Richard III versus Henry VII….
No, not another story of Bosworth, or a comparison between both reigns, but rather a reluctant concession that Henry did have some merits. Please, no catcalls and brickbats, for I remain a staunch Ricardian. I will always support Richard. Hell will freeze before I desert him.
So, what are Henry’s merits? Well, maybe they would not be regarded as merits by everyone. As a writer of fiction, I have in recent years been spinning tales of both kings. We all know how spitefully Richard was treated by the Tudors, and by history in general. He was nothing like Shakespeare’s monstrosity, but a handsome, just, truly honourable prince who showed amazing courage and would have been a great monarch if he had lived.
Henry, on the other hand, was not handsome, nor an honourable prince. He wasn’t even a prince! He was an undeserving usurper who became unbelievably harsh and cruel. But . . . big but . . . how much was the fault of his hounded life as a boy and young man? The House of York wanted him because he had become the last Lancastrian heir. His claim was tenuous, and illegal, because his royal blood was Beaufort blood, and that line had been barred from the throne. Still, on the throne was where he ended up.
Writing about him, putting words and deeds in his mouth (the power of the novelist!) made me slowly begin to reassess him. Did he really want to become king? Or was he influenced by others around him, and eventually found himself on a roller-coaster from which he couldn’t fling himself to freedom without breaking his neck? Did he ever really think he’d win against Richard, who was an experienced warrior and clever commander? Henry was neither of these things, and I have no idea how much knightly training he ever received, if any. He was much more of a clerk than a fighter. He must have been terrified at Bosworth when he saw Richard thundering towards him, intent upon killing him on the spot.
But fate, and the Stanleys, saved Henry’s bacon. Poor Richard was betrayed and murdered on the field. Yes, I use the word murdered, because he didn’t die in the heat of battle, he died because he had been conspired against by those he believed were on his side. That’s murder. Regicide.
So there was Henry, wearing Richard’s bloodied crown, unable to believe what was happening. I am convinced he didn’t expect to win, no matter how thoroughly he expected the Stanleys to come over to him. Richard was not an easy man to beat, and was the rightful king, as Henry knew full well. So did everyone else, because Edward IV had married bigamously. Those who chose not to support Richard’s claim to the throne did it for their own selfish reasons, not because they believed he was in the wrong. Well, that’s my viewpoint.
Henry was immediately presented with problems. He was king by conquest, a usurper, not by blood right. His line of descent was weak to say the least, and he had to marry Elizabeth of York, the senior Yorkist princess, in order to satisfy many of his supporters. He struggled to assert himself as king before marrying her, to establish himself by his own right, not by right of her blood claim. And he held on to the throne, although I don’t think he enjoyed it very much. He overcame various pretenders, had amazing luck, and managed to stay where he was, becoming stronger by the day. It ruined his constitution and made a terrible man of him, but he was single-minded enough to hang in there until the day consumption and other ailments killed him. In agony. Much to the relief of his subjects, for he, not Richard, had become a monster and tyrant.
We will never know what Henry might have been like if left to his own devices. If he’d been able to return to Yorkist England, claim his father’s title of Earl of Richmond, and then live the life of a 15th century nobleman. Maybe he would have been horrible anyway, or maybe he would have been very different. I am inclined to think he was ruined, physically and mentally, by the cards life dealt him. The real Henry will never be known.
So, I’m afraid I have to admire him for his sheer doggedness. He took Richard’s crown and, unbelievably, he kept it. And he established his own House, and passed the crown to his son. As I said at the beginning, I am a staunch, devoted Ricardian, but I would be fibbing if I didn’t admit to admiration for Henry Tudor.