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February 2014 Issue

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The Rise of the Tudors: The Family That Changed English History

By Chris Skidmore
St. Martin’s Press, 2014

riseofthetudorsskidmoreUndaunted by the duties of being a Conservative Minister of Parliament in the service of one British dynasty, Chris Skidmore has gone right on being a historian of an entirely different dynasty; his work days are spent politely legislating health care codes in Bristol, but his scholar-time takes him to the even more passionate world of Tudor England. After his well-received biography of King Edward VI and his interesting study of Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley comes his most wide-ranging and confident work to date, The Rise of the Tudors, in which he sets himself to tell the familiar story of “the family that changed Enlish history.”

It’s well-trod ground, to put it mildly. The sheer drama of it all has been irresistible to historians: the elevation of the boy-king Edward V upon the death of his father Edward IV in 1483; the usurpation of the boy-king’s rule by his uncle Richard, who consigned his nephews to the Tower (after which they famously were never seen again) and seized the throne as Richard III; the uneasy rule of Richard, facing one domestic uprising after another and always keeping an eye on the threat from across the Channel, where young Henry Tudor (“the only impe now left of King Henry VI’s blood,” the front-running Lancastrian claimant to Richard’s throne) bided his time in exile in Brittany in the company of his stalwart uncle Jasper and his inhumanly single-minded and ambitious mother, Margaret Beaufort; and finally the clash that changed everything: the Battle of Bosworth Field in August of 1485, when Richard became the last king of England to lose his crown (and his life) on the battlefield – and the new Henry VII became the last king of England to win his crown the old-fashioned way, through combat.

The story would be incredibly magnetic – the contest for a kingdom! – even if the sequel were a bit dull, but of course it’s anything but. We, posterity, know what 28-year-old Henry Tudor, inexperienced and outnumbered at Bosworth, couldn’t know: that his new dynasty would become more iconic than any other in British history, that students, writers, scholars, and pop culture audiences around the world would still be thrilling to the Tudor tale five centuries after it unfolded.

According to a legend that’s too pleasing to be disbelieved, that story had its beginning in a moment of lust. Catherine of Valois, the pretty young widow of England’s King Henry V and mother of his son Henry VI, was living in the confines of Windsor Castle (as Skidmore points out, this in itself was cause for worry among the peers of the realm, since Catherine was young and strong-willed and kept calling herself Queen – English society hadn’t seen a setup like that in two centuries and didn’t quite know what to do with it) when she happened to glimpse a minor court functionary, Owen Tudor, swimming in the river with some friends, his long auburn hair plastered wet across his back. The girl was instantly smitten, and in due course there were Tudor children by the half-dozen, including two strapping sons, Edmund and Jasper, whose half-brother Henry VI gave them both rapid preferment at Court.

In 1455, Edmund Tudor married Margaret Beaufort and straightaway got her with child. He was in his early 20s, and his bride was 12, and although he died unexpectedly the next year, Margaret and Jasper knew that her first and only child, little Henry, might end up being a key piece on England’s dynastic chessboard.

His claim was wispy-thin, but then, the times were perilous. Margaret Beaufort was a direct descendant of John of Gaunt (the son of the great Edward III) and his longtime mistress and finally wife Katheryn Swynford, whose issue were granted legitimacy on condition that they would never be eligible to succeed to the throne. That delegitimization was itself at various points delegitimized, and the end result was equivocal at best, but genealogical beggars can’t be choosers. Certainly Henry had enough viability as a Lancastrian heir in the long internecine rivalry between York and Lancaster for York – in the person of Richard III – to want him dead and thus prompt him to flee the country and take up a strained and problematic residence in Brittany under the intermittent protection of Duke Francis.

