Wednesday 11 March 2015

The Pretenders

Yesterday I printed off my boarding card in preparation for travelling to Leicester for the re-interment of Richard III  -  that I lived to see the day!  -  which reminded me it might be a good time to revisit the topic of Lambert Simnel and other  Yorkist claimants to the English throne after Richard’s defeat at Bosworth Field.  For anyone interested in the tangled dynastic allegiances of 15th century England I can’t do better than recommend John Ashdown-Hill’s recently published The Dublin King. Dr Ashdown-Hill brooks no lazy assumptions or uncritical recycling of old legends. He goes to original sources and when he can’t he admits as much.

Lambert Simnel, crowned Edward VI (and not, nota bene, Edward V) in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral in 1487 and carried on the shoulders of his courtiers down the hill to Dublin Castle, is the most interesting of the pretenders to the throne. We can trace a very plausible trail to his true identity and we have a colourful story about his eventual fate, sentenced to work as a spit-boy in the Royal kitchens and eventually promoted to the falconry mews. Maybe.  Or did Lambert/Edward flee from his army’s rout at the Battle of Stoke and escape into exile? This period of history is littered with possible imposters and changelings.  Who, apart from his Irish supporters, knew for certain what the boy king looked like? No selfies in those days, no passport photos.

Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be one of the so-called Princes in the Tower, didn’t fare as well as the alleged Dublin King. Henry VII toyed with him for a while and kept him where he could see him under a kind of hospitable house arrest, but Perkin’s eventual destiny, in 1499, was at the end of a rope at Tyburn. 

Then there was Ralph Wilford or Wulford who, had he truly been the Earl of Warwick, as he said, would have had a strong claim to the throne. Perhaps Ralph was a pretender too many for Henry VII. To understand why, it helps to know what else was going on in Henry’s life at the time. Henry VII was conducting delicate negotiations for a marriage between his son, Arthur, and the Infanta Catherine of Aragon. But Catherine’s parents, the King and Queen of Castile and Aragon were aware of Henry’s precarious hold on the English throne and were wary of marrying their daughter to an heir like Arthur who might be ousted by the Yorkists and never become King. The desire to clear the board of all other claimants and make his son’s succession appear more secure may very well have been behind Henry’s decision to have both Wilford and Warbeck executed.  Pour encourager les autres.

Well as we all know, Catherine did marry Arthur but Arthur died and Catherine, as was the way with valuable royal brides, got passed along to his brother Henry. But that’s another story entirely.

For my money Lambert Simnel is undoubtedly the most convincing of the Yorkist Pretenders but unless it becomes possible to compare the DNA of a known scion of the House of York with that of a Simnel descendant we may never get any closer to the truth.  It’s quite an unusual surname so, if you know of anyone called Simnel, do pass the word along to John Ashdown-Hill who would be very interested to hear from them.

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