An Excess of Good Fortune: 1485–1532


The Luck of Henry Tudor

None of the events that have made the second Henry Tudor the most famous king in history happened in 1534. Henry VIII divorced no one that year, married no one, killed no eminent person. But the year was a milestone all the same, arguably the great turning point in his stunningly eventful career. When it began he had deteriorated only enough to be the sort of person you would hate to be seated next to at a dinner party: arrogant, opinionated, a bully inclined to self-pity, invincibly confident of his own charm, and certain that he knew best about everything that mattered. Before the year ended he had become what he would remain for the rest of his life: a full-fledged tyrant in the strictest sense of the word, a homicidal monster, absurd, pathetic, mortally dangerous.

A person in Henry’s predicament, a man whose pride has walled him up in such impregnable isolation, becomes incapable of an emotion as healthy as gratitude. Certainly he cannot see himself as merely lucky. His fate, he thinks, is coterminous with divine will. Everything good that befalls him does so in fulfillment of God’s great plan for the universe. Every disappointment can be traced neither to God nor to some failure on his own part (that is impossible; he could never commit a serious error) but to something outside himself that is cosmically out of joint. Nonetheless, lucky is what Henry was—one of the luckiest human beings who ever lived.

Much of his good fortune he owed to his father. In the quarter-century between his victory at Bosworth and his death in 1509, Henry VII had made the English Crown more secure and powerful than it had been in generations. He had filled the royal treasury with gold and accustomed his subjects to the benefits of peace. He is today a remote and elusive figure, a king about whom most people know almost nothing, and he appears to have been much the same in his own time. Though his life before Bosworth had been studded with moments of high drama and hairsbreadth escapes, little of the excitement had been of his choosing. Mainly his early years had been spent waiting. Even what we know of his part in the fight that won him the crown suggests that it could have been played by a deaf mute, a mannequin. Henry was attacked, Henry was defended, Henry was crowned—every episode finds him in a passive role.

And yet something tremendous was achieved, and the achievement was Henry’s. None of it would have been possible if, even in his youth, there had not been something about him—something not quite explainable at a distance of five centuries—that won the support and even the affection of the Duke of Brittany, the ruling family of France, and one after another of the older, more experienced men who had fled England after Richard III became king. Nor could he have succeeded if, whenever enemies appeared to be closing in on him, he had not had the courage and resourcefulness to outwit them. However colorless he may seem to us, however much the contemporary chronicles fail to make him a fully three-dimensional figure, the one thing that always comes through is his unfailing competence. In temperament he appears to have been more like a modern corporate executive of remarkably high caliber—coolly savvy, demanding but amiable enough, a good judge of risk and reward—than some swashbuckling medieval warrior-king. He always had himself firmly under control, and he seems always to have been somewhat inscrutable.

He took the one great chance that fate offered him, pulled it off, and devoted the rest of his life to the careful consolidation of his winnings. He was disdainful of military glory, and though he sought and won the respect of the continent’s ruling families, he displayed no wish to cut a particularly great figure among them. If he left almost no mark on the world’s imagination (biographers have taken little interest in him, perhaps in part because they could never be confident of understanding him), his reign is important all the same. It built the stage upon which his son and then his granddaughter would be able to show themselves off for almost the whole of the century that followed his death.

The most impressive thing Henry did after reaching the throne was to establish himself securely on it. This was no small achievement: to grasp its magnitude it is necessary to remember the hundred years before Bosworth, with their tragic succession of Plantagenet kings and claimants clashing and killing and being killed. Henry, his dollop of royal blood inherited from a bastard line that even when legitimized had been excluded by law from succession to the crown, could not have been given good chances of lasting long when he became king. But step by slow step, in his methodical and undramatic way, he made it clear to England and the world that he was a real king and a strong one and not to be taken lightly. He did so carefully, confiding in only his oldest friends, never moving so fast as to provoke reaction, watching for opportunities to eliminate rivals and seizing those opportunities as they arose.

The death of Richard III had left only one legitimate male Plantagenet still alive: the boy Edward, Earl of Warwick, the orphan son of Richard’s suicidally troublesome elder brother George, Duke of Clarence. Immediately after Bosworth, Henry sent a lieutenant to find the child and lock him in the Tower, out of reach of anyone who might hope to make him king. He then fortified his own claim to the loyalty of the Yorkist party by fulfilling his pledge, made when he was still in exile in Brittany, to marry Edward IV’s eldest child, the twenty-year-old Princess Elizabeth. The marriage made it impossible for anyone to oppose Henry on grounds that the crown rightfully belonged to Edward IV’s descendants. Significantly, however, Henry delayed the wedding until months after his coronation. In this way he underscored his claim to be king in his own right, by right of conquest as well as descent, rather than thanks to his wife. He was as shrewd about chronology as about most things, dating his reign from the day before Bosworth so as to make everyone who opposed him there guilty of treason.

From Rome Henry procured a papal declaration not only that he was the rightful king of England but that anyone who refused to acknowledge him would be subject to excommunication. This was no mere formality: it meant that the kingdom’s bishops, with all their wealth and influence, could find no basis for opposing him. As his counselors and ministers he chose trusted cohorts, men who had shared his dangerous years on the continent and fought for him at Bosworth. The Earl of Oxford, his ancestral lands restored, became admiral of England (land and sea warfare not yet being distinct disciplines). John Morton, who had been bishop of Ely under Edward IV and an exile during Richard’s reign (it was he who had warned Henry that the Duke of Brittany and Richard were plotting against him), was not merely restored to his see but elevated to lord chancellor, archbishop of Canterbury, and cardinal. Morton and two other former exiles, Bishop Richard Fox and the layman Reginald Bray, would remain the king’s chief administrators for nearly twenty years. Their services helped Henry to limit his dependence on, and need to share power with, the nobility.

His apparent vulnerability during the early years of his reign—the inability of some subjects to accept the emergence of such a nobody as king—gave rise to two of the most ludicrous rebellions in English history. Just two years after Bosworth a youth of lowly and obscure birth named Lambert Simnel (he may have been a carpenter’s son and may have been from Oxford, but little about his origins is certain) was put forward as Edward, Earl of Warwick, and therefore as the boy who should be king. Simnel was the tool of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, the royal nephew whom Richard III had named as his heir after the death of his own son and who had been with Richard at Bosworth. Lincoln, like Warwick, had been imprisoned after the battle, but Henry soon freed him and restored part of his patrimony. Disgruntled and ungrateful, the earl left the country, found support in Europe and Ireland (where Simnel was crowned King Edward VI), and invaded England in the pretender’s name. Met by Henry’s troops at Stoke in Nottinghamshire, he was defeated and killed. The dupe Simnel was captured but not punished. In perhaps the most attractive act of his life, King Henry gave the youth a job in the royal kitchens. Later he would be promoted to falconer.

