In Defence of Henry VII

In Defence of Henry VII

According to many a historian, especially the Tudor specialist and controversialist David Starkey, Henry VII descended into being little more than a grubby Landlord during his time as King of England. But is this a fair analysis of the man who was shaped by the political instability of England during the second half of the 15th century. A man who spent more than a decade in exile being hunted by Edward IV and Richard III. A man whose back story is a highly unusual one in the history of English Kingship.

The future Henry VII was born in January, 1457 at Pembroke Castle in Wales. His father Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond was the half-brother of King Henry VI of England and, for a time, of France who died of the plague before Henry's birth. His mother, and the power behind Henry's life, was Margaret Beaufort, who was descended from John of Gaunt and was only 13 when she gave birth to Henry. Margaret was the sole heiress of the Beaufort estates and was the richest heiress in England during this period.

After the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury the Lancastrians were defeated by the Yorkist forces. The son of Henry VI was killed at Tewkesbury and Henry VI himself was killed in the Tower of London shortly afterwards. Margaret Beaufort had warned her son after the battles to run for his life. Henry Tudor, who was just 14, had to flee to Brittany with his uncle Jasper to begin life as a fugitive and an outlaw.

Henry spent the next 14 years being hunted by the Yorkist regime in England. Edward IV knew more than anyone else the danger of allowing a rival to seek the backing of foreign powers in any bid for the throne. He himself had done the same thing in 1470. Henry Tudor, even though his claim to the English crown was tenuous, was a mighty threat to Edward's Yorkist government. When Edward IV died in 1483 his son Edward was supposed to become Edward V but his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester had other ideas and seized the throne for himself. Richard's seizure of power opened the door for Henry Tudor. Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV's widow, agreed with Henry Tudor's mother that Henry should invade England, defeat Richard III and marry Edward IV's eldest daughter, Elizabeth, thus uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York. Henry had attempted to invade England early in Richard III's reign with the support of Francis II of Brittany, but never landed with the entire expedition crashing to the ground when Richard's former ally, the Duke of Buckingham, was beheaded after rebelling against Richard. Richard then made a very generous offer to Francis II to return Henry Tudor to England and Henry fled to France before he could be captured.

In August, 1485, Henry, with the support of the King of France, successfully landed his army in Pembrokeshire. Henry's army mainly consisted of French mercenaries, but the Lancastrians were strong in Wales and with Henry Tudor having extensive Welsh ancestry many flocked to his cause. Henry managed to raise an army of roughly 5-6,000 men and with the Earl of Oxford and his uncle Jasper Henry headed to England. Richard III was in the midlands at Nottingham when he was informed of Henry's successful landing in Wales. Richard immediately summoned troops and managed to raise an army of roughly 8,000.

The two sides met at Bosworth in Leicestershire. The battle ended unusually quickly for a medieval battle. Richard saw that Henry Tudor was exposed and decided to lead a charge and try to end the battle quickly by killing Henry Tudor himself. Richard's charge was a miscalculation, and he was unhorsed and run through by Henry's Welsh pikemen. Henry Tudor was now King of England.

Henry's reign was going to be dominated by the challenge of re-establishing Royal authority after it had been so undermined ever since Richard II was overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. Henry pursued a policy of reconciliation by creating a new Tudor rose a mix between the red of Lancaster and the white of York. His marriage to Elizabeth of York was a highly successful one but there were still Yorkists who were never won over to Tudor rule. Henry tried controversial methods to control his nobles towards the end of his reign including a period of alleged financial terrorism. Henry implemented heavy fines for modest violations of court protocol. These policies have been described as those of a greedy landlord. But they were necessary policies to re-establish the shattered authority of English kingship.

Henry Tudor died in 1509 after 24 years as King. Few mourned his passing. But was the lack of love for Henry Tudor on his death bed an independent reflection of his time as King? During his reign he did what was necessary to stop the decline of the title of King in England. Throughout the 15th century the authority of the King had been challenged like no other period. In the early 13th century King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, Henry III was brow beaten by his barons, Edward II was deposed and in the 14th century Richard II was overthrown, but none of these previous events had the bitter violent divisions attached to them like the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses spilt England into two competing Royal factions that was a feudal conflict between rival cousins of the same Royal dynasty. Henry Tudor began the task of repairing these seemingly unrepairable divergences in English politics and, in my view, largely succeeded as the Yorkist threat withered and died and the association of Lancaster was replaced by the House of Tudor and a new dynasty was created that transformed and revolutionised England during the 16th century.