Pen versus Sword: how the first Tudor king rewrote history

Pen versus Sword: how the first Tudor king rewrote history.

Henry Tudor’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth changed history in more ways than one.

In a reign of 24 years Henry VII changed the social and economic structure of this country. He divided and undermined the powers of the nobility, promoting men of ability rather than the royal blood, and focused his attention on education and trade rather than warfare. He introduced a new system of accounting, collected taxes and imposed fines with impressive rigour. He increased the officials necessary to the maintenance of law and order, and intensified systems of supervision and surveillance.

Not for nothing was his predecessor, Richard III, known as the last medieval king. The age of medieval feudalism was ending and the age of early capitalism had begun.

Henry VII was not a warrior king like Richard III. He was probably the first successful king who was not a warrior. The medieval world revered its warrior kings. The reigns of kings such as Richard II or Edward II, who fared less well in war, ended disastrously, but Henry maintained peace for most of his reign, and when he died is said to have left £2,000,000 in the treasury, unlike most medieval kings, who died in poverty or debt.

His success did not depend on winning the favour of the aristocracy or the people. By implementing a system of fines, bonds and recognisances that kept many of his subjects in permanent debt and reduced his dependency on Parliament, he achieved a measure of autonomy that approached autocracy.

These measures did not make him popular. He has left behind him a reputation for avarice and suspicion that grew during the course of his reign. After his death Thomas More wrote a coronation ode for Henry VIII that hailed: The end of our slavery/the beginning of our freedom/the end of sadness/the source of joy.

And Bishop Fisher is said to have interrupted his funeral oration to Henry VII with a heartfelt cry:

‘Ah King Henry, King Henry – if thou were alive again many a one that is here present now would pretend a full great pity and tenderness upon thee!’

Few historians now would dispute the importance of Henry VII’s reign. It is undeniable that the first Tudor king changed England’s history. In terms of the long lasting consequences and effects of his reign he is as significant as his son, whose break with Rome is more widely known and discussed.  The measures he took were repressive, and this repression seems also have affected the historical record.  Historians such as Charles Ross have identified a ‘disquieting hiatus’ of contemporary written information about Henry’s reign. It is difficult to assess whether this is due to deliberate suppression because it is also true that at this time, the writing of history itself was undergoing a process of change. We can establish, however, that Henry VII played a considerable part in the rewriting of England’s past.

His first act after Bosworth, for instance, was to have himself declared king ‘by right of conquest’ from the day before the battle – 21 August 1485. This meant that all who fought against him on that day could be accused of treason. At the time of Bosworth Henry Tudor was an impoverished exile with few supporters, but this measure meant that he could confiscate the lands, property and money of his enemies – including all goods and wealth belonging to Richard III.

Other emendations were necessary to validate Henry’s claim to the throne and his marriage to Elizabeth of York. The Act of Titulus Regius issued by Richard III, for instance, had to be repealed in Henry’s first Parliament. This Act declared the marriage of his brother, Edward IV to Elizabeth Woodville invalid, and all their offspring illegitimate. Henry ordered his subjects to destroy all copies of it without reading them. Only one copy of the Act remained, found, more than a century later, transcribed into the Crowland Chronicle. The wording of the repealing Act stated that the original Titulus Regius be void, adnulled, repelled, irrite, and of noe force ne effecte.

Henry’s own claim to the crown was tenuous. He has been called England’s most improbable king. At the time of his birth, and for much of his life, few things seemed less probable than his accession to the throne. He was born in Pembroke Castle on 28th January 1457. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was still thirteen. His father was Edmund Tudor, half-brother to Henry VI. Three months before Henry’s birth his father died in captivity, of plague.

On his mother’s side, Henry was the last surviving male of the powerful Beaufort dynasty that had its origins in an adulterous affair. The relationship between John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, and Katherine Swynford, is one of England’s famous love stories. Four children were born of that union. John of Gaunt finally married Katherine Swynford after a 25-year long affair, and in 1397 a document was issued by Richard II legitimising their children. This document was confirmed by Henry IV who added three handwritten words to it excepta dignitate regali, debarring the Beaufort line from succession to the throne.

In Henry’s first Parliament, in November 7 1485, the 1397 statute legitimating the Beauforts was re-enacted. No mention was made of the 1407 document excluding them from the succession.

Henry’s paternal ancestry was also problematic. Henry’s father, Edmund, was the product of another famous love affair, between Katherine of Valois, (widow of Henry V) and Owen Tudor, her Welsh steward.

Katherine de Valois was the youngest daughter of Charles VI of France. Her marriage to Henry V was part of the negotiation of the Treaty of Troyes which also acknowledged Henry V as the French king’s heir.

