Henry VII: The Man Behind the Legend

Henry VII portrait

Henry Tudor was still young when he became King of England. His reign heralded a new era for the British Isles, including their troublesome neighbor to the North. While he loved to gamble, drink (moderately), and joke, he was a cautious man -something his granddaughter and last monarch of his dynasty, Elizabeth I, inherited.

This is due to his difficult upbringing. He became fatherless before he as born with his mother giving birth to him at the tender age of thirteen -something that wasn’t completely unusual, but advised against when a woman was not fully developed and her husband was older than her- leaving her unable to have any more children. He was quickly christened and handed over to his uncle. His mother visited him as often she could or was allowed to by her new male guardian, her second husband, Henry Stafford.

By the time that Edward IV became King, Henry became a ward of the notable Herbert family. The Herberts were up and comers in the English court with noble Welsh roots like the Tudors, but unlike them they happened to back a winning horse. In his biography of Henry VII, S.B. Chrimes, notes that it is highly possible that the new Earl of Pembroke (a title that once belonged to Henry’s uncle, Jasper Tudor) planned to marry him to his daughter and heiress.

Novelist Barbara Kyle wrote a brilliant article on this topic and how lucrative the wardship business was. What we would denounce as a sex crime or kidnapping or stepping over a parents’ rights, it was non-existent back then. It was very common for men to marry their female wards, especially if they were orphans and rich heiresses. Such was the case for men as well. Henry became a ward of William Herbert and his wife Anne, after the start of the Yorkist regime.

Henry’s time with the Herberts was idyllic but after Lord William was executed during the fiasco of Warwick’s rebellion, Henry temporarily went to his mother. Things seemed fine for the two when the dullard king, Henry VI, was reinstated as king of England in a period known as the “Lancastrian Readeption.” Unfortunately, this did not last and I say unfortunately because while many soon realized that the king was beyond redemption and had become a shadow of his former self, for the Beauforts and Tudors, including Henry, this was a major setback.

The first time that Edward IV had become king, he had presented himself as a noble, just and merciful leader but the time for pleasantries was over. He was done giving second chances. Following Warwick’s defeat at the battle of Barnet and the Henry VI’s son and his wife’s army at the battle of Tewkesbury, the Lancastrian royal and male Beaufort lines were wiped out.

All seemed well except for one thing … There was one young boy who could still posed a threat to the Yorkis regime. If left alive, he could grow up to become a figurehead, rallying men to his cause to usurp Edward or his descendants’ throne in the same manner as Edward and their ancestor, the first Norman king, William the Conqueror, had done.

Edward IV acted immediately and sent armies to get Jasper and Henry who had fled to Wales. They managed to hold them off for two months. But eventually Jasper realized that they wouldn’t for much longer. He and his nephew headed to France but powerful winds threw them off course, with them landing on Brittany instead.

The Duke of Brittany became Henry’s mentor and ironically, his protector. Initially, Francis II did not have Henry’s best interests at heart, he saw him and his uncle as two piggy banks he could cash in, demanding Edward IV grant him special favors or pay handsomely so he could have his prized possessions back. But time has a way of changing people and perhaps it was Henry’s character, something he saw in the boy, that made the Duke change his mind.

It’s too bad that wasn’t passed unto his courtiers. Intrigued by the youth’s clever wit and will to survive, they had to think about their duchy first. If Edward IV looked to France, then that could mean two powerful kingdoms against them and the last thing that Brittany wanted was to lose what was left of their sovereignty. Francis II’s advisers convinced him to hand him over.

It all seemed too easy. A young man about to be handed over to the Yorkist king who’d lock him up, place him under house arrest or marry him to a family deeply loyal to him, successfully neutralizing the last Lancastrian threat. But since when do things go according plan?

They didn’t factor in Henry’s acting skills or his quick thinking. As Henry was being led away from the Breton court, he probably pondered on these possibilities and before they made him board their ship, he feigned sickness and as quick as their backs were turned, he ran off to the nearest church and claimed sanctuary.

Henry lived to fight another day. This experience shaped Henry into the king he’d later become -a ruler who was suspicious of even his own shadow and left nothing to chance.

Henry Tudor TWQ.jpg

In her biography of the Tudors and Stewarts (Tudors vs Stewarts), Linda Porter says the following of the young man who had returned to England to claim the English throne after fourteen years of exile:

“At twenty-eight Henry Tudor was no longer a pretty land. 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 challenged 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.”

It is not hard to see why he had become this way, and why he looked more rugged than any youth.

