel’s claim to the English throne as the Earl of Warwick and depose Henry VII. They had Simnel crowned in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin as King Eward VI. It has to be said that the surviving Yorkists seemed to be happy to support anyone who would help them to overthrow Henry and get a Yorkist King back on the throne. Back in England, the Earl of Lincoln, who had been Richard III’s named heir, gave his support to this plot to supplant Henry.  He fled to the court of Burgundy and both his and Warwick’s aunt, Margaret, the Dowager Duchess.  When he arrived in Burgundy he made claims that he had assisted in the Earl of Warwick’s escape from the Tower, so as to make Simnel’s story look more authentic. He also joined forces with Francis, Viscount Lovell, one of Richard III’s strongest supporters, who had been cooling his heels in Burgundy since the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Henry VII, who had already developed a good intelligence network, was made aware of these developments and started raising his army.  Henry’s trump card of course is that he knew full well that the real Earl of Warwick was still alive and well in the Tower of London.  As a grand PR stunt and to persuade his nobles, he had the Earl of Warwick released from the Tower. Warwick was then led in procession from the Tower to St Pauls and taken to the royal palace at Sheen where he could be seen regularly and conversed with by the members of the court. There is also conjecture that Lambert Simnel could have been the real Earl of Warwick and that the lad imprisoned in the Tower was the imposter.  Warwick would not have been well known at Court as he had been kept at Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire before Bosworth and then kept in the Tower of London by Henry.  Remember, in those days there were no photos to match people to and even painted portraits were not reliable likenesses. The Earl of Lincoln, who was related to the real Warwick, was thought to have been in contact with this supposed Warwick during his time at Sheen. It could be telling that it was after this meeting that Lincoln fled to Burgundy, as he would have surely recognised his cousin, and maybe he saw that this youth was not Warwick but an imposter?

Henry then took this opportunity to suspect his mother-in-law Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the Princes in the Tower, of being implicated in the plot and stripped her of her lands and revenues, sending her to end her days in a convent in Bermondsey. He also imprisoned her son Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset for the duration of the rebellion. He offered full pardons to any of the traitors who were willing to drop their rebellion and come back to Henry’s fold. But one of the questions that needs to be asked is why would Elizabeth Woodville lend her support to Warwick, the son of the Duke of Clarence who had been her implacable enemy?  Clarence had rebelled against his brother Edward IV several times, one of the reasons being his dislike of his brother’s marriage with a lowly Woodville widow. Elizabeth had strongly supported Edward’s actions in imprisoning and then executing his brother, so why would she support his son?  Especially as her daughter was married to Henry and currently Queen of England? Surely only one of her own sons would be worth risking the security of her daughter for? So was the Irish King actually really one of her sons? Could he have been the lost King Edward V or Richard, Duke of York?

The Irish contingent that the Earl of Kildare managed to gather together was headed by Thomas Geraldine. Margaret of Burgundy mustered 2,000 Flemish mercenaries under the command of the noted military commander Martin Schwartz and shipped them out to Ireland, where they landed on May 5th 1487. Lambert Simnel and his followers then took ship and landed in Furness in the north west of England on 5th June 1487, where they swiftly found that they were joined by only a few English supporters. Most of the local nobility, cautious Northerners, held back waiting to see which way the wind blew, with the notable exception of Sir Thomas Broughton. The rebel force marched south and eventually clashed with King Henry’s army at the Battle of Stoke Field in Nottinghamshire on 16th June. It was a bloody encounter and both Lincoln and Thomas Broughton were killed in the battle. Kildare was captured by Henry, although he was not executed and returned to Ireland to rule once more. Francis Lovell vanished without trace and was never seen alive again.  Again there are discrepancies regarding the priest Simon. One version is that Simon was captured and imprisoned for life, escaping execution because he was a priest. However, much earlier, in February of 1487, a priest called Simons had made a confession in St Paul’s Cathedral that he had taken the son of an organ maker from Oxford to Ireland and when there had promoted him as the Earl of Warwick and this Simons had not been with the rebels at the battle.

King Henry VII
King Henry VII

Probably because he was only a child of 10, although some sources stated that he was 15, legend has it that Lambert Simnel was spared by Henry VII. Probably Henry did not deem him to be an ongoing political threat, so Lambert Simnel was pardoned and was placed in the royal kitchens as a spit turner. In later life it is believed that he became a falconer and that he died sometime after 1534. So Lambert Simnel is a real mystery person of history. Did he really even exist or was he just a construct of Henry VII spun to the populace for political purposes? If Lambert Simnel did exist and was the person crowned in Dublin was he an imposter? And if so, who was he impersonating? The Earl of Warwick, Richard, Duke of York, or King Edward V? Or was he genuinely actually one of these historical personages? Will we ever really know the truth about Lambert Simnel?

Christchurch Cathedral image William Murphy Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic
King Henry VII image - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Lambert Simnel image - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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