The Tudor Myth

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Let’s start at the beginning: What is the “Tudor Myth”? Essentially, it’s a school of thought that the study of the Tudors and their immediate predecessors has been warped by Tudor propaganda. At its root, it’s a more specific way of saying, “History is written by winners.” The two Tudors considered most guilty of this whitewashing, if you will, are Elizabeth I and her grandfather, Henry VII, albeit for slightly different reasons.

Certainly, Richard III is most at issue here since he was literally killed in the battle that made Henry VII king. He was also the one most dragged through mud by the Tudors – per interpretations of Shakespeare he is a hunchback, a cold-blooded killer and a tyrant. Even in earlier decades, he was marginalized as the man who gave the orders to kill the Princes in the Tower. There is some evidence, too, that portraits of him were later meddled with to create the allusion of one shoulder higher than the other – long before his skeleton was found in the Leicester car park.

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Henry VII

There is some truth to this: 1) The Tudors were master propagandists and 2) history is written by winners, which Richard III bore the brunt of for centuries.

For a House that reigned for just five monarchs and three generations, the Tudors were masters at what they did. Henry VII, or plain Henry Tudor, was the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Lady Margaret Beaufort – he was, at best, royal adjacent. Both his parents had diminutive claims to the throne, his mother more than his father, though that was neither how he saw it nor his peers at the time of his birth. Edmund Tudor was the son of Katherine of Valois, daughter of King Charles VI of France and widow of King Henry V of England. He was, however, the result of her second marriage to a member of her household, Owen Tudor, a Welshman. There is some debate over the legality of their marriage, if it even took place, but you can read more about that here.

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Henry VII, Elizabeth of York and their children

Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was the daughter of John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset, who, himself, was the bastard son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster via his third marriage to his long-time mistress, Katherine Swynford. (He was later legitimized by Parliament).

The point is, Henry was plagued by the shadow of illegitimacy on both sides of his family and, to some, he had a better claim to the French throne than the English, thanks to his grandmother.

Despite this and because the Wars of the Roses killed off the royal men of Lancaster by 1471, Henry was viewed as the last contender for toppling York. He did just that when Edward IV died, though it took him two more years. The throne passed in 1483 from a 40-year-old man to a 12-year-old boy, and was duly taken over by Richard III, younger brother of Edward IV and uncle of Edward V. In that chaos, Henry Tudor and his supporters saw their chance, seized it and Henry claimed the throne after the Battle of Bosworth.

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Elizabeth of York

His subsequent actions speak to his political skill. His support came from old Lancastrians and the split Yorkist party – those that were still for York, but disagreed with Richard’s reign. He wooed them to his base by promising to marry Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. Indeed, given that England didn’t follow Salic Law, with Richard dead and presuming Edward V was dead too, Elizabeth was arguably the true monarch.

Henry was cognizant of that dynamic and he was very clear in the aftermath of Bosworth that he was not claiming the throne through his soon-to-be wife. In short, he was regnant, not consort. Following that line of thought, he was king through conquest not dynastic claim. It was tricky, however, for had he refused to marry Elizabeth, he may very well have struggled to keep his throne.

Of course, he did marry her and from their union came the Tudor dynasty. The emblem of the white rose and the red rose merged (aka the Tudor rose) signified the jointure of the two warring Houses. In that way, neither of them was truly “Tudor” – Henry was Lancaster and Elizabeth was York. Their children were the true Tudors, accepting that the last name became a larger idea – a line that was purely English. Or, to borrow from modern politics, stronger together.

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Winchester Cathedral

That, of course, is propaganda. It can be seen most strikingly in how Henry handled the birth of his eldest child. Elizabeth delivered a son a little over a year after Henry came to the throne. He was christened Arthur, not a Lancastrian or Yorkist name, but rather an allusion to the famous British legend of King Arthur. He was born and christened in Winchester, the then-believed site of the fabled Camelot. It was political showmanship, pure and simple, and it was effective.

Over the course of his reign Henry also took great pains to tell the history of his house. This wasn’t personal, but rather an attempt to establish himself with the English public not as an “unknown Welshman,” but as an English savior with good blood. His links to royalty past were heightened and the shadowier aspects of how he came to be bypassed. To this day, for example, we still know very little about his exile in Brittany.

In the reign of his son, Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More wrote The History of Richard III, a book decrying tyranny and painting one of the more compelling historical portraits of the former king from a near-contemporary. Critics of it have stated it’s just political theatre, words written with the intention of flattering the king. But, to be clear, the book is not about Henry VII. It barely mentions him. It does not thank the Tudors for delivering England from evil and, by some interpretations, it’s not even really about Richard, so much as a vehicle through which to espouse political philosophy.

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Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour

Henry VIII, too, was a master propagandist, though he was less concerned with the Plantagenets than his father. His methods can be seen via his portraiture – hands on hips, gold and jewels, powerful and larger than life. When the succession was undermined by his many marriages and underwhelming offspring, he commissioned a painting that showed his dead parents standing alongside himself and his third wife, Jane Seymour. This had less to do with his feelings or family, and more to do with continuing to stamp out the memory of his first two wives, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, as well as promote the heirs of his third marriage as the true legitimate option.

