London in the Time of the Tudors: Henry VII – Part One

Title: London in the Time of the Tudors

Author: Sir Walter Besant

Public Domain



On stepping out of the fifteenth into the sixteenth century one becomes conscious of a change; no such change was felt in passing from the twelfth to the thirteenth century, or from the fourteenth to the fifteenth. The world of Henry the Sixth was the same world as that of Edward the First; it was also the same as that of Henry the Second. For four hundred years no sudden, perceptible, or radical change took place either in manners and customs, language, arts, or ideas. There had, of course, been outbreaks; there had been passionate longings for change; men before their time, like Wyclyf, had advanced new ideas which sprang up like grass and presently withered away; there had been changes in religious thought, but there was no change, so far, in religious institutions. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, we who know the coming events can see the change impending, change already begun. Whether the Bishops and Clergy, the Monks and Friars, were also conscious of impending change, I know not. It seems as if they must have been uneasy, as in France men were uneasy long before the Revolution. On the other hand, Rome still loomed large in the imagination of the world: the Rock on which the Church was established; the Throne from which there was no appeal; the hand that held the Keys. We have now, however, to chronicle the part, the large part, played by London in this great century of Revolution.

After forty years of Civil War,—with murders, exactions, executions, treacheries, and perjuries innumerable, with the ruin of trade, with the extinction of ancient families, with the loss of all the French conquests,—the City, no less than the country at large, welcomed the accession of a Prince who promised order and tranquillity at least. Of all the numerous descendants of Edward the Third who might once have called themselves heirs to the Crown before the Duke of Richmond, there remained but two or three. Of the Lancastrians Henry alone was left, and his title was derived from a branch legitimised. The two brothers of Henry V. had no children; the only son of Henry VI. was dead. On the Yorkist side Edward’s two sons were dead; Richard’s only son was dead; there remained the young Earl of Warwick, son of Clarence. He was the one dangerous person at the time of Henry’s accession. Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, was not the heir to the Yorkist claims—this was certainly the eldest daughter of Edward the Fourth; but he was the son of George, Duke of Clarence, and the last male descendant of the York line. He was now fifteen years of age, and had been kept in some kind of confinement at a place called Sheriff Hutton Castle, in the County of York. Considering the practice of the time, and the reputation of Richard III., one wonders at his forbearance in not murdering the boy. Henry sent him—it was his first act after his victory—to the Tower for better safety. Grafton[1] calls this unfortunate Prince “the yongling borne to perpetual captivitie.” He is said to have been a simple youth, wholly ignorant of the world. Though, as we shall see later on, Henry found it expedient to treat this young Prince after the manner of his time. A dead Prince can never become a Pretender.

And no other fate was possible in the long-run for one whom conspirators might put up at any moment as the rightful claimant of the Crown. The unfortunate youth was only one of a long chain of possible claimants, all of whom paid the penalty of their inheritance by death. Among them were Edward’s infant Princes; his own father; Henry’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales; and later on Lady Jane Grey, and Mary Queen of Scots.

In the same castle of Sheriff Hutton, in similar confinement, was the Lady Elizabeth, Edward the Fourth’s elder daughter, whom Richard proposed to marry with the sanction of the Pope, his own wife, Anne, having strangely and mysteriously come to her death. Bosworth Field put a stop to that monstrous design. According to Grafton, the purpose of Richard was well known to the world, and was everywhere detested and condemned.

Henry rode to London immediately after his victory. At Shoreditch he was received by the Mayor, Sheriffs, and Aldermen, clothed in violet and bearing a gift of a thousand marks. He then went on to St. Paul’s and there deposited three standards—on one was the image of St. George, on another a “red fierie dragon beaten upon white and greene sarcenet,” and on the third was painted “a dun cow upon yellow tarterne.” He also heard a Te Deum.

Four weeks after Henry’s entrance into the City there broke out, quite suddenly, with no previous warning, a most deadly pestilence known as the sweating sickness. This dreadful epidemic began with a “burning sweat that invaded the body and vexed the blood, and with a most ardent heat infested the stomach and the head grievously.” If any person could bear the heat and pain for twenty-four hours, he recovered, but might have a relapse; not one in a hundred, however, of those that took the infection survived. Within a few days it killed two Mayors, namely, Sir Thomas Hill and Sir William Stocker; and six Aldermen. The sickness seems to have been swifter, and more deadly while it lasted, than even the Plague or the Epidemic of 1349. But it went away after a time as quickly as it had appeared.

