CHAPTER IV. HENRY VII (iv), 1485-1509 - ASPECTS OF THE REIGN

[1485 Henry's position]

The task before Henry when he ascended the throne was a difficult one. He had to establish a new dynasty with a very questionable title, under conditions which could not have allowed any conceivable title to pass without risk of being challenged. It was therefore necessary for him not merely to buttress his hereditary claim by marrying the rival whose title was technically the strongest, and securing the pronouncement of Parliament in his favour, together with such adventitious sanction as a Papal Bull afforded; but further to make his subjects contented with his rule.

Two things were definitely in his favour. The old nobility who between the spirit of faction and the love of fighting had kept the country in a state of turmoil for half a century were exhausted - not merely decimated but almost wiped out; while the mass of the population was weary of war and ready to welcome almost any one who could and would provide orderly government. The country was craving to have done with anarchy.

[Studied legality]

A firm hand and a resolute will were thus the primary necessities; but tired as the nation was, it was still ready to resent a flagrant tyranny. The Yorkist Kings had seen that absolutism was the condition of stability; Henry perceived that, applied as they had applied it, the stability would still be wanting. He had to find a mean between the wantonly arbitrary absolutism which had been attempted a century before by Richard II. and recently by Edward IV. and Richard III. on the one hand, and on the other hand the premature application of constitutional ideas under the House of Lancaster. The actual method evolved was the concentration of all control in the hands of the King, accompanied by an ostentatious deference to the forms of procedure which were liable to be put forward as popular rights, and a very keen attention to the limits of popular endurance.

Thus Henry's first step was to summon Parliament and follow the Lancastrian precedent of obtaining its ratification of his own title to the throne. The next step, necessitated by his position, was to cut the claws of the Yorkists as a faction by striking at Richard's principal supporters. This could only be done effectively by treating them as traitors - a proceeding which could not but savour of tyranny, since they had at any rate been supporting the de facto King: so again Henry took the only means of minimising the arbitrary character of his action, by obtaining parliamentary sanction. Some ten years later, at the time of Perkin Warbeck's attempted landing at Deal, he procured the remarkable enactment that support of a de facto King should not in the future be accounted as treason to the successor who dethroned him - a measure characterised by Bacon, writing a hundred years later, as too magnanimous to be politic. In 1485 it would have been so; but at the actual time Henry was himself the de facto monarch; he had no wish to punish his predecessor's supporters further; and he was really providing an inducement to his subjects to be loyal to the ruling dynasty. At the same time he could pose as advocating abstract justice in preference to the prevailing practice by which he had himself profited; strengthening his own hands in fact, while in theory he was introducing into politics the recognition of an ethical principle which - as it happened - no longer conflicted with his own advantage.

[Policy of lenity]

In fact Henry had an unusual perception of the political uses of a judicious leniency: but the leniency was deliberate and considered. He could also strike hard, on occasion. The rebels who were taken in the fighting near Deal met with scant mercy; and a very few months earlier, the execution of the apparently trusted and powerful William Stanley had been a sharp reminder that the royal clemency could not be taken for granted. Three years later he carried severity altogether beyond the limits of justice in executing Warwick. But as a rule he was lenient to a degree which had even its dangers. Simnel was treated as of too small account to be worth punishing. Warbeck from his capture till his attempt to escape was maintained in comfort and almost in freedom. Suffolk's earlier escapades were pardoned. Kildare was repeatedly forgiven, and really converted into a loyal subject. The Cornish insurgents of the Blackheath episode were dealt with so tenderly that they took clemency for weakness. Warbeck's Cornish rising was turned conveniently to account for the replenishment of the royal treasury by the infliction of fines, but no one who had supported it could complain of harsh treatment; rather they must have felt in every case that they had been let off very easily according to all precedents.

Even when Lovel's and Simnel's risings were in actual progress, pardons were offered to such of the rebels as would make haste to repent; and there was no withdrawal of those pardons afterwards on more or less plausible pretexts, in the manner of preceding Kings and of Henry's successor after the Pilgrimage of Grace. Broadly speaking it was the King's policy to emphasise the fact that he had no intention of attempting to play the tyrant, or to vary a rash generosity by capricious blood-thirstiness, like Richard III. The sole victim of tyrannous treatment in this sense throughout the reign was the unhappy Warwick.

[Repression of the nobles]