Henry VII and King Arthur: Unifying and Divisive Figures

Henry VII King Arthur collage.jpg

Henry VII, King of England, Lord of Ireland and first monarch of the Tudor Dynasty was a fan of medieval romances. Like most men of the era, he wanted to be seen as the embodiment of the chivalric virtues that his heroes displayed in these tales, primarily King Arthur.

At the time of his birth, a prophecy was made. Its origins lay with an older prophecy that foretold the coming of a king who would unite Britain under his banner and bring order to chaos.

Avid readers of fantasy probably know where this is going. Almost every fantasy writer has used this device. Their protagonists have no idea until they do.  They set out on a dangerous journey where they face every major obstacle known to man, until they fulfill their destiny.  Unlike modern fantasies where the hero almost always wins at the end, medieval romances paralleled Greek tragedies.

The heroes complete their tasks, but it comes at a great cost. Such is Mallory’s take on the Arthurian legend. Prior to its publication, the legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table was made up of fragments. Storytellers tried to put their own spin on the legend by focusing on one or two characters (at the most). If such a man existed, he must have originated from Wales., where the tale was born. Like many popular folk tales and legends, the conquerors added their own spin to it. After England became united, the tale was absorbed into English lore and Arthur became more than just a Welsh folk tale, but an English hero.

Published fourteen years after his death, Le Morte deArthur remains to this day the definitive account of King Arthur’s reign and the template for many fantasy authors who have continued to add more to this Welsh-Anglicized myth.

Written during the wars of the roses, some scholars believe that it was a political critique meant to reflect the general sentiment towards both warring Houses, Lancaster and York; the disillusionment from the nobles regarding Edward IV’s union with the fair Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Sir John Grey of Groby, and rewarding her family by marrying them to the high aristocracy; and lastly, the author’s own regarding both Houses.

Henry Tudor was fourteen at the time of the author’s death. He would have cared very little about one more former Lancastrian’s death, except for a passing sorrow given that he had fought on their side during the Lancastrian Readeption. Sir Thomas Mallory’s claim to fame came with this mammoth novel. When it was published, the House of York was in shambles.

What was once seen as England’s greatest hope had now become a source of dread. People looked for an alternative and they found one in the form of Henry Tudor, the exiled Earl of Richmond.

Forced to flee England with his uncle following the defeat of his cousin’s armies and his uncle’s death, Henry and Jasper landed in Brittany where they remained for thirteen years before spending their last year of exile in France.

Henry VII King Arthur

THE PRINCE WHO WAS PROMISED

Seeing a window of opportunity with the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, Henry changed his tune from fighting in their name, to fighting in his name. On Christmas of 1483, at Vannes Cathedral (other sources say Rennes), he swore that he would smite the usurper and marry his fair niece, Elizabeth of York, thus uniting both houses and putting an end to the terrible war.

Henry cast himself in the role of the knight in shining armor, the chosen one who had been chosen by God to rule over their realm. Drawing from other Welsh myths and legends, he had the red dragon that represented Cadwaladr on his main standard.

When he was born, Welsh bards sang songs about him. His father, uncle, and grandfather were beloved in Wales, and they saw Owen Tudor’s descendant as part of a prophecy which foretold the return of King Arthur and of another legendary King, which would rule over all the British Isles.

Henry capitalized on people’s superstitions to build his growing legend. He was the exile who crossed the narrow sea; the heir to a once great House, who had come with a ragtag team of soldiers, fledglings, and mercenaries, to fight a greater army led by a tyrant.

These elements were common in every medieval romance. Henry Tudor claimed descent from King Arthur. He was not the first nor the last to do this. His father-in-law, Elizabeth of York’s father, had done this as well. Out of all of them however, it was Henry who pushed the envelope further by portraying his reign as one of peace, unity, law, and order.

Mallory’s version of King Arthur is far from perfect. He remains a flawed character, with Camelot ending up as nothing more than a fair reminder that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The entire story is bittersweet. And therein lies another sad comparison, one that Henry probably thought he could avoid.

