Henry was aware that his chance to seize the throne would be to engage Richard quickly and defeat him in the first battle, since Richard had reinforcements that waited in Nottingham and Leicester and thus had only to avoid being killed in order to keep the throne. Though outnumbered, Henry's Lancastrian forces decisively defeated the Yorkist army under Richard at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485 when several of Richard's key allies, such as the Earl of Northumberland and William and Thomas Stanley, crucially switched sides or deserted the field of battle. The death of Richard III on Bosworth Field effectively ended the long-running Wars of the Roses between the two houses, although it was not the final battle Henry had to fight.
Henry VII's paternal grandfather, Owen Tudor, a Welshman, is said to have secretly married the widow of Henry V, Catherine of Valois, and the result of their union was the father of Henry VII. However, Henry's claim to the throne derived from his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. His claim was somewhat tenuous; it was based upon a lineage of illegitimate succession, and overlooked the fact that the Beauforts had been disinherited by Letters Patent of King Henry IV. Lady Margaret Beaufort claimed royal blood as a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, and Gaunt's third wife Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster. Katherine had been John of Gaunt's mistress for some 25 years and borne him four illegitimate children, John, Henry, Thomas and Joan Beaufort, by the time they were married in 1396.
Nonetheless, John of Gaunt ensured that his children by Katherine were legitimized. Through his instrumentality, his nephew King Richard II issued Letters Patent, confirmed by an Act of Parliament in 1397, that legitimized John of Gaunt's Beaufort children. Richard's cousin and successor, Henry IV, the son of John of Gaunt by his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, later issued an order disinheriting his Beaufort half-siblings from the throne, but the legality of Henry's order is doubtful given that the Beauforts were previously legitimized by an Act of Parliament. In any event, not only was Henry VII, a Lancastrian, descended from the union of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, but the Yorkist kings were as well, as Joan Beaufort, only daughter of the Gaunt-Swynford union, was the mother of Cecily Neville, wife of Richard Duke of York and mother of Edward IV and Richard III.
It is also noteworthy that the Tudors were said to be descended from Edward I through his granddaughter Eleanor of Bar, the daughter of the Count of Bar, apparently without any basis and intending to create a connection to the earlier Plantagenets. If forged, that pretension was, however, unnecessary since Catherine of Valois was twice a descendant of Henry II through the Kings of Castile. However, the Wars of the Roses had ensured that most other claimants were either dead or too weak to challenge him. In the end Henry dealt with the act of attainder by claiming that it could not apply to a king.
The first of Henry's concerns on attaining the throne was the question of establishing the strength and supremacy of his rule. His own claim to the throne being weak as it was, he was fortunate that the majority of claimants to the throne had died in the dynastic wars or were simply executed by his predecessors. Despite easily seeing off the Stafford and Lovell Rebellion of 1486, his main worry was "pretenders" including Perkin Warbeck, who, pretending to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower and son of Edward IV, made attempts at the throne with the backing of disaffected nobles and foreign enemies. Henry managed to secure his crown principally by dividing and undermining the power of the nobility, especially through the aggressive use of bonds and recognisances to secure loyalty, as well as by a legislative assault on retaining, the practice of maintaining private armies. He also honoured his pledge of December 1483 to marry Elizabeth of York, daughter and heir of King Edward IV. They were third cousins, as they were both descendants of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and of his third wife Katherine Swynford. The marriage took place on 18 January 1486 at Westminster. The marriage unified the warring houses and gave his children a stronger claim to the throne. The unification of the houses of York and Lancaster by Henry VII's marriage to Elizabeth of York is represented in the heraldic symbol of the Tudor rose, a combination of the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster.
In addition, Henry had the Titulus Regius, the document that declared Edward IV's children illegitimate by citing his marriage as invalid, repealed in his first parliament, thus legitimizing his wife. Several amateur historians, including Bertram Fields and most particularly Sir Clements Markham believe that he also may have been involved in the murder of the Princes in the Tower, as the repeal of the Titulus Regius would have given them a stronger claim to the throne than his own. However, this theory does not account for the apparent disappearance of the princes in the summer of 1483, two years before Henry seized the throne.
