Thursday, July 12, 2018

Defying Henry VIII: Evil May Day Rioters


No, it was not necessarily that the rioters were evil, but the festival day in 1517 became known as Evil May Day because of the atrocities that occurred. It is interesting to consider that we often think of Henry VIII as a tyrant only in his later years, after too many years without an heir and injuries and ailments that left him tempestuous. At the time of the Evil May Day Riots, Henry had been king only 8 years and was a healthy, athletic 25 year-old.

Medieval May Day was an exuberant festival, filled with food, drink, and dancing. The end of a long, cold winter and dawn of a new summer was even more exciting for those who lived off the land than it is for us today. However, tensions brewed throughout the spring of 1517, leading to a deadly riot in London on a day that should have been filled with celebrations.

King Henry had decided to go to war against France, an action that often leaves those at home overtaxed and underfed. Englishmen were displeased with an influx of immigration that occurred at the same time. Some of these foreign craftsmen and merchants fell outside normal rules of taxation, which inevitably angered their native competitors. Add to this economic downturn the religious unrest that would lead to Martin Luther's 95 Theses later that year, and London was ripe for conflict.

In a sermon that proves some things never change, a Dr Bell of London preached that immigrants, "eat bread from poor, fatherless children," before encouraging men to, "cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal." A fortnight later, the riots began.

British Museum Woodcutting
from "London Apprentice" 1852
After curfew on the evening of April 30, a group of over 1000 men prepared for a very different kind of May Day. They freed some comrades who had been jailed for harassing foreigners and marched to St Martin le Grand, a London precinct heavily settled with immigrants. Thomas More, who served London as under-sheriff at this time, dared to stand before them and encourage them to disperse. His efforts were in vain, for local residents started raining bricks, debris, and boiling water upon those gathered. A fight broke out between the two groups that lasted through the new May Day until it was brought under control. Shockingly, no one had been killed. Yet.

Within just a few days, King Henry had more than three hundred rioters (men, women, and children) arrested and charged with treason. John Lincoln, who was charged with inciting Dr Bell's sermon, was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Thirteen rioters were also executed, and Henry intended for the rest of them to suffer the same fate. Were it not for Katherine of Aragon begging the king to show mercy to those who remained, even more would have endured the ultimate penalty for protesting the king's policies.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Defying Henry VIII: Edward Stafford


Edward Stafford came from a brief line of unfortunate Dukes of Buckingham. The first Duke of Buckingham, Humphrey Stafford, Edward's great-grandfather, had been killed at the Battle of Northampton during the Wars of the Roses, fighting with the Lancastrian army. At his death, Henry Stafford, Edward's father, gained the title. He is infamous for first supporting Richard III and then rebelling against him. He was executed after being denied an audience with the king. Because of Henry's treason, his son, Edward, did not inherit the title until it was granted to him by King Henry VII in 1485. Given his history, one might have expected Edward Stafford to live and speak carefully. One would be wrong.

Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham
Edward had been a child when his father was executed, and he does not seem to have learned the lessons he should have from his demise. Proud of his royal lineage that he traced back to Edward III, Edward was also a cousin to the king through his mother, Katherine Woodville. He was not the only one to notice that his blood was equally royal as Henry VIII's.

But did he commit treason? Edward's most serious sins seem to be pride, vanity, and an uncontrollable mouth. His household was always splendidly dressed and decorated with a coat of arms that included the Plantagenet lions and French fleur de lis, claiming his royal lineage. He was not shy about pointing out his close relation with the king and may have even claimed he could do a better job at it than cousin Henry. He arranged excellent marriages for his children, including securing Ursula Pole of royal York blood for his son.

However, Edward had also served alongside Henry in France, served as an ambassador, and been a member of the Privy Council. Buckingham had failed to please the king in controlling Welsh marcher lords, but seems to have served him well besides. Contemporary reports describe his astonishment and grief when arrested.

