Punishments for the Pretenders

In fifteenth century England, following the War of the Roses, two “pretenders” challenged the newly-crowned Henry VII for the English throne: Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. These men posed as Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick, and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, respectively. Both Edward and Richard were legitimate heirs to the crown, whose power intrigued Simnel and Warbeck.[1] Ian Arthurson notes that it is not clear what happened later in their lives, but we do know that Simnel and Warbeck were not treated as brutally as other traitors by the Tudor dynasty. The men were initially made servants, and then continued on to have their own careers. Thus, the questions remains: Why, after having pretended to be of royal blood and challenging Henry VII, were Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck not put to death? Pretending to be legitimate heirs to the royal crown would appear a form of treason. So, why were they only made into servants and not put to death for their wrongdoings?

Exploring the main concern of these questions requires the examination of the trajectory of the two men’s lives, as the formation of their identities parallels their formation as pretenders. Both men’s lives contain a great deal of anonymity and mystery before and after impersonating royal blood. For one, Michael Bennett points out that “a herald’s report, incorrectly copied in the sixteenth century, reveals that Simnel was a pseudonym.”[2] Similarly, a clergyman whom Simnel studied with pointed out Simnel’s physical similarities with those of Edward Plantagenet.[3] Following this realization, the clergyman encouraged Simnel to learn the proper etiquette of the monarchs, so that he could pretend to be the inheritor of the royal throne. Simnel, after heeding this advice, took on Edward Plantagenet’s identity.

This formation took place during the Yorkist rebellion against the House of Lancaster, so Simnel assumed this identity at an opportune moment in history. After being sentenced to servitude, Simnel went on to become a worker at the royal kitchens and eventually marry.[4] This leads to much speculation as to why Henry VII did not execute Simnel, or even lock him away as a prisoner. One theory states that Simnel was most likely not the brains of the operation, and therefore should not have been blamed for pretending to be Edward Plantagenet. In other words, Simnel only resembled Plantagenet, and Henry VII did not think that Simnel should be sentenced to death for simply looking like a monarch. Rather, the ones who influenced Simnel to pursue the crown should be prosecuted. Yes, Simnel was a key component in rallying support for his goal of taking over the throne; however, James Williamson emphasizes that clergymen and popularized support generated the main operation and ideas.

As for Warbeck, his path to becoming a pretender garners similar speculation about why he was not executed, at least initially. He too was held as a servant at royal banquets, but was then imprisoned in the Tower of London for the remainder of the time. Although this sentence appears to be more severe than Simnel’s sentence, Perkin Warbeck was not put to death for pretending to be King Edward IV’s younger son, Richard, Duke of York.[5]

In comparison, this Warbeck’s pretending was a more serious threat than Simnel’s, since Richard, Duke of York had a stronger claim to the throne than Edward Plantagenet. Only four years after Simnel’s threat, Warbeck was captured. Warbeck’s life post-capture treatment as Henry VII’s servant was not negligible, as Warbeck still a fully-functioning human being, who worked alongside other servants and was provided a room. In other words, Warbeck was not a constricted prisoner during this time. After another attempted escape from the Tower of London, Warbeck was executed.[6] So, even though he was executed, the cause was not directly due to Warbeck’s pretending. Moreover, even though he was ultimately sentenced to death, it is puzzling why Warbeck was not provided a harsher punishment for sparking a revolution by pretending to be the son of the king.

Clearly, challenging the crown, no matter how large of a following, was a distinct threat to the Tudor dynasty. The most likely reason why Simnel and Warbeck were not as brutally punished must have dealt with Henry VII’s motives. Henry VII was known to be greedy and power-hungry, especially toward the end of his reign.[7] Thus, Henry VII’s financial and social avarice left him wanting as much as he could receive. By having Simnel and Warbeck captured, two former pretenders, he would have them as a sort of prize to show off. Perhaps Henry VII displayed them as a living warning to other pretenders or future pretenders. Had Simnel and Warbeck been put to death, the two men would not have been living evidence to what could become of others if they followed the “pretenders” route.

-Andrew DiSalvo


[1] Ian Arthurson, The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy (Stroud English: Sutton Publishing, 1997).

[2] Michael Bennett, Lambert Simnel and the Battle of Stoke (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987).

[3] James A. Williamson, The Tudor Age (Longman Group United Kingdom Publishing, 1979).

[4] Encyclopœdia Britannica Online. s.v. “Lambert Simnel.” Accessed 9 Oct. 2015. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Lambert-Simnel-English-pretender

[5] Arthurson, The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy.

[6] Alison Weir, Princes in the Tower (Ballantine Books, 1995).

[7] Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (Routledge Publishing, 2004).

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