The Thornbury Castle resident who fell foul of Henry VIII

May 14 2021
The Thornbury Castle resident who fell foul of Henry VIII

Tony Cherry of Thornbury & District Museum tells the story of the duke who was one of the most powerful men in the country

THIS month is a 'gruesome quincentenary' for Thornbury: May 17 is the 500th anniversary of the execution of Edward Stafford, the third Duke of Buckingham, by Henry VIII.

Stafford left his home, Thornbury Castle, on April 8, 1521. He had been summoned to meet the king but it was the king’s axe that he was to meet, little over a month later, after being tried for treason.

Stafford was a great jouster, a sport loved by the king and to which he devoted many hours.

But that wasn’t enough to save Stafford, who had the very distinct disadvantage of being close to the crown by birth, as Henry's first cousin, once removed.

The Tudors had come to power by winning the last battles of the Wars of the Roses. At the time, these wars were known as the Cousins Wars, so being a cousin, albeit once removed, made Stafford a threat to the king.

Henry was insecure and his right to be king was easily contestable.

Stafford had done plenty to raise the king’s suspicions – and he had a son. The queen, Catherine of Aragon, had not produced a male heir. If the king died suddenly there would have been a vacancy and Stafford was in pole position to fill it. The nobility needed to be reminded who was the boss.

Other relatives and potential rivals had been murdered by the Tudors following the wars, so Stafford needed to act with caution and circumspection. He didn’t.

Stafford had a haughty disposition and, as a descendent of the mighty King Edward III, found it almost impossible to act subserviently to Henry. As the richest nobleman in the country, with a strong royal lineage, he treated everyone else as an inferior.

Henry made things worse by appointing people to posts in government based on merit, not rank. Stafford’s view was that the king "would give his fees, office and rewards to boys rather than to noblemen".

It wasn’t the money Stafford craved, but the status, enhancement and recognition of his rightful place.

Public displays of Stafford arrogance and sulking were legion. Typical was his reaction to the elevation of Charles Brandon to the title Duke of Suffolk in 1514.

Buckingham was furious at the ennoblement of someone he considered an upstart, not of noble lineage, and pointedly stayed away from the investiture.

Having done little to ingratiate himself with the king or with his peers, Stafford was arrested on a barge on the Thames and was taken to the Tower of London.

Tried for treason, the case against Stafford was thin. Many of the nobles on the jury were reluctant to bring in a guilty verdict but they knew their duty to the king, who had supervised proceedings.

On Tower Hill, addressing the crowd gathered for his execution, Stafford at last showed some humility. Saying he had offended the king with his negligence, he warned other nobles to heed his fate, begged everyone to pray for him and said he would die the king’s true man.

Afterwards, Henry took ownership of all Stafford's property, liquidating most of the assets but keeping the newly-built Thornbury Castle, on which work had only commenced 11 years earlier. He visited Thornbury with Anne Boleyn in 1535 and stayed for 10 days, after a proposed visit to Bristol was cancelled because of plague.

The castle was later inherited by Henry’s children, and Queen Mary returned it to the Stafford family in 1554 as reward for their loyalty to her mother, Catherine of Aragon.

A book telling the history of Thornbury Castle is available exclusively through Thornbury & District Museum. For more details, email

Picture: Portrait of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, from Thornbury Castle