Henry VII has long been the ‘odd man out of the Tudor Monarchs. Popular imagination has been easily fired by the martial exploits of Henry VIII, by the pathetic, short life of Edward VI, by the infamies of Bloody Mary, and by the dazzling pageant of the reign of Elizabeth I. But Henry VII, the founder of the royal house of Tudor, has been dismissed as a dour, sober man preoccupied with the business of government to the preclusion of the more flamboyant foibles of his descendants.
This view of Henry approaches the truth, but it is not the whole picture. In his youth, he had many colourful adventures, and in maturity, as King, he revealed an immense strength of purpose and diverse talents in his most ingenious settlement of a turbulent kingdom.
Perhaps Henry Tudor bears little resemblance to the popular idea of a monarch because, unlike most kings, he was not brought up in the certainty of his destiny. Indeed, he was already in his early teens before the deaths of his royal cousins gave his claims to the throne any substance, and it was not until Henry was 27 that he won his crown in battle. He was not trained, as most English kings have been since childhood, in statesmanship, warfare, and diplomacy, but came to the throne a complete novice in those arts. This makes his achievement the more remarkable.
Henry was the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, himself the son of a plain Welsh gentleman who, by chance of fortune, married a French princess, the widow of King Henry V. But it was through Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, that the future King derived his somewhat tenuous blood relationship to the Lancastrian Kings of England. The Beauforts were the descendants of John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III, by John’s mistress Catherine Swynford. When John took Catherine as his third wife, several years after the birth of their children, King Richard II granted John a charter giving the Beauforts status as John’s legitimate offspring. At the time their was no thought of their ever claiming a place in the royal succession, but Henry IV, John of Gaunt’s son by his first marriage, had an inkling or a fear of what the future might bring, and he decreed that the Beauforts should have no legal claim to the throne. At the time, this appeared to be the last word on the subject.
Henry IV’s descendants, the house of Lancaster, had been on the throne some half century before the weakness and bad government of his grandson Henry VI gave rise to a rival claim to the throne from another branch of the royal family, the House of York. In 1455 the first battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought, opening a conflict between the royal dynasties which was to continue intermittently for 30 years.
Henry Tudor was born on 28th January 1457, almost two years after the outbreak of war. His father had died only shortly before his birth, and his mother was only 13 years old at the time, so a formal guardianship devolved on his paternal uncle, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke. Jasper was a commander in the Lancastrian army, and when Henry was only four years old, a Yorkist force was sent to take the Tudor fortress at Pembroke where the child was living. Jasper escaped to fight another day, but it seems likely that Henry himself was taken into his enemies’ custody.
The events of Henry Tudor’s life for the next few years are uncertain. According to some accounts, he was spirited away by his uncle to years of hiding in the Welsh wilderness; other sources maintain he was put into the household of the Yorkist Lord Herbert after his capture. It is certain, however, that he was in the Herberts’ care by 1468 only to be released the following year when the Lancastrians seized power.
The restoration of the boy’s half-uncle Henry VI was short-lived. In May 1471 the King was captured after his defeat at the Battle of Barnet, and not long afterwards he was murdered.
So all at once it seemed that Henry Tudor had a good claim to the throne. The Lancastrian dynasty in the male line had been wiped out; the Beauforts now had a reasonable, though not indisputable, right to be the family’s representatives in the claim to the throne. And in the Beaufort line, Margaret, Henry’s mother, was the sole heiress. But a woman claimant to the English throne was a situation unprecedented since the 12th century; no woman could hope to win support on her own account. So, discarding Margaret (and ignoring Henry IV’s denial of the Beauforts’ eligibility to the crown), the obvious heir to the Lancastrian pretension was Henry.
His uncle Jasper was not blind to the situation, nor to the danger in which Henry would stand if he now fell into Yorkist hands. Jasper took the 14-year-old boy with him to Brittany to keep him safe against the day when Henry’s chance might come to return as king.
It seemed that the time was ripe for their return in 1483, when the brother of the Yorkist King Edward IV usurped the throne of the late King’s son, the boy Edward V, becoming King himself as Richard III. Jasper won support for his invasion scheme in Brittany, at that time a Duchy independent of the French Crown. An English uprising was to coincide with the landing of the Breton army. But Providence ruled against the bid. Storms in the Channel divided Henry’s ship from the main body of his fleet, and adverse weather conditions in England weakened the forces there, dooming the venture to failure. Henry reluctantly returned to Brittany.
