Henry VII is such an unfamiliar historical figure that it is easy to mistake him for a misprint: Oh, they must mean Henry the Eighth. A little basic research establishes his separate identity as Henry Tudor, founder of the Tudor dynasty and father of Henry VIII, but he still doesn’t ring a bell. His individuality ought to shine forth in the story that he was the last English king to lead his troops on the battlefield, but he is upstaged there by the hysterical Richard III staggering around on foot screaming, “My kingdom for a horse!” And if we search for an actual description of him, we are chronologically jolted by Sir Francis Bacon’s déjà-vu-ish assessment: “He were a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious, and his times full of secret conspiracies and troubles.” Upstaged yet again, this time by Richard Nixon.
His identity crisis is over. This long-colorless ruler gets a thorough makeover in British author Thomas Penn’s superb new book. Henry Tudor ascended the throne as Henry VII after the Wars of the Roses, the romantic name for the dynastic struggle between the house of Lancaster, whose badge was the red rose, and the house of York, symbolized by the white. Both had a valid claim to the crown as direct descendents of Edward III (1327–77): the Lancasters through his third son, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and the Yorkists through his fourth son, Edmund of Langley, duke of York.
The contest began in 1422 when the Lancastrian Henry V, hero of Agincourt, died suddenly at the age of 35, leaving an infant son, Henry VI, and a young widow, Catherine of Valois, daughter of the king of France. A king in his cradle saddled the Lancasters with a regency, but there was something else: Catherine of Valois was soon remarried, to a member of the minor Welsh nobility named Owen Tudor. Their grandson was the Henry Tudor of our tale.
When the infant Henry VI grew up to exhibit the frittering passivity of the classic inadequate personality, the Yorkists decided to depose him. The Wars of the Roses were on, and they went on for years with all the features of a computer game. First one side mowed the other down and the losers fled to Brittany to regroup. In the next round, the losers were the winners until the winners lost again. Various continental leaders horned in, with the Duke of Burgundy as a generic marauder. Finally, in 1461, the triumphant losers successfully regrouped and crowned Edward IV the first Yorkist king, but he died in 1483 from eating, drinking, and wenching. More chaos ensued. Edward IV’s two young sons were sent to the Tower to be murdered, and their uncle, Richard III, was crowned the second Yorkist king.
It is impossible to imagine Henry Tudor leading his Lancastrian troops at the decisive battle of Bosworth in 1485. He had a cast in one eye that spoiled his aim, and he also had asthma. He had nothing to do with dispatching Richard III; he was simply there when it happened. Although he was the great-great-great-grandson of Edward III, his instincts were never those of a warrior king. As a matrilinear claimant through an illegitimate Lancastrian line, he fought for acceptance. Guided by his mother’s mastermind strategy and his own low testosterone, he aimed for unity through symbolism — what a later age would call public relations.
To show an exhausted England that Lancaster and York were now one, he married Edward IV’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. He liked her well enough, but that part didn’t matter. Though he was only 28, women as women meant nothing to this heterosexual but uninterested man, who never had a mistress and never wanted one. Luckily for him, Elizabeth turned out to be “the embodiment of reconciliation,” the answer to his dynastic prayers. Luckily for her, everyone else loved her even if her husband did not.
She got pregnant right away — always a valuable symbol of unity — and gave birth to a son whom his father, in high PR mode, named Arthur to remind his subjects of an idealized England. Five years later, they had another son, red-haired, named Henry after his father, but created duke of York in another gesture of reconciliation, this one with a warning behind it. One of the threats to Henry VII’s dynasty was an impostor named Perkin Warbeck, later caught and executed, who had claimed to be Edward IV’s son, Richard, duke of York, the younger of the princes in the Tower. By giving his second son the title so soon, Henry effectively announced that there was but one duke of York, and he was the son of a Tudor king.
Now that he had an heir and a spare he should have felt secure, but the insecure never do. Having known too many years of exile and uncertainty, too many contingency plans, too many hopes pinned on other people’s whims, he decided that the only way to protect his crown was to have bigger and better whims. That required money, lots of it, enough to make himself the most powerful monarch of the time. Taking as his guide his contemporary Machiavelli, who advised princes to be “more feared than loved,” he formed a tribunal called the “Council Learned in the Law” that proceeded to obliterate Magna Carta.
