Joanna Hickson is one of the most popular fiction scribes currently producing work on all things 15th and 16th century, a position well-earnt by her consistently entertaining and insightful writing. Already a multiple best-selling author through her previous critically acclaimed work The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride, The Tudor Crown follows on from last year’s triumphant release First of the Tudors, a captivating tome which followed the life and struggles of Jasper Tudor.
Hickson’s latest release features Jasper as a background character, continuing this hardy adventurer’s story somewhat, but the narrative has switched to his young nephew Henry Tudor, and the boy’s redoubtable mother, Margaret Beaufort. This manoeuvring mother-and-son team, separated by the English Channel and living in the precarious world of their dynastic enemies, the Yorks, work tirelessly towards the end goal – the place Henry upon the throne of England, an unlikely scenario that gradually hurdles towards reality as you race through the book.
The tagline of the Tudor Crown is ‘She’ll betray her king to crown her son’, though there is much more to Margaret’s story than mere betrayal – as her real-life inspiration, it’s about responding to external factors and seizing the opportunities presented her with remarkable determination. It is refreshing to see this resolute woman portrayed in a positive light rather than as a villain, as has depressingly been the case in recent times. She is a good person trying her best in a ruthless world, though unquestionably tough, and willing to do whatever it takes – “I quashed my Lancastrian pride and thought of my son’s future; I would kneel at my enemy’s feet”.
The book is written in the first-person, albeit from the eyes of two protagonist, namely the aforementioned mother-and-son. The chapters alternate between the two, reflecting their unfolding story as one battles through the world of the York court in England, and the other struggles and strives abroad in exile. The result is almost two different books in one, with two distinct perspectives from two unique individuals – and yet this premise works well as we are catapulted from one intrigue to another, their stories bonded only by the letters regularly exchanged between our two heroes. We see Margaret grow bolder in her schemes, and the resilient Henry grow from reluctant youth into a regal pretender, and naturally we find ourselves rooting for a pair who are scrapping against the odds for a positive outcome to the dreary hand life has dealt them.
Though the outcome is one of the most famous episodes in British history, Hickson calls on her full evocative repertoire to make us feel as though we are alongside Margaret and Henry for their turbulent journey, living the drama with them and uncertain of our destiny. She must be commended for this, as it’s not easy to maintain tension writing towards a finale already known by most readers. Hickson captures the hopes and dreams of the pair well through their story, clouding our mind with the same frustrations and worries her sympathetic characters experience several times over during their tribulations. Meanwhile enough names of real-life figures are mentioned for one to note the research Hickson has undertaken, as well as provide breadcrumbs for further research.
The mentioned finale is a masterpiece of fiction writing – the detail leading up to the fabled Battle of Bosworth almost transports the reader to the very field in question, through the eyes of the victor Henry Tudor himself – “The next hour was the most dreadful I had ever known…those clashing lines of screaming, swearing, charging men consisted of fathers and husbands, uncles and sons and I had led them into this hellish maelstrom of blood and guts and madness”.
In short – this author with a growing repertoire of excellent books has produced yet another winner. Oh, and the cover alone is beautiful. One hopes Hickson continues the story of Jasper and Henry into the successful twilight of their life.
The Wars of the Roses were a notoriously violent feud in which faction warred with faction and family destroyed family, all against the backdrop of a tussle over the most significant prize in the kingdom – the throne of England.
Whether aligned with Lancaster or York, both sides inflicted atrocities on the other across three decades as a myriad of strong personalities sought to advance the cause of themselves, and the faction to which they had pledged their loyalty. Very few were faultless, as men such as Richard of York, Warwick the Kingmaker, Edward IV, the dukes of Somerset, Clarence and Buckingham, and the earls of Northumberland, Pembroke, Oxford, Salisbury and Devon, each engaged in internecine conflict.
In recent years, however, a narrative has developed which portrays the House of Tudor, who acceded to the throne in 1485 after Henry VII usurped the crown from Richard III (who depending on your viewpoint may or may not have himself usurped the throne), as unusually bloodthirsty in their supposedly relentless yearning to wipe out all Yorkist rivals. Henry VII, it is claimed, would stop at nothing to eliminate his competition, contrary to the fact that the first Tudor was, in fact, merely responsible for just the one, dubious, execution of potential White Rose adversary in a 24-year reign.
The various misdeeds of Edward IV, meanwhile, seem oddly disregarded, which is astounding when one considers that he too was not averse to wiping out those he perceived to be a threat, including Henry VI and his own brother George, Duke of Clarence, both bumped off in the Tower of London during the 1470s, and a fate that would conceivably have been shared by young Henry Tudor had he fallen into Yorkist possession. Rarely mentioned, or at least skimmed over, is the fate that befell the man who was arguably the most senior Lancastrian heir after the deaths of Henry VI, Prince Edward of Westminster and the two Beaufort siblings in 1471; Henry Holland, 2nd Duke of Exeter.
