Early Modern England 1485-1714

A Narrative History
By Robert Bucholz Newton Key

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4051-6275-3


Chapter One

Establishing the Henrician Regime, 1485-1525

On August 22, 1485 rebel forces led by Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond (1457-1509), defeated a royal army under King Richard III (1452-85; reigned 1483-5) at the battle of Bosworth Field, Leicestershire (see map 4). As all students of Shakespeare know, Richard was killed. His crown, said to have rolled under a hawthorn bush, was retrieved and offered to his opponent, who wasted no time in proclaiming himself King Henry VII. According to tradition, these dramatic events ended decades of political instability and established the Tudor dynasty, which would rule England effectively for over a century.

As told in Shakespeare's Tragedy of King Richard III, Henry's victory and the rise of the Tudors has an air of inevitability. But Shakespeare wrote a century after these events, during the reign of Henry's granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603; reigned 1558-1603). Naturally, his hindsight was 20/20 and calculated to flatter the ruling house under which he lived. No one alive in 1485, not even Henry, could have felt so certain about his family's prospects. During the previous hundred years three different royal houses had ruled England. Each had claimed a disputed succession and each had fallen with the murder of its king and head. Each line had descendants still living in 1485, some of whom had better claims to the throne than Henry did. Recent history suggested that each of these rival claimants would find support among the nobility, so why should anyone bet on the Tudors? In short, there was little reason to think that the bloodshed and turbulence were over.

And yet, though he would face many challenges, Henry VII would not be overthrown. Instead, he would rule England for nearly 25 years and die in his bed, safe in the knowledge that his son, also named Henry, would succeed to a more or less united, loyal, and peaceful realm supported by a full treasury. The story of how Henry VII met these challenges and established his dynasty will be told in this chapter. But first, in order to understand the magnitude of the task and its accomplishment, it is necessary to review briefly the dynastic crisis known, romantically but inaccurately, as the Wars of the Roses.

The Wars of the Roses, 1455-85

It might be argued that all of the trouble began over a century earlier because of a simple biological fact: King Edward III (1312-77; reigned 1327-77) had six sons (see genealogy 1, p. 429). Royal heirs were normally a cause for celebration in medieval England, but so many heirs implied an army of grandchildren and later descendants - each of whom would possess royal blood and, therefore, a claim to the throne. Still, this might not have mattered if two of those grandchildren, an earlier Richard and an earlier Henry, had not clashed over royal policy. Dominated by his royal uncles as a child, King Richard II (1367-1400; reigned 1377-99) had a stormy relationship with the nobility, especially his uncles' children, as an adult. The most prominent critic was Henry Bolingbroke, duke of Lancaster (1366-1413), son of the John of Gaunt (1340-99) whom we met in the Introduction (see genealogy 1). In 1399 Richard confiscated Lancaster's ancestral lands. Lancaster, aided by a number of other disgruntled noble families, rebelled against his cousin and anointed king, deposed him, and assumed the Crown as King Henry IV (1399-1413). In so doing, he established the Lancastrian dynasty on the English throne - but broke the Great Chain of Being. Looking back with hindsight, Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries thought that this was the moment that set England on the course - or curse - of political instability. In The Tragedy of King Richard II, he has the bishop of Carlisle predict the consequences of Henry Bolingbroke's usurpation as follows:

And if you crown him, let me prophesy, The blood of English shall manure the ground, And future ages groan for this foul act ...; O if you raise this house against this house, It will the woefullest division prove That ever fell upon this cursed earth. Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so, Lest child, child's children, cry against you - woe! (Richard II 4.1)

Shakespeare, writing long after these events, knew that the prediction would come true. The speech is therefore not so much an accurate exposition of contemporary opinion at the time of Richard's overthrow as it is a reflection of how English men and women came to feel about that event under the Tudors.

But many modern historians would point out that, despite his dubious rise to the top, Henry IV was a remarkably successful king. He established himself and his line, suppressing nearly all opposition by the middle of his reign. His son, Henry V (1386/7-1422; reigned 1413-22), did even better. He fulfilled contemporary expectations of kingship, revived the glories of Edward III's reign, and distracted his barons away from any doubts they might have had about his legitimacy by renewing a longstanding conflict with France known as the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). After winning a stunning victory over a much larger French force at Agincourt in 1415 (see map 5), Henry was recognized by the French king, Charles VI (1368-1422; reigned 1380-1422) as the heir to the French throne as well. This, despite the fact that Charles had a son, also named Charles (1403-61). In fact, central and southern France remained loyal to the dauphin (the French crown prince), provoking Henry into another campaign in 1421-2. It was on his way to besiege a recalcitrant French city, that Henry V contracted dysentery and died.

