Henry VII was born in Pembroke Castle, Wales, on January 28th, 1457. Henry was the only child of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and Margaret Beaufort. Edmund died three months before Henry was born (fighting the Duke of York who was trying to win control of West Wales) and his mother Margaret was only fourteen when she gave birth to the future king. Henry took his father’s title when he was born – Henry of Richmond – and he spent the bulk of his early years at Pembroke Castle. However, in 1461, the castle was seized by Lord Herbert following the defeat of Henry VI. The new king was Edward IV and because of Henry’s age, the king became his feudal lord. In 1462, Edward sold the guardianship of Henry to Lord Herbert for £1000. The Duke of Gloucester, the king’s brother, was given the overlordship of the Richmond lands. During this time of his life, Henry saw little of his mother. In 1464, Margaret remarried. Henry stayed at Pembroke Castle and was brought up in the Herbert’s household. His circumstances changed in 1469 when Lambert was executed to be followed a year later by Henry VI retaking the throne. In 1471 both Henry VI and his only son, Prince Edward, died. Suddenly aged just fourteen, Henry became the main Lancastrian claimant to the throne. This put him in a very vulnerable position and Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, recognised this and had him sent to France for his own safety.
Henry spent fourteen years in exile. His host was Francis II, Duke of Brittany. Edward IV referred to Henry as “the imp” and “the only one left of Henry VI’s brood”. Edward offered a substantial reward for the capture of Henry but Francis stood by his guest. To ensure that Edward’s wrath was kept in check, Francis also said that he would guard Henry and Jasper Tudor (also in Normandy) so that they could not escape and return to England. Francis sent back their English servants and replaced them with Breton servants.
Francis was playing a dangerous game. Brittany was an independent French duchy then and if England and France joined forces against him, his duchy would not have had a chance of surviving. By 1475, France, led by Louis XI, and England had developed better relations and Edward tried to persuade Francis that he was hoping Henry might marry one of his daughters. Henry became convinced that if he was handed over to the English his life would be in serious danger. However, the whole scenario was putting Francis in danger. It was resolved when Henry, on a journey to be handed over to the English, developed a fever which halted any movement. During this time Henry was taken into ‘sanctuary’ along with Jasper. Edward made no further effort to get Henry sent to England.
In 1483, Edward IV suddenly died. He was succeeded by his brother, Richard, Due of Gloucester who proclaimed himself king. Edward’s two sons, the Princes in the Tower, were effectively denied the right to succeed their father. The political climate in England became very unsettled.
Richard had his supporters but he also had his enemies who now saw Henry as the rightful king of England. Edward IV’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville, was drawn into this. She wanted Henry to marry her surviving daughter, also Elizabeth, which should, in theory, have gained Henry the support of Lancastrians and Yorkists.
Henry set out to land a force in England – but he lacked one vital piece of information. He did not know how much actual support he had. Therefore, on Christmas Day 1483, Henry made a public declaration at Rennes Cathedral that if he won the throne from Richard III, he would marry Elizabeth of York and make her his queen. In this way he would unite both houses that had been at war for decades.
To take control of the situation, Richard put great pressure on Brittany to hand over Henry. Francis was old and ill and his advisors felt sufficiently vulnerable that they went along with Richard’s wish. An English refugee, John Morton, Bishop of Ely, warned Henry of what was happening and Henry escaped to France disguised as a servant.
Henry went to live in Paris. He gathered around him a court of English discontents who were becoming more and more concerned about the actions of Richard III. It was these men who would serve Henry after he became king. Henry was made aware that Richard had devised a plan to scupper his move to unite the feuding Lancastrian and York families. He would marry Elizabeth of York. Such a move would at the least weaken Henry’s position but it also meant that for Henry time was of the essence. Those who had gone to Paris – Bishop Moreton, the Earl of Oxford and Richard Fox – all told Henry that he could rely on the support of the English people. More significant, the Earl of Oxford had the necessary military expertise to make such a venture a success. On August 7th, 1485, Henry and his army landed at Milford Haven in Wales.