The Tudors: Henry VII (1485-1509)

From out of the darkness and strife of civil war, late 15th century England emerged stable, intact, and full of hope in a new ruling family: The Tudors. The thirty years of civil war, known as The Wars of the Roses, had torn the country apart in an unraveling political struggle that finally ended with the death of Richard III. At their zenith, the Plantagenets were the conquering victors at the battles of Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. However, in their twilight the Plantagenets descended into madness and infighting. Two rival Plantagenet branches stemming from Edward III (the Houses of York and Lancaster) slaughtered each other mercilessly for decades until, in the end, the House of York under Richard III finally destroyed itself, and with it went the rule of a once noble dynasty. It was a fitting end for the warrior kings of England.

The arrival of the Tudors promised a new path forward. It was the dawn of the sixteenth century, a burgeoning era filled with promise, hope, and reconciliation. All across Europe, the turn of the century hailed a remarkable age of transformation. It was a time of exploration and inquiry, reformation and rebirth, technological upheaval and new ways of thinking. Old feudal monarchies gave way to new empires, nascent universities suddenly sprung up on the continent, and a rising middle class of tradesmen replaced the peonage of yesteryear. Intellectually, scholars shifted away from ecclesiastical ideology and looked toward a new Renaissance humanism, premised on a “rebirth” and rediscovery of classical antiquity. One of those great Renaissance minds was Erasmus of Rotterdam, a Dutch humanist-turned-traveling Augustinian monk who is credited with bringing the Renaissance to England (he became a professor at Cambridge University).

Upon the ashes of Imperial Rome the Christian Church had long established its throne, but in the coming century, the Church’s vast rule over Europe was beginning to crumble. In Rome, the power of the papacy was called into question amidst the controversial sale of “indulgences” to remit souls -either living or dead- from Purgatory. Educated men of the time saw the sale of indulgences as a cynical ploy to line the Church’s coffers. One of those skeptics was Martin Luther, a German monk who famously nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of Wittenberg Church in 1517. This seemingly unceremonious act of rebellion sparked an unexpected torrent. It spread rapidly across the continent thanks, in part, to the proliferation of the printing press in the mid-1400s. Martin Luther’s theses officially spawned The Protestant Reformation, a movement for religious liberation from the constricting governance of the Church of Rome. Other leaders like Zwingli and Calvin also emerged to propound a new path forward for Christian theology. However, with each popular movement came a necessary bulwark of reaction and obstinance. In this case it was the Catholic Counter-Reformation. While the new Protestants believed in redemption “through faith alone,” the counter-reformers sought to uphold the established Catholic institutions. The religious schism quickly spread across Europe leading to civil strife in nearly every country, and it eventually caused the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire (which dissolved into a series of principalities). By the middle of the century, the Calvinist Protestants had emerged as the leading faction against Rome, while the Catholic Jesuits defended the Church with the sword. The fruits of the Reformation were long-lasting and would not be resolved until the end of the Thirty Years War and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

The coming of the 16th century truly ushered in a brave new world. Not only was there a great opening of religious, technological, and intellectual possibilities, but also the veil of mystery that had once extended over foreign lands was being lifted to the delight of the European mind. Italian geographers, Dutch merchants, Portuguese voyagers, English pirates, and Spanish seafarers began exploring new lands that were hitherto unknown. Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in 1488, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492, John Cabot was commissioned by Henry VII to explore the coast of North America in 1497, Vasco de Gama uncovered a route to India in 1499, and in 1519 Magellan circumnavigated the earth. The globe was shrinking and a new royal family of England was primed to embody this new ethos.

A depiction of the Tudor Rose from a portrait of Sir Thomas More

The Tudors were Welsh by bloodline. They descended from the Northern Welsh community of Penmynydd in Anglesey. Henry Tudor’s father was Edmund Tudor who died three months before Henry was born (Edmund was captured by the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses. He died of the plague while in captivity). Henry’s paternal grandfather was Owen Tudor, a war hero of the Battle of Agincourt during the reign of Henry V. When the king’s life was tragically cut short, Owen became a squire in the house of the Queen where he was rumored to have secretly married the widowed Queen Catherine (Henry VII’s grandmother). On his mother’s side, Henry’s mother, Margaret of Beaufort, was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt through his third wife, Catherine Swynford (John of Gaunt was the fourth son of Edward III). Therefore, Henry did have a connection to the royal bloodline, but it was not direct and, needless to say, Henry VII’s claim to the throne was tenuous at best, but many English noblemen were ready for an end to the fratricidal Plantagenets.

As a boy, Henry Tudor was cared for by various members of his family -first by Sir William Herbert and then by the guardianship of his uncle, Jasper Tudor. In 1483, Henry fled in exile to Brittany with his uncle following a failed rebellion against Richard III. By 1485, supporters of Henry were spurred on by Henry’s mother, Margaret, and they set their sights on the throne of England. Promises were made and high hopes were placed on the shoulders of young Henry Tudor. He became the man who might unite the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster. Henry promised to marry Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, thus uniting the two houses of Lancaster and York (Henry and Elizabeth were technically third cousins). The promise of unity brought otherwise dissident Yorkists to Henry’s side. In 1485, Henry and his uncle Jasper, with the support of France, invaded England and despite being highly outnumbered, they defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485 near Leicestershire. Henry became the last King of England to win the crown on the field of battle.