In the early 1490s another false Plantagenet appeared: a young Frenchman called Perkin Warbeck, the handsome servant of silk merchants, chosen by disaffected Yorkists to impersonate Edward IV’s son Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two princes who had disappeared in the Tower. The threat this time was more serious, and it simmered for years. Warbeck, like Simnel, found much support in Ireland, always a hotbed of Yorkist sedition. He was recognized as king by James IV of Scotland (who gave him a young woman of high birth as his bride), by Charles VIII of France (now Henry Tudor’s rival rather than his boyish admirer), by Maximilian the Hapsburg “king of Rome” (a title borne by sons and heirs of Holy Roman emperors), and even by the dead princes’ aunt Margaret, the embittered sister of Edward IV and widow of the Duke of Burgundy. Things threatened to get out of hand when taxes levied by Henry to provide money for military operations in the north sparked an uprising in Cornwall. The insurgents, marching on London, declared their support for the pretender. They were defeated at Blackheath less than a day’s march from Westminster, and after further misadventures Warbeck was captured and hanged. At the same time charges of conspiracy were concocted against the Earl of Warwick, who was twenty-four years old by this time and had been a prisoner more than half his life. Though guilty of nothing and apparently mentally impaired (whether congenitally or because of the miserable conditions of his upbringing cannot be known), he too was put to death. Thus did the first judicial murder of the Tudor era extinguish the last Plantagenet. It was the darkest act of Henry VII’s life.

Along the way—this was perhaps the greatest of his gifts to his heir—Henry VII brought the nobles to heel. His whole reign was a prolonged exercise in stripping away their autonomy. First he marginalized them, making room on his council for those he did not actively distrust but excluding them from offices of highest importance. The few nobles who dared to oppose Henry, especially but not only if they had royal blood, were destroyed. The death of John de la Pole at Stoke was followed in 1506 by the return of his brother Edmund to England, in chains, by the Hapsburgs. He was promptly locked away. With the passage of time Henry found it possible to move against more and more of the nobles, even the strongest of them. Sir William Stanley, who had saved him at Bosworth, was put to death after being implicated in the Perkin Warbeck affair. His possessions, including enough land to generate the stupendous sum of £1,000 annually, went to the Crown. Other members of the Stanley family, including the king’s stepfather, the Earl of Derby (the former Thomas Lord Stanley, promoted after Bosworth), were required to pay heavy bonds as a guarantee of good behavior. Bonds and recognizances of this kind proved an effective way of neutering mighty subjects and were levied against more than half of England’s nobles during Henry’s reign. Half-forgotten laws—statutes, mainly, that the nobles had found it convenient to ignore when the Crown was weak—were dusted off and used to cripple great families financially. Henry was so unwilling to create new peers that their number shrank from fifty-five at the start of his rule to forty-two at the end. A substantial number of the 138 persons that he had attainted were nobles, and the resulting confiscations of land played a major part in making him richer than any previous English king. That he was able to do all these things without provoking the nobles to rise against him testifies not only to his political skill but to just how much the peerage had been reduced in power—how negligible a factor it would prove to be when his son’s reign entered its revolutionary phase.

Henry milked the church too. As much as at any time in the history of the kingdom, more than at most times, bishoprics became a reward for service to the Crown. Thus the ecclesiastical hierarchy came to be dominated by administrators and politicians accustomed to serving the king and aware of owing their positions to him; this would have momentous consequences when, a generation after Henry VII’s death, the bishops found themselves having to choose between submitting to the Crown or defending their church. Henry regularly transferred bishops from one see to another for no better reason than his own financial advantage: each new appointment required the payment of substantial fees to the Crown, and the revenues of vacant bishoprics went to the king as well.

Henry avoided war in spite of the fact that the nobility, generally not understanding that the kings of France were no longer as weak as they had been a few generations before, were eager to loot and pillage on the continent as their grandfathers had done and perhaps even recover their families’ lost possessions there. He took an army across the Channel only once, in the early 1490s, and then mainly to demonstrate his objection to France’s absorption of Brittany. He was pleased to return home after little more than a month, as soon as Charles VIII agreed to pay him handsomely for doing so and promised to stop encouraging Perkin Warbeck. War, as Henry knew well, was risky. Even worse from his perspective, war was expensive. He was satisfied to do nothing about the time-honored but now meaningless claim that kings of England were also rightfully kings of France. By the end of his life only the oldest people living had any memory of the bloody conflicts of the past, or of their costs. As for the continental powers, they could see no profit in meddling in the affairs of a distant island kingdom that was no longer meddling in theirs.

Sadly, it is probably his reputation for greed, for being willing to bend the law in every feasible way to relieve his wealthiest subjects of as much of their property as possible, that stands today as the most vividly remembered part of Henry VII’s legacy. This reputation is not entirely deserved. Henry was not merely a miser, certainly—he cheerfully gambled away substantial sums, and spent lavishly to impress subjects and foreigners alike—and a full treasury was undoubtedly the best form of security at a time when the Crown still had no standing army and the old practice of depending on the nobility for fighting men in times of need was in an advanced state of decay. Still, the lengths to which Henry went to increase his revenues, and the glum and solitary figure that he became after the deaths of his queen and several of their children, made him so unloved that his death, when it came, was received with more gratitude than grief. By then he had accumulated so much wealth in gold plate and jewels—certainly no less than a quarter of a million pounds, possibly twice or even four times that amount—that his heir was free to spend as much as he wished without giving a thought to the consequences.

Henry’s unpopularity in the last years of his reign was his last great gift to his son. By the end, in a kind of foreshadowing, he appears to have become not only a miser but something very like a tyrant, the joyless ruler of a joylessly submissive realm. In his final illness he is said to have repented—to have vowed that if he recovered, his subjects would find him a changed man. There was no recovery. He was barely fifty-two when he died but seemed very old. England did see a new man, but it was not Henry VII restored to health. It was his son and namesake and heir, the dazzling boy who ascended to the throne like the dawning of a new day. The seventeen-year-old Henry VIII arrived on the crest of England’s first uncontested transfer of power in almost ninety years—a transfer that itself testified to how much the dead king had achieved. He was greeted with shouts of joy and was filled with joy himself.

