Henry VII Dies: The Death of the Red Dragon

Henry VII Bosworth

On Saturday 21st of April 1509, Henry VII died at Richmond Palace. He was the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and while he has been eclipsed by his larger than life son, Henry remains one of the most fascinating figures of the modern era.

“The reality of Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne –his narrow escapes from death, his failures and anxieties, complete with constant uncertainty of his situation … was a far less welcome tale. It remains nonetheless just as remarkable; against all the odds, at Bosworth Henry achieved victory that he should not have won.” (Skidmore)

He created a new symbol called the Tudor Rose which was nothing more than a device, an alternate tale to explain the roots of the conflict known today as the “wars of the roses”. The wars was a more complex conflict than what we are told and involved as many players as we can imagine. The warring Houses known as Lancaster and York, had many sigils. The white and the red rose where the emblems chosen by Henry Tudor to represent both Houses to give a new narrative of this conflict. It was an effective device that would become to represent not just the union of both Houses that came about with Henry VII’s marriage with Elizabeth of York, but of his descendants. On January 1559, fifty years after his death, his granddaughter, Elizabeth I rode from the Tower of London to Westminster on the eve of her coronation, and on her way she encountered five pageants, one of which showed “two personages representing King Henry the Seventh and Elizabeth his wife, daughter of King Edward the Fourth” seated together, above each head was the red rose and white rose respectively “out of which [these] two roses sprang two branches gathered into one, which were directed upward to a second stage wherein was placed one representing the valiant and noble prince King Henry [VIII]”.

Clearly, the Tudor rose was seen not just as a validation to his descendants’ right to the throne, but as something preordained by God, something that told the people that with them, the wars of the roses had come to a close, and peace had finally reigned in England. Whether this was true or not, and nobles believed it or not, is up to dispute. But nobody can deny that it was an effective piece of propaganda that convinced the people that war had come to an end, and that this new dynasty would bring them peace and prosperity. Tudor and Elizabethan literature helped a great deal when they continued to use this device to explain the reasons behind the conflict, reducing it to a dynastic conflict between two warring houses.

Tudor Rose 1

“The frontispiece was such a popular motif that it was repeated and reused on other, unconnected works: the same family tree appeared unmodified in John Stow’s 1550 and 1561 editions of Chaucer’s works, introducing the section on the Canterbury Tales. Just as John, Duke of Bedford, had plastered occupied France with genealogies advertising the legitimacy of the joint monarchy during the 1520s; just as Edward IV had obsessively compiled genealogies tracing his rightful royal descent from centuries long gone; so too did the Tudors drive home the message both of their right to rule and of their version of history. By Elizabeth’s reign the mere sight of red and white roses entwined was enough to evoke instantly the whole story of the fifteenth century: the Crown had been thrown into dispute and disarray by the Lancastrian deposition of Richard II in 1399; this had prompted nearly a century of warfare between two rival clans, which was a form of divine punishment for the overthrow of a rightful King; finally in 1485, the Tudors had reunited the families and saved the realm. It was that simple.” (Jones)

And yet all of Henry’s hard work, to maintain stability in his new realm, his marriage and his family, suffered a huge setback when his eldest son and beloved heir, Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdonia died as a result of the plague in early April 1502. He and his wife were utterly devastated. “The shadow cast by Arthur’s death” writes Dan Jones “was long and dark” but not as dark as historians Amy Licence and Alison Weir add, that of Elizabeth of York’s death a year later. Their deaths were too much for the aging King, who began to isolate himself from the public, coming out only for state occasions. When Henry’s condition worsened, his mother (Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond) who was sick herself, ordered that her son be moved to Richmond that March.

Margaret Beaufort old

“Her hands, now cramped with arthritis, were so painful that she would sometimes cry out ‘Oh Blessed Jesus help me!’ But to watch her son suffer was so much worse. The dying King sobbed as he reflected on the lives he had ruined. His last agonies began at about 10 pm Friday 20 April.” (de Lisle)

Margaret brought her confessor, John Fisher, to hear his confession and give him his last rites. And then on the morning of April 21st, Henry died.