So what made Henry change his mind?

Coat of Arms of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham
In 1521, Henry VIII was the father of a single daughter and husband to a wife who had proven her inability to provide him with a son. Where Henry had once embraced his extended family in a way that his father never had, this situation made him look more suspiciously at families such as the Staffords, Poles,  Courtenays, and de la Poles. These families, each with noble blood to rival his own, were no longer trusted by him and each paid the price for thriving while he could only pray for a son.

Besides the king's obsession with the future of his dynasty, a problem that would mar the remainder of his reign, a bill of attainder also enabled him to obtain Buckingham's great wealth, including the beautiful, newly built Thornbury Castle.

Edward Stafford was one of the first to pay the ultimate price (Edmund de la Pole had been executed in 1513). He was accused of "imagining and compassing the death of the king," a controversial and doubtful charge at best. But Henry VIII's desires were known. Therefore, Stafford was found guilty and executed on May 17, 1521. His son, Henry Stafford, never received the Buckingham title but was created Baron Stafford decades later.


Don't miss the rest of the Defying Henry VIII series!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Defying Henry VIII: Thomas More


Like many people who defied Henry VIII, Thomas More had reason to believe that he may be able to speak his mind while retaining the relationship that he had built with the king over the years. Also like many others, he was fatally incorrect.

Sir Thomas More
by Hans Holbein the Younger
More became one of the thousands of religious martyrs of the sixteenth century or, perhaps more accurately, one of the large number sacrificed on the altar of the Church of Henry. King Henry had counted Thomas More as a close friend and confidant for years. A scholar and humanist with friends like Erasmus, More was welcome at court where the king appreciated great thinkers and theological conversation. More and the king both wrote at length against the reformer Martin Luther. Yet when Henry decided to make his own protest against the Catholic Church, he expected More to give him his support.

More did not. And Henry should not have been surprised, for he knew More's past and understood his passion for the church better than most. Even as a young lawyer with a bright future ahead of him, More had considered becoming a monk and had lived as much like one as possible while practicing law at Lincoln's Inn. A desire for marriage and statesmanship kept the devout young man from committing himself to the life of a Carthusian.

Even as a married man, More had lived much less ostentatiously than the typical Tudor courtier. He was generous and hospitable but never glamorous. The habit of wearing a hair shirt beneath his clothing that he had picked up while living in the monastery was maintained for the remainder of his life. Striving to serve his country and the people, More was hesitant to become too close to the king. Despite being Henry's confidant and having been awarded several lucrative positions, More maintained that, "If my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go."

Although More had a clear understanding of his king's willingness to sacrifice others to gain his desires, he was unafraid to challenge him. In writing Utopia, More courageously pointed out immorality and corruption in all areas of society, including government and church. As a new member of Parliament, he spoke passionately against the king's request for funds that More felt placed an unfair burden on the populace. When Henry first presented his evidence for annulment from Katherine of Aragon, More promised to research the issue but not to give his unconditional support.
Sir Thomas More Bids Farewell to his Daughter
by Edward Matthew Ward

Nothing he read and nothing the king could say convinced More of the righteousness of Henry's divorce. As England's Lord Chancellor, it was More's duty to serve the king and enforce the Act of Succession, which required signed oaths recognizing Henry as Head of the Church. As he refused to sign it himself, More resigned his position. Henry accepted the resignation, and More retired to his estates.

Perhaps he would have been safe yet had More studied and lived the quiet life of a country gentleman. However, he was compelled to write defenses of his faith, and he refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn. More was arrested and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered - the death of a traitor - when he continued to refuse the oath. In his benevolence, Henry reduced this sentence to beheading. Before his execution, More said he was, "the king's good servant but God's first."

Thomas More, believed innocent by Protestants and Catholics alike, was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1886 and canonized in 1935.


