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Response to Review no. 865

I would like to thank Pauline Croft for her detailed and thoughtful review of the special issue of Historical Research commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry VII. It is no small task to summarize ten scholarly articles in a concise yet meaningful way, and it is hoped that potential readers both in and outside the field of study will be encouraged to explore the various aspects of the first Tudor’s reign as expressed by the authors. Her comments about the scholarship of the authors and a desire to provide greater accessibility to larger audiences are greatly appreciated.

The last paragraph of the review proffered certain thoughts about the issue as a whole that, for the most part, I concur with on several levels. The suggestion that Henry VII was a king ‘who never felt that he could rely on the loyalty of his subjects’ is clearly true, but perhaps also endemic of the job. His Yorkist predecessors Edward IV and Richard III, for example, lost their thrones (the latter permanently) in part because of misplaced or suspect loyalties, and I should think that monarchs prior to Henry VII – and not a few afterwards – obtained limited restful sleep at night during their reigns for these reasons alone. Nonetheless, Henry obviously had good reason to ponder loyalties from early in the reign courtesy of the ‘pretender’ Lambert Simnel and his ability to draw a following.

The point made that Henry did not cultivate ‘the support of the English people’ is an interesting one worthy of more exploration. One indirect approach he did pursue was to bring stability and solvency to the monarchy, which in modern parlance would ‘trickle down’ to the populace at large. Contemporaries felt that he indeed accomplished this, ending the dynastic battles of the previous 30 years and bringing prosperity that all could share. One commentator writing in 1548, Edward Hall, was quoted in my article on Henry’s wealth (p. 560) to this effect: ‘The king “mervelously enriched his realme & him selfe, & yet left his sub[j]ectes in high wealth and prosperitie.”’

Whether Henry ‘preferred an atmosphere of tension and even fear’ intentionally, or by default through his bond policies and special royal commissions, brings us to the same place: he did govern intensively (to use one of Margaret McGlynn’s observations, p. 557, noted by the reviewer) to the point where corruption was both possible and sometimes prominent, and many people were harmed financially and personally. Such intensity was pervasive. Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley may have been the poster children for corruption who paid the ultimate price once blame was required, but many of Henry’s ministers and officials prosecuted the same policies and survived to remain in office under Henry VIII. Moreover, the policies did not die with the first Tudor king; only the intensity and, one can only surmise, much of the corruption (p. 447 ff).

Regarding a lack of discussion about ‘the increasingly precarious succession’ after the death of his third son, Edmund (1500), Prince Arthur (1502) and Queen Elizabeth of York (1503), such ramifications were addressed regarding a potential crisis late in the reign. Sean Cunningham noted that ‘the dynastic threat facing Henry VII had not disappeared by 1500’, referencing the deaths of these three people. After Elizabeth’s death, he observed that ‘Henry suffered a persistent crises of security brought on by the recurring problems over the stability of the crown – most specifically concerns over the succession, and his own periodic ill health’ (pp. 461–2.) He also discussed the activities of Edmund de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, and his brother Richard, which exacerbated the situation. I addressed the ‘potential for instability for the crown’ not only from these deaths and the threat of Suffolk, but from the losses of Cardinal Morton (1500) and Reynold Bray (1503), which robbed Henry of two of his most trusted mentors and councilors (p. 442). The king’s concerns for maintaining both his government’s effectiveness and his dynasty reached critical mass in these last years, and the first Tudor monarch could have easily ended up the last Tudor monarch but for the stability of his administration, the trustworthiness of his councillors and the continued good health of his second son, soon to be the 17-year-old Henry VIII.

The reviewer’s last point, to me, is both significant and one that we share: we all desire a greater evaluation of the man who was Henry VII. In discussions I had with the authors during the 3-year period for this project, a common lament was the observation that after 500 years we still know relatively little about Henry Tudor compared to previous monarchs. Polydore Vergil was basically his only contemporary biographer, and he arrived in court late in the reign. Much as it would be desirous to speculate on his personality and character, it was felt that we had to come at the person from a different angle – one that attempted to understand what he did, why he did it, and what it meant to his reign, rule and the realm of England. When we can unravel and discern better the actions of a person and the degree of involvement, we can better assess the personal traits and perspectives of that person. By encouraging more research and discussion – and it is hoped that this issue will provoke both – it may become more fruitful to construct a ‘Henry VII’ by understanding what he did from his birth in 1457 until his death in 1509. So in this respect, the reviewer and I hope that ‘the tantalizing question “Who was Henry VII?”’ will find answers as we learn more about his actions and reactions as the first Tudor king.