There had never been so good a time to be king. The emergence of artillery was rendering the dark and cold stone fortresses of the Middle Ages, long essential for defense, vulnerable and therefore obsolete. At the same time the new big guns, though primitive in their technology and as difficult to move as they were treacherous to use, were giving central governments an unprecedented advantage over anyone inclined to rebel: rebels might have swords and lances and even handguns, but they were unlikely to be able to buy or build many cannons. Old castles were rebuilt or abandoned in favor of a new kind of royal habitation, a kind intended less for defense than for ostentation and pleasure, rich in windows and therefore in light and designed to provide the ruling families of Europe with a degree of luxury that would have been unimaginable just a few generations before. In all of Europe there were few more impressive examples than Henry VII’s huge and sumptuous Richmond Palace—so named because he and his father had both been earls of Richmond—which now of course passed to his son. The new royal lifestyle was apparent even in Richmond’s tennis courts.

Henry VIII was blessed with more than a secure throne and the wealth that came with it. Nature had endowed him with a fine intelligence, a six-foot-two-inch frame that was as strong as it was handsomely proportioned (broad shoulders tapered down to a waist that in his young manhood measured only thirty-two inches), robust good looks (though his eyes were small and he had a puckered little rosebud of a mouth), and even better health. He was the third of the four children of King Henry VII to survive childhood; his sole elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, appears to have been a frail runt and died, in all likelihood without achieving sexual maturity, at age fifteen. Henry’s parents and his imperious paternal grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, had seen to it that he was splendidly educated—able at an early age to converse easily in Latin as well as French—and taught to be a faithful son to Holy Mother Church. No one ever overburdened him with duties and responsibilities. Through the first decade of his life, as a younger son, he was free of the pressures and expectations commonly brought to bear on heirs being prepared for rule. Thereafter, in the seven years between his brother’s death and his father’s, he was the king’s sole surviving son and therefore too precious to be exposed to risk. He was kept in almost monkish seclusion, rigorously protected not only from the many fatal diseases of the time but even from the stresses that might have accompanied a serious apprenticeship in governance. His mother died when he was eleven, and by all accounts his contacts with his father were neither frequent nor notably pleasant.

Such a cheerless and constrained life must have been intensely frustrating for a youth of Prince Henry’s vitality and capacity for enjoyment. When he entered upon his own reign, suddenly not only free but ruler of the whole kingdom, he was without preparation or experience. He was also less interested in ruling than in having the best possible time. He liberated himself from celibacy by marrying almost immediately, even before he was crowned. Such speed was possible because he had close at hand a young woman who was not only pretty and accomplished but unquestionably suitable: his late brother’s widow Catherine, daughter of the mighty King Ferdinand of Spain. Henry and Catherine were quietly married at the church of the Franciscan friars in Greenwich on June 11, just fifty days after the old king’s death. Thirteen days after that, bedecked with diamonds and other precious stones, the two were anointed king and queen of England in a lavish ceremony at Westminster Abbey. By then the royal court, a dark, dour place during the last years of Henry VII, was being transformed into a scene of music and dance, games and laughter.

At the court’s center were the royal couple, both of them all but swooning with happiness. The young king was besotted with his wife, who was at least his equal in intelligence and education and, with vastly more experience of how hard even royal life could be, much more mature. For Catherine even more than for Henry, this new life was a deliverance, a rescue that could hardly have been more unexpected or welcome. And she more than most women was equipped to make the best of it. Her late mother, the formidable warrior-queen Isabella of Castile, had schooled her almost from the cradle to become a worthy consort, capable, supportive, and submissive, to some king as great as her father, Ferdinand. Upon being sent to England, however, she had found only marriage to a boy who could not or in any case did not consummate their union, early widowhood followed by illness, and years of mistreatment at the hands of her increasingly mean-spirited father-in-law. All this had ended, to general astonishment, with the sudden decision of the new king, who was six years her junior, to fulfill the old king’s half-forgotten pledge by making her his wife. As Henry VIII gathered around himself an entourage of high-spirited and fun-seeking courtiers, Catherine assumed a role even bigger than that of bedmate and partner. She appears to have become a kind of indulgent and approving mother figure, one in whose eyes he could find confirmation of everything he wanted to believe about himself and loving acceptance of his every self-indulgence.

There was, however, a kingdom to be ruled and a government to be run, and during the two and a half decades of Henry VII’s rule England had become accustomed to a very personal style of management, one in which the king’s household directly controlled everything of real importance and nothing significant was undertaken without the king’s knowledge. Such a system was scarcely workable under a new king who had no intention of submitting to the tedium of daily administration. Except when dealing with matters that engaged his interest in some personal way, Henry was willing to talk business only during morning mass—evidently he was not an attentive worshipper—and just before retiring at night. He disliked having to read official documents, generally insisting that they be read aloud to him, preferably in abridged form. And he regarded it as a nuisance to be asked to put his signature to things, so that such orders and approvals as he issued were often done by word of mouth. It was a recipe for disorder, but again Henry was lucky. From the start of his reign he was served by the same loyal and capable men—prelates of the church, mainly, headed by William Warham in his dual capacities of archbishop of Canterbury and lord chancellor—who had been the government’s senior ministers during Henry VII’s last years. They looked after whatever required attention, freeing their new master to pursue interests that ranged from hunting to music and dance (he was a talented instrumentalist and composer of songs), from jousting and gambling to tennis and the collection and improvement of palaces. (Eventually he would have fifty royal residences, more than any English monarch before or since.) The people, meanwhile, knew nothing of Henry’s work habits and could not have cared less. After years of dreariness they were delighted by what they could see of the eager and energetic youth who now wore the crown. A new day seemed to have dawned for all of England.

The previous reign still cast its shadow, however. One of Henry VII’s most detested innovations, the so-called “Council Learned in the Law,” had become an all-too-effective way of compelling the wealthy to disgorge land and gold for the benefit of the Crown. The functioning of this council was the responsibility of two of the late king’s most trusted lawyers, Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson, who had amassed considerable personal fortunes in the course of doing their work and thus made themselves the most hated men in England. Dudley was president of the King’s Council, the first layman to hold that exalted post, Empson was chairman of the Council Learned in the Law, and both must have expected to play major roles during the transition to the new reign and thereafter. Instead, as a way for Henry VIII and other councilors to show that a new and better day really had dawned, the two were arrested even before Henry VII was in his grave. After sixteen months, when it became clear that resentment against them was not abating, they were attainted of treason (which meant they were stripped of everything they owned) and put to death. Their execution was a cynical act of judicial murder, done purely for political and propaganda purposes: ruthless and grasping Dudley and Empson certainly had been, but they had done nothing without the approval of the king and are likely to have been following his instructions. It is impossible to know whether it was young Henry or his council or both who wanted them dead. Whatever the case, the episode added an ominous background note to the jubilation that accompanied the accession of the new king. Henry himself learned a memorable double lesson, one that he would find ample opportunities to apply. He had been shown how easy it was to deflect blame for unpopular policies onto servants of the Crown—and how the anger of his subjects could be dissipated through the extermination of those same servants.

