The coronation of Henry VII, on 30 October 1485, marked the official beginning of a new Tudor dynasty. Perhaps the least glamorous of the Tudors, Henry VII successfully consolidated his power and ensured a smooth succession for his son, the future King Henry VIII.
Whilst he may not have captured the imagination in the same way the strong personalities, bloodshed, drama and intrigue of his descendants would do, Henry VII is widely credited with being one of the most successful monarchs of the Tudor dynasty.
Here’s a rundown of some of the highlights of Henry VII’s reign, from his achievements to his shortcomings.
1. Uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York
Henry Tudor was descended from Lancastrians: his mother, Margaret Beaufort, was the granddaughter of John of Gaunt. His victory at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, where he defeated the Yorkist King Richard III, marked a major turning point in the Wars of the Roses.
Capitalising on his victory, he married Elizabeth of York, daughter of King Edward IV, uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster through marriage and ensuring the pair’s heirs and children would have a strong claim to the throne through the bloodlines of both parents.
2. Ending the Wars of the Roses
Historians have long debated when the so-called Wars of the Roses actually begin and end: general consensus has them ending on 22 August 1485, although would some claim earlier and later. Whilst Henry did unite the warring factions, that did not mean he was entirely unopposed.
Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel, known to many as the two pretenders, were two of the main challengers to Henry’s throne. Both posed as Yorkist claimants to the throne and gathered support in Europe for their causes. Whether or not anyone actually believed them to be who they claimed to be is unclear, but they proved useful figureheads for those hoping to bring about a regime change.
In both cases, Henry dealt swiftly with the problem: both conspiracies were crushed and Simnel and Warbeck were captured. Simnel, a mere figurehead for the powerful Earl of Lincoln, was sent to work as a scullion in the royal kitchens, whereas Warbeck was executed.
It is largely thanks to Henry’s quick thinking and decisiveness that his son, Henry VIII, faced no challenges to his accession or in the early years of his reign.
3. Improving royal finances
When Henry VII became king, the royal exchequer was effectively bankrupt. Years of instability, factionalism and his predecessors’ penchant for war had seen royal finances severely battered.
During his 23-year reign, Henry had only two Lord High Treasurers, and this continuity helped provide stability. Between them, they ruthlessly improved the collection of taxes from all sections of society, including the enforcement of taxes on the nobility. The introduction of tariffs on imports helped protect home industries (and increase customs dues), while expeditions abroad aimed to find new markets.
Henry also demanded his feudal dues and kept a tight grip on Crown Lands, preferring to have a steady income from renting them out rather than dishing them out as rewards to his favourite nobles – as his predecessors had done.
Whilst Henry’s policies were not exactly popular, and they helped create his reputation as somewhat miserly and tight on the purse strings, they were highly successful. He died completely solvent and passed on full coffers to his son, who subsequently executed two of his most hated tax collectors, Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, on trumped-up treason charges as scapegoats.
4. Enforcing law and order
Years of civil war throughout the 15th century had led to a gradual breakdown of law and order across the country, and in particular, overmighty nobles, which were a threat to the crown’s authority. These powerful, wealthy nobles effectively had their own private armies at their disposal.
Henry passed laws against livery and maintenance, making it much more difficult for nobles to keep mercenaries/servants and to deter them from forming any kind of army.
The introduction of Justices of the Peace (JPs) across the country helped keep local law and order by enforcing Henry’s will, and the revival of the Court of Star Chamber was an effective tool for dealing with powerful nobles, although the law it meted out could be highly subjective. Both helped make law enforcement more efficient and restored some degree of royal authority.
5. Inconclusive foreign policy
Perhaps one of Henry’s biggest weaknesses was his foreign policy. War was seen as a means of bringing glory, but it was also extremely expensive and potentially ruinous. In the early years of his reign, he found himself drawn into a war with France over Brittany. However, he managed to make peace in 1492 when France agreed to give Henry an annual pension and to recognise his claim to the throne.
Henry made efforts to recognise the growing power of the newly united Spain, marrying his son Arthur to the Infanta, Catherine of Aragon, as well making some amount of peace with Scotland by marrying his daughter Margaret to the Scottish King James IV.
He also allied himself with the Holy Roman Emperor, further increasing his power in Europe.
6. Laying the foundation for the Tudor dynasty
Henry VII’s policies laid the foundation for nearly another century of Tudor rule. His shrewd fiscal policies built a solid financial system that allowed his successors a degree of security and prosperity that he could only have dreamed of at his coronation.
Moreover, Henry’s successful re-establishment of royal authority in every aspect of political, social and cultural life ensured that his son, the future King Henry VIII, faced no opposition on his ascension to the throne in 1507.
Whilst many would consider Henry VII’s reign the least exciting of the Tudor period, it is perhaps for this reason that it is generally viewed as the most successful.