As part of my “Month of Posts” challenge I am looking through old, dusty saved drafts to uncover forgotten ideas that I once had for posts. Here is another example, a simple enough post of Tudor historian Polydore Vergil describing Henry VII.
The A-level History course requires learners to engage with sources, both primary and secondary. In one module (the one we teach is Democracy & Nazism: Germany 1918-45) students are required to break-down primary sources in terms of their purpose, tone, provenance and value. Whereas in the other module (The Tudors: 1485-1509) students need to understand the impact of historians’ interpretations: their arguments and wider historiography. This particular source is an intriguing one: it is a secondary source, in that it comes from a historian. However, due to its age and the context of the period of when it was written (during the reign of Henry VII’s son Henry VIII) it can also be considered a contemporary interpretation. This example, then, supports Arthur Marwick’s argument that some secondary sources become primary sources due to distance of time.
The source is from Vergil’s Anglica Historica (c.1513):
His body was slender, but well built and strong; his height above the average. His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face was 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 greater danger, deserted him. He had a most pertinacious memory; 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 or guile. He was gracious and kind and was as attentive to his visitors as he was easy of access. His hospitality was splendidly generous; he was fond of having foreigners at his 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 indeed it may be considered the worst vice, since it is harmful to everyone.
This description is a really interesting and useful one. It provides a clear portrait of Henry VII in terms of personal appearance (a ‘slender figure’ with ‘small and blue eyes’), and more importantly, it allows us to understand more about his character. This is particularly highlighted in the third paragraph regarding his bureaucratic skill: ‘he was shrewd and prudent’. Henry VII has regularly been characterised in terms of his ability to deal with money, with many deeming him a penny-pinching king, whilst John Guy has called him the ‘best businessman’ to ever sit on the throne. Henry VII restored the royal finances, which was particularly needed after the problems of the past three decades (defeat in the Hundred Years’ War and the problems resulting from decades of feuding in the Wars of the Roses).
Vergil provides a mostly positive portrait, particularly in terms of Henry VII’s ‘hospitality’ and being ‘splendidly generous’. However, he also provides a warning for those who ran foul of Henry: treating some of his subjects with ‘harsh severity’ and in his later years not avoiding temptation of ‘avarice’. No doubt this is in connection with the final years of Henry’s reign, particularly when he utilised the efforts of Empson and Dudley to collect taxes and to punish the aristocracy.
Henry VII is compared often with his son, Henry VIII. The two kings could be stated to be chalk and cheese, especially with the descriptions here: Henry VII was not a “man of action” like his son, and this is highlighted in Vergil’s mention of ‘being more inclined to peace’. This is shown through the various treaties signed during the 1490s to bring security to the English throne, particularly in the likes of the Treaty of Etaples of 1492. By contrast, Henry VIII was someone who wanted to go down in history as a warrior king, as shown in his three wars with France in the period 1510s-1540s.
The new reign of Henry VIII started with a rejection of Henry VII’s methods: Empson and Dudley were imprisoned and then executed in 1510, thereby showing that the son would not be subjected to the same policies as his father. But yet despite these differences – also notably in appearance – there are a couple of sentences that suggest similarities between father and son. I think this is true of their spirit and also their scholarly activity; Henry VIII may be often be portrayed as a simple brutal tyrant, but this does not do his renaissance education justice.
In conclusion, Vergil’s description is of great value to historians studying this period of history. However, we must be mindful of notable limitations, particularly that of bias. Vergil was essentially paid by the state to write a history of the dynasty, and no doubt the portraits of the key players of the period were bound to be – on the whole – flattering. His Anglica Historica is suggested to have started during the final years of Henry VII, with a possible completion date of 1512-13; however, the actual book was not printed until the 1530s. It is clear that Vergil promoted the so-called Tudor myth narrative: outlining the positives of the Tudors in restoring the nation to prominence when compared to its supposed decline under the Yorkist kings, notably that of Richard III. However, Vergil’s work remains an important part of the wider historiography of England, providing insight into an important monarchy.