Henry’s coronation was celebrated on the 13th of October. His predecessor had disguised the weakness of his title by the splendour of his coronation. Henry, on the other hand, made but a mean display—perhaps to show that he was not dependent on show or magnificence. Stanley perceives in this absence of ostentation a kind of acknowledgment that his title to the Crown rested more upon his victory than his descent. This opinion seems to me wholly fanciful; Henry would never at any moment acknowledge that his title was weak. On the other hand, he stoutly claimed, through his mother, to be the nearest heir in the Lancastrian line. His known dislike to ostentation is quite a sufficient reason to account for the comparative poverty of the Coronation show—at which, however, one new feature was introduced, namely, the bodyguard of the King’s person, known as the Yeomen of the Guard. The King’s belief in the strength of his own title was shown in his treatment of the Lady Elizabeth. He had solemnly promised to marry her; he did so in January 1486, five months after his victory; but he was extremely loth to crown her, lest some should say that the Queen was Queen by right, and not merely the Queen consort. The coronation of the Queen was postponed for two years. The celebration, however, when it did take place, was accompanied by a great deal of splendour.

The business of Lambert Simnel shows the real peril of the King’s position. The experience of the last forty years had taught the people a most dangerous habit. They were ready to fly to arms on the smallest provocation. Who was Henry, “the unknown Welshman,” as Richard called him, that he should be allowed to sit in peace upon a throne from which three occupants had been dragged down, two by murder and one by battle? But the occasion of the rising was ridiculous. The young Earl of Warwick was in the Tower; it was possible to see him—Henry, in fact, made him ride through the City for all the world to see. Yet the followers of Lambert Simnel proclaimed that he was Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. Lambert’s father was a joiner of Oxford; Sir Richard Symon, a priest, was his tutor. The boy, who in 1486 was about eleven years of age, was of handsome appearance and of naturally good manners.

After the defeat of his cause, Lambert and the priest who had done the mischief were taken. The priest was consigned to an ecclesiastical prison for the rest of his natural life; the boy was pardoned—they could not execute a child—and contemptuously thrust into the King’s kitchen as a little scullion. He afterwards rose to be one of the King’s falconers—the only example in history of a Pretender turning out an honest man in the end. Can we not see the people about the Court gazing curiously upon the handsome scullion in his white jacket, white cap, and white shoes, going to and fro upon his duties, washing pans with zeal and scraping trenchers? The boy had a lovely face, and manners very far beyond his station. Can we not hear them whispering that this young man had once been as good as King, and knew what it was to exercise royal authority?

The Earl of Warwick was still, however, allowed to live.

The King, who was magnanimous when it was politic, could also exhibit the opposite quality on occasion. He had never found it easy to forgive Edward’s Queen for submitting herself and her daughters to Richard after she had consented to Henry’s attempt upon the Crown, on the condition of his marrying the eldest. He laid the matter before his Council, who determined that Elizabeth, late Queen, should forfeit all her lands and possessions, and should continue for the rest of her life in honourable confinement in the Abbey of Bermondsey. Here, in fact, she died,  not long afterwards, the second Queen who breathed her last in that House.

One Pretender removed, another arose. Perkin Warbeck professed, as we know, to be the younger son of Edward IV., namely, Richard, Duke of York, who, it was pretended, had escaped from the Tower. The strange adventures of Perkin are told in every history of England. He is connected with that of London on three occasions. The first was after his abortive attempt to land in Kent. The Kentish men, refusing to join him, attacked his followers, drove some of them back to their ships, and took prisoners a hundred and sixty men with four Captains. These prisoners were all brought to London roped together, a curious sight to see. Those who lived on London Bridge saw many strange sights, but seldom anything more strange than these poor prisoners, who were not Englishmen but aliens, thus tied together. They were all hanged, every one: some on the seashore, where their bodies might warn other aliens not to come filibustering into England; and the rest at Tyburn.

The Cornish Rebellion was an episode in the history of the Perkin Warbeck business. The men of Cornwall refused to pay taxes and resolved to march upon London. Led by Lord Audley they advanced through Salisbury and Winchester into Kent: they were there opposed, and moved towards London, finally lying at Blackheath. The battle that followed was chiefly fought at the bridge at Deptford Strand. Two thousand of the rebels were killed; fifteen hundred were taken; Lord Audley was beheaded; two demagogues who had instigated the rising, namely, Flammock an attorney, and Joseph a farrier, were hanged; the rest were not pursued or punished.

The City, meantime, showed its loyalty by a loan of £4000 to the King and by putting London into a state of defence. Six Aldermen and a  number of representatives from the Livery Companies were deputed to attend to the City ordnance; houses built close to the wall were taken down; the Mayor was allowed an additional twelve men, and the Sheriffs forty serjeants and forty valets to keep the peace.

Among those appointed to guard the City gates was Alderman Fabyan the Chronicler.

