Chapter 2

Starting a Dynasty: Henry VII

In This Chapter

● Warring over the throne

● Starting afresh with the new king

● Exploring politics, foreign policy and finances

● Finding out what Henry was like

In 1471 Henry Tudor was a 14-year-old boy living out of somebody else’s pockets in Brittany, then an independent duchy (dukedom) that wasn’t part of France. Fourteen years later Henry was king of England and the founder of the most flamboyant family ever to sit on the English throne.

Becoming King

Despite his ancestry (see Chapter 1) Henry was the poor boy made good, the adventurer who risked it all and won it all.

Escaping the fallout of the Wars of the Roses

In the Middle Ages the government was only as strong as its king. Henry VI of the House of Lancaster was weak, fond of writing poetry and giving money to the Church and titles to his favourites. But he was the grandson of Henry IV who, as Lord Bolingbroke, had grabbed the throne from Richard II and had had the rightful king murdered in 1399. Someone else with a strong claim to the throne was Richard, Duke of York, and he challenged the feeble Henry VI’s right to rule. This head-on clash between the houses of York and Lancaster came to be known as the Wars of the Roses and began in 1455.

What's in a name?

If you go to the Houses of Parliament in London today you'll see the brilliant painting by AH Payne showing gorgeously dressed noblemen quarrelling in a garden. One of them (York) has grabbed a white rose from a bush as his symbol;

Lancaster has grabbed a red. The white rose was certainly a Yorkist badge but no evidence proves that the Lancastrians ever used a red one. The term Wars of the Roses was invented in the 19th century.

Henry Tudor was born in Pembroke Castle, Wales on 28 January 1457, so throughout his childhood he was living in an edgy atmosphere of civil war. Many periods of quiet occurred during the Wars of the Roses and in some areas nothing happened at all, but among the nobility the death rate in battle was huge. At Towton in Yorkshire in 1461, 28,000 men were killed; it was the bloodiest battle on English soil.

Because of the Yorkist victory at Towton, 4-year-old Henry was taken from his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and ‘protected’ by the Yorkist Lord Herbert.

In 1471 the Battle of Barnet was another Yorkist victory and the king, Edward IV, now considered Henry a threat because he was the only surviving male Lancastrian who might challenge his right to be king. Henry’s uncle, Jasper Tudor, took the 14-year-old away to Brittany for his own safety.

Hanging out in France

In Brittany Henry and his people lived for 13 years under the protection of the local duke, Francis I. Obviously, Edward IV wasn’t happy about this and tried to get Francis to send the annoying boy back.

Brittany wasn’t part of France then - notice in Figure 2-1 the frontier going from St Malo in the north to Poitou in the south - but Edward hoped to work on the more powerful French king to put pressure on Francis. By the terms of the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475, Edward agreed to stop pushing his claims to be king of France in exchange for Henry’s return. Henry got as far as St Malo with his armed guard, en route to England, when Francis changed his mind and Henry was whisked away from Edward’s ambassadors.

Figure 2-1: Brittany.

I look in more detail at England’s relations with France in the later section ‘Pursuing peace and prosperity’ and in Chapters 3, 7, 9 and 11, but when Henry became king in 1485, he called himself ‘King of England and of France, Prince of Wales and Lord of Ireland’. The only bit of France the English still owned was Calais, and even that was lost under the Tudors. Even so, the title ‘King of France’ remained in the coronation ceremony wording until 1802 (when the British were still fighting the French, by the way!).

Henry the Welshman

Just how Welsh was Henry Tudor? If you've seen Laurence Olivier's film Richard III you'll remember a blond-wigged goodie-two-shoes Stanley Baker with an over-the-top Welsh accent. Certainly, Henry spent his boyhood in Wales, but we're sure he never sounded quite like that! After he was king, however, he celebrated St David's Day (1 March), called his eldest son after the 'Welsh' King Arthur and carried the red dragon, the ancient badge of Wales, at the Battle of Bosworth and on all public occasions.

Securing the throne

Events in England came to a head in 1483-1485. Edward IV’s death in April 1483 (some say he was poisoned, some say he caught a cold while fishing, some say he had pleurisy or even diabetes - take your pick) meant that England once again had a boy king, the 12-year-old Edward V. His uncle, Richard of Gloucester, was supposed to protect the young king, but the prince conveniently vanished (see the nearby sidebar ‘The princes in the tower’), and the whole cycle of rivalry, mistrust and open warfare began again, starting with Richard having himself proclaimed king (Richard III).

Within a month of his accession in June 1483, Richard was working on Louis XI, king of France, to override the Duke of Brittany and get Henry Tudor sent back to England. After all, Henry, the earl of Richmond, was a man now and a serious threat to Richard’s hold on the country.