Elizabeth I continued the legacies of her father and grandfather. The hair, the makeup, the “golden speech,” the claim to have the heart and stomach of a man. She knew exactly what she was doing, an attribute that had to have been, in part, nature and not nurture because she displayed those qualities as early as when she was answering questions about Thomas Seymour and again when she was begging her sister, Mary I, to let her out of the Tower. She knew to play up her position as her father’s daughter, not her mother’s – allusions to Anne Boleyn barely passed her lips in public. She knew how to spend her adulthood flirting with the princes of Western Europe to keep England safe. And she knew how to keep her throne as a single woman surrounded by vipers – she was England, because England was Tudor.

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Elizabeth I

The three of them, Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, played off of each other’s narratives and picked up the baton put down by the other. It was seamless, effective and ruthless.

Its victim, to some, has been Richard III. Or, on a larger scale, historical accuracy. To some, the greatest perpetrator of character assassination wasn’t a Tudor at all, but rather William Shakespeare. To be fair, Shakespeare was a fiction writer (obviously) and his work open to interpretation – there is some evidence that the play was not meant to be as anti-Ricardian as it has been taken. Nevertheless, his play, Richard III, has become so ensconced in the discussion of Richard that it’s impossible to consider his reign and reputation without mentioning it, even if only to rebut it. In the common reading of Shakespeare, he was horribly disfigured, he killed Anne Neville’s husband to marry her and steal her fortune, he plotted against his brother and sister-in-law and murdered his nephew, the true king.

Revisionists and, more specifically, Ricardians, believe Richard has been done a disservice by having the bad luck to die in battle. I think that’s fair, if for no other reason than the evidence doesn’t support that laundry list of crimes.

But the argument of the “Tudor Myth” is less concerned with the perception of the general public and more with how these pre-conceived notions influence historiagraphy and further study.

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Edward IV

More broadly, Revisionists believe that it’s hyperbole at best and fiction at worst to pretend England was in the dark ages up until the point Henry VII arrived on the scene. They point to the sophistication of law and order, music and art, the quality of life for the average Englishman and the prosperity of various socioeconomic classes, among other factors.

As for Richard, there is the question mark that if his throne not been “stolen” from him then he might have been a perfectly good king. He had government experience, military prowess and a long career in England at which to point. He had an English wife who was well-liked by the public, to the extent she was known at all, and despite the death of his only son, he had nephews (other than the Princes in the Tower) on whom he could pass the crown.

And perhaps he didn’t murder the Princes. For all that consensus has been reached he is the most likely culprit, there is not enough evidence to convict him in a court of law. There is absolutely reasonable doubt and many, many points that speak to his innocence. If the question is: Is it possible Richard has been maligned? Then the answer is yes.

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Richard III

The catch is, one can’t hold the Tudors and their cronies responsible for that. For one, the Tudors didn’t invent political propaganda. Sticking to the surrounding time period, the Lancastrians were amazing at it. Henry V did some dirty work in how he presented his motivation for entering France back in 1415 and 1417 and the minority government of his son, Henry VI, should be called out as the gold standard. The Yorkists were pettier, but still not bad. Their methods relied mainly on calling out women for being whores, from Marguerite of Anjou to Cecily Neville to Elizabeth Woodville. From that they claimed their rivals were illegitimate – “nice guy” Richard III even allowed that rumor to be furthered about his own mother.

So, what’s the truth? Well, the truth has been lost, I hate to break it to you. History is subjective because at this point all we’re playing with is interpretation. Even if we someday figure out if Richard III ordered his nephews’ murder, we won’t know his motivation. Was it pure ambition? Was it personal sacrifice for the greater good? Barring a major revelation, we’ll never know.

Perfectly reputable, well-credentialed, first-class historians can argue these points until they’re blue in the face and neither has to be wrong.

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We can, however, rely more heavily on contemporary sources, understanding that even they are riddled with personal motivation and considerations. For example, Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador at the court of Henry VIII, offers some of the liveliest, cattiest reports of the Tudor court, but they have to be weighed against the knowledge that his literal job was to bring down Anne Boleyn.

So, in that vein, consider the reality of civil war. This may seem painfully obvious, but unlike a foreign war fought elsewhere, the Wars of the Roses unfolded on English soil. Both armies contained Englishmen killing Englishmen. Family loyalties were split. Towns were burned. Women raped. Children murdered. Churches desecrated. The war was not continuous, this is true, but fighting was pretty regular between 1458 and 1461. There were notable outbreaks throughout the 1460s under the first half of Edward IV’s reign. Outright rebellion broke out again in 1469, which was picked back up in 1470 and saw the temporary deposition of Edward IV for Henry VI until the spring of 1471. There were then 12 years of domestic peace, this is also true. They ended in 1483 and for two years England lived under tension, waiting for the next attack – it finally came in August 1485 by way of Henry Tudor.

