‘His [Henry VII] 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 grey; his complexion pale’.
Polydore Vergil, from the Anglica Historia
Many historians have long argued that Bosworth Field marked the end of medieval England, and the beginning of more modern government. This assumes at least some drastic changes occurred during the 24 years Henry ruled England. However, no such changes occurred. Henry maintained the government of his predecessors; he simply had a more efficient administration.
This should detract from his formidable accomplishments. Despite his very questionable claim to the throne, Henry proved himself to be an able and enthusiastic king. He devoted himself to the minutiae of government, personally initialing household account books. He was quite miserly, which greatly benefited his spendthrift son Henry VIII, but this was understandable – the first Tudor king knew financial success would be the life or death of his new dynasty. Like all monarchs, he needed money – and often badly. But he needed parliament’s permission to raise taxes or create new ones. Yet Henry knew that parliament would be opposed to giving a new – and unpopular king – more sources of revenue, particularly since England’s economy was not prosperous. And so Henry only called parliament seven times during his reign. Instead of creating new methods to raise money, he cannily exploited the existing sources. Every loophole that existed was stretched wide – Henry sought every penny he could from every source of revenue. And he protected the money fanatically. Few monarchs lived so frugally, and as Francis Bacon noted, ‘towards his queen [Elizabeth of York] he was nothing uxorious, nor scarce indulgent….’
For Henry VII, money equaled security. And so rights of Wardship, Marriage, Promotions, and Death, forced loans and benvolences, and trade dues were all tools to gain financial security.
Upon becoming king, Henry’s immediate problem was the same as his Yorkist predecessors – the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. Bosworth Field had not ended the struggle for England’s crown, and Henry faced considerable unrest throughout the early years of his reign. The Northerners (who never lost their distrust of the Tudors) had supported Richard III, and did not welcome a Welsh king. And Yorkist support continued in Ireland (where Lambert Simnel was crowned Edward VI 1487), and in Europe (where Edward IV and Richard III’s sister Margaret lived on as the influential duchess of Burgundy.) Also, because Henry’s claim to the throne was so weak, he inevitably had to work harder to create the impression of royal authority. By all accounts, he lacked the majesty, or charisma, of his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I. But charisma was perhaps a negligible quality during those early years; more important were hard work, dedication, and discipline. And Henry possessed those qualities in abundance.
[The story of the impostors Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck is told at my Plantagenet England site. There is a link back to the Henry VII page from there.]
First, Henry benefited directly from the Wars of the Roses – heirs to many of the old noble families were killed during the battles. Henry simply appropriated their lands and revenue. Those that had supported Richard III (those that survived, that is) were attainted and their estates confiscated. He also created a council ‘Learned in the Law’ in 1495 to deal with enforcement of already-existing taxes, particularly those owed by the nobility. Henry also forbid nobles to retain their own armies. A small number of attendants was acceptable, but Henry did not want any lord to have more power than the king. Edward IV had attempted the same maneuver, with less success. Henry was aided by a simple fact – as king, he owned most of the gunpowder in the country. Therefore, he simply blew up the castles and keeps of recalcitrant barons. It was quite an effective policy, though Henry did not curb the power and influence of all nobles. But it is worth noting that the English nobility, already in decline during the Wars of the Roses, fell from influence rapidly under the Tudors – under Elizabeth I, for instance, England had just one duke (and he was executed for treason.)
Henry did continue the Yorkist tradition of promoting government officers from the middle class (primarily clerics and lawyers.) But he did not create the middle class government that many historians propose; nobles still retained the most powerful positions. Henry kept many of Edward IV and Richard III’s councilors, and these were either from the aristocracy, or related through marriage. But it should be noted that the middle class was growing in power and influence, and carefully making its way through the corridors of power.
Henry also revived the powers of the Justices of the Peace, first introduced by Henry II. They administered the king’s justice throughout England, and were supposedly free of local prejudices. His Yorkist predecessors had appointed a Council of the North and thus allowed the great border families of Neville, Dacre, Scrope, and Percy to rule as virtually independent princes with their own armies. This was necessary because the Scottish border was notoriously difficult to maintain; raids from the north were all too common, and the Yorkists had needed the Northern lords to protect English interests. When Edward IV was king, Richard had been ‘Lord of the North’, having inherited the vast Neville estates through his wife. Henry was not so inclined – he did not want the Northern families to be too powerful; after all, they could turn that power against their king. But he also knew the North needed a strong leader, a servant of the crown. And so he released the last Percy heir, the earl of Northumberland, from the Tower of London and appointed him Lord Warden of the East and Middle Marches. But Henry carefully trimmed Percy’s powers, and only allowed the council to meet sporadically. He successfully subdued it into becoming a mere extension of his own London-based authority.
Henry also attempted to quell the Scottish problem, and undercut the Auld Alliance (the alliance between France and Scotland), by marrying his eldest daughter Margaret to the king of Scots in 1503. He planned to marry his youngest daughter, Mary, to Charles, the prince of Castile. His eldest son and heir apparent, Prince Arthur, was wed to the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the powerful ‘Catholic Kings’ of Spain.
With these marriage alliances, Henry hoped to protect his domestic interests; he did not want to engage in costly foreign wars since the establishment of his own dynasty was more important, but he needed foreign allies. Marriage was less costly than war, and – Henry hoped – more effective. The matches were impressive, particularly the match with Spain since it meant that the most powerful European monarchs recognized his shaky claim to the throne.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Henry VII Tudor as King Of England" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/henry-vii-tudor-as-king-of-england/, March 3, 2016