Saturday 23 April 2011

April 21st, 1509: The Death of Henry VII

The death of Henry VII was, in many ways, the real death of the Middle Ages in England. No era ever truly dies, of course, unless it has been violently truncated, but having been born in a Welsh castle in 1457, Henry VII was the last leader of the nation to be born in what could indisputably be deemed the British Middle Ages. His path to the throne had been dangerous and his eventual triumph in 1485, when he won the crown in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle of Bosworth, had been improbable to say the least. In many ways, had it not been for the lethal incompetence of the House of York and the Machiavellian schemes of his mother, Henry Tudor might never have returned from exile in France, let alone seized the throne.

For the defeat and death of Richard III at Bosworth, Henry VII has never quite been forgiven by modern day adherents of the former, known as Ricardians. It's difficult, frankly, to see why, given that Richard himself had been more than capable of prosecuting similarly bloody conflicts against his own rivals in days gone by. Both Richard and Henry were products of the violent and duplicitous generation in English history known as "the Wars of the Roses," a name which endows the era with a poetic loveliness that it absolutely does not deserve. When the occasion called for it (and many times when it did not), Richard and Henry, as well as many of their contemporaries, were quite prepared to perpetrate deeds which violated the laws of church, justice and modern sensibilities.

Whatever one thinks of its beginnings, Henry VII's twenty-four year reign must be judged a political and fiscal success. Through shrewd and often dishonest manipulation of both the judiciary and the taxation system, the King had broken the power of the aristocracy, which had swollen to lethal proportions during the civil war. He had restored good government to his native Wales, he had ended definitively the possibility of the Rose conflict re-starting and he had left the monarchy secure, respected and, for the first time in a generation, solvent. By any impartial standards, Henry VII had been a successful monarch - intelligent, resourceful, determined and sober-minded. What he had not been was popular. And proof of this was given by the almost obscene euphoria with which the public greeted the accession of his son and replacement, the seventeen year-old Henry VIII.

Henry VII had been ailing since the spring of 1507, when he had apparently given up on the idea of marrying the Dowager Queen of the Naples, Giovanna. He had only been fifty at the time, but it was rumoured about the court within weeks that the King was suffering from consumption. The middle-aged monarch's health had become so frail that in Easter 1507, Candlemas 1508 and July of the same year, there had been very real fears that he was about to die. He rallied every time, but with each brush with death, the King became more and more devout. Perhaps tortured by the memory of the dishonest and amoral methods of financial extortion that he and his government had used to re-stabilise both the monarchy and the economy, Henry spent the winter of 1508 and the spring of 1509 performing penance. In his will, he insisted that any subject who had been unfairly squeezed by illegal taxation or fined unjustly by the government should be repaid and he left enough money for ten thousand Masses to be said for his soul in Purgatory. He pardoned all minor criminals and cancelled all existing fines owed to the Treasury lower than the sum of £15. On March 24th, the King collapsed and was taken to his bed. Within a week, the Venetian ambassador to London heard that there was no doubt that Henry was now "utterly without hope of recovery." 

On April 20th, Henry, Prince of Wales, the King's only surviving son was brought to his father's bedside to say goodbye. Henry would later claim that it was here that his father had commanded him to marry his brother's widow, Katherine of Aragon. Some queried this suspiciously useful version of events, saying that Henry had only claimed that this was his father's final wish because he himself wanted to marry Katherine as quickly possible. For much of the final part of his reign, Henry VII had apparently rejected the idea of marrying Henry to Arthur's widow and had instead seemed to think the best advantage for England lay with his son marrying the emperor's granddaughter, Eleanora of Hapsburg. On the other hand, given Henry VII's state of mind as he approached death, it would not be too surprising if he had made this demand in the hope of making amends to the daughter-in-law he had ignored, bullied and refused to support financially. Henry's treatment of Katherine had been nowhere near as diabolical as both she and several Spanish ambassadors had claimed, but it had certainly been un-gallant, petty and often cruel. For what it is worth, it is my hunch that Henry VII did make this final request of his son and that it helps explain the great speed with which Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon were married.

It was a depleted royal family who awaited Henry VII's death. His beautiful wife, Elizabeth, had been dead for the last six years, dying in the process of giving birth to their youngest daughter, Katherine, who had herself died within weeks of her mother. Of the King and Queen's other seven children, Edmund, Edward and Elizabeth had all joined their mother in the grave long ago. And so too had Henry VII's pride and joy, his eldest son, Arthur, struck down in the plague epidemic of 1502 at the age of fifteen, leaving Henry VII with an heir he neither liked nor trusted. The King's eldest daughter, Margaret, now lived far away in Edinburgh as Queen of Scots, having married King James IV six years earlier. Her younger sister, twelve year-old Mary, was already blossoming into a creature who showed something of the beauty she had inherited from her mother and grandmother. During his final few months, the King had done excellent work in trying to secure the coveted Hapsburg alliance by betrothing her to the emperor's grandson and heir, Charles, who would one day inherit the greatest continental empire in European history and thus give Henry VII's daughter an imperial crown. This too was to be frittered away by his son, who was to waste Mary's diplomatic potential by marrying her off to the aged King Louis XII of France instead, during one of his frequent and ill-judged alliance volte-faces. 

