Friday, 28 November 2014

28 November 1499: The Execution of Edward, Earl of Warwick

Arms of Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick.svgEdward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick
Above: Shield of the Earl of Warwick. 

On 28 November 1499, Edward Plantagenet, earl of Warwick, was executed on Tower Hill for treason. The son of George, duke of Clarence, and the nephew of both Edward IV and Richard III, Warwick was only twenty-four years of age at his death. 

In an article I wrote for the University of St. Andrews's History Society, which can be accessed here, I explored the tragic life of Warwick and what his cruel end demonstrates about the phenomenon of pretenders in early Tudor England. Warwick had been born on 25 February 1475 to Clarence, younger brother of King Edward, by his wife Isabel Neville, eldest daughter of Richard, earl of Warwick, known as 'the Kingmaker'. At the age of three years old, Warwick's father was brutally executed on charges of treason, and the young Edward became earl of Warwick, although the attainder of his father removed Warwick from the line of succession. 

In 1484, Warwick's young cousin Edward of Middleham, the heir to the throne, died, and there has been speculation that Richard III named his nephew heir to the throne in consequence. However, historians have pointed out the lack of evidence for this, as well as the illogicality of Richard nominating his nephew as heir when Clarence's attainder had barred Warwick from the throne.

Above: Edward's parents, the duke and duchess of Clarence. 

The rule of the House of York came to a bloody end in August 1485, when Richard III was killed by Henry Tudor's forces at the Battle of Bosworth. The Tudors had seized the throne and would not relinquish it until 1603 upon the death of Elizabeth I. The new king shortly afterwards imprisoned Warwick, still only ten years old, in the Tower, an act that appears cruel and callous to us today but which Henry VII surely felt was necessary for the security of his dynasty. If Henry's reign had been peaceful and free of rebellions against his rule, Warwick might reasonably have lived out the rest of his days in obscurity in the Tower. However, the first Tudor king was far from universally loved, and many remained loyal to the Yorkist cause, believing that Henry VII should be deposed and replaced with a member of the House of York.

There has been some speculation about whether Warwick was mentally deficient. The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall famously described him as being kept imprisoned for so long 'out of all company of men, and sight of beasts, in so much that he could not discern a Goose from a Capon'. This statement has subsequently been interpreted to mean that Warwick was retarded. However, Hazel Pierce argued that Hall probably actually meant that Warwick's long imprisonment had made him naive and unworldly, rather than mentally disabled.

From the onset, rebellions and conspiracies surfaced seeking to remove the first Tudor king. The appearance of the pretender Lambert Simnel in 1487 was the first of several conspiracies to usurp the throne from Henry VII and replace him with a Yorkist. Simnel claimed to be the earl of Warwick, leading the king to publicly parade the real Warwick to prove the absurdity of Simnel's pretensions. James A. Williamson suggested that Warwick was merely a figurehead for a rebellion that was already being planned by the resentful and distrustful Yorkists. Simnel, and his cause, was defeated at the Battle of Stoke in June 1487, but the affair had proven to King Henry the danger Warwick represented.

In the 1490s, Perkin Warbeck, another pretender, menaced the king. Upon his imprisonment in the Tower in 1499, Warbeck allegedly attempted to escape alongside Warwick. Both were found guilty, and Warbeck was hanged at Tyburn. Warwick was tried at Westminster in November by his peers, and was found guilty of treason. He was beheaded at Tower Hill on 28 November, aged twenty-four. He was later buried at Bisham Abbey in Berkshire. It was thought at the time that Warwick was executed to appease the Spanish monarchs, who were fearful of sending their daughter Katherine to England to marry Prince Arthur, the king's heir, in view of continuing insurgencies against the monarchy. A later sixteenth-century account, The Life of Jane Dormer (Jane Dormer having been a favourite of Mary Tudor, daughter of Katherine of Aragon), claimed that Katherine experienced considerable remorse for Warwick's death, believing that her marriage to Arthur had been made in innocent blood. 

The end of Warwick provides evidence of the considerable vulnerability of the Tudor dynasty and Henry VII's intense paranoia about Yorkist conspiracies against his rule. Although he had married Elizabeth of the house of York, many resented his rule and sought his downfall. Henry's fears are understandable, given that his two immediate predecessors, Edward V and Richard III, had both been usurped and brutally killed. Despite Warwick's death, the future of the Tudor dynasty remained precarious. The king's beloved wife died in 1503. His heir Arthur had died the year before, while another son, Edmund, had died as an infant in 1500. Only the young Prince Henry (later Henry VIII) offered the hope of a peaceful and legitimate succession. The Yorkist threat did not disappear after Henry VII's death. Warwick's cousin Edmund, earl of Suffolk, plotted against the throne and fled abroad, and was executed by Henry VIII in 1513. Lady Margaret Pole, elder sister of Warwick, was brutally executed in 1541 aged sixty-seven on charges of treason, although her innocence has never been in any real doubt. She was beautified in 1886.


  1. We don't know if Edward V was brutally murdered and no, Richard didn't usurp the throne from him. Usurping is when you take the throne by force, Richard took it lawfully. Henry took it by right of conquest, which is usurping. I feel bad for poor Edward, Earl of Warwick was completely innocent in Tudors scemes.

    1. Definition of 'usurp': take the place of (someone in a position of power) illegally; supplant. Or: take (a position of power or importance) illegally or by force.

      You are correct that Richard did not take the throne by force, but he did take it unlawfully. Edward IV's heir, at his death in April 1483, was his eldest son Edward. During Edward IV's lifetime, there were no allegations that his marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville was illegal on account of his earlier pre-contract to Eleanor Butler. It was only after Edward's death, and before his son could be crowned king, that rumours circulated. Richard's accession was not lawful, because he was not the lawful heir, and the evidence to support his claim to the throne was unconvincing. Moreover, the appalling execution of Hastings in June 1483 - without a trial - and the imprisonment of the two princes in the Tower - irrespective of what happened to them - indicates that Richard's takeover of power WAS both illegal and a usurpation.

      Edward, earl of Warwick is undoubtedly someone to be pitied, as is his sister Margaret, countess of Salisbury.