The untimely death of Henry V was, for many historians, the real starting point for the disasters to come, for, combined with the almost simultaneous demise of Charles VI, it brought to the English and French thrones an infant of just nine months: Henry VI (1421-71; reigned 1422-61, 1470-1). Given his youth, it was inevitable that the early years of the new king's reign would be dominated by the nobility, in particular his many royal relatives. But even after being declared of age in 1437, he proved to be a meek, pious, well-intentioned but weak-minded nonentity. Eventually, he went insane. Even before he did so, he was dominated by family and courtiers, in particular his great-uncles of the Beaufort family, dukes of Somerset; and from 1444 his wife, Margaret of Anjou (1430-82). They became notorious for aggrandizing power and wealth, for running a corrupt and incompetent administration, and for losing France. In 1436, Paris fell back into French hands. By 1450 the French had driven the English out of Normandy. By 1453, what had once been an English continental empire had been reduced to the solitary Channel port of Calais (map 5). The French had won the Hundred Years' War. The loser was to be Henry VI and the house of Lancaster.

Put another way, the end of the Hundred Years' War is important in French history because it produced a unified France under a single acknowledged native king. It is important in English history because it destabilized the English monarchy and economy, discredited the house of Lancaster, and divided the English nobility. The result was the Wars of the Roses. Remember that the Lancastrians had come to the Crown not through lawful descent, but through force of arms. Now their military skills had proved inadequate. Moreover, the wars against France had been very expensive and ruinous to trade. In 1450 the Crown's debts stood at 372,000; its income but 36,000 a year, a steep decline from an annual revenue of 120,000 under Richard II. The House of Commons refused to increase taxes, knowing that they would go either to a losing war effort or to line Beaufort pockets. Since royal revenue was not keeping up with expenditure, the king could only pay for military affairs by borrowing large sums at exorbitant rates of interest. Worse, in the spring of 1450 a popular rebellion, led by an obscure figure named Jack Cade (d. 1450), broke out in the southeast. The rebels justified their actions with a sweeping indictment of Henry VI's reign: "[His] law is lost, his merchandise is lost; his commons are destroyed. The sea is lost; France is lost; himself is made so poor that he may not pay for his meat or drink; he oweth more and [is] greater in debt than ever was King in England." Cade was killed and his rebellion suppressed with some difficulty, but the problems of royal control, finance, and foreign policy would overwhelm the Lancastrian regime.

Given an incompetent king, a corrupt and inefficient government, a failed war effort, a wrecked economy, and a rebellious populace, it was inevitable that the nobility would begin to question Lancastrian rule. The most prominent of these critics was Richard, duke of York (1411-60). York was a direct descendant of Edward III through both his mother and his father (see genealogy 1). Thus, he could make nearly as good a claim to the throne as its present, Lancastrian, occupant. Moreover, the duke of York was the greatest landowner in England, which provided him with immense wealth and made him head of the largest affinity in the realm. Finally, he was allied by marriage to the powerful Neville family. None of this is to say that York started out with a plan to seize the throne. Rather, he began the reign as a loyal servant of the Crown who, like many nobles, began to feel himself frozen out of royal favor by the Beauforts. When, in the 1450s, Henry VI began to decline into madness, the court into corruption, and the country into economic depression, York and his followers began to challenge Queen Margaret and Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset (ca. 1406-55) for office and influence, eventually forcing York's appointment as protector of the realm in 1454. The struggle turned violent in 1455 when the duke of York and the Nevilles raised their affinities, and defeated and killed Somerset at the battle of St. Albans, Hertfordshire (see map 4). After St. Albans, York was reinstated as lord protector, but the Beaufort faction was by no means finished. Both sides bided their time, maneuvered for advantage, and prepared for further hostilities: the Wars of the Roses had begun.

