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Henry the Seventh by James Gairdner (pub. 1899)





HENRY'S health, never very strong, had been for some time perceptibly declining, though the energy with which he attended to business seemed hardly diminished by his accumulated infirmities. Indeed his spirits rose so much above his bodily frailty that for a time in l507 he seemed positively robust after a long illness, hunting and hawking with as much zest as if he had been twenty years younger. But he had now begun to be attacked with gout. He had also pains in the chest and difflculty of respiration. Having a presentiment of his approaching end, he became more than usually liberal in alms giving. He discharged the debts of all persons im prisoned in London for sums under forty shillings. He expressed remorse for the severities practised under his authority by Empson and Dudley, and it must have been owing to his dying injunction and for the repose of his soul that many of the bonds obtained by them were cancelled at the commencement of the succeeding reign. Law, however, was one thing and conscience another. Empson and Dudley were allowed to go on to the last with extortions which had only a show of legality to justify them, and were sacrificed to popular indignation as soon as the eighth Henry succeeded his father.

Henry also finished the hospital of the Savoy the year before his death, and made provision for the splendid chapel at Westminster in which he lies interred. His taste in building was magnificent. The wealth he had amassed and left behind him, locked up in various secret places, was reported to have amounted to nearly £1,800,000, a sum probably equal in value to £18,000,000 at the present day. Yet he was far from miserly. He valued money only for money's worth; and to him a large reserve was a great guarantee for peace and security. He made, moreover, a princely use of his wealth, encouraged scholarship and music as well as architecture, and dazzled the eyes of foreign ambassadors with the splendour of his receptions.

As a king, Bacon tells us that he was "a wonder for wise men." Few indeed were the councillors that shared his confidence, but the wise men, competent to form an estimate of his statesmanship, had but one opinion of his consummate wisdom. Foreigners were greatly struck with the success that attended his policy. Ambassadors were astonished at the intimate knowledge he displayed of the affairs of their own countries. From the most unpropitious beginnings, a proscribed man and an exile, he had won his way in evil times to a throne beset with dangers; he had pacified his own country, cherished commerce, formed strong alliances over Europe, and made his personal influence felt by the rulers of France, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands as that of a man who could turn the scale in matters of the highest importance to their own domestic welfare. It is true that he was not taken into counsel in the iniquitous league of Cambray; but the matter did not concern England, and since his advice was neglected by the only power that he tried to warn, he was content to let it alone. He could afford to let such an alliance form itself and fall to pieces, as it did very shortly after he was dead.

From first to last his policy was essentially his own; for though he knew well how to choose the ablest councillors, he asked or took their advice only to such an extent as he himself deemed expedient. In all his reign he never removed a councillor except Sir William Stanley; yet he allowed none of them to exercise any predominant influence with him, but kept all the strings of government in his own hand. "He was of an high mind and loved his own will and his own way, as one that revered himself and would reign indeed... not admitting any near or full approach, either to his power or to his secrets." No one can understand his reign, or that of his son, or, we might add, of his granddaughter Queen Elizabeth, without appreciating the fact that, however well served with councillors, the sovereign was in those days always his own Prime Minister. Not even Wolsey, whose wonderful ability the seventh Henry was the first to discover, could for one moment lead the eighth, as men supposed, in a way that the eighth Henry himself had not distinctly considered and approved before he took it. The Tudor policy all along was for the sovereign to "reign indeed" -- or, in modern language, not only to reign but to govern. Yet so much of what we call constitutional principle was always admitted by these princes, that their ministers and not themselves were responsible for anything done amiss. Morton and Bray might be exposed to popular opprobrium for the severity of impositions which they had really tried to mitigate. No one could be so disloyal as to reproach the king himself, and no minister could relieve himself of blame by declaring what he had said at the Council table. It was a minister's duty, in short, to endure quietly unmerited reproach.

Not that the members of Henry's Council were by any means ciphers; for if that had been the case they would have served him ill. On the contrary, it was noted by a shrewd observer at the time that they really exercised a considerable control over him. He had lived so much abroad that he was only half an English man, and it was apparent to those who were behind the scenes that he would have preferred to govern England in the French fashion if he could. He really needed advisers who could bring him into harmony with the national sentiment, and he yielded to them such careful deference as might enable him to fix responsibility on those by whom he had been chiefly led. But he was less under control towards the end of his reign, when it must be owned that, as he felt himself more secure in his seat, he yielded to viler influences, and became unpopular in consequence. And though he removed no councillor, it was known that one or two had distinctly lost their influence over him; while in some things, such as the employment of foreigners in the service of the State, he took a more liberal view himself than he felt it safe to follow.

