by Susan Flantzer
Henry Tudor, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, was born on January 28, 1457 at Pembroke Castle in Wales. Three months before his birth, his father Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond died of the plague while imprisoned, leaving a 13-year-old pregnant widow, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Upon his birth, Henry succeeded to his father’s title, Earl of Richmond.
Henry’s father, Edmund Tudor, was the eldest child of Owen Tudor and Catherine of Valois, widow of King Henry V of England. Therefore, Edmund was the half-brother of King Henry VI of England. Owen Tudor’s ancestors were from prominent Welsh families. Catherine of Valois was the daughter of King Charles VI of France and Isabeau of Bavaria. There is much debate as to whether Catherine and Owen married. No documentation of a marriage exists and even if they did marry, their marriage would not have been legal due to the act regarding the remarriage of a queen dowager. From the relationship of Owen Tudor and Catherine of Valois descended King Henry VII of England and the Tudor dynasty. Through their great-granddaughter, Margaret Tudor (Henry VII’s daughter), they are the ancestors of the British royal family and many other European royal families.
Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was the only child of John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset and Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso. Through her father, Lady Margaret was a descendant of King Edward III of England. Her grandfather John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset was the eldest child of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster (Edward III’s son), and his mistress Katherine Swynford, whom he married in 1396. Their children were declared legitimate by King Richard II of England and Pope Boniface IX, but their half-brother King Henry IV of England introduced a provision that neither they nor their descendants could ever claim the throne of England. For more details, see Wikipedia: Margaret Beaufort – Ancestors.
At the time of Henry Tudor’s birth, the Wars of the Roses, the fight for the English throne between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, was two years old, and his mother, a descendant of the House of Lancaster, was living at Pembroke Castle under the protection of her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor. Lady Margaret married two more times, but had no more children.
Jasper Tudor brought up his nephew Henry. In 1461, when the Yorkist Edward IV became king, Jasper went into exile and Henry became the guardian of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke. In 1470, the Lancastrian King Henry VI gained the throne again, but six months later the Yorkist King Edward IV regained the throne, and King Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London. Jasper left England again for France and took his nephew Henry with him to keep him safe. Jasper and Henry were given refuge by François II, Duke of Brittany. The next 13 years of Henry’s life were spent in Brittany and little is known of his life there.
In 1483, King Edward IV died and was briefly succeeded by his young son King Edward V. Before the young king could be crowned, his father’s marriage to his mother Elizabeth Woodville was declared invalid, making their children illegitimate and ineligible for the throne. King Edward IV’s brother King Richard III assumed the throne. The former King Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York (the Little Princes in the Tower) disappeared during the summer of 1483 and their fate is unknown.
Henry Tudor’s mother, despite being married to a Yorkist, Thomas Stanley, was actively promoting her son as an alternative to King Richard III. King Edward IV’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville and Henry’s mother made a secret agreement that their children should marry. On Christmas Day in 1483, still in France, Henry pledged to marry King Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, who was also Edward’s heir since the presumed deaths of her brothers, King Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York. In 1485, having gained the support of the Woodvilles, the in-laws of the late King Edward IV, Henry Tudor sailed to Wales with a small French and Scottish force. On August 7, 1485, they landed in Mill Bay, Pembrokeshire, Wales, close to Henry’s birthplace. Henry Tudor then marched towards England accompanied by his uncle Jasper Tudor and John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford.
On August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses, the last king of the House of York and the Plantagenet dynasty, 32-year-old King Richard III of England, lost his life and his crown. The battle was a decisive victory for the House of Lancaster, whose leader 28-year-old Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, became the first monarch of the House of Tudor.
Richard had entered the battle as a seasoned soldier, wearing a battle crown on top of his helmet. During the battle, he saw an opportunity to strike directly at Henry Tudor and his personal guard and sped off on his horse. After managing to kill Henry Tudor’s standard bearer, Richard saw something he had not expected. Sir William Stanley, the younger brother of Henry Tudor’s stepfather, changed sides. Instead of supporting Richard and the Yorkists, Stanley attacked them, helping to secure a victory for Henry Tudor and the Lancastrians.
