When Henry VIII Murdered His Cousins

The king arrested his Plantagenet cousins, Henry Courtenay, Henry Pole, and Edward Neville, found them all guilty of what were obviously trumped up charges, and ordered them on December 9, 1539.

Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montague, had written a letter not so long before saying that the king would “be out of his wits one day  … for when he came into his chamber he would look angrily, and after fall to fighting”. The angry gaze turned to Henry Pole and their mutual cousins in November of 1539, and a few short weeks later they were all beheaded on his monarch’s behest.

Enough cannot be said about how much Henry VIII’s decision to murder his cousins indicates his changed personality and new paranoia-driven foreign policy. As I point out in Blood Will Tell:

Henry Courtenay was the king’s maternal first cousin and had “been brought up of a child with his grace in his chamber” (Ives, 2004:105). Courtenay remained a friend and favorite of Henry’s until shortly before his death. This means that the king ordered the legal murder of a man who had been raised as though he were Henry’s brother, and had been a member of Henry’s intimate circle all his life. Henry also had Courtenay’s son, who was named Edward, thrown into the Tower. Edward Courtenay was held in the Tower until 1553, when Henry’s son Edward VI died. After usurping the throne and becoming queen, Mary gave Edward his freedom (Whitelock, 2010:192). As unjust as the treatment of Edward Courtenay was at least he survived, which is more than can be said for Henry Pole’s son. After the king beheaded Henry Pole he sent Pole’s son to the Tower where the young man simply disappeared (Scarisbrick, 1970:364). When and how he died remains unknown. The king also arrested Pole’s mother, the countess of Salisbury, who was his cousin and his eldest daughter’s godmother, throwing the elderly lady into the Tower as well. Edward Neville was also Henry’s cousin and friend, having served the king faithfully as an Esquire of the Body. The king was not just murdering men who were alternative possible heirs to his throne; he was murdering men that he had known all his life as his closest friends and companions. His unjustifiable attacks must have bewildered and terrified them all.

It is likely that Henry’s growing paranoia could not allow men to live if he perceived them as threats to Prince Edward’s inheritance. There may, however, have been other more rational reasons for their deaths. Many historians believe that the possibility of a foreign invasion influenced his decision-making. The king’s biggest enemies, France and the Holy Roman Empire, had formed an alliance. The French king and the Imperial emperor were loyal to Catholicism, and Henry knew there was a chance they would invade England and give the throne to his eldest daughter Mary, who remained a zealous adherent to the old faith. Moreover, France was closely allied with Scotland and the Scots would have gladly allowed the French to amass troops along the Scottish-English border. There was therefore a very real possibility that England would be invaded on multiple fronts: by a Franco-Scots alliance from the north and by the armies of Charles V from the south. Henry’s kingdom would be “but a morsel amongst these choppers”, and would be eaten up accordingly (Scarisbrick, 1970:362). England needed clear leadership and a clear succession. Was the king displaying mental instability when he executed so many of his kinsmen? Or was he just securing his throne for his infant heir?

Edward Courtney, the young second cousin who survived, was released by Queen Mary I in 1553 in 1553, but he was never “okay” again after spending fifteen years in the Tower. He became Earl of Devon under Mary, but unlike his queen Edward had no desire to see England become Catholic again. He was exiled to Venice in  1555, where his fellow Protestant sympathizers tried to arrange a secret marriage between him and Mary’s younger half-sister Elizabeth. Sadly, Courtney died in 1556 in Padua before he could wed anyone and produce heirs. Rumor had it that Mary or Catholics loyal to her had him poisoned.

With the death of Courtney, the Plantagenet male decedents were all but eradicated as a potential alternative head to wear the English crown. Elizabeth’s heir, James I, was the descendant of Henry VII via Margaret Tudor and therefore had only tenuous maternal and quasi-legitimate ties to the Plantagenets. Richard III would remain the last Plantagenet king of England.

Nonetheless, the Plantagenet bloodline lives on in His Grace, David Somerset, 11th Duke of Beaufort, who can trace his line directly back to King Edward III. However, even Somerset’s line has issues, since he is – like Edward IV and Richard III – descended from the legitimized son of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.

2 thoughts on “When Henry VIII Murdered His Cousins

    1. I did indeed make a mistake (a typo in fact) when I wrote Mary instead of Margaret. I will correct it. However, notifying me of the error could have been communicated with less rudeness.

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