The manor of Glassenbury lies between the village of Goudhurst and the town of Cranbrook in the Weald of Kent and is the main manor in the latter parish. The seat of the lord is Glassenbury House, a moated mansion built in 1473 by Walter Roberts, whose ancestor, Stephen Roberts, acquired the manor by marriage a hundred years earlier. The family had come originally from Scotland in the twelfth century but by the fifteenth they were thoroughly incorporated into Kentish society, so much so that they were taking part in local politics.
In 1484, Walter Roberts helped to hide Sir John Guildford, another powerful local landowner, from Richard III, for which reason he was stripped of his estates and had to flee to the continent. In Brittany he joined the party of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, to whom Sir John and his son Richard had also allied themselves. Every schoolboy knows what happened next and the victorious King Henry VII not only restored Roberts to his estates but also gave him a turn as Sheriff of Kent.
Though the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 is usually treated as the end of the Wars of the Roses, this really is apparent only in retrospect. Henry VII’s accession would remain controversial throughout his reign and Richard III’s nephew and theoretical successor, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, organised two infamous attempts at deposing him by passing off young men as scions of the House of York with a better claim to the throne than Henry. One, Lambert Simnel, posed as the Duke of Clarence’s son and got as far as being crowned in Ireland in 1487 but his army was defeated and Lincoln was killed. Henry thought Simnel so little a threat that he hired his services as a kitchen boy. The other, Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, the younger of the Princes in the Tower, posed a more serious threat and was executed in 1499.
The death of Lincoln had caused the Yorkist claim to pass to his brother Sir Edmund de la Pole, sixth Earl of Suffolk. He sensibly fled to Aachen and, although coaxed back to England by Sir (as he now was) Richard Guildford, he fled back to Aachen again in 1501 and to the protection of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, one of several European potentates who had recognized Warbeck as King of England. There Suffolk commenced intrigues with Philip’s father the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, begging his support for an attempt on the English Crown.
It was against this background of international politics and dynastic warfare that the obscure Kentish manor of Glassenbury bizarrely intruded, when, shortly after Easter 1503, Walter Roberts, perambulating his estate, came upon one of his sawyers, Alexander Simpson, who had been working for him for nearly twenty years. He struck up a meanderingly English conversation about the weather but then took the sawyer to one side, where no one else could hear them and asked him “Alexander, may I trust thee?”
“Ye have known me a great while,” Simpson replied. “Ye know whether ye may trust me or not. Ye may trust me well enough, if ye list.”
The lord nodded and retired mysteriously but a month later, he cornered Simpson again and revealed the reason why he needed his trust: He planned to send Simpson on a top secret mission to Aachen, where he was to discover Suffolk’s intentions, how many supporters he had, what agreement he had made with the Emperor, when he was to sail to England and where he would land.
This was hardly a sawyer’s job and F. C. Elliston Erwood who investigated the case in 1938 inferred from the evident fact that Simpson was familiar with the Low Countries and conversant in their languages that he must have worked as a spy before. Roberts, as a friend of Sir Richard Guildford, may have accompanied him on his embassy to Suffolk in 1499 and one may further speculate that Simpson had accompanied his employer on that occasion.
Whatever his qualifications, Simpson had received his brief and, charged with money (and, one would like to think, an exploding quill), he left for Calais on the Wednesday after Whitsun. He travelled to Ghent and then to Aachen, staying in the smaller towns and continually reporting back to his master in Glassenbury House. He arrived at his destination at Midsummer and lodged in a cobbler’s shop frequented by Yorkists.
This was when it all went toes up. News of a freshly arrived Englishman roused suspicion and Simpson was taken to Suffolk’s piranha-guarded underground lair, where he was interrogated by a man with white hair called Nevill and a White Friar (no white cat is mentioned). Threatened with the severing of his ears if he did not co-operate, Simpson haemorrhaged information, revealing all the details of his mission and even naming Walter Roberts, whose trust, it turns out, was misplaced after all.
The scene of the story now skips forward to the twenty-fifth of July and to Erith, a town on the Kentish side of the Thames estuary. A teenage boy named James Ormond was going about his lawful occasions on the riverside, when a stranger came over to him. He laid a hand upon his shoulder and whispered to him great things, fearful things, exciting things and promised to make him King of England.
That evening, law-abiding citizen Thomas Brook settled down to a pint at the inn. A stranger entered, cast his glances around the room and then befriended Brook and asked if he was the innkeeper.
“I am,” Brook mendaciously replied.
The stranger asked if he could trust him and Brook replied in the affirmative. The stranger admitted that he needed Brook’s help and that there would be a great deal of money in it for him. Brook was interested but asked to know what the object of the stranger’s fuss was.
“A child,” he replied, “which should be a great inheritor and next unto the Crown.”
Upon further examination, the stranger explained that he needed to get James Ormond to the Low Countries and, knowing that the innkeeper had a boat, asked him to take them. Instead, Brook summoned the constable. The stranger was arrested and taken to the Tower of London, where he was interrogated and all the details of this sorry, sordid affair came out.
The stranger of Erith was Alexander Simpson. He had been turned by Nevill and the White Friar in Aachen and had returned to Cranbrook, without reporting to his master in Glassenbury, to collect his saw, before moving to Erith. There he had sought out a boy of the right age, appearance and ambition to play the part performed by Simnel and Warbeck of a figurehead for the restoration of the House of York. If it had not been for Thomas Brook’s propensity to combine loyalty with lies, James Ormond might have become the third pretender to King Henry’s throne.
As it is, no one knows what became of the boy. No one knows what became of Alexander Simpson, either. What became of the Earl of Suffolk, however, is well recorded. His attempts to make an ally out of Emperor Maximilian foundered on the coast of Dorset, along with a ship carrying Duke Philip. To secure his release, the Duke agreed to extradite Suffolk, who was imprisoned in 1506 and was executed by Henry VIII in 1513.
Despite his long acquaintance with Walter Roberts and having (apparently) spied for him before, Simpson twice cracked under interrogation. In one sense, it is just as well that he did, for it is because of his interrogation in the Tower of London that we know this extraordinary story, the story of an unassuming sawyer from a Kentish town who led a double life as an international spy and of a manor house tucked away in the Weald from which was once masterminded an intelligence operation to save the King of England.