Henry VII: How a Usurper King Established a Dynasty

Henry VII, King of England

On the 30th of October 1485, Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII of England. Just over 30 years earlier, England had been plunged into one of its most deadly civil wars. The Wars of the Roses had left the English monarchy unstable, disliked, and vulnerable. Powerful nobles, such as the Earl of Surrey, had immense power, with armies fit to rival that of the king and land which dwarfed that owned by the Crown. However, by Henry VII’s death in 1509, England’s economy was doing better than before and the Wars of the Roses seemed but a distant memory. How was Henry Tudor, a man with no palpable connection to the throne, able to secure a dynasty which would go down in history as one of England’s most influential?

When the Wars of the Roses had started on the 22nd of May 1455, with the 1st Battle of St. Albans, Henry was not yet born. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was herself not yet 12 at the outbreak of the civil war, which would continue for over 30 years.

Henry V

Henry’s claim to the throne was weak. His Great-Great-Grandfather (on his mother’s side) was John of Gaunt, one of Edward III’s five sons. Henry’s grandfather, Owen Tudor, was in a relationship with (and possibly secretly married) Catherine of Valois, the widow of Henry V of England. In short, whilst Henry Tudor did have a family connection to the throne, it was distant and viewed as illegitimate.

Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick

This tenuous connection to royalty meant that Henry was not one of the prominent potential heirs. Moreover, the lack of constant control from London had meant that the power of the nobility in England had been rapidly increasing over the course of the late 15th century. Upon Henry VII’s becoming king, many of these nobles were known as “overmighty subjects.” Henry’s own kingship was very much caused by this change. The Stanley Family, namely Thomas and William, had immense influence over the outcome of the Battle of Bosworth. Indeed, the Wikipedia page about the battle chooses to separate the battle into three belligerents: The House of York, The House of Lancaster, and The Stanley Family. Despite Thomas being married to Henry’s mother, the Stanleys waited until the last moments of the battle to intervene, seeing Richard III separate from his main army in an attempt to finish off the battered Henry Tudor. One might even go as far as to compare the power held by the Stanley’s and other nobles to that of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who was fittingly given the title of “Kingmaker” due to his enormous influence over the monarchical politics of the time. Certainly, therefore, it is clear that the immense power of the nobility had the potential to cause many issues for the inexperienced Henry VII, especially in the north of England where Yorkist support amongst the nobility was most strong.

The economy of England prior to 1485 would also cause troubles for Henry VII during his early years as king. The harvests in the years leading up to Henry’s ascension to the throne were poor, especially in the east of England. Moreover, the economic state of the Crown was certainly in no good shape. During the Wars of the Roses, the nobility in England had been able to enclose vast amounts of land, leaving the Crown with little land of its own. With little land, Henry VII faced a huge financial problem. This was exacerbated by the state of the Treasury, which had been crippled during the Wars of the Roses and had struggled to stabilise under the reign of Richard III. On top of this, Henry would need to improve the foreign relations of England, something essential if he wished to be the founder of a long-lasting Tudor dynasty. Henry’s ambitions were therefore very clear. He needed to suppress Yorkist and Noble threat, stabilise the economy of the country, regain control over a stable government, and establish a firm foreign policy which could ensure the survival of a dynasty. So, how did Henry go about trying to accomplish these goals and to what extent was he successful?

Elizabeth of York

Henry’s primary concern was with the power of the nobility. Being a poor king was one thing, being a dead king was another. In order to try and make peace with the House of York (to which Henry, being a Lancastrian, was theoretically opposed), he quickly married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, on the 18th of January, 1486. This ended, on paper, the Wars of the Roses, uniting both the House of Lancaster and the House of York under the House of Tudor. However, in reality, this was not the case. The Wars of the Roses would continue for another 2 years, ending after the Battle of Stoke in 1487. Henry took two other measures to ensure the legitimacy of his rule. Firstly, he changed the starting date of his own reign from 22nd August 1485 to the 21st August 1485. By doing this had indicted any person who fought alongside Richard III, making them guilty of treason. Secondly, Henry repealed the Act of Titulus Regius, which Richard III had passed in 1484. By doing this, Henry had legitimised Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and therefore also legitimised the royal status of his wife.

Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey

So, Henry had legalised his rule but if the Wars of the Roses are to tell us anything, it’s that the nobility of England had little care for the law. Fortunately for Henry, many of the powerful nobles had either died in the Wars of the Roses or had participated in the Battle of Bosworth Field alongside Richard III. One such example of this is the aforementioned Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Surrey had fought against Henry at Bosworth along with his father, the Duke of Norfolk, who had been killed. Following the battle, Surrey was taken prisoner and spent three years in the Tower of London. Henry used attainder to strip Surrey of his lands and titles. This was not an isolated case, Henry issued around 138 attainders during his reign. However, Henry was not just a punisher, he was a forgiver. In 1489, Henry partially reversed Howard’s attainder and would come to fully reverse it. Henry would come to reverse a total of approximately 46 attainders during his reign. Surrey showed loyalty and service. In 1489 he was successful in quashing the Yorkshire Rebellion and was made Henry’s marshal in the North. In 1499, he would be recalled to London and was appointed to the king’s Council in 1501. Surrey is a fine example of Henry VII’s use of a “carrot-and-stick” strategy to gain support — Henry would offer rewards, usually titles, for good behaviour, meaning that he could gain the loyalty of the nobility whilst not giving away too much land or money. Yet this was certainly no utopia for Henry. His use of bonds and recognisances, by which he could twist the arm of the nobility, had made the English aristocracy loyal to him purely by force. His use of “blood corruption” to collectively punish noble families was also widely disliked by the nobility. This meant that any weakness shown by Henry in the future could likely be taken advantage of by members of the nobility. In an attempt to avoid this, Henry VII also embarked on an extensive mission against retaining (the ability of nobles to utilise private armies). By 1504, a license was required to use retainers, meaning that Henry could control who had power and who didn’t. This being said, Henry had to try and balance this control of the nobility’s power with the benefit that a strong nobility could bring him, such as helping him put down opposition in times of emergency. Henry exhibited success in these areas through his defeating the Lovell and Stafford Rebellion (1485) and the attempted rebellions by both Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel (who pretended to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York and Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick respectively), as well as a few other rebellions, such as the Yorkshire Rebellion of 1489.

Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick

However, these successes were not unqualified. In dealing with Warbeck, Henry had to spend about £13,000 (around £1,000,000 in 2016), a severe strain on the economy of England. Moreover, Henry chose to pardon Simnel and sent him to work in the royal kitchens. Not only did this make Henry seem weak to some, but his subsequent public exhibition of Edward Plantagenet — done to show that Simnel was, in fact, merely a pretender — was simply Henry showcasing to the people of England a figure who had a stronger claim to the throne than he did. We know this to be the case, as Edward was executed in 1499, putting an end to his constant threat. Moreover, Henry had ultimately failed to put down the Yorkshire Rebellion completely, with the rebels being victorious in halting the taxation scheme which Henry had ordered. This was a cruel reminder of the north’s Yorkist convictions and was a testament to the tension of England during Henry’s rule. In addition to this, figures such as Margaret of York, a daughter of Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York and sister to both Edward IV and Richard III, continued to support opposition to Henry largely unopposed. Therefore, it is also clear that Henry had not done enough to ensure that long-term resistance was subdued, he had merely overcome various short-term obstacles.

Henry VII (centre) with Empson (left) and Dudley (right)

Henry also faced governmental and financial issues. Prior to his rule, government officials had been decided purely by their family and status in society. This meant that Henry inherited a government which was largely Yorkist. Rather than replace these people with Lancastrians, Henry made a change which was radical at the time: he appointed on skill rather than status. This allowed Henry to end the stark divisions within his government and meant that he could surround himself with skilled and able ministers, who would be less motivated by a political agenda. Henry also faced various economic challenges. One way in which Henry attempted to fix these economic issues was by utilising the Chamber more than the Exchequer. This meant that the king had closer, more imminent control of his finances compared to the Exchequer, which was cumbersome and complex. Henry also imposed tariffs on many imported goods in order to raise income. As a result of these changes, Henry was able to sustain a royal income of over £100,000 by the end of his reign, less than the King of France (who earned approx. £800,000), but much more than Richard III, who had only earned £25,000 per year. One of Henry’s most renowned achievements is his establishing the Council Learned in the Law (often shortened to just the Council Learned) which was run by Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. However, despite the Council’s success — which arose from its thorough nature (which has led to historians like John Guy agreeing with the view that it was a sort of “Tudor Domesday Book”) — it was largely unpopular due to its aggressive and often immoral practices, which consisted of brinkmanship and emotionless tactics. Therefore, it’s no surprise that one of the first things Henry VIII, his son and heir, did upon inheriting the throne was execute both Empson and Dudley. This way, he was able to reap the financial rewards of the Council Learned (and it was financially bountiful) whilst disassociating himself from the hated practices that they represented. This was, after all, Henry VII’s biggest downfall. Whilst he had established a fiscal nexus to rival that of William I, he was seen as a miser, spending frugally. In conclusion, it is very apparent that Henry VII was cunning financially and certainly helped to restore England’s governance and finance back to a much more stable and prosperous state.

Arthur, Prince of Wales

Finally, Henry had to look to the future. If he wished to secure a dynasty, and he did, he needed to secure foreign dynastic relations. Specifically, Henry VII wished to gain domestic security from Scotland and France, both of whom were allied through the Auld Alliance (established 1295). Henry also engaged in a few wars. Whilst the details of these wars is not something I shall elaborate on, it’s notable that he received a French pension of £159,000 which was a strong economic gain. To secure this aim, Henry first married his daughter Margaret to James IV of Scotland, in 1503 — a marriage which would continue for the rest of Henry’s reign. His second daughter Mary, would not marry until after his death. Henry VII’s first-born son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon. Arthur died, however, in 1502 (the year following their marriage) and so Henry VII’s other son, Henry (who would become Henry VIII), married her in 1509. The marriage took place after Henry VII’s death but was planned during his reign. In taking these foreign precautions, Henry had allowed for a Tudor dynasty to spawn with strong foreign connections and allegiances, which was guaranteed through a spree of treaties signed during Henry VII’s reign.

Overall, it is clear that Henry VII inherited (or usurped) a fragile throne, in a country full of danger, powerful noblemen with personal agendas, a weak economy, and fairly isolated foreign policies. Despite these odds, Henry VII was able to undo much of the damage caused by the Wars of the Roses (including ending the conflict) and allow for a strong Tudor dynasty which would last for over a century.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.