HenryTudorThose exile years must have been incredibly trying. Henry was the avatar of a nearly-lost cause, but he was always in danger of running out of money, or of being turned over to Richard by the Duke, who was often short of money himself and heard with indulgence every one of Richard’s schemes to lure his young rival back to England (including his promise that Henry would be married to Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York). But the whole time Richard was working to take possession of Henry, unrest was bubbling up in the kingdom he’d stolen from his own nephews – including unrest caused by the disappearance of the two innocent boys history would come to know as the Princes in the Tower. Skidmore reminds us that all such developments were watched with unblinking fervor by the pretender’s taut, tiny mother:

When it seemed that the princes would not be leaving the Tower, Margaret had begun ‘to hope well of her son’s fortune’, especially if Henry might somehow be able to one day marry Elizabeth of York, thereby ensuring that ‘the blood of King Henry the Sixth and King Edward to be intermingled by affinity’, and allowing Henry to launch a credible assault upon the throne.

That assault was a looming possibility even while Richard was dealing with threats much closer to home, the most dangerous being the rebellion in 1483 spearheaded by, among others, Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham. According to the Crowland Chronicler, Richard reacted to Buckingham’s rebellion “in no drowsy manner,” and Skidmore gives the whole dangerous incident a refreshingly thorough examination, although one that features some of agitated overwriting that might, if he’s not careful, become a bad habit:

Of course, being an ambitious man, Buckingham could have been considered to have a claim to the throne himself; as a great-grandson of Thomas of Woodstock, the youngest son of Edward III, the duke may have believed that he could take advantage of the rebellion to seize the crown himself. Polydore Vergil recorded that there was a rumour that Buckingham had deliberately persuaded Richard to usurp the throne ‘my means of so many mischievous deeds’ in order that, ‘being hated both of God and man,’ the public reaction against Richard might allow the duke to sweep to power himself.

So then, Buckingham might have wanted the crown for himself, you say?

But these internal disputes could be ground down (as, indeed, Richard’s successor would spend a significant portion of his reign doing to internal disputes of his own); on some level, Richard must have realized that the gravest threat to an illegitimate king is a legitimate one. His nobles might have hated him “worse than all men living,” but they hated anarchy more; no matter how tenuous Henry’s claim to the throne was, he was at least nobody’s off-putting younger brother, and he had no missing nephews. He represented the continuation of an old order, and so he became the hope of every high-born malcontent in Richard’s realm – and, according to the colorful ballads of the time (Skidmore’s mining of such unconventional sources adds an element of fun to his narrative, especially since he makes it clear he himself treats their information skeptically), he also became the obsession of Richard himself:

In Henry Tudor, Richard finally had his own crusade to win: according to one ballad, when confronted with the news of Henry’s invasion and its gathering support, he swept aside the threat, stating: ‘by Jesus full of might, when they are assembled with their powers all, I would I had the great Turk against me to fight, or Prester John in his armour bright, the Sultan of Syria with them to bring.’

RichardIIIWhen Henry’s invasion fleet finally materialized and battle was at hand, Richard solemnly warned his nobles that “after the victory had been gained, anyone who might be found, in any part of the kingdom not to have been present in person with him on the battlefield could hope for nothing but the loss of all his goods, his possessions and his life” – not quite the proclamation of a secure king. And it turned out Richard had good reason to feel paranoid: some of his most powerful nobles, having gone out to Bosworth Field declaring their loyalty to Richard and the House of York, ended up betraying him and switching sides in the heat of battle.

That battle is the climax of Skidmore’s account (in the book’s UK release, it was titled Bosworth), and he does a comprehensive, first-rate job of it, very likely the best narrative of Bosworth Field ever to appear in a popular history. He details not only the defection of several of Richard’s key supporters but also the somewhat surprising influence exerted on all parties by one particular book: the maneuvers of Henry’s men (including the Earl of Oxford, who “played a central role in devising how Henry’s forces should be drawn up for battle”) at Bosworth were based on Christine of Pizan’s Fais d’armes et de chevalrie, which was “itself based largely on the classical work by the Roman author Flavius Vegetius Renatus, the De Re Militari.” Oxford, Skidmore tells us, was “a keen follower of Pizan’s work, having most likely read it in the original French; the earl could speak both English and French – a later inventory records that he owned ‘a chest full of French and English books …” Much as we can imagine it doing for the Earl of Oxford, Pizan’s work sends Skidmore into well-mannered flights of military-history nerdery