Henry was born on 27 June 1430 as the only son John Holland, then Earl of Huntingdon, and his first wife Anne Stafford. His father was the eldest surviving son of another John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter, who was prominent towards the end of the fourteenth century as the elder half-brother of King Richard II. The 1st Duke rose high in favour of his sibling, but after Henry IV usurped the throne in 1399, his status was diminished, his title demoted, and after he led a rebellion known as the Epiphany Rising in which it was alleged he planned to wipe out the fledgling Lancastrian royal family, he was executed. Despite his anti-Lancastrianism, the 1st Duke had actually married into the family as husband of Elizabeth of Lancaster, a daughter of John of Gaunt, making his namesake son a great-grandson of Edward III. The younger John proved faithful to his Lancastrian relations, serving notably at Agincourt in 1415. He was captured by the French in 1421 and spent four years in captivity, but after his release continued his service until he was eventually restored to his father’s dukedom of Exeter in 1443, enjoying precedence below only Richard, Duke of York.
Henry Holland, therefore, from the age of 13 was suddenly raised to heir of a mighty dukedom, in title if not income, and also could boast of royal descent on his maternal side as a great-grandson of Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester and youngest son of Edward III. When he acceded to his father’s title and estates in 1447 at just 17, he was recognised as one of the foremost nobles in the land, royally descended and high in the line of succession to the as yet childless king, his cousin Henry VI.
Frustration over the poor financial state of his inheritance, and a haughty disposition that spilled over into questionable behaviour, Holland quickly attracted trouble during the 1450s. He fraudulently seized the lands belonging to a fellow lord, meddled needlessly in the escalating Neville-Percy rivalry in the north, lay claim to the Duchy of Lancaster during Henry VI’s first mental breakdown, and even courted the Scots to cause issues in England to his own benefit.
Most notably, despite his marriage to the duke’s young daughter, Exeter opened a feud with Richard of York after the latter was named protector in 1453, perhaps slighted that despite his tender age, he was overlooked for the post by virtue of his lineage. He was tersely warned to desist from his troublesome behaviour in the north by York, and when he refused to heed the message, was imprisoned in Pontefract Castle. Though released when Henry VI resumed control of his faculties, when the Wars of the Roses erupted in 1455, the headstrong duke of Exeter rallied to the Lancastrian cause, directly opposing his estranged father-in-law, York, and thereafter the latter’s son, Edward.
Exeter fought against York at the Battle of St Albans, for which he was briefly imprisoned in Wallingford Castle during York’s second ascendancy, and later commanded men in the Lancastrian victories at Wakefield in 1460, during which died York, and the Second St Albans in 1461. He was also present for the traumatic defeat at Towton a month later, which placed the Yorkist Edward IV upon the throne, and sensing the winds of change, fled into Scotland and thence France, his title subject to attainder and his lands seized.
A decade later, during the brief Lancastrian readeption which existed for several months in 1470 and 1471, Exeter returned to England, and commanded part of the royal army which faced off with his Yorkist brother-in-law at the battle of Barnet. The chronicler Warkworth noted that Exeter ‘faught manly ther that day’ but was ‘gretely despolede and woundede’ in the loss, ‘and lefte nakede for dede in the felde’. He was eventually rescued from the field, having lain there injured until 4pm, and fled into sanctuary at Westminster to recover from his wounds.
At the battle of Tewkesbury a few weeks later, at least three people in the Lancastrian line of succession were killed, namely Prince Edward, and the Beaufort siblings Edmund and John, and shortly thereafter occurred the suspicious killing of Henry VI in the Tower of London. With the senior male-line of Lancaster wiped out, the astute Milanese ambassador observed that Edward IV had coldly ‘chosen to crush the seed’ of his rivals.
Yet, Henry Holland remained, much to the Yorkist king’s chagrin, one imagines. Henry Tudor, another Lancastrian claimant, had succeeded in fleeing into exile, but Holland remained within Edward’s reach. The duke was therefore forcibly removed from Westminster Abbey, and kept thereafter under close supervision in the Tower, ominously where Henry VI met his end. His loveless marriage to the king’s sister Anne of York was dissolved in 1472, with much of his estates passing into her control, and his situation appeared bleak until 1475 when the duke was suddenly invited to accompany Edward IV on his upcoming military expedition to France. Perhaps the king did not want to leave a potential claimant to his throne behind in the kingdom, preferring to keep a close eye on his rival, or he felt the duke deserved an opportunity at reconciliation. Either way, Henry Holland would never return alive.
During the Channel crossing between Dover and Calais, in uncertain circumstances that have never been ascertained, this formidable duke with the most preeminent Lancastrian claim to the throne, fell overboard and drowned. Chronicles written within England are vague in their recollections of his mysterious demise. Polydore Vergil noted that Exeter had, ‘contrary to promyse’, been ‘taken sooddenly owt of the way’, whilst Robert Fabyan recounted how the duke had been ‘founden deed in the see atwene Dover and Calays’ before adding ‘but how he was drowned the certaynte is nat knowne’. The entry in the Chronicles of London, meanwhile, simply reported how the duke was ‘found deed, as it was said, bitwene Dovyr and Caleys’. The Croyland Chronicle, on the other hand, perhaps the most informed of the period’s sources and written by someone close to Edward’s regime, is unusually silent on the matter.
