When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
Lambert Simnel, a counterfeit king
Once upon a time a good-looking Oxford youth, the son of a carpenter, was taken away from his home city and crowned King of England by an archbishop — properly attended with all due pomp and ceremony by peers of the realm.
Fairy tale? Not at all. Instead, it is the official history of England. The boy’s name was Lambert Simnel and the year was 1487, just two years after Henry VII had defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field — so bringing to an end the turmoil and insecurity of the Wars of the Roses; or so it was hoped.
Lambert — whom some say was as young as ten, others 15 — was the pupil of an Oxford cleric called Richard Symonds who, so history relates, took it into his head to further his career with an audacious trick that rocked Henry’s newly-established reign. He passed the boy off first as the younger of the two princes in the tower (Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York), sons of Edward IV, both reputedly murdered by their wicked uncle Richard III; and second as the young Earl of Warwick, son of the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV, who — at least according to Shakespeare — met his end by drowning in a butt of Malmsey. Apparently, the Rev Symonds had no lower a goal in mind for himself than becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. He schooled his pupil, described as “handsome” by contemporary sources, as York; teaching him all the courtly manners necessary, but then changed his mind and made him Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick instead, whom he thought Lambert resembled more closely. He spread a rumour that Warwick had escaped from the Tower.
A likely story, you might think; but it fooled many, particularly in Ireland where Lambert was crowned Edward VI by the Archbishop of Dublin himself. Symonds had taken Lambert to Ireland and presented him to the leader of the Irish Government, the Earl of Kildare, who, bent on furthering any plan in opposition to Henry VII, swallowed the story, hook, line and sinker.
Nor was Kildare the only powerful person to take up the cause of the counterfeit king. The Earl of Lincoln (1462-1487), scion of the ill-fated Royal line of the de la Pole family, who lived at Ewelme and had been designated Richard III’s heir apparent, was another; as was Warwick’s aunt Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, not to mention Viscount Lovell of Minster Lovell.
So successful was the impersonation — despite Henry’s public display of the real Warwick (1475-1499) — that, sadly, it ended in bloodshed at the Battle of Stoke (Nottinghamshire) in June 1487 — which could be described as the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, with Henry representing the red rose of the Lancastrians and Lambert the white one of the Yorkists.
Margaret of Burgundy provided Lincoln with 2,000 German mercenaries to support Lambert. Lincoln also raised an army of about 4,500 in Ireland, and Lovell yet more in England. Most perished — including Lincoln — after John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, led Henry VII’s forward troops against the Yorkists near the village of East Stoke.
Lincoln’s property at Ewelme was confiscated by Henry VII and his family mercilessly murdered wherever they might hide in Europe. The real Warwick was left in the Tower but executed in 1499.
Lovell escaped the bloody battlefield of Stoke. He apparently surfaced in Scotland in 1488, but then disappeared again. In the 18th century, skeletons of a man and a dog were found in a wall cavity at Minster Lovell Hall. The belief then grew that Lord Lovell had hidden there for years, until his servant died; whereupon Lovell and his dog starved.
As for Lambert, the king showed mercy; he gave him a job at court as a scullion and, visiting Oxford the year after Stoke, gave 40 oaks from the Royal forest of Shotover for the roof of the University Church. The Rev Symonds was imprisoned, probably for life. No archbishopric for him.