Tudor Rose 4

Henry’s device -which became a national symbol of England and a representation of his dynasty- known as the ‘Tudor Rose’ told an alternative tale of the wars of the roses. As with Arthur who had proven his worth by taking the sword out of the stone, having Excalibur granted to him by the lady of the lake, and other magical tokens; Henry Tudor proved himself in the battlefield. He beat Richard, defeated the rebels, and every pretender that came his way. He was the first English King in hundreds of years to sign a peace with Scotland, remaining on good terms with his ancestral rival and neighbor until his death. Henry also financed the first maritime voyages to the new world. Though not successful like those sponsored by the Queen of Castile and King of Aragon, the Catholic Kings (Isabella I and Ferdinand II), they opened the door for future explorers.
Seeing how well the first Yorkist King’s economic policies had worked, he kept some of them, albeit making them better. Like him, he recognized he had to keep the nobles under a tight leash. Instead of marrying them to his wife’s family, he took their private liveries away. Private liveries gave them the right to a private army. Without one, they posed no serious threat.

Henry VII tomb and Arthur's death

THE END OF CAMELOT

But not all was well in paradise. Like his legendary hero, Henry lost most of his loved ones. His uncle Jasper, his firstborn, and his beloved wife and their infant daughter. This last loss broke him. He became a recluse, and like King Arthur, another bitter reminder of what once was and what could have yet might have been.

Survived by his mother, Henry passed away on April 1509. The last book of Le Morte dArthur has Arthur his illegitimate son to the death. Mordred is slain but Arthur is mortally wounded. Seeing the splatter of brains and other body parts, he weeps and laments his reign. One of his men takes him to a barge where he is watched over by three magical queens who take him to the land of Avalon, where he will rest for eternity. The novel ends with a promise. One day Arthur will rise from the grave and come in the form of a just man to make things right again.

Many English Kings did not see the tale of King Arthur as a cautionary tale. They saw Arthur as their role model. Due to his paternal family’s ties to Wales and his peculiar journeys, Henry believed he had more in common with him, and was worthier than his predecessors to take up his mantle.
Henry was right, the year the novel was printed, was the year his reign began. But rather than having celebrated the similarities, he should have been wary of them.

Henry VII’s crown was inherited by his remaining son, Henry VIII. Unlike the terrible state England had been left in by Arthur’s death, Tudor England did not have to worry about that because in our version of the tale, Merlin was still around to help the next generation before he too passed away. In this version, Merlin was not a wise old man but a woman. Henry VII’s mother ensured that her son had a peaceful transition of power. When he reached his age of majority, she retired and passed away quickly.

The age of Camelot had come to an end. Camelot had become a land of nightmares. After the Tudor dynasty died out and the crown was inherited by a Junior branch (that descended from his eldest daughter) chroniclers took a different view of Henry VII’s reign. Henry VII’s last years in power came to define him, with him being portrayed as the miser-king, a dastardly figure whose mother was equally terrible.

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ONCE AND FUTURE KINGS

Like all the Tudors, Henry VII is a fascinating figure. Le Morte dArthur gives us an Arthur we can all root for and empathize with. He is flawed, and it is those flaws that make him relatable because he is human. Similarly, it is (ironically) thanks to all the bashing that Henry VII has received that has made him one of the more relatable monarchs of his dynasty.

They remain the once and future kings. Nobodies who beat the odds to become England’s celebrated figures, but who ultimately were helpless in the face of personal tragedy. Their dream of a perfect kingdom was inherited by their descendants but died with them. Ultimately though, despite his best efforts, his story took a tragic turn. Unlike his hero, he did not die at the hands of his son, nor see his kingdom descend into chaos. He had his Merlin (in the form of Margaret Beaufort) to thank for that; but he did lose many of his loved ones.Over a century later when the geo-political landscape of the British Isles changed, so did his appeal among chroniclers. Chroniclers began to see him in a negative light, painting him and his mother as a stain in English history and shifting the pendulum to the other side when it came to his rivals (primarily Richard).
In a way, this parallels with Arthur’s demise at the hands of his son, Mordred. At the end Mallory’s novel, Arthur regretfully tells two of his knights after he kills Mordred, that his glory has been snatched from him. Though Henry died of natural causes, recent efforts to vilify his name can be seen as a way of destroying his legacy.

