197 The Story of Henry VII

henry-vii-torrignano-1508-9When he won the throne of England, Henry had spent most of his life under guard, and was an adventurer. His efforts were therefore bent towards establishing the legitimacy of his reign – and his dynasty. Enter the ‘Tudor Myth’.

Then we look at how historians have treated the lad. By and large, there was a reasonably homogenous picture for many centuries – with eh odd twiddle here and there; but recently, his reputation has been challenged.

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It had become customary to start each new reign with something of the historiography of the new monarch. And since we are all now, after close to 200 episodes, surely good medievalists now, we know that customs are the life blood of a conservative world, and tawdry innovation is to be resisted. And so this is what this episode will be – what has history said about Henry VII.

It is equally customary to consult the great oracles of History; the original 1968 version of the Ladybird King and Queens of England from the glorious town of Loughborough, and Sellar and Yeatman’s noble 1066 and All that. So I have visited the vaults here underneath the shed. It’s a while since I have been so I cleared away the cobwebs, invoked the deities and entered the code.

Ladybird is quite chatty.

Henry VII was a wise king. He realised that in the past the country had suffered because it was poor. Taxes had often been too high, and the money so gained had been wasted. He determined to put an end to expensive wars abroad, and to make taxation fair at home.

This is accompanied by Frank Hampson’s picture of Henry being crowned on the field of Bosworth, as you might expect.  OK, so that’s very positive.

Sellar and Yeatman provide their normal clarity:

During the wars of the Roses the kings became less and less memorable (sometimes even getting in the wrong order) until at last one of them was nothing but some little princes smothered in the Tower…; while the last of all even attempted to give his kingdom to a horse.

It was therefore decided to have some Welsh kings….Henry VII was a miser and very good at statecraft.

Both reasonably positive therefore…quite a lot of talk of money it has to be said, but he sounds clever and effective. And let us also refer to Winston shall we? In a way, great writer though he was, Churchill as a historian was very much the inheritor of the whig tradition, and indeed the memorable history which Sellar and Yeatman were teasing. This thin justification of me referring to Winnie of course is largely to give me the opportunity to roll out the Winnie impression.

Winnie was very much of the traditional view therefore; that after years of Sella and Yeatman’s Wreckage and Carnage, Henry VII rode into town like the maid and cleared everything up; he created the platform from which the glories of the Tudor dynasties sprang. He represents the start of a new modern era, an escape from the grubby and dark medievalism of the Plantagenets.

His skill and wisdom in transmuting medieval institutions into organs of modern rule has not been questioned.

Among the princes of renaissance Europe he is not surpassed in achievement and fame by Louis XI of France or Ferdinand of Spain.

In summary, Winnie is a fan.



Well, in this case we should probably start with Henry himself and his contribution to history’s judgment; since more than anyone maybe since Alfred the Great, Henry was successful in creating his own propaganda story, enthusiastically aided and abetted by his Tudor Successors. And you can understand why; Henry was after all a penniless adventurer from Brittany, with a dodgy passport and a bar sinister in his genealogy. So he needed a story.

There were three elements to this story, and actually we are used to it day by day when new bosses come into take up their job. It’s a process. Firstly, you need to rubbish the predecessor. Actually it’s quite important in the modern day to be careful about this one, since it’s harder to get people attainted in the world of business, but in Henry’s day that was less of a issue. Secondly, you need to prove why you are a legitimate occupant of the throne. Hence the weary trawl through the first 6 months of a new boss, listening to them tell you all about the brilliant things they did at such and such a previous job. Am I sounding jaded? Anyway, step 3 build the new bright story – why things are going to be great around here from now on.

Step one, therefore, was Henry’s bill of attainder, which was a model of simplicity. The body of it goes like this:

Wherefore our soveraigne lord, calling unto his blessed remembrance this high and great charge adjoined to his Royal Majesty and Estate, not oblivious nor putting out of his godly mind the unnatural, mischievous and great perjuries, treasons, homicides and murders, in shedding of infants’ blood, with many other wrongs, odious offences and abominations against God and Man, and in especial our said sovereign lord, committed and done by Richard, late Duke of Gloucester…

Ouch. burn. Consider the previous regime duly rubbished.

