How did Henry VII spend his money?
What can the private financial accounts of Henry VII tell us about England's first Tudor monarch? Ahead of a new University of Winchester project to digitise the text of Henry VII's Chamber Books and those of Henry VIII up to 1521, senior lecturer Dr James Ross takes a look at five items on which the king spent his money…
Henry VII is the first English monarch for whom systematic private financial accounts survive. As Henry kept a close oversight of all his finances, there is abundant evidence of what might now be called public expenditure, with his accounts intermingling private and public payments together in a daily and weekly log of expenditure. Collectively, these accounts are known as the Chamber Books; six books of payments and three books of receipts survive for Henry VII’s reign in The National Archives and the British Library in London.
From these accounts, we can say much more about Henry’s interests and habits, as well as about his statecraft and kingship, than for earlier kings of England. The sheer diversity of what Henry spent his money on, and the intermingling of personal and public that was integral to kingship at this time, can be seen in five examples.
"Item to the young demoiselle that daunceth, £30", 25 August 1493 (BL, Add. MS 7099, p.11) and "Item to a litell mayden that daunceth, £12", 13 January 1497 (TNA, E 101/414/6, f. 59r)
The image of Henry VII as a dour accountant, spending his time with his papers, is not without some truth; Henry’s Chamber Books show that he read his accounts thoroughly, amended some entries, and usually put his royal sign manual (‘H.R.’ for ‘Henricus Rex’) by each weekly and monthly total. Yet his accounts also show a man able to enjoy himself. He enjoyed watching fools tumble and joke for his entertainment, he played tennis, chess and cards, and gambled on the outcome; his accounts record regular losses, though not winnings, which he may have pocketed rather than giving them to his treasurer. The two entries paying young ladies for their dancing stand out, however, for the sheer size of the rewards. John Heron, who wrote most of the Chamber Books and was one of the most senior financial officials in the kingdom received an annual salary of just over £13 a year at this time, yet the "demoiselle" of August 1493 was paid nearly three times that.
"Item…in full payment of £2,832 8s. 3d. for the interment of the Queen’s grace", 31 May 1503 (BL, Add. MS. 59899, f. 24r)
Henry VII and his queen Elizabeth of York shared what was apparently a happy marriage, giving each other little presents and there is a touching description of the two sharing their grief at the death of their eldest son, Arthur, in 1502. Thus, Elizabeth’s death on 11 February 1503, a few days after giving birth to a daughter, Katherine, who died soon after, was a shattering personal blow to the king; her grand funeral was the public expression of this. It was also, however, a major political blow. Elizabeth’s bloodline was, in many eyes, superior to that of Henry Tudor himself, and her death robbed him of one prop to his dynastic claim, as well as ending hopes that he and Elizabeth could have more children: the dynasty’s future hung on the sole surviving prince, Henry, aged just 11. Henry VII did engage in diplomacy to find a second wife, but did not in the end remarry.
"Item to Guido Portinarii for 6 pieces of clothe of gold upon damask containing 160 yards, at 60s. the yard, £480", 31 May 1503 (BL, Add. MS. 59899, f. 24r)
The very next entry in the Chamber Book after the queen’s funeral expenses was an extremely expensive purchase of luxury cloth, nearly equivalent to the annual income of a baron. While Henry VIII’s court is rightly famed for its luxury and magnificence, there is little doubt that Henry VII’s court was also extremely impressive. Luxury items were usually imported into England, and often by Italian merchants, such as Portinarii, a member of a Florentine mercantile family. This particular purchase may have been intended for his daughter Margaret Tudor and her entourage, as she was shortly to marry James IV, King of Scots. Such luxury cloth was intended to give the impression of Henry and his family as wealthy, magnificent and far above his subjects, though of course the political reality was less straightforward than this would suggest.
"Item, delivered by the king’s commandment to the ambassadors of Flanders as money lent to the archduke… £108,000", 25 April 1505 (BL, Add. MS 59899, f. 85r)
It has been calculated that Henry’s income in the last few years of his reign averaged about £113,000 a year. This entry in his Chamber Book therefore reflects a sum equivalent to the entire annual income of England. While phrased as a loan, there would have been no realistic expectation of receiving it back, and indeed there is no evidence that it was repaid.
Why did Henry gift such an enormous sum to a foreign ruler, the archduke Philip? A scion of the great European Hapsburg dynasty, Philip, ruler of the Low Countries, was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, who ruled most of Germany and Austria. Philip also married Joan of Castile, the heiress of the kingdoms of Castile, Leon and Aragon in Spain. Philip’s son Charles V, who inherited all these lands, would go on to be the most powerful ruler of his age. Henry VII, however, was in many respects not a powerful ruler. His claim to the throne was contested, and the primary Yorkist claimant, Edmund de la Pole, was in 1505 in the domains of the Emperor Maximilian. The vast sum ‘lent’ in April 1505 was in effect a bribe to Philip for him not to support Pole’s claim to Henry’s throne. Henry paid the Habsburgs enormous sums until his death (around £342,000 between 1505 and 1509 in total) despite securing the person of Edmund de la Pole in 1506, as he searched for allies on the continent.
"Item to Massy for shaving of the kings grace by the space of 10 weeks at 4s. the week…40s", 30 June 1508 (TNA, E 36/214, p. 268)
Sometimes little details can tell us something about the king’s physical appearance. We know for example, that Henry was clean shaven, not just from contemporary portraits (the one hanging in the National Portrait Gallery is from Henry’s lifetime) and the magnificent bust of him by Pietro Torrigiano in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but also from regular entries in the Chamber Book. The king’s barber was Massy Villiard, a page of the chamber, and he was paid a substantial wage for doing so; understandably, given that shaving a king was not without some risk! Massy was still being paid a pension by Henry VIII in 1545.
A two-year project, based at the University of Winchester and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will make the full text of Henry VII’s Chamber Books, and those of Henry VIII up to 1521, digitally available and freely searchable for the first time. For more information, visit the project website
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2017