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- Early Years of Henry Tudor
- Life in Brittany
- Battle of Bosworth
- King Henry VII
- Lambert Simnel's claim to the throne
- Dealing with Perkin Warbeck
- Prince Arthur & Catherine of Aragon
- Richard Empson & Edmund Dudley
- Prince Henry & Catherine of Aragon
- Student Activities
When the public are asked about the Tudors they can always be relied upon to talk about Henry VIII, Elizabeth and the great events of those times the Armada perhaps, or the multitude of wives. It is however a rarity to find anyone who will mention the founder of the dynasty, Henry VII. It is my belief that Henry Tudor is every bit as exciting and arguably more important than any of his dynasty who followed.
Henry Tudor ascended the throne in dramatic circumstances, taking it by force and through the death of the incumbent monarch, Richard III, on the battlefield. As a boy of fourteen he had fled England to the relative safety of Burgundy, fearing that his position as the strongest Lancastrian claimant to the English throne made it too dangerous for him to remain. During his exile the turbulence of the Wars of the Roses continued, but support still existed for a Lancastrian to take the throne from the Yorkist Edward IV and Richard III.
Hoping to garner this support, in the summer of 1485 Henry left Burgundy with his troop ships bound for the British Isles. He headed for Wales, his homeland and a stronghold of support for him and his forces. He and his army landed at Mill Bay on the Pembrokeshire coast on 7th August and proceeded to march inland, amassing support as they travelled further towards London.
Henry VII is crowned on the battlefield at Bosworth
On 22nd August 1485 the two sides met at Bosworth, a small market town in Leicestershire, and a decisive victory was had by Henry. He was crowned on the battlefield as the new monarch, Henry VII. Following the battle Henry marched for London, during which time Vergil describes the whole progress, stating that Henry proceeded ‘like a triumphing general’ and that:
‘Far and wide the people hastened to assemble by the roadside, saluting him as King and filling the length of his journey with laden tables and overflowing goblets, so that the weary victors might refresh themselves.’
Henry would reign for 24 years and in that time, much changed in the political landscape of England. While there was never a period of security for Henry, there could be said to be some measure of stability compared to the period immediately before. He saw off pretenders and threats from foreign powers through careful political manoeuvring and decisive military action, winning the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Stoke, in 1487.
Henry had gained the throne by force but was determined to be able to pass the crown to a legitimate and incontrovertible heir through inheritance. In this aim he was successful, as upon his death in 1509 his son and heir, Henry VIII, ascended the throne. However, the facts surrounding the Battle of Bosworth and the swiftness and apparent ease with which Henry was able to take on the role of King of England do not however give a full picture of the instability present in the realm immediately before and during his reign, nor the work undertaken by Henry and his government in order to achieve this ‘smooth’ succession.
Henry VII and Henry VIII
Henry’s claim to the throne was ‘embarrassingly slender’ and suffered from a fundamental weakness of position. Ridley describes it as ‘so unsatisfactory that he and his supporters never clearly stated what it was’. His claim came through both sides of his family: his father was a descendant of Owen Tudor and Queen Catherine, the widow of Henry V, and while his grandfather had been of noble birth, the claim on this side was not strong at all. On his mother’s side things were even more complicated, as Margaret Beaufort was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, and while their offspring had been legitimised by Parliament, they had been barred from succeeding to the crown and therefore this was problematic. When he was declared King however these issues appear to have been ignored to some extent, citing he was the rightful king and his victory had shown him to be judged so by God.
As Loades describes, ‘Richard’s death made the battle of Bosworth decisive’ his death childless left his heir apparent as his nephew, the Earl of Lincoln whose claim was little stronger than Henry’s. In order for his throne to become a secure one, Gunn describes how Henry knew ‘Good governance was required: effective justice, fiscal prudence, national defence, fitting royal magnificence and the promotion of the common weal’.
That ‘fiscal prudence’ is probably what Henry is best known for, inspiring the children’s rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’. He was famous (or should that be infamous) for his avarice which was commented upon by contemporaries: ‘But in his later days, all these virtues were obscured by avarice, from which he suffered.’
Henry is also known for his sombre nature and his political acumen until fairly recently this reputation has led him to be viewed with some notes of disdain. New scholarship is working to change the King’s reputation from boring to that of an exciting and crucial turning point in British history. While there will never be agreement about the level of this importance, such is the way with history and its arguments, this is what makes it all the more interesting and raises the profile of this oft forgotten but truly pivotal monarch and individual.
Quick Facts: Henry VII
- Born: 28 January 1457, Pembroke Castle, Pembroke, United Kingdom
- Also Known As: Henry Tudor
- Known For: The King of England and Lord of Ireland
- Reign: 22 August 1485 – 21 April 1509
- Coronation: 30 October 1485
- Predecessor: Richard III
- Successor:Henry VIII
- Parents: Father – Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond, Mother – Lady Margaret Beaufort
- House: Tudor
- Religion: Catholicism
- Spouse:Elizabeth of York, (m. 1486 died 1503)
- Died: 21 April 1509 (aged 52), Richmond Palace, Surrey, England
- Burial: 11 May 1509, Westminster Abbey, London
Henry VII: your guide to the first Tudor king
Henry VII’s rise to the throne is one of the most fascinating in English royal history. How and why did he become king, and what was he like as a ruler? Here, Nathen Amin reveals more about the victor of Bosworth Field who went on to found the Tudor dynasty
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Published: February 18, 2021 at 9:10 am
Henry VII (1457–1509) was the first monarch of the House of Tudor, ruling as king of England for 24 years from 1485 until 1509. He is often credited with ending the Wars of the Roses and fathering one of history’s most famous royal dynasties. His rise to the throne, and successful struggle thereafter to maintain his crown amid myriad threats and rebellions, is one of the most fascinating, and unlikely, stories in English royal history. Find out more about the father of the Tudors…
Follow the links below to jump to each section:
- What was Henry VII’s background?
- What was Henry VII’s claim to the throne?
- How did Henry VII become king?
- Who did Henry VII marry?
- What was Henry VII like as a person?
- When and how did Henry VII die?
- What is Henry VII’s legacy?
Henry VII: key dates & facts
Born: 28 January 1457 (Pembroke)
Died: 21 April 1509 (Richmond)
Reigned: King of England and Lord of Ireland for 24 years, from 22 August 1485 until his death. The first monarch of the House of Tudor
Coronation: 30 October 1485, Westminster Abbey
Parents: Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and Margaret Beaufort
Spouse: Elizabeth of York
Children: At least 7 including Henry VIII, King of England, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland, and Mary Tudor, Queen of France
Succeeded by: Henry VIII
What was Henry VII’s background?
Henry Tudor was born in Pembroke Castle in West Wales on 28 January 1457. His mother was Margaret Beaufort, heiress of a great English dynasty and a great-great-granddaughter of Edward III, whilst his father was Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. The earl was son of a Welshman named Owen Tudor and the French dowager queen of England, Katherine de Valois (whose earlier marriage was to Henry V of England). This made Henry’s paternal half-uncle Henry VI of the House of Lancaster, who reigned over England from 1422–61 and 1470–1.
Henry VII’s ancestors included English, Welsh, French and Bavarian royalty.
What was Henry VII’s claim to the throne?
