Henry VII: Winter King was aired last night on BBC2 and was the latest programme in BBC2’s Tudor Court Season. It was presented by historian Thomas Penn, author of Winter King and was an excellent examination of the King who, as Penn pointed out, tend to be eclipsed by Richard III, the glamour and notoriety of Henry VIII and the charisma of Elizabeth I. Here is a rundown of the programme for those who missed it. All the information is from Thomas Penn.
In 1485, history was about to be changed for ever by a man who was a refugee, a fugitive who’d spent half his life on the run and with barely a claim to the throne: Henry Tudor. A man who rewrote history and rebuilt the crown, but who was paranoid, manipulative and suspicious; “a dark prince” with a wintery reign. His regime was magnificent, yet terrifying and oppressive. He created the Tudor dynasty.
Penn went on to show Henry VII’s wax funeral effigy, which I saw on my recent trip to London, and which shows his fine-boned features and his crooked eye, but also a face bearing the signs of stress and illness. He was, said Penn, a man who never knew a moment’s peace during his reign. Penn then moved on to how Henry became King. On 7th August 1485, he dropped anchor at Mill Bay, Milford Haven, and when he reached the beach he prayed “Judge me, O Lord, and favour my cause.” The odds were stacked against him in his quest to take the throne of England. When he met Richard III at Bosworth Field, Henry found that his army of dissidents and mercenaries was completely outnumbered. However, with the help of the forces of his step-father, Lord Stanley, he defeated Richard and Richard was killed on the battlefield. Stanley placed Richard’s circlet on Henry’s head, he was now King. He’d achieved the impossible, he’d risen from refugee to King of England.
Penn pointed out that for over half a century no king had passed on the crown without turmoil and Henry knew that what had happened to Richard could happen to him. His claim to the throne was precarious and was from an illegitimate line, a family who had been banned from taking the throne, so Henry needed to make the people believe that he was their rightful King and to do that he had to start behaving like one. Penn explained how Henry reworked recent events to suit him. He rewrote history by backdating his reign to 21st August 1485, the day before the Battle of Bosworth Field. This meant that Henry had been the rightful King in the battle and that Richard had been the usurper, and those who supported him had been traitors. Henry then cemented his claim to the throne and his dynastic ambitions by marrying Elizabeth of York and bringing the Houses of Lancaster and York together; the red rose and white rose combined to become the Tudor rose.
Henry needed an heir to secure his reign and fortunately an heir came quickly. Prince Arthur was born just eight months after his parents’ marriage, at Winchester, the seat of King Arthur’s Camelot. The new prince was the embodiment of the red and white rose, he was “the Tudor rose incarnate”.
Henry was building a myth, the idea that he and his family were the true royal blood of England. But, his enemies didn’t agree. Penn showed a genealogical roll that had belonged to the de la Pole family which showed Henry VI being the end of the Lancastrian line and the Yorkist line continuing on to Richard III. Henry VII was also shown, but his black line just traced back to Owen Tudor, a chamber servant. This family took a dim view of Henry and it was John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, who instigated the first rebellion against him. Lincoln was killed in battle and Henry was victorious. Henry then consolidated his reign with magnificent architecture, an opulent household and money. He created the sovereign coin to spread the message that he was King. On one side of the coin, instead of a profile of his face, there was a full length depiction of Henry sat on his throne with his crown and sceptre. On the other side of the coin, instead of the cross, was a Tudor rose and the arms of England. It was propaganda to spread the message that he was the rightful King.
Old rivalries simmered, however. Henry had only been accepted as King because the Princes in the Tower, the sons of Edward IV, were dead, so when Yorkist exiles groomed Perkin Warbeck to pose as one of the princes and raised an army it was a huge threat. Henry responded to this threat by embedding spies into households. Through this, he found that his Lord Chamberlain, Sir William Stanley, was involved in the plot. Stanley’s betrayal led to a complete security overhaul and his privy chamber going into lockdown. The King was heavily guarded. Henry’s Chamber Accounts show payment to strangers and people “across the sea”, who appear to have been part of a network of spies and informers who kept an eye on potential troublemakers and alerted the King. Warbeck was finally captured in 1497 and executed.