Next time you’re touring the north of England, notice how many pubs are called the Blue Boar. These pubs were all once the White Boar, Richard’s personal badge and a reminder of how popular he was in the North. In the South, however, Richard was barely known and rumours about the princes wouldn’t go away.

Louis XI’s death in August 1483 sidetracked the ongoing negotiations over Henry, and anyway, Richard soon had his hands full elsewhere.

Bucking for the throne

The duke of Buckingham had been a staunch ally of Richard’s before he became king, but now he turned against him (this is so typical of the nobility’s reckless behaviour in the Wars of the Roses). It may be that Buckingham wanted the crown for himself (he had a vague hereditary claim to it), but in the end Henry Tudor emerged as the main contender and the whole venture was backed by the queen dowager, Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the missing Edward V. The deal was that Henry would marry Elizabeth’s daughter,

Elizabeth of York, in exchange for the dowager’s cash and troops to remove Richard.

Buckingham raised an army in Wales, but appalling weather and floods on the River Severn washed his men away and the duke was taken to Salisbury and beheaded in the square (check the place out when you’re there next) on Richard’s orders.

Angling for French support

Henry got £3,300 out of Duke Francis, which bought him 5,000 troops and 15 ships. When he got to England, however, he found his timing was off because Buckingham was dead, and all he got from various discontented lords was a vague promise to accept him as king.

Not to be outdone, Richard was carrying out his own tricky negotiations with Duke Francis, who would clearly sell anybody for big enough bucks. But Jasper Tudor got wind of the plot and helped Henry, now back in Brittany, to get to the safety of France.

Guess what? The French had a boy king too. Charles VIII and a regency council that governed in his name (see Chapter 7 for how all this works) kept Henry dangling, making vague statements of goodwill and promising unspecified help. Talk was as cheap in the 15th century as it is today!

The princes in the Tower

Whole books have been written on the most spectacular vanishing act of the Middle Ages. What happened was that Edward V and his 9-year-old brother Richard, the Duke of York, were taken for 'safe keeping' to the Tower of London, the huge castle which protected the city. They were seen playing happily on the battlements in the summer of 1483; then, they simply vanished.

Rumours flew that the pair had been murdered, probably on the orders of their uncle Richard. Two child skeletons were found in 1674 under a staircase in the Tower and were buried as the princes in Westminster Abbey. Archaeological work carried out on the bones in 1933 wasn't conclusive; the skeletons may have been the remains of the princes, but even so, no one knows who killed them.

History has been unkind to Richard, but it's all Shakespeare's fault. If you see the film or read the play, Shakespeare's Richard is deformed, with a hunched back, a gammy leg and one shoulder higher than the other. Not only that, he's a psychopath, a serial killer who bumps off (count them!) 11 people who stand between him and the throne. No hard evidence against Richard as the murderer of the princes exists, but he certainly had a lot to gain from their deaths. So, of course, did Henry Tudor . . .

Killing a king: Bosworth Field, 1485

Henry’s cause now picked up.

● John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a very experienced soldier, deserted Richard for Henry in 1484.

● Richard’s son Edward died in 1484 and his wife Anne Neville a year later. That meant that no Yorkist heirs to the throne existed, assuming the princes were dead; Richard was the last of the Plantagenets, the family that had ruled England for centuries.

● Rhys ap Thomas, a powerful Welsh landowner, told Henry that the whole of Wales would rise up on his behalf (this never quite happened).

By the end of July 1485 Henry had got together a ragbag army of 2,000 mercenaries and perhaps 500 English exiles. On 1 August he sailed for Wales. After landing at Milford Haven he marched to Haverfordwest. Then, at Newton (in today’s Powys) he was met by the army of Rhys ap Thomas, which doubled the size of his force. From there he advanced to Stafford, collecting rebels as he went. Then his scouts reported that Richard was at Lichfield.

Richard didn’t know exactly where Henry would strike. He sent out a proclamation on 21 June against ‘Henry Tydder and other rebels’ and set up his headquarters at Nottingham. As king, he could command the nobility to join him under their obligations in the feudal system - the duke of Norfolk, the earl of Northumberland and Francis, viscount Lovell, joined him with their armies at Leicester.

The two sides met on the morning of 21 August on White Moor, below the slope of Ambien Hill, in open countryside about two miles from the Leicestershire town of Market Bosworth. At a glance, Richard’s looked to be the stronger side. Henry was only an average soldier, relying on de Vere and his mercenaries, and Richard outnumbered Henry two-to-one. But the king couldn’t rely on the Stanleys, the earl of Derby and his brother, who seem to have watched on the sidelines before defecting to Henry.