Like him or hate him, Henry VII’s reign was a major game changer for the modern world. Prior to his reign, nobles could still muster armies at will, with kings struggling to keep control over them, leading to endless strife. Henry eliminated the last embers of a broken system that was also being abandoned in other parts of Europe. This system was feudalism and Henry recognized how useless it was becoming, and amending it would be like beating a dead horse.

Humanism the illustrated man

There was also a new religious revival that was being experienced throughout Europe that put man at the center of everything. While Henry was not an enthusiast of this current like his contemporaries, Ferdinand II of Aragon, Isabella I of Castile, and his successors were (especially his son and granddaughters), he recognized that the times were changing and that if he was going to have a successful reign, England had to keep up.

He and his mother encouraged many religious thinkers, and after hearing of many sea-faring voyages that promised new discoveries, he founded some of them. This naval exploration would experience a revival during his granddaughter, Elizabeth I’s reign, who sponsored many of these voyages to compete and out-rival her Catholic enemies.

henry-vii-sovereign-spink_410

The sovereign had never been at the center of everything as when the Tudors became the new ruling House. This goes hand in hand with the new current of man being placed at the center of everything. Man is divine, man is the conduit between heaven and earth, and likewise, the king is more sacred than his subjects. Coins from his reign, show Henry, seated in the throne, holding the orb and scepter, wearing the crown of the confessor. He was the first English King to do this.

Tudor chronicler, Polydore Vergil, wrote the following of the first Tudor monarch in his mammoth work ‘Anglia Historia‘, a series of books chronicling the history of England:

“His body was slender but well built and strong; his height above the average. His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face was cheerful, especially when speaking; his eyes were small and blue, his teeth few, poor and blackish; his hair was thin and white; his complexion sallow. His spirit was distinguished, wise and prudent; his mind was brave and resolute and never, even at moments of the greatest danger, deserted him. He had a most pertinacious memory. Withal he was not devoid of scholarship. In government he was shrewd and prudent, so that no one dared to get the better of him through deceit or guile. He was gracious and kind and was as attentive to his visitors as he was easy of access. His hospitality was splendidly generous; he was fond of having foreigners at his court and he freely conferred favours of them. But those of his subjects who were indebted to him and who did not pay him due honour or who were generous only with promises, he treated with harsh severity. He well knew how to maintain his royal majesty and all which appertains to kingship at every time and in every place. He was most fortunate in war, although he was constitutionally more inclined to peace than to war. He cherished justice above all things; as a result he vigorously punished violence, manslaughter and every other kind of wickedness whatsoever. Consequently he was greatly regretted on that account by all his subjects, who had been able to conduct their lives peaceably, far removed from the assaults and evil doing of scoundrels. He was the most ardent supporter of our faith, and daily participated with great piety in religious services. To those whom he considered to be worthy priests, he often secretly gave alms so that they should pray for his salvation. He was particularly fond of those Franciscan friars whom they call Observants, for whom he founded many convents, so that with his help their rule should continually flourish in his kingdom, but all these virtues were obscured latterly only by avarice, from which…he suffered. This avarice is surely a bad enough vice in a private individual, whom it forever torments; in a monarch indeed it may be considered the worst vice, since it is harmful to everyone, and distorts those qualities of trustfulness, justice and integrity by which the state must be governed.”

It would be good to end this on a happy note but Henry’s life as his early struggles was anything but happy or peaceful. He faced many rebellions, dealt with one impostor and a pretender, and other personal struggles that worn him down, including the loss of his uncle, eldest son, wife and newborn daughter.

Almost everyone who had joined Henry in exile and marched with him to Bosworth, had died. The man who became like a father to him, his paternal uncle, died before the century was over. And then he lost his son, a young, handsome boy whom he had named after the mythical Welsh (and Anglicized) king who united all of the British Isles to fight the Saxon army, King Arthur. He represented his vision for the future, a future where the Tudor dynasty reigned supreme. When he lost Henry, his vision died with him.

Bernard Andre commented that the King was absolutely distraught. He and Elizabeth took comfort in each other’s presence, with his wife assuring him that they were still young and could still have more children. And while this is true, Elizabeth was young, the birth of her new daughter was too much for her. She died on her thirty seventh birthday with her newborn, princess Katherine, dying a day letter.

Henry was outlived by his daughters, Queen Margaret who had married James IV of Scotland in the North and whose descendants would rule England (and continue to rule England) after the death of the last Tudor monarch, his youngest, Princess Mary (whose descendants would be beset by tragedy), and his only surviving son, Henry VIII and of course, the woman who had always worked hard to ensure his survival, even from afar, his mother, Margaret Beaufort.