It is a fair comment that Henry VII didn’t have the strongest of claims to the English throne, but a claim nevertheless did exist. Through his mother, Henry was a great-great-great-grandson of Edward III, and though the Beauforts (the offspring of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and third son of Edward III, and his mistress Katherine Swynford) had been born out of wedlock, they were nevertheless later legitimised by both pope and parliament in 1397. As per the original act, their descendants were permitted to inherit all and any office in the land as though they’d been born in lawful matrimony.
How did Henry VII become king?
The Wars of the Roses, series of bloody civil wars between Yorkist and Lancastrian descendants of Edward III who vied for the crown, had torn though England and Wales since the mid-15th century. Though Henry Tudor was the Lancastrian with the strongest claim to the throne, he had escaped to the relative safety of Brittany as a teenager, away from the conflict. His route to the throne began in summer 1483 with the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower and the controversial ascension of their uncle, Richard III. The ensuring fallout of this fracture within the House of York triggered a series of conspiracies to dethrone the new Yorkist king, who stood accused of murdering his nephews. At the forefront of these conspiracies was Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who proposed her son marry the princes’ sister Elizabeth of York to symbolically unite the two warring houses.
By the summer of 1485, Henry had amassed a modest army that was a combination of Lancastrian veterans, dissident Yorkists and French mercenaries. Coming from France, they landed in Henry’s native Pembrokeshire on 7 August and marched through the heart of Wales and into central England until they were intercepted by Richard III’s larger royal force. On 22 August 1485, at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, Henry’s army overcame that of Richard’s, who in the final moments was pulled from his horse and slain. In the fallen king’s place stood, according to one foreign source, a man “without power, without money, without right to the crown of England, and without any reputation but what his person and deportment obtained for him”. He was now Henry VII, the first Tudor king.
Whatever the merits of Henry’s blood claim, ultimately, he became king on the principle of conquest, which was interpreted by contemporaries as the judgement of God. During his coronation on 30 October 1485, the archbishop of Canterbury declared Henry to be the ‘rightful and undoubted inheritor by the laws of God and man’ to the English crown, whilst the three estates of the realm, the Commons, the Lords, and the Church, approved his accession one week later during the first parliament of the reign. Henry was the king, quite simply, because he was the king.
Who did Henry VII marry?
To attract the Yorkist support he needed to build an army, upon becoming king Henry VII honoured a pledge to marry Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Yorkist king Edward IV. The wedding took place in Westminster Abbey on 18 January 1486 and though little is recorded of the actual ceremony, one court poet remarked “great gladness filled all the kingdom” to see the warring houses united.
As far as royal marriages go, Henry and Elizabeth’s union ranks as one of the more successful. Together they had at least seven children (Arthur, Margaret, Henry, Mary, Elizabeth, Edmund, and Katherine), and there is evidence the marriage was deeply loving. When their heir Arthur died aged 15 in 1502, the queen soothed her heartbroken husband with “full, great, and constant comfortable words”, remarking they were young enough for more children. When Elizabeth’s own grief struck once she returned to her chamber, however, it was Henry’s turn, “of true, gentle, and faithful love”, to offer comfort.
Though Elizabeth did indeed become pregnant soon after, on 11 February 1503, the queen died from complications arising from childbirth. If Henry VII had been shaken by Arthur’s death, then his queen’s sudden demise completely incapacitated the king, who for the first time in his reign physically and mentally collapsed. News of her death was “heavy and dolorous” to the king, who “privily departed to a solitary place to pass his sorrows and would no man should resort to him”. When Henry did finally abandon his chamber, it was an altogether colder and isolated man that emerged, one that “began to treat his people with more harshness and severity than had been his custom”. He never recovered.
What was Henry VII like as a person?
Henry VII is often viewed as a dour, miserly king devoid of warmth, but this is an unfair assessment based on the historical record. It is certainly true he later descended into the grip of avarice as the reign wore on (a conscious decision to protect his dynasty using wealth), but he was also free spending. Just two extraordinarily opulent projects which owed their origins to Henry VII were the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey and the state-of-the-art palace at Richmond. He invested heavily in jewels and gold for his family, and surviving financial records depict a king content to spend his coin on everything from musicians to mead.
Of his personal character, Henry was affable and gracious, widely regarded as quick-witted and insightful. To his family he appears affectionate, and to his mother in particular he was deferential, though not quite submissive as commonly believed. His resolve in the face of danger was unshakable, and his will to succeed never deserted him. As king, Henry was known to be vigilant of those around him, a wariness sometimes perceived as paranoia. When considering his youth had been spent evading assassination in exile, his reign littered with threats to his family, this cautiousness in a turbulent world is perhaps understandable.
Physically, Henry was tall and slender, though considered strong. His eyes were small and blue, his face cheerful, and in later life, at least, his white hair thinned and his teeth few and black. Despite this, he was deemed remarkably attractive when speaking, a level of natural charisma which may have attracted support during his rise to the throne. In short, Henry appears a far warmer, if complex, character that far removed from the two-dimensional accountant-king history has unfairly judged him to be.
When and how did Henry VII die?
Henry died on 21 April 1509 in Richmond Palace. He was 52 years old. The final years of Henry’s reign were marked by persistent illness, and he was often greatly incapacitated with sickness. The cause of death is likely to have been tuberculosis. He was buried in the extravagant Lady Chapel he had built at Westminster Abbey, laid to rest next to his wife Elizabeth of York.
What was Henry VII’s legacy?
It is true that Henry VII’s son and granddaughter, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are better remembered in the modern British consciousness, but that should not minimise the considerable impact of the first Tudor monarch. Henry VII’s chief legacy is unquestionably the peaceful bequeathing of power to his 17-year-old son Henry VIII, armed with the restoration of royal power, a replenished treasury, and the rehabilitation of England’s continental reputation.
Although William Shakespeare and generations of historians have portrayed Henry’s improbable victory at the battle of Bosworth as the moment the Wars of the Roses were brought to a close, it is perhaps accurate to consider the first Tudor king’s death in 1509 as the moment the flame of conflict was truly extinguished. By surviving into middle age and suppressing opposition to his rule, Henry was the first monarch in 87 years (since Henry V in 1422) to oversee a successful and lasting succession, his heir descended from both the houses of York and Lancaster and roundly popular.
In the longer-term, by marrying his daughter Margaret to the Scottish king James IV, notably against the advice of his subjects, it may be conjectured Henry VII was not only responsible for the Stewart accession to the English throne in 1603, but also the later development of Great Britain. His direct descendant still sits on the throne today – Queen Elizabeth II.
Nathen Amin is a Welsh author specialising in the study of Henry VII and the Wars of the Roses. His first book Tudor Wales was released in 2014, followed by the bestselling House of Beaufort in 2017. His forthcoming book is Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders.
If you’re here looking for the answer to that question: no. No, he didn’t. We don’t know for certain of course, but no. It is highly, highly unlikely that he did given that by the standards of the time Henry VII and Elizabeth of York had an affectionate and loving marriage.
As another blogger has said far more eloquently than I could have
“Some Richard III admirers have sought to attribute any manner of cowardly and vile acts to Henry Tudor including forcing Elizabeth into his bed before the marriage to “test” if she was a virgin or the raping of his betrothed to see if she was fertile. To accuse Richard III of defiling his own niece or Henry Tudor of raping his betrothed needs to be considered only with the contempt it deserves.”
With that out of the way, presenting: the love story that was Henry and Elizabeth.