The ministers inherited from the previous reign satisfied Henry’s needs for only a few years at best, and their dominance lasted no more than five years. Although they relieved the king of the mundane routines of governance, as a group they were unable to share his enthusiasm for adventures on the international stage. Even before the end of his adolescence, Henry displayed an almost desperate hunger for glory. He wanted to become a hero-king, a conqueror, a great romantic figure in the pattern of Richard the Lion-Hearted and his own great-grandmother’s first husband, Henry V, the victor of Agincourt. And so he turned his attention to the place where his most honored predecessors had most often won their fame. He wanted to fight in France—not only to fight there, but to turn the long-standing English claim to the French crown into a reality. But the old men of the council could not be persuaded. They were bishops, many of them, churchmen not generally disposed to embrace war. And they had learned statecraft under Henry VII, who taught them to regard involvement in Europe’s wars as a fool’s errand, risky and wasteful. They exasperated their young master by raising such tiresome questions as the cost in gold and silver—never mind the likely cost in lives—of taking an army across the Channel. Henry had no patience with such quibbles. Like many people who are wealthy from birth, he regarded his riches not as a stroke of good fortune but as part of the natural state of affairs, what he was entitled to. He saw in himself the potential to become not only one of the major figures of his time, the equal and perhaps the leader of the greatest continental monarchs, but one of the giants of history. It could have made no sense to him to draw back from such a destiny because a gaggle of quibbling old celibates didn’t want him to spend his money.

What Henry needed was new management, and again he was fabulously lucky. As if on cue, there stepped out of deep obscurity one of the last and most remarkable products of the medieval English church’s meritocracy, an Oxford-educated butcher’s son named Thomas Wolsey, a tightly packed bundle of talent and drive with a sharp eye for the main chance. A priest from age twenty-five, Wolsey had escaped the schoolmaster’s life for which he seemed destined by securing appointment as one of several chaplains in the household of the archbishop of Canterbury. From there he moved on to become chaplain to the governor of Calais, England’s last foothold on the coast of France, and then somehow at the court of Henry VII himself. Thus he was in royal service when Henry VIII took the throne in 1509, and that was all the advantage he needed. The new king first made him almoner, dispenser of charity, and then in 1511 appointed him to the council, the circle of royal advisers.

When in the fourth year of his reign Henry wanted to invade France—his opportunity to do so came in the form of an invitation from Pope Julius II to join a so-called Holy League against King Louis XII—he got no encouragement from the two dominant members of his council, Archbishop Warham and Bishop Fox. This was Wolsey’s cue to rise and meet his fate. Almost forty years old now, he offered the twenty-two-year-old king not only approval but a willingness to take responsibility for the logistics of the entire French campaign—a tremendously challenging assignment. Again Henry was freed, first to pursue his dreams of military greatness without actually having to do very much, and then, after he had landed in France, to indulge in jousting and festivities rather than subjecting himself to actual combat or, worse, the hard toil of keeping an army in good order on foreign soil. As a precautionary measure, before leaving England Henry saw to the execution of his cousin Edmund de la Pole, who by then had been a prisoner in the Tower for seven years. In strict legalistic terms the killing was justified: de la Pole, younger brother of the John de la Pole who had masterminded the Lambert Simnel affair, had committed treason by claiming the crown for himself. By the time of his execution, however, he had become an impotent and even pathetic figure. In practical terms the execution was simply another Tudor murder.

This was Henry’s first war, and like all his European campaigns it turned out to be sterile militarily, financially, and diplomatically. The old-timers on the council had been entirely right in attempting to discourage him. The king’s partners in the Holy League made a fool of him. His father-in-law Ferdinand of Spain betrayed him not once but three times, the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian and the Swiss mercenary army whose services Henry had purchased at immense expense once each. The bill, including both direct costs and the subsidies that Henry had naïvely paid his faithless allies, was nearly £1 million. This wiped out everything inherited from Henry VII and plunged the Crown into financial difficulties from which it would emerge only intermittently over the next century and more. But Henry returned home convinced he had achieved great things. Together his troops and those of Emperor Maximilian had captured the towns of Thérouanne and Tournai, successes of some value to Maximilian but none to England. At one of the few points of real drama English horsemen had put the French cavalry to flight in what was jokingly named the Battle of the Spurs, a skirmish of no consequence in which Henry played no part. In fact, though he loved to play at jousting and was big and strong and well equipped enough to be successful at it, Henry would never in his life face an enemy in battle. But he heaped upon his fellow campaigners rewards that might have been excessive even if something of consequence had been accomplished. Many were knighted, and Henry’s boon companion Charles Brandon, son of the William Brandon who had carried Henry VII’s banner at Bosworth and been cut down by Richard III, became Duke of Suffolk. More fittingly Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, who had fought on Richard’s side at Bosworth, was restored to the title that his father had lost there along with his life: Duke of Norfolk. To his chagrin Howard had been left behind when Henry crossed over to France, but therefore had been on hand to take an army north when James IV of Scotland tried to take advantage of Henry’s absence by launching an invasion. The victory that he achieved at Flodden, killing not only the king of the Scots but much of the Scottish nobility, overshadowed everything that happened on the continent.

Badly as things had gone in France, military operations were not Wolsey’s responsibility, and what he was responsible for had been managed exquisitely well. When the fighting was finished, he took on the job of negotiating a settlement, thereby launching his eventful career in international diplomacy. He managed to put the best possible face on a miserable situation by working out a treaty in which Henry would receive a “pension” in return for staying out of France and was allowed, mainly for face-saving purposes, to retain Tournai as his trophy. The only lasting effect of the entire episode, Henry’s emptying of his treasury aside, was the discovery in Wolsey’s person of an ideal royal instrument: an able, intelligent, inexhaustibly hardworking minister who was prepared to take upon himself the whole burden of running the government but was always careful to understand what his king wanted and focus relentlessly on giving it to him.