Don't miss the rest of the Defying Henry VIII series!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Defying Henry VIII: Richard de la Pole


It took a lot of nerve to defy King Henry VIII, but the remaining sons of York gave him a run for his money. While Reginald Pole stood up to Henry through intellect and the written word, Richard de la Pole was a soldier worthy to become the ideal sixteenth century king.

Like the Poles, the de la Poles were also cousins to the Tudors. Richard's mother was Edward IV's sister, Elizabeth, and his brother, John, is believed to been named heir of their uncle, Richard III, after his son's death. John de la Pole died in the Battle of Stoke in 1487, an unsuccessful attempt to remove Henry VII from the throne of England. He was survived by three brothers carrying equal amounts of royal blood: Edmund, Richard, and William.

Edmund was the next oldest after John, so he inherited his title, though Henry VII reduced him from duke to Earl of Suffolk. Edmund was betrayed by his Burgundian allies in 1506 and was imprisoned in the Tower of London until executed by Henry VIII in 1513. William was imprisoned alongside him, but lived there until he died in 1539. Richard, however, remained on the Continent. It was his alliance with the French that brought the English king's wrath down on his brother. With Richard out of reach, Edmund was sacrificed to Henry VIII's lust for blood.

Richard de la Pole
Richard learned from the older brothers' failures and worked to build a name for himself in Europe before attempting to gain allies and build an army that could invade England. After all, if John, already in England and with the support of Yorkists relatively close to Henry Tudor's rise, had failed, what hope did Richard have of a successful invasion a quarter of a century later? Edmund had depended upon the support of European leaders and had been turned over to Henry, leaving his remaining followers living in squalor.

The younger de la Pole brother was clever and patient, seeing that leaders of Europe might recognize him as a challenger to the English king but not back it up with cold, hard cash in support. He claimed the family title of Duke of Suffolk and became known as White Rose, although he had not set foot in England since years before Henry VIII became king. Richard wanted to succeed where his brothers had failed, and to do so he would need to convince people that he was a risk worth taking. Those searching for someone to challenge the Tudor tyrant found their man in the shrewd and capable Richard de la Pole.

King Louis XII recognized both Richard's talent as a soldier and the opportunity to rid himself of the Tudor king. He awarded Richard with a pension and large French force to command, making Richard an obvious threat to Henry VIII. Plans to invade England were considered multiple times, but Richard never felt that his chances of success were worth the risk.

Henry attempted to delegitimize Richard's claim by making his friend, Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk in 1514, taking away the de la Pole's ancestral title and giving it to an upstart. In response, Richard accumulated troops and ships with the help of the French king and prepared for invasion. Before it could commence, Henry and Louis made peace, and Richard was sent to Lorraine.

Francis I became king of France in 1515. In the meantime, Richard had grown comfortable in Metz where he was treated like a prince, even sometimes referred to as Richard IV, without having to go through the trouble of attacking England. As he would in later decades with Reginald Pole, Henry sent assassins after Richard de la Pole. They were no more successful than was Henry himself on the field against the French. Henry's actions sent more support Richard's way without any effort on his own part. Francis vowed to assist Richard in claiming the English throne.

Battle of Pavia by Bernard van Orley
Richard evaded assassins as he raised troops and conspired with Francis. Rumors occasionally hounded Henry that Richard would soon attack. In 1522, France and England were again at war. However, a more opportune time to claim England's throne never arrived. Richard discarded plans made with Francis I and the Duke of Albany to invade England in 1523. Instead, he was serving Francis when he was killed at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.


Don't miss the rest of the Defying Henry VIII series!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Defying Henry VIII: Reginald Pole


Few people dared to challenge the authority of King Henry VIII of England. Of those few, most did not live long enough to regret it. Henry's vengeance burned furiously and unrelentingly. One man, who happened to be Henry's cousin, was the object of his anger for more than twenty years and was clever enough to survive.

