Henry VII's Reign


Greek Astronomy 1 | Henry VII | Henry VII's Reign | English Renaissance | Shakespeare & Elizabeth

Henry VII and the Creation of Shakespeare's England
Part II: The Reign of Henry VII

European Culture

Governing `After the French Fashion'

In 1485, afer Henry Tudor's forces landed in England and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, he was crowned King Henry VII. Henry acted quickly to consolidate power. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV of the opposing House of York, for the purpose of ending the feud between the two opposing Houses.

Neither revenge nor weakness disfigured the first months of the reign. The past years of bloodthirsty violence were forgotten. Following the Battle of Bosworth, Henry pardoned virtually all those who had fought against him. An Italian wrote to the Pope in December, 1485: ``The king shows himself very prudent and clement: all things appear disposed towards peace.'' Thus, an uprising in the north collapsed after Henry offered pardon to all who laid down their arms.

The Spanish ambassador reported that Henry VII showed a desire to ``govern England after the French fashion''--i.e., the fashion of Louis XI. He rapidly consolidated power in himself, while surrounding himself with a council of men, drawn largely from the middle classes, who shared his commitment to establishing a nation-state dedicated to the General Welfare of the entire population, rather than rule of the nobility. At no period of English history were the nobles more conspicuous at court, yet at no period did they have less real power, than during Henry VII's reign.

John Morton, who played a key role in organizing the conspiracy to bring Henry Tudor to power, was Henry VII's most senior advisor throughout his life. Morton had been born in 1420 and had studied at Oxford. He had risen to high positions in both the church and government under Kings Henry VI and Edward IV, although he was jailed by Richard III. Being a man of great integrity, intelligence, and vision, Morton would openly disagree with Henry VII, which won the king's respect, rather than resentment. Indicative of his outlook, was Morton's undertaking, when he was Bishop of Ely, to drain the fens between Wisbech and Peterborough; he also constructed a dike and waterway to the sea for barges and small craft.

Morton helped educate the young Thomas More, who lived in Morton's household. More later said of Morton, ``In his face did shine such an amiable reverence as was pleasant to behold, gentle in communication, yet earnest and sage. He had great delight many times with rough speech to his suitors to prove, but without harm, what prompt wit and what bold spirit were in every man. In his speech he was fine, eloquent, and pithy.|... In the law he had profound knowledge, in wit he was incomparable, and in memory wonderful excellent.''

Henry was also joined in France by Richard Fox, who became another key advisor. Born in approximately 1448, Fox studied first at Cambridge, and then in Paris, where he joined Henry. He was the closest to being the king's Foreign Minister, negotiating many key treaties, and was involved in promoting the Renaissance ``New Learning'' in England, as we shall see below.

Henry VII rapidly and firmly took up the duties of the monarchy, restoring order and checking waste. He raised the crown far above the nobles, and formed an alliance with the middle class, acting through their representatives in the House of Commons, who feared the return of the days of civil war, and realized that their survival and livelihood was dependent on the king's protection. Thus, Henry drew his strength from the loyalty of the common classes, not from the feudal nobility.

Henry VII introduced a fundamental change in the conception of law in England. He consciously acted to replace the arbitrary rule of the nobility, typified by the Magna Carta [<cf19>see<cf1> Box, page XX], for example, with reforms that made everyone legally accountable, regardless of their station. Only months after being crowned, Henry moved against the lawlessness of the feudal nobility, ordering an oath to be taken in Parliament, by the Lords and members of the House of Commons, on Nov. 19, 1485, ``for the reform of divers crimes and enormities.'' By the terms of the oath, they swore not to ``receive aid, or comfort murderers, felons, or outlaws, not to reteine any man by indenture, or other, not to give liverie, signe, or token contrary to law, or take, cause to be made, or assent to any maintenance, imbracerie, riotts, or unlawful assemblie, not to hinder the execution of royal writs, nor lett any known felon to bail or mainprise.''

Henry VII outlawed livery, and the maintenance of private armies. The armed bands who, wearing their feudal badges, had overawed the countryside, intimidated sheriffs, and bullied juries, now had their days numbered. Putting an end to the brigandage of the nobility required numerous statutes, since the feudal lords did not readily give up the practice of private war. But, by the end of Henry's reign, the typical English nobleman had been forced into other occupations than the medieval ones of riot and civil war.

Henry created a centralized judicial system, with a system for appeal of cases. By an Act passed in 1495, machinery by which appeal from the verdict of a jury might be made was established. The effect of these centralizing statues can hardly be exaggerated, as they introduced efficient local administration. To accomplish this, the King enlisted many minor members of the country gentry in his service, who became the props of the Tudor throne. Henry also created the Court of Requests, a poor man's court of equity, where the poor could sue without payment of fees, and were given free legal aid. Statutes were passed to protect the poor from injustice, and to penalize dishonest juries.

