Henry VII: A Source-Based Question and Answer

Robert Hughes provides an Examiner's Commentary

The essay below is an example of a candidate’s response to a question set for the new Edexcel AS specification Unit 1, ‘The Reign of Henry VII, 1485-1509’, although the comments made here should be helpful to anyone sitting AS short essay questions. In this specification, candidates must write two essays in 80 minutes and are recommended to spend about 35 minutes per essay, thus allowing time for planning and preparation. 

An examiner for this specification works to five levels of response with the highest level being within the range of 25 to 30 marks. The assessment objective is ‘to present historical explanations and reach a judgement’, and it is vital that candidates have this objective at the centre of their thinking. To achieve a high mark there needs to be an analytical answer offering focus on the question and ‘explicit understanding’ of the key issues. ‘Explicit’ is a word examiners are fond of; it means that the material is clearly relevant. The alternative is ‘implicit’, when the examiner has to pause to ponder the relevance of a statement made. Another word to bear in mind is ‘developed’ – meaning that the candidate is doing something with the material and not simply regurgitating it. 

The essay below is not perfect, but there is sufficient explicit and developed material to warrant a high mark; it also has a clear focus on the assessment objective. Its material is limited for it has an imperfect notion of ‘pretenders’ and there might be more historical context, including more reference to the condition of monarchy at the beginning of the early modern period. Also, the conclusion might contain more integration of points – a bringing together of factors and an attempt to see how they fit together. But, bearing in mind the constraints of time (a maximum of 40 minutes), it is a lucid, relevant and cogent account which should be well-rewarded. 

To What Extent was Henry VII’s Reign under Threat from Pretenders to the Throne? 

In order to measure the extent of the threat posed to Henry VII by those keen to remove him from power it is necessary to consider a number of factors. First, was there a serious rival to Henry who was regarded by a substantial number of people as a more legitimate monarch? Second, was there at any point the chance of foreign invasion and conquest? Third, was Henry’s administration of the country seriously undermined through persistent fears of his being overthrown?  [This is a clear, pithy introduction suggesting a well-organised approach with clear parameters. If the essay keeps to the agenda laid out here it will be a relevant and focused study without descriptive padding.] 

In considering the first factor, a serious rival to Henry, the central weakness of the pretenders is exposed. The names of two pretenders stand out when considering this issue, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. The fact that the Yorkists needed to resort to such characters highlights their fundamental problem. There were contenders more legitimately aligned to the Yorkist cause, notably Clarence’s son, the Earl of Warwick, but incapacity or inadequacy rendered them unrealistic alternatives to Henry Tudor. On the other hand, while support for Simnel and Warbeck indicated Yorkist desperation, the fact that these two dubious characters posed such a threat to Henry does indicate that the first Tudor’s reign was far from stable. The biggest threat to Henry was undoubtedly Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV and Richard III and widow of Charles the Bold. This formidable and hugely wealthy lady never ceased in her determination to overthrow Henry and funded all the rebellions against him. She was too grand and distant for Henry to do anything about directly and her danger only diminished when she ran out of people to fund. But there was really no serious rival to Henry and once the fraudulent nature of Simnel, the first pretender, was exposed then suspicion and doubt was thrown on all who succeeded him. [This consideration of Henry’s rivals might be criticised for limiting the scope of the study to Simnel and Warbeck but it does make the effective point that the biggest threat was Margaret of Burgundy. It provides two good developed points – that the impact of Simnel and Warbeck worked both ways, indicating the strength and the weakness of Henry’s position, and that the revelation of Simnel’s fraudulence reduced the credibility of those who came later.] 

