The Luck of Henry Tudor
None of the events that have made the second Henry Tudor the most famous king in history happened in 1534. Henry VIII divorced no one that year, married no one, killed no eminent person. But the year was a milestone all the same, arguably the great turning point in his stunningly eventful career. When it began he had deteriorated only enough to be the sort of person you would hate to be seated next to at a dinner party: arrogant, opinionated, a bully inclined to self- pity, invincibly confident of his own charm, and certain that he knew best about everything that mattered. Before the year ended he had become what he would remain for the rest of his life: a full-fledged tyrant in the strictest sense of the word, a homicidal monster, absurd, pathetic, mortally dangerous.
A person in Henry’s predicament, a man whose pride has walled him up in such impregnable isolation, becomes incapable of an emotion as healthy as gratitude. Certainly he cannot see himself as merely lucky. His fate, he thinks, is coterminous with divine will. Everything good that befalls him does so in fulfillment of God’s great plan for the universe. Every disappointment can be traced neither to God nor to some failure on his own part (that is impossible; he could never commit a serious error) but to something outside himself that is cosmically out of joint. Nonetheless, lucky is what Henry was—one of the luckiest human beings who ever lived.
Much of his good fortune he owed to his father. In the quarter- century between his victory at Bosworth and his death in 1509, Henry VII had made the English Crown more secure and powerful than it had been in generations. He had filled the royal treasury with gold and accustomed his subjects to the benefits of peace. He is today a remote and elusive figure, a king about whom most people know almost nothing, and he appears to have been much the same in his own time. Though his life before Bosworth had been studded with moments of high drama and hairsbreadth escapes, little of the excitement had been of his choosing. Mainly his early years had been spent waiting. Even what we know of his part in the fight that won him the crown suggests that it could have been played by a deaf mute, a mannequin. Henry was attacked, Henry was defended, Henry was crowned—every episode finds him in a passive role.
And yet something tremendous was achieved, and the achievement was Henry’s. None of it would have been possible if, even in his youth, there had not been something about him—something not quite explainable at a distance of five centuries—that won the support and even the affection of the Duke of Brittany, the ruling family of France, and one after another of the older, more experienced men who had fled England after Richard III became king. Nor could he have succeeded if, whenever enemies appeared to be closing in on him, he had not had the courage and resourcefulness to outwit them. However colorless he may seem to us, however much the contemporary chronicles fail to make him a fully three-dimensional figure, the one thing that always comes through is his unfailing competence. In temperament he appears to have been more like a modern corporate executive of remarkably high caliber—coolly savvy, demanding but amiable enough, a good judge of risk and reward—than some swashbuckling medieval warrior-king. He always had himself firmly under control, and he seems always to have been somewhat inscrutable.
He took the one great chance that fate offered him, pulled it off, and devoted the rest of his life to the careful consolidation of his winnings. He was disdainful of military glory, and though he sought and won the respect of the continent’s ruling families, he displayed no wish to cut a particularly great figure among them. If he left almost no mark on the world’s imagination (biographers have taken little interest in him, perhaps in part because they could never be confident of understanding him), his reign is important all the same. It built the stage upon which his son and then his granddaughter would be able to show themselves off for almost the whole of the century that followed his death.
The most impressive thing Henry did after reaching the throne was to establish himself securely on it. This was no small achievement: to grasp its magnitude it is necessary to remember the hundred years before Bosworth, with their tragic succession of Plantagenet kings and claimants clashing and killing and being killed. Henry, his dollop of royal blood inherited from a bastard line that even when legitimized had been excluded by law from succession to the crown, could not have been given good chances of lasting long when he became king. But step by slow step, in his methodical and undramatic way, he made it clear to England and the world that he was a real king and a strong one and not to be taken lightly. He did so carefully, confiding in only his oldest friends, never moving so fast as to provoke reaction, watching for opportunities to eliminate rivals and seizing those opportunities as they arose.
The death of Richard III had left only one legitimate male Plantagenet still alive: the boy Edward, Earl of Warwick, the orphan son of Richard’s suicidally troublesome elder brother George, Duke of Clarence. Immediately after Bosworth, Henry sent a lieutenant to find the child and lock him in the Tower, out of reach of anyone who might hope to make him king. He then fortified his own claim to the loyalty of the Yorkist party by fulfilling his pledge, made when he was still in exile in Brittany, to marry Edward IV’s eldest child, the twenty- year-old Princess Elizabeth. The marriage made it impossible for anyone to oppose Henry on grounds that the crown rightfully belonged to Edward IV’s descendants. Significantly, however, Henry delayed the wedding until months after his coronation. In this way he underscored his claim to be king in his own right, by right of conquest as well as descent, rather than thanks to his wife. He was as shrewd about chronology as about most things, dating his reign from the day before Bosworth so as to make everyone who opposed him there guilty of treason.
From Rome Henry procured a papal declaration not only that he was the rightful king of England but that anyone who refused to acknowledge him would be subject to excommunication. This was no mere formality: it meant that the kingdom’s bishops, with all their wealth and influence, could find no basis for opposing him. As his counselors and ministers he chose trusted cohorts, men who had shared his dangerous years on the continent and fought for him at Bosworth. The Earl of Oxford, his ancestral lands restored, became admiral of England (land and sea warfare not yet being distinct disciplines). John Morton, who had been bishop of Ely under Edward IV and an exile during Richard’s reign (it was he who had warned Henry that the Duke of Brittany and Richard were plotting against him), was not merely restored to his see but elevated to lord chancellor, archbishop of Canterbury, and cardinal. Morton and two other former exiles, Bishop Richard Fox and the layman Reginald Bray, would remain the king’s chief administrators for nearly twenty years. Their services helped Henry to limit his dependence on, and need to share power with, the nobility.