Richard III could not rest easily knowing that his rival was free to mount another invasion at any time and persuaded the Breton government to hand their refugee over to him. Henry learned of the plan only just in time to evade capture, escaping over the border into the Kingdom of France.
By now he had not only the Lancastrians behind him but also a coterie of disaffected Yorkists, and he was able to persuade the French King to sponsor another invasion of England. On 7th August 1485, Henry Tudor landed in his native Wales and marched east, gathering men to his colours. He confronted the army of Richard III at Bedworth in Leicestershire. When the forces joined battle on 22nd August, it seemed at first that the odds were in favour of the Yorkists: Richard III was an experienced commander, whereas Henry had never even witnessed a battle; the King had superior forces and the better position. Confident and determined to make a swift end to the battle and to rid himself forever of the pretender, Richard made a dash directly at Henry himself. But he was beaten back and then killed by the contingent of one of his own men, Lord Stanley, who joined the battle on Henry’s side in the nick of time.
It was Stanley who retrieved the fallen crown of England from the battlefield and placed it on Henry’s head. Henry would need more than luck, however, to keep it there. His prime requirement was a speedy takeover of the machinery of Government, those departments of Chancery and Exchequer, of the royal household, which medieval kings ruled through their Council. But to do so, Henry would need money. To get money he had to call a Parliament. Yet, by all that was basic to English law, only a king could call Parliament. So Henry must show that he had become king already whether by heredity or conquest was immaterial and summon Parliament as undisputed sovereign.
Having sent out his writs to Members, he had himself crowned a week before Parliament met on 7th November 1485. There was thus no possibility of Parliament’s claiming to have made Henry king by their consent, by agreeing to honour his right by conquest or descent. All the Members were required to do was to pass a brief statute which ordained, established and enacted that the crown be, rest, remain and abide in the most royal person of our now sovereign lord King Henry VII and in the heirs of his body. This left Henry’s title open to no lawful challenge.
Only then did he fulfill a promise which he had made in 1483, that he would marry Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter and (since the presumed death of her brothers in the reign of Richard III) heiress of the Yorkist King Edward IV. By leaving the wedding until after the safe settlement of the crown, Henry was demonstrating that he made no claim to it in the right of his wife. At the same time, he was also eliminating her as one potential Yorkist claimant to the throne.
This shrewdness in establishing himself so securely from the outset, and his subsequent policies, must surely have been the result of Henry’s forethought in the years of his exile. He had not fought for the throne without planning how he would hold on to it, though he lacked any experience in kingship. All Henry’s work in the years of his reign had the underlying factor of his determination to make his position, and that of his heirs, secure. At home he built up a strong government, based on financial solvency and popular support; abroad, he sought recognition of his position from his fellow-monarchs and a prestige among them which would impress his own subjects.
His use of Parliament is a case in point. The days had not yet come when there would be a national outcry if Parliament did not meet regularly to have its say in government: at the end of the 15th Century the summoning of a Parliament would be more likely to elicit national groans that the King wanted his subjects to grant him taxes. Members’ bills were certainly presented, debated and enacted, but the Commons knew that this was a concession dependent on their first granting the King his demands. Henry did indeed need taxation, but he also made use of Parliament to bring in his own bills, measures which reinforced his position mainly through establishing and extending the powers of his executive.
At the same time he made sure that no charges of over-taxing his people could be brought against him- a sure way to encourage rebellion. In the first twelve years of his reign, he called only six Parliaments: by the end of that period he had laid a solid financial foundation of government and enacted the main body of his legislation. In the second twelve years, he called only one Parliament. So well did the King exploit his sources of revenue, making the most of every asset, that he had no need to trouble the Lords and the Commons.
It was in the financial sphere that Henry’s genius was most apparent. This is not say that he was an innovator: the Yorkist kings had shown themselves adept at financial administration: but Henry VII so refined their procedures of revenue collection and the apportioning of money to government needs that, by his personal supervision, he made the Crown solvent for the first time in many years and, at his death, left an immense reserve to his heir.
