Henry VIII is usually viewed as a powerful king who was all but unopposed in government. However, Henry himself was always concerned that at some point a rival to the throne might appear. Henry was aware that Henry VII had won the throne after the Battle of Bosworth and that his claim to the throne was not beyond dispute. In truth, there were few who were alive who could contest the throne and in essence Henry VIII was secure. However, Henry VIII was always wary of those in the ‘White Rose Party’ – men who were in the York family and who could represent a threat to him.
The leading member of the ‘White Rose Party’ was Edmund de la Pole. He had a good claim to the throne, as his mother was a sister to Edward IV. Edmund’s brother, Richard, was fighting for the French and Henry was concerned that this would always give scope for the French to play the ‘York card’ if and when both states went to war again. Henry therefore ordered that Edmund should be executed and this was carried out in 1513. But Richard de la Pole remained at liberty and was recognised as Richard IV by the French crown. Richard did not die until 1525 at the Battle of Pavia and up to that year, Henry always believed that there was always the chance that Richard, supported by the French and others, would contest the throne.
There is little doubt that Henry grew to suspect anyone who was of high social birth and in terms of wealth independent of the king. Henry frequently overstepped the mark with regards to his suspicions and equated anyone who seemed to question what he believed with disloyalty. Henry could not separate the fact that someone could be totally loyal to the king but could also hold different beliefs to him on certain issues. In 1520, Wolsey was given written instructions by Henry to keep an eye on certain members of the nobility like the Henry Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and the Duke of Buckingham. Wolsey needed little encouragement to build a case of disloyalty against any member of the senior nobility – the result of the hurtful comments he had to endure about his background from the majority of those in senor noble positions. No case could be formulated against Suffolk. The same was not true for Buckingham who unwisely said in front of witnesses that Henry might not be king for much longer. In 1521, Buckingham was arrested, sent to the Tower and executed. Buckingham had been a very powerful nobleman as controller of the Marcher Lordships between England and Wales. His execution sent out a very clear message to other noblemen.
Henry also turned on families for no obvious reason other than his own supposed fears. The Percy family was as loyal to the crown as could be expected but was very powerful as Earls of Northumberland in the northeast of England. This apparent independence was enough to get Henry suspicious. However, no evidence could be found by Wolsey to implicate Percy in any form of treachery and no case could be found for a show trial to be called. Henry then used nothing more than simple intimidation to break Percy. The Earl of Northumberland had no children and in his will he stated that the heir to his land should be Henry VIII. When he died in 1537, the Percy estate went to the Crown.
Henry always felt threatened by the ‘White Rose Party’. In truth, whatever status it had disappeared in 1525 with the death of Richard de la Pole. This was not enough to satisfy Henry and he went after those noble families that had just a remote link to the Yorkists. The led to him targeting the Pole family, which was distantly linked to the Yorkists. To ensure that the three brothers in the Pole could not be accused of anything, they even agreed not to meet in case they were accused of conspiring against the king. For years no case could be made against them. This all changed in the aftermath of the Reformation. One brother, Reginald, was furious over the break with Rome. He went to live in Rome and openly sided with the Pope over Henry. The Pope even made him a cardinal in 1537. Henry was furious at this show of disloyalty and sent assassins to kill Reginald. They failed but the two remaining brothers were not so lucky. Geoffrey was arrested and after several months in prison he admitted that the family had been involved in plotting against the king. Henry ordered a mass arrest of family members of family friends. Above all else, the admission had proved Henry right as far as he was concerned – that the ‘White York Party’ and anyone associated with it could not be trusted. Even the children in the families were arrested and effectively held as hostages in case any future problems occurred. Geoffrey was released and went to Europe. However, his time in prison had been so debilitating that he was a broken man. He blamed himself for his brother’s, Lord Montague, execution amongst others. His ‘confession’ of a conspiracy spared his life and gained him his freedom and Henry no longer saw Geoffrey as a threat.
Few believe that the Pole family represented a threat to Henry. But in his mind they were and they had to be dealt with using whatever unscrupulous method possible. It also sent yet another very clear message to the nobility as to what they could expect if their loyalty to the king was doubted even to the smallest degree.