The White Rose Of England by Charles Morris

Story type: Literature

The wars of the White and the Red Roses were at an end, Lancaster had triumphed over York, Richard III., the last of the Plantagenets, had died on Bosworth field, and the Red Rose candidate, Henry VII., was on the throne. It seemed fitting, indeed, that the party of the red should bear the banners of triumph, for the frightful war of white and red had deluged England with blood, and turned to crimson the green of many a fair field. Two of the White Rose claimants of the throne, the sons of Edward IV., had been imprisoned by Richard III. in the Tower of London, and, so said common report, had been strangled in their beds. But their fate was hidden in mystery, and there were those who believed that the princes of the Tower still lived.

One claimant to the throne, a scion of the White Rose kings, Edward, Earl of Warwick, was still locked up in the Tower, so closely kept from human sight and knowledge as to leave the field open to the claims of imposture. For suddenly a handsome youth appeared in Ireland declaring that he was the Earl of Warwick, escaped from the Tower, and asking aid to help him regain the throne, which he claimed as rightfully his. The story of this boy is a short one; the end of his career fortunately a comedy instead of a tragedy. In Ireland were many adherents of the house of York. The story of the handsome lad was believed; he was crowned at Dublin,–the crown being taken from the head of a statue of the Virgin Mary,–and was then carried home on the shoulders of a gigantic Irish chieftain, as was the custom in green Erin in those days.

The youthful claimant had entered Ireland with a following of two thousand German soldiers, provided by Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV., who hated Henry VII. and all the party of Lancaster with an undying hatred. From Ireland he invaded England, with an Irish following added to his German. His small army was met by the king with an overpowering force, half of it killed, the rest scattered, and the young imposter taken captive.

Henry was almost the first king of Norman England who was not cruel by instinct. He could be cruel enough by calculation, but he was not disposed to take life for the mere pleasure of killing. He knew this boy to be an impostor, since Edward, Earl of Warwick, was still in the Tower. The astute king deemed it wiser to make him a laughing-stock than a martyr. He made inquiry as to his origin. The boy proved to be the son of a baker of Oxford, his true name Lambert Simnel. He had been tutored to play the prince by an ambitious priest named Simons. This priest was shut up in prison, and died there. As for his pupil, the king contemptuously sent him into his kitchen, and condemned him to the servile office of turnspit. Afterwards, as young Simnel showed some intelligence and loyalty, he was made one of the king’s falconers. And so ended the story of this sham Plantagenet.

Hardly had this ambitious boy been set to the humble work of turning a spit in the king’s kitchen, when a new claimant of the crown appeared,–a far more dangerous one. It is his story to which that of Lambert Simnel serves as an amusing prelude.

On one fine day in the year 1492–Columbus being then on his way to the discovery of America–there landed at Cork, in a vessel hailing from Portugal, a young man very handsome in face, and very winning in manners, who lost no time in presenting himself to some of the leading Irish and telling them that he was Richard, Duke of York, the second son of Edward IV. This story some of his hearers were not ready to believe. They had just passed through an experience of the same kind.

“That cannot be,” they said: “the sons of King Edward were murdered by their uncle in the Tower.”

“People think so, I admit,” said the young stranger. “My brother was murdered there, foully killed in that dark prison. But I escaped, and for seven years have been wandering.”

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The boy had an easy and engaging manner, a fluent tongue, and told so well-devised and probable a story of the manner of his escape, that he had little difficulty in persuading his credulous hearers that he was indeed Prince Richard. Soon he had a party at his back, Cork shouted itself hoarse in his favor, there was banqueting and drinking, and in this humble fashion the cause of the White Rose was resuscitated, the banners of York were again flung to the winds.

We have begun our story in the middle. We must go back to its beginning. Margaret of Burgundy, whose hatred for the Lancastrian king was intense, had spread far and wide the rumor that Richard, Duke of York, was still alive. The story was that the villains employed by Richard III. to murder the princes in the Tower, had killed the elder only. Remorse had stricken their hardened souls, and compassion induced them to spare the younger, and privately to set him at liberty, he being bidden on peril of life not to divulge who he really was. This seed well sown, the astute duchess laid her plans to bring it to fruitage. A handsome youth was brought into her presence, a quick-witted, intelligent, crafty lad, with nimble tongue and unusually taking manners. Such, at least, was the story set afloat by Henry VII., which goes on to say that the duchess kept her protege concealed until she had taught him thoroughly the whole story of the murdered prince, instructed him in behavior suitable to his assumed birth, and filled his memory with details of the boy’s life and certain secrets he would be likely to know, while advising him how to avoid certain awkward questions that might be asked. The boy was quick to learn his lesson, the hope of becoming king of England inciting his naturally keen wit. This done, the duchess sent him privately to Portugal, knowing well that if his advent could be traced to her house suspicion would be aroused.

