Robyn Young introduces Henry VII, father of the Tudors.
Posted on: 27/06/2016 with tags: Henry VII, robyn young, Tudor, War of the Roses
Robyn Young introduces us to the incredible figure of Henry VII, father of the Tudors.
Out in the Channel the boat lurched over another wave and plunged down, salt spray lashing the men fighting grimly to stay on course. The September sky was dark with storm. Strong winds had whipped the seas wild, raging around the beleaguered vessel, forcing it further and further west.
Among the boat’s small crew, was Jasper Tudor, former Earl of Pembroke and a son of Catherine of Valois, widowed queen of Henry V, and her lover, Welsh gentleman, Owen Tudor. Half-brother of King Henry VI, Jasper had been brought up in England, well educated and cared for. He had grown to manhood during the dynastic struggles that would become known as the Wars of the Roses, where two rival houses of the Plantagenet dynasty, York and Lancaster, would bloody English soil for more than thirty years as each sought to place their sons upon the throne.
Rebel soldier and proud man of the House of Lancaster, Jasper had celebrated the triumphant return of his half-brother to the throne the year before, after their Yorkist enemy, King Edward IV, was vanquished in battle and sent into exile. But over the past five months – with Edward’s return and Lancastrian defeats at the disastrous battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury – Jasper had seen his house, his hope, crumble. Hunted by agents of the newly-restored Edward, he fled into Wales. Surrounded, he sent desperate messages across the Channel asking the French court for aid, before slipping from Britain’s shores, bound, he prayed, for safe haven. But the wind and waves cared nothing for Jasper’s plans and the little boat was driven instead to the shores of the Duchy of Brittany, where Duke Francis II – enemy of France and ally of England – could not believe his luck.
These English exiles, Francis knew, might prove useful indeed in his ongoing struggle to keep his duchy protected from the expansionist aims of French king, Louis XI – known as the Universal Spider for the webs of political intrigue he wove. Jasper was a fine prize, yes, but even more valuable was the young man who had crossed the sea with him. His nephew. Henry Tudor.
Born in the bitterness of a Welsh winter in 1457, Henry had never met his father, Edmund – Jasper’s brother and Earl of Richmond – who died of plague in a Yorkist prison before he was born. Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was only thirteen when she delivered him and, despite two further marriages, would bear no more children. In 1461, the brutal Battle of Towton had changed the fortunes of the Lancastrians and heralded the rising of Edward of York. At four years old, Henry was taken from his mother and placed in the household of a prominent Yorkist, trained, educated and groomed for marriage. It was not a bad life, but despite the comfort he lived in he remained a captive, his destiny controlled by enemies of his family. Two years ago, when his master was slain in battle, Henry was returned to his kin in the care of his uncle, Jasper, but this brief taste of freedom was to be his first – and last – for a long time.
When Henry Tudor was brought, exhausted and disheartened, before Francis of Brittany, the duke saw not a fourteen-year-old boy, but a young man of royal blood who, with the recent death – some said murder – of King Henry VI, had become the last heir of the House of Lancaster. A young man with a claim to the English throne. For the next twelve years, Henry and Jasper lived as noble prisoners; birds in a gilded cage. At times together, at times separated, they were kept in well-appointed, even luxurious surroundings, but ever under the control of their keeper, who used them as pawns in the games of power between Brittany, England and France. Moved from castle to castle, they were never safe, Edward IV keen to take custody of Henry, “the only imp now left of Henry VI’s blood.” [Vergil]. Henry must have learned patience, as well as mistrust and suspicion, never knowing what might happen next. In 1475, a peace signed between England and France left Henry – and Brittany – exposed. Edward negotiated with Duke Francis for the young man’s extradition, but at the eleventh hour the deal fell through. Then, at long last, Edward changed tack. In 1482, he agreed a deal with Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, and her third husband, the enigmatic Lord Stanley – that Henry would be allowed to return to England a free man with a generous inheritance, if he came into the king’s peace. But the following year, Edward IV was dead, the deal was off, and England was in chaos.