It was left to a source outside the influence of Edward IV, or his son-in-law Henry VII, who had no capital to gain from disparaging his wife’s father, to lay blame at the feet of the Yorkist king for the death of a Lancastrian rival. The Milanese ambassador to Burgundy, Giovanni Pietro Panicharolla, wrote to the Duke of Milan on 4th December 1475 from Nancy, describing how Edward IV ‘had the Duke of Xestre thrown into the sea, whom he had previously kept a prisoner’. The ambassador added that the duke had resented his captivity, and its possibly he had been making this known, further incurring the wrath of his king.
So was Henry Holland thrown into the sea, deliberately murdered by, or on the orders of, Edward IV. In light of more concrete evidence, it is difficult to confirm categorically, thought one can’t deny the death of the duke was convenient for the House of York. If 1471 was the year Edward had chosen to crush the seed, then four years later it is likely he continued crushing. As demonstrated three years later with the execution of his own brother, Edward was not a man unwilling to rid himself of a threat, real or perceived. It made perfect sense to Edward’s security for Exeter to meet an unfortunate end.
Ultimately, of course, the removal of Henry Holland only served to bolster the tenuous Lancastrian claim of Henry Tudor, who remained in exile from 1471 through to 1485, when he eventually returned to England to make real that claim. It was exactly a decade after the untimely, and suspicious, demise, of the doomed Duke of Exeter, the forgotten Lancastrian pretender silenced by the sea.
Nathen Amin grew up in the heart of Carmarthenshire, West Wales, and has long had an interest in Welsh history, the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudor period. His first book Tudor Waleswas released in 2014 and was well-received, followed by a second book called York Pubs in 2016. His third book, the first, full-length biography of the Beaufort family, the House of Beaufort, was released in the summer of 2017 and quickly became a #1 Amazon Bestseller for Wars of the Roses.
It is never easy to emerge from the considerable shadow of Henry VIII, but it’s fair to say that during her brief life, the mighty king’s younger sister Mary tried her damndest to seize at least some of the attention. Unlike Elizabeth Woodville, as recent fiction work might have you believe, Mary Tudor truly was known as the White Queen during her lifetime, referred to by the French for the colour of her mourning clothes after the death of her husband Louis XII in 1515, and it is this particular Tudor queen that author Sarah Bryson chooses to explore in her latest work ‘La Reine Blanche; Mary Tudor, a Life in Letters’.
The author notes in her introduction that the Tudor age was a period dominated by men, but there were nonetheless many strong, independent and intellectually gifted women, one of which she asserts was Mary, the youngest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. As this book, a chronological biography, progresses, it is difficult to argue otherwise with Bryson’s opinion.
La Reine Blanche covers Mary’s life, and in fact pre-life in the case of the opening chapter exploring the origins of the Tudors, following her early life as part-princess, part-martial pawn, including a commendably detailed look at her childhood betrothal to Archduke Charles, before exploring her brief tenure as Queen of France after she was married at eighteen to the elderly Louis XII in October 1514. The union was part of a treaty between Mary’s brother Henry VIII and her new husband, but the French king only lived three more months. Mary, however, was proud of her rank as Queen of France, and in fact, Bryson tells us, she never stopped referring to herself as such, despite a subsequent marriage.
That remarriage was her controversial decision to wed Charles Brandon, her brother’s close friend and the parvenu Duke of Suffolk, shortly after King Louis’ death, behind the back of the English king to whom they were forced to beg for forgiveness after the fact. What does this impulsive act say about Mary Tudor, a renowned beauty? Bryson tells us it proves it was an “opportunity to show the strong, self-willed, determined woman she had always been”, and this is an understatement. It was a remarkable decision, followed by a fascinating period in which she was forced to beg her brother’s forgiveness through a series of letters.
It is these letters where Bryson’s book has particular worth. Too often narrative history books only carry the odd line or two of contemporary sources, and often even then it is a famous excerpt that is repeated across the board. Bryson has utilised scores of letters written to and from Mary, or involving matters relating to her, and more often than not has included them the source in full, which is refreshing in allowing the reader to formulate their own opinion on the topic in question. In short, we are treated not only to Mary’s story in Bryson’s words, but also Mary’s story in Mary’s words.
We also discover, through these letters, just how wise Mary was, conjuring up all her wiles to convince her brother to forgive her marriage to Brandon, flattering him until he submitted. Bryson is astute when she notes that Mary “was able to manipulate the men around her, to convince them of her loyalty and to gain her heart’s desire by playing the weak female. She wept, she feared for her life, she worried and played herb role perfectly, all the while manoeuvring the men to her purpose; a marriage of her own choosing”. Tudors more often than not got their way, and Mary was no different, even when the person she was up against was her own flesh and blood. How many others went against Henry VIII and lived to tell the tale?