‘A Striking Couple’
When Elizabeth of York, the eldest child of King Edward IV, was five, the man who would become her husband was already heading into exile because her father had regained his throne. Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (or not depending on which colour rose sat on the throne) feared execution by the Yorkist king and so spent fourteen years in Brittany eluding him. Although Edward IV made some attempts to have him returned and executed, he also at one point drafted a pardon for him and was prepared to invite him back to England. There, the Yorkist Edward would have reconciled with the Lancastrian Henry and the possibility of marriage between Elizabeth and Henry was considered as a means to unite the warring houses. The possibility came to nothing, however, when Elizabeth was then betrothed to the Dauphin of France, a betrothal which was broken by the other party in 1482.
If Edward planned to revisit the idea of marrying her to Henry Tudor he never got the chance, as within a year he was dead and Elizabeth was taken into sanctuary by her mother. Edward’s son, also Edward, became Edward V, but the reign was short-lived as he and his brother disappeared from their home in the Tower, and their uncle became Richard III. Under Richard, Elizabeth and her siblings were declared illegitimate by an Act of Parliament, and her mother Elizabeth Woodville conspired with Henry Tudor’s mother to have them betrothed.
Portraits of the two are rare and unfortunately, there is no portrait of the two together
Henry pledged himself to marry Elizabeth on Christmas day of 1483 and shortly afterwards made a failed attempt to invade England. A second attempt in 1485 proved more successful and with Richard dead, Henry was declared King Henry VII of England. Henry was crowned before his marriage and there was some delay before he actually honoured his promise to wed Elizabeth. During this time she was lodged with his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and so she would almost certainly have seen her betrothed frequently. One of the first Acts of Henry’s first Parliament was to assert Elizabeth’s legitimacy which was necessary to establish before they married. Also necessary was papal dispensation to account for the blood relations between the two and two days after the dispensation arrived Henry and Elizabeth were married at Westminster Abbey.
Elizabeth of York was noted for her beauty, with her fair hair and pale skin the very model of ‘an English rose’. While Henry VII is not similarly known for his looks, at the time of his marriage, he is described as being quite attractive, and the two were thought to make ‘a striking couple.’ Although he had married her it would still be over a year before Henry would have her crowned Queen, with the event delayed by pregnancy and later, rebellion.
There is some dispute over when Elizabeth fell pregnant. Their first child, Arthur, was born on the 20th September 1486, almost eight months to the day of their wedding. Elizabeth might have been pregnant at the time of her wedding, or Arthur might have been premature (as some of his siblings would later be). Either way, it showed that Elizabeth had fallen pregnant quickly, a promising omen for a Queen. It’s not known how many pregnancies Elizabeth had in total, but she had at least seven children, though only four would survive infancy.
‘A Faithful Love’
Pregnancies aside, Henry and Elizabeth seem to have had an affectionate relationship. They were never very far from each other, the exception being when Henry put down a rebellion while Elizabeth was having Arthur. Henry refers to Elizabeth fondly in letters and while very few letters of Elizabeth’s survive in one of them she calls Henry her, “most serene lord, the king, our husband.” In lieu of letters, we have poetry written by Elizabeth, in which her happiness at her situation is evident in each example, where her personal joy forms the theme of each poem. Elsewhere there is an affectionate account of a disagreement between the two where Henry asked that he might have copies of letters from Catherine of Aragon and her parents, to which Elizabeth refused, claiming that one copy was for their son Arthur and she was quite happy keeping the other copy to herself. Perhaps it was because of the loving example set to them by their parents that the surviving Tudor children would take a relatively novel approach to marriage, with all three of them defying protocol to marry for love at various points.
Henry VIII commissioned this mural at Whitehall Palace. Here, his ‘true’ wife Jane is shown beside his mother.
There is speculation that Elizabeth conflicted with Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who was (besides the Queen herself) the first lady at court. The reason this is speculation is that if she was in competition with her mother in law it wasn’t an obvious one and there is more evidence showing the two in harmony than at odds. I mentioned that Elizabeth lived with Margaret before her marriage and the two would continue to be in close quarters (probably out of necessity rather than affection). When Elizabeth took issue with Henry’s proposals for their daughter Margaret’s marriage, it was to his mother that she appealed, and it was together that they confronted Henry.
Although Henry has an image of being a sombre miser, this is something exacerbated by Elizabeth’s death. Beforehand his privy purse records show that he was generous with gifts to his wife, at one point purchasing a lion for her amusement. It has also been suggested that he kept Elizabeth impoverished and that she had to continually mend her gowns, but again his expenses suggest otherwise. She did indeed retain a tailor to mend her dresses, but he also gifted her new ones. When she found herself in debt (owing to her generous and charitable nature rather than excessive spending habits) he, of course, paid them, and it should probably be noted that for a king who was so concerned with pageantry to establish the legitimacy of his dynasty, to keep his queen in rags and poverty would have been quite damaging.
On April 4th, 1502 Henry was woken in the early hours of the morning by his confessor, bearing the news that his eldest child Arthur had died two days previously. Aside from the obvious grief at the loss of his son this also had implications for Henry’s legacy. Arthur had recently been married to Catherine of Aragon to cement Anglo-Spanish relations, something which would clearly be affected by his loss. Then there was the fact that Henry only had one other son, Henry, who was at the time just ten years old and had in no way been prepared for the possibility of kingship.
Henry’s first reaction to the news was to immediately send for Elizabeth so that they could share the news. I think this is interesting to consider that he didn’t have to break the news to her personally and he wasn’t doing so just to inform her, but that they could react together and take comfort in each other. The exchange shows just that. Without being told as much, Elizabeth realises that Henry’s grief is as much in the implications for their legacy than their lost son, and she comforts him regarding it. After she had returned to her chambers and broken down herself, Henry comes to her and comforts her in much the same way.
“When his Grace under- stood that sorrowful heavy tidings, he sent for the Queen, saying that he and his Queen would take the painful sorrows together. After that she was come and saw the King her lord, and that natural and painful sorrow, as I have heard say, she, with full great and constant comfortable words besought his Grace that he would first after God remember the weal of his own noble person, the comfort of his realm, and of her. She then said, that my lady, his mother, had never no more children but him only, and that God by his grace had ever preserved him, and brought him where that he was. Over that, how that God had left him yet a fair prince, two fair princesses and that God is where he was, and we are both young enough and that the prudence and wisdom of his Grace sprung over all Christendom, so that it should please him to take this according thereunto. Then the King thanked her of her good comfort. After that she was departed and come to her own chamber, natural and motherly remembrance of that great loss smote her so sorrowful to the heart, that those that were about her were fain to send for the King to comfort her. Then his Grace, of true, gentle, and faithful love, in good haste came and relieved her, and showed her how wise counsel she had given him before and he, for his part, would thank God for his son, and would she should do in like wise”
There is much more in this exchange than simply duty between husband and wife, or cordiality between a royal couple. It had been three years (as far as we know) since Elizabeth had carried a child, (Edmund – who died at a year old) and her comments that they were ‘both young enough’ suggests that they might have already decided not to try for more children. With the future of the dynasty in question, Elizabeth had fallen pregnant within a few months of Arthur’s death. In early 1503 she went into confinement in the Tower of London, but the baby came prematurely. Some weeks before expected Elizabeth went into labour, which was apparently a difficult one and the Queen became feverish. Unusually, we find Henry not waiting for news at one of his palaces, but actually pacing outside the chambers. When he heard that the Queen was ill he immediately dispatched summons to specialist doctors across London to attend her. The baby was born a girl on the 2nd February 1503, named Katherine for her widowed sister in law but unfortunately, died eight days later on the 10th. Elizabeth’s fever deteriorated after the birth and she died a day after Katherine on the 11th February, her thirty-seventh birthday.
