A big welcome to novelist Nancy Bilyeau who is joining us here on the Anne Boleyn Files today to celebrate the re-release of her Tudor thrillers, The Crown and The Chalice. You can read my review of The Crown by clicking here.
Over to Nancy…
No one could deny that Henry VIII was a dangerous king to those who displeased him. While the fate of two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, his close friend Sir Thomas More, and his devoted minister Thomas Cromwell are all too well known today, there is another group of men and women who suffered a tragic–in some cases grisly–fate during the reign of Henry VIII, one that demonstrated that the paranoid and cruel side of his nature was uppermost in the late 1530s.
This is the story of the Exeter Conspiracy.
What makes the conspiracy particularly chilling is that its victims were primarily King Henry’s relatives and close friends. On examining the evidence, it seems they were not completely blameless–at least one of them personally disliked Henry VIII–but historians agree that not one of them planned or committed treason that would arguably rise to the level of demanding severe punishment. Yet there would be five executions at the Tower of London between 1539 and 1542, one of them considered the most horrific execution committed during the reign of Henry VIII.
Certain victims in the Exeter Conspiracy had been living in the shadow of the axe for a long time. They were the few remaining descendants of the House of York.
The tensions go back to the 15th century. To understand why Henry VIII felt he had to kill or imprison so many people, we have to look at what led up to it. After the Battle of Bosworth, the victorious Lancastrian, Henry VII, attempted to conciliate with many of the Yorks. After all, he married Elizabeth of York to put an end to decades of rivalry. His new wife had several younger sisters and marriages were arranged with noblemen that the new king believed he could trust. There were not that many Lancastrian noblemen that the new king could rely on as their numbers had been severely reduced in the Wars of the Roses. If that weren’t the case, Henry Tudor, the grandson of a “low born Welsh adventurer and courtier” (G.W. Bernard) could never have taken the throne of England.
But the serious armed rebellions and invasions that disrupted his reign forced Henry VII to take a new approach. He investigated rumors, made arrests, executed noble-born treasonous conspirators, and elevated “new men” to serve as councilors. His successor, Henry VIII, would follow this pattern–and exceed it.
The family that gave both Henry VII and Henry VIII serious headaches was the De La Pole brothers. Their father was the Duke of Suffolk. Their mother, more ominously, was Edward IV’s sister. The sons had a larger amount of English royal blood running in their veins than Henry VII at a time when that mattered a lot. The oldest son, John, the Earl of Lincoln, who was Richard III’s heir before Bosworth, died at the Battle of Stoke Field trying to overthrow Henry VII. The second son, Edmund, went into exile, “dressed in rags and pawning his possessions for food,” until Philip the Handsome turned him over to Henry VII. The third son, Richard, also went into exile in Europe and agitated against the Tudors, calling himself the King of England, before he was killed at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.
Of the remaining Yorkists, the two orphaned children of the Duke of Clarence, Edward IV’s brother, were in the most vulnerable position. The young Earl of Warwick was confined in the Tower of London beginning at age 10 and finally executed at age 24. His sister Margaret was married to Sir Richard Pole, a minor courtier far below her in rank who the Tudors were sure was loyal. Neutralized, she had a family with her husband–three sons and a daughter–and was given positions of importance at the court. Margaret became particular friends with Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon. The royal couple valued Margaret Pole enough to make her Countess of Salisbury, to ask her to be godmother to their heir, Princess Mary, and to put Margaret at the head of Mary’s household when she lived in Wales. Margaret was very pious, which Henry VIII often praised.
The most important figure in the Exeter Conspiracy was Henry Courtenay. When Henry VIII was still a child, his parents brought this young cousin into the orbit of the royal family so that the Tudor prince would have a playmate. (Young Courtenay’s mother was Elizabeth of York’s sister.)
Margaret Pole’s sons never seem to have been as close to Henry VIII as Courtenay but were close enough to the center of court to make informed observations of the royal family. Later, the oldest son, Henry Pole, Lord Montague, said that Henry VII did not like his son. Another Pole, Reginald, was a brilliant scholar, and Henry VIII generously paid for his studies when he went to Padua to launch a church career.