Margaret immediately began to make preparations for her grandson’s coronation and kept the King’s death a secret for three days. She organized a meeting with his councilors and co-executors at his will at Greenwich to discuss, among many things, her son’s burial and the upcoming regency during her son’s short minority. Henry VIII was not yet eighteen and Margaret wanted to make sure that he was safely installed in his throne, before he took on the reins of government. Margaret had great experience in this since she had been a child of nine attending the court of her cousin, Henry VI, to repudiate her betrothal to de la Pole. The meeting took place on the celebration of the Order of the Garter –an Order she was a member of. Her grandson was present and while he was anxious to start his new reign, he recognized his grandmother’s experience, and respected her authority. Later that night, Henry’s death was announced and sadly (at least to Margaret, it must have been) nobody mourned his death and according to contemporary chroniclers, they greeted his death with celebration. To many historians, Thomas Penn included, Henry VII is a miserly figure who was consumed by darkness of his own making and who will forever be remember as a somber and cold figure. But this, as Linda Porter in her recent biography of the Tudors and Stewarts points out, is “an unfair assessment”.

A young Henry Tudor.
A young Henry Tudor.

“He was comely personage, a little above just stature, well and straight-limbed, but slender. His countenance was revered, and a little like a churchman, and as it was not strange or dark so neither was it winning or pleasing, but as the face of one well disposed. But it was to the disadvantage of the painter, for it was best when he spoke.” (Bacon)

Although written over a century after his death, Francis Bacon’s description of the first Tudor King, is right on the spot. Linda Porter adds:

“[He was] A considered person, not given to great public displays of emotion, somewhat ascetic in appearance, not exactly handsome but with an interesting and by no means unattractive face, the whole man only at his most appealing when he was animated. His portraits show that he did, indeed, have something of the churchman about him: a calm and also inscrutability, a sense that you would never entirely know that he was thinking. It gave him an air of authority.” (Porter)

Henry VII was an energetic young man at the time of his exile, yet he was also controlled and cautious as the descriptions above, provide. He loved to laugh, joke and gamble but whereas some kings and leaders were known for their vices, Henry was not known to have any. Some of those who met him during his exile, were surprised how someone who had lived and survived through so much, could be so controlled and yet not bitter. When he became King, he kept some of the measures that King Edward IV had introduced, he kept the Star Chamber on a tight leash, terminated private liveries which meant that nobles could no longer have private armies, and defeated the pretender forces of Lambert Simnel who posed as Edward, Earl of Warwick (George, Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville’s son) and Perkin Warbeck who posed as Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York.

Henry never forgot those who had helped him get to where he was and in his last will he names those “lords as well of our blood as other, and also knights, squires and divers our true loving subjects and servants’ who had ‘faithfully assisted us, and divers of them put themselves in extreme jeopardy of their lives, and losses of their lands and goods, in serving and assisting us, as well about the recovery of our Right and Realm of England.’ And in one final tribute to his victory in battle twenty four years before, the dying King requested that a wooden image, wrought with plate of fine gold, should be made, ‘representing our own person … in the manner of an armed man’, to be equipped with an enameled coat of the arms of England and France, together with a sword and spurs. The statue was to be placed kneeling on a silver table, ‘holding betwixt his hands the crown which it pleased God to give us, with the victory over our enemy at our first field.’ The statue was to be dedicated to St. Edward the Confessor, and set in the middle of his shrine, with detailed instructions as to the exact measurements of the statue, so that it would seem as if Henry was almost offering up his crown to St. Edward in thanks.” (Skidmore)

Henry VII and Elizabeth of York tomb at the Lady Chapel located in Westminster Abbey.
Henry VII and Elizabeth of York tomb at the Lady Chapel located in Westminster Abbey.

Henry’s body remained in Richmond for two weeks until it was finally laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, inside the Lady Chapel that Henry had ordered constructed for him, his wife and his descendants. He was buried right beside her. Above them, standing a massive golden effigy, representing both of them.

Sources:

  • Henry VII by SB Chrimes
  • The Winter King by Thomas Penn
  • Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
  • The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
  • The Rise of the Tudors by Chris Skidmore
  • Tudor. Passion. Manipulation and Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Family by Leanda de Lisle
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