By Nathen Amin
Henry VII was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 22 August 1485 until his death on 21 April 1509, a reign spanning nearly 24 years. He was the first monarch of the House of Tudor and his reign is traditionally viewed as restoring the power of the English monarchy after the tumultuous Wars of the Roses. Henry was born in Pembroke Castle on 28 January 1457, the son of the recently-deceased Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and the young heiress Margaret Beaufort. The child had inherited substantial royal blood from both his parents; His father Edmund Tudor was the son of the Welshman Owen Tudor, from which he gained descent from the ancient Welsh princes. Henry’s paternal grandmother meanwhile was Katherine of Valois, the daughter of Charles VI, King of France and widow of Henry V of England. Henry Tudor was thus the half-nephew of King Henry VI of England, the gentle monarch who was ruling England at the time of his birth. Through his mother Margaret Beaufort however Henry was descended from King Edward III of England, a bloodline that would give him a tenuous claim to the throne. Nonetheless the young child born in Pembroke Castle on that wet and windy Welsh winter night could claim descent from the English, French and Welsh royal families.
During his childhood the House of York had replaced the House of Lancaster on the throne of England and Henry found himself a ward of the prominent Yorkist commander, Sir William Herbert of Raglan. Henry was from a strong Lancastrian background and it may have been hoped he would become a Yorkist in upbringing if not background. Henry lived with the Herberts from the age of 4 until he was 14 when his guardian was killed at the Battle of Edgecote in 1469. Edward IV was deposed the following year by his cousin Sir Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and replaced with the former king, Henry VI. The House of Lancaster had been readepted to the throne and Henry found himself reacquainted with his uncle, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke. This period of Lancastrian rule would only last a year however; the three brothers of York, Edward, Richard and George, combined forces once more and claimed victories at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury to reclaim the throne. King Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London a few days after his only son Prince Edward was killed on the battlefield at Tewkesbury the House of Lancaster was seemingly destroyed. Jasper Tudor, the half-brother of Henry VI, had succeeded in escaping capture and sought to seek sanctuary outside the kingdom. Jasper took his 14-year-old nephew with him and together the two Tudors fled from Tenby in Wales and landed in Brittany, where they would remain for the next twelve years. Henry’s descent from Edward III became particularly relevant in the aftermath of the Battle of Tewkesbury. With King Henry and his son Edward killed, together with the extinction of the male-line Beaufort family, Henry was considered to be a potential Lancastrian heir, a role further given credence a few years later with the suspicious death of Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter. This Lancastrian descent ensured Henry remained in exile for a good part of his life as the Yorkist dynasty secured the throne in England. Henry’s future prospects remained in a state of flux until 1483 when King Edward IV died and was succeeded by his young son, Edward V. Before the child king was crowned he was deposed by his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was proclaimed and crowned Richard III. This seizure of the throne resulted in the alienation of the Wydeville affinity, the maternal relations of young Edward V, and parts of the household of Edward IV. With rumours abounding of the death of Edward V and his brother Richard in the Tower of London, these estranged Yorkists fled to Brittany.
A fracture in the hitherto stable House of York gave Henry an opportunity to be recognised as a viable alternative and in due course his exiled court began to acknowledge him as the Lancastrian heir. Henry swore an oath on Christmas Day 1483 to marry Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, and combine his Lancastrian claim to the throne with Elizabeth’s much-stronger Yorkist claim. With the assistance of France, Henry and his army landed in West Wales in August 1485 and two weeks later defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. He was proclaimed ‘Henry, King of England and of France, Prince of Wales and Lord of Ireland’. Henry’s reign would be punctuated by various plots to unseat him, supported by lingering Yorkist dissidents. Henry had to consistently fend off these threats, often perpetrated by pretenders such as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, but by 1500 he was relatively secure on the throne. He had honoured his earlier oath to marry Elizabeth of York and the rival houses were symbolically united in January 1486. The couple enjoyed a plethora of children, although as was typical of the times some did not reach adulthood. Their eldest son Arthur was born in 1486, followed by Margaret in 1489, Henry in 1491, Elizabeth in 1492, Mary in 1496, Edmund in 1499 and Katherine in 1503. The death of Henry’s heir Arthur in 1502 at the age of fifteen-years-old would shatter the king and was only exacerbated by the death of his beloved wife in childbirth the following year.
As king Henry was often considered to be wise and judicious, preferring peace to war. His court biographer Polydore Vergil wrote “…he was moderate, honest, frugal, affable, and kindly. He hated pride and arrogance so much that he was rough and harsh towards men marked by those vices. No man enjoyed such sway with him that he dared to act as he please…he said this was his practice, so that he would be called a king who chose to rule rather than be ruled”. The latter part of the reign of Henry VII is controversial for his determination to bolster the royal treasury, a strategy that has opened the king to accusations of tyranny and greed although the situation was more complex than has often been accepted. Henry died in Richmond Palace on 28 April 1509; he was succeeded by his son Henry VIII in the first peaceful transfer of power in almost a century. His descendants still sit on the throne of England today.