This is the narrative that has been transmitted to us, but it is one which, it must be acknowledged, has come through suspicious channels, as will appear in the sequel. But whatever be the facts, it is certain that about this time Henry VII. declared war against France, and that the war had not made much progress before the youth described sailed from Portugal and landed in Cork, where he claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, and the true heir of the English throne.

And now began a most romantic and adventurous career. The story of the advent of a prince of the house of York in Ireland made its way through England and France. Henry VII. was just then too busy with his French war to attend to his new rival; but Charles VIII. of France saw here an opportunity of annoying his enemy. He accordingly sent envoys to Cork, with an invitation to the youth to seek his court, where he would be acknowledged as the true heir to the royal crown of England.

The astute young man lost no time in accepting the invitation. Charles received him with as much honor as though he were indeed a king, appointed him a body-guard, and spread far and wide the statement that the Duke of York, the rightful heir of the English crown, was at his court, and that he would sustain his claim. What might have come of this, had the war continued, we cannot say. A number of noble Englishmen, friends of York, made their way to Paris, and became believers in the story of the young adventurer. But the hopes of the aspirant in this quarter came to an end with the ending of the war. Charles’s secret purpose had been to force Henry to conclude a peace, and in this he succeeded. He had now no further use for his young protege. He had sufficient honor not to deliver him into Henry’s hands, as he was asked to do; but he set him adrift from his own court, bidding him to seek his fortune elsewhere.

From France the young aspirant made his way into Flanders, and presented himself at the court of the Duchess of Burgundy, with every appearance of never having been there before. He sought her, he said, as his aunt. The duchess received him with an air of doubt and suspicion. He was, she acknowledged, the image of her dear departed brother, but more evidence was needed. She questioned him, therefore, closely, before the members of her court, making searching inquiries into his earlier life and recollections. These he answered so satisfactorily that the duchess declared herself transported with astonishment and joy, and vowed that he was indeed her nephew, miraculously delivered from prison, brought from death to life, wonderfully preserved by destiny for some great fortune. She was not alone in this belief. All who heard his answers agreed with her, many of them borne away by his grace of person and manner and the fascination of his address. The duchess declared his identity beyond doubt, did him honor as a born prince, gave him a body-guard of thirty halberdiers, who were clad in a livery of murrey and blue, and called him by the taking title of the “White Rose of England.” He seemed, indeed, like one risen from the grave to set afloat once more the banners of the White Rose of York.

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The tidings of what was doing in Flanders quickly reached England, where a party in favor of the aspirant’s pretensions slowly grew up. Several noblemen joined it, discontent having been caused by certain unpopular acts of the king. Sir Robert Clifford sailed to Flanders, visited Margaret’s court, and wrote back to England that there was no doubt that the young man was the Duke of York, whose person he knew as he knew his own.

While these events were fomenting, secretly and openly, King Henry was at work, secretly and openly, to disconcert his foes. He set a guard upon the English ports, that no suspicious person should enter or leave the kingdom, and then put his wits to task to prove the falsity of the whole neatly-wrought tale. Two of those concerned in the murder of the princes were still alive,–Sir James Tirrel and John Dighton. Sir James claimed to have stood at the stair-foot, while Dighton and another did the murder, smothering the princes in their bed. To this they both testified, though the king, for reasons unexplained, did not publish their testimony.

Henry also sent spies abroad, to search into the truth concerning the assumed adventurer. These, being well supplied with money, and bidden to trace every movement of the youth, at length declared that they had discovered that he was the son of a Flemish merchant, of the city of Tournay, his name Perkin Warbeck, his knowledge of the language and manners of England having been derived from the English traders in Flanders. This information, with much to support it, was set afloat in England, and the king then demanded of the Archduke Philip, sovereign of Burgundy, that he should give up this pretender, or banish him from his court. Philip replied that Burgundy was the domain of the duchess, who was mistress in her own land. In revenge, Henry closed all commercial communication between the two countries, taking from Antwerp its profitable market in English cloth.

Now tragedy followed comedy. Sir Robert Clifford, who had declared the boy to be undoubtedly the Duke of York, suffered the king to convince him that he was mistaken, and denounced several noblemen as being secretly friends to Perkin Warbeck. These were arrested, and three of them beheaded, one of them, Sir William Stanley, having saved Henry’s life on Bosworth Field. But he was rich, and a seizure of his estate would swell the royal coffers. With Henry VII. gold weighed heavier than gratitude.

For three years all was quiet. Perkin Warbeck kept his princely state at the court of the Duchess of Burgundy, and the merchants of Flanders suffered heavily from the closure of the trade of Antwerp. This grew intolerable. The people were indignant. Something must be done. The pretended prince must leave Flanders, or he ran risk of being killed by its inhabitants.

