Post-classical history


Henry VII and the White Rose


Autumn 1485: ‘this woeful season’

‘The King was green in his estate; and contrary to his own opinion and desert both, was not without much hatred throughout the realm. The root of all was the discountenancing of the house of York, which the general body of the realm still affected.’

Sir Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of King Henry VII1

On 23 August 1485, John Sponer, sergeant to the mace, galloped into York. A trusted official whom the city had sent to join the royal army and help the king put down a rebellion, he brought astounding news. Yesterday, ‘King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us … with many other lords and nobles of these North parts was piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city’, the council recorded in their House Book. Horrified, the aldermen wrote a letter to the Earl of Northumberland, the greatest man in the North, asking his advice about what they should do ‘at this woeful season’.2

The incident shows the entire country’s bewilderment. Although Richard III’s reign had been troubled by plots and rebellions, and he was disliked for deposing his little nephew, his head was on the coinage and he was accepted by most people as their king. A veteran commander, he had ridden out at the head of a large, well-equipped army that included the realm’s leading magnates, against a small-scale rising by the unknown Henry Tudor that he should have crushed without any difficulty. News of his death must have come as a severe shock to the vast majority of his subjects.

Like anyone else in England of any standing, the aldermen of York had read Richard’s recent proclamation against ‘Henry Tydder’, pretender to the throne, ‘whereunto he hath [in] no manner interest, right title or colour, as every man well knoweth, for he is descended of bastard blood, both of father side and of mother side’. Among the rebels and traitors who supported Henry, adds the proclamation, ‘many be known for open murderers, avouterers [adulterers] and extortioners … every true and natural Englishman born must lay to his hands for his own surety and weal’.3 Yet the ‘rebels and traitors’ had won.

After King Richard’s defeat, his surviving followers, save for a few key henchmen, simply rode off the battlefield unharmed and went home. Elsewhere, some of them refused to accept the change of regime, including 200 troops in the garrison at Calais who, along with one of their captains, Thomas David, marched up to ‘Burgundy’ – in those days a name for Flanders – and joined the Habsburg army (until the next century, there would be plenty of Yorkists at Calais). So did men from the tiny garrison on Jersey, under the governor Sir Richard Harleston, a former yeoman of the chamber to King Edward IV.

Even so, despite their astonishment, most Englishmen made a show of welcoming their hitherto unknown but now ‘undoubted sovereign liege lord’. When Henry VII reached London on 3 September, he was met at Shoreditch by the lord mayor and the aldermen, with liverymen from seventy City companies – mercers, grocers, drapers, fishmongers, haberdashers, down to hatters and pouch-makers – 435 of them in gowns of scarlet and ‘bright murrey’ (mulberry), not to mention the fifty swordsmen of the mayor’s bodyguard or the twenty armed servants guarding the sheriffs, each one in gowns of tawny, or the trumpeters who sounded a greeting.4 Everybody kissed the new ruler’s hand. Then he was escorted to St Paul’s Cathedral to offer up the three standards under which he had fought (St George, the Red Dragon of Cadwallader and the Dun Cow). A great Mass of thanksgiving was celebrated, with ostentatiously joyful clerics at the high altar, and the singing of the Te Deum. There were pageants in the main thoroughfares, similar to those that had greeted Richard III’s accession.

Unfortunately, the ‘sweating sickness’ – a lethal new disease brought over from France by Henry’s troops – broke out, killing both the lord mayor and his successor. So deadly was this disease that a man healthy in the morning might be dead by evening. Polydore Vergil (who caught the sickness himself) believed it was an omen ‘that Henry should only reign by the sweat of his brow, as turned out to be the case’.5 An inauspicious start to the reign, it delayed the coronation. However, on 30 October 1485 Henry was crowned in Westminster Abbey by Cardinal Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, who, just over two years before, had performed the same service for Richard. On 7 November Henry VII held his first Parliament.

Warmly supported by MPs and peers, the speaker of the House of Commons urged the new king to marry the lady Elizabeth, Edward IV’s eldest daughter, whom his predecessor had contemplated marrying because of her dynastic significance even though she was his niece. Henry graciously assented, the wedding taking place on 23 January 1486. In theory it could be argued that his claim to the throne was twofold. Heir of Lancaster, he had married the heiress of York. Soon, court poets were writing songs about the union of the Red Rose and the White. Illuminators created the charming Tudor Rose of two colours as a decoration for their manuscripts, while chroniclers extolled the marriage for ensuring continuity with England’s ancient monarchs.

Parliament passed an Act which declared that the crown should ‘rest, remain and abide in the most Royal person of our now Sovereign Lord King Harry the VIIth and in the heirs of his body’.6 Yet everybody knew that for years, Parliament had been legalizing new occupants after a previous incumbent’s overthrow – Edward IV in 1461, Henry VI in 1470, Edward IV in 1471 and Richard III in 1483. How long would it be before another Parliament did so again? Nobody can have been more aware of this possibility than Henry Tudor.

The vast majority of Englishmen did not know what to make of the situation. King Richard had made a point of stressing that his rival was just an unknown Welshman whom he had never laid eyes on and whose father he had never even heard of – which was quite true. Henry’s claim to be the heir of Lancaster was barely plausible. No doubt, through his mother, he was heir to the Beaufort Dukes of Somerset (descendants of John of Gaunt and his mistress Catherine Swynford), if not heir to their titles. But the Somersets’ right to inherit the throne had been specifically denied by Parliament.

As for Henry’s male line descent, it was unquestionably that of a parvenu. His great grandfather had been a bastard and the Bishop of Bangor’s butler. The Tudors’ membership of the ruling class was very recent indeed, having begun with the clandestine marriage of the new king’s grandfather, Owain Tudor, to Henry V’s widow, Catherine of France, by whom he had been employed as Clerk of the Wardrobe. If half Beaufort and a quarter Valois, Henry possessed precious little of the ‘old blood royal of England’.

