Unlike his son, Henry VIII, and his granddaughter, Elizabeth I, we know remarkably little about Henry VII from his own point of view – which is almost certainly how Henry wished it to be. Henry was a well-educated person who, unlike many kings before him, could read and write with skill. However, he rarely put any of his thoughts onto paper and the bulk of the information we have about the first Tudor monarch comes from others. An Italian scholar called Polydore Vergil wrote:
“His body was slender, but well built and strong; his height above average. His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face cheerful, especially when speaking; his eyes were small and blue, his teeth few, poor and blackish; his hair was thin and white; his complexion sallow. His spirit was distinguished, wise and prudent; his mind was brave and resolute, and never, even at moments of greatest danger, deserted him. He had a most pertinacious memory. With all he was not devoid of scholarship. In government, he was shrewd and prudent, so that no one dared to get the better of him through deceit and guile. He was gracious and kind and he was as attentive to his visitors as he was easy of access. His hospitality was splendidly generous; he was fond of having foreigners at court…..but those of his subjects who were generous only with promises he treated with harsh severity. He was most fortunate in war, although he was more inclined to peace. He cherished justice above all things. He was the most ardent supporter of our faith and daily participated with great piety in religious services. But all these virtues were obscured latterly by avarice. In a monarch it maybe considered the worst vice, since it is harmful to everyone.” The above was written after Henry died.
At Henry’s funeral John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, gave the following oration:
“His politic wisdom in government was singular; his reason pithy and substantial, his memory fresh and holding, his experience notable, his counsels fortunate and taken with wise deliberation, his speech gracious in diverse languages…….his dealings in time of peril and dangers was cold and sober with great hardiness. If any treason was conspired against him it came out most wonderfully.”
Francis Bacon wrote ‘History of the Reign of King Henry VII’ in 1622. Bacon described Henry as:
“(He is) one of the best sort of wonders: a wonder for wise men. (Henry) professed always to love and seek peace. For his arms, either in foreign or civil wars, were never unfortunate. He was of a high mind, and loved his own way; as one that revered himself, and would reign indeed. Had he been a private man he would have been termed proud: but in a wise prince, it was but keeping of distance, which indeed he did towards all; not admitting any near of full approach neither to his power or to his secrets. For he was governed by none.”
While Henry did not write about himself, historians can learn a great deal about him when studying the very detailed accounts that he kept. For a king who some have labelled a miser, Henry could be very generous – though, it could be argued, with other peoples money! He paid 13s 4d for a lute for his daughter Mary, £2 for string minstrels to perform at Westminster and £13 6s 8d for a leopard to be kept at the menagerie at the Tower of London. Henry even spent £20 ‘for a little maiden that danceth’.
Henry was a great believer in entertaining his guests – especially foreign guests. He was also a keen sportsman who had a reputation for playing real tennis. Henry also loved to hunt – a passion Henry VIII inherited from his father. Henry VIII kept an impressive stable of horses.
While Henry VII has gained a reputation as a money-grabbing cold-hearted king, this may be unfair to him. When he learned that Prince Arthur had died his first reaction was to rush to the side of his wife Elizabeth. When Elizabeth died “he privily departed to a solitary place and would no man would resort unto him.”