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New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603by Susan Brigden
Rather Feared than Loved HENRY VII AND HIS DOMINIONS
Only Richard III's usurpation of the throne, his murder of the young princes in the Tower — alleged against him but never proved — and the violence of his subsequent rule made Henry Tudor, an obscure and exiled claimant, a likely contender for the throne of England. In August 1485, after long years of precarious exile, Henry landed in South Wales to challenge the throne with a motley army of French and Scottish troops and English fugitives. Presenting himself as the unifier of the warring Houses of York and Lancaster, and as heir to both dynasties, he promised to free an oppressed people from Richard Plantagenet, homicide and unnatural tyrant'. At Bosworth Field in Leicestershire Richard charged into the midst of the usurper's army and, abandoned by his supposed allies and by the God of battles, was cut down. He lost his kingdom and his life and left Henry Tudor, for the while, without a rival. The Tudor adventurer found himself king by right of conquest, by inheritance and by acclamation, of a country he neither knew nor understood.
Henry Tudor was born in Pembroke in 1457, and had fled there once before, for shelter, in 1470-71. It was to Pembroke and to Wales that he returned in 1485, hoping for popular support and promising to restore lost freedoms. As he marched through the coastal lowlands and northwards he saw at first a landscape of mixed farming, where the furrows of ploughland traced agricultural progress. Making his way through the centre of the principality, he entered a bleaker territory of mountain and moorland, of rocky, barren heath where sheep and cattle grazed, but where otherwise signs of cultivation were few, for the people accepted the constraints of nature. Perhaps 200,000 people lived in Wales then, bound by a strong sense of national identity, made clear in their use of the name Cymry, 'people of one region'. Most of these people lived in the lowlands, in villages, while in the pastoral uplands there were single farmsteads in lonely valleys. Henry Tudor's forced march into England led across the mountains of mid Wales to the lordships of the Welsh Marches, to Welshpool and the Shropshire plain beyond. He marched over Long Mountain down the Roman road to Shrewsbury, into the English Midlands, and to victorious battle with Richard III on 22 August.
Henry's passage from Wales to Bosworth Field in the heart of England showed him the diversity of the dominions he now claimed. Nature had defined the patterns of terrain and soil, of lowland and hills, of the prevailing wind and rainfall, which human labour could exploit but never change. The landscape determined the patterns not only of cultivation, but also of inheritance and social relations; as the landscape changed, even within counties, so did the character of settlement. The fenlands and marshlands and wild upland dales each created their own distinct agricultural and social worlds, and with transport slow and laborious, every region was highly localized and fragmented. In Leicestershire, where he took his crown, Henry was in the heart of open-field countryside — ploughland, where land was intensively cultivated according to communal rules. Here he could survey a patchwork of green and gold, furlongs of corn and crops in hedgeless fields. There was forest there also, Charnwood Forest, and tilled fields might always revert to forest. The people of England had waged war upon nature — clearing, felling, ploughing, draining — but with more energy at some times and in some places. The retreat of the population after the devastating plagues of the mid fourteenth century, and the continuing epidemic illnesses and stagnation of the population through the next century, had brought a retreat in cultivation. As Henry entered this kingdom he claimed, there were perhaps two and a half or three million people in England and Wales. Within a generation the population began to rise dramatically, and with that rise came great alterations to the seemingly immemorial, changeless character of rural society.
Describing the landscape, contemporaries distinguished not between highland and lowland, but between champion (open) ground and woodland, between a pattern of arable farming and a pastoral landscape with isolated farmsteads set amidst their closes of pasture. In fielden country there were numerous villages and towns, surrounded by their common fields, with houses and hovels clustered around parish church and manor house. In woodland areas towns were few and far between, settlement dispersed. The distinction between arable and pastoral was moral as well as topographical: where the land was uncultivated so the people were believed to be also. Forest and pastoralism were associated with a more primitive, barbaric state.