This doesn’t tell the complete story of England in these years, but you can’t ignore the simple fact that violence was breaking out with regularity every few years because two warring Houses didn’t stop fighting. Achievements may have been reached in the background and in-between – and they were – but it’s hard to set aside the notion of civil war (even a sporadic one) as all-encompassing.

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Henry VII & Elizabeth of York

Think about it financially, then. The Wars of the Roses came on the heels of England’s possession of its French territory. Thus, England had been engaged in some sort of warfare, intermittently, for some 70 years when Henry VII came on the throne. The campaign to win and then maintain Normandy and Aquitaine was punishingly expensive, putting the government in the position of taxing and fundraising within an inch of their lives. By the time it was finally over the noble class was raising armies of their own to fight each other. Again, this doesn’t tell a complete story and the state of the royal treasury isn’t always a strong indicator of how the lower class is prospering, but it is a good indicator for the effectiveness of a government.

Listen, then, to the words of the Spanish ambassador in the late 1480s when Henry VII was negotiating with Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain over the marriage of their children, Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon. It was a risky move on Henry’s part to put an offer out there – England was no match for Spain in 1488, and his reign was three years old. Spain had the upper-hand; indeed, they were well-positioned to bleed Henry dry and, in many ways, they did just that over the next few decades by dangling before the Tudors access to the proverbial cool kids’ table.

At the negotiating table, the Spanish ambassadors reminded Henry that “bearing in mind what happened every day to kings of England, it is surprising that [Ferdinand and Isabella] should dare give their daughter at all.”

The point of this is twofold: 1) the understanding in Europe that England was chaotic – that civil war deposed kings every few years and it was an absolute risk for one of their princesses to marry into the mix and 2) Spain was doing England a favor because they wanted a malleable sidekick for their greater European wars against France and Italy.

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England wasn’t a part of that. They had sidelined themselves over the last few decades, which was partly the nature of the island and partly because they had neither the bandwidth or the wherewithal to take part in the shifting power dynamics of Western Europe. The last foray England had made abroad was in 1475 when Edward IV tried to align with Burgundy against France and it ended in a pay-off.

Consider, too, that a century later, in 1588, the English Navy defeated the Spanish Armada, effectively bringing about Spain’s swan song and establishing England permanently as a major European power player. That is not myth and that didn’t happen in a vacuum – that was a century of doggedly pursuing English excellence by quashing rebellions, silencing dissentors, maintaining autonomy, centralizing authority and, yes, inflicting a ruthless campaign of propaganda to maintain power.

In my opinion, the Tudor “myth” didn’t whitewash history, it leveraged it.

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The Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey

As for Richard III, well, Shakespeare’s play may well be fiction and it may have taken centuries for his reign to be re-evaluated, but he’s not alone there. Any number of monarchs could complain about the same. In fact, any number of public figures in general could complain about the same. He might have been a good king had he been allowed to rule. He might not have killed his nephews. But he was decried a usurper in his own time and he was suspected of putting the Princes in the Tower to death during his reign. His reputation didn’t come out of nowhere, it came from his own actions, which saw him execute his enemies, claim the throne on shifty evidence and never publicly state the fate of his nephews, alive or dead. That can’t be blamed on Henry VII.

Richard may have been, in part, the victim of his circumstances and the state England found itself in was arguably not the result of mismanagement on the part of any York prince, but the fact remains they were his circumstances.

Revisionist history has a place in the canon and it has considerable value, particularly when re-evaluating sidelined figures (women, for example), but it sometimes swings too far in the opposite direction. Narratives are based on something and that something usually contains at least a kernel of truth. The study of the 15th and 16th century is not inherently flawed and while the Wars of the Roses wasn’t the dark ages, it was still a civil war and even the winners of those are still losers.

As for the Tudors, they might be unlikable, but they were definitely successful.

2 thoughts on “The Tudor Myth

  1. Hey Rebecca, great article, I love the theme and your point of view was very enlightening. However, I have a question. When you mentioned “there is some evidence that the play was not meant to be as anti-Ricardian as it has been taken.” what did you mean specifically? I would love if you gave me some examples of that evidence, it would really help me with my paper.

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    1. Thanks, Julia – appreciate it! Unfortunately, when I mentioned Shakespeare I wasn’t referencing any one expert in particular (I pretty much just wrote this straight with the exception of pulling that quote from the Spanish ambassador), more acknowledging that given how subjective readings of literature can be there are analyses floating around that “Richard III” is meant to be read the way Machiavelli’s “The Prince” was – a commentary on tyranny and poor governance and less an indictment of one man. It’s been a while since I’ve studied the play or any criticism of it, so unfortunately a solid example to point you to eludes me. For what it’s worth, that’s a pretty fringe reading of the play and I think its traditional reception is the more accurate one – it was written for entertainment, and while it’s not accurate, bashing the Yorks had a built in audience. If I come across something that might be useful, I’ll let you know and good luck on your paper.

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