Henry's reign almost fades into obscurity, overshadowed by the supposed evil of King Richard III, who is thought to have arranged the murder of his two young nephews in the Tower of London, and the future killing spree of his son, Henry VIII and his granddaughters, Elizabeth and Mary. And yet his story is possibly the most extraordinary of them all. His is a story of spies, intrigue, informers and extortion and the deeper you go, the more you find a manipulative king who created a new terrifying regime when the English people were still attempting to come out of the War of the Roses with their heads still attached to their necks. His hunger for power and his determination to hold onto the throne at all costs turned him into a paranoid and infinitely suspicious man. Even when you look at pictures of Henry, his face is emaciated by stress and his was the face of a man who never knew the true meaning of the word 'peace'.
But let's not disregard him in history because Henry was a survivor against the odds. Henry's claim to the throne was tenuous at best. One quarter French through his mother Catherine of Valois, one quarter Welsh from his father Owen Tudor and the remainder English through King Edward III's son John of Gaunt and his mistress Katherine Swynford. This officially meant Henry was illegitimate. And yet, he defeated pretender after pretender - Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck, Edmund Plantagenet, - and clung tenaciously to his throne. Even when two of his three sons died, Henry was the first king to pass the crown on successfully to a son in nearly a century when no other king had come to the throne without a fight. This man, who was said to have 'only a trickle of royal blood in his body', knew he would have to fight for the rest of his life to stay there.
Henry's chance at the English throne came in 1485 with the sudden death of Edward IV, Richard III's seizure of the crown and the bloody battle of Bosworth. Since the hapless appearance of Henry VII when he landed on the beach in Milford Haven with a raggedy bunch of French mercenaries he called an army, six of the last nine English kings had been deposed and each of the last four had lost the crown. He knew the odds were stacked against him, he knew his army was outnumbered and he undoubtedly was feeling anxious. It literally came down to either winning the throne of England or die trying.
For England to believe he was the rightful king, he had to act like one. And that is exactly what he did. His first task was to marry Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's daughter, despite the rumours of her liaisons with her uncle Richard III and her importance in history is well known, although mysterious. She seems to have been sidelined, more as an appendage, rather than a leading member of the drama of Henry and his scheming mother, Margaret Beaufort. Henry then strengthened the crown both financially and judiciously knowing that wealth alone could not guarantee his safety as a king. He expanded the crown's lands, drove up the customs by encouraging trade and attacking smuggling and began to reform the taxes voted by parliament in time of war. And he offered his people faster and more effective decisions in their lawsuits. His achievements may not be as spectacular as those of his future son and grandchildren, but he laid the foundations for every aspect of later Tudor rule.
It's been said that the Middle Ages ended with the beginning of Henry's reign but that seems a gross simplification when we see some of the changes he made. His government first made widespread use of printing, first welcomed Italian renaissance artists and gave the heirs to his throne a classical education. His was the first administration to establish the navy with big new warships and the first to patronise voyages of discovery to claim England's place among the European global empires. He made a secure peace with France after the Hundred Year's War and made the first secure peace with the Scots with the marriage alliance of his daughter Margaret to James IV of Scotland. This marriage would lead to the union of the crowns a century later when his great-great-grandson James VI of Scotland became James I of England, making the United Kingdom. How's that for an achievement?
From an isolated beach in Wales, he had fought and won his first battle. He had unified a kingdom and accrued immense wealth but his greatest legacy was his son. At his death, he passed on his crown to his beloved son, soon to be Henry VIII, and everyone looked forward to the charismatic young prince sitting on the throne.