In her work, Pizan advised that if there were not enough men available to form the traditional formation of a vanguard, the main army otherwise known as the ‘great battle’ or forward followed by a rearguard, ‘some that be expert in arms do counsel that when men have no great quantity of commons but have for the most part all men of arms, that all the whole assembly be put together only in one battle without none other forward or a rearguard but only the wings of the front of the battle, and say that more surely they fight.’ To prove her point, Pizan recalled the victory of the French king Charles VI who, despite being vastly outnumbered by 40,000 Flemings at the Battle of Roosebeke in 1382 …

Such excesses are easily forgiven, though, as are some of the book’s other odd weak points. At times, for example, Skidmore seems curiously obtuse in parsing his sources, as when he accurately describes the affliction of Henry VI:

No one could be sure what exactly had caused Henry VI to collapse at his hunting lodge at Clarendon near Salisbury one day in August 1453. Unable to move or speak, he was ‘so lacking in understanding and memory and so incapable that he was neither able to walk upon his feet nor to lift up his head, nor well to move himself from the place where he was seated’ …

And then, having very clearly described a stroke, begins hypothesizing in a bizarre alternate direction: “No one understood then the medical realities of psychiatric illness, perhaps a form of hereditary schizophrenia inherited from his Valois ancestors.”

Also, in addition to a noticeable sprinkling of cliches (peoples’ fates are often sealed, which causes them, as often as not, to end up shadows of their formers selves, and so on), there are points in the book where Skidmore jumps not from the speculation of others to conclusions of his own but rather from his own speculation to conclusion in a closed circuit, as when in the span of a couple of pages he asks and then answers the key question of how handsome young Owen Tudor came to be near enough to Catherine for her to spy him skinny-dipping. “How Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudur managed to enter into service in the English royal household is unknown,” Skidmore tells us, “He may have done so through his service to Sir Walter Hungerford, whose retinue one ‘Owen Meridith’ had joined in 1420 and travelled with to France in 1421.” But a couple of pages later, this too-tentative construction is abandoned in favor of something a bit more forthright: “Sir Walter Hungerford had been appointed steward of the royal household in April 1424. It was through his master’s appointment that Owen Tudor became a servant in the royal household …” It happens a few times in The Rise of the Tudors, and it hints a certain impatience.

If it’s impatience for the big battle to be over, that happens soon enough; deserted by his strongest followers, Richard is soon fighting for his life and dying at the hands of Henry’s men – after which Henry declares all of Richard’s remaining adherents traitors, marries Elizabeth of York after all, and goes on to become the Forgotten Founding Father of the Tudor line, the good responsible king who has none of the dramatic flair of his children and grandchildren. Skidmore is generous to this penny-pinching, unprepossessing star of his show:

Even if the tenacious king, paranoid to the last, may not have believed it himself, Henry had healed a nation, laying the foundations for the future stability of the Tudor dynasty that would remain on the throne until 1603 … While previous assertions that 1485 had marked the birth of the early modern period and the death of the medieval age are both anachronistic and unsubstantiated, Richard’s death at Bosworth had brought with it the end of the Plantagenet dynasty. Henry’s accession had heralded the self-conscious image of a new monarchy that brought with it the idea of a country reconciled and harmony restored.

This sounds nicer than it actually was (“harmony” is an odd word for the number of major uprisings Henry faced in the first decade of his reign), and in an irony any disaffected Yorkist would have appreciated, unpredictable historical events give Richard the last word. In 2012 an archeological team excavating a car park in Leicester discovered Richard’s long-lost skeleton, and suddenly old Crookback (now scientifically confirmed as such, perhaps disappointing his more starry-eyed defenders) was in the spotlight again. The remains add brutal details to a story that was never exactly pretty. Forlornly fighting for his life and world, Richard was not only hacked apart, he was garishly mutilated before and after death. Even after long, quiet centuries, the bones tell a blood-freezing story of one man’s last few brutal moments. They tell, in fact, the story of Bosworth Field, clearer in chalk and calcium than any chronicle could do.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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