In short, La Reine Blanche is a passionate and detailed account that is a welcome addition to the Tudor genre, in which Sarah Bryson does justice to the extraordinary life and times of Mary Tudor. Essential reading to gain a fresh perspective of the early years in the most famous royal court in English history.
Sarah Bryson is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours. She currently works with children with disabilities. She is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Tudor, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. She has run a website dedicated to Tudor history for many years and has written for various websites including ‘On the Tudor Trail’ and “QueenAnneBoleyn’. She has been studying primary sources to tell the story of Mary Tudor for a decade. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing and Tudor costume enactment.
It is probably fair to suggest that Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, is the lesser known of his four surviving children, yet it is her descendants, and not those of her siblings, that currently sit on the British throne 477 years after her death, an astonishing achievement. Everyone knows Henry VIII, Margaret’s little brother, with increasing attention paid in recent years to her other siblings Arthur and Mary, but the Tudor who became a queen of Scotland remains somewhat unexplored, until now.
The sub-title of this very book is perhaps telling when one thinks of Margaret Tudor – “The Life of King Henry VIIIs Sister”, but fortunately Sarah-Beth Watkins valiantly attempts to remove her subject from her brother’s considerable shadow, something in which she succeeds. Born in 1489 and named for her maternal grandmother Margaret Beaufort, our Margaret was the second child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, inheriting blood from both sides of the Wars of the Roses divide and ensuring she would be a highly-sought after princess on the competitive bridal market. It was the Scottish with whom she was eventually matched, and in 1503 at the age of just 13 travelled north to marry James IV, shortly after the death of her mother and eldest brother Arthur, which must have been emotionally taxing for the young girl. Life as queen, however, would be no plain sailing.
Margaret was very much a typical Tudor, and exhibited as much determination, stubbornness and questionable judgement as any of her more-famous relations, particularly after her royal husband’s death fighting against her brother in 1513, a period which must have caused considerable anxiety to the queen of Scots. Throughout her life, Margaret’s two loyalties were torn between both her families (and therefore her countries), Tudor and Stewart, and after she made the disastrous decision to remarry to Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, political opinion against her prompted a brief return home to the English court of her brother in London. By 1524, however, Margaret had bravely returned to Scotland and even engineered a coup to reclaim power on behalf of her underage son James V in a manner befitting one of Tudor bearing.
Not dissimilar to her brother, however, Margaret’s personal life obscured any political ambition, and she petitioned the Pope for a divorce, incurring the wrath of Henry VIII who himself would ironically follow suit just a few years later. She married for the third time to Henry Stewart, before falling out of favour in Scottish politics and passing away in 1541. Her legacy as queen of Scots and an English princess endures however; upon the failure of her brother’s line after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, it was Margaret’s great-grandson James VI of Scotland who inherited the Tudor crown, ushering in the Stuart period of kings of England.
Margaret Tudor’s tumultuous life, therefore, was without doubt a dramatic period in this island’s history, one of far greater significance than either she or her contemporaries perhaps anticipated. At only 168 pages, Watkins’ chronological biography cannot be anything other than a brief exploration of these life and times, but that is not necessarily a negative mark against the author’s work – it covers all the key moments aforementioned, allowing the reader to assume their own extracurricular research on a particular aspect if so inclined.
Perhaps because of the length of the book, the narrative is concise, fast-paced and unrelenting, creating an engrossing and well-written account that the reader will race through in no time, whether expert or beginner. The inclusion of primary sourced material, in particular letters written by the subject herself, were also a pleasing addition, somewhat humanising a woman who lived 500 years ago. I was particularly captivated by her varying relationship with Henry VIII, as explored through her own words. In 1517, for example, we have Margaret writing to Henry where she beseeched ‘your grace to continue good and kind brother to me, as you have ever been’ whilst by 1524 the tone had altered somwhat, Margaret chastening her brother for his meddling in Scottish affairs by saying ‘it is right unkindly that your grace hath done this to me your sister’. Siblings, huh?
Overall, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots; The Life of Henry VIII’s Sister is a worthwhile read that hopefully goes someway to bringing Margaret , the true conduit of her father’ legacy as Watkins’ explores in her final chapter, firmly out of the shadow of her ubiquitous little brother.
Sarah-Beth Watkins grew up in Richmond, Surrey and began soaking up history from an early age. Her love of writing has seen her articles published in various publications over the past twenty years. Her history works are Ireland’s Suffragettes, Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII, The Tudor Brandons, Catherine of Braganza, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots: The Life of King Henry VIII’s Sister and the forthcoming Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Unwanted Wife.