The fate of Henry Stafford, third Duke of Buckingham, can be seen as something of a dress rehearsal for the Exeter Conspiracy. When Henry VIII was a teenaged prince, foreign ambassadors who got an eyeful of the adult Buckingham wrote that he could make a more impressive king. He was a major landholder who directly descended from Edward III. He was also arrogant and short-tempered and did not make much of an effort to ingratiate himself with Henry VIII. In fact, he was outraged when either Henry VIII or his favorite William Compton seduced Buckingham’s married sister and the duke insisted she be sent to a nunnery.
This had become a tense dynamic by 1521. Henry and Catherine of Aragon did not have a male heir after 12 years of marriage and dukes with royal blood had been known to cause problems before in this kind of situation.
Buckingham certainly did not make a move to overthrow Henry VIII or to build allies in a conspiracy. Disgruntled servants gossiped that the duke listened to a monk who prophesied about the life of Henry VIII–specifically whether he would have a son or not. To us, this sounds no more menacing than visiting a psychic. But it was venturing into treason by imagining the death of the sovereign. Buckingham was arrested and tried, found guilty, and executed in May 1521.
This was a shock to the nobility and there were a few ripples beyond Buckingham’s death. Lord Montague, Margaret Pole’s oldest son, was imprisoned in the Tower of London briefly, although it’s unclear why beyond the fact that Buckingham’s heir was married to Montague’s sister, Ursula. Once he was freed, Montague made every effort to stay on the right side of Henry VIII.
So did Henry Courtenay, who became Earl of Devon and later Marquess of Dorset, and married Gertrude Blount in 1519. They attended the king and queen at the Field of Cloth of Gold and seemed to be a power couple at court. In 1525, Courtenay was created Marquess of Exeter and sent on an important diplomatic mission to France.
What happened to put Margaret Pole, her son, Lord Montague, and the Courtenays onto a more dangerous footing with the King? It was the ascendance of that great disruptor, Anne Boleyn.
There is little doubt that this group, who were all admirers of Catherine of Aragon, detested Anne. They were also believers in the “Old Faith” and unhappy with Henry VIII’s changes in religion. Gertrude Courtenay got into some trouble for becoming a follower of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent. She didn’t learn her lesson from that mistake. When Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII became unhappy, she tried to take advantage of the situation and reported gossip to Eustace Chapuys that he included in his dispatches to Charles V.
When Anne Boleyn was beheaded and Henry VIII married Jane Seymour, this entire group was in high favor, along with their friend Nicholas Carew, a privy councilor and Master of the Horse. The problems the Courtenays and the Poles had had with the king over their loyalty to Catherine of Aragon seemed to be forgotten.
And yet, within five years, many of them would be dead.
There were three inciting events for the Exeter Conspiracy. The first was the Pilgrimage of Grace, in which much of the North of England rose in rebellion against Henry VIII’s reforms in religion, especially the closing of the monasteries. The King was enraged–and probably frightened–by this popular rebellion, and it was put down with great force. A few nobles in the North were caught up in the Pilgrimage, and once again those with strains of royal blood came under suspicion. Both Lord Mongague and Henry Courtenay helped Henry VIII squash the rebellion, no matter their private religious sympathies.
It is interesting to imagine what the Pilgrimage of Grace rebels would have done if there had been a rival claimant in the kingdom to rally to. This is what often happened with the Wars of the Roses. When Henry VI suffered rebellions and widespread criticism, people turned to Richard, Duke of York. But Henry VII and Henry VIII had eliminated anyone who looked like an obvious threat.
The second inciting factor was Reginald Pole, the scholarly brother sponsored by Henry VIII. While in Europe, he released a public denunciation of Henry VIII’s divorce in a document that was highly insulting to the king.
On Henry VIII’s orders, attempts were made to kidnap or assassinate him–they failed. An undaunted Pole traveled to Spain to try to encourage Charles V to invade England.