Even the legislation of the reign must be regarded as in large measure due to Henry himself. We have no means, it is true, of knowing how much of it

originated in his own mind; but that it was all discussed with him in aouncil and approved before it was passed we have every reason to believe. For he never appears to have put the royal veto upon any Bill, as constitutional usage both before and after his days allowed. He gave his assent to all the enactments sent up to him for approval, though he sometimes added to them provisos of his own. And Bacon, who knew the traditions of those times, distinctly attributes the good legislation of his days to the king himself. "In that part both of justice and policy which is the most durable part, and cut, as it were, in brass or marble, the making of good laws, he did excel." This statement, with but slight variations in the wording, appears again and again throughout the History; and elsewhere it is said that he was the best lawgiver to this nation after Edward I.; also that his laws, if carefully examined, "are deep and not vulgar; not made upon the spur of a particular occasion for the present, but out of providence for the future, to make the estate of his people still more and more happy, after the manner of the legislators in ancient and heroical times."

These observations, indeed, have not passed without criticism, and possibly some instances of what Bacon would have called the "deep" legislation might have gone, according to his own classification, under the name of "vulgar," or at least, if not intended to meet "a particular occasion," might have been distinctly traced to a widespread feeling in the community of some great public wants. Of such "vulgar" legislation Bacon him self admits that there was not a little, and a full exami nation of the subject would carry us beyond the limits of a volume like the present. The Parliaments, indeed, that Henry summoned were only seven in number, and seldom did any one of them last over a year, so that during a reign of nearly twenty-four years many years passed away without a Parliament at all. But even in those scanty sittings many Acts were passed to meet evils that were general subjects of complaint, such as the riots caused by the customs of livery and main tenance; to check collusive informations and other irregularities which vitiated the administration of justice in the country; to encourage complaints against justices of the peace, and provide for their being examined; to encourage in various ways manufactures and commerce, and to arrest what was much complained of, the depopulation of the country, due, as it was thought, to enclosures and the pulling down of dwelling-houses to enlarge sheep pastures. The modes in which it was attempted to meet the evils dealt with were frequently such as thc political economy of our day would hardly approve; but even here we seem to see an advance upon previous times, if not even a higher degree of thoughtfulness than we meet with in succeeding reigns. As regards, for instance, the arrest of depopulation, there was a judicious avoidance of prohibition. The Act, indeed, required existing houses of husbandry to be kept up on pain of forfeiture of the land about them; but it did not insist on tillage or absolutely forbid enclosures.

There were also Acts to restrain the power of corporations to make by-laws inconsistent with the general good; to bring gaols throughout the country under the complete control of the sheriffs; to encourage shipping by requiring that wines and woads of Gascony and Languedoc should be imported in English bottoms; to forbid as useless luxuries the importation of silk articles, such as ribbons and the like, from abroad; and further, to encourage the woollen manufactures of the kingdom, and at the same time -- a clearly erroneous policy -- to regulate the prices of the different kinds of wool; also to keep gold within the kingdom by forbidding payments to foreigners in that metal.

In his last Parliament, which met in the nineteenth year of his reign, an Act was passed for the reform of the coinage, which had been very much clipped and counterfeited, and it was well known throughout the kingdom that Henry himself was the chief instigator of the measure, and that it was he who gave most thought to the remedy in the calling in of the vitiated currency and the issuing of a better. In this as in other things no doubt he took care of his own profit, for the mint was a large gainer by the exchange; but none the less did he do an important service to the mercantile community at large.

That Henry was a lover of peace at all times is proved by the whole history of his reign and all that we know of his negotiations. This was naturally his policy, because even when he grew more secure he had nothing to gain by war, but much to lose, and in the beginning of his reign peace was to him the only way of safety. That he "trafficked," as Bacon says, in the war with France, and thereby deceived his subjects -- for his own advantage, it is true, but for their best interests as well -- ought hardly to be imputed to him as a fault. The thing was really forced upon him by the necessities of his position. At least it may be questioned in this point whether Bacon does not judge him too harshly in saying that he loved "a noise of war" to draw forth treasure, as well as a peace to coffer it up; for the noise of war was none of his making. Like all great statesmen of early times, he was quite above the mere national prejudice that was always ready to kindle the flames against France; and shortly before his death he recommended his son and successor to pursue the same policy as himself. By preserving friendship with France and amassing money he told him that he would be best able to preserve his kingdom in peace and break the power of faction if it ever became dangerous.

But, apart from policy, his love of peace was probably due, like his clemency as a ruler, to his own natural disposition, though in both cases it was a politic clemency. He made rebellions, like wars, pay their own expenses, and even yield him a mine of treasure, which was a source, in its turn, of stability to the country, giving him more ample power to put down future outbreaks. For the great majority of insurgents he had no other punishment than fines; very few were put to death, even among the nobility, towards whom he was more severe than towards the common people. Respect for law was upheld in the same way, as the Earl of Oxford found to his cost when he received the king himself with a number of men in livery, which the statute forbade. Violation, even of laws which were antiquated, was visited with fines which went to the king's coffers. These things and the heavy taxation imposed upon the people made his ministers very unpopular; but they were more tolerable than the attainders and legal butcheries which formed such a hideous feature in the reign of his son.

