Henry VII had to develop a positive relationship with England’s nobles if he was to survive after the Battle of Bosworth. There were nobles who supported Henry because of their Lancastrian background. There were also nobles who supported Henry VII as they saw him as a means to social and political advancement. There were also those nobles who were opposed to Henry as the Lambert and Warbeck rebellions showed. Stated as the most basic level, there were far more nobles than the king and bringing them all onto his side was a task that was to take Henry VII many years.
While the War of the Roses had killed off some of the nobility it would be a mistake to believe that England was left denuded of nobility by 1485. Research indicates that in every 25-year period during the Middle Ages, 25% of the nobility died and left no male heir. They were succeeded by newly created noble families. What Henry did to control the size and power of the nobility was limit the number of new lords – by doing this he kept the numbers to a level he felt he could better handle. Such an approach also had other affects. To be appointed to the senior social echelons in the reign of Henry VII was seen as a great honour as it was a rarity. Therefore, those people who were rewarded in this manner were suitably loyal to the man who was responsible for this social elevation. These men were also the wealthiest of the nobility and men who could probably fund larger armies. Therefore, by bringing them over to his side, Henry VII was reducing any threat to himself. In the whole of his reign, Henry only created one Earl (compared to Edward IV’s nine) and five barons (compared to the thirteen of Edward IV). The titles had very real status in Henry’s reign as so few possessed them. The number of peers dropped from 57 to 44 as more noble families died out than titles were created and granted.
Loyal nobles were also awarded the Order of the Garter, an ancient and prestigious honour. This bestowed much status on the recipient but it cost Henry VII nothing – whereas the creation of new titles invariably cost the king money as estates were usually granted from royal land. In Henry’s reign, 37 nobles received the Order of the Garter.
Ironically one of the advantages Henry had when dealing with the nobility was that he did not have to worry about family, as he had no brothers. Edward IV had two powerful brothers to contend with but Henry had none. This meant that he could focus his full attention on the nobility as opposed to being concerned about family loyalty.
Henry also bolstered his strength at the expense of the nobility by keeping land that had belonged to former peerage families. Valuable land that had belonged to the Yorkist families of Warwick, Gloucester and Clarence remained in the hands of Henry. This served two purposes. First, it increased the wealth of the king. Second, the nobles lived in hope that they might be rewarded with some of these estates if they worked well for Henry. Why this may have been a false hope, it did ensure that many nobles did what they could for the king to show loyalty. As part of this, they only married to whom Henry approved, as they needed the king’s permission to marry. This meant that the nobility could not form powerful and potentially dangerous family blocks that could serve as a platform to oppose Henry.
Clearly with the memory of the War of the Roses still fresh in many minds, there were some magnate families that were not trusted. The Percy Earls of Northumberland and the Stafford Dukes of Buckingham were among these. Rather than openly antagonise these families, Henry simply kept them under surveillance using his very effective spy network. As Henry felt more powerful and less threatened he asserted his authority even more. The murdered Earl of Northumberland left his estate to his ten-year old son in 1489. He was not allowed to receive his land until 1499 at the age of twenty – only when Henry was convinced of his loyalty.
By either bringing into his court the nobility Henry believed he could trust or diluting the power of those he distrusted, Henry had far more control over the nobility than previous monarchs. That he was quick to use an act of attainder was also common knowledge to the nobility who stood to lose everything if they were attainted. It would be easy to assume that Henry had a ‘them and us’ approach to the nobility, especially after the War of the Roses. However, this does not seem to be the case. Henry clearly believed that it was beneficial for all to have the nobility working with the king as opposed to anything else. Two of his closest advisors were the Earls of Oxford and Shrewsbury. Henry saw the nobles as his main weapon in enforcing his authority in the regions and extended local regional control to powerful and loyal magnates in areas considered to be potentially disloyal. Loyalty was well rewarded and though Henry VII faced rebellions, when they are stripped down they barely threatened his position. Even the threat from Europe seems to have been overplayed.
Henry also used money as a way of maintaining loyalty. The nobles had to pay a certain sum of money if they failed to complete written promises, based around what functions they would perform in the areas they controlled. The lesser nobles paid a sum of £400 while the senior nobles paid £10,000. If they did not keep to their part of the deal, they lost the money. If they kept to their promise, clearly this benefited Henry. This process even percolated down to men who had been given positions of responsibility. The Captain of Calais had to promise £40,000 to fulfil his duties. Such a practice had been done before but Henry refined it so that he could as much as was possible guarantee loyalty. If a noble failed in his duties, he could have his fine delayed if he accepted conditions that left him at the mercy of the king.
“Loyalty and ability were Henry’s sole requirements in his most important servants; patronage had to be earned, it was not an automatic privilege of the upper class.” (Caroline Rogers)