The next episode in Perkin’s career which touches London is that ride which he undertook, very much against his will, from Westminster to the Tower. Everybody knows how he gave himself up to the Prior of Shene. The King granted him his life, but he imposed certain conditions. He was placed in the stocks opposite the entrance to Westminster Hall, where he sat the whole day long, receiving “innumerable reproaches, mocks and scornings.” The day after he was carried through London on horseback, in sham triumph. They were ingenious in those days in their methods of putting offenders to open shame. At an earlier date the traitor Turberville had to ride in shameful guise; a nd when Lord Audley, Captain of the Cornish Rebels, was led out to execution, he was attired in a paper robe painted with his arms, the robe being slashed and torn. No doubt Perkin was handsomely attired in coloured paper, with a tinsel crown upon his head; no doubt, too, he bestrode a villainous hack, while all the ’prentices of London ran after him, laughing and mocking. They placed him on a scaffold by the Standard in Chepe and kept him there all day long. In the course of the day he read aloud his own confession, which is a very curious document.

“First it is to be known, that I was born in the town of Turneie in Flanders, and my father’s name is John Osbecke, which said John Osbecke was controller of the said towne of Turneie, and my mother’s name is Katherine de Faro … against my will they made me to learn English and taught me what I should do or say. And after this they called me Duke of Yorke…. And upon this the said Water, Stephen Poitron, John Tiler, Hubert Burgh, with manie others, as the aforesaid earles, entered into this false quarrell. And within short time after the French king sent an ambassador into Ireland, whose name was Loit Lucas, and maister Stephen Friham, to advertise me to come into France. And thense I went into France, and from thense into Flanders, and from Flanders into Ireland, and from Ireland into Scotland and so into England.” (Grafton.)

The last occasion of his public appearance was on the day when he was hanged. After his two days’ enjoyment of pillory he was taken to the Tower and was contemptuously told that he would have to end his days there in confinement. Here he soon brought an end upon himself. He found in the Tower the young Earl of Warwick, who, as we have seen, was a very simple young man. Perhaps Perkin understood very well that, even if his own pretensions were hopelessly discredited, with the real Earl of Warwick, Clarence’s undoubted son, grandson of the great Earl, the last male representative of the House of York, there would be the chance of a far greater rising than either Simnel’s or his own. He was already sick of prison; the chances of a rising seemed worth taking, with all its perils and dangers; he was probably desperate and reckless. He accordingly bribed his keepers with promises to connive at the escape of the Earl and himself. One has an instinctive feeling that they only pretended to connive; that the course of the plot was daily communicated to the Governor of the Tower, and by him to the King; that the wretched man was encouraged and urged on in order to give an opening for the greatly desired destruction of the Earl as well as his own. However that may be, in the end Perkin and a fellow-conspirator, one John Atwater, were placed on hurdles and drawn to Tyburn, where they received the attentions reserved for traitors. Perkin died, it is said, confessing his guilt. Guilty or not guilty, it was a convenient way of ridding the King not only of an impudent pretender, but also of a dangerous rival. Edward Plantagenet was beheaded on Tower Hill: his end is said to have been suggested by the King of Spain before the betrothal of Prince Arthur to Katherine of Aragon. It was sixteen years after his accession that Henry caused the unlucky youth to be beheaded; and now no rival was left to disturb the security of Henry’s crown.

There was, however, still a third personation, passed over by most historians, this time by a native of London. The new Pretender was named Ralph Wilford, the son of a shoemaker. He fell into the hands of a scoundrel named Patrick, an Augustine friar, who taught him what to say and how to say it. The two began to go about the country in Kent, and to whisper among the simple country folk the same story that Lambert Simnel had told. This lad was none other than the Earl of Warwick. When the friar found that the thing was receiving, here and there, a little credence, he began to back up the boy, and even went into the pulpit and preached on the subject. But this time the matter was not allowed to get to a head. There was no rebellion: both the rebels were arrested, the young man was hanged at St. Thomas Waterings, and the friar was put into prison for the rest of his natural life.

In the year 1500 was a “great death” in London and in other parts. The “great death” was due to an outbreak of plague; not the sweating sickness, which also returned later, but apparently some form of the old plague, the “Black Death.” It is one of the many visitations which fell upon the City, afflicted it for a time, filled the churchyards with dead bodies, then passed away and was forgotten. Twenty thousand persons, according to Fabyan, were carried off in London alone. The King retired to Calais till the worst was over.

On the 14th November 1501, Prince Arthur, then a little over fifteen years of age, was married to Katherine of Aragon, who was then three years older. They were married in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Holinshed says that a long stage was erected, 6 feet high, leading from the west doors to the Choir; that at the end was raised a Mount on which there was room for eight persons, with steps to go up and down; and that on this platform stood the King and Queen and the bridegroom, and on it also the Mayor and Aldermen were allowed a place.

That concludes part one of London in the Time of the Tudors – Henry VII. We are pausing this story at November 1501, and the marriage of Arthur to Katherine. With only eight and a half years left to live, Henry VII’s impact on London continued.



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