King Henry VII’s Burial: Reassesing the first Tudor Monarch

Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, their effigies at the lady Chapel in Westminster and the symbol that their union created which has endured in the imaginations of historians and avid readers when they study the Tudors.
Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, their effigies at the lady Chapel in Westminster and the symbol that their union created which has endured in the imaginations of historians and avid readers when they study the Tudors.

On the 11th of May 1509 Henry VII was laid to rest in the Lady Chapel that he built for himself and his wife, at Westminster Abbey. Their effigies can be appreciated, as well as the effigies of his other descendants (also buried here). Westminster was no strange place to Henry. Three months after his coronation, he married the beautiful Elizabeth of York here. The wedding as Suzannah Lipscomb describes in her book A Journey Through Tudor England “was cause for celebration indeed. It marked the coming together of the warring houses of York and Lancaster: an end to the bloody Wars of the Roses that had torn England apart on and off for over thirty years. A strikingly attractive and intelligent woman, with long golden hair, Elizabeth wore her finest robes for the wedding –described as glowing ‘with gold and purple dye’- and a necklace ‘framed in fretted gold.’ She carried symbolic white and red roses.”

Their marriage also gave birth to a new symbol: The Tudor Rose. Yet the red rose of Lancaster and white rose of York joined together in matrimony was nothing more an illusion. The Yorks and Lancasters sported more devices than just one rose each. Their origins as Leanda de Lisle states:

“The simple five-petal design of the heraldic rose was inspired by the wild dog rose that grows in the English hedgerows. As a symbol it had a long associated with the Virgin Mary, who is sometimes called the Mystical Rose of Heaven. But Henry IV had once used red roses to decorate his pavilion at a joust, their use as a Lancastrian royal badge was not widespread before the advent of the Tudors.”

In the five hundred and sixteen years after his death, he remains a figure of controversy, everything from he was a miser, or not a good enough king, or his mother killed the princes in the tower, has been said about him, but the truth is we think this way of Henry because he spent more time behind a desk, overseeing his country’s development, and his family’s welfare for that matter, than in becoming popular. We usually remember the monarchs who were once young, energetic, and handsome and who despite causing so much trouble afterwards, still dressed splendidly and spent their money on huge frivolities. And it is because of that, that we tend to overlook the more serious and less romanticized monarchs. Henry’s life story however is just as interesting as all of these other monarchs. And the fact of the matter is that regarding the princes’ disappearance, is something we will never know. But just as Richard’s defenders say that you cannot condemn him based on little evidence, you can use the same argument for Henry and his mother. There are ‘perhaps’ ‘could haves’ but never any certainties. Just as kings were known to be pious, they were also known to be cruel and Richard was not any different. The facts don’t lie, to secure his power, he executed Lord Rivers (Elizabeth Woodville’s brother), Richard Woodville (hers on), and Hastings and imprisoned others that he considered were also a threat. His brother and father had been brutally killed when he was very young, and being exposed to violence at a very young era, no doubt, had an effect on him. The same can be said for Henry Tudor who saw from an early age the destruction of his mother’s house, the Beauforts, and his uncle’s, the Lancastrian. And when he became a target of Edward IV (who feared he would be perceived as the new hope for the lase Lancastrians) he and his uncle Jasper fled the country.

This alone makes his story one of the most amazing found in English medieval history.

“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, and the compromises that he had been forced to make, including the support from France and hiss former Yorkist enemies in gaining the crown- was a far less welcome tale. It remains nonetheless nonetheless just as remarkable; against all the odds, at Bosworth Henry achieved victory that he should have not on” (Skidmore)

As the royal procession reached Westminster Abbey on that fateful day, people could see the massive wax tapers weighing over twelve hundred pounds. As his coffin was lowered down to be placed next to his wife, the choir sang ‘Libera me’: “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fearful day … When thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.”

Despite his miserly attitude after the death of his son and wife, he kept corresponding with his eldest daughter whose affection for her was clearly evident as he consoled her in one of their first letters when she told him that she was feeling homesick. On his deathbed, Henry had made provisions so 10,000 masses would be said to aid his soul’s journey into the afterlife, and the other half to religious gifts and charities. When his son ascended to the throne he posed an important question which perhaps still resonates today when we hear debates about which Tudor King (of the first two) mattered the most. In the Dynasty portrait made in the last decade of his reign, Henry VIII had Holbein put him and his father on the right with their respective and favored wives, Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour on the left. Separating them is this huge monument that reads “The former often overcame his enemies and the fires of his country and finally gave peace to its citizens but the son, born indeed for greater tasks, drives the unworthy from the altars and brings in men of integrity. The presumption of popes has yielded to unerring virtue and with Henry VIII bearing, the scepter in his hand, religion has been restored.” The message is clear, ‘my dad was great but I am greater.’

The Tudor Dynasty Portrait. Henry VIII is showing in his imposing self, below his father who is leaning towards the central altar, at the opposite side is his mother and Jane Seymour -the consort he asked to be buried with for the simple reason that he'd given him his long awaited for son.
The Tudor Dynasty Portrait. Henry VIII is showing in his imposing self, below his father who is leaning towards the central altar, at the opposite side is his mother and Jane Seymour -the consort he asked to be buried with for the simple reason that he’d given him his long awaited for son.

There is no doubt that Henry VIII did change the course of English history by separating from the Roman Catholic Church and commissioned a new bible in English by Miles Coverdale which made it easier for people to have access to; but his father (a man who triumphed against all odds) was just as great.

 

Sources:

  • Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder by Leanda de Lisle
  • The Tudors by Peter Ackroyd
  • The Rise of the Tudors by Chris Skidmore
  • Henry VII by SB Chrimes
  • The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
  • Richard III: The Road to Leicester by Amy Licence
  • Tudor Treasury by Elizabeth Norton
  • Winter King by Thomas Penn
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