The marriage was short-lived. Henry V returned to France where he contracted dysentery and died without ever seeing his son, the future Henry VI.

Katherine was widowed and alone. The question of her remarriage was a problem for the King’s Council. But at some point she fell in love with Owen Tudor who is described variously as her steward or Wardrober. It is said that they married in secret, lived away from court and had either four or five children (the sources vary).

When Katherine died after giving birth to her last child, the King’s Council pursued Owen, throwing him into Newgate Gaol. It is clear that the former queen was not supposed to marry either a Welshman or a commoner. The King’s Council would not recognise the legitimacy of either the marriage or the children, and since no record survives of the marriage, the question of its legitimacy remains obscure.

So on both sides Henry’s lineage was complicated, by issues of legitimacy, adultery, imprisonment, and suicide (of his maternal grandfather). During his reign, however, new genealogies were drawn up. These raised the status of Owen Tudor by linking him to the Welsh royal family, and emphasised the legitimacy of both maternal and paternal lines. Henry also attempted to have his half uncle, Henry VI, canonised, thereby accentuating the saintliness of the former king’s reputation rather than the madness that was frequently ascribed to him.

The same impetus, therefore, lies behind Henry’s rewriting of society and his rewriting of history; the absolute insecurity of his position. When he returned to England to claim the throne after fourteen years of exile, Henry Tudor was virtually unknown. It is clear when looking at the vast interconnected web of genealogy connecting the Houses of Lancaster and York, that he occupies a solitary position. There was no powerful dynasty behind him. His main task, to restore royal authority in a realm recovering from the civil wars now known as the Wars of the Roses, has been likened to the twelve labours of Hercules. Any dissent had to be suppressed, including discordant versions of his personal history.

However, the gaps in the record cannot solely be attributed to suppression. Henry reigned at a time when the traditional form of historical writing, the chronicle, was in demise.

England has a rich tradition of chronicle writing, which is a fantastic source of information for the historian. For many centuries, chronicle writing was confined to monastic houses, but by the late fifteenth century, this was already in decline. The monastic chronicle was being replaced by the secular chronicle, either written anonymously (An English Chronicle, The Great Chronicle of London) or by participants such as William Gregory who wrote eyewitness accounts of events. These accounts are often lively, vivid, partisan and sometimes scurrilous. John Warkworth’s chronicle, for instance, narrates how King Henry VI, said officially to have died from ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’ bled profusely on the pavement, while a blazing star, ‘four feet high by estimation’ appeared in the West. Warkworth’s implicit sympathy for the troubled Lancastrian king reflects Henry VI’s near canonical status after his death, while other chronicles take an overtly Yorkist line. When William Caxton printed his Chronicles of England in 1480, the pro-Yorkist Brut became England’s first printed history.

William Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1478. It is impossible to overestimate the impact of this invention on the late medieval world. Without it, the modern world as we know it could not exist. The printing press gave a huge stimulus to intellectual life all over Europe. It made a shift away from Latin to a standardised written English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, possible, thus facilitating the flowering of the great European languages. Its arrival in England also facilitated a shift away from chronicle writing towards an authorised version of history.

Many of the chronicles which are so informative about the Wars of the Roses come to an end before or soon after Henry came to the throne. The Brut ends in 1461, Gregory’s Chronicle in 1469, while the Short English Chronicle finishes in 1465. The second continuation of the Crowland Chronicle, an important source for the period, ends in 1486.  Jean de Waurin, whose chronicle was intended to be a complete history of England, died in 1474.And other reports written by foreign witnesses, such as Dominic Mancini’s ‘Usurpation of Richard III’ ends in 1483.

Henry VII was not insensible to the power of the printing press. In his reign education and literacy flourished. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, is known to have translated two religious texts; the fourth book of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis, and a devotional work called The Mirror of Gold. Scholarship flourished even as chronicle writing declined. But he does not seem to have used printing press for political purposes until relatively late in his reign. And the first histories he commissioned were not from English writers.

Sometime after 1500, Henry commissioned Bernard André, a French Augustinian friar, who was also his Poet Laureate, to write an account of his reign.  André’s progress was slow, so Henry turned to Polydore Vergil, an Italian humanist scholar, diplomat and priest to write a history of England which included his reign. Both the Vita Henrici Septimi (André) and the Anglica Historia were to be written in Latin, printed and distributed around the courts of Europe, where the educated elite would read them. Obviously they would both be authorised by Henry.

Neither of these histories was finished in Henry’s lifetime. Virgil’s Anglica Historia wasn’t published until 1534. It was an influential work (Vergil has been called the Father of English history), used as a source by later writers of history such as Edward Hall, Ralph Holinshed, and Shakespeare.

