Magazine article History Today

The Extermination of the White Rose: In 1538, Believing His Kingdom to Be under Threat, Henry VIII Brutally Settled Scores Dating Back to the Dynastic Conflicts of the 15th Century, as Desmond Seward Explains

Magazine article History Today

The Extermination of the White Rose: In 1538, Believing His Kingdom to Be under Threat, Henry VIII Brutally Settled Scores Dating Back to the Dynastic Conflicts of the 15th Century, as Desmond Seward Explains

Article excerpt

By the late 1530s Henry VIII s insecurity verged o 13 paranoia, despite the fact that Richard de la Pole, the last man to challenge him openly for the throne, had been dead for ten years. Possible brain damage after a fall in a tournament and the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace contributed to Henry's malaise; while the birth of a son made him fear that, should he die, the boy might vanish like Edward V. He saw enemies everywhere. 'The king told me a long time ago he wants to exterminate the House of Montague that belongs to the White Rose, the Pole family, of which the cardinal is a member', the French envoy reported. 'So far I don't know what he means to do about the Marquess [of Exeter, Henry Courtenay]', he added. 'It looks as if he is searching for any excuse he can find to destroy them.'

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The Poles' mother, Margaret, the Countess of Salisbury, was the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III and the last living Plantagenet; Exeter's mother was a daughter of Edward IV. The 'White Rose' circle of Catholics, who disliked Henry's policies and his minister Thomas Cromwell, were a group of friends rather than a party and while they sometimes spoke of Henry's replacement by his daughter Mary, with Reginald Pole (a cardinal, though not yet a priest) as king consort, it was only wishful thinking. Instead of joining the Pilgrimage, they sent troops to crush it.

Their Plantagenet blood doomed them after Reginald infuriated Henry with his insulting letter, De Unitate, and tried to revive the Pilgrimage--there were rumours he was aiming at the crown. However, Reginald was abroad and Cromwell had difficulty finding any legal grounds for liquidating these last Yorkists. But in June 1538 a complaint about Lady Salisbury's popery by a member of her household led to the arrest of a sea captain who had taken messages to the cardinal.

He implicated another of the Pole brothers, Geoffrey, who was sent to the Tower, where his nerve broke. Under interrogation he tried to kill himself before repeating everything he could remember about his eldest brother Henry, Lord Montague's dislike of King Henry and his policies. On November 4th Montague and Exeter were arrested. Four days later Cromwell wrote to Sir Thomas Wyatt that they had been charged with 'sundry great crimes'.

At Montague's trial before his peers on December 2nd, as at Exeter's held the next day, the sole proof produced was Geoffrey's hearsay. …

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