Read BOOK II : CHAPTER I of A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century‚ Volume I, free online book, by Leopold von Ranke, on


Edward iv was a most brilliant figure, the handsomest man of his time, at least among the sovereigns, so that the impression he thus made was actually a power in politics; we find him incessantly entangled in love affairs: he was fond of music and enjoyment of all kinds, the pleasures of the table, the uproar of riotous company: his debauched habits are thought to have shortened his life, and many a disaster sprung from his carelessness; but he had also Sardanapalus’ nature in him: with quickly awakening activity he always rose again out of his disasters; in his battles he appeared the last, but he fought perhaps the best; and he won them all. In the history of European Monarchy he is not unworthy to be ranked by the side of Ferdinand the Catholic, Charles the Bold, Louis XI, and some others who regained prestige for their dignity by the energy of their personal character.

In itself we must rate it as important that he made good the birthright of the house of York, independent as it was of the maxims of Parliament, or rather contradictory to them, and maintained the throne. He deemed himself the direct successor of Richard ii; the three kings who had since worn the crown by virtue of Parliamentary enactments were regarded by him as usurpers. We have Fortescue’s contemporary treatise in praise of the laws of England, which (written for a prince who never came to the throne) contains the idea of Parliamentary right which the house of Lancaster upheld: but Edward iv did not so apprehend it. He allowed the lawfulness of his accession to be recognised by Parliament, because this was of use to him: but otherwise he paid little regard to its established rights. We find under him for five years no meeting of Parliament; then a Parliament that had met was prorogued some four or five times without completing any business, till it at last agreed to raise the customs duties, included under the names of Tonnage and Poundage; a revenue which being voted to the Kings for life (and this came gradually to be regarded as a mere formality) gave their government a strong financial basis. Other Parliaments repaid their summons with considerable grants, with large and full subsidies: yet Edward iv was not content even with these. Under him began the practice, by which the wealthy were drawn into contributions for his service in proportion to their property, of which the King knew how to obtain accurate information; these contributions were called Benevolences because they were paid under the form of personal freewill offerings, though none dared to refuse them: we may compare the imposts which in the Italian republics the dominant parties were wont to inflict on their opponents. Though holding Church views in other points, and at any rate a persecutor of the Lollards, he did not however allow the clergy to enter on their temporalities without heavy payments: he created monopolies in the case of some especially profitable articles of trade. In short, he neglected no means to render the administration of the supreme power independent of the money-grants of Parliament. He made room for the royal prerogative as understood by the old kings, as well as for the right of birth.

But yet he had not established a secure position, since the party of the enemy was still very powerful, and after his early death a quarrel broke out in his own house which could not fail to destroy it.

To the characteristic traits of the Plantagenets, their world-wide views, their chivalry abroad, their versatility at home, the ceaseless war they waged with each other and with others for power, their inextinguishable love of rule, belongs also the way in which those who held power rid themselves of foes within their own family. As formerly King John had murdered in prison Arthur the lawful heir to the throne, so Richard ii imprisoned and murdered his uncle Thomas of Gloucester, who was dangerous to himself. Richard ii, like Edward ii, died by the hand of a relative who had wrested the crown from him; of the details of his death we have not even a legend left. Another Gloucester, who had for many years guarded the crown for the infant Henry vi, was, at the very moment when he might become dangerous to the new government, found dead in his bed. So Henry vi perished in the Tower the day before Edward iv made his entry into London. Edward iv preferred to have his brother Clarence, though already under sentence of death, privately killed. But the most atrocious murder of all was that of the two infant sons of Edward iv himself; they were both murdered at once, as was fully believed, at the behest of their uncle Richard iii, who had put himself in possession of the throne. I know not whether the actual character of Richard answered to that type of inborn wickedness which commits crime because it wills it as crime, such as following the hints of the Chronicle a great poet has drawn for us in imperishable traits, and linked with his name: or whether it was not rather the love of power, that animated the whole family, which in Richard iii grew step by step into a passion that made him forget all laws human and divine: enough, he did such deeds that the world’s abhorrence weighs justly on him.

