False Brought up of Nought

Thomas Penn

  • Henry VII’s New Men and the Making of Tudor England by Steven Gunn
    Oxford, 393 pp, £60.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 965983 8

In a dawn raid on 24 April 1509, troops reporting to England’s new king, the 17-year-old Henry VIII, arrested two of his late father’s closest councillors and took them to the Tower of London. Three days earlier, Henry VII, the first Tudor king, had died aged 52, in his privy chamber at Richmond Palace. But Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, though rarely straying from the king’s side in his last disease-ridden and paranoid years, had been away from court and nobody had bothered to tell them. More than that: a faction of the late king’s advisers had decided to keep his death a secret while they arranged matters. Deeply concerned about the widespread unpopularity of Henry VII’s exploitative, extrajudicial methods of government, and anxious to secure the smooth succession of his young son as well as their own place in the new regime, they needed scapegoats onto whom to ‘shift the noise’ of Henry VII’s ‘tyrannies’, as one contemporary chronicler put it, ‘for to satisfy and appease the people’. Empson and Dudley were top of their list.

In the last claustrophobic years of Henry VII’s reign, these two lawyers had become intimately associated with his coercive policies. These included their ruthless application of the king’s prerogative rights and their indiscriminate pursuit of people on – as Dudley later admitted – ‘small causes’, ‘lewd surmises’, ‘untrue matters’ and ‘malicious grounds’, without any ‘due proof’. In the outpouring of popular bile that followed the king’s death and their arrest, the pair were portrayed as smooth-tongued, two-faced operators, who ‘speak pleasantly and do overthwartly’. Apart from their occupation – lawyers, it was widely believed, were crooked and wouldn’t lift a finger without a ‘privy bribe’ – what confirmed their inherent immorality in public eyes was their low birth. They were men on the make, social climbers, whose precipitate rise had subverted the natural order of things. The late king was not to blame for the fiscal tyranny his regime had inflicted on his subjects. They were.

Empson headed Henry’s judicial tribunal, the council learned in the law; the razor-sharp Dudley, operating as a lone agent, extracted £219,316 6s 11d in fines over four years (equivalent to almost twice the king’s annual income from regular sources), from ‘poor men’ and merchants as well as ‘lords spiritual and temporal’. But while Empson and Dudley may have been more than usually effective agents of the royal will, they were, as everybody knew, merely the best-known examples of a type of servant that had been at the heart of Henry VII’s regime from the outset.

These ‘new men’, as they would become known to historians, shared a number of characteristics. They were tough, streetwise, adaptable characters, who knew their way around account books and financial departments, and had an intimate knowledge of common law – obtained formally in some cases, on the job in others. They were ubiquitous in the exchequer, the king’s chamber and other departments of the king’s household; they went on high-level diplomatic missions and more clandestine operations, and brokered deals with the great European merchant bankers. When the regime was in danger, they strapped on armour, picked up weapons and went out to fight. More generally, they persuaded, intimidated and used every trick in the book in pursuit of the king’s financial and legal interests, which were inseparable from their own: many of them made themselves enormously rich in the process. Close to Henry, they were trusted and exceptionally influential, their wealth and power derived entirely from their service and unswerving loyalty to the king. Their power, indeed, was out of all proportion to their status, sometimes bewilderingly so. Perhaps the greatest of them, Reynold Bray, an abrasive, straight-talking midlander who it was said could ‘do anything’ with the king, went by plain ‘Mr Bray’. The greatest nobles in the land pledged him their loyalty and service – a collection of their correspondence to him, scrapingly obsequious, is held in Westminster Abbey – knowing that a whisper from him in the king’s ear could make all the difference to their fortunes; it was similarly observed of Dudley, Bray’s protégé, that his influence was such that ‘the chief lords of England were glad to be in his favour.’ This will all seem familiar to aficionados of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall: in the following reign, Thomas Cromwell was the apotheosis (or nadir) of these ‘new men’. As Steven Gunn argues in his new book, a work of characteristic meticulousness, not only did these men encapsulate the mood, workings and functioning of Henry VII’s disorientating regime, they ‘were central … at the start and at the heart of the making of Tudor England’.

Like the ‘always rising’ middle classes, new men had always been found in some form or another. As Gunn states, long before the first Tudor king ascended the throne it was already ‘unoriginal’ to throw around accusations of social and political climbing. For centuries, people had complained about men of unremarkable backgrounds, ‘raised from the dust’, scrambling up the slippery slope of royal favour. Nevertheless, for all that social order was constantly enforced at court and throughout society, social mobility was greeted for the most part with a shrug: traced back a few generations, the roots of even the most illustrious family tree could generally be found buried in muddy genealogical ground. It was at moments of political crisis, of which there were many in a period riddled by usurpation and civil war, that evil councillors tended to be singled out and condemned. With social hierarchies seen as divinely ordained, the rise of such councillors – men of ‘simple birth’, ‘mean persons of lower nature’, ‘false brought up of nought’, with their grubby origins a clear indication of their fundamental immorality – showed where government and kingship had gone wrong. Only by getting rid of them, and by surrounding the king with his ‘natural councillors’, the nobility, could order and good government be restored.

