Here are seven things you might not know about the first Tudor monarch:
‘When the bull comes from the far land to battle with his great ashen spear,
To be an earl again in the land of Llewelyn,
Let the far-splitting spear shed the blood of the Saxon on the stubble . . .
When the long yellow summer comes and victory comes to us
And the spreading of the sails of Brittany,
And when the heat comes and when the fever is kindled,
There are portents that victory will be given to us . . .’
So sang the Welsh bards in 1485, who longed for Henry Tudor to return to the ‘land of his fathers’ as the long-promised hero who would fulfil the prophecy of Myrddin (Merlin) and deliver the Welsh people from their Saxon oppressor. Though he was born in Pembroke Castle into the Welsh Tudor family, Henry’s Welshness has often been over-exaggerated, but Henry himself was conscious of the political advantages of polishing his image as the descendant of the ‘ancient Kings of Brytaine and Princes of Wales’.
Henry became King of England because he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and declared himself king. His claim to the English throne by blood was weak.
Henry was a nephew of the previous Lancastrian king, Henry VI, but they were related not by Henry V’s bloodline, but by Catherine of Valois’ second marriage to Owen Tudor. Catherine of Valois had been Queen consort of England as the wife of Henry V, but after Henry’s death her affair with Owen Tudor, who was probably appointed keeper of Catherine’s household or wardrobe, led to the birth of Henry VII’s father, Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond. There is no evidence that Owen and Catherine were ever married, making Henry VII’s claim to the throne as a legitimate heir even more tenuous.
Through his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was 13 years old and seven months pregnant with Henry when her husband, Edmund Tudor, died, Henry was also a descendant of Edward III. The Beauforts were descended from John of Gaunt, Edward III’s son and founder of the House of Lancaster, and his third marriage to his long-term mistress, Katherine Swynford. In fact the Beauforts were born outside of wedlock, and later legitimised by Richard II and the Church but barred from inheriting the throne.
Ultimately, Henry understood the importance of a legitimate heir.
Henry flew the red dragon of Cadwaladr during his invasion of England, using his Welsh ancestry to gather support and gain safe passage through Wales on his way to meet Richard III at Bosworth. A dragon had previously been used by Owain Glyndŵr during his revolts against the English crown, and Henry was related to Glyndŵr: his ancestor, Marged ferch Tomas, was the sister of Glyndŵr’s mother, Elen ferch Tomas.
After Bosworth Henry carried the red dragon standard in state to St Paul’s Cathedral. Later the Tudor livery of green and white, still there today, were added to the flag.
Unlike his infamous heir, Henry VIII, Henry VII had only one marriage that grew into a marriage of genuine love. Elizabeth of York was the ideal Queen consort for Henry, joining the Houses of Lancaster and York and ensuring any of their heirs were directly, legitimately descended from the Plantagenet monarchs.
Unfortunately we know very little about Elizabeth of York compared to other Tudor queens – we’ll never know how she felt marrying the man who defeated her own uncle in battle, or how she felt when Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel claimed to be her lost brothers – but there is no record of Henry ever taking a mistress, and the two had a total of seven children during their 17 years of marriage. When Elizabeth died in 1503, Henry, who usually refrained from showing any emotion for fear of appearing weak, was inconsolable and refused to allow anyone but his mother near him.
Despite winning his crown on the battlefield, Henry was a king of wits and planning rather than brawn. His whole life was an education in politics and understanding the differences behind what people said and what they meant. Having started a new dynasty and aware of its tenuous foundations, Henry’s goals were fixed on forming profitable alliances with the other royal houses of Europe, arranging Prince Arthur’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and securing an alliance to the north when he married his daughter, Margaret Tudor, to James IV of Scotland.
Henry VII has been remembered as a serious and miserly king who was paranoid about the continuation of the Tudor dynasty, particularly when his first son and heir, Prince Arthur, died in 1502 at only 15 years old. His remaining heir, the future Henry VIII, was subsequently kept under constant surveillance of either Henry himself or Margaret Beaufort. It’s no wonder, then, that once Henry VII died in April 1509 and Henry VIII ascended to the throne as a fresh-faced 18-year-old that he spent his early years throwing off all restraint with the intention of enjoying himself using his father’s money.
Unfortunately, Henry never quite grew out of that mindset of throwing a tantrum when he didn’t get what he wanted. Unlike his brother, whom Henry VII had schooled in how to run a kingdom, Henry VIII had been raised with his sisters under Elizabeth of York’s care – in fact there are enough similarities between their handwriting to suggest that Elizabeth taught Henry to write herself – and had grown used to being the centre of attention there. He was 11 years old when his mother died nine days after giving birth to her last child, a daughter named Katherine, in an attempt to provide another male heir. Not only was Elizabeth perhaps the last example of a medieval queen, a woman none of Henry VIII’s six wives would be able to live up to, but her death and Henry VII’s paranoia about having no male heirs would have impressed the importance of a male heir on him from a very young age.
Henry even replicated his own father’s parenting behaviour when Jane Seymour finally provided him with a son in 1537, the future Edward VI, who was molly-coddled and ultimately grew into a sickly child who, like Prince Arthur before him, died at 15 years old.
In 2010 Henry VII’s ‘first state bed’ was found by chance in the car park of a hotel in Chester, having been dismantled and discarded. Though the bed’s origins remain a matter of academic debate, dendrochronology confirms that the wood was cut in Germany in the late 15th century. With the headboard depicting Henry VII and Elizabeth of York as Adam and Eve, symbolising their hopes for an heir, there is evidence to suggest that it was created at the time of their marriage on 18 January 1486. If this is the bed that Prince Arthur and Henry VIII were conceived in, it’s value could be as much as £20 million.