More challenging for Henry was to establish his pedigree. Now while out in France and Brittany, as he’d been for all his adult life, Henry had made a commitment to marry Elizabeth of York. And actually it looks like a little more than that– it kind of looks like a promise to rule jointly with the inheritor of the line of York. Pretty much as soon as Stanley had picked the crown up from the thornbush, Henry was regretting any such promise. In fact, as far as lineage was concerned he based his claim on his own, Lancastrian descent deeply dicey though that was, since although the Beauforts had been recognised as legitimate, they’d been barred from the throne, which was a little inconvenient. But actually, Henry chose to emphasise a more visceral, basic basis for his right – right of conquest. Through his victory on the battlefield and the slaying of his opponent, God had demonstrated Henry’s right, and he needed no other. This, it must be said, is a dangerous doctrine – with a very real possibility of encouraging any other Tom, Dick or Harriet to try their hand. But Henry was aware how dicey his lineage was, and desperate to avoid handing control or legitimacy across to the house of York. Much has been made of the fact that it took Henry 4 months to get married to Elizabeth; actually, 4 months doesn’t seem to be that bad to me – as far as I can see from my own experience, it can take that long for the bride shoes to be selected, let alone organising a complete ceremony. The thing I would rather focus on was that it took over 2 years until 1487 to get Elizabeth crowned Queen of England. Safely far behind the coronation of the real power in the land, Henry.

Stage 3 was to build a vision, a story that people could get behind. There was the odd false step in this regard. One of the things that Henry did at one stage was try the old trick of rehabilitating the memory of Henry VI, giving his body a grander home and bigging up his saintliness, with stories about the child that was saved after being run over by a wagon and all that, with the idea of selling a story of a return to healthy Lancastrian principles. This was largely a failure and dropped. Some of course did indeed pick up the cult – bad kings seem to make good saints in medieval England – but there was always a dangerous side to this line. Along the lines of ‘what, you want us to venerate this numpty who put his country through 40 years of mayhem death and destruction on account of his rubbishness?’. The alternative Henry went for was to keep referring back to Henry V, and here he was at least getting a bit more aspirational and inspirational; Henry V was the kind of guy you could get behind and give lusty cheers, cry Harry England and St George and grab a tankard from the hands of an equally lusty wench. Of course in terms of descent it was appallingly dodgy, since Henry VII was descended from Henry V’s wife, so no blood relation at all. But it was at least a good story.

But the big Tudor myth, the one that has in fact survived to a large degree through the centuries and into the writing of Winston Churchill, was the story of the man who came to save England from herself.

When Henry came, he came with a number of badges he could use to promote helpful stories. He could use Margaret Beaufort’s Portcullis symbol, to emphasise continuity with the house of Beaufort. Far more, he used the Red Dragon of Cadwallader. Now this has originally had the handy purpose as he marched through Wales of convincing the Welsh to support one of their own. The French have had a go at the throne, now it’s the turn of the Welsh, sort of thing, before we then hand over to the Scots. Oh, and the Germans have expressed an interest by the way some time in the future. One day the English will have an English royal family. To be more serious, the Welsh responded to Henry’s claims very well, and by golly after a couple of centuries of inequality they needed a helping hand. The Welsh stay noticeably loyal to the monarchy through Tudor and Stuart times – something Charles I would very much profit from in the civil war. Once ensconced on the English throne though, being Welsh helped Henry not one little tiny bit; in fact, sadly, would have been something of a drawback had it not been for one legend the Welsh owned that everyone loved – the Story of Arthur. So Henry sold that for all he was worth – here was a spiritual descendent of the great Arthur come to save the realm and take her into the glories of new future. Even Henry’s first son and heir would be called Arthur.

