Henry VII and the Potassium Alum Trade

As king, Henry Tudor was heavily involved in the Potassium Alum trade, a participation through which he accumulated a large part of his great wealth. Potassium Alum was one of Europe’s most precious commodities and was coveted for its medicinal and cosmetic properties, particularly its usage in the 15th and 16th century as a dye-fixer in the wool and cloth trade upon which a large part of the English and Low Country economy was built. To say it was an indispensable mineral to the continuation of the English economy is an understatement to say the least. Alum was plentiful in the Eastern Mediterranean region which was under the control of Turkish Muslims whereas in Western Europe there was only one source and that was the Papal-owned mine at Tolfa, near Rome. The Papacy determined to ensure maximum profits from this source and therefore attempted to restrict the supply and therefore raise prices; in short they created a monopoly on Alum in Christian Europe and threatened excommunication and anathema on anybody who traded with the ‘infidel’, that is, the Muslim East.

In 1503 Pope Julius II endeavoured to once more raise prices which caused an economic slump in the Low Countries and forced the Habsburgs Maximilian and Philip to flout Papal decrees and deal with the Muslims. Maximilian was Holy Roman Emperor and as such it was not possible for him to openly disobey a papal edict therefore it was decided to go via England, and Henry VII. The King loaned his great ships Sovereign and Regent to the scheme which was undertaken by the Frescobaldi bank of Italy and they sailed to the Ottoman Empire to bring back Alum to England. From here Henry’s own broker Ludovico della Fava, who was also a representative of the Frescobaldi Bank, brokered deals to sell the mineral onto the Low Countries. Henry claimed money not only from the Alum itself, but also on huge import charges and customs duties, helpfully arranged by Edmund Dudley. In one single occasion a ship brokered by Henry, Dudley and della Fava brought in £15,166 which in modern estimates is around £10m.

In May 1506 the Pope was forced to issue a papal proclamation forbidding the involvement of all persons secular and ecclesiastical from trading with any alum that didn’t come directly from the Papal mine at Tolfa. Julius amusingly declared that his Alum, rather than being for mere profit, was ‘reserved and consecrated to the preparations for a great crusade against the Sultan of Constantinople’. Henry was unmoved by such threats of anathema and possible excommunication despite his genuine enthusiasm for the idea of a crusade in defence of the church. He loved the church but he additionally loved making a profit and saw no reason that he would need to compromise one for the other.

Through his involvement in the alum trade, Henry retained his position at the heart of European power politics through his financial supremacy over his militarily-superior rivals. Ever the consummate schemer, as always Henry demonstrated an economic wisdom that enabled the continued resurgence of his kingdom.

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Save St Peter’s Church, Carmarthen

By Nathen Amin

The Henry Tudor Society exists to discuss and deliberate over events which happened over five hundred years ago, a process which unquestionably involves physically visiting the sites and locations in which these events occurred. Conservation of historic sites is therefore imperative to the very ethos of the Society, without which our understanding of the period would be much poorer.

The Henry Tudor Society is therefore very despondent to discover the financial burden currently being experienced by St Peter’s Church in Carmarthen, a burden which may very well cause this historic building to permanently close its doors to the public.

It has been reported that the church needs to find £50,000 to stay open next year and church leaders have said it is becoming a struggle to remain open. Falling church attendance combined with increasing costs maintaining an historic, Grade-II listed building are the chief causes. Vandalism and Anti-Social Behaviour have also been a financial burden on the church.

St Peter’s Church is particular important to the Henry Tudor Society due to its links with Sir Rhys ap Thomas, Henry Tudor’s ally and commander at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The following is an extract from Tudor Wales by Nathen Amin, which demonstrates the substantial heritage of St Peter’s Church.

Carmarthen is one of the oldest towns in Britain, a continuation of the Roman Moridunum, and St Peter’s church remains the earliest extant building in the region that is still used for its original purpose. The exact date of foundation is unknown, but it appears to have existed from at least the early twelfth century, with today’s structure still containing elements from the thirteenth century. The prominent tower is a fifteenth century addition, while the south aisle was constructed during the Tudor period. It is this aisle which holds an acute connection to the Tudor dynasty as the resting place of Sir Rhys ap Thomas; his alabaster tomb was placed here in 1538 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries disrupted his original resting place at the nearby Greyfriars monastery.