Wanting to end the battle quickly, Richard led his bodyguard in a headlong charge to kill Henry. He hacked down his standard-bearer, but then Stanley’s men intervened and Richard was outnumbered, encircled and killed. The legend that Richard’s crown from his helmet was found in a bush on the field and handed to Henry may be true. What’s certainly true is that Richard’s body was slung over a horse ridden by his herald and was later displayed naked on the banks of the River Stour in Leicester. Henry later paid £10 for a suitable tomb for it.

Not only was Richard III the only English king to die in battle for a thousand years, he’s the only one without a grave. During the dissolution of the monasteries (see Chapter 6), Leicester Abbey was smashed up and the king’s body thrown into the river.

Making a Fresh Start

It was new broom time when Henry became king. He had to get used - and quickly - to running a country that had been torn apart by on/off civil war for the past 30 years. Yet he had never even lived in England and had spent half his life in Brittany.

Reckoning Henry

The new king was 27, far more capable than most kings of England had been and he had a natural flair for organisation. Today, he’d be a fat cat managing director of a huge multinational, teeming with ideas to make money and gain status. His first language was English, he was fluent in French and he could get by in Latin.

Henry was clean-shaven, with long brown hair that got thinner as he got older. Some of his teeth fell out in the last years of his life, giving an image (a false one, as you’ll see) of a tight-lipped old skinflint. He was careful, aloof and naturally suspicious, but with an upbringing like his, who wouldn’t be?

Air-brushing history: The Rous roll

John Rous was a chantry priest at Guy's Cliffe in Warwick. He was also a genealogist, unofficial herald and a pretty good artist. While Richard was king Rous painted his famous roll, showing Richard and his family as thoroughly nice people. As soon as he was dead, Rous changed his tune, calling Richard a 'monster and tyrant, born under a hostile star and perishing like Antichrist'. Then he started painting double roses all over the place and generally sucking up to the Tudors.

Reckoning England

Henry had only ever handled a small household before and now he had a kingdom of 2.5 million people. In Chapter 1 we look at a snapshot of life during the reign of the Tudors. Here’s what the kingdom was like in 1485:

● Most people lived and worked on the land in villages and hamlets.

● Towns were small and scattered, run by the mayor and the merchant guilds.

● Trade mostly involved raw wool, woollen cloth and manufactured articles.

● Serfdom had virtually disappeared, so most men were free. They leased their strips of land from the local landlord who was usually a knight or a squire.

● In country areas:

• Everyone used the common land to graze animals.

• People used the woodland for building-timber and fuel for fires.

• Arable fields were planted in a crop rotation cycle - wheat, oats, barley, beans or peas. One third was left fallow (unplanted) to allow the nutrients in the soil to replenish themselves. This system had been going on for seven centuries.

● The Church was all-powerful with monasteries, convents, abbeys and chapels dotted all over the place.

The new king, of course, had little direct link with any of this. Henry’s first job was to underline his claim to the throne - God had chosen him because of his victory at Bosworth, so he could play down his own shaky hereditary claim and he didn’t have to go cap-in-hand to Parliament.

Henry had to prioritise. He needed to:

● Get himself proclaimed as king in London (he did this on 26 August and entered the city in triumph on 3 September)

● Get himself crowned

● Choose advisers he could trust

● Remove anybody he couldn’t trust

● Marry to make sure the Tudor line continued (see Henry VIII’s ongoing problems on that score in Chapter 5)

Law and order

Any king must sort out his own power and that of his government quickly or chaos will occur. After Henry came to power he called as many justices of the peace as possible to a meeting at Blackfriars in London and told them to come up with ideas for statutes (laws). All new office holders took a binding personal oath (swearing by the saints) to serve the king faithfully. They needed constant reminders, but by and large the Tudors' servants were very loyal to them.

Removing everything to do with Richard . . .

By pre-dating his reign to the day before the Battle of Bosworth, Henry could claim all those who’d supported Richard there were traitors. Henry executed the ex-king’s top men like William Catesby and had Richard’s nephew Edward, the earl of Warwick, thrown into the Tower. When he tried to escape in 1499, Henry had Edward executed.

Henry was very keen on heraldry and deliberately chose the double rose (red and white) to make the point that everything in the garden was lovely now that York and Lancaster had kissed and made up. Richard’s last supporter, viscount Lovell, was killed at the Battle of Stoke in 1487 (see the later section ‘Rousting the rebels’).

