From the moment Henry, Earl of Richmond, emerged from Bosworth as King Henry VII, he knew he’d only won the battle – not the war itself. His claim to the throne was undeniably obscure and complicated, and only his marriage to the daughter of King Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, had the potential to stabilise his claim. But even that, he knew, thanks to Richard III’s Titulus Regius (declaring all Edward IV’s children illegitimate), would not end his woes. He was also surrounded by those who had a greater claim to the throne than he through other avenues. Nevertheless, in the immediate aftermath of Bosworth, he seems to have attempted to win the Yorkist’s over. Not only did he go ahead with the marriage, but he was kind to John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln (whom Richard III had named his heir following the death of Edward of Middleham), and several others had had their lives spared following his victory. They were not unduly punished for acting in Yorkist favour (Margaret Beaufort even praised a former servant of Richard III for their loyalty – a fact somewhat at odds with popular perception of her as a Yorkist destroying dragon). But Henry was far too intelligent a man to know that this was a cause that couldn’t be killed through kindness alone.
So, given the grim inevitability of rebellions, Henry knew also that more difficult decisions had to be made regarding other claimants; ones too close to his crown for comfort. One such case was that of Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. The son of George, Duke of Clarence, and Isabel Nevill, he was the nephew of two Yorkist Kings through the paternal side. As a pre-emptive strike against would-be conspirators who were waiting in the wings, Henry had the boy transported to the Tower where he could be watched and monitored for his own safety. Which is just as well, because less than two years into the reign of Henry VII, Warwick had a double.
Not a lot is known about Lambert Simnel. G.R Elton states that he was the son of a Joiner or Carpenter from Oxfordshire, and was roughly twelve years old when he was spotted by an ambitious Clergyman, Richard Symonds (described by Elton as: “A man of no birth, but some brains” – which leaves us wondering why he did what he did next). Simnel was taken from his family (possibly on the promise of a career in the Church), and schooled by Symonds in the ways of the aristocracy. Originally, he was to impersonate the younger of Edward IV’s sons, Richard of Shrewsbury. But for some time, rumours had been circulating that Henry VII had secretly killed off the Earl of Warwick (it wouldn’t be the first time that a young heir had been secretly done away with in the Fortress). So soon, there was a change of plan. Instead of impersonating one of Edward IV’s unfortunate sons, Simnel was set up as the Earl.
Following very careful coaching, Simnel’s mannerisms, tone of speech and deportment were all ironed out. He was decked out in fine clothes and taught to compose himself with the haughtiness of the ruling classes; and none of the Carpenter’s son remained in him by the time he was taken to Dublin to claim “his” throne. Once in Ireland, he was in a place safe enough to start rallying troops for an invasion of England. The Earl of Kildare was chief among the Irish supporters (keen to be rid of English influence on Irish soil – he had his own vested interests in the enterprise). Co-ordinating the English troops was John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln. In Europe, the real Edward Plantagenet’s aunt, Margaret of Burgundy, had given her backing (and alongside her was Lord Francis Lovell – an exiled Yorkist). Between them, they mustered an army of 2000 German mercenaries to take back the Crown.
However, Henry had spies everywhere (not without good reason), and had already heard of the brewing rebellion. Looking back from the distance of over five-hundred years, it’s hard to see what the fuss was about. It’s clear to us that Simnel was a fake; a puppet being used for the ambitions of others (de la Pole had his own claim to the Crown and was probably just using the boy as a front, and even Symonds the Priest had his eye on the greater glory to be gotten through a puppet King). But the plot, regardless of its flimsiness, had gained a swell of support for the Yorkist cause, and left Henry’s vulnerabilities horribly exposed. So, Henry acted swiftly and decisively. In May, 1487, the real Edward Plantagenet was dressed up in all his finery and paraded through the streets of London for all the people to see, and for all the foreign ambassadors to see and filter back to their European masters (thus letting the rest of the world know that the real Earl was alive and well and living at the Tower). But, at roughly the same time, Lambert Simnel was at Dublin Cathedral being crowned King Edward VI of England and France, and Lord of Ireland. Parading the real Earl through the streets was too little, too late. With so much riding on Lambert Simnel, military engagement was now unavoidable.
The battle happened on 16th June, 1487 at Stoke. Once again, Henry’s troops were outnumbered; once again Henry had the luck of the Devil on his side. Simnel’s troops were crushed, and even de la Pole was killed in action. The rest of the disaffected, desperate Yorkists that had flocked to his banner scattered leaving the bewildered Simnel and Symonds to pick up the flack, such as it was. Realising that Simnel, a mere child, was a front for the ambitions of others, Henry showed him great mercy by appointing him as spit turner in the Palace Kitchens (he rose to the exalted rank of Royal Falconer, and lived to a respectable age). Symonds, too, was even granted mercy (but was kept under lock and key for life).
Overall, Simnel had been an abysmal failure. The only support he got was from the most desperate of old-guard Yorkists and an Irish earl who would do anything to rid his country of the English. His disguise was all too easily lifted by the parading of the real Earl (who was also left in the Tower, but suffered no ill effects of the rebellion that was led in his name). The biggest shock to Henry must have been the involvement of his own mother-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville (described by Elton as “meddlesome and interfering”), who would – as a result – end her days in the Nunnery at Bermondsey. But despite the failure, Henry’s vulnerabilities had been painfully exposed. He had been jeopardised by a child with an ambitious handler and a few desperate enemies. It shook Henry, and given a few quirks of fate, could have ended disastrously for him. As a result, it’s not something that we should dismiss when studying Henry’s reign and the events that made him the sort of King he became.
There is one more point to conclude this post. Although Henry was blissfully unaware of it, Simnel was successful in just one respect: how not to be a Pretender. People were watching, learning and waiting for the chance to strike again against Henry, and a much bigger threat to his Crown was lurking just across the sea.