1505 Flemish portrait of Henry VII holding a flower and donning in the Order of the Golden Fleece

After defeating Richard III, Henry VII was crowned king two months later on October 30, 1485 (he was careful to anchor the legitimacy of his kingship on the merits of conquest, not on paternal succession nor parliamentary appointment). In January 1486 Henry officially married Elizabeth of York. It was to be a most happy and loving marriage for the King and Queen. The new Tudor monarchy created a unique royal iconography based on the blending of the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster: now simply called the “Tudor Rose.” Elizabeth bore Henry a son in 1486 and they named him “Arthur” -a public nod to the heroic era of Roman Britain. The selection of the name “Arthur” as the king’s heir was deliberately intended to stir patriotism in the people’s hearts, as well as a longing for a new Arthurian age. Elizabeth bore Henry three additional children: Margaret (the future Queen of Scots), Henry (the future Henry VIII), and Mary (the future Queen of France).

Despite a few remaining disaffected Yorkists who had lost their inheritance from the Wars of the Roses, Henry VII’s reign was mostly secure. Much of Henry’s kingship was modeled on unification and reconciliation, however he nevertheless banished Elizabeth Woodville to Bermondsey Abbey where she died in 1492 (Elizabeth was the controversial and unpopular Queen of Edward IV), and also Henry successfully quelled several Yorkist uprisings in the countryside. The unity of England was still somewhat fractious in Henry’s early reign. England also faced the north-south divide. The south was filled with prosperous businesses and towns, especially the wool traders whose continental commerce relied on trade with Flanders and Italy. These businesses were hurt during the Wars of the Roses and they formed the core of support for Henry VII. Meanwhile the lawless north remained somewhat true to Richard III and various odd conspiracy theories perpetuated among the commoners regard the late king.

In the Autumn of 1496 there was another rebellion, this time led by a ghostly figure in English history. The leader of the rebellion was a man claiming to be Richard duke of York (the younger of the two princes who were locked in the Tower by Richard III). He claimed to have escaped death at the hands of his uncle Richard III only to rise up and rightfully claim his throne. However, the fraud was soon exposed. This man’s true name was Perkin Warbeck, and his uprising was supported by the Scots. At Henry’s request, parliament reluctantly funded an army to march north and fight the fraudulent ‘Richard,’ however the taxes levied on Englishmen to raise the army spawned another rebellion, this time a Cornish revolt in the south. With the country in open rebellion from the north to the south, stability in England was under threat. Queen Elizabeth took her son, Arthur, and sought refuge in the Tower of London. Thankfully, Henry beat back the Cornish rebellion and Perkin Warbeck was then captured and executed on October 5, 1497. It was a troubling lesson for Henry VII who elected rarely to convene parliament during his remaining years in power.

Who was the man Henry VII? He was said to be a cold and calculating man; tall, stoic, and fiercely strong (this comes down to us from Polydore Vergil, an Italian chronicler who knew Henry well in his later years). On Henry VII’s governance Winston Churchill says: “Henry VII as a statesman was imbued with the new, ruthless political ideas of Renaissance Europe. He strove to establish a strong monarchy in England, moulded out of native institutions. Like his contemporary, Lorenzo de Medici, in Florence, Henry worked almost always by adaptation, modifying old forms ever so slightly, rather than by crude innovation. Without any constitutional change administration was established again on a firm basis” (228).

Today, Henry VII is often remembered as the “winter king” -he is portrayed as a flawed and paranoid man who reduced the role of kingship to that of a greedy, profiteering landlord. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that Henry VII was a capable administrator. He trusted no one with the royal ledger and managed the funds dutifully. Henry VII’s top priority was in either securing the government’s budget, or the crown’s finances. He was the nation’s foremost businessman, and a corps of civil servants worked round the clock to meet his strict demands. Henry managed the royal ledger with a remarkable degree of care and oversight. Like a diligent accountant he checked every single entry (hardly the regal actions of a king but it nevertheless stocked the royal coffers for the next generation). Rather than striving to become a battle-hardened warrior-king, like Henry V, Henry VII was mathematical and guarded; the kingship was run as a private business for the king and his family. Revenue ruled the day.

Elizabeth of York (a 16th century copy of a 15th century portrait)

In addition to Henry’s early victories over the lingering Yorkist rebellions, his efforts soon led to a remarkably lasting peace at home, as well as peace abroad: peace with France in 1492, peace with the Holy Roman Emperor in 1496, and peace with Scotland in 1499 -in fact, Henry married his daughter, Margaret, to the Scottish King James IV in 1503. Peace also came with Spain when Henry married his eldest son, Arthur, to Catherine of Aragon in 1501, however tragedy soon struck when Arthur died the following year (perhaps of tuberculosis). A devastated Henry arranged for his surviving son, Henry (the future Henry VIII), to marry the widowed Catherine of Aragon in an effort to maintain the Spanish alliance. Two years later the king’s beloved wife, Elizabeth, died in childbirth at the age of 37. Henry was utterly shattered. From this moment on, Henry’s character and his kingship were transformed by grief. He never again remarried nor took any known mistresses. In his later years, onlookers commented on the visage of the king which appeared withered, distant, and austere.

After ruling for twenty-four years Henry VII died on April 21, 1509 at the age of 52. He was buried beside his beloved wife in the magnificent Lady Chapel, the ornate Gothic corridor of Westminster Abbey which was later commissioned by Henry VII.

Winston Churchill offers a favorable glimpse into the final days of Henry VII: “When he died in 1509, Henry VII had ruled for nearly a quarter of a century. His skill and wisdom in transmuting medieval institutions into the organs of modern rule have not been questioned. His achievement was indeed massive and durable. He built his power amid the ruins and ashes of his predecessors. He thriftily and carefully gathered what seemed in those days a vast reserve of liquid wealth. He trained a body of efficient servants. He magnified the Crown without losing the co-operation of the Commons. He identified prosperity with monarchy. Among the princes of Renaissance Europe he is not surpassed in achievement and fame by Louis XI of France or Ferdinand of Spain” (229).

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Francis Bacon’s History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh, and Polydore Vergil Anglica Historia.

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