The Exeter Conspiracy

Chapter 9 : Why were the Poles and Exeter Targeted?

Scholars have differed over whether there was a real threat to Henry VIII or not. The much-respected G R Elton certainly believed that the Poles and Exeter had intent to plot, even if they hadn't actually got anything off the ground.

Others historians are in agreement with the contemporary European assessment about dynastic fears. Both France and the Empire believed that Henry's concerns were dynastic, and that he wished to annihilate the remaining members of the House of York. Exeter was his first cousin and grandson of Edward IV, and Montague was Edward IV's great-nephew. M L Bush and Dr David Starkey disagree with this assessment, pointing to the favour shown by Henry to his relatives.

Far more worrying than a claim by Montague or Exeter was the idea that his "illegitimate" daughter, Mary, might marry Reginald Pole (who, despite being a Cardinal was not actually a priest) and be placed on the throne by a popular uprising. Mary's reinstatement in the succession had been a demand of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and the Poles and Exeters had been strong supporters of Mary and her mother, Katharine of Aragon. Henry would have been determined to protect his baby son, Edward, at all costs.

Another theory is that the Poles were being punished for Reginald Pole's activities abroad and certainly, if Reginald had not written De Unitate and not attempted to provoke an invasion, then Geoffrey would not have been committing treason by corresponding with him or trying to join him. However, this does not seem to account entirely for the charges against Exeter, Nevill and Carew.

Reginald Pole believed, or purported to believe, that his family were murdered by the King for their adherence to the Catholic faith.

In all, it may be a fair summary to say that, although there was no hard evidence of an actual plot to overthrow the King, Henry and Cromwell took the opportunity presented to them by treasonous talk and communication with Reginald Pole, to dispatch a group of men who were fundamentally hostile to the religious and political changes of the 1530s and might well have supported a foreign invasion.

The Pole and Courtenay family estates were largely concentrated in the Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Hampshire – any invasion was likely to land along that coast and the risk of succour being given to the enemy was too great to take.

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