Home » A Year With The Tudors

Worthy of a Tale or Two

They captivate our imagination, and they inhabit our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will examine their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the eighth installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.

In order to deal with King Henry VII (and how could “A Year with the Tudors” avoid him, even if it wanted to?), we’re going to have to deal with some topics that seem less than thrilling. So let’s make a deal, you and I, shall we? If you promise to bear with me when the going looks rough, I’ll do my best to make it all interesting. Agreed? Good! (Henry VII, consummate deal-maker that he was, would have approved). The first and worst of those topics is the Wars of the Roses, God help us all. As many of you may know, that’s the term for the protracted civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster that wracked England for a generation, decimated the ranks of the nobility, emptied the treasury at Westminster, and weakened the power of the king. This was the last era of the “over mighty subject,” when great members of the landed gentry amassed their own private armies and were only nominally under the control of the monarchy. Once these nobles got a taste of that kind of power, they were unwilling to relinquish it, and even royal alliances were tenuous at best. The fundamental change had come about when Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Lancaster, forcibly took the crown from Richard II in 1399 and ruled as Henry IV; as historians of the period have pointed out, this kind of coup de main could only give ideas to future aspirants, legitimate or otherwise. Henry IV’s son Henry V, the great victor of Agincourt, was a strong enough king to stave off such attempts, but he left behind a baby with a regency council – an irresistible temptation to any would-be kingdom-coveter.

Miraculously, that regency council, contrary to the custom of regency councils since time immemorial, didn’t screw things up; they kept young Edward’s kingdom intact and running smoothly until such a time as the boy, as King Henry VI, was old enough to screw things up for himself. In the meantime, however, the Lancastrian nobles who’d been his tutors and guardians had enjoyed unfettered power in the land which, as noted, isn’t an easy pleasure to give up. Yorkist malcontents, led by the Earl of Warwick, put forward Edward, Duke of York, as a rival claimant to the throne, and after much clash of arms he ruled as King Edward IV, with his shifty-eyed brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as his strong right hand. Edward and Richard set about marginalizing or eliminating all viable Lancastrian figureheads, until pretty much the only one left was young Henry Tudor, who found it expedient to flee the country and take up a malcontent’s life himself, first in Brittany and then in France. Back in England, King Edward’s future looked bright: he was tall and handsome, brilliant on the battlefield and beloved by the common folk; he had a spirited, intelligent wife, a pair of fine, healthy boys, and a militarily capable brother in whom he placed every confidence. The House of York looked to rule for generations. Then Edward died unexpectedly, and ol’ shifty-eyes sidled forward, headed an army, went to London – and the rest you’ve probably read in Josephine Tey’s popular novel The Daughter of Time. Richard took Edward’s two young sons into a “protective custody” from which neither of them emerged alive, and shortly thereafter he himself became King Richard III, which pleased nobody – not Lancastrians, of course, not Yorkists, it turns out, nor even, in all likelihood, Richard himself. Probably the person it pleased least was young Henry Tudor, brooding in Brittany, frustrated in France.

The idea of trying to usurp the throne from Richard would never have occurred to Henry if Richard’s position hadn’t been so fundamentally weak, but it was, and so it did; Henry marshaled a strong little band of military supporters and landed at Milford Haven in 1485. He didn’t garner sweeping popular support as he marched toward London, but by the same token, Richard didn’t garner it either, as he marched out to defend his crown. During the resultant battle of Bosworth Field, several of Richard’s nobles threw their support behind Henry, and when Richard saw this, some vestige of the straightforward soldier he’d once been (before his fingers came within itching-distance of a crown) re-asserted itself, and he threw himself into the heart of the fighting, cutting down a handful of the men who’d betrayed him before being cut down himself. He was the last King of England to die in battle.