Fighting resumed in the autumn of 1459, and lasted for two years. At first, the Lancastrians had the upper hand, winning the battle of Ludford Bridge, Shropshire, in October (map 4). They followed up on their victory by attainting and so ruining a number of Yorkist peers. But in June of 1460 Richard Neville, earl of Warwick (1428-71), the commander of the Calais garrison, returned to England and helped turn the tide against the Lancastrians. The next month, the Yorkists defeated the king's forces at Northampton, and Richard, duke of York formally laid claim to the Crown. However, in December, Richard's army was defeated at Wakefield, Yorkshire (map 4), and he was killed. His son, Edward (1442-83), now became duke of York. At this point the Lancastrians had the advantage again, and Queen Margaret marched on London. But the city, perhaps angry at the state of trade, and certainly alarmed at stories of the rapacity of her army, closed its gates to her. Rather, on March 4, 1461, the citizens of London and members of the nobility acclaimed the new duke of York as King Edward IV. That claim was finally made good at the end of the month in a seven-hour mle during a blinding snowstorm at Towton Moor, Yorkshire (map 4). At the end of it, the Lancastrian army lay defeated and Edward returned to London in triumph. The reign of King Edward IV (1461-83) had begun.

The Yorkists won not because Edward's claim to the throne was stronger than Henry's, but because Henry was a weak and unsuccessful king. The country's leading citizens were sick of defeat abroad, expensive and corrupt government at home, and the vindictiveness of Lancastrian measures against the Yorkists. Nevertheless, King Edward faced massive obstacles if he was to rehabilitate English monarchy. First, Lancastrian incompetence, cruelty, and greed had besmirched not only that line's reputation, but the very office of sovereign itself. Moreover, by losing the French lands, driving the Crown into debt, and using Parliament to pursue political vendettas, they had weakened the monarchy constitutionally. Worse, the confusion of the previous decade over rival claims to the throne had also weakened the principle of hereditary succession. Finally, it should be remembered that the Yorkists had profited from the fact that for over a decade great noble affinities had made war on the king and on each other with near impunity. It might not be so easy to get them out of the habit. Some peers, such as Warwick (who was being called "kingmaker"), were bound to feel that the new king owed them much more than lands and favor.

Fortunately for the new regime, Edward IV was, on balance, a good choice to restore the prestige of monarchy and to establish the new line. Unlike Henry VI, who was often criticized for his shabby appearance, Edward had a commanding presence: tall, handsome, approachable, stylish in his dress. These qualities may seem superficial, but they should not be underestimated. The first requirement of a king - indeed, of any head of state - was that he look and act like one. Edward, moreover, loved to participate in elaborate processions, and he encouraged a brilliant and entertaining court. But his high living had a darker side. He could be lazy and was something of a playboy. The former meant that he often relied on his brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester (1452-85), or his confidant, William, Lord Hastings (ca. 1430-83), to get things done. His attraction to beautiful women may explain his marriage in 1464 to Elizabeth Woodville (ca. 1437-92). The marriage with the otherwise obscure Woodville clan was highly controversial in Yorkist circles because it wrecked Warwick's negotiations for a diplomatic union with a French princess. Moreover, Edward's attempt to raise the Woodvilles' prestige by showering them with favor did nothing for his relations with other nobles, like Warwick, who had longer and more distinguished records of Yorkist allegiance.

These cracks in the Yorkist affinity were all the more alarming because the Lancastrian threat remained. The late king, Henry VI, was very much at large until 1465, when he was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His queen, Margaret, remained free in Scotland and had powerful allies in France where their son, the young Prince Edward (1453-71), was being sheltered. And there remained many Lancastrian noblemen, in Wales and the North especially, for whom the Wars of the Roses were not over. But it would be disgruntled Yorkists who revived them. In 1469 Warwick, joined by the king's other brother, George, duke of Clarence (1449-78), rebelled. In the autumn of 1470 they went further, joining with Queen Margaret and King Louis XI (1423-83; reigned 1461-83) of France to liberate and reinstate Henry VI. King Edward was forced to flee to the Netherlands, but he returned in the following year and, supported once again by the fickle Clarence, defeated and slew Warwick on Easter Sunday (April 14) at the battle of Barnet in Hertfordshire (see map 4). Two weeks later the Yorkist forces defeated and killed Henry's son, Prince Edward, at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. A few weeks after that, it was put about that the recently recaptured Henry had died "of pure displeasure and melancholy." It is, of course, much more likely that he was murdered in the Tower on or about May 21, 1471.

(Continues...)



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