The most serious attempt at foreign invasion came early on in Henry’s reign and concluded with the Battle of Stoke in 1487. This was a pitched battle fought in central England and as such must be regarded as a serious threat to Henry Tudor. But it also revealed the fragility of the Simnel cause for his was an army of poorly-equipped mercenaries who, having landed on the North Lancashire coast, could only offer credible opposition if it recruited support on the journey south; this it failed to do. Subsequent invasions in 1495, at Deal, and in 1497, in Cornwall, in the name of Perkin Warbeck had less impact. This might indicate that as Henry’s reign progressed so the threats diminished. But this would be inaccurate. Warbeck was a more serious and persistent threat than Simnel and at certain points in time attracted considerably more overseas support. It is significant that Henry could afford to be merciful to Simnel once he was captured but eventually was forced to execute Warbeck. [The threat of foreign invasion is concisely handled; and this is a strength. A well-briefed candidate might be tempted into factual narrative here. The examiner will be more impressed with the observations that home-grown recruits never rallied to the Yorkist cause and that it was Warbeck who was the bigger threat, with Henry having to execute him while he could afford to be lenient with Simnel.] 

While Henry wanted to suggest that the pretenders were little more than irritating distractions, there is no doubt that at certain points in his reign they posed a serious threat and this was entirely due to the extent of the foreign support they attracted. Simnel’s cause was supported by the powerful Yorkist faction in Ireland and was funded by Margaret of Burgundy and encouraged by Charles VIII of France. Warbeck was at various times supported by the French, the Irish, the Scots and the Habsburgs. But this turned out to be both a strength and a weakness. It was a strength because Henry’s regime would never have survived the active hostility of powers greater than England, but it was a weakness because if these powers no longer saw that it was in their interest to give support to the pretenders then the cause was lost and the pretenders left isolated. The behaviour of Warbeck in 1497 as he travelled from Ireland to Scotland and then to Cornwall, desperately attempting to raise forces, showed the fate of a pretender whose moment had passed. So the closest Henry came to being overthrown on the battlefield was, ironically, when he was pitched against the weakest of the pretenders. The battle was hardfought but the inability to add to the mercenary force suggests that, had victory been achieved, it would not have been sustained. [Again, the candidate rightly resists the temptation to describe the labyrinthine political and diplomatic manoeuvres of the time, preferring to mention the states who flirted with the idea of supporting the pretenders and then making the very effective point that foreign support was both a strength and a weakness.] 

There is no doubt that Henry’s running of the country was seriously pre-occupied with how to cope with the hostility of the pretenders. The King developed a highly efficient network of spies and informers who seriously undermined the impact of those with hostile intent – but also indicated how seriously Henry took the threat. Above all, Henry engaged in most effective diplomatic and dynastic policies to weaken and isolate those opposed to him. By the beginning of the sixteenth-century, some two-thirds through his reign, he had successfully dealt with the pretenders and their threat. This was achieved through skilled diplomatic deals with the French, the Spanish, the Scots and with Archduke Philip. Henry’s own marriage to Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter, was a huge dynastic triumph, made more so with the birth of a male heir in 1486. So Henry’s administration of the country was shaped by the need to guarantee his security, but it is too strong to state that the country was undermined by these concerns – indeed, in a sense it was probably strengthened. [Henry’s diplomatic and dynastic policies – it is important to spell them out separately – are rightly regarded as immensely successful and a key factor in the undermining of opposition. The argument, though, that Henry was forced to run the country according to an agenda dictated by others is a subtle one and a good counter to the accounts of his triumphs.] 

In conclusion, Henry was threatened by the existence of pretenders at certain key periods in his reign. But the power of the pretenders depended upon the extent of the foreign support they were able to attract and this turned out to be unreliable and short-lived. Once Simnel was revealed as a fraud, and the Tudor king seen as a forceful and effective ruler whose regime took roots, then the cause of the pretenders lost its appeal to all but an extreme minority. But, given the violent and unstable condition of monarchy at the time, there is little doubt that, had the Tudors been led by a less-gifted figure than Henry Tudor, theirs would have been a very short-lived line of monarchs. [The brief conclusion emphasises the essential thrust of the essay and makes an effective final statement – always good to leave the examiner with a clear and ringing remark. It might have been stronger if the candidate had more obviously established an inter-linking of points – can all the factors be brought together around a central theme? But, given the constraints of time – always an issue at the end of an essay – this is an impressive end to a piece of work that would warrant a high mark]. 

Richard Hughes, until recently Head of History at St John's School in Leatherhead, is a senior history examiner with Edexcel.