Judging Henry VII: Historians’ Two Cents on the first Tudor King

Henry VII posthumous old
Henry VII of England PAINTINGS Perréal, Jean (attributed to) French, ca. 1455-ca. 1530 ca. 1500?25 Tempera and oil on panel 12 5/8 x 9 in. Bequest of Catherine Jean Quirk (M1989.63)

Prominent historians and biographers weigh in on Henry Tudor with cited primary sources on his appearance (be careful with this, because they all describe him differently. In some he is dark haired, others he is blond and others he is brown haired, but all agree he was pale or fair of face and with blue eyes).

The man behind the austere caricature in popular fiction:

Henry VII badass TWP

“England’s new king was a mysterious figure. In Hall’s chronicle Richard criticizes Henry as ‘a Welsh milksop, a man of small courage and less experience.’ The chronicler himself was more impressed though; Tudor rode about giving ‘gentle’ words of encouragement to his men before the battle; ‘for he was a man of no great stature but so formed and decorated with all gifts of nature that he seemed more an angelical creature than a terrestrial personage.’ According to Hall ‘his countenance and aspect was cheerful and courageous, his hair yellow like the burnished gold, his eyes gray shining and quick, prompt and ready.’ This contrasts quite sharply with the description of Henry from the ‘Ballad of Lady Bessie’ which has him wearing black velvet as he practices shooting at the butts, with his long pale face marred by a red wart. Other sources have him as dark-haired crisply curled in the European style, with a cast in one of his pale blue eyes that made him look as if he had a squint. Vergil described him as ‘remarkably attractive’ but with a sallow complexion and bad teeth, although by the time of his writing, Henry’s hair had turned thin and white. At the time of accession though, he was 28, tall slender and reserved, dressed in subdued, elegant foreign fashions, having spent the last fourteen years at the court of Francis II, Duke of Brittany.” (Licence)

“At twenty eight, Henry Tudor was not longer a pretty lad. In looks he was still personable, but an itinerant and uncertain youth had shaped a cautious personality. He was not a man who took anything for granted. The immense challenge of ruling the larger of the two realms that formed the island of Britain lay ahead of him. He had come by his crown in blood and battle.” (Porter)

The events of the fifteenth century were to be fashioned into drama, with Hall’s chapter on Richard’s own reign being titled ‘The Tragical Doings of King Richard the Third’. It was a compelling tale of the Tudor’s inexorable rise, contrasted against the downfall of the houses of Lancaster and York, inspiring William Shakespeare to transform it into blank verse for popular audiences who devoured his history plays, the power of which defined for generations the wider view of what became known in Sir Walter  Scott’s famously invented phrase, ‘the Wars of the Roses.’ 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 his former Yorkist enemies gaining the crown -was a far less welcome tale. It remains nonetheless just a remarkable; against all the odds, at Bosworth Henry achieved a victory that he should not have won. For Philippe de Commynes, who had met Henry as a fourteen-year-old when he arrived as an exile at Duke Francis’s court in Brittany in 1471, knowing exactly how Henry, who had told Commynes to his face how he had been a prisoner all his life since the age of five, had ‘suffered much’ having ‘neither money, nor rights, so I believe, to the crown of England, nor any reputation except what his own person and honestly brought him’, there could be no other explanation. Writing his memoirs, Commynes wrote simply, ‘A battle was fought. King Richard was killed on the battlefield and the Earl of Richmond was crowned king of England on the field with Richard’s crown. Should one describe this as Fortune? Surely it was God’s judgment.’” (Skidmore)

King Henry, Seventh of his Name, the first years:
Uniting the White and Red Rose

The White Princess 2017

“The coronation began on 28 October with Henry taking formal possession of the Tower. The next day he was processed to Westminster before the London crowds. Heralds, sergeants-at-arms, trumpeters, esquires, the mayor, aldermen, and nobles, preceded the king dressed in their rich liveries …The king rode under a canopy fringed with twenty eight ounces of gold and silkl, carried by four knights on foot. He was bare-headed, his light brown hair reaching his shoulders, a rich belt slung across his chest, and a long gown of purple velvet furred with ermine on his back … On Sunday 30 October Henry was crowned and anointed at Westminster Abbey. In November Henry sought for his rule the necessary approval of Parliament. It duly confirmed that ‘the inheritance of the crowds of England and France abide in the most royal person of our sovereign Lord King Henry VIII and the heirs of his body’. Elizabeth of York, in turn was being given an opportunity to get to know her husband to be, and she found Henry could be good company. In Brittany he had enjoyed gambling, music, dancing, poetry and literature. He was quick to smile, with an exceptionally expressive face, but his years of vulnerability had made him a man anxious to be in control of every detail of his environment.” (de Lisle)

