The Saga of Henry Holland: Sanctuary and the Wars of the Roses

A Game of Thrones-ready storyline for a seeker who went into sanctuary twice to escape his royal in-laws. (Casting: more Reek than Rob Stark…)

In the crisis years of the mid-1450s and through the next half century of civil war, sanctuary served many times as a refuge for those fleeing opponents in the dynastic struggles. Mostly sanctuary boundaries were respected – but not always. Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, saw his sanctuary privilege breached twice.

The white rose and red rose. Henry Albert Payne, 1910 | Source

Henry Holland (born 1430) was son of the duke of Exeter, a close relation to Henry VI, and descendant of Edward III. He’s an exemplar of why inherited power is a stupid political system, as he had a high sense of entitlement but little sense or ability.

In his youth Henry’s father assigned as his mentor one of my favourite ruthless clerics of the 15th century, Richard Caudray (more on him here). Sebastian Sobecki has recently written about Caudray’s tie to John Holland in his book Last Words. Seb’s detective work established that Caudray wrote the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye (a famous but previously anonymous political treatise), noting that Caudray likely penned it soon after joining Holland’s council of advisors. Caudray also spent some time in these years baby-sitting for his powerful patron: Caudray was (amongst several gigs) an academic at Cambridge, and in his early teens the Holland scion Henry spent a few years at Cambridge picking up a bit of book learnin’, supervised by Caudray. The relationship between Caudray and Henry Holland would last for decades.

When Henry was fifteen Caudray presided over a canonically-suspect marriage between the young noble heir and an even younger Anne of York, age seven, daughter of Richard, duke of York. They were, of course, meant to be a power-couple, uniting two branches of the Plantagenet family.

19th-century imagining of medieval child marriage.

Henry was sixteen or seventeen in 1447 when his father died, bringing him the Exeter ducal title and lands; his father-in-law the duke of York served as his guardian. Things were less than friendly between York and Exeter, however, and became outright hostile as the realm tipped into crisis in the mid-1450s. In 1454, when Exeter was twenty-four, his dad-in-law York became Protector for the incapacitated Henry VI. Exeter was miffed – he thought he should be protector instead. He plotted to overthrow York, but (predictably enough) the conspiracy failed.

In the aftermath of the frustrated plot Exeter fled to Westminster Abbey. York forcibly extracted him, a shocking demonstration (or so it seemed at the time) of York’s ruthlessness, putting his son-in-law Exeter into Pontefract castle. When York’s protectorate ended about a year later and Henry VI reigned once more, Exeter was released. As York’s continued campaign to unseat Henry VI unfolded, Exeter stayed on Henry VI’s (the Lancastrian) side of the unfolding civil war. He went into exile when York’s son seized power in 1461 as Edward IV.

[An aside: Exeter’s former child-bride (now, of course, an adult), Anne of York, sided with her brother Edward IV; unsurprisingly the marriage with Exeter had not been a success, though it took a long time to unravel fully. There was a daughter but husband and wife were on opposite sides of the conflict and long estranged. While Exeter was in exile, Edward IV granted his sister Anne her husband’s lands, and she likely entered into another sexual relationship. In 1472 she was able to procure an annulment of the Exeter marriage and married Thomas of St Leger (below); she died in 1476.]

Anne of York and Sir Thomas St Leger – wikimedia

Meanwhile, the Lancastrians, including Exeter, conspired through the 1460s to restore Henry VI, temporarily achieving their goal in 1470-71. Exeter’s second sanctuary-seeking came after the 1471 Lancastrian defeat at Barnet. Exeter was left for dead on the battlefield (maybe he’s in the front in the image below), but he somehow managed to rouse himself and make his way to sanctuary at Westminster one more time.

Again, though, his Yorkist in-law was not content to leave him there: the victorious Edward IV had him seized and taken to the Tower, though he stopped short of proceeding against him for treason.

A few years later the duke seemed to be working his way towards rehabilitation: by 1475 he was amongst Edward IV’s forces in his attack on France. But he drowned on his way home, perhaps by foul play; there is speculation he may have been pushed by the king’s command.

And so a doubly-unsuccessful sanctuary seeker ended his unsatisfactory life.

Vergil, English History, 147, 163; Michael M. N. Stansfield, “The Hollands, Dukes of Exeter,” (Ph.D., Oxford University, 1987), especially 242-43, 250; Michael Hicks, “Holland, Henry,” ODNB.

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