I’ve never been that interested in the debate around ‘when medieval England ended.’ It’s not a question that a contemporary could ever have asked and I don’t totally see the point in it.
Nonetheless I agree that saying the battle of Bosworth field was the ‘end of the medieval era’ is far too simplistic. People would not have looked out of their windows the day after and seen a radically different world.
That said, it is clear that the Tudor dynasty ushered in a new era in the way that England was governed. What fascinates me at the moment, is how much that may have been down (at least in part) to Henry VII’s personal style of Kingship.
I like Henry. It’s a shame that he gets so little attention in comparison to his showy son and chaotic Yorkist predecessors. But I genuinely believe he was a man of good character. Part of the reason for this, is that I believe he was less blood thirsty than your typical ruler – even if he was not adverse to tyrannical tendencies.
On the fact of it, my claim seems strange. This is, after all, a man who won the crown in battle and had to bear arms more than once to defend it. But when we take a minute to consider the context and other facts, I do think my comments have some credibility. For example:
He did not seek glory in foreign battles. Establishing his claim to the French throne was of little interest to him in contrast to the Henrys that had gone before him and the one that would succeed him. There is an added irony to this in that he was the grandson of a French princess and arguably had a far greater claim to that throne than he did to the one he occupied.
He was remarkably lenient with those who crossed him, Perkin Warbeck being the most obvious example. This is not to say that he wasn’t a man of his times. His eventual murder (because that’s what it was) of the vulnerable Earl of Warwick was almost unforgivable – but it seems that he did this for the sake of his dynasty rather than out of any blood lust.
He did not generally take part in battles himself. You could argue this made him a coward. But it does reinforce the argument that tales of great chivalry and conquest were of little personal interest to him.
Perhaps, after the Wars of the Roses, he thought England bored of battle. Maybe his own experience of a life on the run had exhausted his appetite for conquest. But whatever else can be said in critique of the miserly usurper, Henry Tudor, I would much rather live in a country with a high tax economy than one where my life was often in danger.
People have been asking me recently what I think about historical fiction. I assume what they mean by that is ‘how much does it matter whether fiction based on history actually follows the facts.’
And my answer? Not much. Personally, I much prefer fiction that sticks as closely to the available facts as possible while adding some snap, crackle and pop where it’s needed. Philippa Gregory and last year’s ‘Victoria’ series just about got it right for me. But ultimately if something is labelled fiction than that’s exactly how it should be treated. Readers and watchers should not assume they are getting the factual truth and if they do, that is not the fault of novelists or TV producers.
But there is a genre of history that worries me much more. The 1 hour documentary. I understand – and accept – that things need to be simplified for TV. I recognise that there has to be different entry points for varying levels of knowledge and interest and many of my curiosities were sparked through this very medium. However, I am getting a little fed up with the huge oversimplifications that have been transmitted through our TV screens in the last year or so which make a big impact on popular understandings of the historic debate.
Lucy Worsley’s ‘History’s Biggest Fibs’ got me a bit riled on Thursday night. While I did really enjoy much of it, the assertion that the ‘Wars of the Roses’ was a Tudor myth and that Richard III’s name was blackened by his successors, drove me crazy.
I’ve blogged previously about the Wars of the Roses, but can I please just but in a plea for sanity when it comes to the accusation that the Tudors led some kind of deliberate propaganda campaign to tarnish the previously saintly reputation of the last Plantagenet King.
Of course Tudor writers would have been mindful of the need to please the new dynasty and this would have been reflected in their writing. As Worsley notes, John Rouse’s work is a perfect example of this – he was complimentary about Richard in his life time but negative about him once Henry Tudor came to power.
However we now know that things once believed to be a Tudor invention have turned out to be true. Richard’s curved spine, so often dismissed as Tudor spin has been established as fact.
The account of Dominic Mancini – dated 1483, two years before the Tudors took over – makes it clear that people strongly suspected Richard in his own lifetime of usurping the throne and doing away with the Princes.