Despite such complaints, a new way of thinking was permeating political culture. In the mid-15th century, it found expression in Buonaccorso da Montemagno’s De Nobilitate. The revival of classical learning was in full swing in Italy, animated by, among other things, a concern with strong, ordered government. De Nobilitate, an exploration of the nature of true nobility, was a dialogue between an aristocratic layabout and a man of ‘poor stock’, who propounded the idea that nobility wasn’t to be found in blood, but in a man’s inherent virtues, and that these virtues found expression in loyal service to king and country. In England, Buonaccorso’s vision of the virtuous, learned and chivalrous new man, who placed his talents unswervingly at the disposal of his prince – and who, unlike the hereditary nobility, owed all his resulting wealth and power to the prince he served, making him entirely the creation of his master – proved attractive to monarchs desperate to reassert their sovereignty in a time of civil conflict.

Buonaccorso was simply turning already existing practice into theory. When the Yorkist usurper Edward IV came to power in 1461, he surrounded himself with new men who had proved their loyalty to him and his family: warriors like William Hastings, who went from mere gentleman to lord in a matter of months, and the Welshman Sir William Herbert, who became earl of Pembroke; and administrators like Thomas Montgomery, the medical doctor William Hatteclyffe and Thomas Vaughan, who oversaw Edward’s system of chamber finance, which gave the king closer control over the money raised by the crown. As he scrabbled around for cash in the recession-hit 1460s, Edward made ‘great boast’ of the loyalty of men like John Say, a shrewd financial administrator; and when, in 1471, he all but eradicated the house of Lancaster in a bloody sequence of battles – among the few survivors was the 14-year-old Henry Tudor, who fled into exile in Brittany – he welcomed into his service a number of Lancaster’s most able servants. These included the man who would become Henry VII’s éminence grise, the cleric John Morton. He was one of those responsible for the Yorkist financial policy during Edward IV’s second reign, a time in which other faces – now more familiar in their later, Tudor, incarnation – came into view, from the military new man Edward Poynings to Richard Empson himself.

When, in 1485, Henry VII became the most unlikely of the century’s usurpers – helped to the throne by a group of disaffected Yorkists loyal to the memory of Edward and his disappeared sons, who backed Henry on the ‘anyone but Richard’ principle – he drew both on Yorkist ways of doing things and on Yorkist personnel. But, as his regime began the recovery from the latest destructive round of civil conflict, it was, Gunn contends, a particular type of new man who came to the fore.

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More than anybody else, Steven Gunn has been responsible for driving contemporary scholarship on Henry VII. Historians have traditionally never been quite sure what to do with this most elusive of kings, whose reign sits on the late medieval/early modern divide. Each school brings its own distinctive historiography to bear. For medievalists, Henry is an anomalous coda to the late middle ages; for early modernists, he is a new kind of king, whose regime refounded the monarchy: ‘a liminality’, Gunn once wrote, that is ‘institutionalised in the way historians write’. In the course of three decades, Gunn has mapped these historical borderlands with painstaking thoroughness. An essay he wrote ten years ago gives a sense of the delicate task he set himself: to tease out and weave together the tangled strands of these two divergent scholarly worlds. If, he argued, historians held this ‘double historiographical context, late medieval and early modern’ in mind, and examined what might seem unpromising or intractable sources, then a new and clearer understanding of this strange reign might be achieved.

Gunn’s quest to do precisely this has taken him through almost every imaginable archive of relevance, in Britain, France and the Low Countries. He has shone light on how groups of legal and financially minded servants helped drive this period of ‘intensifying governance’ in England and northern Europe. Henry VII’s New Men and the Making of Tudor England is, in many respects, the culmination of Gunn’s work. It’s a phenomenal achievement of archival research.

New men have been synonymous with Henry VII’s reign since historians started writing about it, an old chestnut to be repeated along with the Sellar and Yeatmanism that Henry was ‘a miser and very good at statecraft’. During the 20th century a handful of scholars, realising the significance of these men to an understanding of the reign, sought to identify and analyse them. Gunn’s achievement is to examine the individuals who comprised this group in extraordinary detail, and to reconstruct it: no longer a historical commonplace, but figures in a landscape.

The new men, Gunn shows, were ubiquitous. In court, in parliament, on Henry’s opaque, feared judicial councils, and throughout the country’s towns and shires, they zealously enforced the king’s laws, taking a tight grip on the administration of the crown lands and rigorously exploiting the king’s prerogative rights, processing the vastly increased income that flooded into his coffers. In the process, they became rich and powerful, and Henry was more than happy for them to be so for, as Gunn puts it, ‘their increasing power equipped them better to serve the king.’ They possessed the courtier’s age-old ability to take their tone from the king they served: they even dressed like Henry, with an understated and highly expensive sobriety that’s captured in the portrait of an unflinching Thomas Wyatt on the cover of Gunn’s book. The greatest of them came to resemble the noblemen they rivalled, possessing lands and houses, retainers (in a remarkable piece of research, Gunn has reconstructed much of the 1365-strong retinue of Thomas Lovell, one of Henry’s most influential new men) and knighthoods and heraldic mottos that served to bind their identities even more tightly to the regime. St George’s Chapel, Windsor, that epicentre of chivalric loyalty to the crown, still features the embossed badges of Poynings, Sir Thomas Brandon, Lovell and Bray, whose hemp-bray badge peppers the nave he helped pay for.

