In a chapter on animals in his Description of England, the Elizabethan antiquary William Harrison told not one but two stories about Henry VII. ‘As the report goeth’, he wrote, the king had had all the mastiffs in England put to death because ‘they durst presume to fight against the lion, who is their king and sovereigne’. And again, ‘as some saie’, the king had beheaded one of his falcons because it was willing to spar with an eagle, ‘saieng that it was not meet for anie subiect to offer such wrong unto his lord and superiour; wherein he had a further meaning.’ By the 1570s, three generations after his death, Henry Tudor’s reputation as a particularly insistent, and somewhat creepy, defender of royal authority was firmly established. Small wonder that Shakespeare confined him to a short sequence of dreary rhyming couplets at the end of his Wars of the Roses tetralogy: while Henry VII may have been as murderous as Richard III, he was nothing like as charming. Francis Bacon was ready to praise Henry’s politic wisdom in the 1622 biography that was to frame perceptions of the king until late in the 20th century, but he could not disguise the price of Henry’s determination to be obeyed: ‘Of the three affections which naturally tie the hearts of subjects to their sovereigns, love, fear and reverence … he had so little of the first that he was beholden to the other two.’ Plainly, the restoration of the monarchy after the civil wars was not a pleasant business.
LRB 26 April 2012 | PDF Download