Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1439
Sir Francis Bacon wrote in his Advancement of Learning of the importance of biography as a branch of historical writing, pointing out that it is individuals who direct the actions that are recounted in historical chronicles and suggesting that these events can be best examined in the light of the characters of the men who make them. It is this principle that underlies Bacon’s HISTORY OF THE REIGN OF KING HENRY VII, which is one of the first analytical biographies in the English language.
Bacon wrote his history of Henry VII in a few months during the year following his impeachment in 1621. He was exiled from London, and therefore from many of the sources that would have enabled him to produce new information about Henry’s reign. He depended heavily upon the sixteenth century chronicles, especially the history of the early years of the century written by Polydore Vergil. What is original and noteworthy in Bacon’s volume is his study of the personality of his subject and its effect upon the course of the English nation during his reign. Bacon is original, too, in his strong emphasis upon the laws of Henry’s day; as a distinguished lawyer and Lord Chancellor of England at the height of his career, he was thoroughly familiar with the statute books and the development of the common law, and he felt the significance of innovations in the reign he chronicled. He praised Henry’s laws as “deep, and not vulgar; not made upon the spur of a particular occasion for the present, but out of providence of the future, to make the estate of his people still more and more happy; after the manner of the legislators in ancient and heroical times.”
Bacon follows a chronological plan in his history, concentrating upon the years after the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Henry dethroned Richard III in 1485. His account alternates between narration and set speeches in the manner of the classical historians; the conversations between important personages add considerable interest to the book.
Bacon presents many facets of Henry’s personality as he relates his actions on first gaining the throne. There is a masterful analysis of the king’s deliberations about the wisest grounds for claiming royal power, which he held by conquest; through his wife, the eldest surviving child of Edward IV and the heir through the Yorkist line; and in his own right, less clear, through the Lancastrian line. Bacon pictures Henry’s reasoning in this manner: “the inconveniences appearing unto him on all parts, and knowing there could not be any interreign, or suspension of title, and preferring his affection to his own line and blood, and liking that title best which made him independent; and being in his nature and constitution of mind not very apprehensive or forecasting of future events afar off, but an entertainer of fortune by the day; resolved to rest upon the title of Lancaster as the main, and to use the other two, that of marriage and that of battle, but as supporters, the one to appease secret discontents, and the other to beat down open murmur and dispute.”
Through his account of the major events of the reign—the successive uprisings of discontented commoners and fractious noblemen; invasions by impostor-Plantagenets who claimed to be true heirs to the throne; lengthy negotiations with Emperor Maximilian, the ineffectual ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, and with King Charles VII of France, a considerably more formidable foe; and the slow formation of an alliance with the politically sagacious Ferdinand of Spain, whose throne rested on foundations almost as uncertain as Henry’s—emerges a picture of the English king as a man cautious and deliberative, reluctant to fight, yet skillful in using the threats of war to fill his own coffers, merciful to most of his rebellious subjects, but ruthless in the extermination of others, notably Edward Plantagenet, one of the few surviving Yorkist claimants to the throne, when their deaths seemed expedient.
Henry’s skill in the game of statecraft is evident in Bacon’s discussion of the lengthy and somewhat confusing conflict with Charles of France over the control of the Duchy of Brittany. The author cites a message from Henry to Charles proclaiming the English monarch’s friendship for both the French king and the Duke of Brittany and offering his services as mediator. Bacon explains Henry’s desire to avoid military conflict whenever possible: “A fame of a war he liked well, but not an achievement . . . and he was possessed with many secret fears touching his own people, which he was therefore loath to arm.”
The liveliest portions of Bacon’s narrative are the accounts of the uprisings on behalf of Lambert Simnell and Perkin Warbeck, boys brought forth by opponents of the king, the former as Edward Plantagenet, the latter as Richard, Duke of York, one of the princes murdered in the Tower of London. Both impostors were supported by English noblemen and by Continental sympathizers with the Yorkist cause, especially Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, a close relative of Edward IV. Henry coped skillfully with both plots, punishing their instigators and trying to make examples of the youthful conspirators. Simnell was made a kitchen boy; Perkin, whose campaign came far nearer success and lasted for several years, became a juggler at court for a time. However, after he had escaped, been arrested again, and been imprisoned in the tower, he initiated a new and far more threatening conspiracy with the real Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, who, as the nephew of Edward IV, had a legitimate claim to the throne. As a result of their plot both Warbeck and the prince were executed. Henry incurred considerable public displeasure by his severity with them, though he tried to place the blame on his ally, Ferdinand, who co-operated by saying that he could not allow his daughter, Katherine of Aragon, to wed the Prince of Wales so long as Warwick lived as a threat to the succession of his future son-in-law.
Bacon does not gloss over the later years of Henry’s rule, when his henchmen Empson and Dudley perverted the laws of the realm to confiscate land and wealth from subjects all over the kingdom. Henry’s avarice increased with his age, and he left enormous wealth at his death, riches soon to be dispersed by his pleasure-loving son, Henry VIII.
Bacon concludes his account of Henry’s reign with a character sketch of the king. He summarizes the traits of character that he has shown influencing English policy throughout the reign, portraying Henry as a shrewd ruler, a crafty statesman who calculated the effects of all his actions and “knew the way to peace was not to seem to be desirous to avoid wars.” He was his own chief counselor, a man who had no really close friends or advisers. Empson, Dudley, and others who performed his less attractive tasks served him only as the “instrument” does the “workman.” Henry’s independence is clear in this comment: “To his confederates abroad he was constant and just, but not open. But rather such was his inquiry, and such his closeness, as they stood in the light towards him, and he stood in the dark to them; yet without strangeness, but with a semblance of mutual communication of affairs.”
Henry chose his ministers generally for their cleverness rather than for their birth; he commanded the grudging respect of the nobility, but he was never certain of their loyalty. Yet, unlike many monarchs of his era, he could trust his closest counselors implicitly; only one betrayed him during all the years of his reign.
The king emerges from Bacon’s account as a clever man, but a cold and withdrawn one; he seems also to have been a dutiful husband and father. He was far from the most appealing of men, but Bacon, whose temperament was in some ways like Henry’s, recognized his greatness: “Yet take him with all his defects, if a man should compare him with the Kings his concurrents in France and Spain, he shall find him more politic than Lewis the Twelfth of France, and more entire and sincere than Ferdinando of Spain. But if you shall change Lewis the Twelfth for Lewis the Eleventh, who lived a little before, then the consort is more perfect. For that Lewis the Eleventh, Ferdinando, and Henry, may be esteemed for the tres magi of the kings of those ages. To conclude, if this King did no greater matters, it was long of himself: for what he minded he compassed.”
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