The adventurous youth was thus obliged to leave his refuge at Margaret’s court, and now entered upon a more active career. Accompanied by a few hundred men, he sailed from Flanders and landed on the English coast at Deal. He hoped for a rising in his behalf. On the contrary, the country-people rose against him, killed many of his followers, and took a hundred and fifty prisoners. These were all hanged, by order of the king, along the sea-shore, as a warning to any others who might wish to invade England.

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Flanders was closed against the pretender. Ireland was similarly closed, for Henry had gained the Irish to his side. Scotland remained, there being hostility between the English and Scottish kings. Hither the fugitive made his way. James IV. of Scotland gave him a most encouraging reception, called him cousin, and in a short time married him to one of the most beautiful and charming ladies of his court, Lady Catharine Gordon, a relative of the royal house of the Stuarts.

For a time now the fortunes of the young aspirant improved. Henry, alarmed at his progress, sought by bribery of the Scottish lords to have him delivered into his hands. In this he failed; James was faithful to his word. Soon Perkin had a small army at his back. The Duchess of Burgundy provided him with men, money, and arms, till in a short time he had fifteen hundred good soldiers under his command.

With these, and with the aid of King James of Scotland, who reinforced his army and accompanied him in person, he crossed the border into England, and issued a proclamation, calling himself King Richard the Fourth, and offering large rewards to any one who should take or distress Henry Tudor, as he called the king.

Unluckily for the young invader, the people of England had had enough of civil war. White Rose or Red Rose had become of less importance to them than peace and prosperity. They refused to rise in his support, and quickly grew to hate his soldiers, who, being of different nations, most of them brigandish soldiers of fortune, began by quarrelling with one another, and ended by plundering the country.

“This is shameful,” said Perkin. “I am not here to distress the English people. Rather than fill the country with misery, I will lose my rights.”

King James laughed at his scruples, giving him to understand that no true king would stop for such a trifle. But Perkin was resolute, and the army marched back again into Scotland without fighting a battle. The White Rose had shown himself unfit for kingship in those days. He was so weak as to have compassion for the people, if that was the true cause of his retreat.

This invasion had one unlooked-for result. The people had been heavily taxed by Henry, in preparation for the expected war. In consequence the men of Cornwall rose in rebellion. With Flammock, a lawyer, and Joseph, a blacksmith, at their head, they marched eastward through England until within sight of London, being joined by Lord Audley and some other country gentlemen on their route. The king met and defeated them, though they fought fiercely. Lord Audley was beheaded, Flammock and Joseph were hanged, the rest were pardoned. And so ended this threatening insurrection.

It was of no advantage to the wandering White Rose. He soon had to leave Scotland, peace having been made between the two kings. James, like Charles VIII. before him, was honorable and would not give him up, but required him to leave his kingdom. Perkin and his beautiful wife, who clung to him with true love, set sail for Ireland. For a third time he had been driven from shelter.

In Ireland he found no support. The people had become friendly to the king, and would have nothing to do with the wandering White Rose. As a forlorn hope, he sailed for Cornwall, trusting that the stout Cornish men, who had just struck so fierce a blow for their rights, might gather to his support. With him went his wife, clinging with unyielding faith and love to his waning fortunes.

He landed at Whitsand Bay, on the coast of Cornwall, issued a proclamation under the title of Richard the Fourth of England, and quickly found himself in command of a small army of Cornishmen. His wife he left in the castle of St. Michael’s Mount, as a place of safety, and at the head of three thousand men marched into Devonshire. By the time he reached Exeter he had six thousand men under his command. They besieged Exeter, but learning that the king was on the march, they raised the siege, and advanced until Taunton was reached, when they found themselves in front of the king’s army.

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The Cornishmen were brave and ready. They were poorly armed and outnumbered, but battle was their only thought. Such was not the thought of their leader. For the first time in his career he found himself face to face with a hostile army. He could plot, could win friends by his engaging manners, could do anything but fight. But now that the critical moment had come he found that he lacked courage. Perhaps this had as much as compassion to do with his former retreat to Scotland. It is certain that the sight of grim faces and brandished arms before him robbed his heart of its bravery. Mounting a swift horse, he fled in the night, followed by about threescore others. In the morning his men found themselves without a leader. Having nothing to fight for, they surrendered. Some few of the more desperate of them were hanged. The others were pardoned and permitted to return.

No sooner was the discovery made that the White Rose had taken to the winds than horsemen were sent in speedy pursuit, one troop being sent to St. Michael’s Mount to seize the Lady Catharine, and a second troop of five hundred horse to pursue the fugitive pretender, and take him, if possible, before he could reach the sanctuary of Beaulieu, in the New Forest, whither he had fled. The lady was quickly brought before the king. Whether or not he meant to deal harshly with her, the sight of her engaging face moved him to compassion and admiration. She was so beautiful, bore so high a reputation for goodness, and was so lovingly devoted to her husband, that the king was disarmed of any ill purposes he may have entertained, and treated her with the highest respect and consideration. In the end he gave her an allowance suitable to her rank, placed her at court near the queen’s person, and continued her friend during life. Years after, when the story of Perkin Warbeck had almost become a nursery-tale, the Lady Catharine was still called by the people the “White Rose,” as a tribute to her beauty and her romantic history.