The rewards were dazzling. In 1514 Wolsey was made bishop of Lincoln, then archbishop of York. In 1515 he replaced Warham as lord chancellor and, at the king’s request, was given the red hat of a cardinal by a pope made desperate for friends by the failure and disintegration of his league. Somewhat less willingly, Pope Julius agreed also to make Wolsey his legate or representative in England. This last honor contributed to making the new cardinal’s stature within the English church greater even than that of the official primate, Archbishop Warham.

As Wolsey gathered more and more reins into his own strong hands, the council declined in importance, Henry remained free to hunt and gamble and otherwise keep himself amused, and nevertheless the government operated at least as effectively as in the past. But the international political landscape began to change dramatically as the warrior-pope Julius II died and was replaced by one of the Medici of Florence, Ferdinand of Spain died and was succeeded by his (and Emperor Maximilian’s) grandson Charles, Louis XII died after just weeks of marriage to Henry’s beautiful sister Mary and the French throne passed to the vigorous and ambitious young Francis I, and James IV’s death at Flodden left Scotland in the hands of his widow, Henry’s elder sister Margaret. It fell to Wolsey to deal with all these changes, and he did so with his customary energy. Onlookers marveled at his ability to stay at his desk hour after hour, turning his attention from subject to subject without pausing even to relieve himself. He shared Henry’s zest for international power games, for winning for England (and Henry, and of course himself) a place in those games that the kingdom’s size and economy did not really justify. Being a player, however, involved him in an unending struggle to extract from a small, simple economy the money needed for a seat at the table. In taking all this upon himself, he made many enemies. He rarely disappointed his royal master, however, or gave him cause for complaint.

Even in the most intimate dimensions of life, Henry VIII could have found little to complain of. His wife Catherine had through two decades of matrimony remained an exemplary consort: capable, virtuous, admired by the people, and unfailingly loyal. If the years and numerous pregnancies ending in dead babies gradually drained away the queen’s beauty and youth, Henry was free to divert himself with mistresses. And in his and Catherine’s one living child, their daughter Mary, he had a bright, attractive heir who naturally adored her formidable father. By virtue of her position, Mary was growing up with the most brilliant marriage prospects in Europe. She seemed fated not only to wear the English crown but to become, like her mother and her grandmother Isabella of Castile, the wife and partner of some great prince. Her children, Henry’s grandchildren, were likely to rule more than England only.

On top of all his other blessings, Henry had the inestimable advantage—one that fit beautifully with his increasingly grandiose conception of his own place in the world—of happening to rule at a time when the curious idea of the divine right of kings was becoming fashionable across much of Europe. The emergence of this notion was understandable as a reaction to the bloody instability of recent generations, and as an expression of the widespread hunger for law and order and therefore for strong central government. But it gave crowned heads a justification for turning themselves into despots with no obligations to anyone. It fed Henry VIII’s inclination to think of himself as a quasi-divine being whom heaven intended to be all-powerful and had endowed with the wisdom to decide all questions. He did not have to look far, in the first decades of the sixteenth century, to find scholars eager to assure him that it lay within his authority to overthrow centuries of law, tradition, and precedent.

The effects of so much good fortune were, perhaps inevitably, tragic. Henry remained lord and master of everyone around him for so long, and became so accustomed not only to doing whatever he wished but to making everyone else do as he wished and being applauded for doing it, that he lost contact with the commonplace realities of human experience. Power corrupts, as Acton famously said, and a generation into Henry’s reign there was beginning to hang over him the stench of corruption, of something like spiritual death. He was slipping into the special realm of fantasy reserved for those deprived too long of the simple truth even—or especially—about themselves. In ancient Greece or Rome he might have declared himself a god. Living in Christian England on the threshold of the modern world, he had to settle for being treated like a god.

Throughout the first half of his reign, from the 1513 war in France onward, the Crown’s worst problems had been financial. To some extent this was a function of the times: revenues were inadequate to needs in all but the most prudently managed kingdoms, and as a rule Henry was little worse off than the kings of France, his wife’s father in Spain, or even the imperial Hapsburgs. In any case his blithe assumption that the whole wealth of England was his to dispose of as he wished, that somehow money would always be available for whatever he wanted to do, meant that in practical terms the state of the treasury was not his problem but Wolsey’s. Time after time the cardinal had to search out new ways of keeping Henry and his wars, his diplomatic intrigues, and his many amusements afloat. When the seemingly endless demands for new taxes reached intolerable levels, popular anger was always directed at Wolsey, never at the king.

But as the twentieth anniversary of his coronation approached, Henry found himself up against a problem that had nothing to do with money and that he could not possibly ignore because it was entirely of his choosing. It would become the defining challenge of his life and his reign—would come to be known, with good reason, as “the king’s great matter.” There were two elements to it, and there is no way for us to know which came first. One was the sad fact that Queen Catherine had become a rather dumpy little middle-aged woman whose childbearing years were clearly behind her. The other was Henry’s passionate infatuation, obvious to the entire court as early as the spring of 1526, with the dark-eyed, swan-necked young Anne Boleyn, whose years as a lady-in-waiting at the court of the French king had given her an elegance and self-assurance that not even the grandest noble ladies of England could rival. Soon Henry was confiding to certain intimates, and then to anyone who might prove helpful, that his conscience—his regal and therefore exquisitely sensitive conscience—was suffering painful doubts about whether Catherine was actually his wife. Perhaps these doubts first entered his head because he wanted Anne and she, having seen her own sister become the king’s mistress only to be discarded, would not give herself to him. But it is not impossible that Henry’s doubts came first, and that they were not in fact doubts at all but a growing conviction that he had no queen and therefore was free to choose one. At which point he would have looked around until his attention settled on his former mistress’s sister, now lady-in-waiting to his wife and as bright a jewel as his court had ever contained.

However it began, Henry’s struggle with his conscience soon ended in what was, by his reckoning, a victory for truth and justice. What settled his mind was what Leviticus said in the Old Testament: “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness: they shall be childless.” That seemed conclusive: Henry’s marriage to Catherine had violated the law of God, and ever since the two of them had been paying the price. If not precisely childless, they were certainly sonless. God was displeased not because of any wrong that Henry had consciously committed but because in the innocence of childhood (he had been thirteen when his father arranged his betrothal to Catherine) he had been made the victim of others’ mistakes. It was not his right but his duty to put Catherine away. She could remain a member of the royal family as Dowager Princess of Wales, honored and comfortable and freed from the horrors of incest with her loving brother Henry. If their daughter became thereby a bastard ineligible to inherit the throne and possibly unmarriageable—well, such an unfortunate situation was bound to have regrettable consequences. The important thing was that he had uncovered the truth while there was still time to put things right.

