Monday, October 23, 2017

Henry Tudor's Claim to England's Throne

Portrait of young Henry Tudor
by Musee Calvet
It is often said that Henry Tudor did not have a strong claim to the throne when he took it in 1485. However, he was quick to publicize his three-prong claim in the hopes that people not convinced by one reason would willingly accept another. With many of the branches of the Plantagenet family tree rather thoroughly pruned during the decades of the Wars of the Roses, it is somewhat surprising just how good Henry's claim was.

Tudor's strongest claim was through conquest. Regardless of the semi-royal bloodline that we will discuss next, Henry Tudor marched into England and killed its king. Richard III had left behind his heir, John de la Pole, and a few other nephews and the like, but it doesn't really matter because he was defeated on the field. While we sometimes minimize this claim, people of the time did not. John de la Pole did not fight Tudor (at least not at first), but served him, as did most noble sons of the era who could match their king's pedigree with family trees reaching back to Edward III.

Yet, Henry could also trace his ancestry back to the legendary king, and this was the second prong of his claim. Henry's mother, Margaret, was the heiress of the Beaufort line descended from John of Gaunt, which was legitimized in 1399. The Beauforts had suffered heavy losses during the Wars of the Roses in support of the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. Debate over which Plantagenet branch held a superior claim to the throne had begun as soon as Henry Bolingbroke took the crown from his cousin, Richard II. Unknowingly, Henry IV set the precedent that the crown could be taken by whichever family member was most able, rather than the one who inherited it, and his descendants suffered for it. Confusion over whether a female line should be considered and reluctance to crown children with greater claims than capable adults added fuel to the debate long before Tudor made his claim, causing bloodline alone to be a shaky foundation.

Henry VI
In addition to his mother being the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Henry's father was half-brother to the king, Henry VI. Edmund Tudor's blood was decidedly not royal, but his father had married Catherine Valois after the death of her first husband, Henry V. While Catherine could not pass on any right to inherit England's crown to the children of her second marriage, it could not hurt that Henry could call the Lancastrian king his uncle.

Henry Tudor understood that others could match his pedigree, so he planned to take a wife whose status was unquestioned and whose popularity was well-known. When he married Elizabeth of York, Tudor had already established that he took his position in his own right. However, uniting England under the joint heirs of Lancaster and York was a brilliant political move. Those who did not believe in Tudor's claim were likely to support him for the sake of his wife. The union went far toward securing peace and acquiescence to Tudor rule. By timing the wedding when he did (after his own coronation), Tudor ensured that Elizabeth strengthened his claim rather than making it her own.

The fact of the matter is that anyone who might have made a grasp for the throne of England by 1485 had just as questionable of a claim as Henry Tudor. That is precisely how the Wars of the Roses began in the first place with York proposing that their line was superior to that of the sitting Lancastrian king. With so many noble sons dying on the field and disagreements on just which Plantagenet heirs had superior claims for almost a century before Tudor's victory, a claim of bloodline alone was simply not sufficient to bring about peace.


  1. "Edmund Tudor's blood was decidedly not royal"
    Why? Edmund Tudor was the son of Catherine de Valois. This gave him quite a lot of royal blood, certainly French, but also English. There had been enough intermarriage between European nobility that the Capets and their cadet branch, the Valois, had several lines of descent from English kings. The most obvious ones are as follows-

    1) William the Conqueror -> Adela of Normandy -> Theobald II, Count of Champagne -> Adele of Champagne -> Philip II Augustus

    2) Henry II -> Eleanor of England -> Blanche of Castile -> Louis IX

    There are also other more involved lines, like Charles V being descended from King Stephen via his mother Bonne of Bohemia
    (9 generations removed) and Charles VI, Edmund Tudor's grandfather, being descended from Henry III through his mother Joanna of Bourbon (6 generations removed). These are just things I found by poking around on Wikipedia for a couple of hours. I am not even a pro. I am sure a more thorough look into the ancestry of the French royals will throw up more connections to English royalty. None of these connections give Henry Tudor a huge claim to the English throne, but it is a myth that he didn't have a lot of royal English blood, and what little he had came from his mother via her Beaufort ancestry.

    1. I should have stated that the English did not consider Edmund to be of royal blood. Yes, he had ties to French royalty and was half-brother to the English king, but these were not connections that put him in line for either throne. Even Edmund himself never made any such claim. Henry's Beaufort ancestry was his strongest claim, besides the obvious fact that he took the crown through conquest.