Richard was overwhelmed by Stanley’s soldiers and at some point, he took off or lost his helmet. Polydore Vergil, Henry Tudor’s official historian, wrote that “King Richard, alone, was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies.” According to Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn, the leading Welsh Lancastrian Rhys ap Thomas, or one of his men, killed the king, writing that he “killed the boar, shaved his head.” After the battle, Henry Tudor’s men were yelling, “God save King Henry!” Inspired by this, Sir William Stanley found Richard’s battle crown and placed it on Henry Tudor’s head saying, “Sir, I make you King of England.”
Henry Tudor’s first action was to declare himself king by right of conquest. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey on October 30, 1485. King Henry VII did not neglect to reward his supporters. Among them were his uncle Jasper Tudor who became Duke of Bedford and his stepfather Thomas Stanley who became Earl of Derby, and his descendant still holds the title. The first Parliament of King Henry VII’s reign was called in November 1485 and a bill was passed confirming Henry’s right to the throne and settling the succession upon the heirs of his body.
Henry also honored his pledge to marry Elizabeth of York, King Edward IV’s eldest child, thereby uniting the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The couple married on January 18, 1486 at the Palace of Westminster. Henry had Parliament repeal Titulus Regius, the act that declared King Edward IV’s marriage invalid and his children illegitimate, thereby legitimizing his wife. The Tudor Rose, a combination of the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York, symbolized the new House of Tudor.
Children of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York:
- Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486 – 1502), married Catherine of Aragon, no issue
- Margaret Tudor (1489 – 1541), married (1) James IV, King of Scotland, had issue including King James V of Scotland; (2) Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, had issue; (3) Henry Stewart, 1st Lord Methven, no surviving issue; Margaret was grandmother of both Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, the parents of King James I of England
- Henry VIII, King of England (1491 – 1547), married (1) Catherine of Aragon, had daughter Queen Mary I of England; (2) Anne Boleyn, had daughter Queen Elizabeth I of England; (3) Jane Seymour, had son King Edward VI of England; (4) Anne of Cleves, no issue; (5) Catherine Howard, no issue; (6) Catherine Parr, no issue
- Elizabeth Tudor (1492 – 1495)
- Mary Tudor (1496 – 1533), married (1) Louis XII, King of France, no issue; (2) Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, had issue, grandparents of Lady Jane Grey
- Edmund Tudor, Duke of Somerset (1499 – 1500)
- Katherine Tudor (born and died February 1503) her mother, Elizabeth of York, died as a result of Katherine’s birth
During his reign, King Henry VII’s two main goals were peace-keeping and economic prosperity, and he succeeded at both. He did not try to retake the territories lost in France during the reigns of his predecessors. Instead, he concluded a peace treaty with France, which helped fill the coffers of England again. Henry made a pact with Spain with the marriage treaty of his eldest son Arthur, Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragon. He also allied himself with Scotland by marrying his daughter Margaret to King James IV of Scotland. Ultimately, this marriage would unite England and Scotland when King James VI of Scotland succeeded King Henry VII’s granddaughter Queen Elizabeth I of England. Finally, Henry formed an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire under Maximilian I. In order to improve the economic position of England, Henry subsidized shipbuilding, so at the same time, a powerful navy and a large merchant fleet were created.
Although King Henry VII is usually considered miserly, he maintained a splendid court, built Richmond Palace, and rebuilt Baynard’s Castle and Greenwich Palace. He founded several religious houses and supported his mother’s educational and religious causes. Perhaps his greatest building legacy is the beautiful Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey where he and his wife (and many others) are buried.
Henry’s eldest son and heir Arthur died suddenly in 1502, probably from the sweating sickness, shortly after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. His second son Henry then became heir and married Catherine of Aragon, the first of his six wives, shortly after he succeeded to the throne as King Henry VIII. In 1503, Henry’s wife Elizabeth died on her 37th birthday, probably from puerperal fever, shortly after giving birth to her last child who also died. Henry was grief-stricken, remained in seclusion for six weeks, and would only allow his mother near him. He considered marrying again after Elizabeth’s death, but nothing ever came of it.
Henry’s health began to fail in 1507, and he suffered from attacks of gout and asthma. King Henry VII died at Richmond Palace on April 21, 1509 at the age of 52. He lies buried with his wife Elizabeth in a tomb created by Italian artist Pietro Torrigiano in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Henry’s mother died two months later and therefore lived to see her grandson become King Henry VIII.