Conspiracies, bribery, intrigue, and lies. Are we talking about modern politics or the politics of Tudor England? Just like present day politicians, separating fact from fiction, isn’t always straightforward or easy.
When someone says “Tudor”, what is the first thing that pops into your head? Shakespeare, Showtime specials, Tudor architecture, and Cate Blanchett? Or maybe it’s more along the lines of the executioner’s axe, lust, greed, and tyranny? Most people picture an era infamous for a lot of bloodshed (Henry VIII killed off many of his wives and advisors, “Bloody Mary” killed off many of her subjects, and Elizabeth executed her own cousin), but like many things that get the “Hollywood treatment”, the images of the Tudors may not be what they seem. So where does the spin stop and fact begin when it comes to the Tudors?
Henry VII is easily the most overlooked Tudor – when compared to some of his descendants, it’s often hard to find much about him at all – which is truly remarkable since without him, the Tudors would have been nothing more than exiles and the political pawns of anyone who wanted to make trouble for the English monarchy.
–Royalty in waiting? Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) did in fact have royal blood but it was pretty dilute , as royal connections went. Through his mother, he was a great, great, great grandson of Edward III through an illegitimate line that was later legitimized only after the ancestor eventually married his mistress, the mother of several of his children. On his father’s side, Henry’s grandfather was an obscure Welshman who effectively won the lottery when he caught the eye of the Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois. Henry, born in Wales, a place somewhat akin to the lawless 19th century world of cowboys and Indians in America’s west, hadn’t stepped foot in Wales for over 10 years, nor had he ever spent much time in England.
–Fearless leader? As far as we know, Henry had very little military experience, if any, and had no experience leading anything at all. He took an enormous gamble, with a lot of other people’s money and hired soldiers. Many historians believe that Henry would never have won without the support of the Stanley clan, a group notorious for riding the fence before backing the winner in every argument. Thomas Stanley, Henry’s stepfather, stood to gain quite a lot if his stepson became king, so he switched sides a few times before eventually deciding to back Henry at the last possible moment.
–Warrior king? Henry battled his own countrymen for the crown and then, once king, carefully avoided as many foreign wars as possible, preferring political maneuvering to battles. Although the maneuvering helped negotiations with other world players, it also helped to keep his coffers full.
–God’s chosen one? Religion was front and center for Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. She was excessively devout, even by the standards of the day. She went on to found two colleges at Cambridge, intended to educate clergy, and gave enormous sums of money to the church for most of her life. But her son frequently manipulated the church to line his own pockets. Henry was known to auction off church land to raise funds and he also delayed naming new bishops to a position since he received any money from the position until a new bishop was named.
–Benevolent sovereign? History says that Henry enjoyed his lavash palaces and liked to gamble at cards, but when it came to spending at other things, he was notoriously cheap. He heavily taxed the nobility whenever he needed funds (that is, when he wasn’t squeezing money from the church), and records show that once Henry’s son Arthur died, Henry kept his son’s widow (Catherine of Aragon) perpetually short of cash and in rather shabby conditions for a Dowager Princess of Wales.
I think getting to the bottom of a story gives you perspective and humanizes the players in a way nothing else can. Does having a better understanding of a historical person give you a better perspective of the time period? Does it make them more or less interesting?