Interest in the life and times of the Tudor monarchs is as strong as ever, and so finding new ways to take a fresh look at a well-studied dynasty is always a difficulty for the historian wishing to bring something new to the table. As individuals, Henry VIII and his eldest surviving child Mary I have incurred considerable attention in recent years, but in The King’s Peal by Melita Thomas, the author has focused on dealings between father and daughter, and the result is an accomplished study of a complex and often fractious relationship that helps us understand better Mary the queen.
It is Thomas’ opinion that Mary, ‘a pearl of the world’, was a gambler – a headstrong force who risked everything she had in 1553 – her life, freedom and religion, in bidding for the throne, and this bold if reckless rise to become queen had its roots in her dealing with her father Henry, who both ‘loved and bullied’ his daughter throughout her youth. Recent re-evaluation of Mary’s reign has started to portray a queen who was more tragic than bloody, a victim of her father, but as Thomas exhibits throughout her work, their relationship was more complex than that – Mary was unquestionably doted upon by Henry when a girl but not so much when she developed into an obdurate teenager who questioned his setting aside her mother for Anne Boleyn.
When Mary continued to refuse to recognise Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church after both her mother and Anne’s deaths, matters reached a head in 1536, by which point father and daughter had been estranged for 4 years, when the king wrote to his daughter advising if she didn’t accept his will he would take leave of her forever, thinking her the most “ungrate, unnatural, and most obstinate person living”. Harsh words indeed, and just an insight into the tumultuous relationship of the pair.
And yet, as Thomas explores in The King’s Pearl, Mary remained the only figure to ever publicly clash in such a manner with the mighty king and not be destroyed. Wives, mentors and friends came and went, yet Mary remained, if at times firmly out of favour. Henry could willingly destroy any and every one, but he could never bring himself to wholly ruin his daughter, although it must be speculated upon how much such behaviour later affected her outlook.
Although the father-daughter personal relationship was complex and often confused by external political factors, Thomas’ book retains a gripping narrative throughout, never short on detail but always engaging. Well-referenced and commendably impartial, Thomas succeeds in not treating Mary or Henry as stereotypical two-dimensional parodies, and doesn’t take an obvious side in her study, preferring to present the evidence with reasoned commentary.
The book is a thought-provoking read that will help contextualise the later reign of Mary I, and perhaps explain the decisions taken by pearl who would, against the odds, one day become queen. Mary was far more her father’s daughter than is sometimes presumed, as this book superbly highlights.
Melita Thomas is the co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a repository of information about Tudors and Stewarts in the period 1485-1625 http://www.tudortimes.co.uk. Her first book ‘The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his daughter Mary’ is available now.
We live in a curious age in which the term ‘fake news’ has become part of our everyday language. For those of us interested in studying the past, we have perhaps long been aware of the idea of ‘fake history’. Whereas many incorrect ideas, myths and legends of the past rarely received attention, the rise of the internet, and social media in particular, has unfortunately blown the doors wide open, and many instances of ‘fake history’ are increasingly gaining traction amongst groups of like-minded individuals unwilling to entertain factual-based arguments which contradict their inflexible opinions. These individuals, and they are rife on the periphery of the study of any period of history, may not be able to tell you how or why they stand by a misguided view, but they will ardently hold on to their belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Unsurprisingly, Henry VII is but one subject who has come under fire in recent years due to the rise of social media, with academic study of several centuries of standing casually abandoned, or even ignored, and new ‘facts’ established on little sound basis. There is a degree of irony to this, as it is Henry’s predecessor Richard III whose reputation has suffered from many half-truths in the past. It seems as one legend about Richard is dispelled, another about Henry receives new attention.
I do wish to address two common, animal-related, ‘facts’ however, that I often witness online being raised to cast Henry VII in a negative light. They are the mischievous monkey he supposedly, and the dogs he apparently ordered ruthlessly hanged. What is the evidence that either of these events occurred?
First, the monkey. The story goes that King Henry had a pet monkey that he couldn’t control, and one day the infuriated monarch discovered the monkey had ripped his beloved accounts to shreds. Now, such an incident occurring isn’t completely unfathomable, for monkeys were known to be present in the later Tudor court. Due to their rarity, owning a monkey was considered a high-status symbol, and one prominent Tudor personality who probably owned one was Katherine of Aragon, who was painted with one in the 1520s. In the famous painting of Henry VIII family painted around 1545, the king’s fool, probably Will Somers, is shown in the background with a monkey perched on his shoulder. According to an early twentieth century account of the history of Magdalen College, Oxford, meanwhile, Henry VII’s own son Prince Arthur was supposedly shown some marmosets whilst vising the college’s lodgings, which greatly amused the child. The source for this, however, is not given, which is not necessarily to deny it happened, of course.
And yet, there is no known contemporary reference to Henry VII owning a monkey, much less keeping one in close proximity as a pet. Needless to say, there are consequently no known records of a monkey running riot in the king’s chamber and tearing up his work. Vergil, Andre, Hall, Fabyan or any other early Tudor chronicler fail to make mention of the king’s pet. So, where does this story stem from?