As Henry surveyed his realm, he saw more sheep than people; those sheep which More would characterize as 'devourers of men'. Vast areas of open-field arable land were being converted to sheep and cattle pasture in the later fifteenth century, and where before a hundred arable labourers had tilled and harrowed, now a few shepherds watched. In most of England — the south-east, south-west and north — the countryside had been fenced and enclosed before, often long before, and these anciently enclosed lands had their own character. Nearly a century later, in 1572, the Duke of Norfolk defended himself against the charge of planning an invasion through Harwich by asking rhetorically who would choose to lead an army through an area so wholly enclosed by hedges and encumbered by narrow paths. In the Midlands conversion from tillage to pasture was taking place as Henry Tudor came to the throne, as lords of the manor and great freeholders took commercial decisions with devastating consequences for communities, evicting tenants who were powerless to oppose when lands and lives were determined at the lord's will. Enclosure was caused by decay and depopulation, as well as causing them, for population decline had led to labour shortage. But now the population began to rise, and with that rise came a drive to cultivate in order to feed.
The new king could see the patterns of landscape and cultivation as he passed. He knew that all lordship, influence and status rested upon land, and understood the sanctity of landed property, which no king must violate. His seizure of the crown had made him the greatest landowner in England, and he would become greater still. Yet what neither he, nor anyone else, could tell just by looking was how the land was held; who held freehold as free tenants, and who held land at the lord's will as customary tenants and copyholders, owing him fees and fines and duties. The nature of ownership dictated where power lay and determined or disturbed the peace of the countryside. Some land was left 'waste', in its natural state, for the common grazing which was vital for the whole economy, and especially for the landless poor. This common land was about to become overstocked and under threat. If the King had cared to observe them, the social inequalities, and the poverty, were manifest, even in the fertile landscape of the east Midlands. Here about one third of the male population were cottagers and labourers, with little hope of acquiring their own farms, and facing a hard struggle even to defend their common grazing. A quarter of the personal wealth of Leicestershire villagers in the early sixteenth century was held by 4 per cent of the people. Such inequalities were taken as part of the divine and natural order, which no one should question. As the first Tudor king passed by, the common people looked on, their lives affected more by the fecundity of the harvest, which happened to be good in 1485, than by any change of dynasty.
Henry had been crowned on the battlefield with the crown of the fallen King, and acclaimed by his troops. Taking oaths of allegiance from the towns on his way, he marched on slowly towards London, the capital and centre of trade, and nearby Westminster, the heart of government. London was England's largest city, but its population was only about 50,000. The population of Paris was three or four times as large. The citizens of London boasted of their worldwide trade, but they lived in a city of one square mile, bound still within its ancient and defensible walls. London was a great franchise, proud of its freedoms and wealth, arrogant in its claims. The City's loyalty must be won and its conformity assured, but it had in its long history often shown sympathies quite different from those the Crown required. London was small enough for news to travel fast, and for causes to be swiftly followed; it was large enough for a formidable volume of support or resentment to grow and for fearsome numbers to gather. Its citizens had acquiesced sullenly at Richard III's usurpation, and regretted it; they welcomed Henry Tudor at his accession, and came to regret it.
The towers and steeples of London's hundred parish churches and its many religious houses dominated the skyline, for none of the laity aspired to build to rival the Church, and only the Guildhall, the seat of the City's governors, and the daunting Tower could compare in grandeur. To the north door of St Paul's Cathedral the new king came to offer his battle standards in thanks to the giver of victory. One bore the red dragon of Cadwaladr, symbolizing Tudor descent from the ancient British kings who had defeated the Saxon invaders. Another banner carried the symbol of St George of England; another the Lancastrian and Beaufort emblems. On 30 October Henry VII was crowned, swearing the oath sworn by kings long before him to keep the peace to clergy and people, to do justice in mercy and in truth, and to maintain the laws: an oath which few had been able to keep. His marriage in January 1486 to Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's daughter, sealed his pact with the Yorkists, merged the Yorkist claim with the Tudors, and promised an end to the civil wars between Lancaster and York. A prince was born within the year. They called him Arthur, with evident promise, recalling the Arthurian past and ancient British blood of the Tudors, and looking to the future of the dynasty.