His reign is also a transitory period, representing the end of an era and a dawn of a new one, that space between the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the modern world.

Henry was buried at the lady Chapel next to his wife, Elizabeth of York. Their two effigies are a testament of their undying love, and his personal sacrifices.

Sources:

  • 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.
  • de Lisle, Leanda. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Barbara Kyle’s ‘For Sale: Rich Orphans’
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Henry VII & Daenerys: Two Dragons of the same scale who’ve broken the wheel

Henry VII Daenerys comparisons

A Song of Ice and Fire is rich with detail and characters that are as complex as the world they live in, and the faith they practice. The war of the five kings which was based on the wars of the roses is over. We have come to the Tudor period with strings of the last stages of the wars of the roses.
Henry Tudor failed to invade England in his first attempt. Buckingham’s Rebellion was supposed to destabilize the government but it did nothing of the sort. Henry didn’t give up and in his darkest hour he vowed that once he won, he’d marry Elizabeth of York, uniting the two houses of York and Lancaster and bringing peace to England.
It is unclear if the book series or the TV adaption will follow history but given that the latest trailer has made the similarities between the two more obvious, it is safe to say that it will come close.
We don’t know what Dany’s exact reaction is when she finally arrives to Westeros, specifically to Dragonstone. Dragonstone is the equivalent to Wales in the world of ice and fire.
Rhaegar was Daenerys’ older brother and thus, the crown heir and Prince of Dragonstone. Like his historical counterparts, the Princes of Wales, he was tasked with carrying out the King’s justice and ensuring that his subjects’ would stay loyal to the crown. Crown heirs as young as twelve would be sent here and like the princes of Wales, they would have their own household with a governor and tutors which would help them with the task of ruling and administering their principality.
After Rhaegar died at the battle of the Trident, many people saw his siblings as the sole heirs of the Targaryen dynasty. Like Henry Tudor, Daenerys was forced to flee along with her brother and seek refuge across the narrow sea. Her claim to the throne has been described as slim because of her gender and her father’s reputation as a tyrant, not to mention her older brother’s actions with Lyanna. But Daenerys insists that she, and only she, is the rightful heir to the throne and there is nothing she won’t do to get what she wants.

The Ones who were Promised

Tudor banner and Targaryen banner

Daenerys is also seen as a savior by the followers of the red god. Coupled with the myriad of sell-swords, former slaves, hordes of Dothraki and disenfranchised aristocrats from her homeland, it is no surprise why she’s become the biggest contender.
The way Dany looks up in the latest trailer of season 7 after she lands in Dragonstone (way to make it obvious who these people are based on, am I right?) in an almost reverential manner is so similar to Henry’s reaction when he arrived to England after fourteen years in exile.
Besides claiming descent from the legendary Welsh King, Cadwallder, Henry also claimed to be a descendant of King Arthur, through his father, Edmund Tudor, who claimed to descend from Welsh Princes that went all the way back to ancient times. Henry Tudor adopted the symbol of the red dragon of Wales as his main banner, and as soon as the Welsh heard of his arrival, they began to sing songs about him, claiming that he was the one who had been promised.
According to the chronicler Robert Fabyan, upon arriving to Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on the 7th of August 1485, Henry “kneeled down upon the earth, and with meek countenance and pure devotion began this psalm: judica me deus, and discern causmam.” (Psalm 43: Judge me, Oh God, and distinguish my cause.) Then Henry kissed “the ground meekly, and reverently made the sign of the cross upon him.”

Daenerys hasn’t shown herself to be pious but like her historical counterpart she has a strong sense of purpose. She believes that it is her right to rule because of her bloodline and her actions towards the slavers at the former slaver’s bay (now renamed Dragon’s Bay). But will that be enough to vanquish the forces of evil and more importantly convince the people to join her cause?
Only time, and in this case, shorter time (since the clock is ticking) will tell. Henry’s defeat of Richard III didn’t end the dynastic conflict, though he made it seem when he married EOY as if it did. And assuming that the theory of Dany marrying Jon Snow is correct, that won’t guarantee Westeros any peace as there will still be plenty of factions looking for ways to undermine their reign and gain the upper hand.

Fashion Statement

Dany and Heny

Another thing I noticed is Dany’s new look which mirrors Henry in his later years. Contrary to popular opinion, Henry didn’t always dress so dour. In her latest book, historian Tracy Borman talks about how he closely guarded his money and his possessions but he still spent a significant amount on clothing.