eoy-and-henry-vii-shadow-in-the-tower

“A thin face with high cheekbones framed a long thin nose, a feature shared by his mother, Margaret Beaufort. Round, somewhat hooded eyes formed a tight triangle with his thin, downward sloping mouth, and dark wavy hair tumbled down almost to his shoulders. Having barely lived in England, his preferred language was French. But he had already adopted the style and bearing of a crowned king …Philippe de Commynes described him as being ‘without power, without money, without right to the crown of England.’ Nevertheless, on Sunday, August 7, 1485, this unlikely claimant to England’s Crown landed at Mill Bay near Milford Haven, waded through the salt water onto wet Welsh sand, knelt and kissed the ground, and uttered the words of Psalm 43: ‘Judge me, O Lord, and plead my cause’ … Accounts of the coronation were drawn up by Sir Robert Willoughby, and they spoke of a flurry of activity among the goldsmiths, cloth merchants, embroiders, silkwomen, tailors, laborers, boatmen and silk in royal purple, crimson and black, which were then run up into beautiful jackets, hose, hats, robes, wall hangings, cushions and curtains. Henry’s henchmen were ordered hats plumed with ostrich feathers, boots made from fine Spanish leather and striking costume of black crimson. Even the horses were smartly dressed: their stirrups were covered in red velvet, while tassles and silk buttons adorned their halters … The coronation went off with appropriate pomp, with the most prominent roles carried out by the small group of English nobles whom Henry could count as his intimates … Henry had sworn a solemn oath in 1483 that he would marry Elizabeth of York. Now that he was king, he was bound to make good on his word. On December at Henry’s first parliament, the speaker Thomas Lovell requested that the king’s ‘royal highness should take to himself that illustrious lady’ … The wedding as to be held on January 18, 1486 … The wedding was celebrated in the customary fashion, with ‘wedding torches, marriage bed and other suitable decorations.’ followed by great magnificence …” (Jones)

Later Years: Economic Policies & Final Legacy

Henry VII Tudor old

“The first Tudor king was still only 28 wen he came to te throne, having spent most of his adolescence and early adulthood in Brittany, living precariously as a political exile. He had the most unsettled upbringing of any king of England, something that helped shape his character. According to the author Philippe de Comines (1447-c.1511), the king himself once declared that “from the time he was five years old he had been always a fugitive or a prisoner”. It was a life lived “continually between hope and fear”, as Edward Hall described it in Hall’s  Chronicle, something which spurred Henry on to action when his moment came. Although treated well in Brittany, he was never able to forget his lack of freedom or status, growing into a suspicious but highly intelligent young man. He was tall, thin and dark. Surviving portraits tend to show the king in his later years: narrow-faced and thin-lipped. In 1498, when he was in his early 40s, the Spanish ambassador Don Pedro de Ayala wrote a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of  Spain in which he said that the king looked “old for his years, but young for the sorrowful life he has led”. Nothing came easily for the young Henry Tudor and retaining the throne and building a stable dynasty were the desires that drove him, above all else, throughout his reign … Henry VII had never been a charismatic king and his death went largely unlamented in England. Instead, people looked towards his 17-year-old son, who resembled his Yorkist mother and grandfather in appearance.” (Norton)