Henry's first action was to declare himself king retroactive to the day before the battle, thus ensuring that anyone who had fought against him would be guilty of treason. It is interesting to note, therefore, that he spared Richard's designated heir, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. He would have cause to regret his leniency two years later, when Lincoln rebelled and attempted to set a boy pretender of peasant stock, Lambert Simnel, on the throne in Henry's place. Lincoln was killed at the Battle of Stoke, but Henry, seeing Simnel as only a puppet of Lincoln, spared him and took him in as a kitchen servant.
Simnel had been put forward as "Edward VI", impersonating the young Edward, Earl of Warwick, son of George, Duke of Clarence. Edward was still imprisoned in the Tower: Henry had locked the boy up for safekeeping at the age of 10, and did not execute him until 1499. Edward's elder sister, Margaret Pole, who had the next best claim on the throne, inherited her father's earldom of Salisbury and survived well into the next century (until she fell victim to a bill of attainder for treason too, under Henry VIII).
Henry married Elizabeth of York with the hope of uniting the Yorkist and Lancastrian sides of the Plantagenet dynastic disputes. In this he was largely successful. However, a level of paranoia continued, such that anyone with blood ties to the old Plantagenet family was suspected of coveting the throne.
Henry VII's policy was both to maintain peace and to create economic prosperity. Up to a point, he succeeded in both. He was not a military man, and had no interest in trying to regain the French territories lost during the reigns of his predecessors; he was therefore only too ready to conclude a treaty with France at Etaples that both directly and indirectly brought money into the coffers of England, and ensured that the French would not support pretenders to the English throne, such as Perkin Warbeck. However, this treaty came at a slight price, as Henry mounted a minor invasion of Brittany in November 1492. This act of war was a bluff by Henry as he had no intention of fighting over the winter periods. However, as France was becoming more distracted with the Italian Wars, it was more than happy to agree to the Treaty of Etaples.
Henry had been under the financial and physical protection of the French throne or its vassals for most of his career prior to his ascending to the throne of England. To strengthen his position, however, he subsidized shipbuilding, so strengthening the navy (he commissioned Europe's first ever — and the world's oldest surviving — dry dock at Portsmouth in 1495) and improving trading opportunities. By the time of his death, he had amassed a personal fortune of 1.5 million pounds; it did not take his son as long to fritter it away as it had taken the father to acquire it.
Henry VII was one of the first European monarchs to recognise the importance of the newly-united Spanish kingdom and thus concluded the Treaty of Medina Del Campo in 1489, by which his son, Arthur Tudor, was married to Catherine of Aragon. Similarly, the first treaty between England and Scotland for almost two centuries betrothed his daughter Margaret to King James IV of Scotland, a move which would ultimately see the English and Scottish crowns united under one of Margaret's descendants, James I. He also formed an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire, under the emperor Maximilian I (1493–1519) and persuaded Pope Innocent VIII to issue a Bull of Excommunication against all pretenders to Henry's throne.
Henry's most successful economic related diplomacy came through the Magnus Intercursus (1496). In 1494, Henry had a trade embargo (mainly the trade of wool) with The Netherlands (ultimately, Margaret of Burgundy and Maximilian of the Holy Roman Empire), as he wanted to stop their support of the Pretender Perkin Warbeck. This paid off for Henry as the Magnus Intercursus was agreed in 1496 which helped to remove taxation for English merchants and significantly increase the wealth of England.
However, towards the end of Henry's reign, it can be argued that he became greedy. In 1506 he agreed the Treaty of Windsor with Philip of Netherlands which also resulted in the Malus Intercursus (the evil agreement). Again, from this treaty, Henry aimed to make English trade more profitable. However, France, Burgundy, The Holy Roman Empire, Spain and the Hanseatic League became particularly annoyed with this and significantly reduced their trade with Henry. Philip also died shortly after the Treaty, which left Henry quite vulnerable and with debts of up to £30,000.
Henry's principal problem was to restore royal authority in a realm still recovering from the disorders of the Wars of the Roses. There were too many powerful noblemen, and, as a consequence of the system of so-called bastard feudalism, each had what amounted to private armies of indentured retainers (contracted men-at-arms masquerading as servants).
