Learning to be a Tudor

Thomas Penn examines M.J. Tucker’s article on the court of Henry VII, first published in History Today in 1969.

Young Henry VII, by a French artist (Musée Calvet, Avignon)Melvin Tucker’s essay on life at the court of Henry VII (r. 1485-1509), written more than 40 years ago, opens with a weary lament. He notes how the court of the founder of the Tudor dynasty is invariably seen as medieval, drab and miserly when set against the Renaissance sunshine of his son, Henry VIII (r. 1509-47). Writing at a time when Henry VII’s court and its culture was – with a handful of honourable exceptions – dealt with in a perfunctory way by historians, if not ignored altogether, Tucker sets out to offer a wide-ranging corrective.

Examining all manner of activities from music and sport to hunting and architecture Tucker shows that Henry VII’s court was far livelier than was once imagined: chivalry flourished alongside print culture and traditional religion mingled with the new intellectual currents filtering north from Renaissance Italy. Henry VII, Tucker rightly argues, had a genuine understanding of the importance of humanist learning; indeed he was responsible for the education of his prodigious son, among whose first actions as king in 1509 was to tell his tutor Lord Mountjoy that without scholars ‘we should scarcely exist’.

It speaks volumes for Tucker’s essay that it provides a picture whose outlines are today instantly familiar to any student of Henry VII’s court. But the intervening decades have seen the study of court culture assume a much more significant role in our attempts to come to terms with a reign that still seems neither entirely late medieval nor early modern, ruled by a monarch who fits uncomfortably into existing ideas of kingship.

We now understand far more about the way that culture at Henry VII’s court mirrored the world of the late 15th and early 16th centuries and the politics of the age; how it was used to project royal power and magnificence and how it mirrored the king’s constant preoccupation with his flimsy dynastic legitimacy. The appearance of intellectuals and poets on the fringes of court life, moreover, might not necessarily constitute evidence of Henry’s personal interests but rather of a particular group at court with a political axe to grind, or perhaps of a diplomat or jobbing writer trying to gain favour. In other words we accept that court culture was the product of, and reflected, a variety of factors, from seismic political change to the articulation of new ideas, to personal ambitions, resentments and grudges.

All of which serves to make the picture far more complex than Tucker’s essay suggests. That Henry VII appreciated the importance of humanist letters, for example, is beyond doubt; that he spent much time personally engaged in their study, however, is highly unlikely. Henry favoured foreigners, in particular Italians, because of the access their knowhow and learning gave him to Europe’s courts and chancelleries and to the international financial markets. Often,where Henry is concerned, the art follows the money: paintings, sculpture and architectural plans were sent by Italian merchant bankers as sweeteners in their business dealings with the wealthy English king.

And court culture captures not just the light, but the shade. Late in Henry’s reign the writing of poets such as John Skelton,William Cornish and Stephen Hawes hints at the climate of terror generated by the king’s administrators and informers: ‘From my brows for fear,’ wrote Hawes, ‘the drops down did sweat.’ At the same time there emerged groups, such as the circle around the young Thomas More (1478-1535), whose sharp criticism of Henry’s government was inextricably linked with selfinterest. Excluded from favour during the reign, they were waiting for the king to die and for his son – who everyone assumed would be an easy touch – to ascend to the throne.

We might, indeed, reflect on the irony that many of the writers cited by Tucker in support of the liveliness of Henry VII’s court were also responsible for the views that his essay seeks to dispel. As with moments of regime change through the ages intellectuals and thinkers were among the first to transfer their affections to the new dispensation and to compare Henry VII’s court unfavourably with that of his brilliant young son as soon as it became politically expedient to do so. ‘Tight-fistedness,’ wrote Lord Mountjoy on Henry VII’s death, ‘is well and truly banished’; the court of Henry VIII, by contrast, was a land swimming in ‘milk and honey and nectar’.

Read the original text of Melvin Tucker's essay