Certain formalities had to be attended to first. Henry’s marriage to Catherine had been made possible by a dispensation issued by Julius II. Everything would be resolved if the current pope, Clement VII, declared the marriage null. There seemed no reason to expect difficulties; relations between the English and the papal courts had long been excellent, and annulments of royal marriages were, if not exactly common, far from unheard of. Wolsey, when he turned his attention to the situation, focused on the prospect of marrying his master to a French princess—on the part that such a union could play in achieving the great pan-European peace that had long been the overriding objective of his diplomacy. On a more personal level, Wolsey had reason to want to be rid of Queen Catherine. She had long criticized his grandiose style of living—palaces more immense than those of the royal family, platoons of uniformed retainers, pomp and ceremony everywhere he went—as so inappropriate to his clerical state as to constitute scandal.

Inevitably, and for all we know to his complete satisfaction, Wolsey set about to make it happen.



WHY HAD HENRY VIII FOUND IT ADVISABLE, BEFORE GOING off to make war in France, to pull his cousin Edmund de la Pole out of prison and have his head cut off?

Because de la Pole had royal blood, obviously. And because his claim to the throne was quite good enough to rival Henry’s. (He was the grandson of the Elizabeth of York who had been Edward IV’s sister, whereas Henry was the son of Edward’s daughter of the same name.) But could Henry, with his mountainous self-assurance, really have been that insecure about his hold on the throne? Could his bluster have been a mask behind which a very ordinary and frightened man was keeping himself hidden?

If it is perhaps a little too easy to say so, it is also not impossible. Especially if Henry knew the story of the strange path by which his father had come to the throne, as he certainly must have.

One of the threads out of which that story is woven goes back to 1422 and the premature death, of natural causes, of one of the most brilliantly successful of all the Plantagenet kings, Henry V. He was the second king in the so-called Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet dynasty—his father, Henry IV, had overthrown their cousin Richard II—and in nine years on the throne he had risen to the heights of achievement and prestige. The most famous of his triumphs, the one that put him among England’s immortals, came at Agincourt, where his outnumbered invasion force defeated the armies of France so conclusively that the French king acknowledged him as his heir and gave him his daughter, Catherine of Valois, in marriage. All this became the seedbed for decades of tragedy when, at age thirty-four, Henry suddenly died, leaving a beautiful widow with all the normal appetites of a healthy twenty-one-year-old woman and a son who, at the age of nine months, became King Henry VI.

This is where Wales becomes part of the story and the Tudors enter English history. Wales was, at this time, less an integral part of the kingdom than a conquered territory—a remote, alien, somewhat mysterious, and definitely distrusted province. Only those few Welshmen whom the English occupiers deemed to be sufficiently loyal were allowed to hold office, carry weapons, or even live in towns. In the years before his father’s death, while holding the title of Prince of Wales and spending time there, the future Henry V had seen that this state of affairs could not continue. He began to take selected Welshmen into the royal service. Among those so favored, we know not why, was the young squire Owain ap Meredudd ap Tudur—Owen son of Meredith son of Tudor. The word squire indicates that he was regarded as being of gentle origin, which in fact he was, his family having been important in North Wales until its participation in a failed rebellion brought it to ruin. Almost nothing is known of the early manhood of this Owain, who might have been expected to take the anglicized surname Meredith but somehow became Owen Tudor instead. It is possible though not proved that he served with Henry V in France and even fought in Greece. After the king’s death he was kept on as a member of Queen Catherine’s household staff, and what happened from that point forward makes clear that his was an adventuresome spirit.

The paternal uncles of the infant Henry VI, governing in his name, decided that allowing the nubile dowager queen to remarry was out of the question. If she took a husband of inferior rank, the dignity of the House of Lancaster would be compromised. Any bridegroom from the higher nobility, on the other hand, might become dangerously powerful simply by virtue of being Catherine’s husband and therefore stepfather to the king. And so they decreed that any man who dared to marry Catherine before her son was old enough to give informed consent would be deprived of his lands. This removed from contention all those members of the nobility who might have been pleased to take the queen to their beds, but not at such a price. The field was left open to contenders as obscure as Owen Tudor, who owned no land and therefore had nothing to lose. By the late 1420s he was a member of the queen’s inner circle, holding the suggestive title of keeper of the wardrobe. His position must have made him a familiar, if unimportant, face at court.

No one knows how it happened, but at some point around 1430, when both were about thirty years old, Owen and Catherine married. Their union was kept secret, at least from the powerful men who dominated the boy-king’s Council, until Catherine’s death in 1437. (The cause of death was described in Catherine’s will as a “long grievous malady, in the which I have been long, and yet am, troubled and vexed by the visitation of God.” One cannot but wonder if this mysterious affliction, so ambiguously but intriguingly described, may have been the mental illness that had figured importantly in the life of her father, King Charles VI of France, and would recur in her son Henry VI). By the time of Catherine’s death, she and Tudor had had four children. One was a daughter who died young, her name unknown to history. Another was a boy who bore his father’s name, entered the church at an early age, and would live and die in deep obscurity as a member of Westminster Abbey’s community of Benedictine monks. The two other sons, the eldest, were named Edmund and Jasper.

The widowed Owen had to flee when he was discovered to have broken the law by marrying the queen. He was captured and incarcerated in Windsor Castle, but after a year he was released and a comfortable place was found for him at court. Obviously there were no hard feelings on the part of his stepson the king.

Rather astonishingly, Henry VI’s uncles now had in their care two boys who on their father’s side were Welsh commoners, on their mother’s were related to the royal family of France, and were also, and more important, half-brothers of England’s king. The pair had no inheritance, no place in the world in spite of their lofty connections, and the council must have had some difficulty deciding what to do with them. For five years after their mother’s death they were raised in a convent whose abbess was a member of the de la Pole family. Then, at about the time when they must have been entering adolescence, they were brought to court, where they continued to receive the kind of training and education appropriate to the elite. What happened next pivoted on the fact that Henry VI, himself a young adult now, was a remarkably sweet-natured individual (a saint in the opinion of some) who had grown up without siblings or a father and throughout childhood had seen little of his mother. He embraced the Tudors as brothers and made himself their patron. Eventually he did more than that. In 1552, as they were coming of age, Edmund and Jasper became the first Welshmen to be raised to noble rank in England. The former became Earl of Richmond, the latter Earl of Pembroke. Extensive holdings of land and castles came to them with their titles.

