Have you ever heard of Sir Thomas Lovell?
Unless you’ve done extensive research on Henry VII and his court, maybe not. Not even a portrait remains. Yet, during the late 1400s until 1516, Lovell was one of England’s most powerful men—and a spymaster.
As the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII is known for many things: seizing power from Richard III, transforming England into one of the wealthiest nations on earth through dubious methods, and fathering the tyrant, Henry VIII. What few people know about him is that he developed one of England’s most effective spy networks. Paranoid, secretive, and protective of both his throne and his interests, Henry feared uprisings—for good reason. Almost from the first moment the crown touched his head, he had to deal with York Pretenders and usurpers.
His wife, Elizabeth of York, was the daughter of the former King Edward. Edward had many children, and they had many cousins—all with legitimate claims to the succession. Since Henry couldn’t control them all, he established a formidable government with layers of secret agents. His tremendous wealth (obtained through illegal smuggling in Papal territories, high import taxes, and squeezing landowners to reduce their ability to finance his enemies) enabled him to hire and pay hundreds of spies throughout Europe.
Spies not only ratted out local traitors, but informed him of events in foreign courts. One of Henry’s enemies, Edmund de la Pole, who bore the title of the Duke of Suffolk, escaped to the Netherlands, intending to raise an army against him and invade. Not only did Lovell plant spies in his household, and have them in every court Suffolk visited, so they knew his movements and intentions before his actions, he obtained copies of all Suffolk’s letters.
York and Tudor factions divided England at the time, and treasonous groups formed along the coastlines. Lovell helped unearth a plot that involved taking over local garrisons and stealing ships to aid an invasion. Suffolk intended to land in Hampshire, funded by Emperor Maximilian and helped by James Tyrell, Governor of Guînes. Lovell spoiled the plot and many men lost their heads.
Suspicion also surrounds the conspiracy, escape, and executions of Perkin Warbeck and Edward Plantagenet. Warbeck was a York Pretender, claiming to be one of the two Lost Princes (sons of Edward) and Plantagenet was a cousin of Elizabeth of York. It’s possible Lovell enticed them to scheme together, enabled their joint escape, then recaptured them, all to form public charges that might allow Henry to remove both of them as contenders for the crown. As The Winter King, a biography about Henry VII, states, “Interesting things tended to happened around Sir Thomas Lovell…”
His few mentions in history paint him as a ruthless but intelligent man, party to many instances of blackmail and extortion. Where many contemporaries lost favor and their heads, Lovell survived not only a paranoid, suspicious and shrewd King Henry VII, but the transfer of power to his son, Henry VIII. The young king executed two other men close to Lovell, Lords Emerson and Dudley, for corruption—but Lovell outlived them, remaining an important member of Henry VIII’s High Council for many years.
Henry’s spy network seems to have died with him. Lovell served in various high positions for another decade, including amassing 15,000 men in England’s defense from the midlands during the Scottish invasion and advising Katharine of Aragon as Regent. As Cardinal Wolsey came to power, Lovell retired—disliking the new regime’s direction. Childless but twice married, he lived into his 70’s.
Lovell is one of only a few men intimately involved with the Tudors that managed not only to amass power, influence, and wealth, but stay in favor throughout his service to the crown. Unlike Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, Lovell died warm in his bed and kept his head.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!