It was, simply and plainly, a shakedown. Using a huge network of spies and bribed local officials, the Council “trawled the country assessing individual wealth.” If you looked prosperous, you could obviously afford to pay up; if you didn’t, you were probably poor-mouthing. The Council issued open-ended subpoenas with no precise accusations, just an order “to come and answer to such things as shall be objected against him.” One man paid 500 pounds to avoid being declared a certified lunatic, a ward of the Crown, and having his lands confiscated. Paying up did not end matters, but just made them worse. “The suspended fines, or ‘recognizances,’ meanwhile, were like being on permanent bail,” writes Thomas Penn. “If [they were] triggered, their victims would be ruined.”
Matters got crazily modern, as with the London mercer “who died of ‘an unkind thought’ — stress, perhaps, or a heart attack — brought on by prolonged harassment.” Henry even ran security checks and formed the Yeomen of the Guard to carry them out. If he did not torture his debtors, it was because that was not the low-testosterone way. “Henry VII’s preferred method of punishment, after all, was death by a thousand financial cuts. It made the idea of disloyalty and rebellion not only unthinkable, but unaffordable.”
He created such a powerful England that Ferdinand and Isabella eagerly sent him their daughter, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1502. Four months later, Arthur died suddenly of the “sweating sickness” (probably double pneumonia) and Henry fell apart. All of his old dynastic insecurities returned, but even worse was in store for him. A year later, his wife died in childbirth on her 37th birthday after delivering a stillborn daughter. His “embodiment of reconciliation” with the Yorkists was gone. He nearly died himself in psychosomatic reaction when his asthma flared until he could not breathe. His illness had to be kept secret, he gasped, because now he had only one male heir, eleven-year-old Henry, a minor whom they would try to depose.
He recovered, and his mask slipped back on as if nothing had happened. Becoming even more of a paranoid miser than before, he developed an obsession with Catherine of Aragon’s financial situation. Spain had not paid all of her dowry, so he did not have to pay her widow’s portion, which would have included at least one opulently appointed castle. He micromanaged this to death, going back and forth, stalling and stonewalling, until Catherine was forced to sell the gold and jewels she had brought with her just to pay her household’s wages.
Ferdinand and Isabella, eager to keep their alliance with England against France, wanted Catherine to marry Prince Henry, but he was as yet too young. A better idea, Henry reasoned, was to marry Catherine himself so he could start producing more male heirs for the house of Tudor right away. (And, having made her his queen, he would not have to pay her widow’s portion and could negotiate a bigger dowry.) Isabella feigned shocked repugnance, but she still wanted the political alliance one way or another. The “another” in this case was another daughter, Catherine’s sister, known as “Juana the Mad,” the young widow of a prince of Burgundy, where the Yorkist duke of Suffolk was living in exile. Henry liked this idea. A Hapsburg alliance was better than a Spanish one, it would not require the pope’s permission, and catching Suffolk was pure gold. As for Juana the Mad, it didn’t matter that she refused to bury her husband and traveled with his corpse in her baggage train. He liked her well enough.
You know the rest of the story. Henry VII never married again but his son Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon and made the consummation of her first marriage the tipping point of history. What makes this book so endlessly enjoyable is that it serves up the pathos, chaos, and human comedy that we don’t know a lot about.
Thomas Penn is not an academic but a well-known British writer and editor who knows what readers like and how to deliver it. He shows us Julius II, “the warrior Pope,” getting so infuriated by the incessant letters about Catherine’s virginity that we visualize him not as an historical figure but as explosive Rex Harrison in the Michelangelo movie. The debatable phrase “public intellectual” gets fully defined in Penn’s description of Erasmus: “a crashing name-dropper,” networking like mad, buttering up everybody, drifting everywhere in search of hospitality and funding.
Best of all, he gives us the flunky of all time delivering the spin to end all spins. One of Henry’s aides, writing to Ferdinand in defense of Henry’s possible marriage to Juana the Mad: “In his loving company she would quickly recover her sanity — besides which, any mental derangement would hardly affect Juana’s ability to procreate.”
–Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.