Henry VII: Founder of Stability or Incompetent Monarch?

In the conventional historiography, Henry VII may be compared to someone learning to ride a bicycle. He thrust himself into the saddle, and after a series of hazards, uncertainties, and potentially serious wobbles, finally achieved stability. The trouble is, this paradigm has passed its sell-by date. It is going to change and change radically, but how and what will emerge at the end of the process?

1. What do we THINK we know about Henry VII? According to Francis Bacon (and S.B. Chrimes):

  • ‘He was of an high mind, and loved his own will and his own way; as one that revered himself, and would reign indeed, … not admitting any near or full approach either to his power or to his secrets.’
  • ‘He was a prince sad, serious, and full of thoughts and secret observations; and full of notes and memorials in his own hand, especially touching persons; as whom to employ, whom to reward, whom to inquire of, whom to beware of, what were the dependencies, what were the factions, and the like; keeping (as it were) a journal of his thoughts.’
  • He was a skilful but prudent statesman: he kept his ‘distance’. He was (as we are told) not a ‘participating’ ruler like Henry VIII, Francis I or Elizabeth I. He did not flaunt his wealth.
  • Rapacity grew upon him with increasing years, though behind his avarice lay a principle of statesmanship: control of nobility through fiscal feudalism.
  • Financial stability was fundamental to his government: the ideas of Fortescue’s Governance of England were put into practice.
    1. patrimonial kingship (exploitation of Crown estate)
    2. magnificence
    3. conciliar government (to be efficient)
    4. used the latest methods of accounting (Chamber finance)
    5. subordinate the nobility to the monarchy
    6. restored law and order

Fiscal discipline in politics: according to Bacon, ‘The less blood he drew, the more he took of treasure’. Bonds and recognisances (J.R. Lander) used as swords of Damocles to ensure stability in the provinces, even if they finally created a culture of ‘coercion and fear’.

  • Henry VII was a significant legislator. Bacon claimed: ‘his times for good commonwealth’s laws did excel’. Henry VII ‘restored law and order’ by attacking retainers and appointing gentry as JPs.
  • Henry chose his councillors and ministers wisely, and favoured men of the ‘middle sort’: a class of royal officials were who were entirely dependent upon the king, e.g. Bray, Empson and Dudley.
  • The mainspring of his domestic and foreign policy was dynastic security. He used ‘politick’ methods to preserve himself and the Tudor dynasty.
  • Stability and royal authority was restored after the Wars of the Roses. Bacon noted in his Fragments, there was now ‘no such thing as any great or mighty subject who might eclipse or overshadow the imperial power.’ Henry VII achieved:
    1. rise in prestige of the Crown (including in Europe);
    2. rise in financial resources of the Crown;
    3. rise in the social authority of the Crown (e.g. vis-à-vis overmighty subjects);
    4. creation of a service nobility;
    5. throne passed on smoothly to son, Henry VIII, thereby ensuring stable Tudor dynasty.

In other words, the effects of the Wars of the Roses were reversed and the power of the monarchy restored. All these points have become entrenched in the historical literature. Unfortunately, most are half-truths, which distract us from a coherent reevaluation of Henry VII.

NB Bacon wrote in 1621 after his impeachment for corruption and dismissal as James I’s Lord Chancellor. He wrote to advise and impress James I in the hope of making a return to power. Bacon’s History of Henry VII is intended to instruct the reader in statecraft through the study of a great practitioner of political cunning, cf. Machiavelli’s The Prince, or Justus Lipsius’s Six Books of Politics (1589). It is not a valid history of the reign of Henry VII.