Another point as regards the mildness of his govern ment is that he gave no encouragement to informers except such as he had specially commissioned to worm out the secrets of a dangerous conspiracy. Of disaffection and disloyalty among his subjects he probably knew at all times much more than he cared to notice; but when anything was specifically reported to him he at once insisted on the informer giving up the source of his information, even if he pleaded that he was bound by oath to secrecy. He would either have nothing said at all or dive to the very bottom of the subject, and take care that no danger should ever come to a head.

It is also well remarked by his biographer that "he had nothing in him of vainglory, but yet kept state and majesty to the height, being sensible that majesty maketh the people bow, but vainglory boweth to them." This stateliness, keeping just a sufficient distance between the sovereign and the subject, was in marked contrast with the policy of the House of York; for both Edward IV. and Richard III. had always lowered themselves somewhat in courting popularity. Yet it is a mistake to suppose that he was severe and ungenial. The sweetness of his expression seems to have charmed the citizens of York at the very commencement of his reign, and we have several indications besides of a kindly, pleasant, affable, and even humorous disposition. Once, after listening to an elaborate address, he asked Fitzsimons, Archbishop of Dublin, what he thought of the orator's performance. "Excellent," said the archbishop, "saving that I think he flattered your Majesty too much." "In good faith," replied Henry, "we were greatly of that opinion ourselves." Another anecdote, also of an address made to him, shows ready wit as well as humour in the reply. John de Giglis, Bishop of Worcester, having called him "pastor" in a Latin poem stufled full no doubt of the elaborate classical compliments then in vogue, the king rejoined impromptu, probably in the very same metre --

"Si me pastorem, te decet esse pecus."

It may be that these touches of humour were comparatively rare; but he was always a ready and pleasing speaker, and it was certainly well known that at times at least he could be very genial. Bacon tells us that at tournaments and other spectacles "he was rather a princely and gentle spectator than seemed much to be delighted." Yet once at a tournament when, as a sort of interlude between more serious challenges, two riders were commanded to run a course with spears, they both decked their horses fantastically in paper, the one "in manner of a barde," and the other "of a demi-trapper," the latter with ridiculous devices painted upon it "to causo the king to laugh." But the reader has seen already how he could unbend in the amusing interview with Kildare related in a previous chapter. However grave habitually, he was anything but sour or surly. He spoke French fluently and had a competent knowledge of Latin, but was unable to read Spanish. He commonly addressed ambassadors in French, and enjoyed French literature more than any other. He could scarcely be called a learned man, yet he was a lover of learning, and gave his children an excellent education. His Court was open to scholars, and even his nursery was visited once by More and Erasmus, when the future Henry VIII., then a boy of nine, solicited from the famous Dutchman, by a note penned in the middle of his dinner, some contribution from his pen. We may be pretty sure that even the seventh Henry was not destitute of that taste for literature which was so marked a feature in the character of his son.

It is further remarked by the great philosopher who wrote his history, as a thing which tended to make him absolute but did not promote his own security, that he loved to promote clergymen and lawyers. By the traditions of English govermnent a king ought to have been easily accessible to the advice of his nobility, and it does not appear that he despised good counsel even from them when he could get it. But on the whole the lay nobles were not such acute statesmen as he could find in the ranks of the clergy; and many of them required careful looking after lest they should stir up disorder. He could, moreover, reward clergymen for their services by good livings, without imposing any charge on the royal treasury; while lawyers, on the other hand, were bound to give him professional advice when wanted, as they naturally looked to the king for promotion.

Whether he was in the habit of conversing with churchmen on religious subjects we do not know; but he was certainly religious after the fashion of his day. His feeling towards a crusade has already been referred to. His religious foundations and bequests perhaps do not necessarily imply anything more than conventional feeling. But we must not overlook the curious circumstance that he once argued with a heretic at the stake at Canterbury and got him to renounce his heresy. It is melancholy to add that he did not thereupon release him from the punishment to which he had been sentenced; but the fact seems to show that he was afraid of encouraging insincere conversions by such leniency. During the last two or three years of the fifteenth century there was a good deal of procedure against heretics, but on the whole, we are told, rather by penances than by fire. Henry had no desire to see the old foundations of the faith sturbed. His zeal for the Church was recognised by no less than three Popes in his time, who each sent him a sword and a cap of maintenance; and I doubt not that he looked on the cause of the Church as closely connected with the stability of his own government. It was so, indeed, even where the Church's ancient rights were qualified, as in the case of sanctuaries, through his infiuence at the aourt of Rome; for he obtained from Innocent VIII. some restriction of their ancient privileges, which greatly checked a multitude of abuses.

To commerce and adventure he was always a good friend. By his encouragement Sebastian Cabot sailed from Bristol and discovered Newfoundland -- the New Isle, as it at first was called. Four years earlier Columbus had first set foot on the great western continent, and had not his brother been taken by pirates at sea, it is supposed that he too might have made his great discovery under Henry's patronage.


Printed by R. & R. CLARK, LIMITED, Edinburgh.