'Britain' was an ancient land of myth, not a political reality. When Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey wrote in his last poem of the blood which he had shed 'for Britannes sake', he used a term of art, for the lands of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland were very far from being united as 'Britain'. Henry was acclaimed 'by the grace of God, King of England and of France, Prince of Wales and Lord of Ireland'. Until only a generation earlier the English monarchy had also ruled Gascony and Normandy. Now only Calais was still in English possession, a military outpost, but the claim to the throne of France and the Angevin empire lived on. It was France and French ways of governing which Henry knew best, after long exile in France and ducal Brittany: it was England which this inexperienced, stranger king must now rule. England was an ancient, unified and intensively governed realm. Compared with the other kingdoms of late medieval Europe, it had remarkable governmental coherence and lack of provincial autonomy and custom. There was a common law, a common language (save in distant, Celtic Cornwall) and a common coinage. A sophisticated and intrusive bureaucracy, centred at Westminster, through proper forms and channels sent tens of thousands of parchment directives every year into the shires. This was an administration which meant to keep the peace even down to village level, and to protect the property of the king's free subjects. In war, it could marshal and provision forces. Taxation was freely granted in Parliament and duly collected. And yet this public authority, its administration of justice, its maintenance of peace and order, was upheld — and could be subverted — by the private power and personal lordship of the king's leading landed subjects: upon their consent and cooperation the whole system of governance depended. The king, as the greatest of lords and of landholders, had his private following (or affinity), but in his public role as king he had hardly any paid officials and no standing military force. He must rely upon the private forces of his magnates for the maintenance of order during peace time and for troops to wage war.
The magnates, the great nobility — the tiny group of peers who alone had titles of nobility and who were the king's natural counsellors — ruled in their 'countries', as they called them, as the king did in the realm. Through their personal lordship they maintained the peace and protected the interests of their dependent gentry and peasant tenants. The nobility had great power and wealth, and might have paramount influence in their 'countries', but no lord could exercise a local tyranny. After the demise of Richard III no noble held the awesome regional hegemony that he had done in his great northern territory. In a firmly hierarchical society the knights, esquires and gentlemen looked to nobles for patronage and protection, and expected them to maintain and restore social peace by arbitration and reconciliation. Yet the gentry were also increasingly independent, self-regarding, and capable of managing both their own affairs and those of their county commonwealths, in which their collective wealth and land gave them so large a stake. The nobility, in their turn, looked to them for local support and the Crown looked to them to run the shires. The county gentry were entrusted with great and wide-ranging authority: as Justices of the Peace, assessors of taxes, arrayers of troops, commissioners of many kinds, and as county representatives in the House of Commons. Lesser gentry served as coroners and tax collectors, and beneath them, in manors and villages, husbandmen (poorer farmers) too sought a share in the activity of governing, acting as constables and jurymen. Despite intense competitiveness and frequent feuding, local society had a will to peace and stability. A wise king understood that, lacking the power to compel and enforce, he must inspire and lead; he must command the loyalty of a political nation deeply versed in government and anxious to participate.
As in all personal lordships, the character and ability of the king was vital. The realm was not only his kingdom and personal estate, but a commonwealth, a polity, and he must rule in his subjects' interests. Kings who had failed to do so had been deposed. It was the king's duty to listen to the counsel of his greater subjects, and to hear in it the voice of local society. He must defend his subjects in war and keep the peace at home; and ensure that the law was respected. That the king himself should observe his own law in his dealings with his subjects was a fundamental principle, enshrined in Magna Carta. Where a king was unjust or partial, public justice must fail, and the will of his subjects to obedience and allegiance would be violated. The consequences of Henry VI's inadequacies as king, of his failure to rule at all, had been a breakdown in both public and private authority and, finally, civil war. A wise king must trust his nobles to rule their regions justly in his name, and keep their confidence, but it was not in Henry VII's nature to trust; his tendency was to treat them as enemies rather than as allies.
Not all the King's dominions were so coherent, so stable, so bound to the monarchy as the lowland South of England. To the west, England shared a frontier, a March with Wales, and on this borderland, as on others, an older world of feud and violence remained to disturb the peace, even though the wars between the English and Welsh nations had ended centuries before. Wales had finally been conquered by Edward I in 1282-3 and the lands of the native Welsh princes had been annexed to the English Crown. Wales was divided between this small principality and a large number of Marcher lordships along the frontier with the English shires. In the principality itself the native laws of Wales remained alongside English laws; in their lordships the almost autonomous Marcher lords continued to exercise extensive rights delegated to them by the Crown, even though the original military justification was long gone. Each of these feudal enclaves had its own legal, fiscal and political processes. The fragmented authority in the Marches and the unfettered power of the lords, many of whom were absentee, allowed criminals to escape justice by fleeing from one lordship to another. Marcher society was perennially seen as turbulent and lawless. The Welsh were still regarded as a race apart; by the English and by themselves. Welsh national identity was based more upon their own language and memories of past glories than on common political organization. That Welsh inheritance might be revived by a new king of Welsh name and Welsh descent. As he entered Wales in 1485 Henry promised to deliver the people of the principality from such miserable servitudes as they have piteously long' suffered. The Welsh poet who praised Henry Tudor for setting the Welsh free was not mistaken: in a series of charters of enfranchisement granted to communities of North Wales in 1504-8 he released his countrymen from the legal restrictions imposed upon them by Henry IV after the revolt of Owain Glyndwr.