But what appeared at the coronation was a red rose. Now in fact, the symbol of the red rose had not been a common symbol for Tudors up to that time; nor indeed had it been popular among the Lancastrians and Beauforts, but it had been there. But at Henry’s coronation the Red rose was everywhere. The new symbol was quickly taken up; for example, the poem appeared:

In the year 1485 on the 22nd day of august the tusks of the boar were blunted and the red rose, avenger of the white, shines on us

The boar of course being Richard’s badge as Duke of Gloucester, and the white rose of York.

It soon became clear why Henry was bigging up a rather obscure Lancastrian symbol. In January 1486, the marriage of Henry and Elizabeth took place; and a new Rose appeared – what became known as the Tudor Rose; a large Red Rose dominating the symbol, with a smaller white rose set at its heart. Henry then went on a tour with his new Wife Elizabeth, and York was on the schedule, as well it might, given its Richard loving past. He needn’t have worried anyway – the good burgers of York were suitability obsequious. Richard? Richard who? Ha ha Sire you must be thinking of someone else.  Anyway, Henry had given York strict instructions about how they would receive the royal couple.  They faithfully enacted the pageant as required; at its heart was a mechanical device with a massive Red Rose which emerged from a white rose; and finally a crown descended from the clouds to cover the whole scene. The message was clear – Henry had united the houses of Lancaster and York, and just don’t forget which is the senior partner.

So the message was that Henry had united the two houses into one new house, that of Tudor. But it was more than that; by so doing, Henry was the saviour of the kingdom and his people, because he had come with a firm hand to end the chaos of civil war. Finally, England was able to achieve some stability, and through Henry’s firm rule, the glories of the Tudor age were made possible. And this is a theme taken up with enthusiasm by Henry’s Tudor successors and their historians. Certainly they use the new symbol without let or hindrance. But it started right away. Bishop Fisher at Henry’s funeral praised Henry’s political wisdom, and the respect, peace, and prosperity it brought him at home and abroad. Now a funeral is of course hardly the place anyway to start laying into someone’s reputation its got to be said anyway, so you would expect anything neggy. But his comments were very much reinforced by the Tudor historians.

Polydore Vergil was first in line; Henry was shrewd, prudent, knew his own mind and was never overawed or dominated by his counsellors; he cherished justice, maintained order, was religious. But Vergil was honest enough to point out some grit in the oyster:

But all these virtues were obscured latterly by avarice.

Edward Hall, again in the 16th century tried to squash that objection by arguing that yes, Henry might have shown a bit of avarice, but it was a necessary evil, one that paled into insignificance against Henry’s great achievement of pacifying the realm.

Then we get to a bloke called Francis Bacon, whose career is seriously no yolk – philosopher, Historian, scientist, statesman, jurist, orator – pretty much every talent and career except toilet cleaning.


Bacon was sacked by King James I and in 1622 he may have written about Henry VII to demonstrate to James that he had the political insight that he needed; if so, it didn’t work since Francis was banished to the political darkness, but his works of Henry VII basically established the template that has survived to this day, more than single person since Henry himself, Bacon is responsible for how we view him.

He painted a picture of a serious reserved, austere figure, skilful, prudent, statesmanlike. He was determined to achieve dynastic security, and bent his energies towards that and of course achieved his aims. Along the way he restored the power and prestige of the monarchy, there was, he wrote, ‘no such thing as any great or mighty subject who might eclipse or overshadow the imperial power’; and by taking on the over mighty subjects of the wars of the Roses created a service nobility subservient to the crown and organised to do it’s bidding. At the same time he was clear sighted enough to use the right men for the right tasks, using men of the middle sort who could drive through his changes and reforms, rather than being dependant on the nobility.

Crucially, Henry’s success in re-establishing the power and prestige of the monarchy was underpinned by fiscal prudence which restored the royal finances; and a refusal to be distracted by vainglorious foreign adventures which would have once again emptied the treasury. And as if this was not enough, he was a lawmaker without peer except maybe the daddy himself, Edward I; and in the application of justice he restored law and order, expanding the role of the Justices of the Peace and cracking down on the old hardy perennial of the magnates’ retinues and their pernicious maintenance of their indentured men.

All in all, something of a paragon then. There were though criticisms too; he saw Henry as a king limited in foresight – focussing on solving the problems in front of him rather than thinking long term; and again took him to task for obsessive avarice.

