By Matthew Lewis
Henry VII, the first of a mighty, famous and infamous dynasty is oft forgotten and easily overlooked. Everyone knows the first Norman king, the Conqueror. The first Plantagenet, Henry II, is famed, not least for his troubles with his wife and children. James VI and I is a famous founder of the Stuart dynasty in England and the Hanovers had George I. Henry VII, though, remains a more shadowy figure, loomed over by the Wars of the Roses that gave him his crown and his larger than life son, Henry VIII. This is perhaps because he played his part so completely perfectly.
Born into a stormy Welsh night in 1457 to a thirteen year old mother at the outbreak of a civil war that would define his life, his childhood was a mess not of his own making. Born without a father on the wrong side of a war in which his only offence was to have the wrong name and the wrong blood in his veins, his fortunes were those of the House of Lancaster until he defined his own. In my novel, Honour, I describe Henry as the Merchant King and I think it is a fitting title.
When the tide of the Wars of the Roses turned against his house, Henry was taken into custody as a child, comfortably contained within the household of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, a committed Yorkist who had been given Henry’s uncle Jasper’s title. Although he would later concede that Herbert had been kind to him and ensured that he was well educated and amply provided for, Henry was nevertheless a prisoner. Separated from his mother as a boy, it was the kind of painful detachment that he would have to get used to.
During the brief Lancastrian revival of 1470-1, Henry was suddenly on the right side. As a thirteen year old, he was presented to his father’s half-brother, the venerable but unstable King Henry VI. If his mother, Margaret Beaufort, hoped that her son’s fortunes had changed, it was a short lived delusion. With the thunderous return of the Yorkist King Edward IV in 1471, Henry was bustled into exile with his uncle Jasper aged fourteen. He would spend another fourteen years with little hope of return to a country that did not want him.
Taken into the care of Duke Francis of Brittany, Henry’s comfortable imprisonment did not begin badly. Secluded within the duke’s own summer residence at Suscinio with Jasper, Henry was surrounded by woods and parkland and permitted to ride, hunt and train with his uncle. As a messy squabble erupted between Edward IV and Louis XI of France it became obvious to Francis that he had something valuable in his possession. Henry was, for the moment at least, a commodity and that would give the future merchant king a unique perspective.
Francis split his assets, separating uncle and nephew. He courted the overtures from both England and France, waiting until his prize possessions could bring him the richest reward possible. These years must have been comfortable but miserable for Henry. He was well provided for, educated and clothed, frequently in black. Francis sent gifts to his ward, but he remained isolated. The parting from his uncle was surely the most painful, probably even more distressing than the separation from his mother. Jasper was a father figure, a mentor, a protector and Henry’s only comfort in his teenage exile.
Henry would remain in a kind of comfortable isolation until 1483. Negotiations were progressing well to see Henry returned to England safely and perhaps even married to a daughter of Edward IV. Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was by now married to her third (or fourth, depending on whether John de la Pole is included – which he never was by Margaret herself, who called Edmund Tudor her first husband in a will drawn up in 1472) husband Thomas Stanley and the couple were at the centre of Yorkist power. Margaret was trying to arrange her son’s return home and surviving records suggest that she was close to reaching a deal with the Yorkist king. I think it is unlikely that Henry’s intended bride was Elizabeth of York, simply because Edward would have had bigger plans for his oldest daughter.
The veracity of this arrangement is unclear. Edward may have been laying a trap for the last, straggling remnants of Lancastrian resistance in exile. Once back on home soil, his fate might have been less than certain. Alternatively, Lord Stanley’s influence might have convinced Edward that Henry could be reconciled safely and the final threat to Yorkist dominance brought within the fold. Either way, Henry’s fate was out of his hands and he was once more a commodity for others to weigh, value and barter over.
The death of Edward IV on 9 April 1483 brought these negotiations to an abrupt halt. If Edward IV had been willing to entertain the idea of a return for the Earl of Richmond because of his own established security, Richard III did not share that luxury and Henry’s future was once more that of a perishable good for the purveyance of others. This seems to have been the point at which Henry took the first step of any successful merchant – a risky venture.
Buckingham’s Rebellion was always, in truth, Henry Tudor’s rebellion. Quite how he sprung to the forefront and why the rebellion doesn’t bear his name, is a mystery open to interpretation, but Henry arrived at the south coast with one of the merchant’s necessities – a cautious eye. The story that he was beckoned ashore by men telling him Buckingham had been successful, only for Henry to narrow his shrewd, businessman’s eyes and decide something wasn’t right is entirely believable. The market was not yet ready and the order of business now was patience.
Henry became once more a desirable commodity. France still wanted him as a weapon against England, particularly now Richard III seemed far more likely than his brother to seek war across the Channel. Richard needed control of the last Lancastrian hope to help secure his own position. Duke Francis had sworn to protect Henry and was not particularly keen to hand him over to anyone, enjoying the influence his prisoner brought, but Francis was not a well man. Pierre Landlais, his chief minister, took control of Brittany, and Pierre was very interested in Richard III’s financial inducements. Agreement was reached and Henry was parcelled up and sent to the coast.
