History of the Reign of King Henry VII by Francis Bacon

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History of the Reign of King Henry VII Analysis

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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.

(The entire section is 1,439 words.)