There is a considerable difference between the writer of history and the chronicler. A chronicler was not expected to be impartial or to refrain from comment. He was not expected to be analytical – his main task was to record, rather than interpret events, although in fact there is a considerable amount of implied or overt commentary in the chronicles. By contrast the early histories had all the status of authorised versions, and the prestige of print. They offered an analysis that disguised to some extent its own bias, and claimed objective truth.

The Anglica Historia is more analytical than André’s Henrici Septimi, but in fact both tend to portray Henry VII as saviour; the man who rescued England from decades of dynastic conflict and bloodshed, and who, by his marriage, at last united the warring Houses of Lancaster and York. This theme was followed by Edward Hall, whose account is titled The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York. But it is also found in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, which is sometimes referred to as the crowning achievement of Tudor historiography. Here there is an implicit paralleling of the usurpation of Henry IV and the terrible death suffered by Richard II, with the death of Richard III and victory (some would say usurpation) of Henry Tudor. The first instigates a century of bloodshed, but the latter restores peace and prosperity. This same narrative underlies the eight plays of Shakespeare’s history cycle that deal with Plantagenet rule.

Shakespeare’s histories drew on Holinshed’s, which drew on Hall’s, which in turn drew on Vergil’s. The influence of the printed history is plainly seen in portrayals of Richard III. It is possible to trace the degeneration of his portrayal from the sources written in his lifetime to the ones written afterwards:

He contents the people wherever he goes better than ever did any prince…I never liked the qualities of any prince as well as his; God has sent him to us for the welfare of us all. Thomas Langton, Bishop of St David’s, 1484

Swollen with rage like a serpent that has fed on noxious herbs, delighting in his evil, he swore that he might slay Richmond himself with new and unheard of tortures, Bernard André (c.1500)

As soon as he heard of King Edward’s death Richard began to be kindled with an ardent desire of sovereignty and determined thereafter to accomplish his purposed spiteful practice by subtlety and sleight, contrary to the law of God and man. Polydore Vergil (c.1505)

Thus ended this prince his mortal life with infamy and dishonour, which never preferred fame or honesty before ambition, tyranny and mischief.  If he had continued still protector and suffered his nephews to have lived and reigned, no doubt but the realm had prospered and he much praised and loved as he is now abhorred. Edward Hall (1548)

‘Foul, misshapen stigmatic,’ ‘elvish-marked abortive rooting hog,’ ‘poisonous bunch-backed toad’ and ‘dreadful minister of Hell.’ William Shakespeare (1592).

Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III drew heavily on another source: Thomas More’s History of King Richard III. This was an unfinished work, but More seems to have written it between 1509 and 1513, i.e. just after the death of Henry VII. We have already seen that More had no particular love of Henry VII, and the reason most frequently cited for this may offer a clue to the ‘disquieting hiatus’ of contemporary written information about the first Tudor king. In 1504 More spoke against Henry VII’s methods of taxation in Parliament. As a result, his father was imprisoned, and only released upon payment of a large fine.

Such suppression was not unique, of course. We know that Richard III had William Collingbourne hanged drawn and quartered for pinning a scurrilous note to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral. And we know that Ralph Holinshed’s chronicles were censored by the Privy Council of Elizabeth I. However, when James Gairdner edited Bernard André’s work in 1858, he commented that André’s description of the Warbeck rebellion as ‘one of the very few sources of contemporary information in an obscure period.’ This could not be said of the reigns of either Richard III or Elizabeth I.

There are other historical sources for Henry Tudor’s reign, such as the Chronicles of Calais, the register of Edward Storey, bishop of Chichester, and the Parliamentary Rolls (although Henry VII relied on Parliament as little as possible, summoning it only seven times in the course of his reign). None of these have the narrative colour or sheer story-telling power of the chronicles or later histories. There are accounts from outside England, by writers such as Phillippe de Commines, though he deals with a larger, European scene.  But in all these narratives there are substantial gaps.

Suppression is of course, as much a part of re-writing of as the act of re-writing itself.  In a repressive regime, the first recourse is suppression, and evidence suggests that Henry VII became more repressive as the chronic insecurity of his reign continued.

He suffered repeated challenges to the throne from men with rival (some would say better) claims. Only one of his sons survived to inherit his crown. What was written and not written about his reign acquired a crucial importance in the face of this insecurity. Traditionally the medieval king fought to maintain his throne, but as I have said, Henry Tudor was not a warrior. In his case it was especially true that the pen, and its suppression, was mightier than the sword.

Accession the third part of my trilogy about Margaret Beaufort and Henry Tudor, was published on August 4th 2016, by Penguin Random House