Lambert Simnel, Enigma and Anomaly

   Posted by: Barbara Gaskell Denvil   in Medieval Miscellany, Medieval People

What exactly happened at the Battle of Stoke Field (1487) and who on earth was Lambert Simnel?

Tudor propaganda asks us to believe that a young boy of only 10 or 11 years, without traceable name, history, antecedents or any noticeable talent or position, was chosen by the still powerful Yorkist faction to be their leader and figurehead while trying to overthrow Henry Tudor. We are further asked to believe that the king’s mother-in-law risked everything (and indeed lost virtually everything) by backing this unknown child to take the throne in preference to accepting her own daughter as existing queen of England and her son-in-law as king. Furthermore, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln – Richard III’s appointed heir and therefore the one truly entitled to claim the throne for himself – instead chose to fight for this young nobody to rule the country in his place. Indeed the entire Yorkist faction fought a great and terrible battle, suffering death, injury and eventual overthrow – for what? To put this little nobody up as king? The presumption is frankly ludicrous.

Henry Tudor’s treatment of Lambert Simnel once the Yorkists were defeated is equally difficult to believe. The boy who supposedly led an army which nearly defeated the king and caused the death of many whilst trying to usurp his throne, was instantly pardoned and given a position of humble trust working in the royal kitchens. He was later promoted to falconer.

There is no record of who he actually was or why on earth he might have been chosen for such a mighty task. Contemporary documentation is clouded by the powerful Tudor victors and Henry VII was one of the greatest dealers in propaganda as all Ricardians know well. It is therefore extremely difficult to understand exactly what happened at the time. The so called Pretender appears to have been crowned Edward VI (not Edward V) in Ireland, and is said to have first claimed to be the late Duke of Clarence’s son Edward of Warwick, whereas the real Edward of Warwick was already held prisoner in the Tower. Yet at some time he also evidently claimed to be Edward V, Edward IV’s son and heir, and the elder of the two so called princes in the Tower. This ‘kitchen boy’ seemingly convinced many mighty lords both at home and abroad of his princely claims and character. He was heavily backed, both financially, verbally, politically and with military expertise.

Whether any of these facts are true, or partly or wholly Tudor manipulations, now seems impossible to tell. The situation has been ill-lit over following centuries and little interested research appears to have been done on the subject. Once again Tudor propaganda rules – after more than 500 years we are still the dupes who accept Henry VII’s every word – and the preposterous identity of Lambert Simnel, Pretender to the rightful Tudor throne, is still accepted as truth, taught in schools and barely questioned even by those who question other historical uncertainties.

Whether or not we personally suspect him of being the wicked uncle, Richard III’s involvement in his nephews’ disappearance has long constituted the main accusation against him. But while we Ricardians may exonerate Richard of outright murder, (or even if some still foster uncomfortable doubts), it does not alter the fascinating mystery of what did – or may have – happened to Edward IV’s two young sons. Most still assume that the boys were murdered, and only the name of the murderer is therefore in question. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever of the boys’ deaths and even evidence of contemporary rumour and gossip is remarkably threadbare.

I am not here concerned with the fact that both boys had been declared illegitimate due to their parents’ marriage being bigamous. Henry Tudor chose to reverse this ruling in order to marry the elder princess and thus boost his meagre hold on sovereignty. Hence Edward IV’s two sons, if discovered alive indeed, would once again have been rightful claimants to the throne of England.

Ann Wroe’s brilliant book  PERKIN – A story of deception has amassed amazing actual and circumstantial evidence, at least bringing an element of theoretical respectability to a belief in the continuing life of Edward IV’s younger son, Richard, Duke of York. Without even coming to any absolute conclusion, a thorough reading of this book brings a belief in the possibility – even the probability – of this young man having been exactly who he claimed to be. But even accepting, as I do, that this tragic figure was one of the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’, here we speak only of the younger. He would hardly have made the attempt to claim the throne or been so heavily backed by those who believed in him, had there been any possibility of the elder son, Edward, Prince of Wales, still being alive. We must therefore assume that at least by 1491, Edward IV’s elder son and heir was dead.

This inevitable conclusion brings us directly to the Battle of Stoke and the presumed identity of the shadowy ‘Lambert Simnel.’ But if orthodox history over the centuries has declined to seriously examine the very interesting claims of the Tudor-dubbed ‘Perkin’, then how much more logical it has been to ignore the figure of the laughable child Lambert Simnel. Yet it is the very laughability which makes this young man’s circumstances fascinating. How can anyone possibly believe him anything other than another – rather crude this time – snippet of Tudor propaganda?