His apparent vulnerability during the early years of his reign—the inability of some subjects to accept the emergence of such a nobody as king—gave rise to two of the most ludicrous rebellions in English history. Just two years after Bosworth a youth of lowly and obscure birth named Lambert Simnel (he may have been a carpenter’s son and may have been from Oxford, but little about his origins is certain) was put forward as Edward, Earl of Warwick, and therefore as the boy who should be king. Simnel was the tool of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, the royal nephew whom Richard III had named as his heir after the death of his own son and who had been with Richard at Bosworth. Lincoln, like Warwick, had been imprisoned after the battle, but Henry soon freed him and restored part of his patrimony. Disgruntled and ungrateful, the earl left the country, found support in Europe and Ireland (where Simnel was crowned King Edward VI), and invaded England in the pretender’s name. Met by Henry’s troops at Stoke in Nottinghamshire, he was defeated and killed. The dupe Simnel was captured but not punished. In perhaps the most attractive act of his life, King Henry gave the youth a job in the royal kitchens. Later he would be promoted to falconer.
In the early 1490s another false Plantagenet appeared: a young Frenchman called Perkin Warbeck, the handsome servant of silk merchants, chosen by disaffected Yorkists to impersonate Edward IV’s son Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two princes who had disappeared in the Tower. The threat this time was more serious, and it simmered for years. Warbeck, like Simnel, found much support in Ireland, always a hotbed of Yorkist sedition. He was recognized as king by James IV of Scotland (who gave him a young woman of high birth as his bride), by Charles VIII of France (now Henry Tudor’s rival rather than his boyish admirer), by Maximilian the Hapsburg “king of Rome” (a title borne by sons and heirs of Holy Roman emperors), and even by the dead princes’ aunt Margaret, the embittered sister of Edward IV and widow of the Duke of Burgundy. Things threatened to get out of hand when taxes levied by Henry to provide money for military operations in the north sparked an uprising in Cornwall. The insurgents, marching on London, declared their support for the pretender. They were defeated at Blackheath less than a day’s march from Westminster, and after further misadventures Warbeck was captured and hanged. At the same time charges of conspiracy were concocted against the Earl of Warwick, who was twenty-four years old by this time and had been a prisoner more than half his life. Though guilty of nothing and apparently mentally impaired (whether congenitally or because of the miserable conditions of his upbringing cannot be known), he too was put to death. Thus did the first judicial murder of the Tudor era extinguish the last Plantagenet. It was the darkest act of Henry VII’s life.
Along the way—this was perhaps the greatest of his gifts to his heir— Henry VII brought the nobles to heel. His whole reign was a prolonged exercise in stripping away their autonomy. First he marginalized them, making room on his council for those he did not actively distrust but excluding them from offices of highest importance. The few nobles who dared to oppose Henry, especially but not only if they had royal blood, were destroyed. The death of John de la Pole at Stoke was followed in 1506 by the return of his brother Edmund to England, in chains, by the Hapsburgs. He was promptly locked away. With the passage of time Henry found it possible to move against more and more of the nobles, even the strongest of them. Sir William Stanley, who had saved him at Bosworth, was put to death after being implicated in the Perkin Warbeck affair. His possessions, including enough land to generate the stupendous sum of £1,000 annually, went to the Crown. Other members of the Stanley family, including the king’s stepfather, the Earl of Derby (the former Thomas Lord Stanley, promoted after Bosworth), were required to pay heavy bonds as a guarantee of good behavior. Bonds and recognizances of this kind proved an effective way of neutering mighty subjects and were levied against more than half of England’s nobles during Henry’s reign. Half- forgotten laws—statutes, mainly, that the nobles had found it convenient to ignore when the Crown was weak—were dusted off and used to cripple great families financially. Henry was so unwilling to create new peers that their number shrank from fifty-five at the start of his rule to forty-two at the end. A substantial number of the 138 persons that he had attainted were nobles, and the resulting confiscations of land played a major part in making him richer than any previous English king. That he was able to do all these things without provoking the nobles to rise against him testifies not only to his political skill but to just how much the peerage had been reduced in power—how negligible a factor it would prove to be when his son’s reign entered its revolutionary phase.
Henry milked the church too. As much as at any time in the history of the kingdom, more than at most times, bishoprics became a reward for service to the Crown. Thus the ecclesiastical hierarchy came to be dominated by administrators and politicians accustomed to serving the king and aware of owing their positions to him; this would have momentous consequences when, a generation after Henry VII’s death, the bishops found themselves having to choose between submitting to the Crown or defending their church. Henry regularly transferred bishops from one see to another for no better reason than his own financial advantage: each new appointment required the payment of substantial fees to the Crown, and the revenues of vacant bishoprics went to the king as well.
Henry avoided war in spite of the fact that the nobility, generally not understanding that the kings of France were no longer as weak as they had been a few generations before, were eager to loot and pillage on the continent as their grandfathers had done and perhaps even recover their families’ lost possessions there. He took an army across the Channel only once, in the early 1490s, and then mainly to demonstrate his objection to France’s absorption of Brittany. He was pleased to return home after little more than a month, as soon as Charles VIII agreed to pay him handsomely for doing so and promised to stop encouraging Perkin Warbeck. War, as Henry knew well, was risky. Even worse from his perspective, war was expensive. He was satisfied to do nothing about the time-honored but now meaningless claim that kings of England were also rightfully kings of France. By the end of his life only the oldest people living had any memory of the bloody conflicts of the past, or of their costs. As for the continental powers, they could see no profit in meddling in the affairs of a distant island kingdom that was no longer meddling in theirs.