But it was owing to the internal discord of the ruling family that throughout the course of its history a path was made for political and national development, and so it was now: these crimes opened a way out of the disorders of the time. For as Richard, while continuing to persecute the house of Lancaster, struck still harder blows against the chief members of that of York, he gave occasion to the principal persons of both parties, who were equally threatened, and had the same interest in opposing the usurper, to draw nearer to each other.

The widowed Queen Elizabeth, who was lingering out her life in a sanctuary, was brought into secret connexion through the mediation of distinguished friends with the mother of the man who now came forward as head of the Lancasters, Henry Earl of Richmond, and it was determined that Henry and Elizabeth’s daughter, in whom the claims of both lines were united, should marry each other, a prospect which might well prepare the way for the immediate combination of the two parties. Henry of Richmond at their head was then to confront the usurper and chase him from the throne. The fugitives scattered about in the sanctuaries and churches called him to be their captain.

The question arises it has been often answered in the negative whether Henry was rightfully a Lancaster, and whether he had any well-grounded claims on the English crown. He loved to derive his family from the hero of the Welsh, the fabulous Arthur. His grandfather, Owen Tudor, a Welshman, was brought into connexion with the royal house by his marriage with Henry V’s widow, Catharine of France: for unions of royal ladies with distinguished gentlemen were then not rare. And Owen Tudor of course obtained by this a higher position, but there could be no question of any claim to the crown. This was derived simply from the fact that the son of this marriage, Edmund Tudor Earl of Richmond, married a lady of the house of Somerset, descended by her father from John of Gaunt, the ancestor of the Lancasters, by his third marriage with Catharine Swynford. It has been said that this marriage, in itself of an irregular nature, was only recognised as legitimate by Richard ii on the condition that the issue from it should have no claim to the succession and so it is in fact stated in the often printed Patent. But the original of the document still exists, and that in two forms, one of which is in the Rolls of Parliament, the other on the Patent Rolls. In the first the limitation is wanting, in the second it exists, but as an interpolation by a later hand. It may be taken as admitted that Richard ii in legitimising the marriage did not make this condition, and that it was first inserted by Henry iv (who took offence at the legitimisation of his half-brothers) at the ratification. But the legitimisation once effected could not possibly be limited in a one-sided manner by a later sovereign. I think no objection can be made to the legality of Henry VII’s claim, which then passed over to his successors. The limitation belonged to those proceedings of one-sided caprice by which Henry iv tried to secure for his direct descendants the perpetual possession of the crown. It was not from him, but from his father, the founder of the family, that the Earls of Richmond derived their claim.

Now that the banner of a true Lancaster appeared again in the field, and the discontented Yorkists, ill-treated by Richard, joined him, it might certainly be hoped that the usurper would be overthrown, and that a strong power would emerge from the union of both lines. Yet the issue was even then very doubtful.

As in the earlier civil wars, so now too the help of a foreign power was necessary. With French help the Earl of Richmond led about 2000 men, of which not more than perhaps 800 were English, to Wales; in his further advance he was joined by proportionately considerable reinforcements; yet he did not number more than 5000 men under his banners, badly clothed and still worse armed, when Richard with his chivalry came upon him in overwhelming numbers. Henry would have been lost, had he not found partisans in Richard’s ranks. Even before the engagement the desertion from Richard began: then in the middle of the battle the chief division of his army passed over to Henry. Richard found the death he sought: for he was resolved to be King or die: on the battlefield itself Henry was proclaimed King.

There is no doubt that he owed to his union with the house of York, whose right was then generally regarded as the best, not only his victory, but the joyous recognition also which he experienced afterwards: yet his whole nature revolted against basing his state on this union: he cherished the ambition of ruling only through his own right.