Apart from the taxes voted by Parliament, Henry induced the Commons to enact the return to the Crown of most of the royal lands which had been alienated since 1455, by the ingenious device of having Parliament declare that he had been king on the day before Bosworth, he turned into traitors all those who had fought against him – and was thus able to claim their estates as forfeit for treason. By this extension of Crown lands, and by their efficient administration, Henry increased their value, by the end of the reign, to some 35,000 per annum. Added to this, Henry had persuaded his first Parliament to grant him customs revenue for the whole of his life: by encouraging trade through international diplomacy, he increased customs yield: by farming out his dues he ensured maximum efficiency of collection and ensured the highest feasible income; he was receiving almost 40,000 per annum by the end of the reign Through improving the efficiency of his courts, the King could also rely on an income from the profits of justice, i.e. from fines. And of course he had the age-dates feudal dues of medieval kingship, from the nobility, though it was only in the second half of the reign that he came to rely on the unscrupulous ingenuity of Morton, Empson and Dudley, his hatred collectors, for the increased fruits of that traditional revenue. Though the King had recurrently to resort to Parliament to pay for his wars, this was considered a reasonable expense (except by the Cornishmen who revolted at being made to pay for war far away on the Scottish borders). However, he never thought it necessary to reimburse his people with the money which remained to him when he made peace-and he liked to make his price for peace a large sum of money from his former enemies.
Just as Henry made no real innovations in his financial policy, so there was a marked degree of continuity in his methods of administration. Indeed, the very personnel of his Council and departments of state were mainly old hands from previous reigns. Previous monarchs had always striven to keep a balance in the Council between the nobility and the professional civil servants: it was only in periods of royal weakness that the magnates had a played a predominant part in government. So the theory that Henry VII was the first king to use new men in his movement is not true; but it is true that he relied to a greater extent on the abilities and intellect of such new men as Cardinal Morton and Bishop Fox of Winchester with much success. His was truly a government of the talents, though the great nobles also played their part and could complain no exclusion from their traditional role. It was to Henry’s advantage that the Wars of the Roses had reduced the numbers of his nobility, weeding out men who had earlier been so over mighty in their dealings with the Crown. But he took no chances. With his usual forethought, Henry restrained his nobles’ old tendencies to collect private armies: in 1487 he enacted a law against livery and maintenance and in 1504 codified existing statutes against retaining, to prevent the nobles keeping independent forces. But his main achievement in this sphere was in his successful enforcement of these laws, accomplished largely through the vigilance of his increasingly valuable Justices of the Peace. These men were the mainstay of the Crown in the provinces, the visible proof of the strength of the central government.
Neverthless, England was not restored to order overnight. The War of the Roses had not ended with the death of Richard III, for there were still ambitious supporters of the House of York. In theory, the claimants could be discounted: Henry himself had married Elizabeth of York, and married off most of her younger sisters to his own supporters. Of their cousins, the Earl of Warwick, a child, was safely in the Tower, and the de la Pole brothers had made their submission to Henry after Bosworth. Thus the main threat to Henry’s security came not from the scions of York themselves but from imposters. First, there was a boy named Lambert Simnel, whose marked resemblance to the Earl of Warwick made him a valuable pawn of the Yorkists. They had him proclaimed king in Dublin in 1487 and, despite the fact that Henry had the real Warwick paraded in the streets of London to prove the imposture, an army gathered in England to support King Edward VI; and the eldest of the de la Poles, the Earl of Lincoln, fled to join the Yorkist force. The rebels landed in June 1487 but before they had a chance to consolidate their forces. Henry met and defeated them at the battle of Stoke on 16th June (when the Earl of Lincoln was killed).
Four years later, however, a new imposter was put forward. A Flemish boy named Perkin Warbeck who was hailed, as the Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower who were believed – though never proved – to have been murdered in the reign of Richard III. There have always been those who believe that Edward V and Richard of York were still alive when Henry VII took the throne, and that he had tem killed himself, to be rid of such potential rivals. Whatever the truth of it, Henry could not produce a live Duke of York to show up Warbeck’s imposture. In 1497 Warbeck was captured. He might have been awarded the same mercy as Simnel ( who now worked in the Royal Kitchen), had he not tried to escape from his prison in the Tower. Henry could not afford now to let him live, and he was executed in 1499. Warwick, the innocent pawn, was beheaded at the same time, for, as long as he lived, there would certainly be pretensions on his behalf.
This was not the end of the white rose conspiracies, for several of the de la Pole brothers still lived in freedom. Indeed, they, and Warwick’s sister, would live on to trouble Henry VIII many years later. But for Henry VII the testing-time of rival claimants was over.
That both rebellions had originated in Ireland was significant. To Henry’s mind, too much independence had been allowed to Ireland by their Yorkist overlords of the previous reigns. Wisely, he first showed the iron fist, forbidding the Irish to continue holding their own Parliament; then, to avert rebellion against over-harsh measures, he relaxed his rule, relying on the trustworthiness of h is new deputy, the popular Irish Earl of Kildare, a rebel turned loyalist, to keep the Irish in check. Nevertheless, like so many English sovereigns before and after him. Henry could never rely on loyalty in more that the Dublin Pale area and in a few ports which lived by English trade, and he was not ready to risk full-scale armed intervention to gain total Irish obedience.
