Pretender (/pr1'ten.dər/) noun
One who puts forth a claim, or aspires to or aims at something; a claimant, candidate, or aspirant.

Five hundred years since they walked and talked upon this earth, the Tudor dynasty remains a profitable and captivating industry steeped in our nation’s collective consciousness, with little equal. For better or worse, the five monarchs that ruled between 1485 and 1603 are simply ubiquitous in the study of English and Welsh history.

Westminster Abbey, where Henry VII was crowned king in 1485. (Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders, Amberley Publishing)

It could have been a very different matter. The reign of the first Tudor, Henry VII, started in dramatic circumstances with the overthrow of Richard III at Bosworth Field, but his position thereafter was not as stable as many sixteenth-century scribes would have us believe. The traditional narrative, emanating from within the early Tudor administration itself, has been that at a stroke Henry VII ended the Wars of the Roses on the battlefield and brought peace to England, lowering the curtain on the medieval period and ushering in the Renaissance in which his descendants blossomed.

The enduring if historically flawed influence of William Shakespeare, who theatrically embellished the work of earlier chroniclers like Edward Hall, Robert Fabyan and Polydore Vergil, certainly played its role in promoting this myth that all was peaceful after the Tudor accession, when he wrote in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third:

O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,

The true succeeders of each royal house,

By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together!

And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so.

Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,

With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!

Henry VII
Henry VII statue, Bath Abbey. (Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders, Amberley Publishing)

Henry VII’s reign, however, was in truth one replete with drama, intrigue and conspiracy that threatened to drive him from his hard-won throne before he could make his mark, which if successful would have reduced the Tudors to little more than a footnote in the vast annals of English history. Despite positioning himself as the great unifier between the warring Houses of York and Lancaster, Henry enjoyed anything but universal support.

Barely a year after his coronation, the new king was confronted by an international conspiracy nominally led by a child pretender who was put forward as an alternative option to the man who had usurped the crown from the White Rose of York. This child, it was claimed, was one of the Princes in the Tower who had survived the reign of Richard III. A rival coronation, invasion and battle would follow, a tense period that featured betrayal and defection from within the heart of the royal court. With the defeat of one pretender, however, another soon followed. Were these challengers truly the Yorkist princes they claimed to be, or rather imposters put up to the task by a handful of calculating and ambitious dissenters?

The civil wars which Henry VII claimed to have ended had witnessed four kings deposed, and though we have the benefit of hindsight, at no stage during the early part of his reign was it inevitable that this Tudor king would survive these threats. He himself, after all, had been an unlikely pretender-turned-king, perhaps the unlikeliest to ever climb the throne. It was understood more than ever in English history that by the 1480s kings could, and did, fall.

Kenilworth Castle, Henry VII’s base against Simnel’s invasion. (Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders, Amberley Publishing)

This book aims, for the first time ever in one account, to recount the struggles Henry VII experienced with all three of the pretenders he was forced to contend with during his tumultuous reign – Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck, and Edward of Warwick. It is a period confused by contradictory sources, an absence of information, and natural scepticism over the various stories spun by both king and pretender. The eminent historian G. M. Trevelyan, however, once wrote that ‘history, in fact, is a matter of rough guessing from all the available facts’, and there still exists a wealth of material from which we can craft some degree of understanding about events that occurred some five hundred years ago. It makes for an enthralling journey through a series of clandestine plots and royal paranoia that engulfed England for over a decade.

The Tudor dynasty began in dramatic circumstances on 22 August 1485, but Henry VII’s fight for survival proved just as fierce in the days, months and years that followed. At the heart of the story was the question of whether the Princes in the Tower had ever actually been killed as popularly believed, or if the third Yorkist prince to be lodged in the Tower, Edward of Warwick, was in fact an imposter who had been earlier switched with the real earl, spirited abroad to one day return. These doubts played on the minds of all involved, and the uncertainty only fuelled the shadowy conspiracies that dominated the final decades of the fifteenth century. Though he was writing about other matters at the time, it was the judgement of the contemporary Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli just a handful of years after Henry’s death, that:

Men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.

When it comes to the explosive reign of Henry VII and the various pretenders that plagued the first Tudor king, the question that must be asked is – who was deceiving whom?

Nathen Amin's new book Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders: Simnel, Warbeck, and Warwick is available for purchase now.