In November 1487, the Star Chamber Act created the Star Chamber as a court of appeals for those who were unable to get justice in courts controlled by the nobles. This Act allowed members of the King's council to form themselves into a court, and hold judicial sessions in the Star Chamber. This ``Council in Star Chamber'' usually consisted of seven or eight bishops, along with several other councillors. Virtually every one of the three hundred cases heard during Henry's reign was initiated by private suit, and not by government process. The most frequent complaint addressed to the council, was that defendants had come riotously, with force of arms, and evicted the plaintiff from his house or land. The sentences were remarkably humane. (This Court, which began as a place where the weak could appeal cases that had been rigged by the nobility, degenerated in less able hands into a weapon of cruelty, and finally perished in well-earned ignominy. Under Cardinal Wolsey, it evolved into the ``Court of Star Chamber,'' which existed until its abolition by the Long Parliament in 1641.)

Henry VII's reforms had the effect of transforming the judicial system, from one dominated by the whims of the nobility, to one based on a system of law, grounded in a commitment to the General Welfare. However, unlike the United States, England has never had a written constitution, not even to this day. There has never been an English Solon of Athens, or an English Constitutional Convention, as America's founders held in Philadelphia in 1787. Instead, the English Constitution consists of a body of statutory law, customs, and judicial interpretations; it is frequently called a customary or unwritten constitution. Consequently, many of the reforms introduced by Henry were reversed by the Venetian financial oligarchy, as it gained control over England during the following centuries. The role Henry defined for the monarch, as a strong chief executive of the nation, with the commitment and power to promote the General Welfare, was destroyed. Instead, the British monarch became the equivalent of a Venetian doge, or chief executive of the aristocracy. It was only with the founding of the United States of America, by men who were heirs to the best traditions of England, and Europe overall, that a nation was brought into being whose written constitution explicitly stated the commitment to ``promote the General Welfare'' for the citizens and their posterity, with institutions designed to carry out this task.

Economic Development for the Common Good

Under Henry VII, England experienced a fundamental shift from feudalism, to a policy of government-directed economic development, based on a conscious design to promote the General Welfare. Henry's reform of the economic system, while not complete, laid the basis for transforming England into a modern nation. He strove to increase the productivity of the population through government-directed improvements in infrastructure, technology, and the living standards and productivity of the population.


The description of Henry's polices as the ``Mercantile System,'' a name given them by later opponents, does not adequately convey the actual commitment to the improvement in the conditions of life for the common man. The Crown drew to itself more and more power. But, this great expansion of central control was almost uniformly beneficent in effect, as it was in intention. Author Gladys Temperley writes, ``We cannot point to a single one of Henry's commercial statutes that was designed to forward any selfish interests of the king or his advisers.''


Henry made the centralized government of the state the final arbiter of all economic policy decisions. For example, a series of Acts were passed controlling the craft guilds in particular instances. Even more significant was the step taken in 1504, when the guilds were brought under the control of the courts by an Act declaring that no guild regulation could be binding until it had been approved by the Chancellor, the Treasurer, the chief justices of the Kings bench and Common Pleas, or the judges on circuit.


The modern conception of a corporation, as a legal individual, whose existence was created and determined by the government, was developed during Henry's reign. The issuance of patents for new inventions--a spur to technological advance--was begun in this period.


Another of Henry's first acts was to separate the expenses of the royal household from the revenues of the state. The fact that previous kings had made no such distinction, reflects their outlook: that the kingdom was, in effect, their personal property. Henry was the first English king in a century to be solvent, something he achieved through careful management, and by limiting wasteful expenses. The kings of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had incomes ten times larger, but squandered their money on expensive wars.


During his reign, Henry VII implemented a series of monetary policy measures. A new coinage was issued to insure a standard currency, and weights and measures were standardized. Henry also accumulated a large treasury, strengthening him against rebellion and invasion, since potential opponents knew he did not lack the financial means to defend himself. By an Act of 1487, Henry outlawed usury: the Act was to restrain the ``dampnable bargayns groundyt in usurye, colorde by the name of newe Chevesaunce, contrarie to the lawe of naturell justis, to the comon hurt of this land.''


The national government also abrogated to itself the right to control prices and regulate wages. It is no exaggeration to say that by the end of his reign, the influence of Henry VII touched the lives of his subjects at almost every point. The idea that the central government had the right and the responsibility to regulate economic activity for the purpose of promoting the common good, had become firmly rooted as the governing principle of the nation. 

Regulating Foreign Trade  Henry mandated state control of foreign trade, for the purpose of promoting national economic development. Much of his legislation was designed in a consciously protective spirit. The development of both a navy and a merchant marine were central to the kingdom's military and economic security. The merchant fleet would supplement the small royal navy, as well as allow England to control its own trade.


The prior state of affairs, inherited by Henry at his accession, seemed almost hopeless. The merchant fleet, like everything else, had decayed, and foreign ships carried the sea-borne trade of England. In addition, trade was severely hindered by the insecurity of the roads and the sea, as well as by constant warfare.