Ironically though, novelists and chroniclers’ efforts to make him into a villain, only serve to make him more appealing. Who wants to be interested in a perfect character? Someone who has no flaws and you can’t relate to when you have a man who beat the odds and became King of England?

Subsequent Kings and Queens would delight themselves with tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table but they were far wiser in how they approached this tale. Instead of seeing Arthur as a role model, they regarded him as a cautionary tale; the perfect example of what happens when someone lets himself be overpowered by his vices.

Sources:

  • de Lisle, Leanda. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
  • Penn, Thomas. Winter King and the Dawn of Tudor England. Simon & Schuster. 2012.
  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Porter, Linda. Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • Skidmore, Chris. The Rise of the Tudors: The Family that Changed English History. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • Mallory, Thomas. Le Morte dArthur. 1485.
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Henry promises to marry Princess Elizabeth of York

0Henry VII and EOY

On Christmas day, 1483, Henry VII solemnly swore that he would marry Elizabeth of York at Vannes Cathedral, among many of his fellow exiles in Brittany. Other sources say it was Rennes. According to Polydore Vergil (who placed it at Rennes), the event went as follows:

“The day of Christ’s nativity was come upon, which, meeting all in the church, they ratified all in the church, they ratified all other things by plighting of their troths and solemn covenants and first of all Earl Henry upon his Oath promised, that so soon as he should be King he would marry Elizabeth, King Edward’s daughter; then after they swore unto him homage as though he had already been created King, protesting that they would lose not only their lands and possessions, but their lives, before they would suffer, bear, or permit, that Richard should rule over them an heirs.”

0Rennes Cathedral
Rennes Cathedral

Henry knew that time was running out. Earlier that year, his mother had sent a messenger telling him about the state of affairs in England and Buckingham had written to him, telling him he would switch sides, plan an insurrection so Henry could become King. The full details of what motivated Buckingham to switch sides is still unclear and isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. But failure to destabilize Richard III’s reign, was a massive halt to Henry Tudor’s plans. After the Duke’s execution in October, Henry was ready to set sail with a great fleet that was funded by his ally and jailor, the Duke of Brittany, but they were quickly blown away by “a cruel gale of wind” which drove them back to Brittany. Which was the more reason why he made this pledge in front of all his fellow exiles, among them staunch Lancastrians and Edwardian Yorkists. With this vow he secured the latter’s support. And they paid homage to him as if he were already king, and declared him so less than a month later in November 3 at Bodmin.

“…in addition to the Duchess of Brittany herself. The premier minister, Pierre Landais, was also present and through him Henry obtained Duke Francois’ solemn promise to support and assist in the cause. Henry had entered into a pledge which he could not turn back from. If his invasion of England was successful, he would marry Elizabeth of York. It was in effect a marriage by proxy.” (Breverton)

0Vannes Cathedral
Vannes Cathedral

When Richard III heard of this, he acted quickly. Parliament passed a bill entitled “Titulus Regius” on January the 23rd which officially declared the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville null and void under the assumption that he had been betrothed to one Eleanor Butler months before. Not surprisingly, nobody in his regime could dispute that given that both of the three people in question were dead. Henry Tudor, acted quickly as well, obtaining a papal dispensation on March the 27th and moving out of Brittany that summer after one of his spies at Richard’s court told him that the King was hot on his trail.

Tudor Rose

Four months after his triumph at Bosworth Parliament would remind him of his pledge, and he would swear one more time that he would honor that pledge and marry the Princess Elizabeth.

The couple were married a month later in January of 1486, after the papal dispensation was signed, sealed and delivered, making their union official. And just as he promised, their union would come to represent the union of two houses, Lancaster and York, symbolized in the new device Henry had created to embody this: the Tudor Rose.

Sources:

  • Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood
  • Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
  • Henry VII by SB Chrimes
  • The Woodvilles by Susan Higginbotham
  • Jasper Tudor: Dynasty Maker by Terry Breverton

Fire and Blood: Daenerys Targaryen & Henry Tudor -The Princes that Were Promised

Daenerys and Henry Tudor 2

As we are nearing the conclusion of the television series; and if the rumors are true that Martin is going to release the penultimate book in the series of Ice and Fire, we could be seeing as he has put it a “bittersweet ending” where winner takes all, and at the same time loses something important in the process. In the Wars of the Roses (of which the War of the Five Kings is partly based on), every House lost something and someone important.