The Battle of Bosworth Field, by Graham Turner

Such, in brief, was the Wars of the Roses. Briefer still we can deal with Henry VII’s right to the throne. He had two claims, each more than a little ridiculous. The first was through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, who was the great-granddaughter of King Edward III’s son John of Gaunt by his longtime mistress Katherine Swynford. The children of that union had been made legitimate by an official act once John married Katherine, but the descendants of the line were forbidden the throne. Thin stuff indeed, but in late medieval politics, any descent from the great King Edward III was better than none at all. The second claim was through his father, Edmund Tudor, whose father Owen’s broad back and burning orange hair had won him the favors of Queen Catherine deValois, the widow of Henry V and the mother of Henry VI. When Henry V died, Catherine shocked polite society by marrying strapping Owen – an act which later allowed Henry VII to refer to Henry VI as his uncle. As noted, more than a little ridiculous. Historians have often remarked that when Henry Tudor took the crown from Richard at Bosworth Field, there were then living in the land at least ten men with an indisputably greater claim to that crown. There is every evidence Henry felt this deeply (though of course he never admitted it); the early years of his reign are filled with the kind of trumpeting and posturing that could only be done by a man who knew he didn’t have an incontestable right to be where he was. Incontestable except in the way that matters most: Henry Tudor’s right to the throne derived from the fact that he took it from Richard and managed to keep it from everybody else. As Francis Bacon writes in his irenic and weirdly hypnotic The History of the Reign of King Henry VII, “the crown takes away all defects and stops in blood.”

Having dealt with the Wars of the Roses and some extremely attenuated genealogy, you might think we’ve endured the worst that Henry VII’s reign can send our way, and in the short term, you’d be right. Henry’s tenure on the throne was marked by a very deliberate increase in the splendor of the king. He spent elaborately on displays and shows, including a veritable mountain of precious gems (as the always-pithy Tudor historian Christopher Morris points out, jewels were a good investment: “They were also a highly portable form of wealth, and the king may have remembered that he might one day be forced to pack in a hurry and flee his realm”). Henry insisted on every last honor and formality due the king, and he set his court to the standard of magnificence he had observed on the Continent, as an exile in Brittany and France (he certainly didn’t learn it from the ancient practices of his own ancestral Welsh kings, who spat on the floor, blew snots by pressing a finger to one side of the nose, and slept with their dogs by the hearth every night) . Edward IV had been too amiable a man for such pomp and prerogative, and Richard III had been too busy being shifty-eyed, but Henry wanted the king to be the first man in the land, a power and a presence that would be unassailable, now that he himself had successfully assailed it. He insisted on every royal right assigned to him by feudalism, the so-called ‘bastard feudalism’ that had grown up in response to modern sociological pressures, and every prerogative any previous king who’d ever sat in his place. What this mainly boiled down to was money, and that’s the next potentially slumberous subject we must deal with.

For Henry was born in Wales and spent most of his formative years as an exile dependant on the generosity of others. And while this did not make him the miser his detractors throughout history have pictured, it did render him hypersensitive to his own financial security. He didn’t gather riches to himself for riches’ sake; he did it to strengthen a throne made dangerously weak by decades of internecine strife. Take for example that bedrock of any financial superstructure: land. Lackadaisical, slipshod, and otherwise dilatory practices had reduced the crown’s land revenues as low as 2,000 pounds a year by 1485. Even in the fifteenth century, that wasn’t enough to keep cutlery on the royal table, and it forced Henry to borrow money in the early years of his reign – through international loans and through the summoning of parliaments (he had only a handful in his twenty five year reign, mostly concentrated at its beginning). A lifetime as a fugitive had imparted to his personality a certain reserve (as Bacon puts it, “he had a fashion rather to create doubts than assurance”), but even across the centuries it’s easy to see how little he liked such expedients.

