Narrative History of England|
Part 6: From Reformation to Restoration
by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.
Henry VII (1485-1509)
The victor at Bosworth Field was Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Though his claim to the throne was tenuous and few in England could even hope that stability had at last come to that troubled land, he was to begin a dynasty that lasted 118 years. At the beginning of Henry VII's reign the Wars of the Roses were still pitting the Houses of York and Lancaster against each other for the throne. By the end of t Elizabeth IÍs reign, the last of the Tudors, the kingdom of Britain had become a great sea-power, enjoyed an unparalleled growth in literature and drama, experienced vast economic and social change and suffered (and more or less settled) the tumultuous problems of the great European Reformation. Little England had become unrecognizable in its unswerving path toward world domination in so many different areas.
Henry had a lot to think about when he defeated Richard. His victory was due as much to the king's allies deserting him on the field of battle as much as it was to Henry's own determination and courage, and in the face of his weak claim to be the legitimate ruler, a desperate gamble. After all, on his mother's side, he was descended from the offspring of John of Gaunt and his mistress, specifically barred from the succession. His grandfather, Welshman Owen Tudor, had been a household clerk of Catherine of Valois, whom he married after the death of her husband Henry V. Their son Edmund was granted the title of Earl of Richmond, and Henry himself, brought up in France, had the good sense to marry Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward lV, thus bringing together the white rose of York and the red of Lancaster.
It was not easy going for the new king. He effectively dealt with the early Yorkist threat to the throne when he defeated a conglomeration of rebels under Lambert Simnel, pushed forward to claim the throne as the supposed Earl of Warwick, nephew of Edward lV and Richard III. Henry's victory at Stoke, in 1487 marked the last battle of the Wars of the Roses. Then he dealt with Perkin Warbeck, who posed as the younger of the princes who had been murdered in the Tower. Along with the support of the King of Scotland, James VI, Warbeck foolishly led an army composed mostly of Cornishmen against Henry but was defeated and beheaded. The problem of Wales was more easily settled.
Henry had landed in West Wales to begin his march that culminated at Bosworth, in the English Midlands. The people of Wales showed little interest one way or the other, after all, the problem of the succession was an English one, but when Henry assumed the throne, it was generally felt in the principality that a Welsh ruler had now come to the land. Much of Wales, especially the gentry, now rejoiced in Henry's victory. They identified with the new ruler, a quarter Welsh (a quarter French and half English), who seemed proud of his Welsh lineage and showed that he recognized it. Consequently, Wales and the Marches were quite content to be ruled by the King's Council. It certainly helped that Henry named his son and heir Arthur, a name of great historical significance to the people of Wales, ever conscious of their long history as true Britons and heirs of the illustrious King Arthur.
The king could now concentrate on his governmental reforms, cementing in place not only the combined power of monarch and Parliament, centred in Westminster, but also reinvigorating the administration of law on both the national and local level. At Westminster, he revived the Court of the Star Chamber to deal with problems that mostly involved the nobility, and he reinvigorated the system of Justices of the Peace to keep tight control of the towns and parishes and ensure respect for the Crown. Henry also took control of the government's finances; his use of statutes to raise money raised some hackles, but he always had the excuse of needing extra cash to fight the French (who, in any case, paid him handsomely to stay away).
Henry secured his position as king by firm and effective government, soundly supported by adequate finances and backed by a strong legal system. The country was at peace and able to enjoy a great increase in trade with the Continent. John Cabot's voyages put the English flag on the shores of North America, the great mariner-explorer was supported by the king's grants of money and ships. Henry was also interested in books and learning. It was Henry who introduced the Yeomen of the Guard, the colorful "beefeaters" still to be seen at the Tower. His prudence, caution and wisdom were praised by historian Polydor Vergil as best suited to his age; they were qualities highly sought in a king.
All seemed well, but it was not. The premature death of Prince Arthur, who had married Catherine of Aragon when both were in their teens, had unforeseen consequences. The marriage may not have been consummated, but the subsequent remarriage of the Spanish Princess to Arthur's younger brother (who later became Henry VIII) created a major problem with the Catholic Church, which was having problems of its own trying to remain independent from the growing power of European monarchies. In one way, the repercussions of Arthur's premature death can be said to have led to the later success of the Reformation in England. It also meant the eventual unification of the Scottish and English Crowns, for Henry's daughter Margaret married King James IV of Scotland. But all this was later.
Part 6: From Reformation to Restoration, continued
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