The answer appears to be the pen of Francis Bacon and his seminal work The History of the Reign of King Henry VII, an autobiographical account completed in 1622, almost 113 years after the death of its subject. Francis Bacon was a lawyer, ambassador, philosopher and member of parliament during the reign of Elizabeth I, who rose high in favour during her successor James I’s reign, becoming Lord Keeper in 1617 and Lord Chancellor in 1618. In 1621 Bacon was made Viscount St Albans, although he fell out of favour that year when accused of bribery. He was fined, imprisoned and banished from London, at which point he focused on his writing during his enforced absence from court. Between June and October 1621, using only the sources available to him from his own library, Bacon composed The Reign of Henry VII, which he hoped would return him to royal favour.
Bacon’s work is a masterpiece, arguably the first genuine attempt at an autobiography where the author has attempted to analyse the motivations and character of his subject. His Reign of Henry VII isn’t merely a list of dates and events, but a wider discussion of why Henry acted as he did, looking at what precisely drove his decisions. Despite being one of the first of its kind, however, Bacon’s work is not perfect, and is similar in respect to work produced in the modern day – some of the author’s deductions appear wide of the mark, or merely the opinion of but one man. Some are embellished, without source. It’s narrative history, which if written in 2018 rather than 1622, would be read with a sceptical eye. One such topic is the aforementioned monkey tale. Bacon states that the king kept a journal of his innermost thoughts, going on to say:
“There is to this day a merry tale; that his monkey, set on as it was thought by one of his chamber, tore his principal notebook all to pieces, when by chance it lay forth; whereat the court, which liked not those pensive accounts, was almost tickled with sport”.
With no extant mention of this in the intervening century, one must wonder if this wasn’t just a tale conjured up in the creative mind of Bacon. And yet, the merry tale does indeed persist, used on social media as a proverbial stick to beat the pensive, brooding Henry VII with – the secretive despot hunched over his journal. Bacon is no more a primary source than you or I, and until a more credible contemporary source comes to light, the account must be viewed with suspicion.
What about the king’s apparent penchant for hanging dogs, to prove a point about loyalty? To the modern, animal-loving reader, raised to love dogs, what an horrific crime it would be slay dogs in such a ruthless manner. The claim goes that Henry, often beset by worries of treachery amongst his wayward nobility, wished to make a point about enforcing the natural order of society, and thus arranged for some dogs to combat one of his lions. When the dogs overwhelmed and killed the lion, against the king’s expectations, Henry was infuriated that the ‘king of beasts’ had been defeated, and duly hanged the dogs as a warning of what happens to traitors. It is a fanciful allegory that could have been straight out of a Shakespeare play, and suffice to say, again there is no known contemporary evidence to suggest such an event took place.
The earliest record I have found of this story is by a clergyman known as a William Harrison, who in 1587 composed a chapter titled ‘Of Our English Dogs and their Qualities’ as part of a revised edition of Ralph Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Harrison’s work is likely to have been inspired by Arthur Fleming’s 1576 offering ‘Of English Dogs’, and both are written seven decades after the death of Henry VII. More importantly, their work is intended to proclaim all the positive virtues of English dogs, with Harrison unabashedly noting in his introduction: “There is no country that may (as I take it) compare with ours in number, excellency, and diversity of dogs”.
The ability for an English dog to slay a lion was clearly beneficial to this narrative. In Harrison’s works: “King Henry the Seventh, as the report goeth, commanded all such curs to be hanged, because they durst presume to fight against the lion, who is their king and sovereign”. Now this may very well have been a popular report by the 1580s, but that is not necessarily to say it was true, particularly in light of any earlier reference and Harrison’s penchant for descriptive, perhaps embellished, prose. It should be noted that Shakespeare is believed to have used the Holinshed Chronicle heavily for his own work, much of which has since been criticised for its lack of accuracy.
I hope I have shown with these two examples how easy it is to repeat something one has read repeated through history as fact, when the reality is that such facts have uncertain origins. Of course, such is the genius of the original writers, and our own tendency to accept we have been misled, I doubt this will stop such half-truths from being uttered to further one’s agenda to criticise Henry VII.
Let it be said, however, if anyone does have contemporary evidence of either of the above events taking place, please do share it in the comments section below. Although unlikely to have occurred, both stories are, undoubtedly, fascinating little stories of a period that continues to fascinate.
Nathen Amin is the author of the first full-length biography of the Beaufort family, ‘the House of Beaufort’, released in 2017 and an Amazon #1 Bestseller for Wars of the Roses. He is currently working on his fourth book, Pretenders to the Tudor Crown, due for release in 2019.
Nathen is also the founder of the Henry Tudor Society and has featured discussing the Tudors on BBC radio and television, as well as in print and online media across the UK. He has a degree in Business and Journalism and now lives in York, where he works as a Technical Writer.
