Longsword by David Pilling

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Henry the Prudent

We've had Richard the Brilliant, so here's Henry the Prudent. In case I get accused of favouritism, this post is a lot longer simply because Henry reigned for 24 years as opposed to Richard's 2, and there is a lot more to say. 

Personal, as some clever person once said, is not the same as important. That maxim can be applied to Henry VII, who since the mid-20th century has been a favourite target for romantic novellists and Ricardians. Jean Plaidy got the ball rolling by describing Henry as a 'Welsh monkey', and in recent times Facebook has not been Henry's friend: 'slug face', 'slant-eyed sex offender', 'dead dork', and 'cowardly treacherous murdering usurper' have been some of the milder insults thrown his way in 2013. One historian has even proposed that poor old Henry wasn't a 'Tudor' at all, but a bastard on both sides of his family.  

I won. Get over it

The level of hatred, directed at a man who died over five hundred years ago, is startling in its intensity. Ricardians might argue that Henry had it coming, considering his part in the blackening of his predecessor's reputation. I would argue that Henry's character defects are less important than what he did as king, even if at times inseparable (more of that later). So, leaving aside his personality and his share in the blame for Richard's deconstruction, let's have a look at his actions as a ruler. 

Henry's chief aims were to survive and hand his crown onto his son (the thought of handing it on a daughter probably brought him out in a cold sweat at nights). Even if he achieved nothing else, this would represent a triumph for a man with no real claim to the throne, won via force of arms and a hefty slice of luck. As it turned out, for Henry the wielding of power was not just some fortunate accident, but his 'vocation and destiny', as S.B. Chrimes had it.  

When he came to the throne, Henry was very much an unknown quantity, in hock to his eyeballs to the King of France and little more than a lucky adventurer. Apart from stamping on frequent rebellions at home, he had to gain a bit of respect abroad and convince foreign powers to take him seriously. This he did with a vengeance, throwing aside the old Plantagenet daydreams of conquering France, while at the same time diddling the French out of vast sums of money, marrying his children into the Spanish and Scottish royal families and concluding beneficial treaties with Europe's major powers. Mediation and diplomacy, backed up by limited military force if necessary, were Henry's weapons, and he handled them adroitly. By the end of his reign, the lucky usurper was on equal terms with Aragon and Castile, the Valois and the Hapsburgs - 'all of them learnt to forgo attempts to subvert him; all learnt to respect his strength; all preferred his goodwill to his hostility'.

At home, Henry was something of a conservative, chiefly concerned with security - unsurprising, considering the number of plots and rebellions he had to cope with. Like Richard, Henry was concerned with the maintenance of law and order, and did what he could to curb the corruption and incompetence of justices. He proclaimed that his laws and ordinances were made 'for the politic well peace, and good rule and for the profit, surety and restful living of his subjects...nothing is more joyous than to know his subjects live peaceably under his laws and increase in wealth and prosperity.' 

To back up these fine words, Henry decreed that every justice of the peace should be proclaimed four times a year, with a threat of fines and dismissal for every omission. Anyone who felt aggrieved at the behaviour of a justice might seek redress from the king - again, this sounds remarkably similar to the actions of Henry's predecessor. 

Francis Bacon heaped praise on Henry as a law-maker, and stated that he was the greatest royal legislator since Edward I. This was perhaps excessive, and there is no space here to recite all of Henry's 192 statutes, but a couple are worth mentioning. One cracked down hard on the abuse of women, stating that the abduction, defiling and marrying against their will of 'maids, widows and wives' was a felony. Another provided that poor people who could not afford the expense of going to law could - at the discretion of the chancellor - be represented by counsel free of charge. 

Now we come to the elephant in the chamber: Henry's avarice. The clich├ęd image of him as a grim sobersides who divided his time between persecuting Yorkists and triple-checking accounts is a difficult one to shake, and there is a bit of truth to it. Following the death of his wife and eldest son, Henry took a turn for the worse (impossible to avoid discussion of his character here) and indulged in increasingly dodgy and extortionate ways of keeping his subjects in line. After Henry's death, his chief financial whiz Edmund Dudley was arrested and coughed up a document listing no less eighty-four examples of individuals whom Henry had persecuted for their money. Below are a few examples, again taken from Chrimes:

'Item Peter Centurion a Genenois was evil intreated and paid much money and upon malicious ground in my consience.

Item one Haslewood was kept long in prison and paid a great sum of money upon a light ground.

Item a poor gentleman of Kent called Roger Appleton paid 100 marks upon an untrue matter.

Item Sir Nicholas Vaux and Sir Thomas Parr paid 9,000 marks upon a very light ground...'

What seems clear is that the ageing Henry was prepared to twist the law in order to get at his subjects' purse-strings, suggesting that his understandable desire for solvency and security was degenerating into base greed and paranoia. The increasing use of bonds and recognizances against his nobles, and his petty and spiteful treatment of Catherine of Aragon, also give the impression of a man degenerating mentally as well as physically. 

Unpleasant and oppressive as some of his measures were, Henry was not a tyrant. His financial chicanery pales next to the savagery of his son and the Catholic fanaticism of his grand-daughter Mary. He was remarkably merciful to his enemies, indulging in no wholesale executions and doing what he could to reconcile the surviving Yorkists: the exception being the ruthless elimination of Edward, Earl of Warwick, done to ensure that Henry could secure his son Arthur's marriage to Catherine of Aragon.   

To conclude my little essay, Henry VII came to England on a wing and a prayer and left it solvent, secure, free of internal warfare and a respected, if not major, power in Europe. Not bad for a dork. 



  1. Another fine post, thank you. Tell me, when you refer to Henry's spiteful treatment of Catherine of Aragon, do you mean his interest in keeping her dowry and the period of time after Arthur's death?

    1. That's right - and his cutting off of her allowance etc.

  2. David, you know I'm a Yorskist at heart, but first and foremost the ardent admirer of the Angevins, and I admit you certainly have a point, emphasizing Henry's great achievment: a safe succession of his son. Henry II of England and Louis VII of France come to mind. The former praised for his political acumen, not to say genius, the later poor ruler, at battles and sieges always the beaten one. But it was Louis who, still living (and following the tradition of his lineage) secure the French throne for his only son, Philip [Augustus], who later brought the angevin empire to an end.

    P.S. I too find it really sad that there is so much hostility towards those who should rest in peace.

  3. Your sympathies are already visible in the nicknames you chose for the kings. Mocking "the Brilliant" and laudative "the Prudent" :-) Still, if you don't mind, I would love to post the links to both texts on my personal FB. All I need now is your permission :-)

    1. I'm mocking the near-hysterical worship of Richard in many quarters, rather than Richard himself. I doubt even Henry's detractors would argue that he wasn't prudent!

      Thanks for offering to post the links. You hereby have my permission :)

  4. I see. Your Richard text is very informative and worth reading, even if I disagree with you on certain matters :-)

    Thank you. I'm posting the links :-)

    1. Which matters? Let's have a debate if you like. I promise not to make jokes about burying female journalists alive in car parks ;)

  5. I can't now (busy preparing the anniversary post for Henry the Young King), but perhaps later in the day or tomorrow morning? God, I'm so terribly busy!!! Why have I mentioned the "certain matters"? Why ? :-) Henry is my primary concern, not Richard ;-)

    But remember! No jokes about female journalists!!!