As is usual with English kings and queens, Henry VII's reputation has fluctuated dramatically through history. Edward Hall's chronicle of his reign written in 1547 was entitled The Union of the two noble and illustrious families of Lancaster and York, being long in continual dissension for the crown of this noble realm. This sums up the early view of Henry VII as the man who rescued England from years of civil strife during the Wars of the Roses preceding Henry's reign. In 1622 Francis Bacon wrote The Life of Henry VII which portrayed Henry as "a wonder of wise men" and "this Solomon of England". An enthusiastically positive view of Henry continued into the nineteenth century, when he was credited with instituting revolutionary new systems of government. In the twentieth century, however, all this changed. S.B Chrimes who wrote the definitive modern biography of Henry portrayed him as a medieval monarch in the same mould as his predecessors. Any progress that was made simply came about because Henry managed to stay on the throne for a long time. This provided a measure of stability, which allowed administrators to develop their work. A wonder of wise men became someone who was part of his time and his circumstances. During Henry's reign two ordinary men impersonated the sons of Edward IV who disappeared into the Tower in 1483. Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel pranced around in fine clothes and pretended to be princes. No doubt this made them feel powerful for a while, but they were only ever tools of more powerful men, who were using the imposters for their own ends. They did not direct their fate, it was controlled by other people and circumstances. It could be argued that Henry was in a similar position.
Henry was born on 28th January 1457 at Pembroke Castle, only child of Edmund Tudor and Margaret Beaufort. His mother was fourteen years old, and his father had been killed three months earlier in a dispute with the Duke of York, who was trying to establish control in west Wales. Henry spent his early life at Pembroke Castle with his mother. But whatever security Henry enjoyed during his childhood in his huge Welsh castle ended in 1461 when Henry VI was defeated at the Battle of Towton, and Edward IV took the throne. Henry was a member of the Lancastrian line, who were descendents of Edward III's son John of Gaunt. For decades Lancastrians had been in dispute with Yorkists, descendents of Edward III's son Lionel, Duke of Clarence. The new king was a Yorkist, which meant Henry Tudor was now on the wrong side of a bitter divide. Pembroke Castle was seized by Lord Herbert, and Henry remained at the castle in the Herbert household. Overlordship of Henry's lands was transferred to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the king's brother. Henry himself was groomed for a quiet existence as Herbert's son in law.
Henry VII was later to be seen as a shaper of history, but in 1469 he was very much being washed about on the waves of events. 1469 saw the Earl of Warwick turn on Edward IV and help bring Henry VI back to the throne. During the coup Warwick had Lord Herbert executed. Edward IV fought back, and retook the throne in 1470. Now Henry VI was executed, and Henry VI's only son was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury. These executions meant that Henry Tudor, until this point a fairly obscure member of the aristocracy, suddenly found himself the main Lancastrian claimant to the throne, and consequently a threat to Yorkist Edward IV. Henry's uncle, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke immediately realised the dangerous position his nephew was in, and moved quickly to get him across the Channel to relative safety in Brittany. Henry was to remain on the continent in exile for the next fourteen years. Edward IV offered a substantial reward for the return of his fugitive rivals, but the Duke of Brittany stood by Henry and his uncle Jasper. Just as in the future Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck would be tools in bigger schemes, the Duke of Brittany probably protected Jasper and Henry Tudor because he thought they might be useful in future negotiations with England. King Edward made a few attempts to seize Henry, most notably in 1475, when he almost persuaded his Breton protectors that he wanted to marry Henry to one of his daughters. Henry avoided meeting the ambassadors who had come for him, either by being ill, or by feigning illness, which brought him enough time for the Duke of Brittany to realise the meeting was a trap. Henry was rescued and taken to safety, and then lived quietly for a further eight years.
In 1483 fortune changed again for Henry. Edward IV died on 9th April 1483, and was succeeded by his twelve year old son Edward V. Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, the "princes in the Tower", were captured by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. The boys disappeared into the Tower of London and were never seen again. By June Richard of Gloucester had taken the throne as Richard III. Many were dissatisfied with Richard's usurpation, and a movement against him gathered momentum. Henry of course was a focus for those who were dissatisfied, and he was thrust forward as a rival candidate for the throne. An attempted invasion in October 1483 failed when the Duke of Buckingham's rebellion was defeated. On Christmas Day 1483, Henry took part in a ceremony at Rennes Cathedral. Henry promised that should he win the throne from Richard III he would marry Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. This was a measure designed to win Yorkist support. Richard tried to thwart Henry's plan by marrying Elizabeth himself, but for this to happen, his sick wife Anne had to be got out of the way. She obligingly died, and although there is no evidence of foul play, people had their suspicions. Opinion continued to turn against Richard.