 

 

“… he had a more light-hearted side. His household accounts reveal that he was fond of playing cards, even though he regularly suffered heavy losses … Physically fit from his years of campaigning, he held regular jousts and liked to play tennis. The latter was a particular favourite with the king and was commended by a contemporary expert on courtly refinement as a “noble sport which is very suitable for the courtier to lay … for this shows how well he is built physically, how quick and agile he is in every member” … Miserly he may have been, but Henry Tudor was shrewd enough not to repeat this mistake. A man’s clothes –far more than those of a woman –were of great symbolic importance … Henry spent the greatest sums on his apparel during the early years of his reign, when he felt most insecure on his newly won throne.” (Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors)

Dany’s latest appearance mirrors that of Henry during the last years of his reign after he’d lost nearly all of his loved ones, including his wife and son.
Daenerys has this rich apparel with jewels and expensive fabrics, and she is finally wearing her house colors, but in contrast to previous seasons and other contenders, she appears more reserved. Even Cersei boasts of more jewelry and outlandish headgear than her! It could be that as Dany attempts to make her final claim at the Iron Throne, she wants to be seen more as a protector than a bejeweled tyrant.

Game Changers & Altering History

Richard III ASOIAF

So after everything that I’ve written, you might be asking: Does this mean that Daenerys will end up as Henry Tudor? Beloved savior turned miserly female king who loses nearly all of her loved ones? As I previously stated, given that this is Game of Thrones, it is hard to figure out what the outcome will be but one thing is certain and that is that Daenerys as Henry Tudor have changed the rules of the game. As she told Tyrion in season four, she isn’t determined to be another spoke in the wheel, she wants to break it.
“Lannister, Baratheon, Tyrell, Stark … they are all just spokes on a wheel … On and on it goes … I am not just going to change the wheel, I am going to break it.”

This is an allusion to the wheel of fortune. A medieval concept that can be simplified to good luck vs bad luck. Either you were favored by God, or you weren’t (in which case you were pushed to the bottom of the wheel). Henry’s candidacy as the last scion of the House of Lancaster changed all that. If we looked critically at this claim, and forget about the outlandish tales he and his descendants weaved about his dynasty, we see someone who rose to power thanks to the in-fighting that was going on at England at the time and the tragedy of the princes in the tower, and who through his wit and cunning, won many people over, and who in spite of living on the run for most of his teenage and young adult life, grew up to be a very determined and cautious individual.

Daenerys says that it is her destiny to rule. Henry swore before an audience of disaffected Edwardian Yorkists and staunch Lancastrian loyalists at Vannes Cathedral in Brittany that he would bring them victory and peace by defeating Richard III and marrying Elizabeth of York. The way he spoke and interacted with his new allies, convinced them that he was a man worthy to follow. Over a century later, William Shakespeare wrote the conclusion to his history plays on the wars of the roses, ‘Richard III’. Richard III is filled with Tudor propaganda where he drew from plenty of sources written during Henry’s reign and his successors, that painted Richard as a hunchback and a twisted individual. It is no different than what we see Tyrion or Cersei being depicted at. While Cersei borrows the worst qualities assigned to Queen Regents and Queen Regnants during the Tudor era, the role she is playing in Daenery’s story is similar to that of Richard III.

There have been many fan theories that speculate that while the book series are told from different characters’ point of view, and we see this being expanded on the show, the whole story might not be nothing more than a single person’s take on these events. Someone who has interpreted these events based on what his best friend has told him, or how he wishes them to be remembered. Of course, I am referring to Samwell Tarly. The season 6 finale closed the chapter on Samwell’s story with him and Gilly and her son arriving to Old Town where they meet one of the grand maesters. He is examining a document with a special lens and as he guides Sam to the main library, we see the astrolabe which is largely featured at the beginning of the credits. Could it be that this story is showing Jon Snow and Daenerys in such a light, because that is how Sam prefers the population to remember it?
Let’s recall what Varys told Tyrion in season 2: “A very small man can cast a big shadow.”

Indeed, he can. If there is one thing we have learned from history is that it is bias and whoever is victorious, gets to control the narrative. The pen is mightier than the sword, and it might be that Varys’ sermon about how power is nothing more than “a trick, a shadow in the wall” and the greatest trick of all is the one that changes people’s perception to the point that their view of the world is whatever you tell them.