At the first meeting of Parliament, which he did not call till he was fully in possession and crowned King, he was met by a very genuinely English point of law. It arose from the fact that many members of the Lower House had been attainted by the late government. How could they make laws who were themselves beyond the pale of law? Who could cleanse them from the stain that clove to them? This objection could be raised against Henry himself. In this perplexity recourse was had to the judges: and they decided that the possession of the crown supplied all defects, and that the King was already King even without the assent of Parliament. In the general disorder things had gone so far, that it was necessary to find some power outside the continuity of legal forms, from which they might start afresh. The actual possession of the throne formed this time the living centre round which the legal state could again form itself. By exercising the authority inherent in the possession of the crown, the King could effect the revocation of the sentences that weighed on his partisans and on a large portion of the Parliament. After the legal character of that Assembly had been established, it proceeded to recognise Henry’s rights to the crown in the words used for the first of the Lancastrian house.

In the papal bull which ratified Henry’s succession, three grounds are assigned for it: the right of war, the undoubted nearest right to the succession, and the recognition by Parliament. On the first the King himself laid great stress: he once designates the issue of the battle as the decision of God between him and his foes. He thus avoided any mention of the marriage with Edward IV’s daughter, which he did not complete till he was acknowledged on all sides. The papal bull declared that the crown of England was to be hereditary in Henry’s descendants, even if they did not spring from the Yorkist marriage.

We can easily understand this: Henry would not tolerate by his side in the person of his wife a joint ruler of equal, and even better, right than his own; but we can understand also that this proceeding drew on him new enmities. At the very outset the widowed Queen gave it to be understood that her daughter was rather lowered than raised by the marriage. The whole party of York moreover felt itself contemned and insulted. To the ferment of displeasure and ambition into which it fell must be attributed the fact that a pair of adventurers, who acted the part of genuine descendants of the house of York, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, supported from abroad, found the greatest sympathy and recognition in England. The first Henry vii had to meet in open battle, the second he got into his hands only by a great European combination.

But he did not wish to have always to encounter open disturbance. He was entirely of the opinion which his chancellor gave, that enmities of such a sort could not be extinguished by the sword of war, but only by well-planned and stringent laws which would destroy the seed of rebellion, and by institutions strong enough to administer those laws. Above all he found it intolerable that the great men kept numerous dependents attached to them under engagements which were publicly paraded by distinctive badges. The lower courts of justice and the juries did not do the service expected from them in dealing with the transgressions of the law that came before them. Uncertainty as to the supreme authority, and the power which the great party-leaders exercised, filled the weaker, who had to sit in judgment on them, with dread of their sure revenge. To put an end to this disorder Henry vii established the Starchamber. With consent of the Parliament, from which all hostile party-movements were excluded, he gave his Privy Council, which was strengthened by the chief judges, a strong organisation with this end in view. It was to punish all those personal engagements, the exercise of unlawful influence in the choice of sheriffs, all riotous assemblies, lastly to have power to deal with the early symptoms of a tumult before it came to an outbreak, and that under forms which were not usual in the English administration of justice. This powerful instrument in the hands of government might be much abused, but then seemed necessary to keep in check unreconciled enemies and the spirit of faction that was ever surging up again. We see the prevailing state of things from the fact, that the King’s councillors themselves, to be secured against acts of violence, passed a special law, which characterised attacks on them as attacks on the King himself. But then, like men who stood in the closest connexion with the King and his State, they used their authority with unapproachable severity. The internal tranquillity of England has been thought to be mainly due to the erection of this court of justice.

