Henry VII: The Winter King

Gradually catching up with the Tudor Court Season programmes that were recently on the BBC. This weekend we watched the one about Henry VII, which was presented by Thomas Penn. The programme was based on the book Penn has published with the same title – I got it for Christmas 2011 (and read it while I don’t seem to’ve been writing up books).

The programme opened with a brief description of 1485. It’s the tail end of the period now known as the Wars of the Roses & the Yorkist Richard III was on the throne but he’d come to power in a way that had split the York faction. This created an opportunity that the exiled Lancastrian Henry Tudor took advantage of. Henry’s claim to the throne is best described as tenuous – his mother, Margaret Beaufort, was the person through whom his best claim came. She was a direct descendent of Edward III via his son John of Gaunt. However her line wasn’t orginally legitimate – and when John of Gaunt’s children by his mistress were legitimised after he married her it was on the condition that they had no claim to the throne. So that’s not exactly a great claim for Henry Tudor. His father was the son of a man called Owen Tudor and his wife Catherine of Valois (who was the widow of Henry V). Not very useful for claiming the throne either.

But with the Yorkists split and no legitimate Lancastrian candidates for the throne Henry took his chance. He landed at Milton Bay in Pembrokeshire (which is near Milford Haven, so I’ve possibly been near there while on holiday). Penn half-acted out, half-told us about Henry landing his troops and wading ashore then sinking to his knees to pray that God would favour his cause. He didn’t have that many troops with him, and was out numbered by Richard III’s army – his “secret weapon” was his mother’s in-laws (she’d re-married a couple of times since his father died). The Stanleys were powerful and had a relatively large army, but they didn’t completely commit themselves to Henry’s cause at first. When the Battle of Bosworth Field started they held themselves apart from the fight to see which side they wanted to join – eventually they joined in on Henry’s side, tipping the battle to him.

Henry’s reign as Henry VII and the start of the Tudor Dynasty had now begun, but Penn stressed that the way it began was to shape the whole of Henry’s time on the throne. He had usurped the throne on a fairly flimsy pretext, and was therefore paranoid about this happening to him in his turn. The battle had also been turned by nobles choosing which side to join at the very last minute – not an incentive for Henry to trust them or others. Penn highlighted one of Henry’s early official acts, which gives a feel for the sort of man he was and how he intended to rule. After taking the throne Henry proclaimed the start date of his reign as the day before the Battle of Bosworth. This meant that he was declaring that anyone who had fought for Richard III had been committing treason – which he could then forgive them for (or not) and so have a hold over the nobles.

Henry solidified his descendants claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth of York – the eldest daughter of Edward IV (and niece of Richard III). They very soon had children – an heir (Arthur), a spare (Henry) and a couple of daughters too (Margaret & Mary). The future of the dynasty was secure, and Henry’s main task was to ensure the stability of his own reign so that Arthur would inherit a peaceful & prosperous kingdom (and importantly that he would do so once he was an adult, after Henry had reigned for a long time).

Henry made good use of symbols as propaganda to enhance his reputation. His mother’s symbol, the portcullis of the Beaufort family was used in the decoration of many buildings built during Henry’s reign – a reminder of his claim to royal blood. The familiar Tudor rose was introduced by Henry to combine the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster in his new family emblem, a clear statement of “the civil war is over, my family are the true rulers”. He also had gold sovereigns made, the first time these coins had been minted. They were decorated with a stylised picture of Henry on his throne on one side
and a Tudor rose on the other. They weren’t coins that were used in general circulation (too much money) but made a potent symbol of power for Henry to give as gifts to foreign dignitaries & others.

The programme glossed quickly over the several rebellions & internal threats to the stability of Henry’s rule during the first 15 or so years of his reign – I remember the book went into more detail. One that was mentioned was a rebellion Henry put down where a young man named Perkin Warbeck was groomed to impersonate one of the Princes in the Tower (Edward IV’s sons, who were deposed by Richard III and subsequently vanished). The people involved in this conspiracy included William Stanley, who was now Lord Chamberlain & thus a trusted part of Henry’s government. The discovery of such a close advisor’s involvement didn’t help Henry trust his nobles, and the King became more even suspicious of his court.

As Arthur grew towards adulthood Henry managed to negotiate a very advantageous marriage for him – he was married to Catherine of Aragon, an important Spanish princess. After they were married in 1502, the couple went to set up their own household but disaster soon struck. Arthur contracted a virulent illness called the sweating sickness & quickly died. Henry was devastated by this loss, but more was to follow. Elizabeth comforted him with the thought that they were not yet to old to have more children, and soon became pregnant. The baby was born early, and soon died – and Elizabeth herself died shortly afterwards on her 37th birthday in 1503. Henry was incapacitated to the point of illness by this double loss of both heir & wife within a year. He was confined to his bed for 6 weeks, but then recovered and returned to the business of ruling.

However things had changed, and what had already been a paranoid court became full on tyranny. Henry felt that if he wasn’t to be loved by his people, then he would make them fear him. He created a council, called The Council Learned in the Law, who used obscure laws or invented charges against people to levy fines on them. Everyone owed the King money, or had paid to be pardoned of some crime – and the threat was always there that if you displeased the King your payment would no longer be enough. Penn told the story of one family, merchants in London, who were accused of killing a baby and fined an enormous sum of money (£500, which was a lot then). The Council Learned in the Law had no need of proof, and did not try their accused victims in a court of law, so it was pay up or be flung in jail. The man most associated with the abuses of power by this Council was a man called Edmund Dudley, who’d been a commoner who rose to power because Henry promoted him – so he was resented by the nobility even before he was coercing them into paying the King large sums of money.

By the time Henry died in 1509 his regime had become feared & hated, and Henry VIII was looked forward to as the ruler who would put things right. The younger Henry was everything his father wasn’t – good at the outward show of courtly behaviour (like jousting and other knightly activities) and charismatic. He was hailed as the Spring Prince – which is where Penn’s title of “The Winter King” comes from for Henry VII.

A slightly odd experience watching this – I think it’s the first time I’ve watched the programme based on a book after reading the book itself. So I was frequently reminded that the book went into more detail about this or that, but it did convey the central ideas of the book well. Henry VII’s reign is often overlooked when you talk about the Tudors – with both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I being so iconic there’s not often the space in the story for a miserly, paranoid King whose biggest achievement seems to be in not having another succession war at the end of his reign. So it’s interesting to learn more about him and have him held up not just as “Henry VIII’s father” but as a person & ruler with his own significance.