A Dark Prince

HENRY VII MADE it clear from the first that he came to the throne with the intention of reconciling both Lancastrians and Yorkists and putting old quarrels behind him. His first act as king was to send Sir Robert Willoughby to Sheriff Hutton to pay his respects to Elizabeth of York and escort her to Westminster. Henry meant to keep his oath and marry her, thus bringing about the longed-for alliance between Lancaster and York. He was aware that Elizabeth was widely regarded as the rightful Queen of England and the legitimate heiress of the House of York, and he meant to turn this to his own advantage. Once ‘Titulus Regius’ was repealed and he was married to her, his title could not be disputed.

Henry and Elizabeth, both descendants of Edward III, were within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity, however, and until a dispensation for the marriage could be granted, Henry was vulnerable to potential conspiracies on behalf of the Earl of Warwick, the last direct descendant in the male line from Edward III. Although there was no Salic Law in England, the concept of a female sovereign was repugnant to most people, and there were those who might look to the heir male of the House of York in preference to the man whom Richard III had aptly described as ‘an unknown Welshman’. Henry VII knew he was by no means secure on the throne, and therefore entrusted Willoughby with a second mission, that of secretly escorting the ten-year-old Warwick to the Tower of London to forestall would-be abduction attempts. Deprived of the society of all save his gaolers the boy was to grow to manhood uneducated, isolated, and imprisoned so securely that rumours of his death abounded.

Henry VII also had Bishop Stillington arrested for unspecified ‘heinous offences imagined and done’ by him. Henry may have held him responsible for concocting the precontract story that had led to the bastardising of Elizabeth of York. With Stillington in custody there was no danger of any contention when Parliament met to repeal ‘Titulus Regius’. Significantly, it was only after that had been done that Stillington was pardoned and released. Henry would not allow anyone to impugn Elizabeth of York’s title.

Three days after Bosworth Henry had Catesby executed. He also took into custody Richard III’s bastard, John of Gloucester. No-one who had adhered to Richard’s cause was allowed to remain at large as a focus for opposition to the new régime. Henry entered London in triumph on 3rd September, receiving a warm welcome from the Mayor and citizens. He then gathered together his first Council, constituted in part from those who had shared his exile or supported him in England, notably the Stanleys, Bishop Morton and Reginald Bray.

Henry VII was twenty-eight, tall, lean and fair, with thinning yellow hair, grey-blue eyes and bad teeth. He was, said the Venetian ambassador, ‘a man of great ability’. He was ambitious, unscrupulous, devious, avaricious, astute, cautious and highly intelligent. Not violent by nature, he preferred to adopt a policy of reconciliation and pacification, but he could be ruthless when crossed. He loved money to excess, but, like Richard III, he possessed great qualities of leadership and was an able administrator. As king, his aims were to establish his dynasty firmly on the throne, amass wealth, promote law and order, preserve peace, and raise England to the status of a great European power. In order to consolidate the position of the monarchy, he intended to curb the power of the nobility, having seen what havoc it could wreak within the state: the age of the over-mighty subject was drawing to a close.

All these things Henry VII achieved in time. He gave his realm strong government and peace and brought to it the political stability it had lacked during the Wars of the Roses. In fact, what Henry achieved during his reign was to lay the foundations of the modern state of Great Britain.

Henry VII was formally crowned on 30th October, 1485, in Westminster Abbey with great pomp, while the Lady Margaret Beaufort wept with joy. Although she herself had a better claim to the throne than her son, she rejoiced in his triumph, and henceforth she would play no further part in politics, confining her considerable influence to the domestic sphere and living a life filled with religious observances, benefactions and good works until her death in 1509.

When the first Parliament of his reign met on 11th November, Henry was hailed as the new Joshua, come to save his subjects from tyranny. When it came to the matter of his dubious title to the throne, therefore, Parliament was accommodating. Doubts had been expressed as to whether an attainted traitor could actually inherit the crown, but Henry’s judges pronounced that his accession had automatically nullified his attainder. Henry ensured, however, that Parliament did not appear to bestow or confirm his sovereignty. A new Act of Settlement merely declared that the inheritance of the Crown had come as of right to Henry VII and the heirs of his body. After so many changes of monarchs, what really mattered was that the King of England should be able to hold on to his throne. Much was made by Henry and his supporters of the fact that God had endorsed his right to rule by granting him the victory at Bosworth, an argument that held great weight with their contemporaries. It also obscured Henry’s shaky hereditary claim. Henry was de facto king.