Since Henry laid so much stress on his being a Lancaster, it might have been expected that he would revive the rights of the Parliament. But in this respect he followed the example of the house of York. He too imposed Benevolences, like Edward iv, and that to a yet greater extent; he made an ordinance that what was voluntarily promised should be exacted with as much strictness as if it were an ordinary tax. Another source of financial gain, which has brought on him still worse reproaches, was his commission against infractions of the law. It was inevitable that in the fluctuation of authority and of the statutes themselves innumerable illegalities should have taken place. And they were still always going on. The King took it especially ill that men omitted to pay the dues which belonged to the crown in right of its feudal superiority. All these négligences and failures were now visited and punished with the severity of the old Norman system, and at the same time with the officiousness of party-men of the day, who saw their own advantage in it. This proceeding pressed very many heavily on private persons and communities, and ruined families, but it filled the King’s coffers. One of his maxims was that his laws should not be broken under any circumstances, another that a sovereign who would enjoy consideration must always have money: in this instance both worked together.

If we look at the lists of his receipts we find that they consist, as in other kingdoms, of the crown’s revenue proper, which was considerably increased by the escheated possessions of great families which had become extinct, the customs duties settled on him for life, the tenth from the clergy, and the feudal dues. It was estimated that they produced nearly the same revenue as that of the French kings at this time, but it was remarked that the King of England only spent about two-thirds of his income. He did not need a Parliamentary grant, especially as he kept out of dangerous foreign entanglements. In his last thirteen years he never once called a Parliament.

This precisely corresponded to the idea of his government. After all had become doubtful owing to the alternate fluctuations of parties he had established his personal claim by the fortune of arms, and made it the central point of his government. Was he to allow it to be again endangered by the ceaseless ebb and flow of popular opinion? He founded a supreme court independent of popular agitation, a finance system independent of the grants of a popular assembly.

But he thus found himself under the disadvantage of having to apply compulsion unceasingly: his government bore throughout the bitter and hateful character of a party-government. With untiring jealousy he watched the secret opponents who still looked out for some movement from abroad, as a signal for fresh revolt: he kept diaries of their doings and conduct: it was said he availed himself of the confessional for this purpose: men whose names were from time to time solemnly cursed at S. Paul’s on account of past treasons, so that they counted for open enemies, became useful to him as spies. If the decision lay between services received and suspicious conduct, the latter easily weighed down the balance, to the ruin of the victim. William Stanley, who had played the most important part in the battle which decided the fate of the crown, and was regarded as almost the first man in the realm after the King, had at the appearance of Perkin Warbeck (who gave himself out as Edward’s younger son, Richard of York) let slip the words, ’he would take his side, if he were the person he gave himself out to be.’ He had to atone for these words by his death, since he had intimated a doubt as to the King’s lawful right, which might mislead others into sedition. Gradually the movements ceased: the high nobility showed a loyal submission to the King: yet it did not attach itself to him, it let him and his government alone. The King’s principle was, to execute the laws most strictly, yet he was not cruel by nature; if men implored his mercy, he was ready to grant it. The contracted position of a sovereign, who maintains his authority with the utmost strictness, does not however exclude a paternal care for the country. Henry clipped his people’s wings, to accustom them to obedience, and then was glad when they grew again. We find even that he made out a sketch of how the land should be cultivated so that every man might be able to live. The people did not love him, but it did not exactly hate him either: this was quite enough for Henry vii.

A slight man, somewhat tall, with thin light-coloured hair, whose countenance bore the traces of the storms he had passed through; in his appearance he gave the impression of being a high ecclesiastic rather than a chivalrous King. He was in this almost the exact opposite of Edward iv. He too certainly arranged public festivities and spared no expense to make them splendid, since his dignity demanded it, but his soul took no pleasure in them, he left them as soon as ever he could; he lived only in business. In his council sat men of mark, sagacious bishops, experienced generals, magistrates learned in the law: he held it to be his duty and his interest to hear their advice. And they were not without influence: one or two were noted as able to restrain his self-seeking will. But the main affairs he kept in his own hands. All that he undertook he conducted with great foresight and as a rule he carried it through. Foreigners regarded him as cunning and deceitful; to his own people his successful prudence seemed to have something supernatural about it. If he had personal passions, he knew how to keep them under; he seemed always calm and sober, sparing of words and yet affable.

He directed almost his chief energies to this object, to keep off all foreign influences from his well-ordered kingdom.