‘A Solitary Place’
Henry VII and Elizabeth of York’s tomb at Westminster Abbey
It is Henry VII’s reaction to Elizabeth’s death that is the strongest case to show the depth of affection they shared. He ordered a lavish funeral for his wife and leaving the arrangements in the hands of his mother, he departed for Richmond Palace and once he reached his privy chambers, he broke down and collapsed with grief. Henry was known for being private and reserved, rarely given to public displays of emotion and so it came as a shock to his attendants that he should show his grief so openly. They did not get the chance to marvel long, for he soon dismissed them and intended to grieve in private. Very quickly became ill himself, but to the further alarm of his court, he would not allow any doctors to see him and he continued to refuse assistance. In the end, it was his mother who nursed him back from the brink the only person that he would admit to his presence.
If this was a reaction to the blow this struck to the Tudor dynasty you would think Henry would be at pains to remarry quickly so that he might beget more children. Henry, who had been apparently faithful to Elizabeth during their marriage, did not marry again, nor did he pursue potential marriage negotiations with any particular fervour. The closest he came to a second marriage were his enquiries to Joanna of Naples and later, Joanna of Castille. Initially, he seemed to have designs to marry his son’s widow, Katherine, and the papal dispensation that would allow her to marry his surviving son was altered to allow her to marry him instead. This might have been a reaction out of grief, as he did not pursue her with any enthusiasm and later used her to advance negotiations with her sister, Joanna of Castille.
After Elizabeth’s death, the court’s reputation for charity diminished considerably, along with Henry’s gifts to his children and the king’s demeanour. If he had a reputation for avarice before, now he was positively mean. Elizabeth was mourned deeply by her family and Henry had the Tower of London abandoned as a royal residence he did not lodge there for the rest of his life. He remembered his wife every year and on February 11th bells were rung, masses were sung and a hundred candles were lit in her memory.
Henry survived Elizabeth by six years, but her loss had aged him considerably. He suffered recurring bouts of illnesses after his initial collapse when he lost his wife, and in early 1509 he fell ill for the last time. Once again he retreated to Richmond allowing very few people near him, though he did break his tendency of frugality by donating a sum of money to ‘women in childbed’, a somewhat random bequest but poignant given the manner of Elizabeth’s death. Suffering from tuberculosis Henry declined quickly and died on 21st April 1509. He was, of course, buried beside Elizabeth.
Henry VII is also known as Henry Tudor. He was the first Tudor king after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. This battle saw the end of the Wars of the Roses which had brought instability to England. Henry VII was king of England from 1485 to 1509. His second son, also called Henry, inherited the throne and became Henry VIII. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I tend to dominate Tudor history and their lives do overshadow the importance of Henry VII’s reign.
The Wars of the Roses had been a constant battle between two of England’s most powerful families – the families of York and Lancaster. Henry was a member of the Lancaster family and to bring the families closer together he married Elizabeth of York soon after being crowned king.
However, the powerful York family remained a threat to him for years to come as they never recognised their defeat in the Wars of the Roses nor did they want a member of the Lancaster family as king of England.
However, Henry was a very difficult opponent. He was a clever man who was determined not to lose his throne. He quickly identified the main problem he faced – the powerful barons of England. They were rich and they had their own private armies. During the Wars of the Roses, they had not been loyal to either side – renting out their private armies to the family that paid the most. Henry had to control them.
Henry had a three-way plan to bring the barons under his control.
First, he banned all private armies. Any baron who disobeyed this royal command would be committing treason which carried the death penalty.
Secondly, he heavily taxed the barons to reduce their wealth. The money raised could be used by Henry to develop his own royal army. A powerful royal army was an obvious threat to the barons.
The third way of controlling the barons was to use the Court of Star Chamber. This was a court run by men who were loyal to Henry VII and they could be relied on to severely punish any baron who angered the king.
With these three potential punishments against them, the barons, though a threat to Henry VII, were reasonably well tamed by him.
Unlike many kings before him, Henry took a keen interest in financial matters as he knew that a wealthy king was a strong king and a poor king was a weak one. He also knew that money would expand his army and the larger his army was, the more powerful he was in the eyes of the barons. This alone, he believed would keep them loyal.
Though he was very careful with money, he also enjoyed himself. He was keen on playing cards. On January 8th, 1492, he put aside the large sum of £5 for an evening of gambling. We know that he lost £40 playing cards on June 30th, 1492. He regularly tipped those who entertained him – especially musicians – the sum of 33p – not much by our standards, but a good sum of money for an entertainer in Tudor times. He was also very keen on playing Real Tennis.
To develop better relations abroad, and to avoid costly foreign wars, he had arranged for his eldest son – Arthur – to marry a Spanish princess called Catherine of Aragon. Aragon is in north-east Spain. Such political marriages were common among the children of royal families. Neither Arthur nor Catherine would have had the opportunity to say no to the marriage.
The marriage lasted only five months as Arthur died. To maintain a friendship with Spain, Henry arranged for Catherine to marry his second son, Henry, the future king of England. Henry VII died before the marriage took place.
When he died in 1509, the country was by past standards wealthy and the position of the king was good. The barons by 1509 had been all but tamed. Many barons believed that it was better to work with the king than against such a powerful man.
Henry VIII inherited many advantages from his father’s reign as king. The reign of the Tudor family – 1485 to 1603 – is famous for many occurrences and two monarchs stand out (Henry VIII and Elizabeth I), but the 118 years of Tudor England has a great deal to thank Henry VII for as he got the Tudor family off to a stable and powerful start.
A new book on Henry VII is a major event. The last full-length study of the king and his reign, by S. B. Chrimes, was written in 1972, in a very different historiographical world. At that time, the explosion of interest in later-medieval history was still in its infancy, and the decades after 1485 were seen mainly through the lens of the 'Tudor Revolution in Government'. Since then, many things have happened to alter our understanding of Henry VII's life and times. The fifteenth century has become one of the most widely and minutely studied periods of medieval history, and ingrained assumptions concerning the precariousness of Plantagenet authority have been eroded the Elton view of the early Tudors has been substantially battered and reshaped and medievalists have broken through the ramparts of early modernity to comment critically on Henry VII's achievements. Meanwhile, if the first of the Tudors remains a rather unloved and unfashionable king, he is newly imprinted on the national consciousness as a doyen of the AS-level syllabus (virtually inescapable, whichever Board you go for). These trends have produced a great expansion of interest in Henry's reign, which began in earnest in the 1990s. So far, this has produced a heap of new information and many new perspectives, but no substantial new synthesis. Sean Cunningham, who has been studying the reign for a decade and a half, is ideally placed to draw things together in a work shaped by his own extensive researches. His eagerly-awaited book unquestionably moves things forward.