Croyland commented drily that ‘the sovereignty was confirmed to our lord the King as being his due, not by one but by many titles, so that we are to believe that he rules most rightfully over the English people, and that not so much by right of blood as of conquest’. He tells us that Parliament next debated the King’s proposed union with Elizabeth of York, ‘in whom it appeared to all that every requisite might be supplied which was wanting to make good the title of the King himself’. But Henry had no intention of being looked upon as Elizabeth’s consort – he would not, he said, be his wife’s ‘gentleman usher’. Nor did he apply for a papal dispensation for their marriage until after the Act of Settlement had become law, even though his councillors were strongly advising an early wedding.

Of course, there were a number of people who had a better claim to the throne than Henry VII, a fact of which he was painfully aware. A few believed that Elizabeth of York should be Queen Regnant, yet while many were prepared to argue for her rights no-one envisaged her ruling alone. Richard III had designated the Earl of Lincoln as his heir but few regarded him as a serious contender, despite his pedigree and obvious aptitude for leadership. The Earl of Warwick was seen as the most obvious claimant and despite his youth and imprisonment he was the hope of a number of diehard Yorkists in 1485 and for many years after. Other male heirs of the House of York, such as Lincoln’s younger brothers, were too young at that time to represent any serious threat. Henry VII brought Lincoln to court and looked after his family, intending thereby to win his loyalty, or at least keep a watchful eye on him. He also extended his protection to Buckingham’s heir, who was restored to his father’s dukedom by Parliament. But because he too was descended from Edward III the young Duke represented yet another potential threat to the new dynasty.

Sir Francis Bacon describes Henry VII as ‘a dark prince and infinitely suspicious, and his time full of secret conspiracies’. He also states that Henry’s unwavering policy was ‘the discountenancing of the House of York, which the general body of the realm still affected’, and that he had ‘a settled disposition to depress all eminent persons’ of that house. This policy was in time carried on by his son Henry VIII, but what happened to the last of the Plantagenets during his reign is a tale beyond the scope of this book. It suffices to say that the Tudors, conscious of the frailty of their own dynastic title, were obsessed with security and seized any opportunity to eliminate or neutralise those whom they regarded as a threat. Since Henry VII was not a bloodthirsty man he counteracted the claims of Elizabeth of York’s sisters by marrying them to men staunchly loyal to himself, and adopted a policy of conciliation towards Lincoln and young Buckingham. Only to Warwick was he merciless, an indication of how seriously people took Warwick’s claim to the throne.

As soon as the Act of Settlement was passed, ‘Titulus Regius’ was repealed. Parliament thereby recognised the validity of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Wydville and the legitimacy of their children, including Henry VII’s future queen. Thus it was acknowledged, not only that Edward V had been the rightful King of England, but also that he and his brother were dead. Perhaps significantly, Parliament made no reference to them: the Act was repealed with only the sketchiest of references to its sensitive contents. The King’s judges regarded ‘Titulus Regius’ as so objectionable that they were reluctant to recite its contents in case they should become notorious, and both they and the King, after studying the contents of the Act, concluded that Bishop Stillington had been the inspiration behind it. The judges offered to question Stillington but Henry refused because he had resolved to pardon the Bishop and desired no adverse publicity about Elizabeth of York’s title, being of the opinion that ‘least said, soonest mended’.

It might have been expected that, prior to his marriage, Henry would ask Parliament to consider the whole question of the precontract story and issue some statement refuting it, but he apparently considered it sufficient to have ‘Titulus Regius’ repealed and then suppressed. Whether he liked it or not, most people were of the view that his title to the throne would be greatly strengthened by marriage to Elizabeth of York, and the last thing Henry wanted was an enquiry into her legitimacy, in case it provided his enemies with grounds for denying her title and threatening his own future security. Nor did he wish to revive talk of the fact that earlier that year Elizabeth had been on the brink of marriage to Richard III and the affair between them had been the subject of furious court gossip. The least said about Elizabeth’s status and her past the better, as far as Henry was concerned.

