A time of confusion as 'pretender to the throne' laid claim to the crown

Bust of Henry VII

The bust of Henry VII of England, by Pietro Torrigiano, at the Victoria and Albert Museum - Credit: Val_McG - CC

Towards the end of the 15th century, the crown of England was threatened by two individuals with the unusual names of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. Neither had any genuine claim to be king but both attempted to seize the crown by pretending to be other people. Both are known collectively as the ‘Pretenders to the throne’ although they did not work together and basically had nothing to do with each other.

Today, we’ll just take a look at the first of these, Lambert Simnel. We can return to Warbeck at a later date.

Lambert Simnel was really just a boy of humble origins and probably wasn’t even called ‘Lambert Simnel.’ However, he did apparently bear a striking resemblance to both the two sons of the Yorkist King Edward IV. Edward had died in 1483, however, and the fate of his two young sons, the so-called ‘Princes in the Tower’ remains mysterious. They had last been seen in the Tower of London where they were supposedly under the ‘protection’ of their uncle Richard III. But soon they disappeared. Had they been murdered? It seems likely. If so, their murderer may well have been Richard III himself.

Richard was himself slain at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485, however. This was all towards the end of the period of dynastic feuding between Yorkists and Lancastrians now known as the Wars of the Roses. Yorkist rule was declared over as the victor at Bosworth, the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, was crowned King Henry VII. But Henry’s power base was initially so fragile that someone like Simnel, simply by pretending to be the late Edward IV’s youngest son Richard could still be a threat to him. The Yorkists, desperate to return to power, were keen to exploit Simnel’s apparent physical similarity to the missing Prince Richard to achieve this end.

Later, the plan was changed. Simnel was now declared to be Edward, the son of Edward IV’s other brother, the late Duke of Clarence. Clarence himself had long ago been executed in the style of his own choosing as punishment for his treachery. Clarence had chosen an unusual method: he was drowned in a vat of malmsey wine. But his son, Edward, Duke of Warwick had survived. Soon Simnel was being crowned King Edward of England in a special alternative coronation ceremony in Dublin.

But then, the Yorkists were defeated decisively at the Battle of Stoke in 1487. Simnel’s ruse fell apart: the real Edward, Duke of Warwick, was, after all, still alive. Simnel was treated very leniently and soon got a job in the king’s kitchens. He later seems to have found work as a falconer and died at some point during the reign of Henry VIII.

It is a confusing story. One wonders if Simnel ever got muddled about who he was supposed to be impersonating himself, particularly as everyone else involved seems to have been called either ‘Edward,’ ‘Henry’ or ‘Richard.’ The fact that he survived suggests that people recognised he was not essentially to blame for the Yorkist rebellion but was essentially just a pawn in a political chess game played by others.

It should also be highlighted that this was a time long before newspapers, photography, the internet or DNA testing. If someone claimed to be somebody else it was difficult to prove otherwise. Frustrated by Simnel’s early success, Henry VII even went as far as to parade the captured Duke of Warwick through the streets to show Simnel was not the person he claimed to be. But this didn’t work: there was no TV, internet or any other means to convey this evidence quickly to the forces now converging around Simnel.

As it was, Henry VII remained vulnerable. He would soon find his rule jeopardised once again by another Pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck.

But that’s a story for another time.