Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Friday, April 21, 2006

Dead King Watch: Henry VII - Scrooge



Anyone slightly sickened by the coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's 80th Birthday this week (which included headlines such as 'Elizabeth the Great' and lots of discussion about 'the burdens of monarchy') might be comforted by the news that Henry VII died on 21 April 1509, which makes today the 497th anniversary of his death.

Henry Tudor was born in Wales in 1457, just as the Wars of the Roses were beginning. Yet his side - the Lancastrians - were more or less out of it by 1471, and so aged just 14 he was forced to flee to Brittany in France. His mother was the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt - but that is hardly much of a claim to the throne at all to be brutally honest. Yet by 1483, when Edward IV copped it, Henry Tudor found himself the leading Lancastrian figure.

With money and supplies borrowed from his host, Francis II, Duke of Brittany, Henry made an attempt to land in England but turned back after encountering the new King Richard III's forces on the Dorset coast. Seeing what he was up against, he made sure he got more supplies from the French, and won the support of some of the in-laws of the late Yorkist King Edward IV. He then landed with a largely French and Scottish force in Mill Bay, Pembrokeshire, and marched into England picking up some support from the Welsh - (he had after all been born in Wales and some family contacts he could utilise).

Fortunately for Henry, at this point, as AL Morton notes, 'the treason and desertion which had been a constant feature of the age reasserted itself and Richard found himself almost without supporters. The Battle of Bosworth field, fought on August 22nd, 1485, by a mere handful of men on either side, ended the Wars of the Roses and with them a whole historic epoch in England.' Helped by the fact that all the other contenters for the throne were either dead or in no position to challenge him, after victory at Bosworth, Henry Tudor became King. He married Elizabeth of York, daughter and heir of King Edward IV in 1486 which unified the warring houses, and gave him a greater claim to the throne.

Firstly, Henry needed to accumulate a huge amount of capital as to make the monarchy independent from the nobility - which had dragged England into the Wars of the Roses. Henry's methods of taxing the nobles were ruthless but brilliant. His chancellor, Archbishop John Morton, argued that "if the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure" - an argument which became known as 'Morton's Fork'. It was very successful and by the end of his reign Henry had accumulated a personal fortune of a million and a half pounds - quite unheard of. This meant that he only had to summon seven parliaments in his 24 year long reign - with only two of these in his last 13 years. This is how kings like to rule! Just about the only thing he did seem to like to spend money on was ship building - as this helped boost trade - and so bring in even more money.

Henry's second task was to destroy the power of the nobility as there were still too many powerful noblemen each with what amounted to a private army of indentured retainers (contracted men-at-arms masquerading as servants). Henry therefore passed a law against the keeping of retainers while creating the Court of the Star Chamber. This revived an earlier practice of using a small (and trusted) group of the Privy Council as a personal or Prerogative Court, able to cut through the cumbersome legal system and act swiftly. Serious disputes involving the use of personal power, or threats to royal authority, were thus dealt with. Generally he built up a system of Justices of Peace, local gentry who were his key enforcers of law and order. They were unpaid, which, helped keep their costs down but local gentry saw the office as one of local influence and prestige and were therefore willing to serve.

AL Morton argued that 'the new monarchy founded by Henry VII was of a totally new kind, based upon a new relation of class forces...Winning his kingdom by force of arms he consolidated it by the homespun qualities of thrift, cunning, diplomacy and double-dealing. A capable soldier, he hated and avoided wars because war cost money. A capable business man, he administered and exploited his kingdom as scientifically and thoroughly as the new capitalist landowners did their estates. He was the living embodiment of all the virtues and vices of the thrusting bourgeoisie who prospered under the protection of the Tudor regime and to whose support it owed its stability.' The merchants, clothiers and town artisans - not yet rich and powerful enough themselves to want political power - supported Henry as he allowed them to get rich and so they helped him lay the foundations of the Tudor dynasty - an absolutism that would last a century.

Yet there was one problematic consequence of his policy. The huge growth of population at this time put enormous pressure on land, which wasn't helped by either the Enclosures which increasingly took place or the fact that nobles were no longer employing gangs of thugs simply as retainers. Morton notes that 'the quantitative transfer of land from open field to enclosure and from arable to pasture, proceeding continously up to this time, assumes the qualitative character of a widespread dispossession of the peasantry. The change coincided with the growth of population to perhaps five million, which may be regarded as the maximum which the land would support under the hitherto mode of production. Under these circumstances enclosures of an extent which earlier might have passed almost unnoticed were bound to involve sweeping social changes'.

A veritable army of landless, propertyless unemployed men was created and there was little work for them to do. The Tudor State was forced to pass harsh laws against begging on the one hand and also legislation to try and limit the number of Enclosures. Morton notes that 'as early as 1489 an Act forbade the destruction of houses to which at least 20 acres belonged. Other Acts attempted to fix a proportion between corn and pasture land or limit the number of sheep that a single farmer might keep. All were ignored or evaded for the excellent reason that the men who were charged with enforcing them, the Justices of the Peace, were the actual landlords who benefitted by the enclosures. In any case, what the nascent capitalism required, consciously or otherwise, was not a free and prosperous peasantry - "the plough in the hands of the owners" in Bacon's phrase - but "a degraded and servile condition of the mass of the people, the transformation of them into mercenaries, and of their means of labour into capital!" (Marx, Capital, I, p 744.)'.

Yet this is to run somewhat ahead of Henry VII - who died in 1509 leaving only one surviving heir, who would become Henry VIII. If Henry VIII is remembered as fat and greedy, then it was only possible because of his scrooge like father. 'It was this meagre, thin-faced, calculating man far more than his spectacular successors who established the Tudor monarchy on a firm basis and brought England into line with the general consolidation of centralised nation States going on throughout Europe.'

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5 Comments:

At 4:03 am, Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

Disgusting, eh? Glad I only follow the alternative media over the Internet. I no longer follow the bourgeois mass-media at all. But here in Canada, we get this idiot monarchist propaganda shite too. I saw a few headlines and ran in the other direction...
;>

My fervent wish -- and firm expectation -- is that the british bourgeois monarchy will be brought down soon enuff: when the more politically-advanced masses of the Continent inspire the backwards british workers to finally first throw off their treasonous "Labour" and trade union 'straw bosses' -- and then, immediately after, the bourgeoisie itself.

A sweet, sweet day that will be.

I fully expect the next king of the "United Kingdom" to be the LAST king of the "United Kingdom". Here's to the soon-to-be *Socialist Republic of Britain* -- or whatever the future workers' state calls itself.

 
At 10:32 am, Anonymous Nathaniel said...

There is, of course, the controversial Blackadder theory concerning the actual victor at Bosworth Field. Unfortunately, except for a reassessment of Richard III and the humour to be found in the documents supporting this theory, its attractions have been slight. The small number of its proponents has led to a certain militant cast coming upon many of the articles produced by this school of thought, seen in such article titles as the classic The Winter of Our Discontent: English Historiography Under the Malign Influences of the Chroniclers Henry Tudor and St Ralph the Liar and the more recent "Winter Dis Cunt": Misogyny and the Feminist Response to the Patriarchal Historiography of Henry Tudor in the Milieu of Afro-Caribbean Immigration to Britain.

 
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