Its people usually thought of England as an island, as a watery fortress walled by waves. Yet England shared that island with another independent kingdom with which it had been intermittently at war for two centuries; that war interrupted only by a series of broken truces. Scotland, under its Stewart kings, had its own patterns of lordship and power; of law-making and peacekeeping, of kinship and clientage, quite different from those of its southern neighbour and enemy. Despite failing kings and factious nobles Scotland maintained its independence, challenging the continuing claims of the English king to overlordship, and, potentially in alliance with France or with the Gaelic lords of Ireland, posed a constant threat to England. Between England and Scotland lay a military frontier, its precise boundaries still disputed in the 'Debateable Land' between the two kingdoms. That the Scots had not penetrated south of the Tyne since 1388 did not mean that they could not come again, and the pervasive fear of invasion was given tangible form in the continued building of tower houses, of peel towers surrounded by barmekins (defensible walls). The English Borders, lying in the remote uplands of Coquetdale, Redesdale and Tynedale, were divided into three Marches, East, Middle and West, and here royal authority was delegated to wardens charged with defending the frontier in war, and maintaining law and order in time of peace. Law and order were relative in the unique society of the Borders, where the 'surnames', kin groups which had formed for mutual protection as a response to war against the Scots, lived by raiding, mainly cattle (known as reiving). The March had its own archaic laws, its own entrenched customs shared by the English and Scottish Borderers, who often had more in common with each other than with their own compatriots beyond the March. To southerners their customs seemed antediluvian, exotic, dangerous. When, in 1535, Henry VIII wished to watch the ghastly execution of traitors in London he came disguised as a wild 'Borderer'.
On 24 September 1485 Henry had offered pardon to those in the 'north parts' of his land who had fought in the field with 'the enemy of nature', Richard III. The 'north parts' — which he specified as the counties of Nottingham, York, Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland and the bishopric of Durham — were recognized as a separate 'country' in the later fifteenth century, formed in part by the particular duty to defend the rest of England from the Scots. The royal writ did not run in almost half of the far North. The Bishop of Durham ruled in the lands 'between Tyne and Tees', a palatinate where he exercised powers which, elsewhere, were monopolized by the Crown. The Archbishop of York ruled at Hexham. Annexed to the Borders were 'liberties' where royal authority had effectively been granted to Border barons, who held quasi-royal power. Unable to rule the far North without the greatest regional lords, kings granted sweeping military and civil powers to men whose wealth and power were already great, and then found themselves unable to control them. The great and deadly feud between the most powerful magnate families — the Nevilles of Middleham and the Percys — not only dominated the political history of the North in the mid fifteenth century but also drew in the conflicting parties at Henry VI's court and became a moving cause of the Wars of the Roses. The support of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and of his great northern affinity (his personal following of dependants, allies, tenants and servants) had helped at the Battle of Towton in 1461 to establish Edward IV on the throne. The Percys were, for the while, routed, and the Nevilles seemed set to become unchallenged lords of the North East. But a decade later Warwick 'the Kingmaker' had fallen at Barnet, fighting not for, but against, the King he had made. The vast Neville lands, with their powerful affinity, were entrusted by Edward IV to his brother, Richard of Gloucester, with malign consequences for the Yorkist dynasty and the whole kingdom. In 1485 the Nevilles were eclipsed, and Richard's lands were in the new King's hands, but the great regional power of the Percy Earls of Northumberland remained to alarm a wary king.
—Reprinted from New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603 by Susan Bridgen by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Susan Bridgen. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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