Handing out the honours

Reconciliation was the name of the game. Just before his coronation, Henry gave out new titles and quietly, without fuss, began the Tudor policy of giving a career leg-up to new men of humble origin (see the later section ‘Choosing the right men’). Whatever else happened, there must be no return of the anarchy of the Roses.

Henry appointed experienced men who’d served Richard’s elder brother Edward IV - Thomas Rotheram got his old job back as archbishop of Canterbury; and John Alcock, bishop of Worcester, became lord chancellor, a position similar to today’s prime minister.

Positioning Parliament

Later monarchs, especially the Stuarts (see British History for Dummies by Sean Lang, published by Wiley), could learn a lot from the way Henry VII ran his government. He got Parliament to choose a speaker (chairman) who was actually his choice and to agree that he (Henry) was king by divine right (God’s will) and not by act of Parliament.

Here are some bits of business for 1485:

● Parliament set aside £14,000 a year for the king’s Household expenditure. In time this grew and became the Civil List, which the present royal family still live on.

● Many people were restored to their legal rights, having lost land and titles in the chaos of the Wars of the Roses.

● The Act of Resumption returned a lot of land to the crown, increasing Henry’s income through rents almost overnight. The duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall became Henry’s.

Since that time, the prince of Wales has always been the duke of Cornwall. The present prince of Wales, Charles, gets all his income from rents from the county. To see where he gets the rest of his money from, check out his Duchy Originals!

As his reign went on, Henry used Parliament less and less. The Wars of the Roses had, of course, decimated the lords and the politicians in the Commons still did as they were told. In a 24-year-reign Parliament sat for only ten months.

It was Henry VIII’s problems with the pope (see Chapters 5 and 6) that finally brought Parliament back into the political limelight.

Breaking down Parliament

Parliament (from the French parler, to speak) supposedly represented England. Actually, it didn't. The upper chamber (the House of Lords) was made up of dukes, earls, viscounts, marquises and barons - the people who owned huge estates, had private armies and had been happily massacring each other for 30 years.

The lower chamber (House of Commons) was made up of the knights of the shire - men who owned less land and had the title of 'Sir' - and the burgesses (or citizens) of the towns.

Nobody represented the ordinary man (commons is a very misleading word) and there wasn't a woman in sight.

The royal Council

There was no Cabinet or prime minister in Tudor times. The king made the decisions and to advise him was the Council, 40 or so men who had no collective responsibility - they just worked for the king. About half were churchmen, a quarter nobles and the rest lawyers and Household administrators. An inner core of about a dozen carried out all the business of government on the king's behalf.

One of the most infamous parts of the Council's work was the Court of Star Chamber, named after a room in which it met, which had stars painted on the ceiling. It dealt with great men who'd broken the law but who could ride roughshod over the local courts. Star Chamber has developed an undeserved reputation of being somewhere where justice wasn't available, but was just the king getting heavy and ignoring the law.

Getting married

Henry had promised, in the run-up to the Bosworth campaign, to marry Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, Elizabeth of York. She was 19 in 1485 and Henry had never seen her. Parliament reminded the new king of his promise to marry but the snag was, the pair were distant cousins. In the Catholic Church only one man in the world could get round this usually prohibited match and that was the pope, God’s vicar (number two) on earth. This permission came through on 2 March 1486. Anybody who opposed Henry and his new bride would now face excommunication (being cut off from the Church and heaven) as well as Henry’s axe if the attempt went pear-shaped.

We know virtually nothing about the wedding, except that Archbishop Bourchier probably did the honours.

The marriage united the houses of York and Lancaster forever, but it was probably sheer exhaustion and lack of leaders that stopped a continuation of the fighting.

Ruling the Kingdom

Some people expected the new king to make sweeping changes, but in fact Henry much preferred to operate within existing systems and was very good at making the best of an average job, turning a small kingdom on the edge of Europe into a powerful country that nobody could ignore.

Choosing the right men

Henry deliberately picked men who relied on him for their income and success. Some were churchmen like John Morton and Richard Fox; others were gentlemen like Reginald Bray and Edmund Dudley. These ‘new men’ were very much the hallmark of the Tudor period and when it came to serious trouble against the royals - as in the Rising of the North and the rebellion of the earl of Essex under Elizabeth - it was the nobility who were still at it, with ideas above their station.

Rousting the rebels: Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck

Henry faced opposition in the first half of his reign. In 1486 viscount Lovell and the Stafford brothers tried to stir up discontent against Henry in Yorkshire and Worcestershire.

