By Nathen Amin
On the night of the 21 April 1509, the first Tudor king of England lay dying in his bed within the royal chamber of Richmond Palace, surrounded by his foremost councillors and attended upon by a collection of physicians and confessors. Grey-haired with a weathered face and an aged body ridden with illness, the scene was considerably different from the violent death of the previous English king, Richard III, some twenty-four-years-earlier. In fact, Henry, fifty-two-years old at the time of his demise, was the longest living king of England since Edward III’s death in 1377, a period of 132 years. Passing away a comparatively aged, and wealthy, man in the comfort of his own bed behind the walls of a spectacular palace that he himself had ordered built, was there a greater indication that Henry’s reign had, ultimately, been a success?
The latter years of Henry’s reign were a period in which the king was reportedly frequently ill, with chronicler Edward Hall noting how ‘his sickenes encreased daily more and more’ in his final year. Between February and March 1508, the king suffered from gout, for example, whilst a brief note in the Spanish State Papers record rumours abroad that the king was ‘in the last stages of consumption’ as early as July 1508. Just a month later, the Venetian State Papers show evidence of similar murmurings, this time reporting how Henry was ‘very ill, and in extremis’. By 29 March 1509, the Venetian ambassador was writing home that the king was ‘very ill and utterly without hope of recovery’, a fact borne by Henry finalising his last will and testament on the last day of the month.
It was a decline in health accelerated no doubt by the distressing deaths of the king’s wife Elizabeth and heir Arthur. In fact, with the deaths of other veterans of the Bosworth campaign, such as the Stanley brothers and his uncle Jasper Tudor, Henry grew increasingly isolated towards the end of his reign, preoccupied with attempting to solidify his fledgling dynasty and ensure the smooth transferral of power to his sole surviving son, Prince Henry.
Much of what is known about the king’s last days comes from a sermon given by John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, at St Paul’s Cathedral on 10 May. Two nights before Henry’s death, the bishop recalled how the king was so feeble he was unable to hear the Mass at the altar, having struggled in recent weeks to eat his meat and take drink. Keen to do his religious duty, and unquestionably fearful of jeopardising his soul, Henry instead summoned his confessor to his bedside to conduct the sacrament. Mass was heard and prayers were said. Henry, in fact, observed the rites;
‘with suche a reverence, with so many knockynges and betynges of his brest, with so quycke and lyfely a countenaunce, with so desyrous an herte made his humble obeysaunce therunto, and with soo grete humblenes and devocyon kyssed not the selfe place where the blessyd body of our lorde was conteyned, but the lowest parte the fote of the monstraunt’.
Those present were apparently brought to tears by the king’s pious behaviour. Even in his last moments, however, Henry’s inner determination to survive against the odds came to the fore, and he managed to cling to life for another forty-eight hours. On the day of his death, according to Fisher, Henry again heard Mass, this time holding the crucifix multiple times with great reverence, even embracing it tenderly and kissing it frequently.
In physical pain and presumably suffering from the mental anguish which meets those fearful of meeting their maker, Henry cried aloud for ‘helpe and socoure, for whan he sawe playnly that noo where elles was ony socoure or comforte, the cruell assautes of deth was fyers and sharpe ayenst him’. Fisher even records part of the king’s lamentations, the desperate wailing of a dying man;
‘O my blessyd Jhesu, o my moost mercyfull Jhesu, o my lorde and creatour Jhesu. O my lord delyver my soule, delyver my soule from the myseryes of this worlde, delyver my soule from these deedly paynes, delyver my soule from this corruptyble body, delyver my soule from the bondes of synne, delyver my soule from my mortall enemyes, delyver my soule from the daungers of everlastyne deth’
As death’s grip hardened, the king’s son Prince Henry, still only seventeen-years-old and therefore too young to rule alone, at least until his birthday in June, was summoned to his bedside for final instructions, with the king giving him ‘faderly and godly exhortacion commyttynge unto hym the laborous governaunce of this realm’.
As Garter King of Arms, Sir Thomas Wriothesley had knowledge of proceedings at the king’s bedside, and later produced a detailed account, one which included drawing a fascinating depiction of the scene, including those who were there. Shown lying in his bed, King Henry is surrounded, clockwise, by Richard Fox, bishop of Winchester, George, Lord Hastings, Richard Weston, Esquire of the Body, Richard Clement, Groom of the Privy Chamber, Matthew Baker, Esquire of the Body, John Sharpe and William Tyler, Gentlemen Ushers, Hugh Denys, Esquire of the Body and William Fitzwiliam, Gentleman Usher. It is Fitzwilliam, clutching a staff of office, who has responsibility for closing the king’s eyes. Also present in the room are two churchmen and three physicians bearing bottles of urine.
The king, ‘consumed by disease’ as Polydore Vergil put it, finally exhaled his last breath on the night of 21 April, which Robert Fabyan notes was the Saturday before St George’s Day. The news was suppressed for two full days whilst the councillors organised themselves, secured the realm and acclimatised to the first death of a monarch in almost a quarter-century. His successor, now styled Henry VIII, was finally proclaimed king on the morning of 24 April, ushering in a new reign, one that would become infamous. It was the first peaceful, and successful, transferral of power since the death of Henry V in 1422. Henry VII may have died, but the royal dynasty he founded lived on, prospering against all odds.
Calendar of State Papers, Spain
Calendar of State Papers, Venice
Chrimes, S.B., Henry VII
Fabyan, R., The New Chronicles of England and France
Gairdner, J., History of the Reign of Henry the Seventh
Fisher, J., The English Works of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester
Hall, E., Hall’s Chronicle
Vergil, P., Historica Anglica
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 Wales was 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, is scheduled for release in the summer of 2017. He is 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.