Over the years I have been surprised to hear how many people interested in the subject have assumed that the elder prince died a natural death while still living in the Tower. I find this popular supposition odd. Possibly it has taken additional root in the ridiculous tale of the boys’ bones being discovered in the 17th century – the skull of the elder child showing signs of serious degenerative bone disease. The likelihood of any of these bones being the remains of Edward IV’s sons is extremely far fetched but of course the myth remains popular. I have also been assured of repeated evidence of tuberculosis within the close family – therefore presenting TB as being a possible cause of the young man’s death in the Tower. The prince’s personal doctor was quoted as saying his charge feared for his life, but there is no indication of the reason for this piece of over-emotional hearsay. Others have assumed that – incarcerated in damp stone dungeons – the boy naturally fell ill. Of course none of these assumptions is at all likely. Up until 1483 Edward, Prince of Wales, was, according to all existing evidence, an extremely fit and healthy young man. In fact there is no trail of tuberculosis in the family apart from Richard III’s wife and son but that is assuredly unconnected, and there is absolutely no tale of the prince suffering from such a slow onset illness. We can discount T.B. The two princes were not ‘incarcerated in the dungeons’ but were housed in comfortable state in one of the principal Royal Palaces of that era, being the Tower of London, and attended by their personal doctor. But I won’t labour the point. We all know this already – and much more – and anyone interested can easily obtain this information. Basically there is no evidence and virtually no likelihood of the elder prince having died of natural causes in 1483, especially since had this happened, its cover-up would have been significantly counter-productive. I therefore dismiss this possibility.

Henry VII himself has frequently been named as the princes’ probable murderer – not personally of course but through an agent and the resources of his mother Margaret Beaufort. However, his later behaviour with regard to “Perkin Warbeck” and Sir James Tyrell’s very clearly fabricated confession, makes it obvious to me that Henry Tudor had absolutely no idea of the princes’ actual fate.

Even attempting to avoid bias, quite simply Richard III’s character as far as we are able to surmise, together with his documented pride in and duty of care towards his family and Plantagenet bloodline, combined with the evident need to safeguard the boys from (principally Tudor) threats against their lives, whilst keeping them from becoming the figureheads of possible uprisings against Richard himself, all point towards one very natural choice of action. The logical conclusion for Richard III at that time was to secure his nephews’ safety abroad, well out of the way and in some secrecy. I believe he had little option. The obvious solution was to put them into the safekeeping of his sister Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy.

Shipped out, accompanied by the minimum of servants, taken directly downriver from the Tower Wharf and from there across the sea to Flanders, this would have caused little upheaval within the Tower. The necessary orders would have been given where appropriate and the allotted apartments then tidied away. The loyal Plantagenet household already in attendance, being informed within circumspect limitations, would have been entirely unconcerned. Others would have quietly accepted such orderly change, official removals being already common for many reasons. This would be in direct contrast to the inevitable chaos of dismay and uncertainty had the two important ‘guests of the Tower’ been murdered and so suddenly gone missing in highly suspicious circumstances – overnight without explanation – their guards and attendants drugged or missing or bribed off – their clothes left scattered, their belongings abandoned. Not knowing who – if anyone – might have authorised such a sudden and mysterious disappearance, the staff and servants would have been terrified of being apportioned some blame, and the rumour and general consternation would quickly have spread across London. Which of course, we know it did not.

My own humble conclusions are simple: both princes survived and were shipped via Flanders to Burgundy in secrecy by their uncle King Richard. Some years later the younger boy, after his elder brother’s death was confirmed, returned to England with his aunt’s considerable backing, to try and claim the throne back for the Plantagenet bloodline. He frightened the life out of Henry Tudor for some years but was eventually outmatched, leading to his execution.

I believe the elder brother had already been killed during the Battle of Stoke Field. Henry Tudor, terrified of admitting some battered corpse had been the true heir to the throne he had himself usurped, built up a veritable mist of fabrications and lies around the facts, and obscured or destroyed the truth. (Certainly not for the first time!) He then employed a boy of roughly the right age (though several years too young as it happens) to forget his own insignificant identity and impersonate a “Pretender”, with a promise of safe keeping, honest employment and future prosperity. Thus a pretender pretended to be the pretender. And the world has obligingly believed this nonsensical fable ever since.  The princes’ disappearance has certainly been explored by many, but it has been too easy to dismiss the Lambert Simnel situation as a ridiculous and humiliating mistake made by the entire Yorkist elite. The truth has been buried since the 15th century. Surely it is high time we started to unravel the mystery and take a more intelligent look. I await the energies of some historian more qualified than myself.

My next novel, SUMERFORD’S AUTUMN, which will be published online some time early next year, delves into these situations with major reference to the fate of both King Edward IV’s sons. The book follows its own fictional plot and is not exclusively limited to the historical detail – but it is the Lambert Simnel dilemma which originally inspired me, and I cover it and the poor mistreated younger prince Richard fairly thoroughly amongst the other threads and layers of my various interwoven storylines.

Please feel free to visit Barbara’s blog!

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This entry was posted on Thursday, December 8th, 2011 at 10:01 and is filed under Medieval Miscellany, Medieval People. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One comment


One nitpick: there is nothing that suggests Richard’s son Edward ever had tuberculosis. It seems quite unlikely, since his death was very sudden and came as a complete surprise to his parents.

December 14th, 2015 at 7:30

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  1. Richard III Society of NSW » Blog Archive » Sumerford’s Autumn    May 14 2013 / 5pm:

    […] from the author that the theme of Perkin Warbeck has haunted her for some time (hence her Lambert Simnel article which she offered for our branch website some time […]

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