In November 1485 Henry VII commanded that ‘Titulus Regius’ be deleted from the Statute Books in the interests of his policy of reconciliation. The Parliament Roll of 1484 was suppressed and all official documents referring to the Act destroyed. By royal command, anyone having in their possession a copy of it was required to relinquish it to the Lord Chancellor by Easter 1486 on pain of imprisonment and a fine, ‘so that all things said and remembered in the said Act may be for ever out of remembrance and forgot’. The text of ‘Titulus Regius’ was, of course, incorporated into the Second Continuation of the Croyland Chronicle, which was completed in the spring of 1486. Several copies of the Chronicle were made but nearly all of these, and the original, were destroyed. Thus, when Tudor historians came to write their versions of recent events, they had no access to this valuable source. Neither André, Carmeliano, Rous, Vergil or More ever saw Croyland, although they often corroborate it. So effective had the suppression of ‘Titulus Regius’ been that very few people had any idea what it had contained.

Vergil, Henry VII’s official historian, may have known more than the rest, for he made special efforts to refute the idea that the legitimacy of Edward IV’s children had ever been called into question, saying there was ‘common report that in Shaa’s sermon Edward’s children were called bastards, and not King Edward himself, which is devoid of any truth’. According to Vergil, the precontract story was the product of rumour and Richard III had never used it to justify his usurpation.

This re-writing of history meant that Eleanor Butler’s name disappeared from the records for more than a century. More knew of the precontract story but he was under the impression that Edward IV’s partner in it had been Elizabeth Lucy, his mistress for a time. But in 1533 the Spanish ambassador to England, Eustache Chapuys, told the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V: ‘People here say you have a better title than the present king [Henry VIII], who only claims by his mother, who was declared, by sentence of the Bishop of Bath [sic], a bastard, because Edward IV had espoused another wife before the mother of Elizabeth of York.’ Chapuys may well have received his information from Yorkist families with long memories and a grudge against the Tudors.

During the early seventeenth century the historian George Buck unearthed the only surviving copy of the Croyland Chronicle, and for the first time in over 130 years the contents of ‘Titulus Regius’ were revealed to the public in print. Buck’s discovery brought to his attention the fact that certain details, such as the identity of Eleanor Butler, had been censored by Henry VII, and he mistakenly concluded that this was because the contents of the Act were the true record of the facts. He did not view his discovery in the context of Henry VII’s tenuous hold on the throne in 1485 when it was first suppressed and when most people believed that marriage to Elizabeth of York would ensure Henry’s security as king. Buck did not realise that it was hardly surprising that Henry should wish to destroy such sensitive material, given that he might not be able to disprove its veracity without raising a dangerous debate or providing his enemies with grounds for rebellion. Upon such misconceptions was the revisionist movement founded.

Henry VII was resolved to have his predecessor attainted by Parliament even though it was not legally possible for an English monarch to be convicted of treason: to attaint Richard III would be to accuse him of committing a crime against himself. To circumvent this anomaly, Henry announced that he was dating his reign from the day before Bosworth. Eyebrows shot up and many members registered their opposition to such a move. ‘Oh, God!’ exclaimed Croyland, ‘what security shall our kings have henceforth, that in the day of battle they may not be deserted by their subjects?’ But Henry was adamant. Parliament calmed down and did as it was bid, then obligingly attainted ‘Richard, late Duke of Gloucester, and 28 others’, most of whom had died at Bosworth.

The attainder against Richard was not specific when it came to detailing his crimes, which were listed as ‘unnatural, mischievous and great perjuries, treasons, homicides and murders in shedding of infants’ blood, with many other wrongs, odious offences and abominations, against God and man’. The Princes in the Tower were not mentioned by name, nor was Richard directly accused of their murder.

When Henry VII came to the throne, he might have been expected to expose the true facts about the murder of the Princes and to blazon Richard III’s guilt before the world. It would have made good political capital to do so. However, he did nothing of the kind. After his accession, says Rous, ‘the issue of cruel death of the sons of King Edward flared up again’. Henry himself was aware of this and it seems that, very early on, he ordered a ‘diligent search’ to be made in the Tower and elsewhere for the bodies of the Princes. John Rastell, writing in 1529, says the King had ‘all places open and digged [but] the bones of the said children could never be found buried, neither in the Tower nor in none other place’. If Sir James Tyrell was questioned – and there is no evidence that he was, although it would have been logical to do so – he could either have denied any involvement with the murder, or he could have answered truthfully that he did not now know where the bodies were – the last he had heard was that Brackenbury had had them reinterred. For Henry to admit publicly that there was no trace of the bodies could only have had adverse effects: either it would have given rise to speculation that the Princes still lived, or it would provoke uprisings on behalf of imposters. Either way, Henry’s throne would be placed in jeopardy.