Cardinal Reginald Pole
Reginald Pole had not always been a target of Henry's fury. Born to Margaret Pole in 1500, Reginald was Henry's cousin, and the men shared interest in scholarship and theology. Henry's father had recognized great skill in Reginald and supported his studies from an early age. After the death of Henry VII, his son continued that support.With Reginald's mother the governess of Henry's only surviving child, Princess Mary, there was no reason to believe that Reginald need ever fear the wrath of his king.

Enter Anne Boleyn.

Once Henry VIII had been given the title Defender of the Faith by the Pope, but the middle aged king with an even older wife was tempted to break his marriage vows in order to satiate his lust and father a more worthy heir than the teenage daughter he already had. Reginald's faith, however, remained unshaken. Henry requested that Reginald write a defense of his plan to replace Queen Catherine with Anne, expecting that the years of friendship and support, not to mention their familial bond, would ensure Reginald's loyalty. Oh, if only he could have foreseen the drama he was unleashing throughout the Christian world.

Instead of supporting his king, Reginald wrote a fierce indictment of his plans to annul his marriage of more than twenty years. Without digging too deeply into the arguments over Henry's Great Matter, we can simply say that Reginald and Henry split, permanently and deeply. In 1526, Henry offered Reginald the Archbishopric of York to bargain for his loyalty. Reginald refused even that tempting bait.

Henry's battle to rid himself of Catherine took longer and had further reaching consequences than Henry could have imagined, but he was not a man to give in when he wanted something! He removed Reginald's mother, who was by this time Countess of Salisbury, from her position as Princess Mary's governess when Margaret too forcefully spoke up for Mary's rights. However, Henry seemed to carry on good relationships with Reginald's brothers, taking them on campaign in France and giving them positions at court. Meanwhile, Reginald remained safe in Italy.

Cappella di Reginald Pole, Rome
Maybe I should say that he was relatively safe. Reginald had to evade the efforts of English assassins on multiple occasions. One was a man more famous as a poet than diplomat or spy. Thomas Wyatt was no more successful than anyone else Henry sent to rid him of his turbulent priest. In 1536, Reginald was so thankful to have escaped another attempt on his life that he had the Cappella di Reginald Pole built near Rome. This small chapel stands there (now within city limits) to this day.

This peace did not last for the Pole family. In 1539, Reginald rejected Henry's offer of the Bishopric of Salisbury, knowing that returning to England would mean his imprisonment and probable death. Angered by this and his family's continued support of Mary (and whispered rumors that they wished to see her married to Reginald) and their continued adherence to the Catholic faith, Henry persecuted what members of the Pole family he could get his hands on. In a debacle that would become known as The Exeter Conspiracy, Geoffrey Pole was imprisoned and tortured and Henry Pole was executed. Margaret, in her sixties by this time, was also arrested.

After his brother's execution, Reginald and was attainted in absentia. Henry even executed Reginald's elderly mother in 1541. No doubt remained that he could never return to his homeland.

Reginald was forced to travel separate of his fellow cardinals with a troop of 25 horseman guards when he participated in the Council of Trent in 1546. They took a secret route in order to avoid assassins. Those who lived in Viterbo, where Reginald governed as papal legate, knew to report any strangers in the area who might have been sent by the English king.

What finally allowed Reginald to move freely and eventually return to England was the death of King Henry in January 1547. During the short reign of Edward VI, Reginald exchanged letters with the Duke of Somerset and the king himself, but he was hesitant to return due to the religious reforms taking place. Of course, he also had his own work keeping him busy, which included the papal conclave of 1549-1550 that almost elected him Pope.

Reginald did finally return to England in 1554. He was not wed to Mary, now queen, as many had hoped. Instead, she made a disastrous match with Prince Philip of Spain and Reginald became Archbishop of Canterbury. Reginald died of natural causes (quite an accomplishment for a man with York blood in the Tudor era) on November 17, 1558, the exact same day as Queen Mary, ending the counter-reformation in England.



Don't miss the rest of the Defying Henry VIII series!