King Henry’s next gift to his brothers would prove to be even more momentous. He gave them—and that is not putting the matter too bluntly—the girl Margaret Beaufort, still a child, an orphan of royal blood and the richest heiress in the kingdom. Like her cousin the king, the little Lady Margaret was a great-grandchild of that John of Gaunt who had been one of the numerous sons of King Edward III, bore the title Duke of Lancaster, and became the progenitor of the Lancastrian Plantagenets when his son usurped the throne and became Henry IV. In addition to a succession of wives, John of Gaunt had a mistress, Catherine Swynford, with whom he produced a litter of bastards called the Beauforts after the castle in which the first of them had been born. After being widowed, Gaunt married Catherine. Their children were legitimized by King Richard II, whom Henry IV would one day dispossess, imprison, and probably murder (most likely by starving him to death). The Beauforts, though specifically barred by Richard from ever inheriting the throne, made good use of their lofty antecedents: the only daughter became the wife of an earl, one of the sons became a cardinal of the church and for a time the most powerful man in the kingdom, and the offspring of another son would include a queen of Scotland, the dukes of Somerset, and (the only child of one of those dukes) Lady Margaret Beaufort.

Among the brutish aspects of life among the English nobility in the Middle Ages was the practice, hallowed by custom, according to which the minor heirs of deceased nobles became wards of the Crown. In theory this was a way of protecting orphaned children and preserving their inheritance until they came of age. In practice it was an opportunity for plunder. Kings could keep all the income from their wards’ estates, which almost inevitably, the kings being chronically short of money, led them to maximize short-term revenues and do nothing to maintain the value of the property in question. Alternatively, kings could sell or give wardships to third parties, who would likewise be motivated to squeeze as much money out of them as quickly as possible. Worst of all, wardship brought with it the right to give—which often meant to sell—an heir or heiress in marriage.

Her enormous inherited wealth made an extremely valuable commercial asset of Lady Margaret, who was not quite one year old when her father died, a probable suicide. When only a few years old she was “married” to John de la Pole, the almost equally young son of the powerful Marquess of Suffolk. Suffolk was later accused of plotting to put his son and Margaret on the throne—striking evidence of just how potent and dangerous a possession the child could be. He was murdered in consequence of this, and the marriage was annulled when Margaret was nine. Some two years later the king made her the ward of Edmund and Jasper Tudor jointly. Rather than merely looting her estate or selling her off to the highest bidder, the brothers quickly made maximum use of this opportunity, and of the king’s friendship. Margaret became Edmund’s wife. (Her onetime fiancé de la Pole went on to marry a daughter of the House of York, with tragic consequences for his descendants.) The wedding took place no later than 1455, the year of Margaret’s twelfth birthday. Rather horribly, she was pregnant by the middle of 1456.

Because Henry VI was not only weak, passive, and inept but at times deep in the grip of psychosis (for months at a time he would speak to no one and have to be carried from place to place), the young Tudor earls had little opportunity to enjoy their good fortune. The king had a Plantagenet cousin, Richard, Duke of York, the descendant of yet another son of Edward III, who was the richest and most powerful magnate in the country, ambitious, aggressive, suspicious, and easily offended. This cousin clashed not with the king (it appears to have been nearly impossible to rouse Henry out of his serene indifference even during his periods of sanity) but with Henry’s French queen, Margaret of Anjou, a tigress every bit as ferocious as York himself. They fought not for the crown, which York never claimed for himself until the final weeks of his life, but for custody of the king’s person and therefore control of policy. Their struggle sparked the long conflict that Walter Scott would, centuries later, name the Wars of the Roses (the red rose being a symbol of the House of Lancaster, the white rose representing York). By the standards of history it was not a terrible conflict. Towns were not destroyed and only rarely pillaged, the countryside was not ravaged or the economy greatly disrupted, and most of the population was left entirely undisturbed. Though the fighting went on for decades it was only intermittent, with far more days of peace than of war, and though there were savagely bloody battles they were usually limited in scope. But it was a time when barons and dukes and even kings were still expected to lead men into battle, to kill and be killed. All the branches of the royal family were inexorably drawn in, along with the nobility, and the toll on their numbers was cumulatively painful. Ultimately the great Plantagenet dynasty would annihilate itself in a long orgy of fratricide.

The Tudors were involved from the start, and prominently so. By 1455, long-standing conflicts for dominance in Wales had become part of the national struggle. Edmund Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and husband of Margaret Beaufort, was dispatched to Wales to take control on King Henry’s behalf. He was almost immediately engaged in fighting, capturing Carmarthen Castle, being taken prisoner in the autumn of dying suddenly (possibly of wounds, possibly of disease) shortly after his release. Three months later, at Jasper Tudor’s big stronghold of Pembroke Castle at the southwestern corner of Wales, Margaret gave birth to a boy who was given his uncle the king’s name and inherited his late father’s title of Earl of Richmond. The birth was not only difficult but damaging to the young mother, leaving her incapable of bearing additional children. She was all of thirteen years old.

The next quarter-century was turbulent, and the two earls—first Jasper, but then his nephew Henry while still a child—were involved in the turmoil. Within a few years of Edmund’s death, Jasper helped to arrange his sister-in-law’s marriage to Henry Stafford, second son of the Duke of Buckingham. Somehow it came to pass that Lady Margaret left her son at Pembroke Castle when she went off to her latest husband. Jasper by this time was established as what he would remain as long as his half-brother lived: the king’s and queen’s most resourceful, energetic, and passionately faithful supporter in a conflict with the House of York that grew ever more savage as the cost in lives mounted. From start to finish it was a seesaw affair, and immensely complicated. The Duke of York was driven out of England in 1459, taking refuge among his partisans in Ireland. The following year he returned at the head of an army at the same time that his young son Edward, Earl of March, was leading an invasion of his own from France. King Henry was captured by the Yorkists in 1460, Margaret of Anjou fleeing first to Wales and then to Scotland, but on December 30 of that year York lost his life in a skirmish. His head, mockingly adorned with a paper crown, was put on public display.

