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The Rise of the Tudors: The Family That Changed English History

The Rise of the Tudors: The Family That Changed English History

by Chris Skidmore

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On the morning of August 22, 1485, in fields several miles from Bosworth, two armies faced each other, ready for battle. The might of Richard III's army was pitted against the inferior forces of the upstart pretender to the crown, Henry Tudor, a twenty–eight year old Welshman who had just arrived back on British soil after fourteen years in exile. Yet this


On the morning of August 22, 1485, in fields several miles from Bosworth, two armies faced each other, ready for battle. The might of Richard III's army was pitted against the inferior forces of the upstart pretender to the crown, Henry Tudor, a twenty–eight year old Welshman who had just arrived back on British soil after fourteen years in exile. Yet this was to be a fight to the death—only one man could survive; only one could claim the throne. It would be the end of the War of the Roses.

It would become one of the most legendary battles in English history: the only successful invasion since Hastings, it was the last time a king died on the battlefield. But The Rise Of The Tudors is much more than the account of the dramatic events of that fateful day in August. It is a tale of brutal feuds and deadly civil wars, and the remarkable rise of the Tudor family from obscure Welsh gentry to the throne of England—a story that began sixty years earlier with Owen Tudor's affair with Henry V's widow, Katherine of Valois.
Drawing on eyewitness reports, newly discovered manuscripts and the latest archaeological evidence, including the recent discovery of Richard III's remains, Chris Skidmore vividly recreates this battle-scarred world and the reshaping of British history and the monarchy.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
British historian Skidmore retells the story of how the Tudor dynasty ascended from obscurity to the throne in late medieval England. It’s an incredible tale, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Henry VII became king of England in 1485 as much by accident as by design. The narrative begins 60 years earlier, with the affair between Henry V’s young widow, Catherine of Valois, and her servant, Owen Tudor, that produced Edmund Tudor, later the father of Henry VII. While Skidmore examines in depth the elites whose feuds and constantly shifting alliances shaped the course of history, his main emphasis is on Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings, whose remains were found beneath a Leicester car park in 2012. The day the Battle of Bosworth was waged is recounted in thorough detail, and Richard emerges as a man of courage, albeit a schemer who had usurped the throne and may have murdered his young nephews, only to be himself betrayed by those he trusted. Skidmore’s discussion of the archaeology of Bosworth and his postscript about the forensic evidence leading to the possibility that Richard was executed on the battlefield were particularly illuminating. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

“Skidmore does a fine job or telling a complicated story that ends happily as Henry, now Henry VII, founded the Tudor dynasty that included his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Skidmore's discussion of the archaeology of Bosworth and his postscript about the forensic evidence leading to the possibility that Richard was executed on the battlefield were particularly illuminating.” —Publishers Weekly

Kirkus Reviews
An engrossing, probably definitive background to one of the most powerful dynasties in British history. Americans vaguely remember the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field--with Richard III crying "My kingdom for a horse!" as Henry Tudor's army closed in--but in England, it occupies the place of our Gettysburg. Richard III's cry is Shakespeare, not reality, and British historian and Member of Parliament Skidmore (Death and the Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I and the Dark Scandal that Rocked the Throne, 2011, etc.) delves into the archives to tease out the facts. Emphasizing the Tudor family, this is a history of 15th-century English kings, which began brilliantly with Henry V's 1415 defeat of the French at Agincourt but descended into civil war after the 1422 accession of his son, Henry VI, who was weak, probably insane and long-lived. For more than 50 years, two parties, the Lancasters and the Yorks, fought for the power the king was incapable of wielding. Owen Tudor (1400–1461), a minor Welsh noble, married Henry V's widow. This gave his grandson a distant claim to the throne, but the deaths of so many royal Lancasters made him the leading claimant when he defeated Richard III at Bosworth, and his marriage to Elizabeth of York united the families, bringing relative peace. Even educated readers will flinch at the relentless deceit, betrayal, treason and bloodshed that characterized 15th-century English politics, and they may have difficulty distinguishing the cast of characters since nobles passed the identical title to their heirs and women tended to be named Margaret or Elizabeth. Skidmore does a fine job of telling a complicated story that ends happily as Henry, now Henry VII, founded the Tudor dynasty that included his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth.

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The Rise of the Tudors

The Family that Changed English History

By Chris Skidmore

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Chris Skidmore
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03830-2



'But Fortune with her smiling countenance strange

Of all our purpose may make sudden change.'

John Paston III, The Paston Letters

No one knew when or how their relationship had begun. Or at least they chose not to know. She had been unable 'to curb fully her carnal passions', one contemporary wrote. Others would later excuse her behaviour, stating that she was 'but young in years, and thereby of less discretion to judge what was decent for her estate'. Everyone agreed, however, that Queen Catherine of Valois' latest relationship with her servant Owen Tudor was a highly unsuitable union.

