The King’s Pearl Blog Tour – Mary and the Exeter Conspiracy

I’m pleased to be the next stop on the blog tour for Melita Thomas’ The King’s Pearl. You can see all of the previous and upcoming stops here: The King’s Pearl Blog Tour Starts Today, which I have updated with the posts so far and will add the remaining stops as they occur.

And now – over to Melita to tell us about Mary and the Exeter Conspiracy:

A head filled with ‘fantasies’.

In June 1536, when Mary finally signed the articles agreeing that her parents’ marriage had been invalid, and that she herself was illegitimate, she was probably comforted by the thought that her friends were now safe. Part of the campaign to force her to submit had involved investigation of her former household members – Anne, Lady Hussey, had been imprisoned for six weeks for calling Mary ‘princess’. Letters from Elizabeth, Lady Carew, had led to questions being asked of Lady Carew, and her husband, Sir Nicholas, despite him being a member of Henry’s own Privy Chamber.

But even after Mary had surrendered and signed the documents, Carew and another of Mary’s supporters, Sir Anthony Browne, were interrogated by the Privy Council as to whether they thought that, with Queen Anne now dead, Mary should be named as Henry’s heir. Both swore that they would obey the law, although they believed that Mary would be a very suitable heir until Henry had a son. Apparently satisfied, Henry and his council took no further steps against them.

That final ordeal over, Mary and her friends could settle down with a sigh of relief. Even the Pilgrimage of Grace, of 1536, which had, as one of its aims, the restoration of Mary as Henry’s heir, and potentially her marriage to Reginald Pole, son of her former governess, Lady Salisbury, and great-nephew of Edward IV, did not harm her – although Lord Hussey, who had once been her chamberlain, was executed in its wake. With the birth of Prince Edward in October 1537, there seemed no reason for Henry to fear any further assault on his kingship.

But in 1538, there were rumours of a plot against the king. Geoffrey Pole, another son of the Countess of Salisbury, was reported to Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, for communicating with his brother, Reginald. Reginald, who had been educated at Henry VIII’s expense, and offered the archbishopric of York in return for supporting the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon, had not only rejected the annulment, but had written an inflammatory and deeply insulting diatribe against Henry. Whilst Lady Salisbury and her eldest son, Henry, Lord Montagu, had condemned Reginald’s book, and urged him to obey the king, the family had not cut off communication with him, and the suggestion that Mary might marry him, had never completely gone away.

Cromwell was informed that Geoffrey was not just writing to Reginald, but was also sending him ‘all the secrets of the realm’ and had warned his brother of a government plot to assassinate him. Since Geoffrey was not a Privy Councillor, he must have been hearing any state secrets from someone else.

Cromwell soon found a means to discover who – Geoffrey was sent to the Tower and brow-beaten to the extent of attempting suicide. Eventually, he told his interrogators that he had received information from his brother, Lord Montagu; Elizabeth Darrell, once one of Katharine of Aragon’s maids-of-honour, and now the mistress of Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Gertrude Blount, Marchioness of Exeter. Lady Exeter was an old friend of Mary’s and had been vociferous in her support for Katharine, as well as being embroiled in the case of Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Holy’ Nun of Kent, executed for prophesying the king’s demise in the event of his marrying Anne Boleyn.

Soon the pall of suspicion was also cast over Lady Exeter’s husband, Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter. Coincidentally – or not – Exeter and Montagu were Henry VIII’s closest English male relatives, being the grandson and great-nephew respectively, of Edward IV. Both had been close to the king since boyhood, and Henry was probably deeply wounded to hear that they had criticised him personally, Montagu remarking that ‘the king is full of flesh and unwieldy, and… cannot long continue with his sore leg’. Montagu, Exeter and Lady Exeter were sent to the Tower, as was another old friend and distant relative, Sir Edward Nevill, quoted as describing Henry as ‘a beast and worse than a beast.’

