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Henry VII’s brilliant upstarts: the lowborn henchmen who served the first Tudor king

In 1485, the first Tudor king did something unusual: he invited a new wave of lowborn henchmen to England's court. What they lacked in breeding, these men made up for in talent. But, says Steven Gunn, Henry's meritocracy wasn't popular with all...

Illustrations by Sarah Young, based on contemporary portraits where available
Published: October 10, 2016 at 4:09 pm
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In 1497 Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to Henry VII’s throne, claimed that the Tudor king had “none in favour and trust about his person” but men “of simple birth”, whose advice led him into “misrule and mischief”. In some respects, Warbeck – who was hanged by the king after attempting to raise rebellion – was wrong: Henry did take counsel from great churchmen and trusted nobles. But, for all that, there was more than a kernel of truth to Warbeck’s allegations. Henry was increasingly relying on a group of ‘upstart’ advisers who had used their considerable skills to rise to the top of the political ladder from comparatively humble origins. And, in doing so, the king was transforming the way his nation was governed.


By their ideas, their actions and their very existence, these men gave Henry’s government much of its distinctive and controversial tone as he sought stability in the wake of the civil war that had brought him, a claimant with mere dribbles of royal blood, to the throne.

Many of these new men were lawyers, and stressed the need for the king to secure “good governance and rule” through “true justice”, imposing his power through the law on even the greatest of his subjects. They met this aim by relentless work on local commissions of the peace and in the king’s council. Many had financial skills, which were useful in developing the machinery by which Henry more than doubled the crown’s income over the course of his reign. They raised money from crown lands, customs on trade and more efficient taxes. They helped Henry spend it in ways that enhanced his power: magnificent building and pageantry, diplomatic alliance-building and, when necessary, war.

They had the ruthless skill and the absolute loyalty to the king to enforce his control over those he did not trust. From gaol-keeping and treason trials to the network of financial penalties in which Henry tied up many of his subjects to ensure their obedience, these new men were the agents of the king’s control.

What was worse, they prospered while others squirmed. When Henry died in 1509, resentment boiled over. Two of his henchmen, Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson, were arrested and executed. But many of their colleagues remained at the heart of the new regime, working with Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey to build an ever stronger Tudor state.

A painting of King Henry VII with two of his councillors Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. From ‘The National and Domestic History of England’ by William Aubrey, published in London c1890. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
A painting of King Henry VII with two of his councillors Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. From ‘The National and Domestic History of England’ by William Aubrey, published in London c1890. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Sir Edward Poynings, the “virtuous” warrior

Poynings (1459–1521) rose to prominence as a captain among the exiles who put Henry on the throne. He sprang from a disinherited junior branch of a minor noble family, just enough to give him a coat of arms and shaky claims to land.

Poynings’ military skills won him repeated commands from the king. In 1492 he took English troops to the Netherlands to help the Habsburgs capture the rebel-held port of Sluis, helping to eliminate raids on English trade and impressing German mercenary captains. In 1494–96 he was in command in Ireland, neutralising support for Henry’s Yorkist rivals and expanding English control. There the Earl of Ormond’s nephew reckoned him “as good a man as I know”.

In 1513 Henry’s successor, Henry VIII, put Poynings in charge of Tournai, the king’s prize conquest from his first French war. The citizens found him “a virtuous man” who disciplined his troops sternly. His reputation long outlived him, one patriotic author claiming in 1550 that Poynings’ “high prowess and worthiness” was such that if the French had had a hero like him “they would have made of his acts a great book”.

Yet Poynings was much more than a soldier. He was an accomplished diplomat, entrusted with five embassies to the Netherlands between 1493 and 1516. As his colleague the future bishop Cuthbert Tunstall put it, by his “wisdom” and “great diligence” he did more to achieve the king’s aims than “a far greater personage than he is… could have done”. He held high office in the king’s household and was powerful in Kent, where he arbitrated local disputes and served as warden of the Cinque Ports.

Poynings died full of honour in 1521 but, like many of the ‘new men’, his achievement was insecure. His only legitimate son died, many of the lands he had recovered passed away to distant relatives, and he struggled to provide for his three illegitimate sons. Yet the sons all went on to notable military careers and the eldest won a peerage from Henry VIII for his service in the garrison of Boulogne during the ongoing war with the French.


Sir Henry Wyatt, the ruthless financier

His origins are obscure but Wyatt (c1460–1537) seems to have won Henry’s gratitude by enduring imprisonment and torture at the hands of Richard III during the plots that won the Tudors the throne. Early in the reign he served as a diplomat and military commander, but the post he made his own was master of the jewel-house. He cared for the plate and jewellery in which Henry stored up his wealth and which was put on display on grand occasions to overawe the king’s subjects and foreigners alike. In 1523 Wyatt went on to become the prime co-ordinator of all royal finances as treasurer of the chamber — a job so complex in a time of war and heavy taxation that his accounts were finally signed off only six years after his retirement in 1528.

Wyatt’s talent for financial detail transferred readily to his private affairs. Scores of deeds attest to his painstaking operations on the land market, in which he spent more than the annual income of the richest peer or bishop assembling an estate spread across a dozen counties, but centred in northern Kent.

There, around Allington Castle, Wyatt bought small plots one after another, exploiting his cash liquidity and the troubles of his neighbours while often telling his victims what a favour he was doing them. He offered one mortgage loan out of “special love, favour and good mind” towards the recipient. Doubtless, however, he planned to seize the property once the mortgage payments couldn’t be kept up.