Some said he was the bastard son of an alehouse keeper, others that his father had been a murderer on the run. In reality, Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudur was descended from the thirteenth-century Welsh prince Ednyfed Fychan. His ancestors had settled at Penmynydd in Anglesey, where his grandfather Tudur ap Goronwy had married Margaret, daughter of Thomas ap Llywelyn ab Owain of Cardiganshire, the last male of the princely house of Deheubarth. Tudur's marriage brought with it new powerful connections: Margaret's elder sister had married Gruffudd Fychan of Glyndyfrdwy, whose son was the Welsh prince Owain Glyn Dwr. Tudur and Margaret had five sons, who as retainers of Richard II held important royal offices in North Wales, and whose wealth and influence were admired by poets of the day. Yet when their cousin Owain decided to raise a rebellion against 'the usurper' Henry IV in 1400, the brothers were forced to take sides between king and kin. Choosing the latter, they sealed their fates and the disgrace of the house of Tudur when the rebellion collapsed. The youngest of the five sons, Maredudd ap Tudur, fled into exile to continue the rebel campaign, and was still at large in 1405 when he was outlawed by the king and his estates were confiscated. It is unlikely that his son Owen, born around 1400, ever had the chance to know his fugitive father.

How Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudur managed to enter into service in the English royal household is unknown. He may have done so through his service to Sir Walter Hungerford, whose retinue one 'Owen Meridith' had joined by 1420 and travelled with to France in 1421. The same year Henry V had married Catherine of Valois.

Catherine was the daughter of Charles VI of France, who in spite of his insanity, had managed to have twelve children with his notoriously promiscuous wife, Isabelle of Bavaria. Born in 1401, the youngest child of the royal couple, Catherine's destiny seems to have been fixed at an early age. As early as 1413, it was already being suggested that England and France might forge a closer union if she were to marry the son of the English king Henry IV, Prince Henry. His succession to the throne as Henry V, combined with his determination that his claim to the French throne be formally recognised, culminating in the English victory at Agincourt, delayed but did not end speculation that such a marriage could unite the two kingdoms. Catherine's beauty, captured in portraits sent to Henry, impressed the king enough to meet her in person in 1419. Entirely captivated, he kissed her hand, making her blush. In May 1420 the Treaty of Troyes was sealed, acknowledging Henry's claim to be heir to Charles VI at the same time as formalising a marriage between the French princess and the English king.

Catherine was eighteen at the time of her marriage. By twenty-one she was a widow and the mother of a nine-month-old boy, the new king Henry VI. The shattering news of her husband's death in August 1422 was followed two months later by the news that her father Charles had followed him to the grave. In name her son was now king of both England and France: in reality, power was placed in the hands of a minority council, led by Henry V's younger brothers, the Dukes of Gloucester and Bedford. Catherine remained at the royal court, occupied with the task of bringing up her young son, sitting beside him and holding his hand when he was required to make ceremonial appearances in public and in Parliament. In her letters at the time, she addressed herself as 'Catherine, Queen of England, daughter of King Charles of France, mother of the King of England, and lady of Ireland', yet all power had been stripped away: with no separate household of her own, she was dependent on the royal household for her upkeep which was strictly controlled by the minority council. Soon that was not all they wished to control.

Catherine's young age presented a problem to the king's Protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. While she continued to live in England with her young son, she might wish to marry again, perhaps to a subject, an idea as unthinkable as it would be a disgrace to the honour of the crown itself. Catherine's situation was almost unique: no queen who had outlived their royal husband had married again since the twelfth century, and even then they had taken the wise decision to leave England. There was the obvious fear that any husband of the mother of the king, regardless of his status, might try and involve himself in English politics, thereby threatening the position of the king's uncles in power. That fear became a terrifyingly real prospect for Gloucester when, in 1425, rumours began to circulate that Catherine had begun a relationship with Edmund Beaufort, the nineteen-year-old nephew of the chancellor and Bishop of Winchester, Henry Beaufort. Beaufort and Gloucester had fallen out on several occasions regarding the government of the realm; Gloucester was hardly going to allow Beaufort to gain any further influence over Catherine and the infant king.