In the same year Lambert Simnel (impostors have to have cool names) claimed to be Edward, Earl of Warwick, which was ridiculous as Henry had the real guy safely in prison. Simnel was set up by Richard Simons, a priest, and he was actually the son of a carpenter from Oxford. The pretender got across to France, got the backing of one of Warwick’s aunts (Margaret of Burgundy, who’d never seen the real Warwick) and went to Ireland, from where he intended to invade. There he was welcomed with open arms and crowned Edward VI (don’t confuse him with the real Edward VI - see Chapters 7 and 8) on 24 May 1487.

Landing in Lancashire with about 4,000 Irish and German mercenaries, Simnel and the earl of Lincoln were decisively beaten at Stoke on 16 June. This, not Bosworth, was really the last battle of the Wars of the Roses. Richard Simons was imprisoned for life and Simnel put to work as a scullion (dogsbody) in the royal kitchens.

Then, in 1491, Perkin Warbeck (see what we mean about cool names?) turned up as another threat to Henry. He was actually the son of a boatman from Tournai, but he looked so like Edward IV that rumours spread he was Richard of York, the younger of the vanished princes (see the earlier sidebar ‘The princes in the Tower’. Others took up the idea and tried to launch another invasion from Ireland, but since the Irish had been thrashed at Stoke, they weren’t interested in getting involved again.

Warbeck went to France, cashing in on a temporary period of hostility between Henry VII and Charles VIII (see the following section), but when that came to nothing he latched on to Margaret of Burgundy, who hated Henry. She fed Warbeck enough information on the real Richard to make his claim seem genuine. Henry’s spy network monitored Warbeck’s every move, however, and when he tried to land in Kent in July 1495 with a small force he was easily beaten back.

Next Warbeck tried Scotland and was backed by King James IV, who believed every word the impostor said. He even offered Warbeck his kinswoman Katherine Gordon in marriage. The Scots invasion was feeble, however (see Chapter 7 for one that was far more serious), and it petered out. More trouble came from Cornwall where resentment against Henry’s taxation (see ‘Figuring out finances’, later in this chapter) was the cause of open rebellion. Warbeck joined the rebels there but was chased around the country and taken prisoner.

When Warbeck tried to do a runner, it was obvious that Henry couldn’t trust him and he was hanged on 29 November 1499.

The threats to Henry’s throne were over.

Pursuing peace and prosperity

Henry’s main aim in foreign policy was to get other countries to recognise his dynasty and to remain on friendly terms with them. War cost money and you might not win.


Being Welsh was a huge advantage for Henry and he cashed in on it. Wales wasn’t technically a separate country, but even so it was useful to keep the Welsh on-side. So Henry made his eldest son, Prince Arthur, prince of Wales in November 1489. Arthur ran (in theory anyway because he was still a child) the royal Council that governed Wales and controlled the marcher lordships (the rich families who owned the castles along the English border). This situation would eventually lead to Wales being governed totally by England by 1536 (although the Welsh were given some rights for behaving themselves). Figure 2-2 shows the situation in 1536 - the western areas were the principality of Wales and the eastern areas were the marcher lordships.


The English had occupied a narrow strip of land around Dublin since the 12th century and had built castles and garrisoned them with troops to keep the natives in their place. England had been too busy during the Wars of the Roses to bother much about Ireland and most people, of all classes, regarded the Irish with contempt. Long after the word vanished from England, the majority of Irish men and women were peasants, desperately poor and wholly reliant on the harvest.

Figure 2-3 outlines the lay of the land in Tudor times.

● The Pale was the bit around Dublin, run by a governor or lieutenant appointed by the king. Outside this were marcher lordships where lords lived in their castles and often fought each other without very much reason.

● The Obedient Lands - the earldoms of Desmond, Ormond and Kildare - were the places run by Englishmen whose families had been in Ireland for years. The Crown could largely trust these Englishmen.

● The English Plantations were areas of land that the English had confiscated from the Irish and populated with their own colonisers, or planters.

● The Wild Lands were Gaelic Ireland (and led to the phrase beyond the pale, meaning hopeless). The Irish tribes like the O’Donnells, Maquires and O’Connells ran the Wild Lands.

The whole country was lawless with battles and skirmishes beyond the Pale and no overall control existed. The vast majority of people spoke Gaelic and wore woven kilts and plaids like the Scottish clans.

Religion was complicated in Ireland, but it wasn’t a problem until the rise of Protestantism under Edward VI (see Chapter 8).

Henry had been concerned about Ireland for some time. The place was like sand, constantly slipping through his fingers, and lawlessness, squabbling and violence were rife. He was determined to get a firm grip on the situation, especially as in the late 1520s thousands of Irish people emigrated to Wales, tired of the endless fighting and the protection money they had to pay for peace and quiet.