And, of course, there was young Henry himself. Seventeen years and nine months old and much more a tall, handsome, strapping, muscular Yorkist than a small, dark and clever Tudor. Outstandingly handsome and with attractive mannerisms, it is not difficult to see why Henry VIII was greeted with such a tidal wave of popularity when the news was announced that he was now King of England and Lord of Ireland, following his father's agonising death rattle at Richmond on April 21st.

Thomas More, who had written the eulogy for Queen Elizabeth's funeral back in 1503, led the praise when he described the new King as "the greatest, the best, and to use a new and honourable title for a King, the most loved." More's panegyric for the teenage monarch and his occasional slights on the government of the old king were as nothing compared to the breathless hysteria of some of the courtiers, chief amongst them being More's admirer, Lord Mountjoy, who wrote that with the new king, "Avarice is expelled from the country; liberality scatters wealth with a bounteous hand. Our King does not desire gold or gems or precious metals, but virtue, glory, immortality." Given that the boy had been kept secluded by his father for most of his adolescence and that subsequently neither court nor public really knew anything about him, a policy of 'wait and see' might have been more prudent.

Amidst the outpourings of public joy, a quiet marriage was held at Greenwich for Henry and his twenty-three year-old sister-in-law, Princess Katherine, in time for a splendid summer coronation. After four or five years of financial hardship, by royal standards, Katherine was both exultant and relieved to find herself restored to the limelight once again and to be queen in a court where fiscal responsibility was the last thing on anybody's mind. For all the later images of the dour, religion-obsessed Spanish matron immortalised  in works like Anne of the Thousand Days or The Sword and the Rose, in the spring and summer of 1509 Queen Katherine was much more like "the party queen" which her most recent biographer, Giles Tremlett, has likened her to in chapter nineteen of his biography. Writing to her father back in Spain, who had done literally nothing to help her during her widowhood but to whom she understandably but stupidly remained devoted, Katherine gushed that she and the entire court now spent their time "in continual merriment." It was a gaudy, reckless and extravagant summer in the English court, during which Henry VIII made the first dents in the treasury that he was eventually to annihilate entirely.

Through the parties, the parades, the processions and the pardons, however, another side of Henry VIII could be glimpsed, if only More, Mountjoy, Katherine or anybody else had looked beyond the sparkle of the new regime. For all those who claim today that it was 1536 and his fall from his horse which Henry turned into a monster, nothing could indicate more clearly the extent to which he was prepared to trample over morality and legality than those first few weeks after he came to power. Dudley and Empson, his father's most loyal but most unpopular ministers, who were linked in the public's mind to the financial savagery of Henry VII's government, were now hurled in the Tower and eventually executed on patently trumped up charges, adding to the new monarch's popularity. Anything the two men had ever done had been on the orders of Henry's dead father and yet he showed not one drop of mercy or hesitation in sending both of them to the block. They were the first of thousands to die that way.

Maybe, looking back on it, Henry VII had not been quite so draconian after all. 


  1. Excellent post, particularly that last paragraph!

  2. Thank you, Susan. That's very kind and I'm really glad you enjoyed it. Can't believe I nearly missed this anniversary - all things considered, pretty important to the general "theme" of this blog.

  3. Great post, Gareth- I think Henry's modern reputation has been largely shaped by those that seek to rehabilitate Richard III, both in history and historical fiction. Henry can been viewed as greedy, but his ambition to strengthen the crown and weaken the nobility by appropriating land was largely a continuation of policies started by Edward IV.
    Henry's negative traits clearly worsened after the deaths of his son and wife. Many Ricardian fiction authors portray his marriage as miserable, but his actions after Arthur's death indicate otherwise- I've always wondered if Henry's treatment of Katharine of Aragon was driven by resentment over her having survived the plague while Arthur died.

  4. Hi, Caroline. Thanks for saying you enjoyed the post and great point about the Crown's policies towards the nobility being a continuation from the reign of Edward IV. I suppose it's fair to paint the marriage of Henry and Elizabeth as miserable if you're a fiction a writer. When it comes to novels, I always applaud an author when they don't just limit themselves to what the sources give them, but use that as a starting point and then use that to flesh out a fully realised characterisation. Not contradict the sources, but build on them - there's a big difference! So, in the absence of any clear indicator of what Elizabeth thought of her husband, in a novelistic setting that presentation of their marriage is fair enough. Although, in a biographical setting it would be disingenuous and wrong - especially, as you say, when set in the context of how close and mutually supportive they seem in the aftermath of their eldest son's death. That, and the fact Henry does not seem to have taken a mistress.

    I am not a Ricardian, in that I don't like taking sides in a five century quarrel about a man whose reign was short and whose actions in acquiring the throne seem to me to place him quite firmly as one ruthless man amongst many. However, in terms of historical fiction, it's difficult to think of a novel that's more fantastically written than Sharon Kay Penman's "The Sunne in Splendour." Given my own wariness of Ricardianism, I have to say this book was an absolute joy to read and she's one of the finest historical novelists writing today. Honestly, if you can, read it.

    In terms of how Henry felt about Katherine. That's an interesting question and one we may never have the answer to. That she survived when Arthur did not may have poisoned Henry's attitude to her, since he was exactly the most lovely of characters at the best of times. They may also have become more estranged after Queen Elizabeth's death, when Katherine could no longer live at Court. I don't know... it's an interesting question.

    Thanks again for your post and Happy Easter!



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