Fortunately for him, the ultimate remedy was sitting there waiting to be used. The king in medieval England sat at the top of a great and wide pyramid whose spiritual function was to delineate the shape of earthly power flowing from God on down to the lowest peasant. But the temporal function of that entire edifice was to generate heaps and heaps of money for any king strong enough and nervy enough to make sure it did so. Edward III had been such a king, and his phantom-descendant Henry proved himself equally adept.Which brings us, as warned, to the subject of Henry VII’s royal finances. Like everything else about his reign, it’s a subject unavailing of drama (apparently, invading the country, usurping the throne, and seizing the crown from the king in battle used up all the drama allotted to Henry). Morris puts it impeccably when writing about Henry’s achievements:

They were undoubtedly great but they are not spectacular, they are a little elusive, they are not always edifying and they are mainly negative. He avoided bankruptcy; he avoided disorder; he avoided war; he avoided national humiliation; above all, he avoided losing his throne.

Certainly there was nothing spectacular about the ways in which Henry revamped his finances, except maybe the sheer thoroughness with which he did so (it’s an oddly chilling sight, to look at the account ledgers from late in the reign and see the king’s check-marks next to every entry and sum – it’s not only unthinkable that Henry VIII would ever do such a thing, it’s unthinkable that Elizabeth would ever do such a thing). There was nothing revolutionary in what he did: as noted, the mechanism was already in place. Rents were set out and could be collected (and increased); nobles could be fined, sometimes extraordinarily, for violations of their carefully prescribed feudal duties (nobles could also make enormous payments to preclude fines, or in lieu of fines, or to postpone fines, and so on); the letter of the statutes, observed in the nation’s courts big and small, could yield profits at every drawn-out stage of the law’s delays. All that was needed was a king with the will to enforce every jot of the available legislation (and maybe embellish a few of those jots along the way). In Henry VII England found such a king. The crown resumed the take of its cut from every transaction, refusal of transaction, and suggestion of transaction from Portsmouth to the marches of Wales, and by the early 1490s Henry was in a position to lend money rather than borrow it. He could largely dispense with parliament and, as he put it, “live on his own.” How he lived has been a source of consternation to writers on the Tudor era from his age to ours – indeed, it’s reached out a hand faintly redolent of the lamp and the library even to this yearlong series, inevitably hinting at comparisons with his children and grandchildren and thereby making our sojourn among the years of his own life seem like some kind of schoolbook duty. In the hindsight of history Henry VII seems so parental, so staid and cautious, that we grow impatient to hear of favorites raised high only to be cast down (so far as we know, Henry had no favorites and very few friends, mostly drawn from the slim number who landed at Milford Haven with him), of headstrong wars fought in France and the Netherlands (“A fame of war he liked well, but not an achievement” the chronicler tells us, accurately if unhelpfully in this regard), even of catastrophic misjudgements (as far as we know, he made none – his judgement was bleakly, relentlessly perfect).

The fault is Francis Bacon’s. Disgraced and banished from London (on charges of accepting bribes, which he did, although since everybody did it hardly blackens his character; the King remitted his fine, and his friends sent him books), Bacon in 1621 wrote his History of the Reign of King Henry VII to amuse himself, to show King James his industry, and to blunt the sting of social disgrace. Exactly what James (who was a dribbling half-wit) made of the book we’ll likely never know, but it had a walloping great effect on the succeeding two centuries of English historians, most of whom took at face value Bacon’s portrait of a suspicious, miserly, straitlaced Henry who mistrusted everybody. “Partly through valour and partly through an universal suspicion (not knowing whom to trust) he was ever ready to wait upon all his achievements in person,” Bacon tells us, in a fairly typical aside. And more damningly still, Bacon baldly asserts, “For his pleasures, there is no news of them.”

To put it mildly, Bacon was no fool; rather, he was the first true English historian, the first person to even attempt a systematic assessment and utilization of what we would consider source material. Before his

Portrait of Francis Bacon from The History of the Reign of Henry VII, 1627 Paris Edition

book on Henry VII, English history is a fascinating but methodogically barren parade of chronicles, freak births, agriculture records, and saints’ lives. In his book, like an ungainly fawn stumbling only moments after birth, historical rigor is being born before our eyes. “Therefore we shall make our judgment upon the things themselves,” he tells, “as they give light one to another, and (as we can) dig truth out of the mine.” But baby steps are necessarily small, and although Bacon almost certainly had access to state records (and perhaps a few lingering eye witnesses) from Henry VII’s reign, he was trying to paint a portrait of a sober, responsible king – it suited his purposes that no man should know of that king’s pleasures, and so they’re absent from Bacon’s book. The magnificence of that book’s prose gave its caricature an amazingly strong afterlife, but we have access to those same state records, and they paint a different picture, largely because Henry wasn’t free with money and so noted every little expense.