The leading figures in Irish politics were:

● The Earl of Kildare

● The Earl of Ossory

● William Skeffington

● John Alen, archbishop of Dublin

Henry was dealing with all these men as their individual power and support came and went. When Thomas Cromwell replaced Wolsey as chief councillor for the lordship of Ireland in 1532, the job of sorting out the wayward country fell to him.

In September 1533 Cromwell ordered Kildare and other leaders to London for top level talks. Kildare didn’t like the sound of that because he valued his independence too much. He started moving cannon out of Dublin Castle to his own estates, but he did finally go to London in February 1534, leaving his son, Thomas Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly, as governor.

Henry, via Cromwell, sent Offaly orders as to how to do his job (never a path to smooth Anglo-Irish relations) and Kildare resigned the governorship in protest. That was as far as Kildare intended to go, but his son had other ideas.

Revolting with Silken Thomas

Offaly, who was known as Silken Thomas because of the mantling (cloth decoration) he wore on his helmet, warned Henry off any more interference by cosying up to Charles V, the holy Roman emperor, for help.

Figure 2-2: Wales in 1536.

Figure 2-3: Ireland in Tudor times.

Offaly was clearly trying it on. He claimed to be defending the Catholic Church, but Henry had made no direct attacks on the Church in Ireland at this stage.

In 1536 Henry’s new brand of Catholicism (which we detail in Chapter 6) was accepted by Ireland. He was now ‘the only Supreme Head on earth of the whole Church of Ireland called Hibernia Ecclesia’.

Offaly’s troops overran the Pale, backed by Irish chieftains from the Wild Lands who saw a chance for profit and a punch-up (see the nearby sidebar ‘A glimpse of 16th-centry Ireland’ for more on these regions). He was now the earl of Kildare and a man to be reckoned with, but William Skeffington’s army brought the rebels to heel. Offaly was besieged in Maynooth, west of Dublin, and although the town surrendered he got away and continued to make a nuisance of himself, raiding far and wide.

Offaly surrendered to Henry’s troops in August 1535 and was imprisoned in the Tower, dying by the axe for treason along with five uncles 18 months later. The power of the Fitzgerald family was destroyed.

Establishing the kingdom of Ireland

Anthony St Leger became governor of Ireland in July 1540. The situation he inherited looked like this:

● The Parliament in Dublin was a rubber stamp for Henry, but it only operated in the Pale and the Obedient Lands (see the nearby sidebar ‘A glimpse of 16th-centry Ireland’).

● Only the monasteries (which Henry had destroyed - see Chapter 6) in the anglicised area had gone; the others were out of reach.

Henry’s and St Leger’s solution was to make the lordship into the kingdom of Ireland. Its status would improve and the Irish chieftains were to hand over their lands to the king, who’d then rent the lands back to them under what was left of the feudal system. This would mean that the chieftains would become lords under Henry’s direct control and they could pass their lands on to their children rather than having them owned by the tribe, which was the current system.

Nobody was much fooled by Henry’s olive branch and fighting broke out against those who accepted his offer. King of Ireland Henry may have been, but his new kingdom was as much trouble as ever.


Hostility between the English and the Scots had endured for centuries, and the way James IV welcomed Perkin Warbeck was proof the bad relations were ongoing. James had the sense, however, to drop Warbeck and instead he and Henry signed the Peace of Ayton in September of 1497. This arranged a marriage deal between James and Henry’s 12-year-old daughter Margaret, which was to have huge consequences later (see Figure 2-4 and Chapter 16) because it led to the Stuarts becoming kings of England. It was the first full treaty between the two countries since 1328 and was proof was Henry’s skilful diplomacy. The accord was renewed in 1499.


Relations with France were fine at first (see the earlier section ‘Hanging out in France), but the French king Charles VIII had plans to move in on Brittany and that put something of a spanner in the works. Charles said that Brittany belonged to France; the duke of Brittany, Francis, said it didn’t. Yes it did; no it didn’t - you get the picture.

Figure 2-4: Tudors, Stuarts and the Suffolk Line Family Tree.

There was a punch-up at St Aubin in the summer of 1488 in which the French thrashed the Bretons. Then Duke Francis died and his heir was a 12-year-old girl, Anne. From then on, it could have got messy. In 1489 Henry signed the Treaty of Redon with the Bretons, promising protection, and in December 1491 Charles called Henry’s bluff when he claimed Anne as his ward and married her. Henry duly took an army over to France in October 1492, but the weather was awful, it wasn’t the fighting season (which was May to September) and peace was in the air. So Henry and Charles signed the Treaty of Etaples, which was effectively Charles buying Henry off to the tune of £250,000. Being paid not to fight was brilliant and characteristic of Henry’s clever diplomacy. Charles turned his attention to Italy, which resulted in over 50 years of on/off warfare.


