One of the major issues that Henry VII had to deal with was retaining. Retaining was a problem that had haunted kings for some time and was sometimes referred to as livery or maintenance. Livery was the giving of a uniform or badge to a follower and maintenance was the protection of a retainer’s interests. Retaining was where great lords recruited those of a lower social status as their followers or servants and a retainer’s job was to advance their lord’s position within the land and this included the use of arms if this was felt necessary. The were given a uniform (livery) to show who their master was and it also served to reinforce that a retainer was under the control of his lord. Retaining had been allowed in the past as kings accepted that a noble needed a strong retinue of a certain social class serving him if he was to assert his authority within his locality. By allowing retaining a king could all but guarantee social stability in his kingdom. Retaining also served another purpose – the king frequently needed a large army at short notice to fight foreign campaigns and retaining effectively allowed a king to gather around him a sizeable number of trained men at short notice.


However, retaining also had one obvious weakness. There was always the chance that one nobleman or several grouped together would become more powerful than the king. This was something that Henry VII was not willing to tolerate or risk. Edward IV had legislation passed in 1468 that outlawed retaining except in the cases of domestic servants, estate officials and legal advisers. However, the law was effectively ignored and it also had a major weakness contained within it – it allowed retaining for ‘lawful service’. Therefore lords continued to maintain their retinues claiming that the men in them were for ‘lawful service’. Therefore, these retainers continued to provide a possible threat to the king.


At the start of his reign Henry VII publicly condemned retaining. In 1487 and in 1504 laws were passed which seemingly outlawed the practice. However, while the public face of Henry condemned retaining, historians believe that privately he thought differently. It is very possible that Henry recognised that the practice of retaining had benefits for the king in times of trouble and that incidents of the monarch being threatened by retaining were rare. Therefore, rather than outlaw retaining it is believed that privately Henry only wanted to restrict it. It was the army of the Earl of Northumberland that had saved the king in Yorkshire in 1486 and a number of his foreign ventures were based around the armies of lords as opposed to a royal army.


When analysed, the two laws of 1487 and 1504 merely clarified certain areas that were open to question in the 1468 law passed by Edward IV. While both members of the Houses of Parliament had to swear that they would not retain illegally, they were still allowed to retain within the law. Henry’s two laws clarified what was meant by ‘lawful’ retaining and they did contain the rider that a retinue was not to be misused. The 1504 law brought in a licensing system whereby a lord could employ retainers for the king’s system alone. He needed a licence with the seal of the Privy Council and the licence was only valid for the lifetime of the king.


One of the licences stated:


“Henry, by the grace of God, King of England and of France and Lord of Ireland – greeting….we….by the advice of our Council, intending to provide a good, substantial and competent number of captains and able men of our subjects to be in readiness to serve us at our pleasure when the case shall require, and trusting in your faith and truth, will and desire you, and by these presents give unto your full power an authority from henceforth during our pleasure to take, appoint and retain by indenture or covenant in form or manner as hereafter ensueth, and none otherwise, such persons our subjects as by your discretion shall be thought and seemeth to you to be able men to do us service in the war in your company under you and at your leading at all times and places and as often as it shall please us to command and assign you, to the number of persons, whose names be contained in a certificate by you made in a bill of parchment indented betwixt us and you interchangeably signed by us and subscribed with your hand and to our secretary delivered…..PROVIDED always that you retain not above the said number which you shall indent for in form and manner hereafter ensuing. PROVIDED also the same able persons shall not be chosen, taken nor retained but only of your own tenants or of the inhabitants within any office that you have of our grant.”


How successful was Henry in limiting retaining?


Henry was obviously successful in moving retaining into a system, which he felt in control of. The number of retainers fell as his reign progressed. Evidence suggests that certain magnates such as Buckingham and Northumberland got around this by employing more men to work on their estates than was really necessary. However, both men covered their tracks well and no evidence was found by Henry or his supporters to support this. Those who did break the law and were caught were fined. In 1506, Lord Burgavenny was deemed to have too many retainers for his needs and was fined £5 for every retainer. His fine totalled £70,550 – a huge sum of money then. Henry suspended the sum and held Burgavenny to a promise that he would adhere to the rules. Henry won on two counts – the nobility would have been horrified at the total fine they could pay (using the Burgavenny example) if Henry used the law to its fullest extent and he tied closer to him a noble who had been implicated in the Cornish Rebellion.


Henry treated all the nobles the same with regards to retaining. Whereas Edward IV had allowed those nobles who were closest to him to do as they wished with regards to retaining, Henry did not – as the Earl of Oxford was to find out. Oxford was one of Henry’s closest advisors. When Oxford entertained Henry at his castle at Henningham, the Earl put on a grand finale with all his retainers flanking the royal carriage as it drove out of the estate. Henry asked Oxford who all the people were and Oxford casually informed the king that they were retainers. He was fined 15,000 marks.


Retaining continued into the reign of Elizabeth I but Henry succeeded in bringing it far more under his control than any of his predecessors had.