Elizabeth of York could add nothing to Henry’s title: only their children would benefit from her Plantagenet blood. During the previous year she had been bastardized by an Act of Parliament, although this was hastily repealed in November 1485. And while she might be King Edward’s daughter, she was one of several – each an heiress who could also pass on the precious Plantagenet blood.

The new dynasty had one great asset, however, which was Henry himself. Few men could have persuaded such ill-assorted followers to join him in so desperate a gamble as the expedition of 1485, and held them together on the march to Bosworth. If he lacked the magnificent physical presence and overwhelming personality of Edward IV, Henry could summon up considerable charm. The chronicler Polydore Vergil, who met him in his forties, says ‘he was good looking with a cheerful face, particularly when speaking’.7The most impressive image we have is Pietro Torrigiano’s bust of 1508–9 in the Victoria and Albert Museum – although, admittedly, this is deliberately flattering – while the profile on his new shilling coin of 1489 hints at a genuinely regal appearance. Intelligent, decisive, iron-willed, he was a natural statesman and politician, who seldom made a mistake in choosing ministers – with one alarming exception. His foreign policy became as successful as his domestic policy, much admired by other European rulers.

Yet his task during his first years on the throne was a fearsome one. Since boyhood he had been a hunted exile, whom the Yorkists had sought to eliminate as the last possible Lancastrian claimant. At twenty-eight, he knew little about England and its people. A quarter Welsh (he was christened Owain but his mother insisted on the name being changed), he was brought up in Wales until he was fourteen, since when he had been a fugitive in Britanny without English friends or servants, so that his first language was, of necessity, French. Only in 1483 had English refugees begun to join him. From the start he distrusted the upper nobility because they were too powerful and, not having grown up among the great of the land, he was daunted by them. Instead, he relied on advisers who had supported him in exile, none of them born to a peerage apart from the Earl of Oxford. They included Cardinal Morton, Bishop Fox, Sir Reginald Bray, Lord Daubeney and Lord Willoughby de Broke – the last two made peers by Henry. Henry never ceased to fear magnates, who might one day decide to support some Yorkist rival.

Secretly, no one can have felt more insecure. Henry knew he was on the throne because he had won at Bosworth, not by right of inheritance. Ousting the Plantagenets, who had governed England since 1154, he could not hope to avoid an aura of illegitimacy – of being a legalized usurper. In any case, he was unknown to all save a few of his subjects.

There were many people with a better claim to wear the crown. The most obvious was the ten-year-old Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick – son of the Duke of Clarence, Edward IV’s brother. After the death of his own son in 1484, Richard III briefly recognized him as his heir, but then set him aside in favour of another nephew. This was John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, who was about twenty-two in 1485, the son of Richard’s sister, the Duchess of Suffolk. While there is no direct documentary evidence, it is almost certain that Lincoln had been publicly acknowledged as heir to the throne.

On the day after Bosworth Henry had sent a trusted follower to remove the young Earl of Warwick from Sheriff Hutton and bring him to London, to be confined in the Tower – as his cousin Edward V had been. As for the Earl of Lincoln, the king took a calculated risk in letting him stay at liberty, and (despite having fought for Richard at Bosworth) Lincoln appeared to accept Henry as his sovereign, riding in procession at his coronation. But the new king took no chances with Warwick: if he managed to reach his aunt in Flanders, a Yorkist restoration would be very much on the cards. So many men had served his father and then the boy himself on their vast estates in the west Midlands that they might be able to rally the whole country to his cause.8 Despite being shut up in the Tower of London, closely guarded day and night, the boy was a magnet for Yorkists.

Undoubtedly, Henry possessed one or two excellent ministers in Sir Reginald Bray, Cardinal Morton and Bishop Richard Fox – ‘vigilant men, and secret, and such as kept watch with him almost upon all men’.9 There was also his Lord Chamberlain, Sir William Stanley, who had won Bosworth and the crown for him by changing sides, and numerous less able, if dependable, figures such as the newly honoured Lord Daubeney.

But many of his apparent supporters could not be relied upon. Discontented Yorkists, they had only fought for him because they hated the late king. At the same time, his victory meant that a large group of Ricardian loyalists were deprived of lucrative posts or forced to hand back estates, such as all the Northerners whom Richard had rewarded with lands and offices in the South. Soon they began to show their hand in Yorkshire under assumed names – Robin of Redesdale, Jack Straw, Tom a’ Linn, Master Amend-All – stirring up riots in collusion with Scots raiders. Even when the riots were put down, the disaffection remained. Throughout England, especially in the northern counties, there were people who, if not yet ready to revolt, felt much the same as the Yorkshiremen.

1. Autumn 1485: ‘this woeful season’

1. Sir F. Bacon, The History of the Reign of King Henry VII and Selected Works, Cambridge, 1998, p. 23. Bacon may not have known of material that has since come to light, but he had read Vergil, Fabyan and Robert André, besides several manuscript sources, and is often a remarkably shrewd interpreter.

2. R. Davies, Municipal Records of the City of York during the Reigns of Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III, London, 1843, p. 218.

3. The Paston Letters, Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1986, 1001.

4. Memorials of King Henry the Seventh, Rolls Series, London, 1858, 1, 4–5.

5. Vergil, op. cit., p. 8.

6. Rotoli Parliamentorum (1278–1504), London,1767–77, vol. VI, 268–70.

7. Vergil, op. cit., p. 144.

8. S. Cunningham, Henry VII, London, Routledge, 2007, p. 98.

9. Bacon, op. cit., p. 19.

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