‘History is just a list of boring dates!’ Joanna Hickson considers the importance and meaning of certain dates in the life of Henry VII.
We’ve recently had a royal wedding and millions cheered the happy couple – history in the making. But how many times do Historia readers hear people say, ‘I don’t like history, it’s just a list of boring dates’? Consequently many of us who write historical fiction try to avoid making too many calendar references, endeavouring to lure the reader into time, place and story without them.
Over five hundred years ago however, King Henry VII learned from bitter experience to take great care in choosing dates for his major events. The ship, on which the fourteen-year-old Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper were forced to flee into exile from their Yorkist enemies, became caught in a violent autumn storm and they were blown onto an unknown shore, lucky to be alive. Instead of exile in France, as Jasper had intended, they ended up as hostages of the Duke of Brittany, a lucky break as it transpired, as you may discover in my latest novel, The Tudor Crown.
Twelve years later though the adult Henry must surely have felt some serious qualms when the Duke of Buckingham invited him to join his October 1483 rebellion against their mutual cousin Richard III, who had contrived to steal the English throne from his twelve-year-old nephew Edward V. Nevertheless Henry decided to delay his own incursion, which had been planned for September, and once again fickle autumn weather almost cost him his life. A hurricane scattered his flotilla as it headed for the Dorset coast, driving his own ship far west of his intended landfall and forcing him to take shelter in Plymouth Sound, where Richard had posted a harbour watch. Henry only escaped capture and certain execution because he sent a recce party ashore first. When he saw his men arrested on landing, he turned ship and fled back across the Channel in more favourable winds.
Two years later, Buckingham having been betrayed and beheaded for treason, Henry Tudor assembled another invasion fleet and set sail on the first day of August – in perfect summer weather. Conditions remained favourable while his force of fellow exiles and French guns and mercenaries disembarked in remote West Wales and made a two hundred mile march across rivers and mountains, collecting thousands of recruits on the way, to confront Richard’s substantially larger army on a marshy plain in Leicestershire. As history records, against all likelihood Henry won the battle and was crowned on the same day with the coronet from the slain Richard’s own helm – and all this took place as the sun shone down on August the 22nd, 1485.
Today we remember that date for the Battle of Bosworth but when he called his first Parliament as king of England, Henry declared his reign to have started not on the 22nd but on August the 21st; no clerk’s mistake but part of what we might now call ‘a cunning plan’. By establishing himself as king by right on the day before the battle, he enabled his Parliament to find the knights and lords who had taken arms against him guilty of treason, rendering their lands and titles forfeit to the crown. A king, especially one who had been a penniless exile, needed money and this was his first effort to fill the royal coffers, which had been emptied by the spendthrift Yorkist regimes. It might have been a way to condemn all his enemies to death, but there were surprisingly few executions after Bosworth. Henry preferred to leave his opposition alive, under close surveillance and heavily fined; too poor to finance further rebellion – he hoped.
The date of his formal coronation in Westminster Abbey was equally carefully orchestrated. It took place on October 30th of the same year, shortly before the Parliament opened, so that when its members hailed him as ‘King by right and conquest’, his authority was reinforced as the anointed monarch. In order to further demonstrate his royal magnificence, the coronation was a very grand occasion, accompanied by processions, tournaments, fireworks and pageants but not by his intended wife, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter and heiress of her dead father, Edward IV. Henry had made a public vow to marry her whilst still an exile, but four months after Bosworth he still had not done so. His given reasons were, firstly, that the pope still had to grant the necessary dispensation for two people to marry who were within the fourth degree of consanguinity – in this case great, great grandchildren of Edward III – and secondly, that Parliament had to re-legitimise Elizabeth by revoking the Act of Titulus Regius by which Richard III had declared the children of Edward IV bastards and thus ineligible to inherit the throne. But the true reason was probably somewhat different.
Lady Margaret Beaufort, had passed the Lancastrian claim to the succession to her son and Henry was determined to be recognised as king in his own right, not just as the husband of the York heir. He wanted Elizabeth as his queen because she commanded the loyalty of her father’s followers, but he feared that if they were married and she was crowned alongside him, the pro-York Londoners might cheer more loudly for her than for him.
So their wedding was delayed until the 18th of January 1486, a date that is interesting to us today for a second reason. Their son and heir, Prince Arthur, was born on September 20th in the same year. In the fifteenth century there was no precise analysis of human gestation. A pregnancy was not confirmed until foetal movement was detected and so the weeks between conception and birth could not be accurately counted. In this modern age we realise that only eight months elapsed between the wedding date and Prince Arthur’s birth but at the time everyone involved was simply delighted to have a healthy heir to launch the Tudor dynasty. Prince Arthur was greeted as a full-term baby, who thrived in the early days of his infancy. There was no suggestion that the wedding might have been anticipated by a few weeks!
A final example of Henry VII’s attempts to manipulate dates came in the closing years of his reign. After Prince Arthur’s premature death in 1502 at the age of fifteen and Queen Elizabeth’s postnatal demise ten months later, the king’s health went into decline. What was probably a case of progressive tuberculosis produced occasional periods of remission, but the symptoms kept returning, subjecting him to frenzied bouts of coughing and a fiendishly sore throat, something the physicians of the period called ‘a quinsy’. He grew frailer and thinner but he was acutely conscious that the relative peace and prosperity he had managed to achieve in England would be destroyed, along with the Tudor dynasty, if his heir were a minor. His only remaining son, Prince Henry, just eleven when his mother died, would not be of age to rule independently until he reached eighteen. King Henry was desperate to survive until then.
In the event he died on the 21st of April 1509, two months short of his son’s eighteenth birthday but he had survived long enough to allow a smooth succession, with the new king’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, acting as regent for the brief hiatus. And her timing was even more precise than her son’s, for she died suddenly the day after her grandson’s birthday, leaving an energetic and headstrong King Henry VIII to rule as he saw fit – and we know how many wives and executions that eventually involved! His father and grandmother must have spun in their tombs.
- Henry VII painted 1505. © National Portrait Gallery, public domain.
Elizabeth of York, by Unknown artist, late 16th century, based on a work of circa 1500. © National Portrait Gallery
Margaret Beaufort, unknown artist, 17th century © National Portrait Gallery.