Edward, Earl of Warwick

EDWARD, Earl of Warwick (1475–1499), was the eldest son of George, duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV, by his wife Isabel, daughter of Richard Nevill, earl of Warwick, ‘the kingmaker.’ The first two children of that marriage were both daughters, of whom the eldest was born at sea in the spring of 1470 (when Lord Wenlock, commanding at Calais, would not allow his parents to land), but died an infant and was buried at Calais. The second was Margaret, born at Castle Farley, near Bath, in August 1473, who was afterwards Countess of Salisbury and fell a victim to Henry VIII’s tyranny. This Edward, the first son, was born at Warwick Castle on 21 Feb. 1475. The last child, another son, named Richard, was born in 1476 and died on 1 Jan. 1477, not a quarter of a year old. He and his mother, who died shortly before him, were said to have been poisoned, for which some of the household servants of the duke and duchess were tried and put to death (Third Report of the Dep-Keeper of Public Records, app. ii. 214).

As the Duke of Clarence was put to death on 18 Feb. 1478, when this Edward was barely three years old, he was left from that tender age without either father or mother, and his nearest relation, after his sister Margaret, was his aunt, Anne, duchess of Gloucester, afterwards queen by the usurpation of Richard III. How much care she bestowed upon him does not appear. The first thing we hear about him, however, is that when only eight years old King Richard knighted him along with his own son at York in 1483. Next year the usurper, having lost his only son, thought of making him his heir, but on further consideration shut him up in close confinement in Sheriff Hutton Castle, and nominated John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln, to succeed to the throne. In 1486, after the battle of Bosworth, Henry VII sent Sir Robert Willoughby to Sheriff Hutton to bring this Edward up to London, where he was imprisoned in the Tower for the rest of his days for no other crime than being the son of Clarence.

This injustice was resented by many. It was feared from the first that the king had a design of putting the young man to death, and the partisans of the house of York eagerly spread abroad rumours that he had escaped from the Tower, or that one of the sons of Edward IV was still alive to wrest the sceptre from a usurper. Yet another rumour said that Warwick had actually died in prison, and it was probably from some belief in this report that Simnel was induced to personate the earl in Ireland in the early part of 1487. The conspiracy had been artfully got up, the news of Warwick’s being in Ireland being spread at the same time in the Low Countries by the Earl of Lincoln, who escaped thither in the beginning of Lent, and professed that he had been in daily consultation with the earl at Sheen just before his departure (Leland, Collectanea, iv. 209). The impostor was crowned in Ireland, and the air was so full of false rumours that the king found it advisable to cause the true earl one Sunday to be taken out of the Tower and pass through the streets in procession to St. Paul’s, where he heard mass and publicly conversed with several other noblemen.

Warwick thus owed to his counterfeit a day’s comparative liberty, and it seems to have been the last day of his life that he passed beyond the limits of the Tower. There he remained in prison for the next twelve years. Cut off from all human intercourse from his boyhood, and debarred even from the sight of common objects, it was said ‘that he could not discern a goose from a capon.’ Yet the mere fact that he lived must have been a cause of anxiety to Henry VII, as it had already been the cause of one Yorkist insurrection, when Perkin Warbeck appeared upon the scene and personated one of the murdered sons of Edward IV. The adventures of Perkin, however, did not tend to make Warwick more formidable, and for two years after that impostor was lodged in the Tower nothing further was done to him. But unhappily another counterfeit arose in the interval. In 1498 or early in 1499 a young man named Ralph Wiltord, educated for the part by an Austin canon, repeated the performance of Simnel in personating Warwick, for which both he and his tutor were put to execution on Shrove Tuesday, 12 Feb. 1499.

A few months after this Perkin Warbeck made an attempt to corrupt his gaolers and draw them into a plot for the liberation of himself and the Earl of Warwick, who, being informed of the project, very naturally agreed to it for his own advantage. The matter, however, was soon disclosed, and Perkin and his confederates were tried and condemned at Westminster on 16 Nov. and executed at Tyburn on the 23rd. On the 2lst Warwick was arraigned before the Earl of Oxford as high constable of England, not, as some writers have told us, for having attempted to break prison, but on the pretence that he had conspired with others to depose the king. Acting either on mischievous advice, or, as many supposed, in mere simplicity from his total ignorance of the world, the poor lad pleaded guilty, and was accordingly condemned to death. He was beheaded on Tower Hill on the 28th, a week after his sentence. It was reported that his death was due in great measure to Ferdinand of Spain, who refused to give his daughter to Prince Arthur as long as the succession might be disputed in behalf of the son of Clarence, and there seems some degree of truth in the statement. The Spanish ambassador’s despatches show that he attached much importance to this execution (Gairdner, Letters of Richard III and Henry VII, i. 113-14); and many years afterwards, when Catherine of Arragon felt bitterly the cruelty of Henry VIII in seeking a divorce from her, she observed, according to Lord Bacon, ‘that it was a judgment of God, for that her former marriage was made in blood, meaning that of the Earl of Warwick.’

Warwick’s attainder was reversed in the following reign by statute 5 Henry VIII, c. 12, which was passed, at the instance of his sister Margaret, countess of Salisbury; and the words of the petition embodied in the act are remarkable as showing how plainly the injustice of his execution was acknowledged even in those days of tyranny. ‘Which Edward, most gracious sovereign lord, was always from his childhood, being of the age of eight years, until the time of his decease, remaining and kept in ward and restrained from his liberty, as well within the Tower of London as in other places, having none experience nor knowledge of the worldly policies, nor of the laws of this realm, so that, if any offence were by him done … it was rather by innocency than of any malicious purpose. Indeed, the very records of his trial give us much the same impression, for they show that the ridiculous plot with which he was charged, to seize the Tower and make himself king, was put into his head by one Robert Cleymound, evidently an informer, who was allowed to visit him in prison.

[Rows Roll, 58, 60; Jo. Rossi Historia Regum, ed. Hearne; Polydore Vergil; Hall’s Chronicle; Third Report of Dep.-Keeper of Public Records, app. ii. 216; statute 19 Hen. VII, c. 34.]

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 17
Edward (1475-1499) by James Gairdner

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