Henry VII of England ruled as king from 1485 to 1509 CE. Henry, representing the Lancaster cause during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487 CE), defeated and killed his predecessor the Yorkist king Richard III of England (r. 1483-1485 CE) at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 CE. Known as Henry of Richmond or Henry Tudor before he was crowned, Henry VII was the first Tudor king. Despite having to deal with three pretenders to his throne and two minor rebellions, Henry’s reign was largely peaceful and prosperous as, like a master auditor, he steadily increased the health of the state’s finances. The king died of ill health in April 1509 CE and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547 CE).
The Lancastrian Claim
Richard III was one of England’s most unpopular kings, and he was accused of being involved in the murder of the two sons of his brother Edward IV of England (r. 1461-70 & 1471-83 CE) who disappeared from the Tower of London. Richard, having eliminated his nephews, made himself king in 1483 CE. His reign would be short and troubled; it was brought to an end by the rise of Henry Tudor, at the time better known as Henry, Earl of Richmond.
Henry was born on 28 January 1457 CE in Pembroke Castle, the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond (l. 1430-1456 CE). Henry was the grandson of the Welsh courtier Owen Tudor (c. 1400-1461 CE) and Catherine of Valois (l. 1401 - c. 1437 CE), the daughter of Charles VI of France (r. 1380-1422 CE), former wife of Henry V of England (r. 1413-1422 CE) and mother of Henry VI of England (r. 1422-61 & 1470-71 CE). Henry Tudor’s mother was Margaret Beaufort (l. c. 1441-1509 CE), the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III of England (r. 1312-1377 CE). It was not much of a royal connection, especially as some regarded the Beaufort’s as illegitimate, but it was the best the Lancastrians could hope for as their dynastic dispute with the House of York, the Wars of the Roses, rumbled on. Thus, Henry Tudor, returning from exile in Brittany, became the figurehead of the Lancastrians who aimed to topple the Yorkist king Richard III.
Henry Tudor wisely allied himself with the alienated Woodvilles, family of Elizabeth Woodville (l. c. 1437-1492 CE), the wife of Edward IV. Other allies included such powerful lords as the Duke of Buckingham who were not happy with King Richard’s distribution of estates, and anyone else keen to see Richard III receive his just deserts. These allies even included the new king across the Channel, Charles VIII of France (r. 1483-1498 CE). The first move by the rebels proved premature and poorly planned so that Henry’s invasion fleet was put off by bad weather and Buckingham was captured and executed in November 1483 CE.
Battle of Bosworth
The Lancastrian cause was given a dramatic boost when Richard III’s son and heir, Edward, died on 9 April 1484 CE. On 8 August 1485 CE, the Wars of the Roses reached boiling point when Henry Tudor landed with an army of French mercenaries at Milford Haven in South Wales, a force perhaps no bigger than 5,000 men. Henry’s army swelled in numbers as it marched to face the king’s army at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire on 22 August 1485 CE. Richard, although commanding an army of some 8,000-12,000 men, was, at the last moment, deserted by some of his key allies, and the Earl of Northumberland even refused to engage his troops until he had a clear idea which side was going to win the day. Nevertheless, the king fought bravely and perhaps a little foolishly in his efforts to kill Henry Tudor with his own sword. Richard, although managing to strike down Henry’s standard-bearer, had his horse cut from under him, and the king was killed.
The victorious Henry Tudor, according to legend, was given Richard’s crown, found by Lord William Stanley beneath a hawthorn bush at Bosworth Field. The new king was crowned Henry VII of England (r. 1485-1509 CE) on 30 October 1485 CE in Westminster Abbey and, marrying Elizabeth of York (b. 1466 CE), daughter of Edward IV on 18 January 1486 CE, the two rival houses were finally united and a new one created: the Tudors. The battles of the Wars of the Roses were (almost) over, half the English barons had been killed in the process, but England was at last (more or less) united as it left the Middle Ages and headed into the modern era.
The Great Pretenders
The War of the Roses might have ended according to the history books but King Henry still had plenty of unrest in his realm. His first problem was that he had few loyal followers, coming as he did from years of exile. This situation had its advantages as the king formed the Privy Chamber and Council of close advisors, allowing him to keep a tight personal hold on the reigns of power and physically limiting access to the royal person. Specialised committees, mostly populated with lawyers, were set the task of ruling the kingdom, all personally supervised by the king.
Of the outsiders of the king’s inner circle, the most dangerous were two Yorkists pretenders/imposters to the throne. The first was a joiner’s son, Lambert Simnel (c. 1475 - c. 1535 CE) who claimed he was the Earl of Warwick (nephew of Richard III), an unfortunate boast as the king already had the real earl safely locked up in the Tower of London. Simnel and his supporters were roundly beaten at the Battle of East Stoke on 16 June 1487 CE. The imposter was then made to work in the palace kitchens to learn some humility.
The second and more serious challenge came from Perkin Warbeck (1474-1499 CE) who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York (one of the disappeared sons of Edward IV). Warbeck had the support of several foreign kings eager to destabilise England, but he was defeated in battle in Cornwall in October 1497 CE, and he confessed that his claims were nonsense. Warbeck was imprisoned and then executed in 1499 CE.
