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.

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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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