Of course Richard’s reputation suffered under his successors. Things rooted in truth were exaggerated and he was not treated with a sense of balance and objectivity. But the beginnings of his huge unpopularity and the link to the crimes many hold him responsible for, can clearly be found in his own reign and lifetime.
The Tudor era can boast a plethora of family feuding, crimes of passion, collections of tragedy and acts of cruelty that would stretch the imaginations of even today’s most far-fetched soap opera writers.
And of course, Tudor addicts like me, will know that the founding of the Royal dynasty begins with one savage, selfish and almost unforgivable act of cruelty. That of a pre-teen child bride being forced into marriage with a man twice her age and exposed to sexual intercourse and the dangers of child birth long before her body, let alone her mind, was ready for either.
Margaret Beaufort fascinates me. I have spent more time trying to stitch the fragments of her life together than I have any other member of history’s royalty. And that’s why, as I have trawled through some of her earlier biographies, I have been fascinated to find that many have underplayed the trauma of her early years by making a simple but significant error, calculating her birth date at 1441 rather than the correct 1443.
Why does this matter? Because it, in part, dilutes the tragedy. If born in 1441 than Margaret fell pregnant at 14 and gave birth at 15. Still far too young of course – but it would have meant both her body and mind would have enjoyed two extra years of development and by the standards of the day, this would have been far more socially acceptable.
The origins of the error are fairly simple and apparently arise from misinterpreting evidence given at the inquest of her father’s death. However, a much stronger case can be made for a 1443 birth date; in that year her father – preparing to go off on a military adventure – was negotiating the future of his unborn child should anything happen to him. Further to this a book of hours from the family has been discovered that states her birth clearly as 1443.
But there is another piece of evidence which, despite rarely cropping up in the debate, actually makes the case for a 1443 birth almost watertight.
In his funeral sermon of the venerable Lady, her long-time friend and confessor Bishop Fisher makes it clear that she gave birth ‘before she was 14 years of age.’
Surely, I hear you ask, this could just be a miscalculation? No, it can’t be.
By saying ‘not yet 14’ Fisher is not just making a passing comment on her age. In fact, were she 14 or over he probably wouldn’t have mentioned it.
Fourteen was the closest thing that this era had to an age of consent. Sex was just about permissible at 12 but few thought it appropriate before the age of 14. Sometimes, this proviso was even written in to marriage contracts.
By saying that she was ‘not yet 14 years of age’ Fisher is acknowledging – subtly and tactfully of course – the early tragedy that befell her. That a man had violated her before an age at which it was appropriate. That everything that followed – her ensuring her son’s early safety and fighting for continual advancement – shows her incredible strength of character by being able to overcome this early tragedy.
Recent students of Margaret Beaufort cannot help be amazed at how she survived and recovered from such a horrible early experience. It would seem, from Fisher’s comments, that contempories also had a sense of it. No wonder that respective for this great lady, was almost universal.
Been thinking lately about good King Henry. No not that one. Nor that one. Not even that one.
I speak not of Henry VIII, who transformed England perhaps more than any other ruler. Nor do I dwell on his father, who founded the infamous Tudor dynasty. I do not even mean the fifth Harry, who took England to its 100 year war zenith at the battle of Agincourt.
Instead, I’ve been pondering the reign of Henry VI – the man whose reign was seen as so disastrous that it led to the Wars of the Roses and ultimately, the downfall of Lancaster and the rise of York. He was weak. Easily led. He had no desire for glory in war. He lacked ruthlessness. He was far too trusting; particularly when it came to unscrupulous advisers.
All this is accurate. He had none of the qualities necessary for successful medieval Kingship.
But something bothers me about how history judges him. No sympathy has emerged and few rarely speak up for his good qualities. He was a man of genuine religious conviction. He was compassionate. He invested in education. He forgave people that wronged him. He was not promiscuous. He took care of his maternal half-brothers. He was a lover of peace.