Cunningham's starting-point is the king's shadowy reputation, which is shadowy in two senses. On the one hand, it is enigmatic, and under-explored, since Henry VII is often seen through the impersonal medium of his administrative and fiscal measures. On the other, it is not entirely reputable, as Henry is also remembered as a hard-faced miser whose rule edged so close to tyranny that his death brought talk of Magna Carta and the arrest of his leading ministers. Cunningham's aim is to look beyond the institutional record, both positive and negative, to the man himself. He seeks to understand and explain the king's authoritarian and centralising policies, and to place his controversial measures in the context of his personality and experiences. The book therefore moves swiftly to a four-chapter narrative of Henry's life and reign, before covering Henry's governance of the realm more thematically in a further seven chapters. A conclusion, including a sketch of today's research on the reign, completes the volume.
Cunningham's narrative begins with a deft account of Henry's early life up to Bosworth, which contains few surprises, but is distinctive in making him the Lancastrian dynastic champion from as early as the deaths of Henry VI and his son Edward in May 1471. While he sees Richard III's usurpation as decisive in creating new opportunities for Henry, Cunningham also notes the tensions which arose from his mixed base of support: the alliance between Henry and the network of disaffected Edwardians was a marriage of convenience, and may have been threatened by the addition of the staunchly Lancastrian earl of Oxford to the king's party in late 1484. These cracks in the Tudor entourage form a theme which runs throughout the ensuing narrative: Henry, the man whom no-one apart from his mother and his uncle really knew, was backed by an uneasy alliance of former Lancastrians and pre-1483 Yorkists. From the moment that the splendid victory at Bosworth won Henry the throne, this unstable group was complicated further by the addition of former Ricardians, both cool administrators like the Edwardian ministers who had remained in office after Richard's usurpation, and lords and gentlemen, whose associations with the last Yorkist king went back rather further. Small wonder, in Cunningham's view, that the king proved so vulnerable to Yorkist plotting in the years ahead.
The narrative of the reign is accomplished in three chapters, and these form one of the principal achievements of the book. For the first time, Henry's travails with pretenders, his dealings with foreign rulers, and the rhythms of domestic policy and governmental reform are treated at decent length, all together and in a chronological format. Cunningham's division of the reign into three sections works very well indeed. First there are the years of establishment, 1485-9, in which the king set up his regime, operating in a broadly traditional way, relying as far as possible on his most tried supporters, but offering quarter to anyone who would work with him. He responded dynamically to the major rising of 1487, and showed mercy to many participants (even to one of its central figures-Lambert Simnel). By 1489, he had forged links with the duke of Brittany and the Catholic Monarchs of Spain he had a Yorkist wife and a legitimate son, and was able to mop up the Yorkshire rebellion of that April with no difficulty. The king's early years, then, were a success.
But the picture was about to change, and Cunningham's next chapter deals with the 1490s and the powerful impact of the Warbeck conspiracy on Henry's rule. This conspiracy is shown to have arisen from three main forces: the designs of John Taylor, a former servant of the duke of Clarence the desire of a succession of foreign rulers to cause problems for Henry (beginning with the French, who were responding to the king's interventions on behalf of Brittany) and the alienation of former Yorkists, as Henry's better-trusted agents began to expand operations at their expense. In a compelling, if rather complex, narrative, Cunningham shows how very serious the threat from Warbeck was, reminding us that his identity was uncertain, and pointing out that only bad weather prevented a substantial landing in East Anglia in the summer of 1495. Not until the end of 1496 did Henry begin to get convincingly on top of the situation, and just a few months later he faced a massive rebellion in the South West while his main forces were poised on the Scottish border. Throughout the 1490s, it seems that the king had just enough solid support to face down those who betrayed him and to manage those who wavered while his reliance on a narrowing circle may have been alienating to those outside, it appears to have given him the backing he needed. Simply by surviving, he emerged from the 1490s greatly strengthened, and it is telling that it was only in 1499, after Warbeck's capture, that the Spanish finally agreed to the long-planned marriage of Catherine to Prince Arthur the future of Henry's regime seemed secure in a way that it never had before.
In fact, however, 1499 proved a false dawn, as the final narrative chapter shows. Between 1499 and 1504, Henry suffered another series of disasters which drove him into more desperate political and fiscal expedients, and left him looking even more vulnerable than before. By the spring of 1503, two of his three sons and his wife were dead, he himself had begun to show signs of sickness, and the newly-rebellious earl of Suffolk had fled to safety at the court of the Emperor. The remaining years of the reign were tense indeed, as the king raised fantastic sums to buy off Maximilian, and the moral authority of his government dwindled. A stroke of luck brought Suffolk into his hands in 1506, but the earl's younger brothers, also Yorkist claimants, remained overseas, and the king's increasing illness meant that diplomacy was less well-managed and royal agents were less well-supervised. The situation in London was reaching boiling point by 1509, when Henry's death, and the succession of his young heir, at last brought relief. In a series of moves, about which Cunningham might have said a little more, Henry VIII and his advisers released the pressure that had built up over the previous decade while preserving the royal network and the other essential achievements of Henry VII's rule.
The remainder of the book, slightly more than half, looks at Henry's rule of the realm. A long chapter surveys the ideologies, practices, and frameworks of royal government. Succeeding chapters discuss a variety of issues and problems: the power-structures of the English localities the royal networks focused on court and council the security policies for which the king is so famous-bonds and recognisances, measures against retaining relations with the church and the city of London the rule of Wales and Ireland economics, trade, and the armed forces. These chapters are packed with information, some of it new and most of it helpful. For this reviewer, the real highlights were the discussions of local politics in Kent, the North West and East Anglia, which are skilfully done and eminently persuasive: we know all too little about the rule of the localities under Henry VII, but it is a crucial area, and Cunningham's chapter, which rests on his own research, makes an excellent addition to what can be learned from the works of Christine Carpenter, Tony Pollard, Dominic Luckett, and others. Towards the end of the book, the logic of the treatment becomes rather mysterious-it is not quite clear why the church, trade, and London are the principal constituents of 'The King's Nation', or why 'Projecting Tudor Influence' plays host to the army, Wales, and Ireland-but, as a whole, the second half adds up to a pretty comprehensive picture of politics, government, and political society in the period of the reign.
If there is a central theme to this section, it is perhaps-as Margaret Condon proposed in a famous essay (1 )-the crucial role of councils and councillors in Henry VII's regime. In Cunningham's convincing view, Henry's smallish group of trusted councillors provided him with a network of highly-skilled administrators, who could generate new policy and manage its implementation without intensive royal oversight. Their intimacy with a king who became more remote from the early 1490s made them key figures in the mediation of royal power, enabling them to enrich themselves and direct the affairs of all those who sought royal favour. Their combination of roles-not just go-betweens, policy wonks, and record-keepers, but judges and financial managers-gave them political mastery, and they quickly developed new and connected mechanisms for managing the wider realm: the rapid and flexible justice of council and chancery the use of bonds to enforce compliance and good behaviour a network of royal officers, known to the councillors and bound over to fulfil their roles efficiently, to rule the localities through licensed retinues and the authority derived from connection to the centre. The oppressive tendency of this structure bound its participants together until very late in the reign, when, Cunningham suggests, a group comprising Surrey, Fox, Lovell, and Warham began to distance themselves from the activities of Empson, Dudley, and the Council Learned in the Law. Henry had succeeded in creating a curiously effective and neatly-self-perpetuating power structure-not without costs, as the recurrent dissidence of those beneath and outside it demonstrated, but strong enough to prevail, and to provide the bedrock of the Tudor state.