Pole’s mother and brothers were horrified and sent Reginald letters asking him not to defy and provoke Henry VIII. They could see what this treason might possibly lead to.
The third inciting event was the European situation—It looked like the French King, Francis I, and Charles V were in alliance and might together launch war on England. The Pope had excommunicated Henry VIII and was calling on him to be deposed. The king ordered the defenses be strengthened along the coasts and called for a muster of Londoners to show readiness of war. More than 20,000 London men between 16 and 60 showed up in a field and marched to Westminster. (The scene of the great muster is in my second novel, The Chalice.)
It is possible to see how any hint of disloyalty, particularly among his relatives, would trigger the rage of Henry VIII. Another of the Pole brothers, Geoffrey, was the weak link. Questioned by Cromwell’s representatives, he eventually babbled family gossip about his oldest brother and Henry Courtenay. Twice Geoffrey tried to commit suicide in the Tower of London rather than be used against his family, but he was kept alive. Now the Yorkist descendants’ understandable fear of the king and their behind-closed-doors affinity with the Pilgrimage of Grace rebels were revealed. “The king’s leg will kill him, and we will have a merry stirring,” Montague is supposed to have said. Courtenay is believed to have corresponded with Reginald Pole and has “the means” to muster a rebellion because of his property and wealth. Just as with the duke of Buckingham, they hadn’t taken any action or formed a plan. But their mutterings were enough.
Lord Montague and Henry Courtenay were imprisoned, rapidly tried, and beheaded on Tower Hill. It is said they asked to die together. Just as he had sent for a special swordsman for Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII granted his cousins this favor. They died on January 9th, 1539.
It’s unknown whether anyone tried to defend the two men. Thomas Cromwell certainly did not try to save them, but neither was he the guiding force in their destruction. It was Henry VIII.
Nicolas Carew was upset about what happened to his friends. According to an informant, Carew said about Courtenay: “I marvel greatly that the indictment against the lord Marquis was so secretly handled and for what purpose, for the like was never seen.” That was enough. Sir Nicholas Carew was beheaded on March 3rd, 1539 at Tower Hill. Montague’s brother-in-law, Edward Neville, was also arrested and killed. However, it was thought that Cromwell targeted him because of a longstanding dispute over land.
As Antonia Fraser wrote, “Women and children came next.”
Margaret Pole, Gertrude Courtenay, Gertrude’s son Edward, and Montague’s young son were all taken to the Tower of London.
Margaret, now over 65 years old, was questioned extensively but they could not come up with evidence of treason against her. For months she languished under house arrest and then within the Tower, throughout the King’s marriage and divorce from Anne of Cleves and subsequent marriage to Catherine Howard. It may have seemed she was forgotten.
But on May 27, 1541, Margaret Pole was told that shortly she would die. As Chapuys wrote, the countess “found the thing very strange,” as she had no idea “of what crime she was accused.” She hadn’t been tried.
The regular Tower executioner was not present. The task fell to a “wretched and blundering youth” who tried to behead Margaret with an axe but kept missing her neck. She was eventually hacked to death before the traumatized crowd.
This was possibly the most brutal execution of the reign of Henry VIII. Sadly, she was not the final victim of the Exeter Conspiracy. Montague’s son disappeared from the record at some point in the Tower of London, not unlike the young sons of Edward IV in the 15th century. As for Gertrude Courtenay, she was released and so was her son–but not for 15 years.
In an epilogue to the Exeter Conspiracy, in the 20th century, an Australian named Michael Abney-Hastings became a curiosity when he put forward that he had a claim to the throne of England. Who was he descended from? Not Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, the ancestors of every monarch up to and including Elizabeth II and King Charles III. No, Abney-Hastings is a descendant of Henry Pole, Lord Montague, by one of his surviving children.
One suspects that Henry VIII would not be amused.
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the Joanna Stafford series, a Tudor thriller trilogy with a Dominican novice as the main character. The Exeter Conspiracy is a central part of the plot of The Chalice.
The Crown and The Chalice were re-published by Orion Books on November 23, 2023. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.