In the closing days of July 1415 King Henry V was occupied making the final preparations for the departure of his forces to France on the Campaign that would culminate in his famous triumph at the Battle of Agincourt. The army was gathered at Southampton, as were most of the nobles and peers of the realm. The necessary measures had been taken to secure the safety of the Kingdom in Henry’s absence, such as the stationing of troops on the Scottish Borders to prevent the invasions which took place almost as a matter of routine when the Kings of England went to war with France.
To all intents and purposes everything was going very well indeed for Henry when His distant cousin Sir Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March requested an audience with him. The Earl revealed to Henry the details of a Plot that was being made to have Henry declared a ‘usurper’ and make Mortimer King in his place whilst he was in France.
The principal conspirators were Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scrope of Masham and Sir Thomas Grey of Heton. These three were promptly arrested on revelation of their clandestine plans. Cambridge and Grey made full confessions to their intentions of placing Mortimer on the throne, and of an apparent intention to stir up revolt in Wales and Scotland, as well as among the despised Lollards. The only crime that Scrope would acknowledge, however, was his failure to disclose the Plot to Henry.
The three were also accused of actually planning to Murder Henry and his brothers, and, although this may have been the ultimate consequence of a deposition, it seems likely that this charge was made in order to secure a conviction. Grey was promptly executed some 3 days after Henry discovered the plot on the 3rd of August. Mere knights such as Grey were counted as ‘commoners’ so he were not entitled to be tried before the Nobles of the Realm, a privilege which the other two conspirators insisted upon. The trial of course was a forgone conclusion, and Scrope and Grey were both executed on Southampton Green, then not far outside the Bargate, which still survives today.
This event, known for obvious reasons as ‘The Southampton Plot’ has intrigued historians and writers for centuries, and have cited any number of explanations for the actions Motivations and Purposes of the conspirators. William Shakespeare suggested that they were paid by the French in his play Henry V. Modern Historians generally reject this, and usually cite political reasons, alongside some degree of personal disenchantment on the part of Cambridge in particular, which will be explored in greater detail later on.
Most agree that the Plot was ‘hare brained’ and so far-fetched and poorly planned that it could not possibly ever have succeeded. Not least because more than one of the parties whom the Plotters were planning to involve were dead, or died soon afterwards, and others hardly seemed likely to rebel. Cambridge is almost certain to have been the Principal instigator of the plot, the other two were related to him by marriage. Cambridge was an obscure and somewhat unfortunate figure of whom little is known outside of his involvement in the Southampton Plot and untimely demise.
He was born in either 1375 or 1385 in Conisburgh Castle In Yorkshire. T.B. Pugh (among others) argues for the Later date, and recounts an adulterous Liaison between Cambridge’s mother, Isabella of Castille and Thomas Holland, the Half-brother of Richard II, of which Cambridge may have been the product. As the younger sibling Richard did not inherit the estates of his possible father Edmund of Langley, Duke of York.
Richard was married c.1408 to Lady Anne Mortimer the Older sister of Edmund. They had a daughter named Isabella, and two years later a son also named Richard who would grow up to become Richard Duke of York, the patriarch of the Yorkist dynasty and father of Kings Richard III and Edward IV. Sadly Anne appears to have died shortly after giving birth to the younger Richard in 1411.
Cambridge seems to have been in severe financial difficulties for most of his adult life, his only resources being an annuity granted by his Godfather Richard II, and the revenue from several manors he obtained on his Second marriage to Lady Matilda Clifford in 1414. Even when he was made Earl of Cambridge Richard was not granted any lands or estates with the Title, which was extremely unusual at this time.
These factors have been cited as possible reasons behind Cambridge’s disgruntlement with his lot, and perhaps unhappiness with Henry’s treatment of Him.
Another Interesting fact is that both of Richard’s siblings had been implicated or involved in schemes and intrigues designed to undermine or compromise the Lancastrian regime. His brother, Edward Duke of York was involved in the Epiphany Rising which took place in 1400. His life was only spared in this instance because he may well have been the Person who revealed this scheme to the King, thereby condemning the other noblemen involved.
Cambridge’s sister Constance appears to have become embroiled in a plan to Kidnap the Young Edmund Mortimer some 10 years before. There is also the fact that Richard’s then infant son had a (somewhat tenuous) claim to the throne through his mother, in lieu of Edmund Mortimer the childless Earl or March. Cambridge’s connections to Mortimer have been bought up as another possible reason for his seeking to place him on the throne.
Unlike other Historians Juliet Barker argues that the Southampton conspirators’ plans may have been workable, and could have succeeded. All had raised large contingents of troops for the French campaign, and these soldiers would have been readily available for them to build an army from. Dissent already existed in Scotland and had been expressed in an invasion some Nine days before the Plot was revealed. The King of Scotland was a captive in the Tower of London, and could have proved very useful in any plot against the King. All the conspirators had their power bases in the North, and it has been suggested that a number of knight may still have had Lollard sympathies.
What could have been the consequences of the conspiracy if successful? At best it could have jeopardised the Agincourt Campaign, probably forcing the King to come home and resulted in civil unrest which would have warranted evasive military action. At worst there could well have been a civil war that would threaten the existence of the Lancastrian regime. The plotters were tapping into existing undercurrents of dissent, and many of their actual plans mirrored revolts that had taken place in the Reign of Henry IV. It does ultimately seem unlikely that the plotter’s designs could ever have got far past the planning stage. Henry however took the decisive action against them that he deemed necessary in the circumstances, even though it may appear overly harsh to Historians today.
In conclusion one of the greatest ironies behind the Southampton plot is that for all the conspirators’ plans, it was Richard Duke of York, the son of Cambridge and his sons that successfully deposed and killed the last Lancastrian monarch, and son of Henry V, and took the throne for themselves. Their relation to Edmund Mortimer, the very man whose confession ensured the condemnation of Cambridge that formed the basis of their claim. Under the Yorkist Kings the Lancastrian dynasty was exterminated, and it is their blood, not that of Henry V which has flowed in the veins of every English monarch since 1460.
Juliet Barker, Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle (London, 2005).
T.B Pugh, Henry V and the Southampton Plot of 1415 (Sutton, 1988).
Paul Strohm, England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation 1399-1422 (New York, 1998).