As a work of synthesis, this book has many strengths-it is learned, moderate, and respectful of the work of other historians: this most controversial of kings is treated in a remarkably uncontroversial way. At the same time, however, it does feel slightly shapeless, and I wonder if the author's desire to avoid argument is part of the problem. Cunningham treads very carefully: the battle of Bosworth might have been here, or it might have been there Perkin Warbeck might have been the man named in his confession, or he might have been someone else, or he might even have been Richard of York Henry VII might have been trying to undermine the power of lords, or he might simply have been trying to manage it better his misfortunes might have arisen from dynastic opposition, or from foreign interference, or from the results of his own policies retaining might have been a menace, or it might have been something the king needed to preserve the king ruled with a group of like-minded councillors, but 'it was entirely Henry VII's personality that shaped and directed the course of the reign' (p. 285). Sometimes these debates do not matter, but, if so, we might reasonably expect to be told that. More often, the situation is genuinely complicated-on the one hand, this on the other, that-and then a clear synthesis of conflicting positions would help us understand. To take the Warbeck example, what the reader really needs to know is that virtually none of his contemporaries could be sure that he was not Richard of York and that, consequently, Henry, his regime, and his opponents had to behave as if they were dealing with the son of the last fully effective and legitimate king of England: this is implicit in Cunningham's treatment, but it is not explicit. Equally, it would have been very helpful to academic historians to see a reasoned response to Christine Carpenter's memorable criticism of Henry VII, as a king ruling a still-medieval polity whose needs he largely failed to understand (2 ). One senses that Cunningham disagrees with this view, but it would have been nice to see him make a case against it. Did Henry misjudge the power-structures of his realm? If he did, why did he? What were the results of these misjudgements, and how much did they matter? Was the realm still 'medieval', in the intended sense of being dominated by networks of aristocratic lordship? Cunningham could answer all these questions, and there are indications of his views throughout the book, but, because questions like these are not posed, or dealt with systematically, there is a certain lack of clarity and conclusiveness in his treatment. Much of this, no doubt, is due to the demands of the series in which the book appears. The blurb for Routledge Historical Biographies promises 'engaging, readable and academically credible biographies', 'accessible accounts [which] will bring important historical figures to life'. This seems to have meant a strict limit on the footnotes, which is a real loss given Cunningham's extensive knowledge of the sources and the substantial amount of fresh material he presents. It also means an emphasis on the personal, in that the king's motivations and experiences have to be placed at the centre of the book and it has probably meant less engagement with the historical and historiographical context of Henry's reign, because 'general readers' are not supposed to find these interesting.
There are two other criticisms I would make along these lines. The first concerns the background to Henry VII's reign. Although Cunningham provides a good account of pre-1485 political events, at least as they bore upon Henry Tudor, his handling of the broader context of the fifteenth century-the workings of the later-medieval polity, the dynamics of the civil wars, the European situation, even the patterns and events of Edward IV's reign-is sketchy and often challengeable. Cunningham talks rather too readily about 'a century [before 1485] of noble squabbling over the crown' (p.4), and the nobility in his account are generally rather a nuisance, squabbling over royal patronage and behaving in an overmighty fashion. While this negative impression is palliated by occasional reminders that 'noble power underpinned so much of royal power' (p. 165), and/or by noting that the nobility could pull together to try to restore order, there is little recognition that the pre-1485 political order could work perfectly well, and no sympathetic explanation of why it was structured as it was. This is a pity, as it was precisely this blind-spot among historians of the later-fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that prompted the medievalists' critique of Henry VII in the 1990s, and it does not tally well with the way that historians of the rest of the fifteenth century think about the polity (Cunningham's statement, on p. 121, that today's historians regard the works of Fortescue as a starting-point for the study of late-medieval political and constitutional ideas is seriously misleading-both historiographically, since most medievalists regard Fortescue as a problematic witness, and historically, as his works were far from neutral and written in the context of prolonged political crisis). In my view, Cunningham does not pay enough attention to why the political system broke down in the 1450s, or to how it developed in the 1460s and 70s. The latter is a surprising omission, given how frequently the reigns of Edward IV and Henry VII have been compared with each other, but it is also an important one, because the polity Henry inherited had been significantly reshaped by recurrent civil war and by the ways in which successive regimes had responded to it. Cunningham makes various references to how Henry VII built on Edward IV's achievements, and/or avoided some of his misjudgements, but he does not give any focused consideration to the changes in royal government and noble power that took place in the Yorkist period, and which help to explain not only the strengths and weaknesses of Henry's situation, but also the solutions he and his ministers adopted. It is not reasonable to call Henry's reign 'the important transition between the political disorder of the Wars of the Roses and the strident, confident Tudor monarchies that followed him' (p. 285) without considering what that political disorder had been about, and what transitions had already taken place before Henry came to rule.
Explaining these disorders and transitions means engaging with underlying structures, and that would be my final criticism of this book: it concentrates more on personalities, conscious motivations, and events than the underlying patterns and frameworks that shape them. Once again, no doubt, this is a consequence of the biographical format, and-to be fair-Cunningham scarcely ignores patterns of cause and effect, and writes shrewdly about both such things as the causes and the consequences of Henry's narrowing circle of friends, or the dilemmas of governing the localities without recourse to unreliable local potentates. But it seems to me that many of these ideas could be taken further, and that insufficient attention has been given to structural factors. I would pick out three of these: the interpenetration of insular, 'British', and European political conflicts the erosion of political confidence by recurrent political instability the interaction of the whole political order-commons and urban elites as well as greater and lesser landowners-with the dynamics of civil war and the policies associated with 'new monarchy'.
As Cliff Davies has pointed out (3 ), the struggles that affected England in the later-fifteenth century were, in part, the product of a process of state-making in the overlapping polities of North-Western Europe. While parts of the political map had certainly solidified by 1485, other parts had not, and the position of Brittany, Ireland, Scotland and much of the area between Normandy and Holland was highly uncertain. The development of powerful state machineries made intervention at the highest level-through pensioned counsellors, dynastic challengers, diplomatic treaties, permanent ambassadors-more important than ever yet the territorial power of regional princes, itself sometimes state-like, meant that it was not only kings who were part of this great game. This larger context must explain Henry VII's travails just as much as the local dynastic cleavage or the king's own policies and their results: Kildare and the other Anglo-Irish lords, the lieutenant of Calais and his establishment, Lincoln and the other de la Poles, Warwick, Bergavenny, and the heirs of Northumberland and Buckingham were part of a complex politics that transcended national boundaries, and their loyalties and calculations must have been forged against that wider canvas too. Cunningham is far from blind to the international context, perceptively casting the Simnel affair as 'the Irish invasion', for instance, and treating Henry's policies towards Wales, Ireland, and foreign powers at some length, but, in my view, he could have done more to explore the interplay of English, British, and European frameworks and the permeability of the boundaries between them: there is a fundamental explanation for the insecurity of the Henrician regime here, and it is not really acknowledged in this book.