“Early in his reign, Henry substantially increased the royal lands (and thereby the revenues from rents) by having Parliament backdate his reign to the day before the Battle of Bosworth Field. By this device he turned all those who fought against him at the battle into traitors, enabling him to claim their estates as forfeit for treason. Through efficient administration of his royal lands, Henry increased their value, and by the end of his reign they were yielding him around 35,000 per annum.
Another important source of income for Henry was customs revenue from foreign trade. After persuading his customs revenue from foreign trade. After persuading his first Parliament to grant him customs revenue for the whole of his life, Henry went about encouraging trade through international diplomacy, substantially increasing customs yield. Finally, by expanding the reach and effectiveness of his courts, Henry could rely on a steady income from the ‘profits of justice’ -in other words, fines.
All these policies led to a rise in royal income from an average of 52,000 per annum in 1485 to 142,000 per annum by 1509 … Henry has been described by some of his biographers as cold-hearted, and it is true that he was not generally given to extravagant displays of emotion. Yet he surprised his courtiers with his intense grief on the death of his son Arthur, and when his wife Elizabeth died in childbirth in 1503 he fell into a deep depression and, according to one chronicler, ‘privily departed to a solitary place and would no man should resort unto him’ … Henry left his kingdom strong, at peace and, by past standards, wealthy. Hhis sober and efficient statesmanship had enhanced England’s standing among the major European powers. At home, he had greatly strengthened the position of the monarchy in relation to the nobility, creating a powerful centralized administration. In so doing, he had laid the foundation for a successful dynasty.” (Woolf)

“If Edward V had been allowed to live, Henry Tudor would be a footnote in history. He had been in captivity of one sort or another for all but four of his twenty-eight years, and his reign was to see constant threats to his life, despite his incredible generosity (for these times) and forgiveness to his former and new enemies. He never felt secure on the throne, and, never having any family except his uncle Jasper (he was separated from his mother until he became king), came to rely upon those who were with him in exile and who supported at Bosworth. He made sensible choices, marrying the eldest daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, to consolidate his position further. However, the new king remained reliant upon the wise counsel given to him by trusted friends. He never stopped travelling the country and retained the same close circle of advisors. Sadly, towards the end these men began to die around him and his own health grew progressively worse. He lost his beloved wife and all but three of his children, including Prince Arthur, upon whom rested his real hope for a wise continuation of the new Tudor Dynasty … Henry, also devout like his mother, often stayed at monasteries and churches. He probably spent more time in prayer or with ecclesiastics than any other English king. We are fortunate to have the king’s personal accounts for 1492 to 1503, and those of the queen for 1502 and 1503 which supplement other sources, but there are still some gaps or anomalies in his whereabouts. Ailing, worn out from overwork (an attribute rarely seen in English monarchy over the centuries), the deeply religious king saw nearly all his close friends die, and was beset with financial problems, a fact ignored by modern biographers. His attempts in his declining years to prevent another costly international war or invasion drained his finances, and his more effective tax-gathering was hated by the nobility and growing middle classes. The financial aspect is more important in understanding his reign. To solidify the monarchy after generations of fighting and infighting was vitally important to the future of a stable Britain. Henry was not ‘greedy’, ‘avaricious’ or ‘venal’, all recent accusations, but towards the end of his reign, because he was suffering with ill health and depression at the loss of so many around him, the king was not much as in control of the finances as he once had been. He turned to God and left his son enough money to secure a peaceful succession, but this gift was soon expended.
Henry’s army of Bretons, Sscots, Ffrench, English and Welsh travelled unopposed through ales, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire in 1495, gaining many English supporters, and won at Bosworth. Henry did not follow the Plantagenet path of executing his rivals, a practice which had almost wiped out all claimants to the crown, but was now plagued by a series of pretenders to the crown … Henry died in 1509, leaving a peaceful succession in a solvent country.” (Breverton)