This doesn’t undermine Daenerys and Henry VII’s respective rise to power. On the contrary, it only highlights their genius and their ambition. Henry’s claim rested on his mythical roots to King Arthur and Cadwallder, his right of conquest (which was valid and was also claimed by his and the Plantagenets’ ancestor, William the Conqueror), and finally from his mother who was a direct descendant from John of Gaunt, 1st. Duke of Lancaster, albeit from an illegitimate branch. While Richard II had legitimized John of Gaunt and his former mistress, Kathryn Swynford (who was his wife by then), his successor, John of Gaunt’s oldest son, had undermined their legitimacy by adding a new clause that barred them from the line of succession. Henry’s victory made many of his supporters forget this little detail, but not the Yorkist remnants who continued to wage war against the Tudors -a war that escalated when Henry VIII broke away from Rome and created his own church.

Without a doubt, Henry and Daenerys are two of the best examples that the people who start off as the most inconsequential can become the most important players of the game and through a number of misfortunes and strokes of luck, break the wheel, and true examples that destiny is what you make of it.

“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 in gaining the crown- was a far less welcome tale. It remains nonetheless just as remarkable; against all the odds, at Bosworth Henry achieved a victory that he should not have won.” (Skidmore, Rise of the Tudors)

Ironically, even when Henry VIII tried to outdo his father in the Tudor Dynasty Portrait that has him, Henry VII, leaning next to a monument while their respective wives, Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour (who was dead at the time this was painted) are on the other side, claiming that his achievements were better than his father; he had to admit that without him, none of that would have been possible.

Decades later, during Elizabeth I’s coronation, Henry VII was featured once again, this time through the device he created after his union to Elizabeth, that symbolized the union of their two houses, the Tudor rose. Elizabeth I would often invoke the past to justify her actions and lend validity to her claim. Like her grandfather, she saw herself as the rightful heir to the throne, not just because of her father’s will, but because her mother had been an anointed queen and like her paternal grandmother and namesake, she viewed herself as a symbol of unity who was destined to pull England out of darkness and into the light.

“On Saturday, January 14, 1559, at about two o’clock, Henry VIII’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, rode through London, from the Tower down to Westminster, on the eve of her coronation. As usual, a great series of pageants had been organized to illustrate the many ways in which the new queen’s majesty was righteous and worthy. At the corner of Fenchurch Street was Gracechurch Street a large stage was erected across the street, “vaulted with battlements” and built on three separated levels. The official record of the procession recorded that “on the lowest stage was made one seat royal, wherein were placed two personages representing king Henry the Seventh and Elizabeth his wife, daughter of king Edward the Fourth … [not] divided but that the one of them which was king Henry processing out of the house of Lancaster was enclosed in a red rose, and the other which was Queen Elizabeth being heir to the house of York enclosed with a white rose … Out of which two roses sprang two branches gathered into one, which were directed upward to the second stage … wherein was placed one, representing the valiant and noble prince king Henry [VIII].”
… Buildings were decorated with the Tudor roses and other associated emblems of the dynasty. Great stained glass windows installed in churches during the sixteenth century blazed with red and white petals. Anyone who had been lucky enough to brose the books of the royal library would have found the exquisite illustrations on the pages decorated with roses red, white and Tudor –in many cases these were added to books that had been inherited from earlier kings- particularly Edward IV. Other books, too, were emblazoned with the simplified dynastic story of the Wars of the Roses … 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, Wars of the Roses: Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors)

Perception is everything and it is more effective when the person twisting historical events is full of conviction and if there was one thing the Tudors had was plenty of conviction -something their founder’s fantasy counterpart also has.

Henry VII and EOY history posthumous portrait
“Now civil wounds are stopped peace lives again: That she may long live here, God say Amen!” ~The Tragedy of Richard III by  William Shakespeare (1592)

The last book in the series will be called ‘Dreams of Spring’ and given how Shakespeare’s Richard III ends with Henry Tudor being crowned and promising a new beginning for England, it can be inferred that the last book’s title refers to a bittersweet closure to the song of ice and fire, with the war ending, some form of peace being achieved but at a great cost. And perhaps it is revealed at the end, that this was nothing more than someone else’s view of these events, leaving many questions (as with the wars of the roses and the era after it) unanswered.

Sources:

  • Martin, George, et. al. World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros. Bantam. 2014.
  • Lisle, Leanda. Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Skidmore, Chris. The Rise of the Tudors. St. Martin Press. 2014.
  • Porter,  Linda. Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots. St. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • Borman, Tracy. The Private Lives of the Tudors. Grove Press. 2016.
  • Jones, Dan. The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. Penguin. 2014.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Richard III. 1592.
  • Weiss, Daniel Brett and Benioff, David, creators. Game of Thrones. HBO. 2011-?

I also recommend all the other books in the Song of Ice and Fire saga, including the latest spin off “Dunk and Egg” which expands on this world.