Thus the King extended his policy of ‘least said, soonest mended’ to the Princes. He and many others involved in Buckingham’s rebellion of 1483 had received intelligence that the boys had been murdered, and their subsequent disappearance coupled with the rumours circulating that year had been taken as confirmation of that information. Confident that they were dead, Henry had sworn to marry their sister and claim the crown through her, and in 1485 he had declared her and her siblings legitimate, something he would never have dared to do had he any suspicion that the Princes might be alive, for if so, Edward V would be the rightful king and York his heir. Henry believed that the Princes were dead, but he could not prove it: there were no bodies.

This placed the King in a dilemma. Had the bodies been found, he could have exhibited them, provided them with honourable royal burial and denounced Richard III as their murderer. Without the bodies he could do none of these things; instead, he was to be haunted throughout his reign by the fear that perhaps the intelligence fed to him in 1483 had been false or inaccurate, and that one or the other or both the Princes would turn up alive somewhere, or that some clever imposter would successfully impersonate one of them and wrest his crown from him.

Because of these factors, Henry never directly accused Richard III of murdering the Princes, nor could he be specific when it came to the wording of Richard’s attainder: the phrase ‘shedding of infants’ blood’ was a stock one in such documents, and the rumours about the Princes’ fate were so notorious that it was doubtless assumed by Henry that people would know to what it referred and that no qualification was necessary. The King felt it was time that this old scandal died the death – brought to public debate, it might easily ruin him. There was to be no official Tudor version of the fate of the Princes, just a tacit assumption that rumour spoke the truth. Thus, when Henry VII addressed his troops before the Battle of Stoke in 1487 and told them, according to André, that Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, was ‘not unaware that her dynasty had been destroyed by her brother Richard’, his remark could be taken to refer either to the House of York generally or to the Princes.

Many writers over the centuries have viewed Henry Tudor’s silence on the matter of the Princes with suspicion, and concluded that he himself was responsible for their murder. There is, however, no evidence to support such a theory. Henry’s behaviour convincingly suggests that he did not know what had happened to the Princes. He chose to play down the scandal of regicide that had tainted his future wife’s family in the interests of hoped-for alliances with foreign powers, though this left him vulnerable to the threats posed over the next decade by a succession of pretenders purporting to be one of the Princes. As Yorkist malcontents regrouped and conspired against the new régime, Henry’s inability to prove that the Princes were dead lent plausibility to their claims and his frantic efforts to trace the real identities of each of these pretenders is confirmation that he did not know for certain what had befallen the sons of Edward IV.

Nor did Henry go out of his way to blacken Richard’s reputation – he did not need to. Much that is written about so-called Tudor propaganda is a myth. In modern times, when reviewing written accounts of recent history, such as the two World Wars or the lives of members of the present British royal family, we can clearly perceive what was originally written under strict codes of censorship and the authors’ own discretion because changing times have enabled us to see earlier events in a new perspective, and the constraints of the past are no longer relevant. How much greater then would the constraints have been in an age when kings were all-powerful and ‘ira principis mors est’ (the wrath of the prince is death)? Nowadays we expect history books to be objective and to cast new light upon a subject, revealing it ‘warts and all’. Thus it was after Bosworth, when the constraints of a tyrannical régime were lifted and men were at last free to speak and write the truth as they perceived it. There was certainly a good deal of evidence and opinion derogatory to Richard III that was never committed to paper during his lifetime, but now it was possible for people to express the moral outrage they had for so long been obliged to keep to themselves. There is plenty of evidence that Richard’s reputation was bad two years before his death, when his deeds were already notorious. Much of what was written under the Tudors certainly served as propaganda against Richard, but for propaganda to succeed it must be believable: it only works if it is based on fact, and there were many people still living who had known Richard III well.

From 1483 onwards rumour had nourished the belief, at home and abroad, that Richard III had murdered his nephews. By January 1486 this belief was accepted as the truth by most people, and Richard’s death at Bosworth was seen by his contemporaries as a divine judgement. No Tudor propaganda could have fostered such widespread acceptance of Richard’s guilt in the four months after Henry Tudor’s accession. The fresh spate of rumours that followed that event was fuelled by stories already circulating before Richard’s death. The difference now was that people were no longer afraid to speak the truth.