This might have been fatal to the Yorkist cause if not for the fact that the duke’s eldest son and heir, Edward, not yet twenty years old, was already a bold and determined military leader with no hesitation about carrying on the fight. On February 3, 1461, at Mortimer’s Cross in the Welsh borderlands, this new Edward, Duke of York, thoroughly whipped an army, part of which was led by Jasper Tudor. Among those fighting on the Lancastrian side was Jasper’s father, Owen, still soldiering in spite of being sixty years old or more. He was captured and taken to the town of Hereford, where, upon learning that York had ordered his execution, he was heard to say that “that head shall lie on the stock that was wont to lie on Queen Catherine’s lap.” After his death a madwoman placed his head at the top of a set of stairs in the market square, washed off the blood, combed its hair, and surrounded it with more than a hundred lit candles. Jasper, having escaped, made his way back to Wales. Early in March the Duke of York took possession of London and was proclaimed King Edward IV. Immediately thereafter he set off for the north, gathering as many men as he could along the way. At Towton, just south of York, nearly a hundred thousand men fought one of the most terrible battles of the late Middle Ages. Defeated, King Henry and the queen fled with their small son Edward to exile in Scotland. All of England and Wales thus fell into the hands of a newYorkist king who was still only nineteen years old.

Jasper, already in exile, was soon attainted as well, meaning that he was deprived of his title and all his properties. Many of his Welsh possessions were given to the Yorkist Sir William Herbert, and along with them came custody of the fatherless, essentially motherless four-year-old Henry Tudor. The child was taken into the Herbert household, where he would spend the next nine years. The Herberts raised him as a member of their family, eventually making plans to marry him to one of Sir William’s daughters. He was in fact a prisoner, however, and his estates had been given to King Edward’s greedy and unstable younger brother George, the Duke of Clarence.

Jasper spent the 1460s trying without success to organize invasions of England, staging guerrilla-style raids into Wales where his family history and outsize personality made it easy for him to muster support, and conducting a kind of shuttle diplomacy on behalf of Margaret of Anjou and her hapless husband King Henry. Jasper’s stature as brother of the exiled king of England and grandson and nephew of French kings assured him of a respectful reception in the courts of Brittany, France, and Scotland. His tirelessness and willingness to take risks—he would come ashore in secret, muster enough men to capture and burn a Yorkist outpost, and then disappear before the authorities could respond—made him the kind of folk hero about whom ballads were sung. Nearly a decade of this, however, accomplished nothing. All the leading Lancastrians remained exiles, dependent upon the willingness of foreigners to support them in a cause that seemed increasingly hopeless.

Then, with astonishing abruptness, everything changed and changed again. In 1469 the mighty Earl of Warwick, the head of northern England’s powerful Neville family and known to posterity as “the kingmaker,” broke with Edward IV. He and the king’s chronically dissatisfied brother Clarence defected to France, where they won King Louis XI’s support for an invasion that in 1470 caught Edward badly off balance and forced him to flee to the continent. Henry VI was freed from the Tower of London, where he had been in confinement since being captured four years earlier, and restored to the throne. Almost overnight Jasper Tudor was again Earl of Pembroke and a rich and powerful personage. He retrieved his thirteen-year-old nephew from Wales and is believed to have taken him to Westminster for introduction to his namesake the king and the mother he is unlikely to have seen since he was a small child.

But the high chief of the Lancastrian cause, Margaret of Anjou, was inexplicably slow to return to England and consolidate the victory, and she still had an implacable and able enemy in the exiled King Edward. In March 1471 Edward launched an invasion from Burgundy, where his sister was the wife of Duke Charles the Bold. He landed in the far north and, after a month on the march, met near London an army commanded by his onetime ally Warwick, whom he defeated and killed. Edward’s frontline troops had been commanded by his youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, then eighteen years old. Immediately the brothers set off in pursuit of Queen Margaret, who was trying to assemble a new army while simultaneously moving westward to rendezvous with Jasper Tudor and the men he was hurrying to muster. They caught up with her at Tewkesbury, achieving a smashing victory with young Duke Richard again leading the Yorkist van. King Henry’s son and heir, the eighteen-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales, was taken prisoner. When questioned, he spoke defiantly and was beheaded on the spot. King Edward and Richard returned to London to reassert Yorkist control there, and within hours of their arrival the helpless and harmless King Henry, a prisoner once again, was murdered. Margaret of Anjou, her fires extinguished by the killing of her son, would spend four years in the Tower and then be returned to France, where she eventually died in poverty.

Jasper fled back to Wales with the Yorkists on his trail, taking his fourteen-year-old nephew with him and trying to make a stand first at Pembroke Castle and then in a smaller stronghold at Tenby. There was no way to avoid capture except by running. The Tudors set out in a small ship for France, but storms forced them into a fishing port in Brittany, at that time an autonomous duchy coveted, and therefore threatened, by the kings of France. Brittany’s ruler, Duke Francis II, had had to spend his life in an endless struggle to find counterweights to the pressure exerted by Paris, trying to maintain alliances with England, with the Duchy of Burgundy on France’s eastern border, and indeed with any potential source of help. It was established English policy to help Brittany remain independent of France because its north coast was directly across the Channel. Not surprisingly, Duke Francis received the Tudors with every courtesy and display of hospitality: two very useful bargaining chips had fallen into his hands as if out of the sky. King Edward of England wanted Jasper and Henry. Therefore Louis XI of France, a man so devious he was called “the universal spider,” wanted them also. The duke saw immediately that, as long as he retained custody of his unexpected visitors, he would have leverage both in England and in France.

The military convulsions of 1470 and 1471, and the battlefield deaths and murders to which those convulsions gave rise, drastically changed Henry Tudor’s place in the political firmament. With the killing of King Henry and his son, the House of Lancaster was extinct in the male line. So was the Beaufort branch; Henry’s mother had been its last surviving member since her uncle Edmund was killed in the Battle of St. Albans in 1455, her cousin Henry was executed after an unsuccessful raid out of Scotland in 1464, and Henry’s brother Edmund was among those executed after finding themselves on the losing side at Tewkesbury. (This litany of bloodshed is typical of what happened to more than a few noble families during this period.)

As Lady Margaret’s son, Henry was now the only living adult male who could point to his ancestry in claiming leadership of the Lancastrian party. It was a thin claim all the same, one that for a long time appeared to mean almost nothing. Not even the Tudors themselves—not Margaret, not Jasper, certainly not the boy Henry—could possibly have imagined that in another decade and a half they would be England’s royal family. Their highest political aspiration could only have been to somehow recover the titles and property that King Henry had bestowed upon them. Until the unexpected death of Edward IV, there would have seemed little chance of even that ever happening.

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