Scotland was another problem. The age-old traditional warfare between the neighbouring kingdoms was a threat which cold not ignore, especially after Scotland’s King James IV gave support to Perkin Warbeck. Though Henry assididuously avoided open war, and despite a formal truce in 1497, border raiding continued unchecked on both sides. A solution was found in 1499 when Henry opened negotiations to marry his daughter Margaret to the Scots King as token of his hopes for a perpetual peace. Though the agreement that was reached in 1502 provided a lull in the fighting for only a few years, the elevation of Henry’s daughter to a throne was a valuable recognition of the permanence of his dynasty. Indeed, most of Henry’s international dealings were conducted with an eye to recognition of his crown as well as to the security of his realm. He was delighted to be accepted as an ally by the Emperor Maximilian and the Spanish monarchs in 1489 in their war against France, though later it proved that only Henry had the enthusiasm to prosecute that war seriously. In the Treaty of Medina del Campo, Ferdinand and Isabella promised their daughter Catherine to Henry’s son Arthur, and their wedding in 1501 was a tangible triumph for Henry.
England could not but rejoice at its king’s diplomatic acumen. Diplomacy and trade went hand in hand, and in Henry’s reign England’s prosperity was assured. He made an advantageous treaty with Denmark for fishing rights and an agreement with Florence for the sale of English wool there; he was also able, in 1496, to extract excellent terms from the Archduke Phillip for English trade with the Netherlands, a pact formulated in the Intercursus Magnus. (Trading on his own account, the King made a profit of some 15,000 on deals in alum, in 1505-6.)
From this evidence, it can be presumed that the ventures of foreign exploration by the Cabot brothers and their like, which resulted in the discovery of rich fishing grounds in the North Atlantic, were no coincidence to the reign of the first Tudor. Henry actively encouraged such exploits, with an eye to new sources of wealth.
By the beginning of the 16th Century, the King’s prestige in Europe and his security at home were assured. He had survived the ambitions of pretenders to the throne – and without traces of too much blood on his hands; he was strong in central government and generally obeyed throughout the realm; he was successful in foreign war-albeit not absolutely heroic – in the eyes of his subjects; England was almost unprecedentedly prosperous and growing daily richer in culture, with the extension to England of the arts and scholarship of the European Renaissance.
Yet, for all this, Henry was not personally attractive to his people. He had none of the charisma of the later Tudors. Nor, for all his achievements, has he had a good Press in the centuries since his death. For example, one of his earliest biographers, Francis Bacon damned the King as a miser, and it was not until recently, in the light of modern research, that his opinion has been contradicted. In fact, Henry kept a splendid Court, fully as brilliant in its entertainments as those of his predecessors. Nor was all his expenditure for show, for Henry’s private accounts, (meticulously checked in his own hand) reveal that he was generous in his payments to a children’s choir which performed for him, and to a favoured Welsh harpist, and that he spent lavishly on his private zoo and his table’s delicatessen. Nevertheless, the Court was somewhat somber in the last years of the reign: Henry lost his eldest son, the promising Arthur, in April 1502 (only a few months after the Prince’s wedding to the Spanish Catherine) and in February 1503 Queen Elizabeth died too. Though Henry had married her for political reasons, with no sentimental wooing, he seems to have been a good husband, and he was certainly fortunate that his wife gave him seven children, of whom two sons and two daughters survived infancy.
Henry made several attempts to remarry – and to remarry well, having several prestigious foreign princesses in view. But complications in international diplomacy prevented his second marriage – indeed, his whole foreign policy in his later years seems to have misfired.
But then, Henry had never been very ambitious in foreign affairs. He had no wish to be a glorious conqueror or an international arbiter. He had sought merely to have his dynasty recognized by foreign rulers and to show his people that he could hold his own among European sovereigns: without any formalized policy, he yet managed to seize his chances so adeptly that he succeeded in his limited aims.
Henry VII, died on 21st April 1509. And perhaps in his very death his greatest achievement is revealed, for his son, Henry VIII, succeeded him peacefully, with no immediate rival to challenge for the crown. Less that a quarter of a century after Henry Tudor had risked all on Bosworth Field, his throne was indisputably secure in his dynasty. As Francis Bacon wrote, little more than a century after Henry VII’s death, What he minded, he compassed.