Loyalties were challenged from another direction too: the eroding effects of several decades of political instability (Edward IV's achievement having been thwarted by his early death). Cunningham tends to assume that dynastic identities are strong and heartfelt. In his reading, Henry was essentially a Lancastrian and could only attract fragile loyalties from former Yorkists, especially former Ricardians when Yorkist alternatives appeared-Lincoln/Simnel, Warbeck, Warwick, even Suffolk-these men readily returned to their natural allegiance. I think this is a stage too simple. Dynastic associations were certainly not meaningless, because they were woven into social networks and the memories of families, but they must have been heavily qualified-by habits of obedience to the crown (and structures of power and authority which generally made that obedience prudent), by the forging of new relationships, and by changing political circumstances. The blank slate which Henry VII presented to his new kingdom in 1485 was a tremendous asset, as (in a more limited way) it had been to the nineteen-year-old Edward IV in 1461 his mixed court, of old Lancastrians, former Edwardians, and pardoned Ricardians, was a normal and potentially effective power-base. If Henry came to face betrayals by a succession of former Yorkists, this was not because they thought someone else was the true king, but because they were more likely to be approached by plotters, because they feared Henry's mistrust, and/or because they thought his regime might collapse and had to balance the dangers of defying their former associates against the dangers of betraying their vulnerable master. Henry's subjects had lived through decades in which adaptability was essential, and it was this very quality-not deep-seated loyalties-which made them so tricky to manage in the 1480s and 90s. Only when the new dispensation had proved itself unshakeable, and a new generation had grown up under it, would stronger loyalties develop-and then they would tend to focus on the king, as had been the case before the civil wars.
A third general problem facing Henry's regime lay in the complex dialogue between government and political society in what was evidently an era of change for both. In the second half of the fifteenth century, the structures that had supported 'bastard feudal' lordship were breaking down: noble descents and aristocratic networks were many times disrupted the crown became better able to attract and manage gentry allegiances the judicial order was changing. These developments both arose from and stimulated royal policy, and the general effect of all this change was to increase disorder and uncertainty: not only because he was a usurper, but simply because he was king at this time, Henry VII was unable and unwilling to use the traditional means of local rule, and had therefore to pay the price of deploying and developing non-traditional ones. Meanwhile, the systems of taxation and representation hammered out between c.1215 and c.1370 were no longer easily workable. Once again, this was the complex result of royal action and changing circumstances once again, it encouraged or forced the king into devices that destabilized the fiscal and political relationship with the mass of his subjects. Out of all this radical social and political change came the welling dissatisfaction which is apparent not only in the popular risings of 1489 and 1497, but also in the politics of upper-class rebellion and in the policy initiatives of the government and its critics. Henry VII should be neither praised nor blamed for his role in these processes: he was not the genius designer of a new order nor was he a fool who failed to understand that he was ruling a still-medieval polity. Rather, the king and his ministers-for let's remember that this was a joint effort-were men living in a time of rapid and general discursive, ideological, institutional, and socio-political change, and this underlying dynamic should play an important part in explaining both their successes and their failures.
To conclude, then, I think that a more collected analysis of broader structures and dynamics might have increased the value of this book, but it would certainly be wrong to underplay its importance. Sean Cunningham has given us a superb narrative of Henry VII's reign he has brought lots of fresh evidence to light his book is full of thought-provoking insights and ideas and he has particularly striking things to say about the localities, bonds and recognisances, and the politics of London. His Henry VII is a hefty achievement, and a goldmine for anyone interested in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Here are seven things you might not know about the first Tudor monarch:
The Welsh believed he would fulfil a prophecy
‘When the bull comes from the far land to battle with his great ashen spear,
To be an earl again in the land of Llewelyn,
Let the far-splitting spear shed the blood of the Saxon on the stubble . . .
When the long yellow summer comes and victory comes to us
And the spreading of the sails of Brittany,
And when the heat comes and when the fever is kindled,
There are portents that victory will be given to us . . .’
So sang the Welsh bards in 1485, who longed for Henry Tudor to return to the ‘land of his fathers’ as the long-promised hero who would fulfil the prophecy of Myrddin (Merlin) and deliver the Welsh people from their Saxon oppressor. Though he was born in Pembroke Castle into the Welsh Tudor family, Henry’s Welshness has often been over-exaggerated, but Henry himself was conscious of the political advantages of polishing his image as the descendant of the ‘ancient Kings of Brytaine and Princes of Wales’.
His claim to the throne was tenuous
Henry became King of England because he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and declared himself king. His claim to the English throne by blood was weak.
Henry was a nephew of the previous Lancastrian king, Henry VI, but they were related not by Henry V’s bloodline, but by Catherine of Valois’ second marriage to Owen Tudor. Catherine of Valois had been Queen consort of England as the wife of Henry V, but after Henry’s death her affair with Owen Tudor, who was probably appointed keeper of Catherine’s household or wardrobe, led to the birth of Henry VII’s father, Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond. There is no evidence that Owen and Catherine were ever married, making Henry VII’s claim to the throne as a legitimate heir even more tenuous.
Through his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was 13 years old and seven months pregnant with Henry when her husband, Edmund Tudor, died, Henry was also a descendant of Edward III. The Beauforts were descended from John of Gaunt, Edward III’s son and founder of the House of Lancaster, and his third marriage to his long-term mistress, Katherine Swynford. In fact the Beauforts were born outside of wedlock, and later legitimised by Richard II and the Church but barred from inheriting the throne.
Ultimately, Henry understood the importance of a legitimate heir.
He used the Welsh flag as we now know it for the first time
Henry flew the red dragon of Cadwaladr during his invasion of England, using his Welsh ancestry to gather support and gain safe passage through Wales on his way to meet Richard III at Bosworth. A dragon had previously been used by Owain Glyndŵr during his revolts against the English crown, and Henry was related to Glyndŵr: his ancestor, Marged ferch Tomas, was the sister of Glyndŵr’s mother, Elen ferch Tomas.
After Bosworth Henry carried the red dragon standard in state to St Paul’s Cathedral. Later the Tudor livery of green and white, still there today, were added to the flag.
His marriage was a genuinely happy one
Unlike his infamous heir, Henry VIII, Henry VII had only one marriage that grew into a marriage of genuine love. Elizabeth of York was the ideal Queen consort for Henry, joining the Houses of Lancaster and York and ensuring any of their heirs were directly, legitimately descended from the Plantagenet monarchs.
Unfortunately we know very little about Elizabeth of York compared to other Tudor queens – we’ll never know how she felt marrying the man who defeated her own uncle in battle, or how she felt when Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel claimed to be her lost brothers – but there is no record of Henry ever taking a mistress, and the two had a total of seven children during their 17 years of marriage. When Elizabeth died in 1503, Henry, who usually refrained from showing any emotion for fear of appearing weak, was inconsolable and refused to allow anyone but his mother near him.
He wasn’t a war-hungry king
Despite winning his crown on the battlefield, Henry was a king of wits and planning rather than brawn. His whole life was an education in politics and understanding the differences behind what people said and what they meant. Having started a new dynasty and aware of its tenuous foundations, Henry’s goals were fixed on forming profitable alliances with the other royal houses of Europe, arranging Prince Arthur’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and securing an alliance to the north when he married his daughter, Margaret Tudor, to James IV of Scotland.
He’s partially to blame for Henry VIII’s tyranny
Henry VII has been remembered as a serious and miserly king who was paranoid about the continuation of the Tudor dynasty, particularly when his first son and heir, Prince Arthur, died in 1502 at only 15 years old. His remaining heir, the future Henry VIII, was subsequently kept under constant surveillance of either Henry himself or Margaret Beaufort. It’s no wonder, then, that once Henry VII died in April 1509 and Henry VIII ascended to the throne as a fresh-faced 18-year-old that he spent his early years throwing off all restraint with the intention of enjoying himself using his father’s money.
