Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

How Henry VII Ruled England and Prepared the Way for Henry VIII

We have seen how King Henry VII secured his throne, how he allied himself with Spain and Scotland, and how he encouraged commerce. It is now time to learn how he governed this country after the end of civil strife.

Henry did not consult Parliament very much. What the country needed after the Wars of the Roses was not new laws but obedience to the laws already made. Murders and riots were very frequent. The coroners neglected their duties and murderers often escaped without punishment. Land was still being enclosed—that is, the old half-acre strips of land were thrown together and hedges put round the whole so as to enclose it. Waste lands and common lands, which belonged to the villagers, were also often enclosed or hedged in. In this way the plough land was constantly being turned into sheep runs. It took fewer men to look after the sheep than to plough the land and to sow and reap the corn; so the dispossessed villagers and discharged ploughmen had nothing to do but to join the large crowd of wandering beggars. Sometimes the peasants, in their anger at enclosures, would pull down the hedges and fill in the ditches which had been made when the land was enclosed for sheep runs.

Entertainment in Berkshire


A visitor to England from Venice wrote that there were more thieves and robbers in England at this time than in any other country in the world. Few people, he said, dared go alone into the country except in the middle of the day, and fewer still dared go out in the towns at night, and least of all in London.

Henry VII tried to deal with these disorders. It was the duty of the Justices of the Peace—who were gentlemen with landed estates—to help to rule the country districts. These men were now made to do their duty in a better way, and to keep the ale-houses in order, where men played cards and dice, and bowls and tennis. A law was also made that beggars were to be set in the stocks for three days, for it was found much too costly to keep all these wanderers in prisons.

Henry used the middle class rather than the nobles to help him in his work. The nobles could spend their time at his court in gay pageants, tournaments or tilting matches, and other amusements, such as hunting and hawking. But the king chose his servants from the clergy and lawyers, "vigilant men and secret, and such as kept watch with him upon almost all other men," says Bacon.

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge


If Henry did not often call Parliament, where did he get the money for the expenses of his government, for fighting his foes, and for the safe-guarding of the sea? His first Parliament gave him tonnage and poundage for life, that is, the old taxes on commerce. This Parliament also gave him power to get back all crown lands which had been granted away since the Wars of the Roses began. This was a handsome present, for many of the old crown lands had passed into other hands during these wars. Henry, as king, also took the property of his enemies who had been accused of treason against him. For in those days, when a baron or great landholder rebelled, or was on the losing side in a battle, his property was confiscated or taken over by the king.

When Henry wanted further funds, he tried all other kinds of ways to get money. His favourite trick was to ask for free-will offerings from the wealthy, which they had to give whether they liked it or not. When Henry invaded France, he gave orders that "the sparing were to be pressed for money because they saved, and the lavish because they spent."

Another device for getting money was by fines. Henry was once visiting his friend the Earl of Oxford, when the earl drew up his little army of retainers to line the route in honour of the king. But this broke the king's law against the keeping of armed retainers. The king enjoyed the earl's good fare, but before parting he said to him : "My lord, I thank you for your good cheer, but I may not have my laws broken in my sight; my attorney must speak with you." The earl was fined 10,000!

In Henry's later days, after the death of his wife Elizabeth, people were made to pay fines, for all sorts of offences, by his hated agents Empson and Dudley. These men were looked upon as "ravening wolves, horseleeches and shearers," from whom no man was safe. It was the greedy and crafty Henry VII who through these men started that state robbing and pillaging which went on in the next two reigns. What with the Star Chamber (a new court to deal with the nobles) and Henry's demands for fines and loans, the great men of England had indeed a hard time of it, and many of them found themselves made so poor that they were imprisoned for debt.

Henry's chief vice was greed. He knew that he and his son could not be free from the control of Parliament unless they had a well-filled treasury. But he could spend when he thought it worth while, as indeed is shown by the building of his beautiful chapel in Westminster Abbey, where his body rests. He encouraged traders and craftsmen, and so, while he kept the nobles poor in order to break their power, the country generally prospered.

We have seen that the power of the king got stronger and stronger during Henry's reign. He was able to deal many blows at the great nobles, and we shall see that his son Henry VIII tried to bring the clergy and the Church also under the rule of the king.

The Church claimed certain old privileges which sometimes interfered with the course of justice, as did the old privileges of the great lords. In England the Pope insisted, among other things, that (1) clergymen who were guilty of crimes should be tried as a rule only in the Church Courts, and that (2) the king's officers could not arrest people in churches. The first of these claims was known as Benefit of Clergy  and the second as Right of Sanctuary. Anyone then who could claim that he was a clergyman could insist on trial in the Church Courts, and anyone who fled to a church was safe from the king's officers.

This independence of the clergy was, of course, liable to be abused by scoundrels. Clergymen included not only those who were priests but all whose work was reckoned to be in any way ecclesiastical. As the punishments which the Church inflicted were lighter than the very severe penalties by which the king tried to enforce order, it was possible for criminals sometimes to evade the punishments which most men thought their crimes warranted.

Towards the end of Henry's reign some famous men, like Sir Thomas More, thought it was better that the king should be the responsible authority for maintaining justice and order in his kingdom, and viewed with approval the limitation of the rights of sanctuary and benefit of clergy, as they were less necessary in the sixteenth than they had been in the twelfth century.

soldier and bishop


In the general decay of the Church organization at the close of the Middle Ages other abuses had crept in, which earnest churchmen desired to have remedied. In Britain some of the clergy entered the service of great noblemen and landowners, and were more devoted to getting in the rents for their masters than to their spiritual duties. The monasteries, too, had grown very wealthy, being amongst the largest landowners in the country. Prosperity had made certain abbots worldly in their outlook, so that they set a bad example in exacting high rents, and in enclosing common fields to extend still further the production of the high quality of wool for which English farmers and some of the monasteries in particular were famous. On the other hand, the monasteries still performed a useful service in relieving the poor, and maintaining schools and libraries.

Henry VII sent Sir Edward Poynings to Ireland as Lord Deputy, and the new governor applied his master's policy of curbing the nobles by prohibiting maintenance of large retainers, and getting the statute passed known as Poynings' Law, which forbade the Irish parliament from passing any laws which had not received the king's approval.

Henry VII died at the age of fifty-two in 1509. Although his reign has no great event like the Armada, he did important work for England, and without it the glories of the reign Elizabeth would not have been possible. He not only united England, but he prepared also for future union with Scotland. He was, certainly a tyrant, crafty and greedy, and he ruled the barons with a rod of iron. But he took care that there should not be a whole host of other tyrants to trouble the land. He found England weak and cut off from all influence in Europe, and he left her strong and ready to take the first place.