There are quite a few expenses that derive from those pleasures no man heard of: he was fond of minstrels and players, of dancers and acrobats, of falconers and mountebanks, of conversations with all manner of fascinating people from far-flung ports of call (he was willing to pay six pounds for an interview with a “stranger from Constantinople,” for instance. His entertainments were lavish of food and drink, and his library was an ever-growing labor of love. He paid for roses and amber and rare spices; he famously paid for lions and leopards to install at the Tower. Such were not the actions of a dry statistician, though Bacon chose to ignore them. History has yet to fully right Bacon’s assessment (a great new full-dress biography is needed), but there is one subject on which both Bacon and all subsequent historians have been in lockstep unison: Henry VII in his twenty-five years on the throne faced more pretenders than all his successors combined. Partly this was natural: he’d taken the crown by force from a young king with plenty of relatives still living. That crowded playing-field, coupled with Henry’s personal predilection for mercy (“his manner was to send his pardons rather before the sword than after,” Bacon tells us), plus the fact that Edward IV’s two sons vanished and were never declared dead, made the ground fertile for imposters.

Two gained more currency than the rest. The first, a pretty little boy named Lambert Simnel, was coached at the age of 10 by an Oxford-trained priest with dreams of grandeur. Simnel was originally put forward as Richard, the younger of Edward IV’s vanished boys, and then as the Earl of Warwick, since Simnel’s handlers had heard the Earl had escaped from the Tower. Yorkist sympathizers mustered support for Simnel in Ireland (where he was actually crowned). Henry dug the real Warwick out of his hole in the Tower and displayed him for the crowds in London, but it didn’t matter: Simnel’s supporters still had to be defeated in battle, at Stoke in 1487. Henry spared the boy and put him to work in the royal scullery, but only three years later support swelled behind another well-behaved young man, Perkin Warbeck, also claiming to be young Richard. Warbeck was older than Simnel had been and an entirely more credible threat to Henry. He gained the recognition of the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of Scotland, and he raised a force to invade England. Henry crushed that attempt as well, at Taunton in 1497, accepting Warbeck’s surrender (Henry kept him alive until 1499, when he was hanged for his alleged involvement in another conspiracy). The last years of Henry’s reign were free of such claimants, although not free of other heartbreak. His firstborn son Arthur died unexpectedly, his firstborn daughter died at birth and his wife shortly after, and perhaps understandably his own health was never the same again. The England he took by force he safeguarded past threats of war and further usurpation, past the specter of bankruptcy, past the international relegation as a backwater, and especially past the looming possibility of a return of the Wars of the Roses. These were enormous achievements, every bit on par with breaking Rome’s hold or repelling an Armada, though not as glamorous. Bacon tells us that Henry’s “worth may bear a tale or two,” but the man himself was old before his time when he died in 1509. His country was wealthy and peaceful when he died, and his healthy young son Henry was his undisputed heir. He lies in Westminster Abbey, and the nation he midwived bustles constantly around him, heedless of the debt. There are worse royal legacies, even among his mighty brood.

In 1831, Steve Donoghue became the first Westerner to travel to Bokhara, where he was kept in splendor by the Emir Nasrullah Khan. When the Russians began to annex central Asia, he relocated to the United States with a trunk full of precious gems, and today he bides his time by hosting the literary blog Stevereads.

One Comment »

  • John says:

    Nice extract Steve, as a University student of early british history I found this both entertaining and informative. It’s a good modern post revisionist look at a hugely important English king, I would have liked to see more on how he changed English politics,(was he the last medieval king? or the first early modern one?)but yeah, its a good piece of writing, thanks.

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