Poor King Henry VII


Henry VIIAs Rodney Dangerfield might have said had he been cast in a role as Henry VII, “I don’t get no respect.”

Henry VII is one of those English kings who never seem to get any attention, outside the rarefied realms of academia. Only of late, it seems, have a few writers and TV producers turned their heads towards him – no doubt because a lot of the other, more exciting monarchs have been thoroughly covered on screen and in print.

Although he was the first of the short Tudor dynasty, his reign is overshadowed by those of his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth I. His continental contemporaries – Louis XI of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon – also outshone him.

Take Shakespeare, for example. The Bard wrote plays about Henry IV, V, VI and VIII. Just skipped VII as if the old geezer hadn’t been worth the price of a goose quill and paper. Plus he wrote about Kings John, Richard II and II and possibly Edward III. H7 is ignored.

Well, okay not completely. Just as far as top billing goes. He’s called the Earl of Richmond in Henry VI, part 3, a youngster who shows up towards the end – Act IV, Sc IV, a bit player without even a speaking part. Not very auspicious for the man who would be king not many years later.

Later, in Richard III, set in the finals years of the War of the Roses,  a somewhat older (28) Henry defeats the king (Richard III) at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Again, Henry doesn’t show up until the end: Act V, Sc II – and his character is dull and stiff, compared to the vibrant and dynamic – albeit evil – Richard. He takes the crown to become King Henry VII, although the coronation itself is not shown (Derby removed it from the dead Richard). Yorkists win, Lancastrians lose. Sic friat crustulum.

(Apparently the 2016 sequel to the BBC’s superb Hollow Crown series will include Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III plays, so you can watch them on DVD…)

Henry VII had long been dead by the time Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII, and so he gets short shrift there, too. Queen Katharine mentions him in passing in Act II :

The king, your father, was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatch’d wit and judgment…

Henry VIII also mentions him in passing in Act III. Neither call him by his name or title, just “father.”

Otherwise, H7 was just bypassed by the Bard and other playwrights.

His early life isn’t without drama.  The court intrigues during the War of the Roses caught him up in their brambles, and drove him out of England. He spent 14 formative years with his uncle, Jasper, in exile in Brittany as a semi-guest/semi-prisoner/bargaining chip.

The political triangle saw Brittany wedged uncomfortably between England and France. Both demanded Henry and his uncle be turned over to them, and there was a brief spurt of excitement when he was handed over to the English, but he escaped. That, combined with his return to Britain that led to his victory at Bosworth would make for good TV. But after that, is gets stodgy.

Possibly he’s been overlooked by pop culture because, while the War of the Roses is gripping stuff for spinning yarns about knights and battles and political subterfuge, once it ended, Henry VII’s peaceful 24-year reign is pretty dry in comparison. It’s hard to write compelling drama from a reign highlighted by administrative achievements and tax reform. As Tudor Place tells it:

From the onset of his reign, Henry was determined to bring order to England after 85 years of civil war. Henry forms the Yeomen of the Guard and revives Court of Star Chamber, giving it powers to try nobility who break the law. Henry greatly strengthened the monarchy by employing many political innovations to outmaneuver the nobility. The household staff rose beyond mere servitude: Henry eschewed public appearances, therefore, staff members were the few persons Henry saw on a regular basis. He created the Committee of the Privy Council, a forerunner of the modern cabinet) as an executive advisory board; he established the Court of the Star Chamber to increase royal involvement in civil and criminal cases; and as an alternative to a revenue tax disbursement from Parliament, he imposed forced loans and grants on the nobility. Henry’s mistrust of the nobility derived from his experiences in the Wars of the Roses – a majority remained dangerously neutral until the very end. His skill at by-passing Parliament (and thus, the will of the nobility) played a crucial role in his success at renovating government.
The main problem facing Henry was restoring faith and strength in the monarchy. He also had to deal with other claimants, with some of them having a far stronger claim than his own. To deal with this, Henry strengthened the government and his own power, at the expense of the nobles. Henry also had to deal with a treasury that was nearly bankrupt. The English monarchy had never been one of the wealthiest of Europe and even more so after the War of the Roses. Through his monetary strategy, Henry managed to steadily accumulate wealth during his reign, so that by the time he died, he left a considerable fortune to his heir.