When a petition by the commons appeared in the Leicester Parliament of 1426, requesting that Chancellor Beaufort should allow 'widows of the king' to marry as they wished upon payment of an appropriate fine, Gloucester's suspicions were confirmed. He would need to act to prevent Catherine's marriage becoming an issue that had the potential to undermine his own authority. That meant blocking Catherine from ever marrying for the foreseeable future. The following year, in the Parliament of October 1427 to March 1428, while Beaufort was conveniently out of the country campaigning in France, a statute was passed which forbade marriage to a queen without the king's permission on pain of forfeiture of lands and other possessions for life. Since the king remained a minor and would clearly be unable to grant any permission, it was ordained that permission to marry the queen could only be granted by the king when he reached an age of 'discretion'. Since Henry was only six years old, Catherine faced the prospect of being unable to marry for perhaps a decade, by which time she would be approaching thirty-seven. There was little Catherine could do. She could hardly protest without giving her intentions away; trapped by her own position as dowager queen and now the force of the law, she chose an altogether more extraordinary course of action.

Sir Walter Hungerford had been appointed steward of the royal household in April 1424. It was through his master's appointment that Owen Tudor became a servant in the royal household, in which Catherine remained until 1430. There is no evidence that he was keeper of Catherine's household or her wardrobe, as has been suggested. The sixteenth-century Welsh chronicler Elis Gruffudd noted that he was her 'sewer and servant'. Whatever his role at court, Owen Tudor was certainly in no position to begin a relationship with the widow of Henry V and the mother of the King of England.

Tradition has it that Owen Tudor and Catherine first caught each other's eye at a ball at court, when Owen drunkenly stumbled into Catherine's lap. Another tale, told in the mid-sixteenth century by a Welsh chronicler, related how it was Catherine who had first spotted the royal servant on a summer's day when he was swimming with friends in a river near the court. The Queen was instantly taken by the Welshman's handsome looks. She decided to play a game. Disguising herself as her chambermaid, she arranged to meet Owen in secret. The young man, unaware of the girl's true identity, attempted to force himself upon her, and in the struggle to free herself Catherine received a cut to her cheek. It was only when Owen came to serve the queen at dinner that he realised her true identity from the wound he had inflicted upon her, and ashamed of what he had done begged Catherine's forgiveness. The couple fell in love and soon were married.

One chronicler believed that Catherine's choice of husband was deliberate. In choosing a commoner, she hoped that the king's Council 'might not reasonably take vengeance on his life'. Others suggested later that she had married Owen since unlike her true love, Edmund Beaufort, Owen had no possessions to lose under the statute of 1428. According to a later source, as a Frenchwoman Catherine seems not to have understood the difference between the English and Welsh, and was intrigued that, when news of their marriage became known, Owen's 'kindred and country were objected ... as most vile and barbarous'. Wishing to meet her husband's relatives, Owen sent for his cousins John ap Maredudd and Hywel ap Llywelyn ap Hywel, men who despite being of 'goodly stature and personage' were 'wholly destitute of bringing up and nurture'. When introduced to the queen, she spoke to them in several languages, but as Welsh speakers, they understood nothing and were 'not able to answer her', to which Catherine replied that 'they were the goodliest dumb creatures that she ever saw'.

If Catherine was indifferent to her new husband's humble origins, Owen remained conscious of the low status that being a Welshman at court brought. In 1432 he petitioned Parliament to be granted an exemption from the traditional restrictions placed upon Welshmen that treated him effectively as a second-class citizen. According to the grant he was from then on to be regarded 'as if he were a true English subject', although he was still unable to hold any royal office in any city, borough or market town.

This was of little consequence to Owen. He had secured his naturalisation and recognition as an English citizen less for himself than for his heirs. It must have been around this period that Catherine gave birth in secret to their first child, Edmund, followed soon afterwards by another son, Jasper. Henry VI now had two half-brothers who, although there was little chance that they could be considered members of the royal family and thereby eligible to be in line to the throne, would come to play an indelible part in English politics.

* * *

By 1436 Catherine was dying. She had been ill for some time, with, as she stated in her will, a 'grievous malady, in the which I have been long, and yet am, troubled and vexed'. She retired to Bermondsey Abbey where she died on 3 January 1437. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, where her wooden funeral effigy can still be viewed.

Without the protection of his royal wife, Owen knew his future was at risk, not least from Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester had been furious that Catherine had flouted his statute against her marriage, and that Owen 'had been so presumptuous ... to intermix his blood with the noble race of kings'. Owen was also nervous what Henry VI's reaction might be to the news that had been kept from him until now: that his mother had taken another husband, and that by the time of her death Catherine had given birth to four more children – three sons, Edmund, Jasper and Owen and a daughter, Margaret, who died in infancy. Catherine had taken deliberate care when pregnant to seclude herself away from the court in London, giving birth in manor houses in the Hertfordshire countryside: Edmund had been born at Much Hadham, belonging to the Bishop of London, Jasper at Hatfield. Certainly when news of Owen and Catherine's marriage and their children was revealed, it came as a surprise to many, 'unwitting the common people till that she were dead and buried' as one chronicler observed.