By 1500, Henry felt safer and things were looking good. He had finished his palace of Richmond, he was controlling his allies and keeping an eye on his enemies, and now was the time to finalise the marriage agreement between England and Spain. The marriage between Arthur, Prince of Wales, and Catherine of Aragon would be the culmination of everything that Henry VII had fought for at the Battle of Bosworth, so in 1501 there was a fortnight of marriage celebrations and London was in “a carnival mood”. The wedding was a triumph but in April 1502 a messenger brought the King the news that his eldest son had died of sweating sickness. Henry was devastated. His dynasty was hanging by a thread and all his hopes had to rest on his youngest son, Henry, and Elizabeth of York producing another son, a spare.
Elizabeth did get pregnant, but then went into premature labour. The baby died and Elizabeth, herself, died on 11th February 1503, her 37th birthday. Penn explained that the marriage had been one of genuine love and that Henry was shattered by his wife’s death. It was the end of the union of Lancaster and York and many had only accepted Henry as King because of his wife’s Yorkist roots, so Henry was once more on shaky ground with his old enemies resurfacing and raising armies. The devastated King became so ill that he was close to death, but then he recovered and Penn explains that when he took control once more, he was “remorseless”. He became paranoid and made the decision that if his people couldn’t love him then they should fear him. The last few years of his reign were ones of repression. The nobility was forced into bonds, legal agreements that they would act as the King wanted or be fined. These bonds were enforced by the Council Learned in the Law, a council of legal advisers who were only answerable to the King. They overrode all the usual legal processed and “acted with complete impunity.” One of the council’s prominent members was Edmund Dudley, a man who helped Henry by enforcing the King’s legal rights, finding old laws to use against people and stretching the law to its limits. Sometimes, Penn explained, charges against people were fabricated so that they would have to pay a fine, for example, a man who was charged with murdering a child and who was found guilty because the jury was rigged. He had to pay a £500 fine to save himself, to buy a pardon for the crime. The country was in “a perpetual state of emergency” and Henry’s subjects were scared and resentful.
Penn then went on to talk about the heir to the throne, the young Prince Henry, who seemed very different to the King. Here was a young man who enjoyed jousting, who enjoyed chatting with the other knights in the tiltyard and with people of “low degree”. People saw him as being like a traditional king and hoped that his reign would bring positive change.
Henry VII shut himself away in Richmond Palace from January 1509 and at 11pm on Saturday 21st April 1509 he died. He had brought the country to the brink of dynastic ambition, but not quite, so his closest advisers kept his death secret until St George’s Day, the annual meeting of the Order of the Garter. Scapegoats were needed for Henry VII’s reign, people to blame for the old regime, so Edmund Dudley was imprisoned and executed on trumped up charges. The 17 year-old Prince Henry became King Henry VIII and started a different era. He had a “populist touch” and his reign started with pardons, reforms and justice. Thomas More’s coronation poem for Henry VIII contrasted the new King’s reign with the dark days of the past. More wrote that “this King is loved” and compared Henry’s accession to the coming of a new season, a new spring following a winter of repression. Henry VIII was spring and Henry VII was winter.
Penn ended the programme by visiting the tombs of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in Henry’s chapel at Westminster Abbey, a chapel that “remains at the heart of political life”. He explained how Henry VII had achieved what he set out to do, he had passed on the crown successfully. He had gone from a refugee landing on an isolated beach in Wales to being a great king. He had unified the kingdom, accrued immense wealth and created the most notorious dynasty in English history: the Tudors. His legacy was his son, Henry VIII, “lucky old England” Penn commented.
It was a fantastic programme and I highly recommend Thomas Penn’s book on Henry VII Winter King
If you missed the programme then here is the YouTube video for you – enjoy! By the way, don’t forget that Ian Mortimer’s “Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England” is on tonight on BBC2 at 9pm.