Henry VII and the historians

 Henry VII LeboucqThe Tudor myth

When looking at how historians have dealt with Henry VII, the startingTudor Rosepoint has to be the story that Henry VII told about himself, and that his successors supported. Henry had to convince the English f his legitimacy, and his fitness to rule. On the first, his promise had been to marry and rule with Elizabeth of York. Once he’d seen Richard III hacked down at Bosworth, suddenly that looked less attractive. So Henry based his right to rule partly on his Lancastrian descent; but mainly on right of conquest. This sounds dangerous – and I sometimes wonder if all of this legitimacy stuff mattered as much as we think – he was on the throne, end of story. To some degree that’s the approach Henry takes – he stakes his claim, and then stops talking about it, makes no effort to find the fate of the Princes – just let it go.

He does build the story of why the Tudors are fit to rule and here to stay, a myth later Tudors build on. One of them is about Henry’s Welsh descent; not his Welshness specifically since foolishly that wasn’t a great attraction to the Englishman of the time, but the patina of the glorious ancient king of the Britons, of the connections with Arthur and the Round Table. But secondly, of the uniting of Lancaster and York (albeit with Elizabeth as a junior partner) and therefore the bringing of peace to a war torn country. The symbol was of course the Tudor rose. The idea of a Lancastrian Red Rose had to be hastily resurrected, but once done, it could be combined with the White Rose of York and Bob’s yer uncle.

How historians have treated Henry VII

Historians in the 16th such as Polydore Vergil and Edward Hall supported and enhanced this story; though Vergil also had the strength of mind to accuse Henry of avarice. But the definitive story came from Francis bacon in 1621-2. Actually, the reason Bacon wrote about Henry VII was very probably to convince his ex-boss James I to give him his job back, and use Henry VII as an example of statecraft, but none the less, his story survived all the way through – to now  essentially. This is essentially:

  • Henry VII was a prudent, clever, careful statesman; not far sighted but effective
  • He controlled the nobility severely – but with justice, because this ended the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, which was caused by ‘over-mighty’ subjects
  • He rebuilt England’s shattered finances and put her back on a firm footing; to help, he avoided foreign wars
  • He was far-sighted in one area – that of legislation and justice. He built effective law and order on the basis of the Justices of the Peace rather than the nobility
  • He was however obsessed with money, was indeed avaricious

In essence, Henry VII may not have been an exciting man, but he was effective, and laid the foundation of the glorious success of the Tudor dynasty.

It’s taken a long time for this to be challenged. But there is a counter argument. Historians challenged the need for suppression of the nobility; historians now raise further questions:

  • Actually, Henry’s position in 1485 was ideal – there were no challengers for the throne; so why the need to come down hard on the nobility? In the end did he come close to causing revolt against him through his actions?
  • In his later reign, was Henry effective in control at all – either the tyranny of his bureaucrats was his tyranny, or signs of his incompetence and inability to control them
  • When Henry crushed the finances of his nobility, did he make them incapable of exercising law and order – and so in fact law and order became worse, not better

3 thoughts on “Henry VII and the historians

  1. I have always admired Henry VII, and think he was a good king. Yes he could be harsh and avaricious, but he also saw the value in peace and stability. Until the death of Elizabeth of York, he seems to have been a much milder ruler. I understand the worst excesses of avarice happened in the later part of his reign.

    But I’d suggest most English people were better off under Henry VII than under Henry VIII and under Somerset with their wars that virtually bankrupted England. I am just reading a book set at the times of Kett’s rebellion, and it is clear the policies of the wealthy and the wars against France and Scotland in the middle of the Tudor period really hurt the common people. Likewise at the end of Elizabeth’s reign when England was at war with Spain and there were a few years of bad harvests life would have been very harsh.

    At least Elizabeth’s government seemed to have learned that it could not ignore the welfare of the poor, when it passed the Poor Laws.

    1. Yes I could not agree more; as I think I say in one episode rather obviously entitled ‘I Heart Henry’, I grew to appreciate his talents as well. And reflect that the tyranny of which he was accused was entirely directed at the leading nobility, and he had the very good sense to seek peace rather than war int he main as you say. However, I might point out that the poor laws originated with Thomas Cromwell. Is it Tombland you are reading incidentally? I do like C J Sansom’s novels, his history is good I think

Leave a Reply