Henry Executed his Rivals to the Throne
As his reign progressed, Henry VIII developed a tendency to execute any distant Plantagenet relatives who were potential rivals for the throne. The reason for this paranoia was complicated, but at its heart lay the newness of the Tudor dynasty.
All claims to the throne were based on descent from Edward III, the last monarch to predate the War of the Roses. Henry’s strongest claim to the throne lay through his mother, Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV. His father, Henry Tudor, could only claim a few drops of Edward IIIs’ blood through his mother, Margaret Beaufort who was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, one of Edward IIIs’ younger sons.
However, even Henry’s claim through his mother was awkward. Richard III had declared all of Edward IV’s children with Queen Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate because of Edwards pre-contract of marriage with another woman. It had taken an act of parliament to re-legitimize Elizabeth. Then there was the question of Edward IV’s legitimacy as there was a scurrilous rumor that he was not the son of Richard, Duke of York.
At first, none of this worried Henry too much. The Tudors had given England peace- and the people loved their young King. In the first twenty years of his reign, Henry only executed two of his Plantagenet relatives- and both for proven acts of treason. In 1513, Edmund de la Pole, third duke of Suffolk (and Henry’s cousin on his mother’s side) was beheaded for attempting to enlist foreign support to take the crown. This execution was followed by Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, a direct descendant of Edward III who was executed for “imagining the death of the king’ by consulting fortunetellers.
However, after the break with Rome, Henry was well aware that there was a growing faction who wanted to return to the Pope and that required another monarch. In 1539, he executed his first cousin Henry Courtney, marquis of Exeter. That then left the most severe Plantagenet threat: the family of the Countess of Salisbury.
Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, was the daughter Edward IV’s brother, the Duke of Clarence. Her son, Reginald, Cardinal Pole, was in exile over the split with Rome. However, her other son, Henry remained in England, with a growing family of potential royal replacements. So the Poles had to go. Henry was beheaded in 1540. Even Thomas Cromwell admitted that he âlittle offended save that he is of their kin.” His 67-year-old mother quickly followed, while her grandson, young Henry was kept imprisoned in the tower until he died in 1542.