Late in 1485 King Henry rewarded those who had supported him: Morton, who later became Lord Chancellor of England and a cardinal; Stanley, who was created Earl of Derby; Jasper Tudor, who was created Duke of Bedford and married to Buckingham’s widow, Katherine Wydville. Dorset, Sir Edward and Richard Wydville were all restored to their lands and honours, and Elizabeth Wydville had her widow’s jointure and the rights and privileges of a dowager queen restored to her. The Act of Parliament confiscating her property was repealed, but Henry VII did not immediately return it to her; instead, he granted her an income of £400 per annum from more than seventy manors.

On 10th December, the day before Parliament went into recess for Christmas, the Commons petitioned the King to unite ‘two bloods of high renown’ and marry Elizabeth of York without further delay, ‘which marriage they hoped God would bless with a progeny of the race of kings for the comfort of the whole realm’. The Lords seconded the request and the King was pleased to consent. A papal dispensation had already been applied for.

Since Henry’s accession Elizabeth had been deferred to as the future Queen of England. On 11th December the King gave orders for the wedding preparations, including a great tournament, to be put in hand. It seems likely that Henry and Elizabeth were already sharing a bed: their first child was born eight months after their wedding, seemingly a full-term baby, whose early arrival excited comment.

In January 1486 the papal legate in England advised the King that the dispensation was on its way and that the marriage might go ahead. The famous union of the red and white roses took place on 18th January at Westminster Abbey amidst great celebrations and rejoicing and a welter of propaganda about the significance of the event. The marriage brought Henry the support of all but the most committed Yorkists as well as the indisputable right to the crown, and the rejoicing of the people at the marriage was proof indeed that few had ever doubted that the new queen was the true representative of the Yorkist line. And great was the King’s satisfaction when he received the Pope’s dispensation and found that His Holiness had threatened with excommunication any person daring to challenge his title.

Little is known of the relationship between Henry and Elizabeth. Henry was a faithful husband but apparently reserved and distant. Bacon says ‘he showed himself no very indulgent husband towards her, though she was beautiful, gentle and fruitful. But his aversion towards the House of York was so predominant in him as it found place not only in his wars and councils but in his chamber and bed.’ This aversion may have had its roots in Henry’s awareness of Elizabeth’s earlier infatuation with Richard III. She, continues Bacon, ‘could do nothing with him. To her he was nothing uxorious. But, if not indulgent, he was companionable and respective, and without personal jealousy.’ The Spanish ambassador was of the opinion that the Queen was in need of ‘a little love’. He noted that she resented the influence wielded over the King and the royal household by her mother-in-law, the Lady Margaret Beaufort. The Prior of Santa Cruz states that because of this Elizabeth ‘suffered under great oppression and led a miserable and cheerless life’. Nevertheless there developed over the years a certain affection between the royal couple, as evinced in 1502 when they consoled each other most movingly after the death of a child.

Both were good and loving parents. Vergil states they had eight children, four boys and four girls. Only three lived to adulthood: the future Henry VIII, Margaret, who became Queen of Scots, and Mary, who became Queen of France. Arthur was the eldest child, born, says Bacon, ‘in the eighth month, as the physicians do prejudge’, but ‘strong and able’. Fuller, in his Church History, says Arthur was ‘partus octomestris, yet vital and vigorous, contrary to all the rules of physicians’. His father created him Prince of Wales and spent many years negotiating a brilliant marriage for him with Katherine of Aragon, daughter of the Spanish sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella.

Busily occupied with successive pregnancies and her children, Queen Elizabeth took no part in political life. ‘The Queen is beloved because she is powerless,’ observed the Spanish ambassador; ‘she is kept in subjection by the mother of the King.’ This was a deliberate policy of Henry VII, designed to keep Elizabeth from meddling in politics as her mother had done. He endowed her with a mere two-thirds of the estates Elizabeth Wydville had enjoyed, and kept her pitifully short of money, so that she was always in debt and was forced to pawn her plate or borrow funds from her servants. Her household accounts bear witness to the fact that her gowns were repeatedly mended, turned and re-trimmed, and her shoes adorned with cheap tin buckles. Evidence in royal letters shows that Margaret Beaufort even made all the important decisions concerning the royal children. Small wonder that Elizabeth of York chose as her motto the legend ‘Humble and Penitent’, or that her innate sensuality was dissipated by a passionless marriage, religious observances and charitable works. She had achieved her ambition to become queen, but it is doubtful if she had much joy of it.

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