He was equally ruthless as a landlord, specifying in leases that his tenants would have to bear the expenses of his receivers if they were kept waiting for his rent money and enclosing the common marsh at Milton by Gravesend on advantageous terms.

Wyatt lived longer than most of his colleagues, until autumn 1536. His son, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, died young, and his grandson, Sir Thomas the younger, rebelled unsuccessfully against Queen Mary. Ironically it is the confiscation of his family papers that enables us to reconstruct Sir Henry’s accumulation of the family fortune that his grandson would gamble and lose.


Sir Thomas Lovell, the multi-talented fixer

All the new men were versatile, but few ranged as widely as Thomas Lovell (c1449–1524). He was a Lincoln’s Inn lawyer from a minor Norfolk gentry family. Throughout his career he was active in doing justice, travelling from Sussex to Yorkshire to oversee the activities of the justices of the peace. He co-ordinated royal income and expenditure as treasurer of the chamber and chancellor of the exchequer. He was a diplomat and a courtier, managing court finance as treasurer of the household and marshalling the crowds at the wedding of Henry VII’s son Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon in 1501. He took charge of state prisoners as lieutenant of the Tower of London. He even tidied up history for Henry, organising the building of Richard III’s tomb and Henry’s memorial almshouses at Westminster.

At court and in the counties Lovell was also the supreme networker. Leading noblemen and bishops valued his friendship. His wife was close to the queen, Elizabeth of York. The king stayed regularly at his palatial home, Elsings in Enfield, where his 89 servants in their light tawny orange livery coats served up well over a thousand gallons of wine each year. He was the acknowledged patron of those who governed a string of Midlands towns from Nottingham to Wallingford.

Three lord mayors of London attended Lovell’s funeral, and the grocers’ company kept his portrait in their hall decades after his death. Lovell was also a thoughtful promoter of university-educated clergy.

His connections equipped him to serve the king. A list survives from 1508 of those sworn to fight in Lovell’s retinue, a force 1,365 strong. They were the leaders of small town and village society, yeoman clothiers from Halifax, mayors and churchwardens from Walsall, rich farmers from Oxfordshire. Lovell’s links with them gave him and the king the grip on local affairs they needed, not just to raise an army, but to build a stronger regime.

Lovell had no children, but his masterful marriage-broking and the careful division of the lands he had bought entrenched his nephews and nieces in the Norfolk gentry and the peerage.


Edmund Dudley, the enforcer

Like Poynings, Edmund Dudley (c1462–1510) came from a junior line of a noble house, but he preferred the pen to the sword. He could fight if he had to: the goods confiscated at his arrest included two stylish armoured coats of velvet studded with gilt nails. But he won his spurs by interventions in the legal debates of Gray’s Inn so brilliant that his contemporaries took notes on them.

Dudley took a special interest in the law’s potential for enforcing royal rights. He took charge of making the king’s power pay, selling offices and pardons, fining merchants for smuggling, gentlemen for rioting, bishops for letting criminal clergymen escape from their gaols. In less than four years he raised more than £200,000, about two years of royal income from more normal sources. When the rich and powerful felt aggrieved at Henry’s exactions, it was easy to blame Dudley.

It was all the easier because he so visibly profited by his power. He was a predator on the land market, buying up estates in at least nine counties, often from those he had himself put in debt to the king. He filled his home with cloth-of-gold bed-hangings, damask cushions and French and Spanish furniture. He even had one doublet in the royal colour of purple. No wonder one chronicler thought he was “so proud that the best duke in this land was more easy to sue and to speak to, than he was”.

Dudley made a good scapegoat in 1509 when Henry died, and was executed on spurious charges of treason. Yet he left a considerable legacy: in prison he wrote a treatise on government, The Tree of Commonwealth, which sheds light on the principles of Henry’s ministers.


Sir Henry Marney, the prince’s man

Marney (1447–1523) came from an old but not very rich Essex knightly family. His career under Henry VII was less spectacular than those of his colleagues, with routine service in local government, in parliament, at court and in war, but he could afford to bide his time. By 1501 he was a leading member of the household of Prince Henry, who became heir to the throne on the death of his elder brother, Arthur, in 1502. As his patent of creation put it when Henry made him Lord Marney in 1523, he had served Henry with probity, loyalty and hard work from the king’s tender years onwards.

At Henry’s accession Marney was rewarded with a series of important offices. He became captain of the guard, responsible for the king’s security and for arresting suspected traitors, most famously the Duke of Buckingham in 1521. He also became chief steward of the duchy of Cornwall, regulating the local tin industry. He became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, presiding over the duchy council which enforced justice on, and extracted revenue from, not only Lancashire, but also its substantial estates in East Anglia, the Midlands and Wales.

Marney’s friends and relatives shared in his good fortune as he found them a slew of offices on the duchy of Lancaster lands. But there was hard work to be done in the new reign and Marney did not shirk it. He worked with Thomas Lovell and others to process debts due to the late king and tackle social problems such as vagrancy and rising food prices. He pushed home royal power as hard as his predecessors, rebuking one nobleman who had leased out duchy of Lancaster land on his own authority, and confronting the Earl of Shrewsbury in a display of what Cardinal Wolsey called “his cruelness against the great estates of this realm”.

His son succeeded him as Lord Marney, only to die two years later, but one major monument to his achievements remained. Layer Marney House, with its eight-storey towers and classical terracotta decoration, is the most eye-catching survivor among the many creations that proclaimed the power of Henry VII’s new men.

Steven Gunn is a professor of early modern history at Merton College, the University of Oxford.


This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 


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