Although Christmas traditions in the UK appear set in stone, for example the tree, the songs and the food, it’s very much been an evolving process since the earliest days we started marking the birth of Jesus Christ. The way the Tudors celebrated Christmas, quite literally ‘Christ’s Mass’, was quite different to the way we do today, although the core concepts of family and feasting are still very much visible.
So how did Henry VII mark the Christmas period in 1487, 530 years ago? Thanks to the antiquarian John Leland (1503-1552), who transcribed a collection of manuscripts in his work Collectanea (1533-1536), we do have some insight into how Christmas was celebrated that particular year. The key thing to note is that, unlike today, the Christmas festivities truly began on Christmas Day, and lasted until 6th January (the Feast of Epiphany), hence the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Tudors definitely weren’t preparing for Christmas as early as October as we do today.
1487 had not been an easy year for Henry VII; his crown, even his life, had come under severe threat from hostile forces within and without his kingdom, although the resilient king ultimately succeeded in punishing his enemies’ ‘unrighteous fury’, as Bernard Andre triumphantly put it. Henry had spent the first six month of the year preoccupied with the Lambert Simnel conspiracy, finally defeating his adversaries at the Battle of Stoke Field, before focus shifted to solidifying the Tudor crown through the agency of the November parliament. A key part of securing his position was to order the coronation of his wife Elizabeth of York, ‘for the perfyght love and syncere affeccion that he bare to his queen’.
Rebellions, battles, parliaments and coronations, one imagines Henry VII looked forward to the Christmastide that year, which began in earnest when he departed Westminster around 18 December for Greenwich Palace ‘wher he kepte his Cristemasse ful honorably as ensueth’. The preceding few weeks, from the first Sunday after St Andrew’s Day (27th November), had been spent fasting three days a week, known as Advent, as each person spiritually prepared for Christ’s ‘Second Coming’ on Christmas Day. One imagines that by the end of this period, the court were ready to let loose for Christmas, the one-time of the year the strict protocols in place in Tudor society relaxed somewhat. That said, religious duties were always observed carefully. Leland’s manuscript goes on to recount how:
‘on Cristemasse Even our saide Souveraigne Lorde the King went to the Masse of the Vygill in a riche Gowne of Purple Velvett furred with Sables, nobly accompanyed with dyvers great Estats, as shal be shewde herafter. And in like wise to Evensonge, savyng he had his Officers of Armes by or hym. The Reverend Fader in God the Lorde John Fox did the dyvyne Servyce that Evensong, and on the Morow also’.
Lord John Fox appears to be an erroneous reference to Bishop Richard Foxe, Bishop of Exeter and a churchman who Henry VII had first encountered during his exile in France. Henry had also rewarded Foxe early in his reign by appointing him his first Secretary of State, and also Lord Privy Seal. The following day, which was Christmas Day, the king celebrated with a dinner in the ‘great Chambre nexte the l. Galary’, whilst ‘the Quene and my Lady the Kings Moder’ with their ladies had their meals in the Queen’s Chamber.
What followed were several days of festivities, with musicians, pageants and plays entertaining the court at Greenwich. Although not mentioned in Leland’s Collectanea, 28th December was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, marking King Herod’s decree in the Bible to slaughter all babies born within three days of Christmas, and traditionally this was commemorated with the merriments that included role reversal. A Lord of Misrule was typically selected from the commoners to act as king, overseeing a night of rowdy drunkenness and revelry to the entertainment of the court. Although the custom would eventually be banned under Henry VIII, his father Henry VII was fond of the occasion, and although payments to a Lord of Misrule appear in his household accounts from 1491, there is every possibility such a spectacle took place in some capacity during 1487.
Other activies known to have been enjoyed during this period were playing the harp or lute, and games such as backgammon, chess and cards. There is evidence Henry VII lost money playing cards during his reign, so we know he enjoyed the pursuit, although whether he enjoyed losing his money is another matter. The Croyland Chronicle criticised Richard III for the raucousness of his Christmas court in 1484, but there seems little reason to suggest Henry VII didn’t follow in a similar manner. The Croyland Chronicler was, after all, a churchman, who may have looked unfavourably upon the court letting loose with wild abandon.
The Collectanea is sadly lacking in regards to what food was enjoyed this particular year by the king and his court, but boar’s head garnished with rosemary and bay leaves was a popular fifteenth century dish at Christmastime. As with the rest of the year, however, the season and weather often dictated what was available to eat, and typical winter fare during the middle of December would have included other meats such as beef, pheasant, partridge, venison, goose, duck, and rabbit, along with cheese, bread and a variety of sweetmeats and spiced cakes. One notable dish available was known as frumenty, a pudding made from boiled wheat, cream, mace, nutmeg, barley, eggs and milk often flavoured with almonds, currents and the like.
On New Year’s Day, meanwhile, the traditional day of gift giving in the Tudor court rather than Christmas Day like today, the royal family, their household and much of nobility congregated in Greenwich Palace’s Great Hall. King Henry, ‘being in a riche Gowne, dynede in his Chamber’ before, ‘of his Largesse’, or generosity, he oversaw the gift-giving ceremony, the recipients of whom this year appear to be his Officers of Arms.