Not quite the stuff of a modern mini-series that can go head-to-head for audience loyalty. Episode 1: Henry launches new innovations in governance to improve the bureaucracy, reform political oversight and collect more taxes. Zzzzzzzz…. oh look, on Game of Thrones we have dragons, magic, sex, battles, giants, sex, more magic, intrigue, killing, more sex…. which one shall we watch?

Yet, strangely enough, the BBC did produce a mini-series in 1972 about Henry VII, called Shadow of the Tower, a prequel to their award-winning Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R series. Apparently the Shadow series was never shown in the USA (not sure about Canada). The few reviews of it I’ve found are at best lukewarm. It’s been 42 years since that series was first aired, so it’s fairly dated and looks it.

I was unaware of it myself until last weekend when I came across a copy at Costco, included in the BBC’s Tudor Collection (a steal at $20, although I already had the two other two parts).

H7 has hardly poked his nose above the history books ever since. I cannot say whether H7 gets any mention in the American TV series, The Tudors, since my only experience with that was a single episode (during which I almost split my sides laughing at the historical inaccuracies, the clumsy dialogue, the sets, and the actor chose to play Henry VIII… I suppose the gratuitous sex is supposed to distract you from all of this, but in my case it didn’t work).

However, Henry VII’s relationship with Elizabeth of York is, at least, stuff of the heart, enough so that it was woven into a BBC TV series – The White Queen. This was, of course, not based on history; rather it’s from fiction – Philippa Gregory’s romantic novels. And the focus of the series is neither Elizabeth nor Henry, although they get lots of air time. The fact that theirs was a political (i.e. arranged) marriage is conveniently overlooked in the series yet, by contemporary accounts, the two grew to love one another.

It’s a fairly good, dramatic series but suffered in the ratings because it was competing with the increasing violent and trashy Game of Thrones and, despite the violence and sex in White Queen, it is hard to compete with dragons. Thus it ended after one season (although a sequel may emerge). The White Queen is entertaining to watch if not the most historically accurate (still, it is a lot more so than The Tudors, of course).

It did encourage me to read more about H7, mostly to try and learn how accurate the portrayal was. To which end I recently got Thomas Penn’s 2011 biography: The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England. Blair Worden, reviewing the book in The Guardian, describes Penn’s thematic approach:

Two themes of his book preside: the permanent vulnerability of Henry’s regime, and his ruthless methods of rule. His claim to the throne was tenuous and permanently contested… Who could have expected that he would rule for 24 years, die in his bed, bequeath the first orderly succession to the throne for nearly a century, and found a famous dynasty?

Worden adds a comment that caught my eye, ever looking for any reference to Machiavelli as I am:

Henry VII ruled – as Machiavelli, just after his reign, was to advise usurpers to do – through fear rather than love. His spies and informers were everywhere. In 1621 Francis Bacon’s history of the reign called Henry “a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious”. He had, Bacon added, much to be suspicious about, “his times” being “full of secret conspiracies and troubles”. Penn’s picture of a reign of terror carries disturbing echoes of the Roman historian Tacitus’s account of the emperor Tiberius, another ruler whose abridgements of liberty followed an era of civil strife.

H7 lived at the same time as Machiavelli – dying in 1509. Machiavelli died in 1527 (in 1509 he was leading Florence’s army in a victory against Pisa). H7 might have been the perfect audience for Machiavelli’s most famous work The Prince had he lived to see it. Machiavelli might even had H7 in mind among the princes he addresses.

Not all reviews are as fulsome in their praise as Worden’s. Some are much more critical. David Grummit, reviewing the book in History magazine, wrote :

Penn’s portrait of Henry is entirely in line with that presented by recent scholarship and the main thrust of his argument (that the king presided over a proto-Machiavellian polity, dominated by fear and suspicion, and one in which good government was too often subjugated to the demands of his own greed and paranoia) is one familiar to anyone who has read the various essays collected together in the special 2009 edition of Historical Research, edited by Mark Horowitz and subtitled ‘Who was Henry VII?’ The account of Henry’s relationship with various members of his household and the fact that the household was a focus of plots, intrigue and faction was the main argument of my own contribution to the collection and this (along with the suggestion that this pre-figured the new political world of Machiavelli) is, in many ways, the dominant motif of Penn’s book.

Still, there’s not a lot about Henry VII on the bookstore shelves, so I’m happy to have it. I’ll let you know whether I liked it in a later post.

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