Henry VII Tudor portrait in frame

“More pertinent, and more feasible perhaps, is to consider how far Henry VII succeeded in obtaining revenue in excess of expenditure. There is enough evidence, mainly from the chamber accounts surviving -and these accounts, after all, came to include the great bulk of revenue and expenditure- to show that Henry VII did become solvent quite early in the reign, and was able to secure some considerable surplus annually during his later years. The cessation of short-term loans by 1490 suggests that the government no loner had need of hand-to-mouth methods. The chamber accounts at the end of September 1489 appear to show a surplus of 5,000. From 1492 at least Henry found himself able to put by substantial sums in the purchase of jewellery, plate, cloth of gold and the like, and to spend money on buildings … Henry VII did, then, no doubt enjoy ‘the felicity of full coffers’ for the last few years of his reign but the other Baconian tradition that he left behind him a surplus of some two million pounds cannot be maintained …
He was interested in bringing commercial interests into his diplomatic relations with other countries; he was interested in reforming the coinage and in encouraging shipping, exports, and maritime exploration. He took some initiative in these matters; he gave his assent to a variety of measures for the regulation of merchant companies, trade, wages and prices, weights and measures, for the restraint of enclosures, and the treatment of vagabonds and beggars. Some of these measures were precedents for more far-reaching governmental action in later decades, but many though not all these appear to have been initiated by others than the government in Henry VII’s time, and how far the mere giving of assent to proposals for minor regulations amounted to acceptance as serious government policy a matter for speculation rather than dogma. We can scarcely accuse Henry VII of adopting ‘paternalistic’ attitudes. Whatever else Henry VII was, he was essentially an opportunist and sought to achieve few broad or far-reaching aims in either economic or social matters. We may well attribute to Henry VII especially the characteristics that have been attributed to the Tudor monarchs generally -perhaps too generally. Of him we may well believe that ‘economic problems were always secondary, and that economic measures often served non-economic ends. The paramount aims were peace and security. His policies always remained primarily political, not economic, and any economic aims that he may have cherished (other than the strengthening of his own economic position) were subordinated to his political and diplomatic objectives …” (Chrimes)

Henry’s first year in government was bound to be turbulent. His mother cried when she saw her son cried because having lived through various reigns, and surviving every king, she knew that as the founder of a new dynasty, his troubles were far from over. After Henry defeated his enemies, he became more obsessed with bringing peace to England. He formed an alliance with Scotland where the two kingdoms agreed that to avoid further conflict, Henry would marry his eldest daughter to James IV, and establish a series of law courts where border raiders would be judged by a jury of their peers which consisted of half Scots and half Englishmen (to avoid any accusations of favoritism). Henry kept much of Edward IV’s economic policies, including the Star Chamber, which he perfected, and added new measures that made England into a prosperous nation by the time his son took the throne in 1509. Overall, Henry’s legacy is in the eye of the beholder but one thing no one can deny is that he did more than any other monarch before him in that century. He nearly worked himself to death, and even when he was ill, he refused to let others do his work. It is also important to note that Henry is one of the few English monarchs who managed to heal the wounds of internal conflict by making allies of his former enemies, including those abroad who had not only nearly cost him his throne, but also put his family at risk.
Ironically, it was his paranoia, which got worse after he lost his son, wife and baby daughter, that enabled him to turn England into one of the most peaceful nations at the time, and prevent his dynasty from going the way the York and Lancaster had gone. In doing so, he also rewrote history, providing us with an alternative and simplified tale of the wars of the roses, where he comes out on top because he was the last Lancastrian scion and descendant of Arthur Pendragon and other Welsh (turned English) heroes, who had been chosen by god to be England’s king and restore law and order to a war-torn country. His marriage to Elizabeth solidified his claim, and helped promote the idea that as the last Lancastrian scion and she as the eldest daughter of the first Yorkist King, had put an end to the dynastic civil war, by uniting both houses of York and Lancaster. This was beautifully represented in a symbol known today as the “Tudor rose”, which has come to embody his dynasty.

Sources:

  • Breverton, Terry. Henry VII: The Maligned Tudor King. Amberley. 2016.
  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999
  • de Lisle, Leanda. Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013
  • Porter, Linda. Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots. St. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • Skidmore, Chris. The Rise of the Tudors: The Family that Changed English History. St. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • Jones, Dan. Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors. Faber and Faber. 2014.
  • Licence, Amy.  Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen. Amberley. 2013.
  • Woolf, Alex. The Tudor Kings and Queens. Arcturus. 2016.
  • Norton, Elizabeth. Tudor Treasury. Andre Deutsch. 2014.

2 thoughts on “Judging Henry VII: Historians’ Two Cents on the first Tudor King

  1. Polihronia Sedinta Frumusescu August 20, 2020 / 11:24 am

    Very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

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