Henry VII and the Shaping of the Tudor State: Sean Cunningham Highlights the Importance of 'Rule by Recognisance' in the Reign of the First Tudor Monarch

By Cunningham, Sean | History Review, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Henry VII and the Shaping of the Tudor State: Sean Cunningham Highlights the Importance of 'Rule by Recognisance' in the Reign of the First Tudor Monarch


Cunningham, Sean, History Review


Henry VII: A Traditional View

In William Shakespeare's King Richard III the victorious Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, has a surprisingly undeveloped role as the saviour of England from Richard's tyranny. Looking back from 1597, Shakespeare saw the fruits of the Tudor victory, and he captured the significance of the battle of Bosworth with the lines:

   All that divided York and Lancaster
   United in their dire division.
   O now let Richmond and
   Elizabeth,
   The true succeeders of each
   House,
   By God's fair ordinance conjoin
   together,
   And let their heirs--God, if his will
   be so--
   Enrich the time to come with
   smooth-faced peace.

Generations of historians agreed that Henry Tudor's marriage in January 1486 to Princess Elizabeth, heir to the Yorkist king Edward, heralded a new period of English kingship that swept clean many defects of medieval government. The overmighty nobles and private armies of the fifteenth century were put under the king's control. The monarchy broke away from a reliance on parliament for money. The crown by-passed the local influence of noble landholders and placed power in the hands of junior men, lawyers, and professional administrators to begin a revolution in the way England was ruled. Henry VII's reign was traditionally seen as the first step in a period of rapid change in the ancient ruling structures of medieval England. The ruthless grip on power he achieved was the key factor in creating conditions for later sixteenth-century developments to thrive. While not exciting enough for Shakespearean drama, Henry VII's reign nevertheless was the pivotal point between medieval and more modern forms of English government.

Assessments of Henry VII

Shakespeare's later Tudor view of Henry VII changed very little between the first study of the reign by Francis Bacon in 1622 and Henry's last academic biography, by Stanley Chrimes, in 1973. Both emphasised his focus on security, government, and the law, but neglected the politics and personalities of this fascinating period at the end of the Wars of the Roses. This established view remained unchallenged until very recently, perhaps because medieval and Tudor historians each have their own sources, techniques and approaches that do not easily cross the boundary that 1485 has become.

Yet a revival of interest in Henry VII has occurred. This has challenged the established view of Henry as an innovator. Christine Carpenter has developed Geoffrey Elton's arguments that the early Tudor period was one of evolution not revolution in government. She suggests that because Henry's lack of royal skill forced him to continue the policies of fifteenth-century kings he was locked into an existing process of growing royal power. His isolated exile in Brittany and France between May 1471 and August 1485 gave him little understanding or experience of how English government worked. Henry Tudor could not understand the problems he faced, and was essentially a bad medieval king. He could only have changed their policies after he had learned how to be an effective king. However, this interpretation takes little account of Henry's particular circumstances in 1485. It was precisely because of his unique upbringing and disconnection from England that Henry Tudor was able to bring new ways of doing things to his kingdom. Between about 1480 and 1520 England was certainly transformed from what Nicholas Pronay described as the 'merry but unstable England ruled by Edward IV to the tame, sullen and tense land inherited by Henry VIII'.

Inexperience and Innovation

When Henry VII took the crown from Richard III he inherited all of the authority and royal resources that previous kings had enjoyed. Yet his exile meant that, unlike many of his knights and lords, he did not have the practical experience of running manorial estates or of managing a complex network of servants (called an affinity or retinue).

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