Nobody realised it at the time, but Spain was on its way to becoming the superpower of the 16th century. Henry was on the lookout for allies and ‘the most Catholic of kings’ Ferdinand of Aragon and his wife Isabella of Castile had a 7-year-old daughter, Catherine, who would make a suitable wife for the 3-year-old prince Arthur.

All this suited Ferdinand and Isabella, who also wanted allies, so they all signed the commercial agreement of Medina del Campo in 1489. This led to:

● A marriage proposal between Catherine and Arthur

● Acceptance of the Tudor dynasty by one of the oldest and most powerful families in Europe

● A further trade treaty - Magnus Intercursus - in 1496

Catherine and Arthur were married by proxy in Spain on 19 May 1499. Neither of them was present at the ceremony, underlining the fact that this was all about politics, not romance.

In October 1501 the real wedding took place when Catherine arrived in London. Everybody pulled out all the stops - Henry spent a fortune, the bells rang and all the toasts were for a long and happy life for the young couple.

But a long life together wasn’t to be: Henry and Elizabeth were devastated when Arthur died, probably of tuberculosis, in April 1502. Catherine was 17, a widow in a strange land. When Elizabeth died the following spring, Henry considered marrying the girl himself, but in the end decided on passing her on to his remaining son Henry. This would mean:

● Catherine would stay in England with her considerable dowry of gold and silver.

● Catherine would one day become queen of England.

● The much dreamed of alliance between England and Spain was on after all.

But there were complications. Isabella died in November 1504 and Ferdinand couldn’t inherit Castile. That went instead to the pair’s daughter Joanna, who was married to Philip of Burgundy, son of the holy Roman emperor, Maximilian.

Henry now decided to throw in his lot with Joanna and Philip, who were given a slap-up welcome when they visited England in January 1506. Philip and Henry signed the treaty of Windsor in a spirit of friendship.

What's love got to do with it?

Marriages between great families were arranged for political reasons. Links between England and Spain would make a huge empire encircling the always rather dodgy French. Catherine was 7 and Arthur 3 at the time of their betrothal, but don't be horrified at their ages; they didn't actually live together as man and wife, and anyway, no age of consent existed. Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort, was only 13 when she gave birth.

That said, kings wanted to know in advance what they were getting. In Chapter 5 we explain that Henry VIII got Hans Holbein to paint a portrait of his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, so he could check her out. And when Henry VII was looking for a new wife after Elizabeth's death, he asked his ambassadors to check out the queen of Naples, paying particular attention to any facial hair she may have(!), the size and shape of her breasts, the colour of her eyes, the size of her nose and whether she had sweet breath.

Sponsoring Cabot

Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain famously financed Columbus's trips in search of the East Indies, giving Spain a vast fortune in land and silver in the years ahead. Henry - perhaps rashly - turned Columbus down in 1489, but he did back John Cabot.

Cabot was a Venetian (Venice was one of the best known ports in the world at that time) who wanted to find a more northerly route to Cathay (China) than the one the Spaniards had opened up. London was tied up with the Antwerp trade, so Cabot operated out of Bristol.

Henry didn't give him ships or money, but he did let him have Letters Patent, the official go-ahead empowering Cabot to claim any lands in the name of England. Because Cabot already had ships and men, this was, in a way, the icing on the cake.

Cabot reached the coast of North America in the summer of 1497 (if you're a fan of Murder She Wrote you'll be familiar with the mythical town of Cabot Cove on the coast of Maine) and claimed it for England.

Cabot's return voyage in May 1498 was a disaster. He vanished, presumably lost at sea, and his son Sebastian went off to seek his fortune elsewhere. But importantly, Cabot set up what was to become in time the British Colonies in America, still called New England.

Philip’s sudden death in September sent Joanna off the rails and she took to carrying the embalmed body of her husband with her wherever she went. So Henry did a quick double shuffle and threw in his lot with Ferdinand again. The marriage between Catherine and prince Henry was on the front burner once more and duly went ahead (see Chapters 3, 4 and 5).

Figuring out finances

We’ve already bust the myth about Henry’s tightness, but he was very good at making money and unusually for a king - who had people for things like this - he checked the accounts himself.

Here’s the lowdown on Henry’s finances:

● Most cash came through the Chamber Treasury rather than the Exchequer, so that Henry could check it.

● He kept grants and payments to a minimum.

● His new men, like Reginald Bray, didn’t cost as much as the nobility and the churchmen who worked for Henry were paid out of Church funds.

● He kept military expenditure down (see the earlier section ‘France’ for how cheap the Etaples campaign was). The exception was fitting out new warships like Mary Rose for £8,000 (for the end of the Mary Rose see Chapter 3).