It must have come as a considerable shock to Henry, who had visited Catherine at Bermondsey where he had given her a jewelled golden crucifix as a New Year's gift, to be told not only of his mother's death, but also that he had a stepfather and three half-brothers. Yet the king seems to have taken the news well; intrigued by his new family, he requested that Owen pay attendance to him at court.

Owen remained concerned as to the possible consequences of such a visit. He refused to come to court unless he received a promise from the king that he would be able to 'freely come and freely go'. Henry agreed, and instructed that Gloucester should inform the Welshman of his promise. Owen was at Daventry when he was told of the king's pledge by one of Gloucester's servants. Still he refused to come, stating that since there was no promise in writing, he could not be certain of the king's true intention. Nevertheless, Owen travelled to London where he sought sanctuary at Westminster, remaining there for 'many days'. Certain people who professed 'friendship and fellowship' eventually encouraged him to take up lodgings at a tavern at Westminster Gate. Soon after, he met the king. He told Henry that he believed he had been the victim of false allegations that he had offended the king, and that Henry himself had been 'heavily informed' against him. Owen declared that he was innocent, submitted himself to the king and offered to answer any accusation directly.

Owen returned to Wales, but at some point afterwards he was arrested, according to the council document that discussed his imprisonment, 'at the suit of the party', and placed in Newgate gaol. Had the king's word been broken? It was to be the subject of a meeting of the council in July 1437, which ruled that Owen had been granted safe conduct only once, and having 'freely come and freely gone', he could not assume the privilege of safe conduct twice. His arrest had been entirely within the law.

Who exactly was 'the party' that had issued a suit against him? The minutes of the council meeting to discuss Owen's fate point to the reason for his arrest, noting pointedly that he had 'dwelt' with the queen. Equally revealing are Gloucester's actions at the meeting, demanding personally a declaration of the council's ruling confirming the verdict under the Great Seal. It was probably through Gloucester's influence that the council also stated its belief that Owen held some 'malicious purpose or imagination' and that he should remain 'in ward'. To release him, they argued, would risk 'any rebellion, murmur or inconvenience'. Owen was to remain imprisoned until further notice. Gloucester had finally obtained his revenge.

Owen's imprisonment was to be a brief one. Sometime in late 1437 or early 1438, he had managed to escape from Newgate gaol during the night 'at searching time' with the help of his priest. The escape was a violent one, with Owen 'hurting foul' his keeper in the attempt. The attempt proved ultimately futile. Both Owen and his priest had been recaptured by March 1438, handed over to the sheriffs of London who were later pardoned for having 'allowed' Owen's escape in the first place, and returned to Newgate. By July, Owen was transferred to the more comfortable surroundings of Windsor Castle, where he remained incarcerated 'for particular causes' for a year, until he was granted an order from the king to move freely, dependent upon a substantial bail of £2,000 and 'his good behaviour towards the king and his people', though Owen was forbidden from entering Wales or the Marches. On 10 November 1439 a general pardon was finally granted for all offences he had committed, with the bail being cancelled on New Year's Day 1440, allowing Owen the chance to live free from recrimination within the king's household.

In the aftermath of their mother's death, Edmund and Jasper Tudor fared much better than their father. By July 1437 they had been placed in the care of Katherine de la Pole, the sister of the Earl of Suffolk and the abbess of Barking. They remained under her supervision at Barking until March 1442, when Henry VI began to take a personal interest in their upbringing and ordered his half-brothers to appear at court. Henry's chaplain John Blacman later wrote how the king, 'before he was married, being as a youth a pupil of chastity ... would keep careful watch through hidden windows of his chamber, lest any foolish impertinence of women coming into the house should grow to a head, and cause the fall of any of his household. And like pains did he apply in the case of his two half-brothers, the Lords Jasper and Edmund, in their boyhood and youth; providing for them the most strict and safe guardianship, putting them under the care of virtuous and worthy priests, both for teaching and for right living and conversation, lest the untamed practices of youth should grow rank if they lacked any to prune them.' The third son, Owen, seems to have chosen a monastic life rather than enter the court. As Edmund and Jasper approached adulthood, however, the king's interest and enthusiasm for the welfare of his half-brothers was soon to change their lives dramatically.


Excerpted from The Rise of the Tudors by Chris Skidmore. Copyright © 2013 Chris Skidmore. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

CHRIS SKIDMORE was born in Bristol, England in 1981. He taught history at Bristol University and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. In 2010 he was elected as a British Member of Parliament.

Chris Skidmore was born in Bristol, England in 1981. He is the author of Edward VI: The Lost King of England and Death and the Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I and the Dark Scandal That Rocked the Throne. He taught history at Bristol University is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. In 2010 he was elected as a British Member of Parliament.

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