According to the Collectanea, the king himself granted gifts to the value of £6, with the queen providing an additional 40 shillings, Lady Margaret Beaufort 20 shillings, and Jasper Tudor, the king’s uncle and duke of Bedford, also providing 40 shillings. Others followed suit in giving monetary gifts of varying amounts, including the Duchess of Bedford, Bishop Foxe, the Earls of Arundel, Oxford, Derby, Devon and Ormond, lords Welles and Strange, and Sir William Stanley. Thereafter, ‘on Newres Day at Nyght ther was a goodly Disgysyng’, whilst it was noted that ‘this Cristmass ther wer many and dyvers Playes’
Christmas Day and New Years’ Day were two of the three big feasts of Tudor Christmastide. The third took place on Twelfth Night, or 5th January, to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany the following day, which commemorates the adoration of the Magi before the baby Jesus. The evening before, King Henry went to Evensong ‘in his Surcoot outward, with Tabert Sleves, the Cappe of Astate on his Hede, and the Hode aboute his Showlders, in Doctors wise’. For this particular service, the king was the only person robed, with the religious duties handled by his close confidante John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury.
On the morning of 6th January, Henry rose early for Matins prayers, and this time all his nobility were resplendent in their finest surcoats with hoods, following the crowned king and queen in procession. Margaret Beaufort also bore ‘a riche Coronall’ whilst Jasper Tudor was handed the honour of bearing the Cap of Estate before the king, alongside which walked the earls of Derby and Nottingham, Earl of Derby, with the duke of Suffolk and Giles Daubeney following close by. John de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, meanwhile, was afforded the honour of bearing the king’s train wherever he went. Following thereafter including members of the royal household, including the Garter King of Arms, the King’s Secretary, and the King’s Treasurer, along with many other employees such as Officers of Arms, Heralds, Pursuivants and those of more menial positions such as carvers and cupbearers.
Once Mass was observed by all, King Henry returned to his chamber for a period, possibly to refresh and change clothes, before returning to the Great Hall, where:
‘He was corownede with a riche Corowne of Golde sett with ful many riche precious Stonys, and seated under a merveolous riche Cloth of Astate, having the Archbishop of Canterbury on his right Hande, and the Quene also crowned under a Cloth of Estate hanging sumwhat lower than the Kings, on his lift Hande’.
Waiting on the king during the subsequent feast was the earl of Oxford, whilst the earl of Ormond kneeled between the queen and Lady Margaret, the king’s mother. Sir David Owen, the king’s paternal uncle, acted as the king’s carver throughout the day. After the second course of food was completed, and once the minstrels had finished playing, the Officers of Arms descended from their stage and the Garter ‘gave the King Thankings for his Largesse, and besought the Kings Highnesse to owe Thankings to the Quene for her Largesse’.
Elsewhere in the Great Hall, in the middle was a table which sat the dean and other churchman associated with the King’s Chapel, who after Henry had completed his first course ‘sange a Carall’. On the right-hand side of the hall was another table headed by Jasper Tudor, who was seated alongside Giles Daubeney, the duke of Suffolk, the earls of Arundel, Nottingham and Huntingdon, the king’s half-uncle Viscount Welles, Viscount Lisle, and an array of other barons and knights. On the opposite side of the hall was another table, headed by the queen’s sister Lady Cecily, who was accompanied by the countesses of Oxford and Rivers and many other ladies and gentlewomen.
Another ancient tradition likely to have been observed during this 1487 Christmas was wassailing. The act of wassailing took place during Twelfth Night, and involved the lord offering his guests a drink from a communal wooden cup, typically cider, beer or a warm spiced ale known as lambswool. Just seven years later, the act of wassailing was included in Henry VII’s household ordinances, detailing how:
“and as for the wassell, the Steward and the treasurer shall come forward with their staves in their hands, the King’s swere and the Queen’s next, with their towells about their necks, and noe man beare noe dishes but such as be sworne for the mouthe”.
It was further declared that “when the Steward comethe in at the hall doore with the wassell, he must crie three tymes, wassell, wassell, wassell”. There seems little reason to doubt that this took place during the 1487 Christmas.
Once everyone had eaten, been merry and entertained to their hearts content, the end of the evening brought the Christmastide festivities of 1487 to a cheery close, a Merry Christmas having been had by one and all. The following morning, however, thoughts returned once more to the more tedious aspects of governing the realm, at least until the next holiday of note. Not unlike the modern day, one must imagine!
Nathen Amin grew up in the heart of Carmarthenshire, West Wales, and has long had an interest in Welsh history, the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudor period. His first book Tudor Waleswas released in 2014 and was well-received, followed by a second book called York Pubs in 2016. His third book, the first, full-length biography of the Beaufort family, the House of Beaufort, was released in the summer of 2017 and quickly became a #1 Amazon Bestseller for Wars of the Roses.