10 Facts About Henry VII – the First Tudor King

Emma Irving

5 mins

01 Feb 2019

The first of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII won the prize of the English throne from his Yorkist adversary Richard III, last of the Plantagenets, at the Battle of Bosworth – and so ended the bloody Wars of the Roses.

He was the last king of England to win his throne on the field of battle.

Henry VII’s reign was characterised by his success at restoring the power and stability of the English monarchy after the civil war, as well as his talent for replenishing the fortunes of an effectively bankrupt exchequer.

Here are 10 facts about this fascinating king:

1. His claim to the throne came through his mother

Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was an intelligent and learned woman, said to be the heir of John of Gaunt after the extinction of Henry V’s line.

But this was debatable, as her descent was through Gaunt and his third wife, Katherine Swynford, who had been Gaunt’s mistress for around 25 years; when they married in 1396, they already had 4 children, including Henry’s great-grandfather John Beaufort. Henry’s claim was therefore quite tenuous: it was through a woman, and by illegitimate descent.

John of Gaunt

2. He spent much of his early life under protection or in exile

His father, Edmund Tudor, was captured by the Yorkists and died in prison 3 months before Henry’s birth, and his mother was only 13 when he was born. She fled to Wales, and found the protection of Henry’s uncle Jasper Tudor.

When Edward IV became king and Jasper Tudor went into exile, the Yorkist William Herbert assumed their guardianship. Then Herbert was executed by Warwick when he restored Henry VI in 1470, and Jasper Tudor brought Henry to court.

But when the Yorkist Edward IV regained the throne, Henry fled with other Lancastrians to Brittany. He was nearly captured and handed over to the Edward IV on one occasion, but managed to escape to the court of France – who backed his expedition to England and his bid for the throne.

In this podcast historian Anna Whitelock talks with Dan about the often-overlooked Tudor monarchs: Henry VII and Queen Mary in this History Hit PodcastListen Now

3. He secured his claim by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and niece of Richard III

He did not marry Elizabeth until after his coronation, which underlined that he ruled in his own right. However he hoped the marriage would satisfy some of the less extreme Yorkists and lead to their acceptance of a Tudor king.

The marriage took place on 18th January 1486 at Westminster Abbey. They would go on to have a large family, with 4 children – including the future Henry VIII – surviving to adulthood.

Elizabeth of York

4. The Tudor rose was born

The emblem of a white and red rose was adopted as one of the king’s badges, meant to symbolise the union of the Houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose).

5. But there were numerous rivals to the throne

Henry secured the chief male surviving Yorkist claimant to the throne, the young Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, whom he imprisoned in the Tower.

An imprisoned Perkin Warbeck, played by Iain Glen, is interrogated in the Tower of London over his true identity, following the collapse of his rebellion in the first of our 4-part History Hit audio drama, A Prince in the TowerListen Now

But he was also threatened by pretenders: Lambert Simnel, who posed as the young Earl of Warwick, and Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower.

Eventually Warbeck was hanged and Warwick was beheaded. Simnel was kept as a servant in the kitchens at court.

6. He was a big fan of taxes

Henry VII improved tax collection by introducing ruthlessly efficient systems, such as a catch-22 method for nobles: those nobles who spent little must have saved much and so presumably could afford the increased taxes; on the other hand, the nobles who spent a lot obviously had the means to pay increased taxes.

Two of his most hated tax collectors, Sir Richard Empson and Sir Edmund Dudley, would be charged with treason and executed by King Henry VIII in 1510.

Henry VII (centre) with his advisors Sir Richard Empson and Sir Edmund Dudley

7. Sometimes wasn’t quite truthful about where the money went

Henry VI was notoriously parsimonious and skilled at extracting money from his subjects for a variety of pretexts, such as war with France or war with Scotland. But the money often ended up in the king’s personal coffers, rather than finding its way to its stated purpose.

8. He married his first son, Arthur, to Catherine of Aragon

And thereby ensured a good relationship with Ferdinand and Isabella of the powerful House of Trastamara. But when Arthur died, a mere 6 months after he married Catherine, Ferdinand – who had never gotten on well with Henry VI – asked for Catherine’s dowry back.

Portrait of Catherine of Aragon

9. Arthur’s death partially led to his mother’s demise

Henry and Elizabeth were prostrate with grief at the loss of their eldest son, and aware that the survival of their dynasty rested on their one surviving boy, Henry. They decided to try for another son to secure the succession.

Elizabeth quickly became pregnant, but she was unwell throughout the pregnancy and – a mere 9 days after giving birth to a daughter, Catherine – died of an infection on her 37th birthday. Their daughter lived for only 1 day.

10. Then Henry tried to marry Catherine of Aragon himself

After Arthur and Elizabeth died, Henry suggested he should marry the pretty, redheaded Catherine himself in order to keep hold of her substantial dowry. The proposal was met with an icy response from Catherine’s mother, Isabella. Finally an agreement was reached that Catherine should marry the young Henry, the heir to the throne – the future King Henry VIII.

Scene at deathbed of Henry VII at Richmond Palace (1509) drawn contemporaneously from witness accounts by the courtier Sir Thomas Wriothesley (d.1534) who wrote an account of the proceedings BL Add.MS 45131, f.54