On August 7, 1485, Henry Tudor and his band of exiles, French soldiers and mercenaries landed at Milford Haven in Wales. He made his way east, gathering recruits as he went and negotiating with potential supporters.
Henry still had his moments of uneasiness. Although the Stanleys were connected to him through marriage to his mother, he had received mixed signals from them and could not guarantee their support.
On August 19, a most unsettling thing happened to Henry and 20 of his supporters; they became separated from their comrades and spent the night hiding from Richard’s men. One can easily imagine the terror and uneasiness of this little band of men, who surely knew that discovery might mean an end to their enterprise, as well as their lives.
That evening was 180 degrees different from the evening three days later, when Henry was crowned and triumphant. Although no one expected Henry to be a good soldier, the inexperienced warrior fought better than anticipated and thus did not embarrass himself in front of his supporters. The legend has it that the Crown of England was found on a bush and that it was William Stanley who placed it on Tudor’s head.
It seems appropriate to bring up William Stanley. A staunch Yorkist, he, unlike his brother Thomas, stayed by Edward IV during those hard years of 1469, 1470 and 1471. (The common Ricardian thinking that these brothers switched loyalties as easily as their clothes is incorrect.) William Stanley would later lose his head to the ingrate he crowned either by being a bit too curious about Perkin Warbeck or by saying that if Perkin were a son of Edward IV, he would never fight against him.
Tudor didn’t get to be King because of his Lancastrian roots. As many historians have written, there were no Lancastrians in 1483 except the recalcitrant Earl of Oxford. All the others had made their peace with Edward IV. The people who really made Tudor were the Yorkist loyalists who supported Edward’s line over Richard and whose outrage over the deposition and murder of his sons set them looking for another candidate for King. Henry Tudor was probably suggested by his mother, who had always had his interests at heart. Having been away from England since 14, Tudor had the advantage of being so unknown that he didn’t have any enemies and could be packaged as the perfect knight. He was also a bachelor, which gave him the advantage of being paired with Edward IV’s eldest daughter, now Queen in her own right following her brothers’ deaths.
However, Henry was only, as Christine Carpenter writes, “the Yorkist household’s second best substitute for Edward IV’s dead sons.” That’s why it was important for him to promise to marry Elizabeth on Christmas Day 1483. He had to provide a semblance of continuality with Edward’s line.
When Henry rode through London, he was, as the Croyland Chronicler writes, welcomed “as though he had been an angel sent down from Heaven.” Once again, being totally unknown worked to his advantage. He could indeed assume the appearance of a white knight. Even the poem “The Three Richards,” published in 1486, puts Henry in the role of an avenging angel (“…and to avenge the White, the Red Rose bloomed”).
Henry, however, was not going to position himself as second-best. Although as a good Yorkist, I cannot think well of him, he was clever to base his claim to the throne as a matter of conquest rather than blood-right. He was also clever, though in my opinion reprehensible, to distance himself from his promise to wed Elizabeth of York, backing way from any appearance of needing the strength of her claim to bolster his. He was clever enough, though in my opinion horrid, to refrain from too obvious a reference to Edward IV’s dead sons, not wanting to remind people that he was, in fact, King only because of their murder. Instead, he and his obliging Parliament simply chose to refer to them as “infants,” focusing on their youth instead of their blood-right.
We don’t know what Henry did, if anything, to discover what had happened to the boys he replaced. We don’t know whether he knew or what he knew. We’re not even sure if he was entirely innocent or indirectly involved through an association with Buckingham, assuming, of course, that Buckingham was the murderer. We do know that Henry lacked the opportunity in 1483 to carry out this murder, and, despite what some female historical novelists say, neither did his mother and stepfather. But then, there are those who want to excuse Richard III of this crime beyond all logic.
Although Henry’s guilt in the murder of her sons might be untenable because of his lack of opportunity, his slights toward Elizabeth of York were sufficient enough to offend those still loyal to her father’s memory:
- Henry ignored her claim by claiming the throne himself by right of conquest.
- Henry’s first Parliament had to remind him of his promise to marry her. The Croyland Chronicler wrote: “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 and victory in warfare. There were some persons, however, who were of the opinion that words to that effect might have been more wisely passed over in silence than inserted in our statutes; the more especially because in the very same Parliament a discussion took place, and that too with the King’s consent, relative to his marriage with the Lady Elizabeth…in whose person it appeared to all that every requisite might be supplied which was wanting to make good the title of the King himself.”
- Henry married Elizabeth in January 1486, five months after Bosworth.
- He waited until November 1487 before crowning her Queen. In an article by C.S.L. Davies, “Information, disinformation and political knowledge under Henry VII and early Henry VIII,” Historical Research, 85: 228–253. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00576.x, Davis quotes Anne Crawford who “rightly” described this as ‘insulting and unprecedented.’
In Footnote #80, Davies continues: “There is evidence that immediately after Bosworth Henry contemplated an early marriage and a joint coronation, and that this was prevented by the late arrival of the papal legate and the need to have the necessary papal dispensations issued without haste and in due form (see Davies, ‘Bishop Morton’, p. 28, n. 1). However, Henry was probably relieved that he had not married so hastily, given that he was uncomfortable with the suggestion that he owed the throne to ‘Yorkist’ loyalty to Elizabeth. He had in fact been granted a papal dispensation for the marriage as early as March 1484; whether the new dispensation of January 1486 was because Henry preferred to have the process done with more solemnity, or whether to disguise his earlier promise to marry, is a moot point (see P. D. Clarke, ‘English royal marriages and the papal penitentiary in the 15th century’, Eng. Hist. Rev., cxx (2005), 1014–29, at pp. 1024–6; A. Crawford, ‘The king’s burden; the consequence of royal marriage’, in Griffiths, Patronage, pp. 33–56, at p. 40).”
- He was “unuxorious” (Francis Bacon) and placed his mother above her.
So Henry discounted and underplayed the importance of three persons who had more right to the throne than he. This seems quite characteristic for one of the most uncommunicative, secretive, and suspicious personalities in English history, and especially one whose blood-right to the throne was so small. For those Yorkist loyalists whose motivation to support Henry depended upon his promise to marry Elizabeth of York or a hope of his avenging her brothers, this must have been a disappointment.
It is plain by the battle of Stoke in 1487 and the rise of Perkin Warbeck less than 10 years later that Henry did not keep his angelic image nor the high regard he initially had. Nonetheless, he went on to have a successful 23-year reign. Perhaps not the most lovable sovereign England ever had, but certainly the luckiest.