Other minor rebellions fuelled by lingering Yorkists included Viscount Francis Lovell’s rebellion of 1486 CE in southeast England and another around Thirsk, Yorkshire in 1489 CE where tax hikes fuelled unrest. Both rebellions were easily dealt with, although the Earl of Northumberland was killed in Yorkshire. A third and final Yorkist claimant was Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk (nephew of Edward IV), captured in 1506 CE and executed in 1513 CE. Henry’s throne was now secure, and the seal which indicated the new dynasty was his creation of the ‘Tudor rose’, an amalgamation of the livery badges of the two rival houses: the red rose of the Lancasters and the white rose of the Yorks.
Henry's Financial Policies
Not only effective at getting rid of his rivals, Henry was an extremely efficient ruler in terms of finances. Through a mixture of taxes, feudal dues, rents, and fines, Henry was able to double state revenues during his reign. The latter tactic, that is, imposing fines, proved particularly lucrative as the king charged misdemeanours ranging from bad behaviour at court to possessing too many armed retainers. One fiendish financial strategy was to issue a penal bond (recognisance) to anyone already caught guilty of a financial misdemeanour or fine. If a person failed to meet any of his existing financial obligations, then under this second signed declaration, the king could confiscate their property and ruin them. Many nobles were kept under the king’s thumb in this way with a financial guillotine perpetually hovering over them. The number of nobles also went down as the new position of Surveyor of the King’s Wards sought out money that was owed the king and confiscated lands to bolster Henry’s ever-growing estates.
Henry even made money from his one major foreign expedition. In 1489 CE an army was sent to help Brittany maintain its independence from France and Boulogne was briefly besieged. Henry was perhaps initially eager to repay the dukedom for looking after him during his childhood exile there. However, by 1492 CE he had backed down after suitable financial compensation was forthcoming from Charles VIII of France, who lived up to his nickname ‘Charles the Affable’.
Another source of income was the massive increase in duties which came from the boom in trade as England signed off treaties with Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Florence. Trade was further encouraged by the Crown investing in a small fleet of merchant ships and establishing for it a fortified base at Portsmouth. The king was even keen to find brand new trading places, famously funding the pioneering voyage of the Genoese merchant John Cabot (aka Giovanni Caboto) to Newfoundland. Cabot sailed in his vessel the Mathew from Bristol in 1497 CE. Successful in his endeavour, Cabot died on the return journey to England and his family, true to Henry VII’s reputation as a miser, received the paltry sum of 10 pounds from the king.
Eventually, this obsession with enriching the state led to the king becoming unpopular but by then he had already firmly reasserted royal power over the nobility. This was done not only by imposing on them fines and debts and limiting their ability to form private armies but by establishing councils in Wales, the North and the West of England to better control them. The rise and dominance of the barons which had so troubled Henry’s predecessors and ensured the Wars of the Roses had dragged on so long, was at an end. Even the evolution of Parliament went backwards during Henry’s reign, still an institution only really called to approve new taxes. In the 23 years of Henry's reign, Parliament sat only six times, an indicator that English government was still medieval and the monarch still absolute.
Spending: Palaces & Weddings
A tight hold on the state’s purse strings did not in any way put Henry off spending on his own projects and displaying his great love of pomp and pageantry, especially medieval tournaments. Royal residences received particular attention with Windsor Castle, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey (notably the chapel that today bears his name), Richmond Palace and Greenwich Palace all being built or refurbished. The weddings of the king’s children were another area of lavish spending; these included the marriage of the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon to Henry (b. 1491 CE) who became heir when his older brother Arthur died in 1502 CE aged just 15. The king suffered another tragic blow the next year when Queen Elizabeth died during childbirth aged 37. This marked the decline of the king who retreated to as much a life of solitude as being a monarch allowed.
There was some positive news in the first years of the 16th century CE. The king's daughter Margaret (b. 1489 CE) became the Queen of Scots when she married King James IV of Scotland (r. 1488-1513 CE) on 8 August 1503 CE. This union of the Thistle and Rose was an amicable termination of the difficult relations caused by James’ support of the pretender Warbeck. The marriage ensured a lasting peace between the two countries. Another of Henry VII’s daughters, Mary (b. 1496 CE) became the Queen of France, another example of Henry’s diplomatic efforts to increase England’s prestige in the wider world.
Death & Successor
Henry VII died of ill health on 21 April 1509 CE at Richmond Palace in Surrey. The king was buried alongside his queen in Westminster Abbey, and their tomb was eventually encased in bronze sculpted by Pietro Torrigiano. Henry VII’s fiscal policies might have earned him a certain level of unpopularity - as evidenced by the execution of his two principal lawyers after the king’s own death - but he had set the ship of state on a sure course for future expansion and prosperity. He was succeeded by his eldest namesake son who, aged just 17, was crowned Henry VIII on 24 June 1509 CE. Henry VIII, inheriting a financially sound kingdom, was a young, athletic, and charismatic ruler who would become one of the great kings of English history. His reign would entertain future historians with his search for a male heir and six wives, and it would witness such momentous events as the formation of the Church of England.