Henry set sail from Harfleur on 1st August 1485, with between 400 and 500 exiles, and 1,500 French soldiers. Henry could not hope to succeed without this French support. Charles VIII of France helped Henry in the hope that the invasion would distract Richard III from lending military support to Brittany, which France was looking to annex. Henry was supported as a potential king because he was in the right place at the right time. Once again, paralleling the later stories of Warbeck and Simnel, Henry's claim to the throne was supported because it suited the purposes of other powerful men. Henry's invasion force landed at Milford Haven on 7th August, and defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August. The rebels defeated Richard's army inspite of a two to one disadvantage. It seems Richard threw away his more powerful position in an impetuous attempt to break through to Henry himself standing behind the lines. This attack nearly succeeded, with Henry's flag bearer being killed. But eventually it was Richard who fell.
Henry now found himself king. In the traditional history of his reign, he got on with wise and revolutionary moves to curb the power of England's nobility, through money pledged for good behaviour, the blocking of marriages between magnates and great heiresses, and the delay of inheritance of lands. In reality Henry was in an easier position than most monarchs, since he had very few close male relatives likely to challenge him. In addition the fact that the nobility put up with restrictions placed upon them is possibly due to England having just emerged from a long period of civil war. The nobles were simply tired of strife. A similar thing happened with Henry II in the twelfth century, when England's nobles were exhausted following civil war during King Stephen's reign. Both Henry II and Henry VII were made to look strong by circumstances they inherited. At other points in history they would not have had such an easy time. When King John tried to limit the nobility's power he was made to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, and judged a tyrant. Such is the arbitrary nature of historical judgment.
Lavenham Church, built with the proceeds of peace during Henry VII's reign
If Henry has a recognisable achievement it lies in what he didn't do rather than in what he did. He avoided any glamorous foreign policies of conquest and glory. In 1491 there was a dilemma to face over a promise Henry had made to help defend Brittany against French expansion. Henry thought that not doing anything would be a sign of weakness. So as a compromise he sent a large force to Boulogne in October 1492, making sure his intervention was made late in the season. This meant that any fighting that did occur would not last long. Once again Henry was fortunate to have the French distracted by the promise of better conquests to be had in Italy. Charles VIII wanted Henry out of his hair so he could get on with other more interesting military adventures. Nine days after the English army came ashore Charles VIII opened negotiations. On 3rd November the Treaty of Etaples was signed, in which Henry agreed to withdraw in return for a large cash payment. It was an unspectacular success. Henry's approach of doing as little as possible kept the peace, allowed trade to flourish, and made many people rich. The wool town of Lavenham in Suffolk remains today as evidence of Henry's success in getting away with doing little.
The two biggest threats to Henry came in the form of the two imposters already mentioned, two young men named Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. These two con artists both exploited the mysterious fate of the sons of Edward IV, the princes in the Tower. They masqueraded as the younger prince, Richard Duke of York, and claimed Richard's inheritance as a legitimate king of England. Lambert Simnel was the focus of the first conspiracy, which took place between 1486 and 1487. It seems that the powerful noble John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, found an eleven year old boy who he could pass off as the Duke of York. Lincoln probably planned to seize the throne for himself under the cover of apparently promoting the cause of the "Duke of York". Then bizarrely Simnel decided he would rather play the role of the young Earl of Warwick, who was being kept in the Tower. Even though the real Earl of Warwick was paraded through the streets of London it still suited some people to believe in the fantasy that there was a young nobeleman available who could take the throne. Simnel was crowned "Edward VI" in Dublin Cathedral on May 24th 1487. With Simnel in tow, the Earl of Lincoln crossed to England from Ireland with a rebel army. This force was massacred by the royal army at the Battle of Stoke on 16th June 1487. In contrast to Simnel, Henry had won his battle for the throne, but recalling that he was outnumbered two to one at Bosworth, he could easily have suffered the same fate as Simnel. It is remarkable how the story of Simnel parallels Henry VII's own. Simnel and Henry Tudor were supported as pretenders to the throne by people who used them as convenient tools. Just as it suited John de la Pole to support Simnel's invasion, it had suited the Lancastrians, and Charles VIII of France, to support Henry's invasion in 1485. Henry VII was a "real" king, but he was also Lambert Simnel writ large, as indeed are all kings. This fact might be disguised by coronation ceremonies, and by essay questions in school about giving a king marks out of ten for their foreign policy, but the fact remains that kings act their roles just as the imposter Lambert Simnel tried to do. Whether their role is a hopeless little charade, or a famous success, depends on point of view, and an unfathomable set of circumstances which we explain away with words like fate and fortune. The story of the later pretender Perkin Warbeck followed a very similar, though more protracted course, from 1491 to 1499. It also ended with the defeat of the imposter.
Henry died on 21st April 1509. His eldest son Arthur had been groomed to take over. But Arthur died, and it was his younger son, Henry who took the throne as Henry VIII. The panoply of religious symbolism swung into action to make this all look inevitable and ordained by God. In reality the Monty Python life of English monarchs went on, a series of Perkin Warbecks and Lambert Simnels living out their, and their subjects', fantasies.