Book Review: Henry VII by Sean Cunningham
King Henry VII, aka Henry Tudor, has been relegated to the shadows of his larger-than-life-son Henry VIII, and the notorious kings that came before him – Edward IV and Richard III. But without Henry VII, there would be no Henry VIII, no Bloody Mary, no Queen Elizabeth I – in fact, no Tudor dynasty at all. For years, historians have tried to get an understanding of the man through historical documents and records, at least those that still exist, but his personality and private life have always eluded his biographers.
Author Sean Cunningham says that “Henry has always been a difficult king to make glamorous”, especially when compared to the outrageous behavior of his son and the purported monstrosities of Richard III. But Henry Tudor’s life was far from boring. Henry did not exactly have a normal upbringing, even by medieval standards. He was born to a 14-year-old widow in Wales at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses when the struggle between Lancaster and York was in full force. When he was 4-years-old, the Yorkists overtook the Lancastrian stronghold of Pembroke Castle, and Henry’s wardship was sold to the castle’s victor, Lord William Herbert. When Henry was 14-years-old, Edward IV was forced into exile and Henry VI (his step-uncle) was re-crowned as King of England. Henry VI’s readeption was short-lived, however, and young Henry Tudor was forced to flee with his uncle Jasper Tudor to the duchy of Brittany in France. They never would have anticipated their exile lasting for 14 long years. And when he finally returned to England in 1485, it wasn’t to reclaim his earldom of Richmond…it was to claim the throne of England.
In his book titled Henry VII, published in 2007, Sean Cunningham seeks to uncover the real Henry VII by reconstructing the “evidence of his decision-making through grants, accounts, or legal records”. The author aims to debunk the image of Henry VII as an avaricious miser by delving into the motives and experiences of the first Tudor king. Cunningham explains that “the circumstances of his personal life before he became king had a very powerful and direct influence upon the way he ruled the country and the techniques he developed to maintain power”. That Henry’s most formative years were spent witnessing the treachery and death of the Wars of the Roses most certainly influenced his outlook as king, and probably stoked his fear of being unable to hold the unsteady throne.
With each book I’ve read about Henry VII, I’ve always been able to glean new details out of each author’s material, even though the story itself remains the same. This was no different for Sean Cunningham’s book. One of my favorite parts of the book was the section about Henry’s 1483 English invasion, first landing in Wales and then his perilous march towards London. Cunningham includes many exciting new details about the Henry’s march and Richard’s response, building suspense with his will he or will he not rally enough Welsh and English to his side to conquer Richard.
As to the author’s goal of uncovering the real Henry VII, I’m afraid the book fell just a little short. In nearly every Henry VII biography I’ve read so far, the authors all dispute the popular notion that Henry was a greedy miser, a la Ebenezer Scrooge. Yet the evidence they provide is much the same: Henry spent huge amounts of money entertaining his court, he often indulged in the purchase of expensive jewelry and gemstones (although Henry would probably call it an “investment”), and hefty building projects like the new Castle in Sheen and his burial cathedral at Westminster Abbey. Cunningham goes one step further by justifying Henry’s miserly behavior, explaining how devastated Henry was at the successive deaths of the son Arthur and wife Elizabeth in 1502 and 1503, and how he withdrew from royal business, allowing his councilors to make and enforce crown laws, including the collection of taxes which became the biggest complaint of his subjects. Cunningham asks “Should his bureaucrats be blamed for the most repressive period of Henry’s rule?” but he never quite answers it. Thus, the real Henry VII remains a mystery.