● He relied heavily on customs duties (taxes) via the Port of London. These brought him in about £500,000 in 24 years.

● Henry set up forced loans from the rich merchants of the livery companies (the equivalent of today’s City brokers), especially in London. He used this money to finance the invasion of France in 1492, for example.

● He got cash from the rent of his lands.

● In the first ten years of his reign Henry made about £10,000 a year through tax. By 1504, taxation brought in £31,000.

● The fact that Henry only once called Parliament in the last 12 years of his reign means he was doing well financially. Later kings like the Stuarts usually only called Parliament when they were broke.

● Henry got good deals for his merchants wherever he could, like the powerful merchant venturers, who watched world exploration carefully. In the 1490s Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were taking their lives in their hands sailing east and west in search of new ways to old worlds and ended up finding new worlds instead. Henry taxed the merchants in return, but everybody made money out of deals like Medina del Campo and Magnus Intercursus.

● He set up a tax on the super-rich, which the nobility resented. Yet this enabled him to control their wealth and helped give him an income of £130,000 a year. This made Henry VIII’s treasury very well off.

Henry VII was the last English king to die solvent for 200 years.

Meeting Henry, the Human

Henry’s arranged marriage to Elizabeth of York seems to have become a love match, but luck wasn’t on their side. In an age of high infant mortality, their youngest son Edmund died at just over 1 year of age in June 1500. Their eldest, Arthur, on whom Henry pinned all his hopes, died in April 1502. The following February Elizabeth died too, shortly after giving birth to a stillborn daughter. Suddenly, the 46-year-old Henry was a widower with two daughters, Margaret and Mary, but only one son remaining - the 11-year-old Henry, who would become king Henry VIII (see Chapters 3 to 6).

Francis Bacon said in the 17th century: ‘For [Henry VII’s] pleasures, there is no news of them.’ And for 300 years historians followed this idea that Henry was a grim curmudgeon with no sense of humour and a miser obsessed with counting his cash.

But historians now know that Henry loved hunting, was highly superstitious (once threatening to hang all the mastiffs in England because he believed them to be unlucky) and spent heavily on lowbrow entertainments. He once lost £40 on cards in one day, and how can we explain giving £30 to ‘the damsel that danceth’, about 60 times the going rate for Court entertainers? We’ll leave that one up to you!

Teaching the Tudors

Henry VII built up a royal library, adding to the one he'd 'inherited' from Richard III. We don't know its contents, but Richard was something of a scholar. Printing was still new, so it's likely that much of this library was made up of handwritten manuscripts.

The princes Arthur and Henry were brought up in the humanist tradition (see Chapter 1) by the blind poet Bernard Andre, who went on to write a biography of Henry VII. Classics were the trendy subjects of the Renaissance, which was a movement that looked back to the great days of Greece and Rome. Arthur read Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Terence, Thucydides, Caesar, Livy and Tacitus (don't knock them till you've tried them!).

Henry liked his entertainments. He never went far without his minstrels, harpists and pipers. He liked watching bear baiting and cock fighting (animal rights activists look away now) and possibly had a mild gambling addiction, betting on the outcomes of chess, archery and tennis matches. He watched plays, Morris dancers, fire eaters and stand-up comedians.

The king also gave lavish presents to people and paid good money for peculiar purposes. He bought an eagle and a leopard (for £13) for the royal zoo in the Tower. He reimbursed a peasant whose corn had been eaten by the king’s deer. He rewarded harvesters. He bought gunpowder. Between 1491 and 1505 he spent over £100,000 on jewellery - it would be, after all, a portable form of wealth if he ever had to relive his early life on the run. And he ate well - eels and perch in aspic - and loved castles made from jelly. He once paid the Dutch chef John van Delf £38 1 shilling and 4 pence for garnishing a salad - none of today’s celebrity chefs make money like that!

Henry also loved meeting foreigners - knights from Rhodes, a man from Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), a Greek with a beard and so on.

Passing On at the Palace

Henry’s health was generally good throughout his life, but a recurring cough, especially in the spring, was almost certainly chronic tuberculosis. By the time he was 50 he’d lost many of his teeth, his hair had thinned, his eyesight had deteriorated, he was suffering from gout and he had lost weight. He died on 21 April 1509 in Richmond Palace, probably from tuberculosis, after attending the Easter service the day before.

He was buried alongside Elizabeth in a magnificent Renaissance tomb in Westminster Abbey. Next time you’re there, check out Henry VII’s chapel and be amazed, very amazed. You can find out more in Chapter 19 on Tudor buildings that survive today.

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