One of Henry's first acts to control the nation's foreign trade, was the passage of the Navigation Act in 1489. The preamble of the Act noted that the fleet was so decayed, that England would soon lack the power and ability to defend itself. This temporary Act forbid the importation of wine or wood from Guienne or Gascony, except on English, Irish, or Welsh ships, manned by their sailors. It was renewed in 1490, during which interval Henry had succeeded in obtaining a share of the carrying trade in Italian wine. This law mandated that no foreign ship could be freighted in an English port, while an English ship remained unladen. Although the Navigation Acts may have hindered England's foreign trade at first, by the end of Henry's reign the English merchant fleet was flourishing. Customs duties increased by 28 percent. 

The Cloth Industry  Central to Henry VII's economic policy was the promotion of English manufactures. Although many of his laws continued those previously implemented by Edward IV, Henry's policy was consciously motivated by a clear principle, from which he designed a coherent plan. His efforts met with considerable success.


The most prominent of these efforts was Henry's treatment of the wool trade and the cloth industry. Henry placed an export duty--in some cases, as high as 70 percent--on the export of undressed wool, to encourage the development of a native cloth industry. Meanwhile, the duty on exported cloth was never higher than nine percent of its value. A 1489/90 statute gave English cloth-makers the right to buy wool, before it could be exported. A statute of King Edward's was re-enacted, forbidding the export of unrowed and unshorn cloth, whereby ``outlandissh nacions with the same dapry arne sette on labour and occupacion to their greate enriching, and the kynges true liegemen ... for lake of such occupacion dailly fall in great number to ydelnes and povertie.''

Transformation of the Iron Industry  Henry's army is reported to have had a significant number of cannon at the victorious Battle of Bosworth, an emphasis undoubtedly learned from the French, who used them against the English with devastating effectiveness to end the Hundred Years War. In 1449-50, the French had conducted sixty successful siege operations in one year, using powerful cannon to blast the English out of their French holdings. The manufacture of these cannon was made possible by advances in the French iron industry, such that, by the end of the Fifteenth century, French cannon had acquired a high international repution, owing to their splendid quality, rapidity of firing, and use of cast-iron shot, rather than stone balls.


French production of iron cannon was made possible through the development of the blast furnace, which was able to heat iron above its melting point, so that the metal could be poured into molds. (Using previous methods, iron products were manufactured at temperatures below the melting point, a much less efficient process.) The new blast furnace method, which increased productivity fifteen-fold and made possible a much broader range of products, represented a tremendous advance in a technology, which was key to the expansion of industry overall.


Henry VII was the first English king to manufacture iron cannon, based on his constructing the first blast furnaces in England. In so doing, he revolutionized the English iron industry, laying the basis for the transformation of the English economy in the following centuries. The first blast furnace was set up by Henry in 1496 on royal land, to manufacture cannon balls as part of preparations to defend England from Scottish invasion. Shortly thereafter, cast iron cannon were produced.


Henry also increased the number of gunners in royal service. They numbered 30 in 1489; by 1497, there were 49 gunners at the Tower of London alone. Many were foreign nationals, many French. These gunners were not only artillerymen, but also experts in shot and gun founding. Although Henry's cannon were produced to defend the nation from foreign invaders, the existence of such a stockpile, capable of reducing any feudal castle, served as a powerful deterrent to England's quarrelsome feudal nobility.

Creation of the Navy  Henry VII created a national army, centralizing control over the military and ending the power of the nobility to make war. Central to this effort was the development of the navy.


When Henry ascended to the throne, there were only four ships owned by the Crown, and pirates roamed the Channel unchecked. Henry built three large men-of-war, which became the nucleus of the navy. The ``Harry Grace a Dieu,'' was a 1,000-ton, four-masted ship, with about seventy guns and a crew of 700. Many of the guns were manufactured in England. The government also subsidized the construction of merchant ships, under an agreement that these ships could be hired into the navy in time of crisis.


The city of Portsmouth was developed as a fortified naval station, capable of meeting the needs of a permanent navy. The first drydock in the British Isles was also constructed at Portsmouth, which was ready for use by May 1496.


Central to the long-term success of Henry VII's program, was the increase in the merchant marine encouraged by the Navigation Acts, because the increase in overseas trade demanded the maintenance of a strong navy.

Foreign Policy for Peace  Henry VII took great interest in foreign affairs. In 1497, the Milanese ambassador reported that Henry was so well informed about events in Italy, ``that we have told him nothing new.'' Even the courtiers knew so much about Italian affairs, that the ambassador fancied himself at Rome.


Only once did Henry fight a war on foreign soil, when he sought to contain the ambitions of France's Charles VII, which presented a threat to England. However, Henry signed the Treaty of Etaples with Charles in 1492, in which he gave up the English claim to the French throne. Never again did Henry take up arms outside Britain, and his policy was consistently to promote peace between the other nations of Europe. This was a great benefit to England, as the nation could concentrate on its economic development, while the rulers of France, Spain, and other nations squandered tremendous resources on wars which often weakened them.


Section 1: The Founding of the English Nation-State

Henry VII

Section 3:

English Renaissance

Section 4:

Shakespeare & Elizabeth

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