2. What is now being said about the reign of Henry VII (see chapter 11 of C. Carpenter: The Wars of the Roses (1997).

  • Henry VII had a view of kingship and lordship that was different to, and subversive of, that of 15th century England. His view was modelled on the new administrative monarchies of the Continent: France and Brittany.
    1. Henry VII had no experience of English government and administration;
    2. Henry undermined the relationship between Crown and nobility by excessive fiscalism and threats to landed power which destabilized the English monarchy;
    3. Good lordship required the use of social power and the arbitration of noble councils for the good order of society, but this was prejudiced by the anti-aristocratic bias of Henry VII;
    4. Was Henry VII even pursuing a conscious policy against the nobles and in support of gentry rule, or was it basically accidental and a mess;
    5. For Henry VII, service (= aristocratic service) meant subordination. Yet if the nobles were disabled and their local power prejudiced or subverted by gentry promotions (e.g. Warwickshire), their territorial power could not be used to suppress revolts, e.g. 1497 Cornish revolt and threat in North. For Carpenter, this is axiomatic;
    6. When Henry VII attacked his subjects’ lands, he followed King John, Edward II, and Richard II – no coincidence that 1509 complaints appealed to Magna Carta.
  • 15th century kingship held that king and nobles worked in partnership, and king was ‘first among equals’. Landed power was respected by Crown, because land was the basis of the social power of the nobility in the regions which ensured the subjection of the realm (i.e. the masses) to authority. Power in early-modern = social power, which was hitherto predicated on land.
  • The notion that Fortescue’s Governance of England represented the ideals of 15th century English kingship is a fallacy. The Governance was written in exile in north-eastern France in 1460s with a view to securing the restoration of Henry VI on the principles of French monarchical government, i.e. reflects the values of Continental new administrative monarchies, or Renaissance monarchy. This is why the convergence with Henry VII appears to be complete. Fortescue is convergent with the old paradigm of Henry VII’s ‘new monarchy’ = Tudor ‘imperial’ kingship.
  • There is massive intellectual confusion over Henry VII’s alleged fiscalism.
    1. The purpose of bonds and recognisances was to subdue the nobles, but if the system was working, there would be no additional income for the Crown. If the regime was stable, there would be no forfeitures. Historians can’t have it both ways;
    2. The trick was to preserve the nobles’ abuse of power while preserving the power itself, but Henry VII’s attacks were indiscriminate;
    3. Henry VII actually caused instability in the shires by lack of judgement over how to delegate and to whom. E.g. in the North the Earl of Northumberland was killed in a tax revolt in 1489. The Council of the North aim to subordinate the nobility, but the ensuing feud between Archbishop Savage and the earl of Northumberland’s son reduces to region to chaos;
    4. problem with issue of bonds and recognisances is that no one has ever separated out political obligations from genuine debts to the Crown.
  • England was not potentially unstable in 1485:
    1. Henry VII was the victor at Bosworth. He replaced an unpopular king who was already dead;
    2. no real rival;
    3. no great threat from the nobles, no super-nobles left alive;
    4. no cadet branch of the royal family;
    5. Richard III has no direct heir; he had already removed the princes in the Tower [Edward V and Richard of York];
    6. Henry VII married Elizabeth of York himself [eldest surviving daughter of Edward IV]
    7. the leading Yorkist claimant [Edward, Earl of Warwick] imprisoned in the Tower.
  • Yet Henry VII was troubled by plots and rebellions for longer than he should have been:
    1. Lambert Simnel is supported in the North by Richard III’s old affinity;
    2. 1495: support for Perkin Warbeck reached into Henry VII’s household (Sir William Stanley, brother of Henry’s own stepfather, betrayed him);
    3. 1497: fulcrum of the reign. Cornish rebels reach Blackheath; turmoil in the North/war on the Border; Perkin Warbeck lands and lays seige to Exeter. Where are the nobles/local authorities? Henry VII has to rely on his councillors and household men.
  • I wrote in Tudor England that ‘Henry VII governed England through his household and Council’. John Watts and Christine Carpenter do not deny that this is correct: what they say is that, if it is so, it was a radical divergence from the norms of 15th century monarchy, and a dangerous narrowing of political power = ‘new monarchy’/new administrative monarchy, i.e. Crown managerialism in place of noble consensus.
  • Henry VII’s financial success is vastly overrated:
    1. Crown income is £113,000 per annum at the end of the reign;
    2. But it was £120,000 per annum under Richard III;
    3. And £160,000 per annum under Edward III.

3. Is Henry VII’s success all smoke and mirrors?

  • Henry VII’s England is a bureaucrat’s paradise. The bureaucrats were out of control: all on the make.
  • Henry VII’s ‘new men’ were ripping off landowners, and fixing their own deals in order to build landed fortunes for themselves;
  • Henry was too mean to pay his servants properly: a culture of acquisitiveness permeated the administration (cf 1590s). E.g. Bray (former servant of Margaret Beaufort). Classic instance (apart from Empson and Dudley) is Sir Henry Wyatt, who buys land at knock-down prices from people who can’t pay their debts to the Crown;
  • Does Henry VII know they are doing this, and pretends not to know, in order to be able to clobber them if they put a foot wrong, or is he just incompetent?
  • Henry neglects the militia and the navy;
  • He relies on his household men and mercenaries for military recruitment;
  • The number of ships owned by the Crown falls from 15 to 5 during his reign;
  • He relies on diplomacy backed (after death of Arthur and Elizabeth of York) by massive subsidies to Continental rulers;
  • He is lucky that France is concentrating on Italy and Naples in this period;
  • His trade treaties are vastly overrated: those with the Netherlands had to be unpicked and sorted out by Thomas More in 1515 on the grounds that they sacrificed trade to Henry’s concern to ensure that pretenders or rebels would not be harboured abroad.

4. Henry VII passes on his throne to his son, but not automatically

His innermost courtiers wished primarily to ensure their own survival. Henry died at 11 p.m. on 21 April 1509, but his death was kept secret until the afternoon of the 23rd, when it was revealed to the main body of councillors and Henry VIII’s accession was proclaimed. This delay gave those at the seat of power time to consolidate their position. A general pardon was issued that included treasons and felonies committed in Henry VII’s reign, and Empson and Dudley, the two most hated councillors, were arrested. They were imprisoned in the Tower for a year, and then executed on fabricated charges. This was a ploy to win popularity, and distract attention from events at Court.

  • Empson and Dudley were unpopular with their colleagues in the Council: they were the ‘new boys’ in the class, and not linked into the network of feoffees, marriage and mutual support that characterized the inner circle;
  • Dudley especially hated as the ambitious Young Turk of the Council of Henry VII. He had been the first and only non-clerical president of the King’s Council;
  • The courtiers of Henry VII made sure that Henry VIII (although 18 years old bar a few weeks) was not allowed fully to be King or to enjoy full sovereignty. Archbishop Warham, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Richard Fox, held the three senior offices in the kingdom and exercised control over policy as well as patronage, and generally ran the country until Wolsey liberated Henry VIII from these constraints. NB Henry VIII was not even allowed to sign his name to royal gifts or letters patent without the counter-signature of his ‘minders’ – i.e. bureaucrats out of control?

5. Conclusion:

  • ‘It may be that what we see is less a forward-looking monarch than one who had an imperfect understanding of his job’ (Carpenter).
  • Was Henry’s politics one of necessity or one of incompetence? Or to put it at its lowest common denominator: Were the nobles ungovernable by 1485 without extreme royal sanctions? Had the Wars of the Roses changed the rules of the game?
  • Or was England subsumed by a Continental preoccupation with new administrative monarchy? Were the norms of Renaissance monarchy encapsulated within Henry VII’s agenda?
  • The questions cannot yet be answered, only debated. What is certain is that the old platitudes are gone for ever: no longer is the reign of Henry VII the easiest topic on the ‘A’-level examination syllabus.