King Henry the VII. The Tudor.
Henry the Seventh was less than thirty years old when the victory at Bosworth placed him on the English throne. Born in 1457, after the death of his father, Edmund Tudor, and when his mother, Margaret Beaufort, was yet a girl of fourteen years of age, his early life was passed under conditions little calculated to stamp him with the nationality of the people whom he came to rule. Neither by birth nor training was he truly English. His grandfather, Owen Tudor, was a Welshman; his grandmother was Catherine of France, the widow of Henry V., so that his father Edmund Tudor was of course half brother to Henry VI. It was not by that relationship alone that he claimed succession to the crown; nor was it because of his descent from the house of Lancaster, on his mother’s side, though she was the daughter of John, first Duke of Somerset, who was himself the grandson of John of Gaunt. His mother was still living. After her first widowhood she had married Sir Henry Stafford; on becoming a widow a second time she accepted the hand of Lord Stanley. She had no other children; but failing more legitimate successors of the house of Lancaster—of whom there were, doubtless, some in exile—she had a claim to the throne before her son Henry, to whom, however, she devoted all her talents and influence, especially to bring about his marriage with Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Edward IV., and so to unite the interests of York and Lancaster—to blend the red and white rose.
Henry himself felt how all three claims might fail to afford an unquestionable right to the crown, and took care to add to “his just title of inheritance,” the “sure judgment of God, who had given him the victory over his enemy in the field.” The date of the battle of Bosworth was fixed on as that of his accession, but it was the eve of the battle, and while Richard the Third still wore the crown. This remarkable antedating by a few hours had the effect of enabling him to treat as treasonable, acts which would have been.no treason if he had not been king. This shifty policy of relying at the same time on hereditary right, on the right of conquest, and on the claim by marriage, was in some degree illustrative of Henry’s character. It had a curious result when the first parliament was called, a week after his coronation. A number of the members of the new House of Commons had been attainted by Edward IV. and Richard III. for their treasonable adherence to the house of Lancaster, and more than that, Henry himself had been attainted. He would have carried the matter with a high hand, but even then there was a certain unalterable regard for constitutional law which led the Commons to doubt whether their house was capable of sitting, and to refuse to assemble till the question had been decided by the whole body of judges. Their decision was that members could not take their seats till the judgment of attainder was reversed. In the case of the king, the fact of his having succeeded to the crown was itself a reversal not only of attainder but of defects in claim by inheritance.
Of course he quickly repealed all the acts which had been in force against the house of Lancaster, so far as they affected himself or his succession. The act of settlement ordained that the inheritance of the crown should remain in him and his heirs perpetually, and though his marriage with the Princess Elizabeth really confirmed his claims to the crown and gave him a title which only this union of the two houses of York and Lancaster induced the nation patiently to concede, he afterwards obtained by a subtle stroke of policy a still more stringent confirmation of his personal ambition to be regarded as the sole heir to the throne.
On the 18th of January, 1486, Henry complied with the plainly expressed petition of the Commons that he would “take to wife and consort the Princess Elizabeth.” A papal dispensation granted by the legate in England had been necessary because of the relationship between the bride and bridegroom. Henry, with the craft which distinguished him, made use of this opportunity to obtain a second special dispensation from the pope himself, and to include in it clauses which should give the authority of the church to the royal claims of succession.
Innocent VIII. recognized the power which England might again attain now that civil wars had ceased to devastate the country, and the important document arrived with every particular confirmed by his authority. It was more than a dispensation to satisfy religious scruples of king and subjects, it was a declaration of royal rights by an authority which would scarcely be questioned—rights incompatible if not contradictory; for they began with that of conquest, and included those of notorious and indisputable succession, of election by prelates, lords, and commons of the realm, and of act of settlement passed by the three estates of the realm in parliament assembled. The king, it was represented, had consented to marry Elizabeth at the request of parliament, and to put an end to the claims of the house of York; therefore the dispensation was granted. There was more than the mere document itself, however. The pontiff not only gave authority to this bull, but as an essential part of it, confirmed the act of settlement to which it referred, so as to define and unalterably fix the meaning of that act of the English parliament, pronouncing sentence of excommunication against anybody who should otherwise represent its meaning. That meaning was declared to be that if the queen should die before the king and without issue, or if her children should die before their father, the children of Henry by any subsequent marriage should be heirs to the crown. It is to be assumed that the knowledge of the value of such a binding decision in preventing the recurrence of those conflicts which had for so long devastated the country, gained the acceptance of parliament and people to this interpretation.
From the very commencement of his appearance in England Henry exhibited both sides of a character which united some of the subtle statecraft and cunning of Henry I. with a certain bright frankness of demeanour and activity of social intercourse which enabled him rapidly to assimilate himself to English manners and English modes of thought. He could even be profuse when occasion demanded, though he loved money and was loath to part with it on ordinary occasions. It should be remembered that he had passed an early life of poverty, and perhaps had learned to value money by noting how much it would buy in emergencies, when empty coffers meant failure or disgrace. He could chaffer and haggle about the dower and the plate of the Princess Catherine of Aragon when she came to wed his son, but he could display magnificence at the wedding. He was ready enough to receive from the Commons a grant of “tonnage and poundage,” on almost express condition that he should marry the Princess Elizabeth,—but he spent large sums on the subsequent royal progress, reduced the town rents of the disaffected city of York from £ 160 to £ 18. 5s., ordered pageants, held sumptuous feasts, and distributed money among the people, who welcomed his “sweet and well-favoured face.”
