Edward Plantagenet is a thorny subject. More often than not, he comes up in conversation and Henry VII is duly condemned for having executed a ‘mentally retarded, defenceless child.’ Over the course of the last few years I have actually lost count of how many times this has been repeated; often concluded with the doleful observation that he (Warwick) was ‘the last’ of the Plantagenets, (or broader still, the last of the heirs of the house of York). Given the emotive nature of the subject, I decided it was time to take a look at the facts surrounding his short life, his incarceration, and subsequent execution in December, 1499 (when he was twenty-four years of age).
Edward Plantagenet was born on 25th February 1475, to a family of impeccable pedigree. His mother, Isobel Nevill, was the elder daughter of Richard “Kingmaker” Nevill, 16th earl of Warwick. His father was George, duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV, and Richard, duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III). He also had an older sister, Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury.
However, his younger years were rather turbulent. His mother died in the year 1476, and his father was executed two years after that; leaving him an orphan at the age of three. However, his wardship seems to have been bought by the Marquess of Dorset in 1481, so he at least was not left to languish in penury. From there, the trail seems to run cold, up until 1485.
In August of that year, King Richard III was defeated by Henry, earl of Richmond. Upon his ascension to the crown, Henry VII realised the potential trouble that Warwick could attract. Pre-empting the disaffected Yorkist strike, Henry had the boy lodged in the Tower of London as protection from others using him as a rallying point for rebellion. A natural fear, as he was the nephew of both Edward IV and Richard III, giving him a claim to the throne (despite the taint of treason from his father).
The first serious threat to the young earl came early on, from Lambert Simnel. Simnel was the son of a tradesman, but was said to bear a striking resemblance to Richard of Shrewsbury (youngest son of Edward IV, and one the Princes who vanished in the depths of the Tower of London shortly after the usurpation of Richard of Gloucester). However, his handlers had a change of heart, and instead decide to set him up as Edward, earl of Warwick after rumours were spread that the real earl had already been secretly put to death.
Simnel was first taken to Ireland, where many Yorkist sympathies still lay. He was “crowned” as King Edward VI (in May, 1487), and an army was hastily mustered for an attack on England that same year. However, King Henry had already heard of the planned attack, and it was swiftly crushed. Henry, realising Simnel was a mere puppet, gave the boy a job turning the spits in the Palace kitchens (he eventually worked his way up to become one the King’s falconers – quite an esteemed position).
To prove that Warwick was still living, and quashing all rumours of his death, Henry paraded the boy publicly before returning him to the sanctuary of the Tower. Warwick suffered no more than that. However, in 1492, and altogether more serious threat arrived on the south coast of Ireland, and one that also proved to be stubbornly persistent.
Perkin Warbeck was “talent scouted” while posing in his masters fineries in Co. Cork. At first, he was mistaken for the earl of Warwick (just like Simnel before him), but soon he was being primed into posing as Richard of Shrewsbury (mentioned above). This paved the way for the next seven years of drifting around Europe, mounting half baked attacks on King Henry’s regime, and being an all round pain in the royal backside.
Finally, after one too many failed rebellions against Henry, Warbeck was flushed out of sanctuary at Beaulieu and promptly taken to the Tower. It was here that he and Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick were said to have conspired together to escape the Tower and flee the country. And it was for this reason, that both Warbeck and Warwick were executed. Warbeck was hanged as a commoner, and Warwick afforded the swifter, nobleman’s death, of beheading.
The earl’s trial was a farce. According to one recent biography of Henry VII, he had to be assisted every step of the way with his Court appearance. Other sources say that Warwick was only playing along with Warbeck, as he had been starved of attention during his long years of incarceration.
There is also the issue of his “mental retardation”. In all likelihood, he was uneducated, rather than retarded. He was shut away, pretty much alone, but for the company of a few attendants, in an imprisonment that stretched out for fourteen years. It is little wonder that his social skills were perhaps a little lacking. But full blown retardation is perhaps over-stating the case.
Then there is the issue of him being “the last of the Plantagenets”. He was, if you discount the likes of Elizabeth of York, whom Henry married (rather than murdered). Catherine of York also married, and had Henry Courtenay, who had a son of his own in time. Margaret Pole had a raft of sons. They were all descendants of the Plantagenets. So to say that Henry VII “wiped them all out” is just a slight exaggeration, to say the least! Yet, it gets repeated and repeated.
Of course I do not condone the manner in which Edward Plantagenet met his death. His life was spanned twenty-four short years, but he was not a child. Nor was his execution a flight of fancy. It was a brutal necessity to secure the stability of a fledgling dynasty that was trying with all its might to prevent much greater bloodshed further down the line.
Penn, Thomas – The Winter King
Elton, GR – England Under The Tudors
Seward, Desmond – The Wars of The Roses.