The personality of Henry VII, the story he created of himself, and how history has treated his reputation.
When looking at how historians have dealt with Henry VII, the starting point has to be the story that Henry VII told about himself, and that his successors supported. Henry had to convince the English f his legitimacy, and his fitness to rule. On the first, his promise had been to marry and rule with Elizabeth of York. Once he'd seen Richard III hacked down at Bosworth, suddenly that looked less attractive. So Henry based his right to rule partly on his Lancastrian descent; but mainly on right of conquest. This sounds dangerous - and I sometimes wonder if all of this legitimacy stuff mattered as much as we think - he was on the throne, end of story. To some degree that's the approach Henry takes - he stakes his claim, and then stops talking about it, makes no effort to find the fate of the Princes - just let it go.
He does build the story of why the Tudors are fit to rule and here to stay, a myth later Tudors build on. One of them is about Henry's Welsh descent; not his Welshness specifically since foolishly that wasn't a great attraction to the Englishman of the time, but the patina of the glorious ancient king of the Britons, of the connections with Arthur and the Round Table. But secondly, of the uniting of Lancaster and York (albeit with Elizabeth as a junior partner) and therefore the bringing of peace to a war torn country. The symbol was of course the Tudor rose. The idea of a Lancastrian Red Rose had to be hastily resurrected, but once done, it could be combined with the White Rose of York and Bob's yer uncle.
How historians have treated Henry VII
Historians in the 16th such as Polydore Vergil and Edward Hall supported and enhanced this story; though Vergil also had the strength of mind to accuse Henry of avarice. But the definitive story came from Francis bacon in 1621-2. Actually, the reason Bacon wrote about Henry VII was very probably to convince his ex-boss James I to give him his job back, and use Henry VII as an example of statecraft, but none the less, his story survived all the way through - to now essentially. This is essentially:
- Henry VII was a prudent, clever, careful statesman; not far sighted but effective
- He controlled the nobility severely - but with justice, because this ended the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, which was caused by 'over-mighty' subjects
- He rebuilt England's shattered finances and put her back on a firm footing; to help, he avoided foreign wars
- He was far-sighted in one area - that of legislation and justice. He built effective law and order on the basis of the Justices of the Peace rather than the nobility
- He was however obsessed with money, was indeed avaricious
In essence, Henry VII may not have been an exciting man, but he was effective, and laid the foundation of the glorious success of the Tudor dynasty.
It's taken a long time for this to be challenged. But there is a counter argument. Historians challenged the need for suppression of the nobility; historians now raise further questions:
- Actually, Henry's position in 1485 was ideal - there were no challengers for the throne; so why the need to come down hard on the nobility? In the end did he come close to causing revolt against him through his actions?
- In his later reign, was Henry effective in control at all - either the tyranny of his bureaucrats was his tyranny, or signs of his incompetence and inability to control them
- When Henry crushed the finances of his nobility, did he make them incapable of exercising law and order - and so in fact law and order became worse, not better
Portraits of Henry VII
First, let us start with Polydore Vergil's description of Henry:
His body was slender but well built and strong; his height above the average. His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face was cheerful, especially when speaking; his eyes were small and blue, his teeth few, poor and blackish; his hair was thin and white; his complexion sallow.
Second is the bust made of him by Torrignano around 1508-9, which has an immediacy and realism that gives a good impression of Henry towards the end of his life. It's worth noting that Henry died in 1509, and in 1508 he was already troubled by illness
Then there is Henry's death mask, which is, like Edward III, an actual wax death mask. But for some unfortunate reason, the nose was lost and had to be remodelled, which makes it somewhat suspect.
Now all of these are towards the end of Henry's life, when he was already ill. So there's one rather
remarkable survival, which is a sketch when Henry is much younger, by Jacques Leboucq.
Personality of the king
His spirit was distinguished, wise and prudent; his mind was brave and resolute and never, even at moments of the greatest danger, deserted him. He had a most pertinacious memory. Withal he was not devoid of scholarship. In government he was shrewd and prudent, so that no one dared to get the better of him through deceit or guile.
This quality of quiet, self-contained authority comes across from other sources. In 1497, Italian visitors reported that
‘he evidently has a most quiet spirit’
In 1504 a Spanish visitor reported back to the most Catholic monarchs
‘Certainly there could be no better school in the world than the society of such a father as Henry VII. He is so wise and attentive to everything; nothing escapes his attention’
Henry was surprisingly active, especially his reputation as a rather dry, grey man. Like his son, he was mad for the hunt – a common enough passion among kings, but worth noting to combat the view of Henry as a grey bookish kind of man. In addition, he’s clearly a gambler – losing money at dice, tennis, archery. Now I am not suggesting for a moment that evidence of gambling is a good thing, but he clearly took part in sports, he is clearly not so reserved that he didn’t interact with his court and family.
And all the foreign visitors, even the negative ones, admit that he knew how to throw a good party; ;Visitors duly reported on the magnificence of his court, the wonder of tapestries and art, the quality of the music – including Erasmus in 1499 for example. He was brought up in France, he impressed visitors with his erudition and learning and languages; and particularly they comment on how well they are treated personally by Henry. Henry Throws numerous celebrations and jousts, just like any other medieval monarch.
However, a Spanish visitor, De Ayala, in 1498 had some negative things to say, and the worst was this:
‘He likes to be much spoken of and to be highly appreciated by the whole world. He fails in this because he is not a great man. He spends all the time he is not in public or in his council in writing the accounts of his expenses with his own hand…’
Hate it or lathe it, people really didn’t seem to like Henry. De Ayala again:
His crown is, nevertheless, undisputed, and his government strong in all respects. He is disliked.
Bishop Fisher implicitly accepts this, and the suspicion and distrust that surrounded him in his later days in his funeral oration when he said
‘Ah King Henry, King Henry, if thou were alive again many a one that is present now would pretend a full great pity and tenderness upon thee.’
It is worth remembering at all stages and in all places that Henry had been through a troubled 28 years. As de Ayala wrote, 'The king looks old for his years but young for the sorrowful life he has led'; and it would not be surprising if the worry and uncertainty and vicissitudes of fortune had not had an impact on his outlook; you’d expect him to want to build his security against misfortune; you’d expect him to be careful and suspicious.
In summary, we have a man who by and large is no cypher, not someone you could ignore or overawe, who keeps and holds his own counsel, perhaps without any great intellectual pyrotechnics, but he’s none the less a well-educated, erudite man. He’s an active man, taking part in sports and celebrations and music. But none the less there is a strong sense of the dark side in Henry. Everyone agrees that his is obsessively avaricious; there is a quietness and stillness about him that is at once impressive, but also menacing. Bacon wrote that Henry was ‘infinitely suspicious’ and called him a ‘Dark Prince’, and this has stuck to Henry VII. Even if you judge him kindly, he is a man difficult to like and maybe even to get enthusiastic about.