On January 28, 1457, Henry VII was born Henry Tudor in Pembroke, Wales. His father, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, died almost three months before Henry’s birth. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt. The Beauforts were originally John’s illegitimate descendants. However, both Richard II and Henry IV later confirmed their legitimacy.
As a stipulation though, Henry IV declared in 1407 that the Beauforts and their descendants couldn’t claim the throne. On Henry Tudor’s father’s side, he descended from French royalty through Henry V‘s widow, Queen Catherine. After her husband died in 1422, the queen married Owen Tudor, a Welsh squire. From his lineage, Henry had a weak claim to the English throne. Since Margaret was a young mother, Henry’s uncle, Jasper Tudor, oversaw his upbringing.
Exile in France
In England, two factions of the Plantagenet royal family were engaged in a civil war. Beginning in 1455, the War of the Roses saw the ruling Lancastrians fight against the upstart Yorkists. During May 1471, Yorkist soldiers broke the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Tewkesbury. With this victory, the Yorkist King Edward IV secured his hold over England.
As supporters of the deposed Lancastrian King Henry VI, the Tudors were no longer safe. In response, Jasper fled with his nephew to France. The exiled men eventually settled in Brittany as guests of its duke, Francis II. In the duke’s custody, Henry had some protection against Edward IV. However, as long as the Yorkists ruled England, Henry had to remain in exile.
Richard III of England
By 1483, Henry Tudor had spent twelve years exiled in France. Despite his hopeless situation, England’s political climate began to change. In April, Edward IV died. Upon the king’s death, his eldest son succeeded him as Edward V.
At twelve years old, the new king couldn’t rule in his own right. Instead, his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, acted as his guardian. Fearing the influence of the dowager queen Elizabeth’s family, the Woodvilles, Richard moved swiftly. Before Edward’s coronation, the duke seized his nephew.
After imprisoning Edward V, Richard sought to capture the king’s younger brother. Under threat of violence, Queen Elizabeth reluctantly handed over her son to Richard. With both boys imprisoned, the duke petitioned parliament to declare them illegitimate. Richard argued that since his brother had been engaged to another woman before Elizabeth, his marriage to her couldn’t be valid. Therefore, their children had been illegitimate.
Parliament ultimately agreed with Richard. Afterward, Edward IV’s children no longer could claim the English throne. With Edward V’s illegitimacy, Richard became Edward IV’s closest legitimate relative. As a result, the duke was crowned King Richard III on July 6, 1483.
Despite Richard III’s ascension, his usurpation divided the Yorkists. Many still believed that Edward V should be king instead of Richard. As this sentiment grew, Richard began to lose support. After the king’s nephews suspiciously disappeared, public scrutiny further eroded his popularity.
By 1483, the Lancastrians had rallied behind Henry Tudor. Despite his lackluster lineage, the Lancastrians still viewed Henry as a viable claimant. After the deaths of Henry VI and Prince Edward in 1471, Henry became the Lancastrian’s last hope. In late 1483, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, defected to the Lancastrians. The duke wanted to overthrow Richard III and sought Henry’s support.
In November, Buckingham launched a rebellion. However, Richard III crushed it and killed Buckingham before Henry could arrive. Despite this setback, there was still hope. Embittered by the disappearance of her sons, Queen Elizabeth allied with the Lancastrians. In return for her support, Henry promised to marry Princess Elizabeth once he became king.
Battle of Bosworth Field
In 1485, Henry Tudor had the support of the Lancastrians, alienated Yorkists, and the French. In August, the Lancastrian exile launched an invasion of England. After landing in Wales, his army marched towards London. On August 22, Henry’s forces met Richard III’s at Bosworth Field. Despite the odds, Henry managed to turn the battle in his favor with the assistance of Yorkist defectors.
Having realized that he had lost, Richard III made one final charge towards Henry. In return, his Lancastrian soldiers cut the king down. Having claimed Richard’s throne through conquest, Henry established the Tudor dynasty. In October, the crowned exile became Henry VII and married Princess Elizabeth the following January.
Despite uniting the Lancastrians and Yorkists through marriage, Henry VII’s hold on power remained weak. England still had Yorkist remnants. The Yorkists had support in northern England and Ireland. Since the king’s position wasn’t secure, other European monarchs preferred to support the Yorkists over him. As a result, rebellions occurred against Henry in 1486 and 1487 but were unsuccessful.
In 1491, Henry VII faced a more serious threat to his reign. A boy emerged claiming to be Richard, younger brother of Edward V. The boy, however, was named Perkin Warbeck. Although he had the backing of the kings of France, Scotland, and Germany, Warbeck suffered defeat against royalist forces in 1497. Originally shown mercy, Warbeck was later hanged after attempting to escape imprisonment.
Edmund de la Pole
Edmund de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, was the nephew of Edward IV. In 1487, his older brother John had joined a rebellion to overthrow Henry VII. As punishment for his involvement, the king confiscated the de la Pole’s lands. Eventually, Edmund regained some of these lands but had to renounce his dukedom. In 1499, the earl fled England after committing a murder.
Edmund attempted to gain support against Henry VII from other European monarchs. However, he would be turned over to the English in 1506. In 1513, the fugitive earl died after being executed for his crimes. Upon his death, another potential claimant to Henry’s throne had been eliminated.
In 1492, Henry VII concluded a treaty with France. Through this treaty, the king gained a large pension and French support. Henry continued building ties to other monarchs by creating an alliance with Spain. In 1501, the king’s heir, Arthur, married the Spanish princess Catherine. Two years later, Henry had his daughter, Margaret, marry James IV of Scotland. As England improved its standing with other European countries, the Tudor dynasty became more secure.
Henry VII proved to be an able ruler. A lifetime of danger and uncertainty made the king cautious. As a result, Henry sought to avoid war and focus on rebuilding royal finances. The king encouraged trade, while also heavily taxing his barons. Through these actions, the formerly impoverished Henry became quite wealthy. However, his ruthlessness in enforcing his fiscal rights caused hatred towards his financial ministers.
As Henry VII’s wealth increased, he also focused on judicial issues. The Court of the Star Chamber oversaw such matters, while justices of peace gained authority to enforce the law. The king ordered that special counsels be established in Wales and northern England to promote order. Despite these changes, Henry retained his authority and continued to consolidate the monarchy’s power.
In 1502, Henry VII’s heir, Arthur, died. Despite having another son, Henry, the king and queen felt devastated by Arthur’s unexpected passing. In 1503, Queen Elizabeth died after giving birth. Although their marriage had been political, Henry truly loved Elizabeth. Overwhelmed by grief, the king withdrew from court to mourn her. Eventually, Henry entertained the idea of re-marrying but never did.
Henry VII spent his last few years as a sick and paranoid man. Concerned with the succession, the king kept a close eye on his remaining son and heir. Prince Henry had to stay close to his father and was kept under constant supervision. By April 1509, Henry’s health began to decline rapidly. On April 21, the old king finally died.
Henry VII tends to be overshadowed by his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth I. However, his contributions to the Tudor dynasty can’t be ignored. Henry seized the English throne and established the dynasty. He solidified his position by marrying Princess Elizabeth of York. Henry also overcame multiple rebellions against his rule. After his death, he left a secured throne, an efficient government, and a prosperous kingdom to his son.
Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.
Myers, A. R., & Morrill, J. S. (2020, January 24). Henry VII. Retrieved March 23, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-VII-king-of-England
Henry VII in seven facts. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2020, from https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/henry-vii-in-seven-facts/