History has not been kind to Henry VII of England. The first Tudor king has often suffered from long-held accusations that he was a dark and greedy monarch, a man of such a suspicious disposition that his reign was a tyrannical period for England centred on the King’s grasping nature.
It could be argued that the one adjective used more than any other when describing Henry Tudor is ‘miser’. One needs to only witness the character assassination that accompanied the recent documentary ‘The Winter King’ by historian Tom Penn to understand this phenomenon. Amongst a plethora of speculative descriptions of the king in this overwhelmingly negative portrayal was “terrifying”. Penn further stated that Henry utilised ruthless methods to control England, whilst ‘money was dearest to his heart’. Are such accusations justified? It would appear by referring to the sources that the prevailing attitude of many historians, both professional and amateur, that Henry VII was a ‘miser’ king are wide of the mark and constitute an unfair description of both the man and his reign.
Henry Tudor was born into nobility as the son of the wealthy heiress Margaret Beaufort, only child of the Duke of Somerset, and Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and half-brother to King Henry VI of England. Royal patronage of the Beauforts and Tudors by their regal relative should have ensured a comfortable upbringing for Henry but the internecine conflict known as the Wars of the Roses transformed the young boy’s prospects before he had even been born. His father Edmund, a loyal Lancastrian, was captured and imprisoned in Carmarthen Castle by Yorkist commanders and died shortly afterwards, whilst his uncle Henry VI was deposed by the House of York when the young Earl of Richmond was only four years old.
Henry’s wardship was purchased by his father’s foe Sir William Herbert and Henry found himself integrated into the Herbert household at Raglan. Henry’s destiny was out of his hands, completely dependent on the protection and will of Lord Herbert, who at least appeared to be a good guardian. Henry would remain with the Herberts until he was a teenager, later referring to this period as one of being a prisoner although he was admittedly honourably brought up. From 1471 until his triumphant landing in Wales in 1485 Henry was a penniless, land-deprived exile existing in the continued good will and generosity of firstly the Duke of Brittany and secondly the King of France, both of whom utilised the attainted Earl of Richmond as a political pawn in European affairs.
This uncertain upbringing ensured Henry grew up without any estates or money to call his own, a feather in the wind without stability or roots. This situation undoubtedly helped shape Henry’s outlook on life when he finally encountered great wealth and land for the first time at the age of 28 when he acceded to the throne of England. It was the archetypal rags to riches story. Did such an impoverished background ferment itself in adulthood miserliness however? Let us consider evidence to the contrary;
The sources leave an indication that Henry VII was not the miser some would believe. His patronage of renaissance artists and writers, his lively court and his extensive building campaign alone suggest that Henry was a man who enjoyed spending money on things he deemed beneficial to his family and his kingdom.
Henry was a man who surprisingly was recorded spending money on his controversial predecessor Richard III; on 1 March 1486 Henry granted John Plantagenet, the natural if illegitimate son of Richard III, an annual income of £20 whilst in 1495 Henry paid the not insubstantial fee of £50 for a marble and alabaster monument to mark Richard’s grave in Leicester.
Henry was also noted to lavish expensive gifts on his family. In May 1491 he paid the colossal sum of £3800 for cloth of gold, pearls and precious stones designed to adorn his family, whilst another record states the king paid 13s 4d for a lute for Princess Mary. A generous payment of £31 10s is also commanded to be ‘delivered to the Quene’s grace for juels’. Indeed from 1491 to 1505 the king was stated to have spent between £200,000 to £300,000 in jewels and plates, an incredible investment designed to secure the family’s financial future. In 1497 the Milanese ambassador was shown into the king’s presence and reported home that Henry was standing behind a chair of cloth of gold in a ‘most rich’ collar of rows of pearls and gems.
Entertainment was important to the king, in its various disguises. On Christmas Eve 1491 the king paid £5 to a certain Ringley for his participation as the ‘Lord of Misrewle’. Furthermore a payment of 6s 8d was made in 1501 to a person for eating coals whilst other records show payments of £1 to a child that played recorder and another pound to minstrels. In January 1494 Henry paid four actors from Essex £1 and the day made a further payment of £2 to morris dancers. He was also noted as making a payment of £2 to a certain Dick the Fool for new clothes. In 1492 the king was recorded as paying out the enormous sum of £132 to jousters who competed at a grand tournament held in his honour. Further entertainment-related payments can be viewed in the king’s expense records; there is a payment to ‘an Italian, a poete’ for £20 whilst another payment of 6s 8d is made to ‘a Walshe man, that maketh rhymes’. An intriguing payment of £20 is also made to ‘a maiden that danceth’.
Further examples of Henry’s expenditure include him losing £13 4s shooting at the butts, paying £3 6s 8d in 1497 for a blind poet and a payment of 6s 8d to ‘Grifhith Aprice, a man with a berde’. Henry’s general generosity can also be understood from seemingly spontaneous payments to a variety of people. Minor payments to persons for services rendered include ‘one who brought the king a fresh sturgeon’, ‘the woman that presented the king with cherries and strawberries’ and ‘to a poor man that had his corn eaten by the king’s deer’. A payment of £2 13s 4d was also made ‘to the one that brought the king a lyon’.
Henry VII certainly engaged in some extreme measures in order to enrich the royal treasury. Bishop Morton’s infamous rationale, recently known as ‘Morton’s Fork’, has been considered an unfair method of ensuring all subjects were taxed without exception whilst the relentless activities of councillors Empson and Dudley earned the pair an enmity capable of hurtling them towards their demise once their royal protector passed away. Of course, it is not often acknowledged that this method of taxation was not Henry’s invention, nor even Morton, adapted as it was from the reign of Edward IV. Should Morton’s Fork be more properly known as the Yorkist Fork? Henry’s actions were taken for the benefit of his fledgling dynasty and by extension for that of England. The country had been ruined by civil war and the crown was in a perilous financial situation prior to Henry’s accession, a legacy of the wars with France. Henry’s financial policies and decisions were taken with the aim of securing a peaceful succession for his son, the first such in almost a century, and to ensure a prosperous future for England and her people.
Henry has attracted a large degree of criticism from historians, both contemporary and modern, but it must be argued that such a difficult transition period from war to peace must encounter tough, unpopular decisions. It is absurd to denigrate this political ideology of careful and considered financial management of the kingdom and the crown to be the actions of a tyrannical despot. Henry Tudor is as much responsible for the rise of England’s ‘Golden Age’ under his granddaughter Elizabeth I as any other personage of the medieval period. Henry Tudor has in time been vilified and maligned as greatly as that other monarch he is forever and irrevocably linked to, Richard III. Henry VII was a king of his time and circumstances, acting with only the interest of his dynasty and the kingdom they ruled. The legacy of this great king is England’s growth from a provincial civil-war ravaged island into a major European power able to compete with its continental rivals. The Milanese ambassador during Henry’s reign wisely observed ‘this kingdom is perfectly stable, by reason first of the king’s wisdom, whereof everyone stands in awe, and secondly on account of the king’s wealth’. History, if not those who often interpret it and only see what they wish to see, has justified Henry’s actions. Henry a miser? Don’t you believe it.