King Henry VII died on 21st April 1509 at Richmond Palace. He’d not been well since the spring of 1507 when it was feared that he would die of a severe throat infection. In fact he’d been taken ill shortly after Prince Arthur’s death in 1502 at which point there must have been real concern for the stability of the Tudor succession but he survived long enough for his remaining son to reach maturity. In 1508 Starkey noted that Henry VII suffered from an acute rheumatic fever followed by “a loss of appetite and bouts of depression”. He was ill again at the beginning of 1509. It is thought to have been tuberculosis. His funeral effigy made from his death mask shows a man made old by illness and the burdens of kingship not to mention all those Yorkist plots and rebellions.
On the 20th April, Henry VII summoned his confessor to administer the last rites. He died on the 21st April surrounded by clerics including his confessor Richard Fox the Bishop of Winchester, ushers and members of his household as well as three doctors who can be identified by the urine bottles that they are holding.
News of Henry’s death remained a secret until the 23rd of April when seventeen-year-old Henry was proclaimed King Henry VIII. The reason for the secrecy was to ensure a smooth transition of government. Whilst two de la Pole brothers were in the Tower another, Richard, was abroad plotting Yorkist plots. There was also Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and possible claimant to the crown.
As Hutchinson says, for forty-four hours there was rather a lot of activity ranging from summoning councilors who then began thrashing out the format that government would take to playing hunt the old king’s treasure. £180,000 was secured and accounted for. The king who took the throne and found an empty treasury had become a very wealthy monarch indeed: not popular but wealthy. It’s perhaps not surprising that one of the first things that Henry VIII did was to have Henry VII’s tax collectors Empson and Dudley attainted of constructive treason and executed.
As for the format of Henry VIII’s government, well, he was seventeen. He would come of age when he was eighteen in June. Earlier medieval monarchs had ruled from younger ages but times had changed. Margaret Beaufort, her son’s informal and constant advisor, was the chief executor of Henry VII’s will. She was also the oldest member of the royal family. If you were picky about it you could also argue that because England had no salic law prohibiting women from the crown it was she rather than her son who ought to have been crowned in the first place. Now, she set about advising her grandson on who his councilors ought to be. It would appear that Henry VIII took his grandmother’s advice. Margaret died the day after Henry came of age.
Meanwhile Henry VII’s ministers were still popping in for a chat with their old master, guards still stood at the door to his chamber (for rather obvious reasons), trumpets were being blown and food tasted for the monarch who was well passed the need to have his meals checked for poison. To all casual viewers it was service as normal. Whenever the new king put in an appearance he was still addressed as Prince Henry. Official business was conducted in the name of Henry VII.
However, someone somewhere must have looked a bit more fraught than usual because the Spanish ambassador certainly had an idea that something was afoot and he wanted to know what it would mean for Katherine of Aragon who was living a strange half life as a penniless princess whilst her father and father-in-law argued about finances and marriages. In London panicky merchants were seen out and about but when all was said and done there was a smooth swap of monarchs – the first time peaceful transition had occurred since the Wars of the Roses began. Being rather arbitrary about it, since May 1455 (dated to the First Battle of St Albans).
The drawing at the start of this post was made by Sir Thomas Wriothesley for his book of funerals. It is held by the British Library. Double click on the image to open up a new window with more information about the people in the image and about Sir Thomas.
Hutchinson, Robert (2012) Young Henry: The Rise of Henry VIII. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Norton, Elizabeth. (2011) Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty. Stroud: Amberley Publishing
Starkey, David. (2009) Henry: Virtuous Prince. London: Harper Press