He was content to allow the nobles their regional influence if they were loyal to him. For instance, the Stanley family had control of Lancashire and Cheshire, upholding the peace on the condition that they themselves stayed within the law.
In other cases, he brought his over powerful subjects to heel by decree. He passed laws against 'livery' (flaunting one's adherents by giving them badges and emblems) and 'maintenance' (keeping too many male 'servants'). These were used very shrewdly in levying fines upon those that he perceived a threat.
However, his principal weapon was the Court of Star Chamber. This revived an earlier practice of using a small (and trusted) group of the Privy Council as a personal or Prerogative Court, able to cut through the cumbersome legal system and act swiftly. Serious disputes involving the use of personal power, or threats to royal authority, were dealt with by the new Court.
Henry VII used Justices of the Peace (JPs) on a large, nationwide scale. They were appointed for every shire and served for a year at a time. Their chief task was to see that the laws of the country were obeyed in their area. Their powers and numbers steadily increased during the Tudors, never more so than under Henry’s reign.
Despite this, Henry was keen to constrain their power and influence, applying the same principles to the Justices of the Peace as he did to the nobility. i.e. a similar system of bonds and recognisances to which applied to both the gentry (who were most likely to be appointed as Justices of the Peace) as well as the nobles who tried to exert their elevated influence over these local officials.
The enforcement of Acts of Parliament was overseen by the Justices of the Peace. For example, Justices of the Peace could replace suspect jurors in accordance with the 1495 act preventing the corruption of juries. They were also in charge of various administrative duties, such as the checking of weights and measures.
By 1509, Justices of Peace were the key enforcers of law and order for Henry VII. They were unpaid, which, in comparison with modern standards, meant a lesser tax bill to pay for a police force. Local gentry saw the office as one of local influence and prestige and were therefore willing to serve. Overall, this was a successful area of policy for Henry, both in terms of efficiency and as a method of reducing the corruption endemic within the nobility of the Middle Ages.
Yet by 1509 it was one of Henry's most unpopular policies, as it had led to thirty-six of the state's sixty-two noble families being put under financial threat by the Justice of the Peace. In addition, only one duke was in his own position due to heritage, the rest having had their titles removed or changed. Most notable was the Duke of Norfolk (the second most powerful man in the country), who was declared a traitor and saw his lands confiscated. So unpopular was this policy that when the son Henry VIII came to power, he immediately distanced himself by releasing all noble families from any financial threat from the government; as well, he had executed Empson and Dudley, the two of his father's agents most closely linked with the most ruthless financial demands and the council of law.
|Arthur, Prince of Wales||20 September 1486||2 April 1502||Married Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536) in 1501.|
|Margaret Tudor, Princess of England||28 November 1489||18 October 1541||Married (1) James IV, King of Scotland (1473–1513) in 1503. Married (2) Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus (1489–1557) in 1514.|
|Henry VIII, King of England||28 June 1491||28 January 1547||Married (1) Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536) in 1509. Married (2) Anne Boleyn (1501–1536) in 1533. Married (3) Jane Seymour (1503–1537) in 1536. Married (4) Anne of Cleves (1515–1557) in 1540. Married (5) Catherine Howard (1520–1542) in 1540. Married (6) Catherine Parr (1512–1548) in 1543.|
|Elizabeth Tudor, Princess of England||2 July 1492||14 September 1495||Died young.|
|Mary Tudor, Princess of England||18 March 1496||25 June 1533||Married (1) Louis XII, King of France (1462–1515) in 1514. Married (2) Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk (1484–1545) in 1515. Mary was the grandmother to Lady Jane Grey).|
|Edmund Tudor, Duke of Somerset||21 February 1499||19 June 1500||Died young.|
|Katherine Tudor, Princess of England||2 February 1503||2 February 1503||Died young. Mother, Elizabeth of York, died as a result of Katherine's birth.|
An illegitimate son has also been attributed to Henry by "a Breton Lady":
|Sir Roland de Velville or Veleville||1474||25 June 1535||He was knighted in 1497 and was Constable of Beaumaris Castle. If de Velville was in fact Henry's son, he was born during the period of Henry's exile in France. Roland de Velville's descendants included Katheryn of Berain, hence she is sometimes referred to as "Katherine Tudor".|