Henry VII’s tax-raising friends….

Henry VII with Empson and Dudley

If there is one thing a lot of people know about Henry VII—apart from his dastardly defeat of Richard III at Bosworth in August 1485—it is that the latter part of his reign was a dreadful time for England. His avarice became almost oxygen to him, and he allowed his ministers to inflict truly dreadful punishments and fines upon his subjects.

The infamous Morton’s Fork was one of Henry’s weapons. John Morton was Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury, and Chancellor, who devised a tax collecting jolly that declared a man who lived within his means had to be saving money and should therefore be able to afford high taxes. Unfortunately, the jolly also decided that if a man was living well, he was obviously rich and thus could still afford diabolical taxes. People were scuppered either way.

Supporters of Richard III loathe Morton for another reason, and that is his fiendish plotting and treachery that helped to bring Richard down. Altogether an unpleasant man, I think.

Two other names crop up constantly when it comes to Henry’s intolerable money-grubbing, and they are Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson, who are with him in the illustration above. Their names became synonymous with royal thievery and extortion, and Henry let them get on with it more or less how they pleased. And how they pleased!

However, much as they’re associated with Henry, I do not know exactly when they caught his attention as likely blood-suckers. It is suggested that Edmund Dudley appeared at his side in 1485, which would presumably be in the latter quarter of that year, after Bosworth. Unless he came over to England with Henry, having been with him in Brittany or France? That I do not know. I do know that Dudley was believed to be only about 23 when he became one of Henry’s privy councillors.

Richard Empson’s association with Henry began . . . when, I do not know. He is also in the above picture. He was older than Dudley, a lawyer, and rose to be Speaker of the House of Commons.

Both men were executed on Tower Hill on 17th August 1510, courtesy of Henry VIII. And a good job too.

If anyone knows more about how and when they became so close to Henry VII, I would love to know.


  1. Edmund Dudley — Henry found him in the fall of 1503, after the death of Reginald Bray. Dudley was a lawyer in his 40s. From a Sussex family that had seen better days. Grandfather a baron; uncle a Durham bishop. Father was the youngest son, so Edmund burned with ambition.

    At Gray’s Inn, Dudley focused on something called “prerogative statutes” that were obscure but lucrative for Henry. Henry began taking a sustained interest in these in 1495. That year, Dudley also wrote a series of readings on them.

    In 1496, Dudley became an undersheriff in the London law courts. He used the position to network relentlessly. His friends’ lobbying helped London overlook Dudley’s poverty and the fact that he couldn’t maintain the dignity of being an undersheriff.

    He worked in London’s courts of justice for six years, which means he became familiar with everyone who had power, and familiar with the “rivalry, opportunism and mistrust that linked the city’s guilds and companies, from the mercers and drapers to the goldsmiths and haberdashers,”…and a lot more. He basically learned the dirt on and secrets about everyone’s commercial dealings.

    While still an undersheriff, Dudley began working for Bray. Henry and Bray realized he’d be useful in their quest to wreck London’s independence.

    Dudley resigned his position as undersherrif in the fall of 1503 as he was about to become sergeant-at-law. Parliament was called for January 1504; Dudley was chosen as Speaker. (Nominated by the king, elected by the commons…he was Henry’s golden boy and rising quickly by then.)

    I’ll let you discover the rest of the sordid tale if you wish. (See source below.)

    Richard Empson: He was one of Bray’s right-hand men. A Middle-Temple trained lawyer/career bureaucrat. Under Edward IV, Empson had been the duchy’s attorney-general, but Richard III sacked Empson, perhaps because he was associated with Anthony Woodville.

    Henry VII reappointed Empson at the same time he reappointed Bray, directly after Bosworth. Warbeck described Empson as being prominent among Henry’s “low-born and evil counsellors.”

    There are more details on him as well as Dudley in the source cited below, but this is enough to indicate how they got their start with Henry. More sources listed in the source below, too.

    *Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England*, by Thomas Penn.


    1. Thank you, Merlyn. I did look through Penn, and found the references you’ve quoted, but somehow missed the all-important dates. Nitwit. So, in a nutshell, Empson was a very early acquisition (1485), Dudley happened along a lot later (1503). Thank you again.


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