Fortunately for the anti-Ricardian cause, Henry had friends with ears to the ground. It was probably Bishop John Morton who warned Henry of what was happening and the fugitive slipped his guards and fled over the French border. It was here that Henry was to learn some of his most valuable lessons. It was the last piece of an unlikely apprenticeship that gave the merchant precisely what he needed.
In Paris, Henry was disingenuously welcomed as the true son of King Henry VI, the younger brother of Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. The display was utterly magnificent. French kingship had always been wrapped in a royal majesty melded with a religious spirituality that had not reached the English crown. Henry learned, as he rode into Paris in splendour, that the truth could stand some adaptation if the need was real and that display could accomplish more than a sword, more than a threat. Give the impression that you are an unassailable monarch sent by God and the people will believe it.
When Henry landed at Milford Haven on 7 August 1485, it was as King of England. He summoned men to his cause as their ruler. He took the field of battle at Bosworth on 22 August as a reigning monarch seeking to drive out an imposter. This was what the merchant king had learned in France. The best way to create wealth is the illusion of wealth. The surest way to become king was to convince everyone that you already are king. Henry landed as a merchant with fabulous wares to offer – stability, certainty, salvation.
The first Tudor monarch ruled like a merchant king too. His control over his kingdom was based on money and the illusion of an inevitable, inexorable right to the throne that he had won. Henry VII did his own books. He knew every penny that came into and went out of his coffers. He developed a reputation as a miser, but that isn’t really the whole story. Henry’s accounts, which he diligently audited and signed personally, show an astounding willingness to spend money on his family and on the promotion of his image as king. He would initiate financial relationships with kingdoms all over Europe, selling them security in the form of his money and ensuring that they remained indebted to him. Trade was always a central plank of Henry’s efforts to increase his wealth, influence and security.
When Perkin Warbeck loomed large over the fledgling Tudor regime, Henry had his second son created Duke of York for no reason other than to demonstrate that he was in control. The old House of York was gone, absorbed into the bodies of his offspring and the new House of York was the future. The old one was dead. Warbeck could not be the heir to something that no longer existed.
Edmund de la Pole proved a serious thorn in Henry’s side when he claimed to be the heir of York and rightful king. Ever the pragmatic merchant, Henry made trade agreements to the detriment of English merchants in order to deprive the White Rose of support. He always had an eye for the bigger picture, the main deal. He could give with one hand if the other was taking far more in the long run. When Archduke Philip, son of Maximillian, the Holy Roman Emperor, was shipwrecked on the south coast in January 1506, Henry sprang into his finest bargaining mode. Philip was treated with the utmost respect, but Henry negotiated from a position of power now and he did so with ruthless brilliance. Edmund de la Pole was living under Maximillian’s protection and Henry made it clear that not only would the Emperor have to settle some outstanding trade disputes in England’s favour but he would also have to hand over Edmund before he would see his son again. It worked, and another threat was neutralised.
Henry VII built a hugely successful enterprise from nothing. He served a long apprenticeship and perhaps struck out on his own a little too early. He was wise enough to write off the early setback. What he learned in France showed that providence was on his side and he would apply all that he knew to the commencement of his greatest enterprise; the establishment of the family business. In 1509 he would hand over this business to his son, who lacked his father’s hard-earned experience but knew how to project magnificence even better than his mentor.
I think Henry VII was England’s first merchant king. He grew wealth from the illusion of wealth and power from the illusion on power. Why do we believe that the Wars of the Roses ended in 1485? We believe it because Henry VII told us it was so. In truth, it was nowhere near its end when Richard III was swiftly buried within the Grey Friars at Leicester. The period was neatly packaged and placed on a shelf for display like a family trophy, a memento that could not be bought but defined the origins of the family business. No-one really knows what is inside and the shopkeeper would swat the hands of nosy children who looked too closely because although it was on display, it was not to be opened. Ever.
The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy unwraps this mysterious box and lays out the contents to examine the real beginnings and obscure endings of a civil war that broke a nation and made a dynasty. Fortunes waxed and waned, but Henry Tudor was, eventually, the biggest winner from the manoeuvres of the second half of the fifteenth century because he played the game so well, finally making the rules himself. His security was hard won but in many ways it remained an illusion, an elusive ambition. The extent of his achievement can be found in the fact that at his death, he was the first king in eighty-seven years not to lose his throne.
Matthew Lewis is the author of two histories, A Glimpse of King Richard III and A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses, and two historical fiction novels, Loyalty and Honour. Matthew was born in the West Midlands and has a degree in Law. He blogs regularly about the Wars of the Roses and operates two history podcasts. He lives in Shropshire.
His latest book is The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy, published by Amberley. The Wars of the Roses were not a coherent period of continual warfare. There were distinct episodes of conflict, interspersed with long periods of peace. But the struggles never really ceased. Motives change, fortunes waxed and waned, the nature of kingship was weighed and measured and the mettle of some of England’s greatest families was put to the test. Matthew Lewis examines the people behind these events, exploring the personalities of the main players, their motives, successes and failures. He uncovers some of the lesser-known tales and personal stories often lost in the broad sweep of the Wars of the Roses, in a period of famously complex loyalties and shifting fortunes.