Gunn builds up a picture not simply of a group of individuals, but a shared ethos. If kings and historians alike have generally approved of their qualities – which, as Gunn notes, ‘smack of seriousness, hard work, meritocracy, professionalism, efficiency and modernity’ – many contemporaries saw something different: venality and the rampant abuse of power and law in the king’s name. Whatever the case, Gunn is emphatic that while these men ‘did not come out of nowhere’, they were substantively different from what had come before, and wielded their ‘disruptive social mobility as the agents of an ambitious royal power’.

What, then, was new about them? They found common ground in their Englishness – they were ‘imbued with English law and … chivalry’ – and their commitment to king, crown and the ‘common weal’ of England. Here, as elsewhere, they drew on existing ways of thinking: earlier in the century Sir John Fortescue, Henry VI’s chancellor, had hailed King Arthur as an exemplar of English legal and political freedoms. Analysing Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth, a treatise he wrote in the Tower for Henry VIII in a desperate bid to remind the new young king of qualities his father had once found indispensable, Gunn notes that Dudley’s ideal royal servants were ‘educated and if needs be upwardly mobile laymen’: a profile that, unsurprisingly, fitted Dudley himself like a glove, and which Gunn more or less adopts as his definition of the ‘new man’. As a group, he concludes, they anticipate ‘future waves of upwardly mobile Tudor ministers’. In underscoring the extraordinary qualities of Henry’s new men – their origins even lower down the social scale than those who had come before them, their abilities and power even more pronounced, their engagement in the details of justice and finance greater than ‘earlier generations of lords and courtiers’ – Gunn is placing himself firmly on one side of the historical divide.

This undercurrent of early modernism, as well as the tightly drawn nature of the group study, occasionally risks becoming restrictive. As Gunn shows in his work on the European antecedents of Henry’s new men, ideas and practices were unevenly developed, and it’s curious that he doesn’t admit the same of their English equivalents. Indeed, the closer you look at the groups of new men who rose to prominence in previous regimes, the more you might think they would have felt at home in Henry VII’s reign. Thomas Vaughan, who was deeply involved in Edward IV’s system of chamber finance and combined high-level diplomatic duties with – among other things – the keepership of the great wardrobe and heading the household of the royal heir, yields nothing to his Tudor counterparts. Indeed, he was so dangerously influential that Richard III wasted no time in having him killed after he came to the throne. Equally, the careers of men like Thomas Brandon and Edward Poynings look remarkably similar to those of courtiers in Edward IV’s reign – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that both men had close relatives at the heart of the Yorkist king’s household. These continuities are just as significant as those between Henry’s new men and the generations that followed.

This issue of who belongs inside the new men boundary and who outside it is one that preoccupies Gunn. The ample figure of Thomas Wolsey, who stood between his mentor Thomas Lovell and his own protégé Thomas Cromwell, is not part of Gunn’s group. Despite a genealogy that was rather greasier than many of Henry VII’s new men (his enemies never tired of reminding him that his father was a butcher), a good education, astonishing upward mobility and tireless royal service, Wolsey, as a man of the cloth, ‘stood in a different tradition of clerical minister-favourites’. He does ‘admittedly’ – the tell-tale adverb suggests Gunn isn’t altogether happy with this anomaly – act as ‘an intermediary’. In Henry VII’s reign clerics subscribed with no less conviction than laymen to the outlook of the new men, and were just as influential: William Sever, bishop of Carlisle, was an enthusiastic enforcer of the king’s prerogative; another of the king’s closest advisers, Richard Fox, the bishop of Winchester, was a close associate of Lovell (on arrival at Henry VII’s court, Wolsey made a beeline for them both). In encouraging Henry Medwall to write Fulgens and Lucrece, the first surviving secular play in English and a dramatisation of Montemagno’s treatise on true nobility, John Morton, the archbishop of Canterbury, was effectively endorsing the new men’s vision of themselves.

When on the evening of 23 April 1509, Henry VII’s death was made public, the more politically agile – and lucky – of his new men quickly distanced themselves from the depredations of the old regime. These men did not include Empson and Dudley, whose work had been to carry out the ‘pleasure and mind of the king’s grace’ to the letter, and who felt sure of their rapidly acquired power and of their value as ‘wise and expert men’. Isolated, resented even by their colleagues, they failed to appreciate that the way they portrayed themselves was not the way others saw them. Sold down the river by Lovell and Richard Fox, among others, they were convicted of treason – Dudley’s slack-jawed astonishment is evident in his heartfelt protest that he had never committed treason ‘or thing like it’ – and, in the summer of 1510, beheaded. Their executions, along with a raft of noisy but superficial reforms, were expedient: changes made in order that things could stay the same.