As regards the fugitive and his followers, they succeeded in reaching Beaulieu and taking sanctuary. The pursuers, who had failed to overtake them, could only surround the sanctuary and wait orders from the king. The astute Henry pursued his usual course, employing policy instead of force. Perkin was coaxed out of his retreat, on promise of good treatment if he should surrender, and was brought up to London, guarded, but not bound. Henry, who was curious to see him, contrived to do so from a window, screening himself while closely observing his rival.

London reached, the cavalcade became a procession, the captive being led through the principal streets for the edification of the populace, before being taken to the Tower. The king had little reason to fear him. The pretended prince, who had run away from his army, was not likely to obtain new adherents. Scorn and contempt were the only manifestations of popular opinion.

So little, indeed, did Henry dread this aspirant to the throne, that he was quickly released from the Tower and brought to Westminster, where he was treated as a gentleman, being examined from time to time regarding his imposture. Such parts of his confession as the king saw fit to divulge were printed and spread through the country, but were of a nature not likely to settle the difficulty. “Men missing of that they looked for, looked about for they knew not what, and were more in doubt than before, but the king chose rather not to satisfy, than to kindle coals.”

Perkin soon brought the king’s complaisance to an end. His mercurial disposition counselled flight, and, deceiving his guards, he slipped from the palace and fled to the sea-shore. Here he found all avenues of escape closed, and so diligent was the pursuit that he quickly turned back, and again took sanctuary in Bethlehem priory, near Richmond. The prior came to the king and offered to deliver him up, asking for his life only. His escapade had roused anger in the court.

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“Take the rogue and hang him forthwith,” was the hot advice of the king’s council.

“The silly boy is not worth a rope,” answered the king. “Take the knave and set him in the stocks. Let the people see what sort of a prince this is.”

Life being promised, the prior brought forth his charge, and a few days after Perkin was set in the stocks for a whole day, in the palace-court at Westminster. The next day he was served in the same manner at Cheapside, in both places being forced to read a paper which purported to be a true and full confession of his imposture. From Cheapside he was taken to the Tower, having exhausted the mercy of the king.

In the Tower he was placed in the company of the Earl of Warwick, the last of the acknowledged Plantagenets, who had been in this gloomy prison for fourteen years. It is suspected that the king had a dark purpose in this. To the one he had promised life; the other he had no satisfactory reason to remove; possibly he fancied that the uneasy temper of Perkin would give him an excuse for the execution of both.

If such was his scheme, it worked well. Perkin had not been long in the Tower before the quick-silver of his nature began to declare itself. His insinuating address gained him the favor of his keepers, whom he soon began to offer lofty bribes to aid his escape. Into this plot he managed to draw the young earl. The plan devised was that the four keepers should murder the lieutenant of the Tower in the night, seize the keys and such money as they could find, and let out Perkin and the earl.

It may be that the king himself had arranged this plot, and instructed the keepers in their parts. Certainly it was quickly divulged. And by strange chance, just at this period a third pretender appeared, this time a shoemaker’s son, who, like the baker’s son, pretended to be the Earl of Warwick. His name was Ralph Wilford. He had been taught his part by a priest named Patrick. They came from Suffolk and advanced into Kent, where the priest took to the pulpit to advocate the claims of his charge. Both were quickly taken, the youth executed, the priest imprisoned for life.

And now Henry doubtless deemed that matters of this kind had gone far enough. The earl and his fellow-prisoner were indicted for conspiracy, tried and found guilty, the earl beheaded on Tower Hill, and Perkin Warbeck hanged at Tyburn. This was in the year 1499. It formed a dramatic end to the history of the fifteenth century, being the closing event in the wars of the White and the Red Roses, the death of the last Plantagenet and of the last White Rose aspirant to the throne.

In conclusion, the question may be asked, Who was Perkin Warbeck? All we know of him is the story set afloat by Henry VII., made up of accounts told by his spies and a confession wrested from a boy threatened with death. That he was taught his part by Margaret of Burgundy we have only this evidence for warrant. He was publicly acknowledged by this lady, the sister of Edward IV., was married by James of Scotland to a lady of royal blood, was favorably received by many English lords, and was widely believed, in view of the mystery surrounding the fate of the princes, to be truly the princely person he declared himself. However that be, his story is a highly romantic one, and forms a picturesque closing scene to the long drama of the Wars of the Roses.

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