The king in the middle….
Is there a case for giving Henry VII a thumbs up? I put this “disloyal” question while wearing my very best Ricardian hat, and I put it after noticing a number of recent, very well-deserved comments about his odious son and successor, Henry VIII.
We all know what a fine man Richard was, and nothing will ever shake our faith in him, unless his diary turns up with “I am guilty of every charge, including my nephews”, signed Ricardus Rex, in his own unmistakeably neat, educated hand. Well, that will never happen, save Henry VII’s Smear Machine having managed to produce an almost perfect fake. Henry wasn’t above such a thing, of course, because whatever else he was, he was very clever. And utterly determined to hang on to his stolen throne.
But throughout his reign he lived with the threat of the House of York returning. No matter how many fibs he spread about Richard having, among other things, eliminated the sons of Edward IV, there was no proof. No bodies. No closure. Henry worried about this from 22nd August 1485 onward, and I am sure it eventually put paid to his health. He died quite wretchedly, albeit in his own bed. Hooray for the wretchedness, say most Ricardians.
But what sort of man was he really? Well, ‘mean’ is probably one of the first adjectives that springs to mind. He would claw in every last coin, or what was left of every last coin, and was none too fussy about how he did it. “The king was in his counting house, counting out his money” is how the old nursery rhyme goes, and it’s almost certainly about Henry. Or so I’ve always understood. Similarly, “The queen was in the parlour, eating bread and honey” is about his wife, Elizabeth of York. So, the cruel miser was stashing his ill-gotten gains, while his plump, empty-headed wife lived the high life. This is the rhyme’s implication.
After ‘mean’, comes lying, conniving, cruel, conscienceless, ambitious, and various other unflattering observations. He also made an art form about making his appearance intimidating to all those who came into his presence. And with his height, slenderness and strange eyes, I imagine he had the same mesmerising effect as a cobra just before it strikes. He had it all worked out, but then he had to. How else could he banish the charm of those Yorkist kings he replaced? He used fear, which is always a successful weapon.
By the time he died, he really was a nasty piece of work. It was no longer a façade. Everyone was hugely relieved to bury him and then turn to his dazzling son, Henry Tudor Mark II, whom they probably hoped would resurrect the charm of the House of York. Spring and summer after autumn and a decidedly bitter winter. Except Mark II didn’t live up to expectations, but turned into an infinitely worse tyrant than his father. Henry VII left a realm that was safe and settled, with bulging coffers. But he had not quite eradicated the threat of the House of York, so Henry VIII also had to deal with the tiresome White Rose. He did. Ruthlessly. And on top of that he thought nothing of chopping off the heads of two of his six queens. Among the heads of many others, of course. Oh, and he also emptied the coffers.
Can anyone imagine Henry VII behaving quite like this? Yes, he chopped off heads, they all did then, but he was also surprisingly restrained at times. And if Elizabeth of York had failed to produce any children, needing replacement by a more fruitful model, would he have made false charges against her? Treason? Having surrendered her all to her uncle, Richard III? Of course, by doing this he would almost certainly have caused another rebellion, this time likely to be only too successful. Many only put up with him as king because of his Yorkist queen. Henry wasn’t daft, so he wouldn’t have done it. Nor did he have to, because Elizabeth gave him the heirs he needed. Phew, Henry’s luck held. But he was a conventional man and conventional Christian. I can’t imagine Henry Mark I ever creating such a monumental upheaval as to challenge Rome, let alone sever all links with it.
After Bosworth, I think he would have done almost anything for a quiet life. Chop off Elizabeth of York’s head? Ye gods. No, he would have done what Richard did before him, and selected an heir. Who? That’s for another day, I think. Has anyone any idea who might have become a childless Henry VII’s heir . . . ? Of course, if he had been childless, he would have been faced with increasingly effective challenges from the House of York, and probably wouldn’t have made it to 1509 anyway.
So, there he is, sandwiched between Richard III and Henry VIII, seeming almost anonymous to our modern eyes. Richard arouses huge emotion and loyalty, and has immense support even now in the 21st century. Henry VIII we view aghast. He’s horribly fascinating, a monster in every sense of the word. And then there’s Henry VII, who hung on to the throne from 1485 until 1509 and established the House of Tudor. Most people now know diddly-squat about him. Henry who? Oh, the one who killed that King Richard they’ve just buried in Leicester.
But . . . what might Henry have been like if all threat from the House of York had ended at Bosworth. No challenges, no sneaky pretenders lurking across the Channel, just a realm to be reigned over. Or plundered. It depends upon the real Henry. And I doubt we will ever discover him. He was moulded by events, he did not mould them. So Mummy Margaret’s real little boy is lost somewhere in between. I’d loved to know, but never will.
My question at the beginning was whether we could give Henry VII a thumbs up of any sort. Well, in some ways he has to be given some credit. In others, oh dear. He was a very pale shadow of his predecessor. Richard’s charisma reaches down through the centuries, as does the increasing awareness of just how much good he would have done had he been allowed to live. He had the people’s welfare at heart, and would have been loved. Henry had Henry’s welfare at heart. And he produced Henry VIII, for which it’s hard to forgive him. Ditto Edward VI and Mary Tudor. I can forgive him for Elizabeth I, but only because her Yorkist blood gets full credit!
So, in the end, with some reservations, I have to give Henry VII a thumbs down. I wish it were not so, because if he had proved to be a truly great king, it might at least have made the sacrifice of Richard a little more bearable. Henry wasn’t a truly great king, he was unpleasant and introduced all the terrible things we associate with the House of Tudor. That makes Richard’s loss all the more painful and tragic.