Greatly rewarded by his distant kinsman King Henry VII in gratitude for his unyielding allegiance during the reign of the first Tudor monarch, Sir Rhys governed South Wales with a kingly assurance, which he maintained until his death in 1525. He was interred in Greyfriars, close to the king’s own father Edmund Tudor, but both tombs were removed during the Dissolution. Sir Rhys’s tomb occupies a position which is significantly less exposed than Edmund’s; it is placed in a quiet corner with two sides lamentably positioned next to a wall, which denies the visitor the opportunity to circumvent the mighty monument. The effigy is heavily weathered despite its attempted restoration by a later descendant, although the three ravens that were prominent in his coat of arms are still identifiable. The tomb bears the inscription: ‘Here lies the remains of Sir Rhys ap Thomas K. G. who fought at Bosworth Field’. Interest in Sir Rhys has certainly increased recently because of his possible role in the death of King Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, and there are hopes that this could result in his tomb receiving a higher degree of decorum than it has been accorded over the last century.

St Peter’s also maintains two other Tudor-era connections, which enhances the church’s status as a credible sixteenth-century location. Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, is believed to have been buried in an unmarked grave under the chancel in 1576. Devereux had been a loyal courtier of Queen Elizabeth I, and controversially and often violently served her interests in Ireland where he had been appointed Earl Marshal. His son was Robert Devereux, who later gained notoriety as a keen favourite of the queen before his execution for treason in 1601. In 1555, the church also played a role in the trial of Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St David’s, a devout Protestant who was condemned as a heretic at St Peter’s and sentenced to death by burning. This gruesome act was carried out in Carmarthen marketplace, where a plaque today commemorates the event, a consequence of the persecution of Protestants under the reign of Queen Mary Tudor. A nineteenth-century marble plaque can also be viewed in the consistory court; it states that the bishop was burnt for ‘adhering to the protestant religion’, a reminder that the turmoil of England’s religious strife was equally felt in the heart of Wales’.

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The church’s elders are working hard in their attempts to raise funds to keep St Peter’s open, a mammoth task that they are nonetheless tackling with positivity and enthusiasm. There are plans in motion for a new group to be launched entitled ‘The Friends of St Peter’s’ where people can pay a £10 annual subscription fee to become a life member. It’s a novel way to donate funds whilst retaining an active link with the church. Furthermore there are regular fundraising events in the pipeline which you can keep up to contact with via their Facebook page ‘St Peter’s Carmarthen’.

The Henry Tudor Society feels that this church should not be allowed to close its historic doors and urges all members of the public to do whatever they can to help St Peter’s in Carmarthen. Whether its financial donations or social media sharing, small churches like St Peter’s not only provide vital services to the local community but are a source of substantial historical interest.

You can donate to St Peter’s via their Just Giving page at https://www.justgiving.com/stpeterscarmarthen

Henry VII, the King Maligned as a Miser

By Nathen Amin

History has not been kind to Henry VII of England. The first Tudor king has often suffered from long-held accusations that he was a dark and greedy monarch, a man of such a suspicious disposition that his reign was a tyrannical period for England centred on the King’s grasping nature.

It could be argued that the one adjective used more than any other when describing Henry Tudor is ‘miser’. One needs to only witness the character assassination that accompanied the recent documentary ‘The Winter King’ by historian Tom Penn to understand this phenomenon. Amongst a plethora of speculative descriptions of the king in this overwhelmingly negative portrayal was “terrifying”. Penn further stated that Henry utilised ruthless methods to control England, whilst ‘money was dearest to his heart’. Are such accusations justified? It would appear by referring to the sources that the prevailing attitude of many historians, both professional and amateur, that Henry VII was a ‘miser’ king are wide of the mark and constitute an unfair description of both the man and his reign.

Henry Tudor was born into nobility as the son of the wealthy heiress Margaret Beaufort, only child of the Duke of Somerset, and Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and half-brother to King Henry VI of England. Royal patronage of the Beauforts and Tudors by their regal relative should have ensured a comfortable upbringing for Henry but the internecine conflict known as the Wars of the Roses transformed the young boy’s prospects before he had even been born. His father Edmund, a loyal Lancastrian, was captured and imprisoned in Carmarthen Castle by Yorkist commanders and died shortly afterwards, whilst his uncle Henry VI was deposed by the House of York when the young Earl of Richmond was only four years old.

Henry’s wardship was purchased by his father’s foe Sir William Herbert and Henry found himself integrated into the Herbert household at Raglan. Henry’s destiny was out of his hands, completely dependent on the protection and will of Lord Herbert, who at least appeared to be a good guardian. Henry would remain with the Herberts until he was a teenager, later referring to this period as one of being a prisoner although he was admittedly honourably brought up. From 1471 until his triumphant landing in Wales in 1485 Henry was a penniless, land-deprived exile existing in the continued good will and generosity of firstly the Duke of Brittany and secondly the King of France, both of whom utilised the attainted Earl of Richmond as a political pawn in European affairs.