Well phew. Just to boil all this down, add seasoning and distill the essence, essentially the picture is of a very effective but rather grey and unlikeable king. There’s really not a lot of sex about Henry; he’s a successful, cold, calculating automaton, the kind of guy you’d not like to meet on a dark night; potentially a wearer of black leather and multiple studs and given to taking Rotweilers for a walk down the high street. Bacon didn’t actually use any of these words of course, I hasten to add. But hopefully you get the picture. A man more feared than loved. In his excellent book the Winter King, Thomas Penn someone noted that he’s the one king that Shakespeare didn’t cover – no poetry no drama in him I suppose. I bet this is all helping you look forward to the next few episodes of the History of England then!

This is a picture that has survived as you can see from Winnie’s quote. Even when in the 19th century historians published new documents, the story remained unchanged. A historian called William Busch laid into Bacon himself and exposed his motivation to get himself a job rather than to bring truth light and justice to the study of Henry – and yet the story and analysis remained broadly the same.

Some nuance began to creep in, as the focus of the debate changed in the 20th century. Historians dug into the mechanics of government, and began to emphasise continuity between Edward IV and Henry VI –


so this thing about there being a new form of centralised monarchy began to be recognised as becoming truly revolutionary only in the 1530s, through famous works by the super famous GR Elton; emphasising continuity is kind of coded language for ‘ah! Henry VI didn’t really do anything different did he? Bit of a plodder really’.

KB McFarlane questioned on of the fundamental assumptions – actually, when we say that Henry squished these over mighty subject things – did he really need to? Actually, this is a rather good one. Stand back a bit from Henry, ignore the fact that his claim to the throne is little threadbare, and notice that really there are no credible alternatives whatsoever. Richard has no kiddiewinkles, Edward IV’s sons have been totalled. Seriously, what did Henry have to worry about? What anyway, the idea of the cause of the Wars of the Roses being all about over mighty subjects had been holed under the waterline anyway – it was essentially about Henry VI’s incompetence – so what need to squish over mighty subjects. Along with this of course is the realisation that the nobility were far from being these folks desperate to seize the power of the king – they were the natural allies of the king.

G R Elton was a good old traditional historian, despite his fame, a man deeply convinced that people shaped human history; and was interested in the relevance of the accusation of avarice; and in a bit of a barney with  a chap called J P Cooper this came to an equally fascinating challenge to Henry’s reputation. In the second half of his reign, Henry visits financial penalties on his nobility; he used the ideas of bond for good behaviour with some ferocity, so that his nobility are all creeping about not trying to give him an excuse to ruin them. Fine – Bacon represented this as restoring the power of the monarchy. But it looks suspiciously like tyranny.

Extend that a bit and you get the modern debate; basically rather than being the man who restored the monarchy, Henry took a golden position where there were no options, and everyone was on his side – and came hideously close to alienating everyone and messing the whole thing up. Basically England was not inherently unstable in 1485; and yet Henry is troubled by threats all his like – Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck, the Suffolk brothers. Because basically he couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag; unlike Edward IV, a natural at the art of managing people, Henry VII was a hardened, unsubtle martinet incapable of trust.

Christine Carpenter challenged more assumptions in her 1997 book on the Wars of the Roses. Take the argument than Henry restored royal finances. Well, By the time Henry pegged it his income was £113,000; well actually that’s pants. Richard had income of £120,000 and Edward IV £160,000. So tell me again why we are getting so excited by Henry VII? Especially since he started his reign with all the lands of York and Lancaster, an exceptionally complete portfolio of crown lands. Sure, Henry hired clever men to run his regime – but these men were basically crooks – his son’s first act was to have the two principle characters executed. Henry’s regime was a bureaucrat’s paradise that preyed on his people. Basically, Henry was incapable of generating a noble consensus.



And while we are on it, the law and order thing; where does that come from? By crushing the magnates and restricting their freedom of action, Henry ensured their resources were not available to be used to maintain law and order, and put nothing effective in its place. OK, you might prefer a modern system of direct royal justice, but in the absence of that it was the magnates who maintained order on behalf of the king – and now they were not able to do that, law and order suffered, robbery and villainy flourished.

