Henry VII (1457–1509) was the first monarch of the House of Tudor, ruling as king of England for 24 years from 1485 until 1509.
He is often credited with ending the Wars of the Roses and fathering one of history’s most famous royal dynasties.
His rise to the throne, and successful struggle thereafter to maintain his crown amid myriad threats and rebellions, is one of the most fascinating, and unlikely, stories in English royal history.
Henry Tudor was born in Pembroke Castle on January 28 1457. His mother was Margaret Beaufort, heiress of a great English dynasty and a great-great-granddaughter of Edward III, whilst his father was Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond.
The earl was son of a Welshman named Owen Tudor and the French dowager queen of England, Katherine de Valois (whose earlier marriage was to Henry V of England).
This made Henry’s paternal half-uncle Henry VI of the House of Lancaster, who reigned over England from 1422–61 and 1470–1. Henry VII’s ancestors included English, Welsh, French and Bavarian royalty.
It is a fair comment that Henry VII didn’t have the strongest of claims to the English throne, but a claim nevertheless did exist.
Through his mother, Henry was a great-great-great-grandson of Edward III, and though the Beauforts (the offspring of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and third son of Edward III, and his mistress Katherine Swynford) had been born out of wedlock, they were nevertheless later legitimised by both pope and parliament in 1397.
As per the original act, their descendants were permitted to inherit all and any office in the land as though they’d been born in lawful matrimony.
The Wars of the Roses, series of bloody civil wars between Yorkist and Lancastrian descendants of Edward III who vied for the crown, had torn though England and Wales since the mid-15th century.
Though Henry Tudor was the Lancastrian with the strongest claim to the throne, he had escaped to the relative safety of Brittany as a teenager, away from the conflict.
His route to the throne began in summer 1483 with the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower and the controversial ascension of their uncle, Richard III.
The ensuring fallout of this fracture within the House of York triggered a series of conspiracies to dethrone the new Yorkist king, who stood accused of murdering his nephews.
At the forefront of these conspiracies was Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who proposed her son marry the princes’ sister Elizabeth of York to symbolically unite the two warring houses.
By the summer of 1485, Henry had amassed a modest army that was a combination of Lancastrian veterans, dissident Yorkists and French mercenaries.
Coming from France, they landed in Henry’s native Pembrokeshire on 7th August and marched through the heart of Wales and into central England until they were intercepted by Richard III’s larger royal force.
On August 22 1485, at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, Henry’s army overcame that of Richard’s, who in the final moments was pulled from his horse and slain.
In the fallen king’s place stood, according to one foreign source, a man “without power, without money, without right to the crown of England, and without any reputation but what his person and deportment obtained for him.”
He was now Henry VII, the first Tudor king.
Whatever the merits of Henry’s blood claim, ultimately, he became king on the principle of conquest, which was interpreted by contemporaries as the judgement of God.
During his coronation on October 30 1485, the archbishop of Canterbury declared Henry to be the ‘rightful and undoubted inheritor by the laws of God and man’ to the English crown, whilst the three estates of the realm, the Commons, the Lords, and the Church, approved his accession one week later during the first parliament of the reign.
Henry was the king, quite simply, because he was the king.
To attract the Yorkist support he needed to build an army, upon becoming king Henry VII honoured a pledge to marry Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Yorkist king Edward IV.
The wedding took place in Westminster Abbey on January 18 1486 and though little is recorded of the actual ceremony, one court poet remarked “great gladness filled all the kingdom” to see the warring houses united.
As far as royal marriages go, Henry and Elizabeth’s union ranks as one of the more successful.
Together they had at least seven children (Arthur, Margaret, Henry, Mary, Elizabeth, Edmund, and Katherine), and there is evidence the marriage was deeply loving.
When their heir Arthur died aged 15 in 1502, the queen soothed her heartbroken husband with “full, great, and constant comfortable words”, remarking they were young enough for more children.
When Elizabeth’s own grief struck once she returned to her chamber, however, it was Henry’s turn, “of true, gentle, and faithful love”, to offer comfort.
Though Elizabeth did indeed become pregnant soon after, on February 11 1503, the queen died from complications arising from childbirth. If Henry VII had been shaken by Arthur’s death, then his queen’s sudden demise completely incapacitated the king, who for the first time in his reign physically and mentally collapsed.
News of her death was “heavy and dolorous” to the king, who “privily departed to a solitary place to pass his sorrows and would no man should resort to him”.
When Henry did finally abandon his chamber, it was an altogether colder and isolated man that emerged, one that “began to treat his people with more harshness and severity than had been his custom”. He never recovered.
Henry VII is often viewed as a dour, miserly king devoid of warmth, but this is an unfair assessment based on the historical record. It is certainly true he later descended into the grip of avarice as the reign wore on (a conscious decision to protect his dynasty using wealth), but he was also free spending.
Just two extraordinarily opulent projects which owed their origins to Henry VII were the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey and the state-of-the-art palace at Richmond.
He invested heavily in jewels and gold for his family, and surviving financial records depict a king content to spend his coin on everything from musicians to mead.
Of his personal character, Henry was affable and gracious, widely regarded as quick-witted and insightful.
To his family he appears affectionate, and to his mother in particular he was deferential, though not quite submissive as commonly believed. His resolve in the face of danger was unshakable, and his will to succeed never deserted him.
As king, Henry was known to be vigilant of those around him, a wariness sometimes perceived as paranoia.
When considering his youth had been spent evading assassination in exile, his reign littered with threats to his family, this cautiousness in a turbulent world is perhaps understandable.
Physically, Henry was tall and slender, though considered strong. His eyes were small and blue, his face cheerful, and in later life, at least, his white hair thinned and his teeth few and black.
Despite this, he was deemed remarkably attractive when speaking, a level of natural charisma which may have attracted support during his rise to the throne.
In short, Henry appears a far warmer, if complex, character that far removed from the two-dimensional accountant-king history has unfairly judged him to be.
Henry died on April 21 1509 in Richmond Palace. He was 52 years old.
The final years of Henry’s reign were marked by persistent illness, and he was often greatly incapacitated with sickness.
The cause of death is likely to have been tuberculosis. He was buried in the extravagant Lady Chapel he had built at Westminster Abbey, laid to rest next to his wife Elizabeth of York.
It is true that Henry VII’s son and granddaughter, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are better remembered in the modern British consciousness, but that should not minimise the considerable impact of the first Tudor monarch.
Henry VII’s chief legacy is unquestionably the peaceful bequeathing of power to his 17-year-old son Henry VIII, armed with the restoration of royal power, a replenished treasury, and the rehabilitation of England’s continental reputation.
Although William Shakespeare and generations of historians have portrayed Henry’s improbable victory at the battle of Bosworth as the moment the Wars of the Roses were brought to a close, it is perhaps accurate to consider the first Tudor king’s death in 1509 as the moment the flame of conflict was truly extinguished.
By surviving into middle age and suppressing opposition to his rule, Henry was the first monarch in 87 years (since Henry V in 1422) to oversee a successful and lasting succession, his heir descended from both the houses of York and Lancaster and roundly popular.
In the longer-term, by marrying his daughter Margaret to the Scottish king James IV, notably against the advice of his subjects, it may be conjectured Henry VII was not only responsible for the Stewart accession to the English throne in 1603, but also the later development of Great Britain.
His direct descendant still sits on the throne today – Queen Elizabeth II.