A Man of No Birth: The Rebellion of Lambert Simnel

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.


Dublin Cathedral: Where Lambert Simnel was crowned King Edward VI (and where Showtime’s “The Tudors” was filmed, FYI!).

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.



The “Last” Plantagenet?

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.