There was little or no evidence against Exeter, apart from the possibility that he had been passing on Privy Council information, but he and Cromwell had quarrelled violently, and so the minister may have been happy to paint him as a conspirator. The main concern, for which Henry perhaps had some justification, was that Reginald Pole was plotting with the Emperor and the King of France to invade. The alleged conspirators might have been tempted to aid an invasion, rather than resist it, and then arrange for Mary to marry Reginald (although a cardinal, he had not taken Holy Orders). The couple would thus unite the old Yorkist blood with the new Tudor blood, and reign together.

In December 1538, Exeter, Montagu and Nevill were executed; Geoffrey Pole was pardoned but remained in prison, along with Lady Exeter and her sons, whilst Lady Salisbury was first put under house arrest, then taken to the Tower as well.

Where was Mary in all this? These people were her relatives, supporters and friends, and she herself would potentially have been a gainer, had there really been a plot to overthrow Henry, rather than just criticise him. Yet there was never any suggestion that she was involved in any way, and, in fact, Cromwell took pains to ensure her name was kept out of it, blaming the Exeters and Poles for filling her head with ‘fantasies’ and ‘suborning’ her in the early 1530s into refusing to accept the annulment of her parents’ marriage.

Mary’s reaction to the news of the arrests in late 1538 was physical. She was prone to severe stomach complaints when under stress, and she succumbed again, spending much of Christmas and New Year too sick or faint to get out of bed. Her attendant, Lady Kingston, sent a message to Henry requesting that he send his physician, Doctor Butts to minister to her, as he had previously treated her for the same symptoms.

Early the following year, Sir Nicholas Carew, too, was arrested, despite him having promoted Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour, which had resulted in the longed-for son. At this point, the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, became concerned. He had heard that some of Carew’s letters, and his own, had been found in the coffers of Lady Exeter and were being looked at with suspicious eyes. Knowing that the only people he had written to in England were Katharine of Aragon, before her death, and Mary, he was surprised at the news. He was sure that anything he had sent Mary that might be incriminating would have been burnt by her. But, if she were asked to produce his letters to her, it might seem strange for her not to have any so he wrote a dozen or so innocuous ones for her to hand over, if questioned.

Carew, pressed to confess to treason of some sort, but with nothing to say, could only offer that the Marquis of Exeter had looked ‘melancholy’ at the birth of Prince Edward. Since Exeter was already dead, the discovery of such treasonable facial expressions could not harm him. Chapuys ascribed Exeter’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction to Edward’s birth as based on his affection for Mary, and similarly, he thought Carew devoted to her.

Reginald Pole’s response to the execution of his brother was to write another invective against Henry, and Cromwell, too, calling him the spawn of the devil. Henry, fearing that Reginald would come to England, wrote to Emperor Charles, asking that the cardinal be detained in the Empire as he had a ‘viper’s nature’ and was plotting not just against Henry, but all his children – including Mary. This leads to an interesting question – was Mary aware before the arrests, that there was murmuring against Henry, and a proposal that she should marry Reginald? Or did it all come as a complete, and most upsetting surprise to her? Did she curse her so-called friends for endangering not just their own, but perhaps her life, through careless talk, or was she sorry that there was no real plot?

The ramifications of the so-called Exeter conspiracy continued. In May 1541, Lady Salisbury, 69 years old, the cousin of Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, and a woman Mary once called her ‘second mother’, was dragged out of her cell at the Tower of London, and executed without trial, by a bungling youth. Her last words were a prayer for the king, the queen (Katheryn Howard), Prince Edward and Mary.

Lady Exeter was released, and restored to favour in Mary’s own reign, until Mary realised that her father’s suspicions about Lady Exeter’s ambitions for her family had some justification – having once been Mary’s friend, in 1554 Lady Exeter vigorously promoted the idea that Mary should marry her younger son, Edward Courtenay, rather than Mary’s own choice of husband, Philip of Spain. Young Courtenay rather fancied being king, and was willing, if he could not marry Mary himself, to overthrow her, and marry her half-sister Elizabeth. Spared his life by Mary, on his mother’s pleading, he was exiled and died in Italy in 1556 – the last sprig of the White Rose.


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