Edward’s eldest son was set to take his father’s crown, but instead, his uncle, Richard of Gloucester, took control, sending his nephews to the Tower and ascending to the throne as Richard III. But the new king’s reign was not destined to be smooth and within a few short months of his coronation, the fires of rebellion had set flame to the kingdom. Receiving secret word that Buckingham, Richard’s own cousin, had turned against him, Henry once again had cause to hope. What was more, his tenacious mother had made an agreement with Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen and mother of the princes in the Tower – since rumoured to have perished at their uncle’s hand – an agreement that Henry would marry her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. Such a match would greatly strengthen Henry’s position. His veins might flow with royal blood, but his was a line tainted by illegitimacy – a line which, despite their pedigree, had been prohibited from claiming the throne. Now, after all these years, might the fallen House of Lancaster rebuild its dreams? In autumn 1483, the stage was set for the Tudors to return, aided by their long-term gaoler, Duke Francis. Francis, it seemed, had grown close to Henry, coming to see him more as a useful ally than a prisoner. The Bretons had a long association with, and love of, the legends of King Arthur, Merlin thought to be entombed in a forest there. Henry may have used this to his advantage, playing up his Welsh ancestry and his family’s claim to be descended from Cadwaladr – the last king of the Britons – who prophesied the return of one of his line. Cadwaladr was said to have been aided in his attempt at a British invasion by the ruler of Brittany. History, Henry and Francis now determined, would repeat itself. Taking as his symbol the red dragon of Wales, Henry set sail at the head of a fleet of ships, supplied by the duke. He was going home to join Buckingham and the rebels, and defeat Richard III. He was going home to marry Elizabeth of York and take the throne of England. But those seas, those treacherous seas, once more betrayed him. A storm blew half his ships back to Brittany and when Henry’s vessel finally struggled to the Dorset coast, he found royalist troops waiting for him. He was forced to turn around, never having set foot on English soil.
Now, the cloak was off the wolf. King Richard could no longer rest, knowing a man who hungered for his crown was out there, waiting, with the will to return. The following year, he was plotting Henry’s capture with Francis’s chief minister, Pierre Landais. By this time, Henry and Jasper had a small army of men with them in the Breton court. Most had joined them from England, many of them Yorkist gentlemen from the southern counties, deeply resentful of Richard III – who had supplanted them with men of his northern faction – and enraged by the rumour he had murdered his own nephews.
Forewarned of the plot against him, Henry disguised himself as a groom and fled Brittany with a small band of men, crossing the border into France where he found a new ally in the boy king, Charles VIII, who was concerned by this resumption of the old Anglo-Breton alliance that might impact on France. Duke Francis, old and unwell, must indeed have become fond of his prisoner, for not only did he hang Landais for his treachery, he also granted Henry’s forces safe passage into France. There, over the winter of 1484, with the aid of the French king, Henry built himself an army.
The following year, in July, his fleet set sail once more, his forces bolstered by French soldiers and prisoners released from the gaols of Normandy. At last, Henry Tudor, the so-called “son of prophecy” landed on the sands of Milford Haven, not far from his place of birth, on 7 August 1485. Raising the red dragon, he marched north, drawing crowds of Welshmen to his banner, to where King Richard was waiting for him, under the standard of the white boar.
On a marshy plain near the small town of Market Bosworth, the dragon and the boar met. The king’s vast array of troops was far in excess of his enemy’s, among them Henry’s own stepfather, Lord Stanley. King Richard was confident. He was a son of the House of Plantagenet, a proud man of York. He had commanded armies since he was seventeen. This young upstart before him – with his tainted blood – was untested in battle. At dawn on 22 August, they clashed.
We know the outcome. Henry, bloodied and battle-burned, took the crown that morning, when Richard III lay dead, betrayed at the eleventh hour by the treacherous Lord Stanley. He was the last English king to die in battle, the last king of York, the last Plantagenet. Claiming the throne not by right of his blood, but by conquest, Henry married Elizabeth, uniting the rival houses of York and Lancaster, and greatly strengthening his royal claim. His symbol became the Tudor rose – the red and white roses of each house combined.
Thus, the Tudor dynasty was born, a dynasty that would rule England for the next one hundred and eighteen years, and Henry VII – prince in exile, son of prophecy, conqueror – its father.
[For more information on Henry VII, I highly recommend Thomas Penn’s brilliant biography Winter King, and The Hollow Crown, Dan Jones].