This uncertain upbringing ensured Henry grew up without any estates or money to call his own, a feather in the wind without stability or roots. This situation undoubtedly helped shape Henry’s outlook on life when he finally encountered great wealth and land for the first time at the age of 28 when he acceded to the throne of England. It was the archetypal rags to riches story. Did such an impoverished background ferment itself in adulthood miserliness however? Let us consider evidence to the contrary;
The sources leave an indication that Henry VII was not the miser some would believe. His patronage of renaissance artists and writers, his lively court and his extensive building campaign alone suggest that Henry was a man who enjoyed spending money on things he deemed beneficial to his family and his kingdom.

Henry was a man who surprisingly was recorded spending money on his controversial predecessor Richard III; on 1 March 1486 Henry granted John Plantagenet, the natural if illegitimate son of Richard III, an annual income of £20 whilst in 1495 Henry paid the not insubstantial fee of £50 for a marble and alabaster monument to mark Richard’s grave in Leicester.

Henry was also noted to lavish expensive gifts on his family. In May 1491 he paid the colossal sum of £3800 for cloth of gold, pearls and precious stones designed to adorn his family, whilst another record states the king paid 13s 4d for a lute for Princess Mary. A generous payment of £31 10s is also commanded to be ‘delivered to the Quene’s grace for juels’. Indeed from 1491 to 1505 the king was stated to have spent between £200,000 to £300,000 in jewels and plates, an incredible investment designed to secure the family’s financial future. In 1497 the Milanese ambassador was shown into the king’s presence and reported home that Henry was standing behind a chair of cloth of gold in a ‘most rich’ collar of rows of pearls and gems.

Entertainment was important to the king, in its various disguises. On Christmas Eve 1491 the king paid £5 to a certain Ringley for his participation as the ‘Lord of Misrewle’. Furthermore a payment of 6s 8d was made in 1501 to a person for eating coals whilst other records show payments of £1 to a child that played recorder and another pound to minstrels. In January 1494 Henry paid four actors from Essex £1 and the day made a further payment of £2 to morris dancers. He was also noted as making a payment of £2 to a certain Dick the Fool for new clothes. In 1492 the king was recorded as paying out the enormous sum of £132 to jousters who competed at a grand tournament held in his honour. Further entertainment-related payments can be viewed in the king’s expense records; there is a payment to ‘an Italian, a poete’ for £20 whilst another payment of 6s 8d is made to ‘a Walshe man, that maketh rhymes’. An intriguing payment of £20 is also made to ‘a maiden that danceth’.

Further examples of Henry’s expenditure include him losing £13 4s shooting at the butts, paying £3 6s 8d in 1497 for a blind poet and a payment of 6s 8d to ‘Grifhith Aprice, a man with a berde’. Henry’s general generosity can also be understood from seemingly spontaneous payments to a variety of people. Minor payments to persons for services rendered include ‘one who brought the king a fresh sturgeon’, ‘the woman that presented the king with cherries and strawberries’ and ‘to a poor man that had his corn eaten by the king’s deer’. A payment of £2 13s 4d was also made ‘to the one that brought the king a lyon’.

Henry VII certainly engaged in some extreme measures in order to enrich the royal treasury. Bishop Morton’s infamous rationale, recently known as ‘Morton’s Fork’, has been considered an unfair method of ensuring all subjects were taxed without exception whilst the relentless activities of councillors Empson and Dudley earned the pair an enmity capable of hurtling them towards their demise once their royal protector passed away. Of course, it is not often acknowledged that this method of taxation was not Henry’s invention, nor even Morton, adapted as it was from the reign of Edward IV. Should Morton’s Fork be more properly known as the Yorkist Fork? Henry’s actions were taken for the benefit of his fledgling dynasty and by extension for that of England. The country had been ruined by civil war and the crown was in a perilous financial situation prior to Henry’s accession, a legacy of the wars with France. Henry’s financial policies and decisions were taken with the aim of securing a peaceful succession for his son, the first such in almost a century, and to ensure a prosperous future for England and her people.

Henry has attracted a large degree of criticism from historians, both contemporary and modern, but it must be argued that such a difficult transition period from war to peace must encounter tough, unpopular decisions. It is absurd to denigrate this political ideology of careful and considered financial management of the kingdom and the crown to be the actions of a tyrannical despot. Henry Tudor is as much responsible for the rise of England’s ‘Golden Age’ under his granddaughter Elizabeth I as any other personage of the medieval period. Henry Tudor has in time been vilified and maligned as greatly as that other monarch he is forever and irrevocably linked to, Richard III. Henry VII was a king of his time and circumstances, acting with only the interest of his dynasty and the kingdom they ruled. The legacy of this great king is England’s growth from a provincial civil-war ravaged island into a major European power able to compete with its continental rivals. The Milanese ambassador during Henry’s reign wisely observed ‘this kingdom is perfectly stable, by reason first of the king’s wisdom, whereof everyone stands in awe, and secondly on account of the king’s wealth’. History, if not those who often interpret it and only see what they wish to see, has justified Henry’s actions. Henry a miser? Don’t you believe it.

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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.