There is therefore a line of thought that goes completely to the other extreme – far from being the dull, grey, dour and unlikeable but highly effective saviour of England, Henry was either vicious or incompetent and came as near as damn it to seeing the whole country blow up in his face and return to the chaos of the Wars of the Roses.

Now that, I am sure you will agree, is quite a turn around. The sort of standard work on Henry VII was written by S B Chrimes in 1972 and updated in 1999; he still takes very much the traditional line, very much agrees with Francis Bacon; Christine Carpenters’s book was publishing in 1997 so really the new debate about Henry is very current. By the Way, the Historian S B Chrimes, has the most unpronounceable English name. You can advise me. It is spelt C H R I M E S. Tell me how to deal with that.

That’s the historiography of Henry, and to finish the episode, why don’t we talk about what kind of man Henry was, personally? Now, one of the features of the Tudor period is that we have much more source material, and a substantially greater concentration on producing history…so we are blessed you will be delighted to learn, with a very detailed description on the man from Polydore Vergil.

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.

So much for his physical description – I’ll come back to Poly in a moment for his qualities. But before we do, close your eyes and think of Henry VII for me would you – NO NOT IF YOU ARE DRIVING – and try and visualise him. OK? You are probably visualising someone rather scrawny and pretty dour and miserable – because that’s what survives. There are 4 contemporary likenesses – which are on the website by the way – 3 of which are at the very end of his life when he was already ill, and one which is his death mask, by which time he wasn’t feeling at his best either. Those 3 are the ones everyone knows, or other ones based on them. So it’s not surprising that he has a rather dour reputation; he’s fighting through these rather tired looking images. For an alternative image, let me recommend the 4th, which is a really good sketch when he’s much younger. I’m not saying it’ll transform your view, but it’ll give a different perspective; when Henry won the battle of Bosworth, he was 28 years old, so still a young man.

By and large, Henry impressed people, especially foreign visitors, who have left us opinions. But firstly, on with Polydore:

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.



This quality of quiet, self-contained authority comes across from other sources. In 1497, Italian visitors reported that

‘he evidently has a most quiet spirit’

In 1504 a Spanish visitor reported back to the most Catholic monarchs

‘Certainly there could be no better school in the world than the society of such a father as Henry VII. He is so wise and attentive to everything; nothing escapes his attention’

Now, as we have discussed, the word avarice sticks to Henry like my hound sticks to me at meal time. The word miser has also been thrown at him – the two are different I might point out. I don’t think anyone would argue that Henry VII spent much of his energy screwing money out of people, but it’s equally evident that he knew how to have a good time. Like his son, he was mad for the hunt – a common enough passion among kings, but worth noting to combat the view of Henry as a grey bookish kind of man. In addition, he’s clearly a gambler – losing money at dice, tennis, archery. Now I am not suggesting for a moment that evidence of gambling is evidence that someone is necessarily a good bloke, don’t get me wrong; all I am saying is that he clearly took part in sports, he is clearly not so reserved that he didn’t interact with his court and family and have a bit of fun.

And all the foreign visitors, even the negative ones, admit that he knew how to throw a good party, as Poly reports:

‘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 on them’

Visitors duly reported on the magnificence of his court, the wonder of tapestries and art, the quality of the music – including Erasmus in 1499 for example. Henry was brought up in France and knew the customs, he impressed visitors with his erudition and learning and languages; and particularly they comment on how well they are treated personally by Henry. Henry throws numerous celebrations and jousts, just like any other medieval monarch.