Edward IV and Robert Baratheon

Edward IV’s death left a huge power vacuum (just as Robert’s did). The throne was up for grabs, unlike Cersei Lannister who was by her son’s side when Ned Stark forged alliances with many lords to depose her son, Elizabeth Woodville was far away and her son in Wales in the care of her brother, his uncle, Anthony Woodville (Earl Rivers). In this scenario, history’s Ned Stark (Richard, D. of Gloucester) was quick to action and intercepted the young king-to-be and his entourage. He imprisoned Lord Rivers and later executed him and other Edwardian Yorkists. Bess Woodville was forced into sanctuary and she refused to let go of her youngest son, the Duke of York when Richard ordered her to send him to him, so he could join his older brother Edward in the Tower of London. The two became known as the Princes in the Tower. They were never seen or heard from again after the summer of 1483, not long before Richard III and his Queen and son traveled to the North where the latter was invested as Prince of Wales. Rumors circulated throughout the country, even foreign contemporaries spoke about it. Edward V, the boy who would have been King, had his doctor see him before his disappearance. Doctor Argentine said that the boy looked so gaunt, almost as if he knew what was going to befall him. He never saw him again.

The rest as they say is history. But here is where it gets interesting. One boy. One boy whose father had died before he was born, and whose mother was married to a Yorkist to ensure both their survival was exiled across the Narrow Sea. He was a boy with no lands or fortune but with a great ancestry that many would have died to take advantage of, to suit their own means. That boy was born at one of the worst times in the wars of the roses, and nobody expected him to amount to anything. And yet that boy survived and thrived and was now a man and now commanded the loyalty of many disaffected Edwardian Loyalists and Lancastrians. And he was now seen as a more attractive alternative to Richard III’s rule.

Does this tale sound familiar to another exiled royal who has a great ancestry and born in an uncertain period, an orphan with no chances of ever doing anything great, and yet her banner of the three red headed dragon (similar to Henry’s banner of the red dragon) continues to stand; and who sees herself as the true heir Westeros? It should. George R. R. Martin took a lot of inspiration from mythology, science fiction (believe it or not, he’s said it) and most of all, history. Specifically late medieval and renaissance history.

Daenerys Targaryen is another archetype of Henry Tudor. A female white haired Henry Tudor. Both of them have beaten the odds. Who would have thought these two penniless orphans (in Dany’s case, both her parents are dead) would have survived to become huge contenders for the throne? After all as Tyrion says, Stannis (when he lived) would have NEVER recognized Dany’s claim, even if she had agreed to a compromise.

Tyrion discusses the politics of the realm she wants to conquer and how it will be very hard to convince everyone she is the rightful ruler, especially Stannis who was still living at the time: “His claim rests on the illegitimacy of yours.” (Tyrion 5x08).
Tyrion discusses the politics of the realm she wants to conquer and how it will be very hard to convince everyone she is the rightful ruler, especially Stannis who was still living at the time:
“His claim rests on the illegitimacy of yours.” (Tyrion 5×08).

Same with Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond and the Plantagenets from the House of York. His Lancastrians relatives had disinherited his Beaufort ancestors from the throne. Richard II legitimized the union between his uncle and one time protector, John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford. But the children never got the surname of Plantagenet. They had been born before their parents’ marriage and their last name comes from one of Gaunt’s properties abroad. When Richard II was deposed and Gaunt’s firstborn legitimate son took the crown; he added a new clause which maintained his half-siblings’ legitimacy, but added that they were excluded from the line of succession.

“Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain. The most significant of these popular myths concerned the wizard Merlin, King Arthur, and the life of the last British King, Cadwaladr, from whom the House of York claimed descent through the Mortimers … Henry reversed this so that he was Draco Rubius and Richard III the outsider –a narrative already proving popular in Wales, where they still spoke a ‘British’ tongue. Wales was the one place where the Tudor name had popular resonance … the Tudors maintained their contacts with the Welsh bards who were now churning out prophecies of Henry’s eventual triumph, full of references to the myths of Cadwaladr and the Red Dragon. Jasper had a red dragon as his badge and Henry now took as his principal standard the ‘Red Dragon Dreadful’.” (Lisle)
“Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain. The most significant of these popular myths concerned the wizard Merlin, King Arthur, and the life of the last British King, Cadwaladr, from whom the House of York claimed descent through the Mortimers … Henry reversed this so that he was Draco Rubius and Richard III the outsider –a narrative already proving popular in Wales, where they still spoke a ‘British’ tongue. Wales was the one place where the Tudor name had popular resonance … the Tudors maintained their contacts with the Welsh bards who were now churning out prophecies of Henry’s eventual triumph, full of references to the myths of Cadwaladr and the Red Dragon. Jasper had a red dragon as his badge and Henry now took as his principal standard the ‘Red Dragon Dreadful’.” (Lisle)

In the World of Ice and Fire that was released last year, we find out about an illegitimate branch of the Targaryens with a surname similar to the Beauforts. They are the Blackfyres, and instead of a three red headed dragon on a black background, we get the opposite. Yet, this hasn’t been mentioned in the series, and although there are hints that there may be one secret Blackfyre in the books; he doesn’t resemble Henry Tudor at all. It is clear that Daenerys is the Henry Tudor of the world of Ice and Fire. But Daenerys isn’t illegitimate. No, she is not, but with so many theories and hints being pointed out, we can never be sure what surprises Martin will throw at us. But one thing is certain. In the eyes of the Westeros current nobility, she is illegitimate and her claim must be seen that way, otherwise the current Kings’ power could be under threat.

But rules are made to be broken. Henry Tudor knew this. When he landed on Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, Wales, on the 7th of August 1485, he “kissed the ground meekly and reverently made the sign of the cross upon him”. Then he sent his men forward in the name of God, England and St. George. He proudly let his standard of the red dragon on a green and white field be seen. Fifteen days later his forces confronted Richard’s. Although he had amassed a great number of mercenaries and men previously loyal to Edward IV and to the Lancastrian cause (of the latter, the Earl of Oxford as Dany’s Ser Barristan, proved invaluable since he was one of the BEST military commanders England had ever seen); victory was still uncertain. In Wales, since his birth, the bards sang songs about him. The Tudors had been very loved, and thanks to his uncle Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, Henry earned a lot of support from that Region. But his forces were outnumbered by Richard’s.

Dany is currently outnumbered by the many people she intends to take on in Westeros. After all, the Lannisters have taken out most of their enemies, just as Richard III and his brother before him, dealt with their enemies. What guarantee does she have (at all!) that the people will rise for her? What guarantee did Henry Tudor have that people would support him? True, he had Wales thanks to his uncle, but even so, a few would not make a difference against the many.

And yet, these two are proof that “if you want something you can get it” as Marguerite of Anjou said in the period drama “The White Queen”. But do not take this to mean that everything is possible. Even though Henry’s goals were achieved, and Dany’s might yet be; they were all thanks in part to their ancestry. If they did not possess the lineage they did, nobody would have backed them up. As Tyrion says, with a great name comes great risks and advantages.

Henry Tudor WQ

Henry’s victory was ensured thanks to the great risk he and his supporters took, as well as his stepfather, Thomas Stanley, rushing to his rescue once he saw his standard-bearer (William Brandon) fall. This last action, ensured his victory. Likewise, Daenerys’ victory will be thanks to her ancestry and her dragons. The fact that they are the first dragons that have been seen in over a century will be regarded as a miracle by many and as a part of a prophecy by others (just like Henry was prophesized to be the prince that was promised by many of his Welsh supporters).

In the end, a song of ice and fire and the wars of the roses and the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty, are tales of great human drama, of men and women who were caught in the crossfire who were forced to grow up, who were forced to do things that they probably would not have done otherwise, and ultimately of ruin and death and of a bittersweet ending.

Sources:

  • Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
  • Henry VII by SB Chrimes
  • Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
  • Passion. Manipulation. Murder by Leanda de Lisle
  • World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr and Linda Antonsson
  • A Song of Ice and Fire 1-5 by George R.R. Martin
  • Jasper Tudor by Terry Breverton