That face was itself not of the national type. Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish envoy, and an acute judge of men, told Fernando that there was nothing “purely English” in the English king; and there was certainly a want of that robust appearance which was the eminent characteristic of Henry VIII. For many years Henry VII. was liable to the results of that sickliness of constitution which is so often followed by consumption; but he seemed able to live in such a way as to overcome this tendency, and his naturally cheerful disposition probably had much to do with this reserve of force. Lean and spare of build, but of middle height, his fair complexion, bright humorous gray eyes, and rather thin fine hair gave him a delicate appearance, but his face bore a smile, his whole bearing was attractive and engaging, and his expression full of vivacity.
The first fourteen years of his life had been passed in Wales, where he imbibed an admiration which was little less than a passionate belief in the legends of the bards, and especially in those that related to Arthur and his knights. It is by no means certain that in his first son, Prince Arthur, he did not hope to revive those chivalric institutions, and that romantic and poetical influence which he believed to belong to perfect knighthood, for there was a certain half-concealed dreamy mysticism about the character of Henry which some modern students of history believe to be a key to many of the actions which apparently contradicted the more practical and matter-of-fact side of his disposition. The second fourteen years of his life were passed in Brittany or in France. In Brittany he had been constantly in danger of being delivered over to Edward IV. or to Richard, but the Count of Brittany was a man of honour,and kept his trust. In France he learned something of that subtle diplomacy of which Louis XI. was so distinguished a master, that, had he lived, the French monarchy might have absorbed half Europe, and was already the great rival of the growing influence of Spain and the astute Ferdinand.
England, so long torn by civil wars, had been regarded as of little importance as an ally by foreign powers, and the King of Spain sought an imperial alliance to strengthen him against France. Both France and Spain undervalued the power of England, and had not yet learned that Henry was even more than a match for Ferdinand. In Italy a truer estimate of England and the English king had been adopted, and Henry’s great talent as a cunning statesman was recognized by the papal power. His chief object was to avoid the war with France into which Ferdinand afterwards endeavoured to force him, and to achieve an alliance with Spain to be afterwards cemented by the marriage of Prince Arthur and the Princess Catherine of Aragon. He effected both, although he had to make a pretence of French invasion. At a period of the year when no commander would have prepared for laying siege to a garrison—that is to say,in the month of October—and just before any efficient force would have been thinking of retiring to winter quarters, he sailed for Calais, with a great and splendidly equipped army of 25,000 foot and 1600 horse. Everybody in the king’s confidence knew that he never meant to commence hostilities. The French king, Charles VIII., and his counsellors knew it also, for no opposition was offered, though Henry marched his troops from Calais to Boulogne. It ended in the signature of a treaty of peace and alliance, which was to last for the lives of the two kings, and for one year after the survivor. The treaty was ratified, and Charles was to pay to Henry £149,000 by instalments.
This pretended war, which was undertaken on a hypocritical assumption of surprise at the treachery of Charles VIII. in forcing the orphan Countess Anne of Brittany into a marriage with himself, that he might seize the province which he coveted, filled Henry’s treasury. The sum of £124,000 was paid to him as a discharge of his claims on Anne of Brittany, for whom he professed to take the field, and £25,000 as the overdue payment of the tribute owing from France to Edward IV. It was a splendid stroke of policy, but it had been likely to cost England dear. The country was murmuring everywhere at the heavy subsidies raised for this bloodless war so soon after the people had been heavily taxed, and the many knights and nobles being ready for war, and believing that the campaign was to be a genuine one, were ready to sell or mortgage their estates in order to join the army, thinking probably that they would be able to indemnify themselves by taking possession of land in France. Every facility was given for them to ruin themselves, by bearing the expenses of an expedition from which they were to receive neither riches nor honour. An act was passed by which they could alienate their estates without paying the usual fees or fines, and they plunged into poverty with fatal facility. Can it be wondered at when Henry had declared in parliament that he was determined to make war against Charles of France as a disturber of Christendom, and that he meant to take the French crown for himself as his rightful inheritance?
The result was that he sold his friends, and took a heavy bribe from his supposed enemies. “But the truth is,” says Bacon, ” this peace was welcome to both kings. To Charles, for that it assured unto him the possession of Brittany, and freed the enterprise of Naples; to Henry, for that it filled his coffers, and that he foresaw, at that time, a storm of inward troubles coming upon him, which presently after broke forth.” The foremost of these inward troubles was the death of the young Prince Arthur, heir to the crown, soon after his marriage with the Princess Catharine of Aragon, a union which was to achieve so much for England and to exhibit to Europe a court that Henry seems to have thought would revive the example of the legendary Arthur of the “Round Table,” and his company of brave knights and pure dames. When this great sorrow was followed by the fading and passing away of his pious and dearly loved queen, Henry may well have begun to contemplate his own end. A constitution, never strong, but sustained by a spirit remarkable for fortitude and for cheerful and courageous foresight, was doubtless seriously impaired by private griefs, and he left to the surviving Prince Henry, not only a personal position of extreme difficulty, but a state subject to political complications, to deal with which, required both foresight and determination.
From the book: Pictures and Royal Portraits illustrative of English and Scottish History by Thomas Archer. London 1878.