However, a Spanish visitor, De Ayala, in 1498 had some negative things to say, and the worst was this:

‘He likes to be much spoken of and to be highly appreciated by the whole world. He fails in this because he is not a great man. He spends all the time he is not in public or in his council in writing the accounts of his expenses with his own hand…’

The same writer remarks on the great influence of his mother Margaret Beaufort, which is a matter I’ll come back to in the next episode; but to note here that the bond between Mother and Son is clearly very strong. But here, the writer is certainly challenging the image of a man with the authority and foresight Poly spoke of; he’s also pointing to the impression of avarice and miserliness in the accounts thing. Actually it’s an important quote. The miser thing I think is harsh – Henry knows how to spend money when required. But we know from other records, that Henry was indeed personally involved in the accounts on a day to day basis. Sometimes this is seen as a good thing – look how hard working he is, attention to detail. But alternatively – a king surely should not be wasting his time on that sort of level.

Hate it or loathe it, people really didn’t seem to like Henry. De Ayala again:

His crown is, nevertheless, undisputed, and his government strong in all respects. He is disliked.

Bishop Fisher implicitly accepts this, and the suspicion and distrust that surrounded him in his later days, in his funeral oration when he said

‘Ah King Henry, King Henry, if thou were alive again many a one that is present now would pretend a full great pity and tenderness upon thee.’

Although Poly wrote ‘He was the most ardent supporter of our faith’, the summary appears to be that Henry was basically conventionally pious, did what he needed too; that his interests were on earth and in the present, religion was not his great passion.

Finally, it is also worth remembering at all stages and in all places that Henry had been through a troubled 28 years. As de Ayala wrote:

The king looks old for his years but young for the sorrowful life he has led

and it would not be surprising if the worry and uncertainty and viccisstudes of fortune had not had an impact on his outlook; you’d expect him to want to build his security against misfortune; you’d expect him to be careful and suspicious.

So what do we have? We have a man who by and large is no cypher, not someone you could ignore or overawe, who keeps and holds his own counsel, perhaps without any great intellectual pyrotechnics, but he’s none the less a well-educated, erudite man. He’s an active man, taking part in sports and celebrations and music. But none the less there is a strong sense of the dark side in Henry. Everyone agrees that his is obsessively avaricious; there is a quietness and stillness about him that is at once impressive, but also menacing. Bacon wrote that Henry was ‘infinitely suspicious’ and called him a ‘Dark Prince’, and this has stuck to Henry VII. Even if you judge him kindly, he is a man difficult to like and to get enthusiastic about.

4 thoughts on “197 The Story of Henry VII

  1. David, this is what I understood from the podcast to be your list of historians who have written books about Henry VII.

    I can’t figure out who are GR Alson, JP Cooper, or GE Elton or Alton, and neither can Google and Amazon. Can you please clarify. Thanks!

    Christine Carpenter
    Teh Winter King Thomas Penn.
    William Bush.
    G.E. Elton Alton
    Peggy McFarland
    GR Alson.
    JP Cooper
    Christine Carpenter Wars of the Roses

    The Winter King
    Crimes 1972, 1999 traditional approach.
    Christine Carpenter 1997.

    1. Hello Dora, and I am sorry, I really should produce a book list. I keep meaning to, and never quite getting round to it. Here are a few of those books.

      G R Elton wrote the book they all still talk about, The Tudor Revolution in Government, among other things. He’s Henry VIII really. Cromwell fan.
      Christine Carpenter is Wars of the Roses
      Francis Bacon was James I’s minister and a historian and polymath. Wrote a biography of Henry VII
      Thomas Penn, The Winter King. Good popular history, tries to make Henry VII as twisted as he can
      K B McFarlane, historian much loved by historians, Henry V was his sweet spot I think
      S B Chrimes, the definitive HVII biographer really.. Worthy. But dull.

      I will try to produce a booklist!

  2. hiya! I know you did this podcast quite a few years ago now, but I was wondering if there is a transcript. I’m currently writing an A level dissertation on Henry VII, and you’ve said so many useful things in this podcast and I would like to put them in my essay, and a transcript will make picking and choosing what to put in so much easier. Don’t worry if not, you have already helped to much!

    1. Hi Isla, lovely to hear from you. I have now pasted the transcript into the post, so you can see it there. I am sorry, back then I didn’t put references in the script, but from memory the two best books I used were biographies by Chrimes, and the Winter King by Penn. Good luck! I grew to respect Henry VII.

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