None of this, I agree, would have endeared him to contemporaries. But shouldn’t the 21st century observer be pouring praise on these virtues? After all, the behaviour of Catherine Howard made her a totally unsuitable Tudor Queen; but the modern reader has sympathy with her, recognising that she was essentially an abused teenage girl, forced into marriage with an obese man in his 50s. Why isn’t Henry VI given the same generosity?
It has come to my attention of late that the Wars of the Roses are still being fought – albeit by history fans on Twitter. Great! But it surprises me that so many side with Edward IV at the expense of poor Henry.
Don’t get me wrong – as I’ve said above, I understand why contemporaries would have seen Edward as the better King. But shouldn’t we judge differently? Shouldn’t we be quick to acknowledge that virtuous, faithful, peaceful Henry is a better offering than adulterous, gluttonous and war ready Edward – even if we have to sadly acknowledge that the latter probably makes you a better ruler of 15th century England?
But we don’t. Part of me can’t shake the feeling that this has all been distorted by the fact that so many history fans have a crush on Max Irons…
Anyway, for this blogger at least, Henry VI deserves a reprieve. He may have been one of the most unsuited heads to ever wear a crown – but he’s one of the finest characters in the annals of history.
Okay Yorkists (and other geeks) – do your worst. Tell me where I’m going wrong! I want to hear what you think!
As I trawled through my Google analytics the other day, I noticed that my post on the ‘Three things the White Queen Got Wrong’ was one of the highest read so far. In fact, with the exception of anything about Prince Harry, the Wars of the Roses is easily the most popular topic. Clearly the hit BBC series had something to do with that.
And for the most part, I’m a fan. I’m relatively relaxed about the fact that historical fiction needs to take twists and turns that cause it to differ from the facts. Obviously I wish that people would channel their new found interest into checking out an actual history book, but the fact that they don’t isn’t the fault of fiction writers or TV producers.
But it’s the Margaret Beaufort stuff that still bothers me. I know, I know – I’ve blogged about this before. However, the more I get into engaging with the historical community on Twitter (which I love by the way) the more I realise that some stuff still needs to be said.
For me, it isn’t the fact that the White Queen series has got facts about Margaret’s life wrong. These things happen and actually the Philippa Gregory book of ‘The Red Queen’ is chronologically very accurate (and btw, an excellent read). It’s the fact that her portrayal on the series – and how she is presented in other formats – has totally skewed perceptions of her. This has now reached such an extent that back in 2013, the BBC history website (which many might understandably view as a respectable source) actually listed Margaret as a potential killer of the Princes in the Tower – almost as if the case against her was as strong of that against Richard III.
Anyway, I’m getting toward the end of my rant. What I want to do quickly, is just list three things I believe about Margaret which the White Queen TV series entirely failed to capture:
She had a sense of humour – Okay, so she didn’t exactly leave behind a collection of published jokes in her (for the time) quite extensive collection of books, but that doesn’t mean she was all work and no fun. There is evidence of her sharing jokes with servants and making humorous remarks in correspondence. Her household was remembered as a happy place to be.
She was a pragmatist – I really did not like the Lancastrian fanatic that was presented in the White Queen. Yes, she knew where her deep loyalties lay but she was as happy as most people of the era to play the game. When she needed to be loyal to the Yorkist Edward IV (who she was actually genetically more closely related to than she was Lancaster’s Henry VI) then loyal she was.
She was quite a good wife – Margaret’s second husband, Sir Henry Stafford, was presented in the series as a loyal and long suffering spouse to the cold and aggressive Margaret. Despite being only fifteen when she married the thirty-something year old, there is much evidence that their wedding was warm and happy. Its childlessness is probably better explained by the damage caused by the birth of Henry VII (when Margaret was just 13) rather than any sexual frigidity on her part.
Rant over for now. But one day, I would love to see a novel and TV series that present the warmer, practical and realistic Margaret that I have been privileged to get to know through study.