Unfortunately, Henry never quite grew out of that mindset of throwing a tantrum when he didn’t get what he wanted. Unlike his brother, whom Henry VII had schooled in how to run a kingdom, Henry VIII had been raised with his sisters under Elizabeth of York’s care – in fact there are enough similarities between their handwriting to suggest that Elizabeth taught Henry to write herself – and had grown used to being the centre of attention there. He was 11 years old when his mother died nine days after giving birth to her last child, a daughter named Katherine, in an attempt to provide another male heir. Not only was Elizabeth perhaps the last example of a medieval queen, a woman none of Henry VIII’s six wives would be able to live up to, but her death and Henry VII’s paranoia about having no male heirs would have impressed the importance of a male heir on him from a very young age.
Henry even replicated his own father’s parenting behaviour when Jane Seymour finally provided him with a son in 1537, the future Edward VI, who was molly-coddled and ultimately grew into a sickly child who, like Prince Arthur before him, died at 15 years old.
His marriage bed was rediscovered in 2010
In 2010 Henry VII’s ‘first state bed’ was found by chance in the car park of a hotel in Chester, having been dismantled and discarded. Though the bed’s origins remain a matter of academic debate, dendrochronology confirms that the wood was cut in Germany in the late 15th century. With the headboard depicting Henry VII and Elizabeth of York as Adam and Eve, symbolising their hopes for an heir, there is evidence to suggest that it was created at the time of their marriage on 18 January 1486. If this is the bed that Prince Arthur and Henry VIII were conceived in, it’s value could be as much as £20 million.
Photographing Lowly Cowboys, Warrior Kings and Ancient Egyptian Royalty
Matt Loughrey is a 41-year-old graphic artist living in Ireland who runs a creative studio and the website mycolorfulpast.com, which says it is “bridging a gap between history and art” using digital editing technology to recreate historical figures.
Stages of restoration to King Henry VII death mask. (Courtesy of Matt Loughrey / My Colorful Past )
In an exclusive interview with Ancient Origins, Matt said in 2014 he began looking at how to “repurpose historical photography using colorization, and he began programming and familiarizing himself with new techniques. Matt said the main obstacle was locating “realism and therein relatability,” however, after five years, his work caught the attention of a writer at National Geographic and My Colorful Past became reality with the collection currently being featured in American schools, as well as across museums and libraries the world over.
Among the artist’s recreations are historical giants like Mary Queen of Scots , Billy the Kid and Jessie James, but in the spectacular collection is the bust of King Henry VII of England, who looks almost like a Roman emperor with an elongated Roman nose, tilted upwards, perhaps ‘over’ the people of England. And it was after recreating the face of King Henry VII that the artist felt confident enough to trace back further in time and give attention to the faces of royal Egyptian mummies.
Left: Restoration and color work in progress to the 3,307-year-old mummified face of pharaoh Menmaatre Seti I. Right: Close up of bringing to life the 3,345-year-old face of Tutahkhamun. (Courtesy of Matt Loughrey / My Colorful Past )
In the world of professional historical recreations there is a faction of specialists, generally jealous of artists such as Matt, who might argue that facial colorings and hair patterns are all subjective, and that maybe King Henry VII had a mustache or a beard. However, Matt has all this covered and the process of applying different skin colorings, hair styles or facial hair is but the press of a button away as everything is built on individual layers, which can be switched on or off on demand.
Artist Matt Loughrey’s reconstruction of the bust of King Henry VII of England. Death & life masks require clear skin in order for the wax layer to be formed. (Courtesy of Matt Loughrey / My Colorful Past )
The death of Henry VII
King Henry VII died on 21st April 1509 at Richmond Palace. He’d not been well since the spring of 1507 when it was feared that he would die of a severe throat infection. In fact he’d been taken ill shortly after Prince Arthur’s death in 1502 at which point there must have been real concern for the stability of the Tudor succession but he survived long enough for his remaining son to reach maturity. In 1508 Starkey noted that Henry VII suffered from an acute rheumatic fever followed by “a loss of appetite and bouts of depression”. He was ill again at the beginning of 1509. It is thought to have been tuberculosis. His funeral effigy made from his death mask shows a man made old by illness and the burdens of kingship not to mention all those Yorkist plots and rebellions.
On the 20th April, Henry VII summoned his confessor to administer the last rites. He died on the 21 st April surrounded by clerics including his confessor Richard Fox the Bishop of Winchester, ushers and members of his household as well as three doctors who can be identified by the urine bottles that they are holding.
News of Henry’s death remained a secret until the 23 rd of April when seventeen-year-old Henry was proclaimed King Henry VIII. The reason for the secrecy was to ensure a smooth transition of government. Whilst two de la Pole brothers were in the Tower another, Richard, was abroad plotting Yorkist plots. There was also Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and possible claimant to the crown.
As Hutchinson says, for forty-four hours there was rather a lot of activity ranging from summoning councilors who then began thrashing out the format that government would take to playing hunt the old king’s treasure. £180,000 was secured and accounted for. The king who took the throne and found an empty treasury had become a very wealthy monarch indeed: not popular but wealthy. It’s perhaps not surprising that one of the first things that Henry VIII did was to have Henry VII’s tax collectors Empson and Dudley attainted of constructive treason and executed.
As for the format of Henry VIII’s government, well, he was seventeen. He would come of age when he was eighteen in June. Earlier medieval monarchs had ruled from younger ages but times had changed. Margaret Beaufort, her son’s informal and constant advisor, was the chief executor of Henry VII’s will. She was also the oldest member of the royal family. If you were picky about it you could also argue that because England had no salic law prohibiting women from the crown it was she rather than her son who ought to have been crowned in the first place. Now, she set about advising her grandson on who his councilors ought to be. It would appear that Henry VIII took his grandmother’s advice. Margaret died the day after Henry came of age.
Meanwhile Henry VII’s ministers were still popping in for a chat with their old master, guards still stood at the door to his chamber (for rather obvious reasons), trumpets were being blown and food tasted for the monarch who was well passed the need to have his meals checked for poison. To all casual viewers it was service as normal. Whenever the new king put in an appearance he was still addressed as Prince Henry. Official business was conducted in the name of Henry VII.
However, someone somewhere must have looked a bit more fraught than usual because the Spanish ambassador certainly had an idea that something was afoot and he wanted to know what it would mean for Katherine of Aragon who was living a strange half life as a penniless princess whilst her father and father-in-law argued about finances and marriages. In London panicky merchants were seen out and about but when all was said and done there was a smooth swap of monarchs – the first time peaceful transition had occurred since the Wars of the Roses began. Being rather arbitrary about it, since May 1455 (dated to the First Battle of St Albans).
The drawing at the start of this post was made by Sir Thomas Wriothesley for his book of funerals. It is held by the British Library. Double click on the image to open up a new window with more information about the people in the image and about Sir Thomas.
Hutchinson, Robert (2012) Young Henry: The Rise of Henry VIII. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Norton, Elizabeth. (2011) Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty. Stroud: Amberley Publishing
Starkey, David. (2009) Henry: Virtuous Prince. London: Harper Press
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