The Coronation of Henry VII

The symbolism behind the crowning of the first Tudor king.
Lady Margaret Beaufort
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The coronation of the first Tudor King, Henry VII, was planned with his mother, Margaret Beaufort.  Henry had spent his entire adult life in exile and barely knew the kingdom he was now to rule.  Margaret, by contrast had taken part in the court ceremonies of three earlier kings. It was particularly important to impress Londoners, who were suffering the deadly consequences of a mysterious new epidemic. Amongst the early victims of the first weeks were the mayor of London and his replacement. It was being taken as an omen for the new reign.  Henry would need to use his coronation to reassure the country that he was God’s chosen ruler.

The disease, known as ‘the sweating sickness’, had struck only two weeks after Henry had entered London in September.  He had defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in August, and he brought much of his army to London with him. It had been recruited in France and included men described as the scum of the earth. It is probable it was this army that brought ‘the sweat’ with them. Like the Spanish flu that swept the world in 1918,  ‘the sweat’ could take the life of a healthy adult in a single day. Victims would develop cold shivers, giddiness, headache and severe pains in the neck, shoulders and limbs. Later, came heat and sweating, headache, delirium, a rapid pulse and intense thirst. Palpitations and pains in the heart ended in exhaustion and death. Londoners were in terror of it.

Any speculation on the possible meaning or significance of the sweating sickness was banned and new royal symbols were chosen that would project the appropriate chivalric values for a glorious new king. Amongst them the most significant was the red rose. It has often been suggested that the rose was chosen because the House of Lancaster from which Henry drew his royal blood had used it as their symbol. But if Henry had only wished to associate himself more closely with that royal House he would have chosen a more favoured Lancastrian device. The last Lancastrian king, Henry VI, had used variously a spotted panther, an antelope, and ostrich feathers.   Henry Tudor chose it less because of its royal associations than because its religious symbolism.

The red rose represented Christ’s Passion – his suffering on the cross for the sins of mankind – the five petals of the heraldic rose corresponding to the five wounds on Christ’s crucified body. His mother’s possessions illustrate the connection: amongst them was a jewelled ornament of a ‘rose with an image of Our Lord and in every nail a pointed diamond, and four pearls, with tokens of the passion on the backside’. The Passion was also associated with the fashionable cult of the Holy Name, of which Margaret Beaufort was an enthusiast, and would do much to promote. The symbol IHS (an abbreviation of Jesus) even became a badge of the Tudors, and the rose was often depicted with the monogram at its heart.

With the coronation preparations underway, seven yards of scarlet velvet in dragons and of red roses were commissioned. So were  four yards of white cloth of gold with a border of red roses for the ornamental covering, or trapping, for horses. A further couple of hundred roses were ordered in fine lace made of pure gold thread, while the footmen were to have jackets in the Tudor colours, of white and green: the colours of purity and renewal.

The coronation began, at last, on 28 October with Henry taking formal possession of the Tower. The next day he was processed to Westminster before the London crowds.   Heralds, sergeants of arms, trumpeters, esquires, the mayor, aldermen, and nobles, preceded Henry dressed in their rich liveries. Henry himself rode under a canopy fringed with 28 ounces of gold and silk, carried by four knights on foot. He was bare-headed, his light brown hair reaching his shoulders, a rich belt slung across his chest, and a long gown of purple velvet furred with ermine on his back. Behind Henry rode his uncle,  Jasper Tudor, newly created as Duke of Bedford.

Alongside Jasper rode another significant figure: John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, husband of Elizabeth Plantagenet, a sister of the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III. It was said Richard III had named Suffolk’s eldest son, the Earl of Lincoln, as his heir. Henry, having killed Richard at the battle of Bosworth and taken his throne, was now inviting the de la Pole family to support him instead, as the true King.

On Sunday 30 October Henry was crowned and anointed at Westminster Abbey, its walls hung with the fine wool cloth known as scarlet. His mother Margaret Beaufort’s superior blood right to the crown was overlooked. England was not yet ready to be ruled by a Queen regnant and in any event, her blood claim was weak. She was of illegitimate descent. Henry’s right had been won on the battlefield. It was not the right of birth. What power Margaret had would be wielded behind the throne, but it would be very real nonetheless.  This was as much her moment of triumph as Henry’s, and it was later remembered how ‘when the king her son was crowned in all that great triumph and glory, she wept marvellously’.  These tears were not of joy alone, however. She was anxious about the future.

In November Henry sought the necessary approval of parliament for his rule: the high court of the realm. It was duly confirmed that, ‘the inheritance of the crowns of England and France abide in the most royal person of our sovereign Lord King Henry VII and in the heirs of his body’. But in contrast to his predecessor, Richard III, Henry’s right to the throne was not described or explained, it was, simply, accepted as the will of God, made evident by his victory at the battle of Bosworth. The problem, as Margaret and Henry knew, was that if he lost a future battle, it would seem that God had decided someone else had a better right to the throne.  And the years ahead would indeed see many battles. Each of the three sons of John de la Pole would take up the Yorkist title of  ‘the white rose’  to challenge Henry VII and his heirs.  A coronation was not enough to secure Henry’s right. He would have to fight on for his crown.