When York Met Lancaster – It Happened Today, January 18, 2017
Does a wedding bring tears to your eyes? Well, here’s one that should. On January 18 of 1486 Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster, ending the Wars of the Roses, and cementing the Tudor claim to the throne. Romantic, no?
No indeed. It was apparently in fact a happy marriage whose members grew to love one another. But it was initially all about politics, from Henry’s pledge to marry her in 1483 to his efforts to weasel out to his reluctant agreement to go ahead. Henry was an intelligent and affable man, but clever, devious and ruthless. (When his son Arthur died in his teens, Henry was evidently at least as upset about the prospects for his dynasty as for the death of his child.)
Also, he had no real claim to the throne unless you count his own assertion "by right of conquest" from, characteristically, the day before he won the Battle of Bosworth field in which Richard III was killed, thus retroactively making everyone who had fought for the rightful king a traitor. He didn’t kill them all at once. But with Henry you never knew.
Except this thing that you did know. He was only a "Lancaster" in a tenuous sense on his mother’s side and a fraudulent one on his father’s. His mother was a great-granddaughter of Edward III’s brother John of Gaunt, founder of the Lancaster dynasty, but via John’s mistress not his wife (and to be very pedantic, Richard II had legitimized those children by Letters Patent but Henry VI had then declared them ineligible for the throne using the same device, so surely either both count or neither). Meanwhile Henry’s grandfather Owen Tudor had secretly married the French widow of Henry V but was not thereby catapulted into the legitimate line.
In fact Henry’s wife had a far better claim to the throne than he did as a daughter of Richard III’s brother Edward IV even if Richard was a usurper. Yet Henry deliberately had himself crowned before their marriage, and she was not invited to be queen regnant as she had an almost incontestable claim to do though perhaps not the desire, having seen various members of her family die or simply vanish to keep them from the throne or get them off it.
The one thing that really made Henry king was that, although no warrior himself, he cleverly managed his affairs so that those who opposed him were defeated in battle, executed or otherwise caused to become not alive. And though his dynasty did produce one outstanding if scary monarch in the person of Elizbeth I, the rest were scary without being outstanding or, in the case of Edward VI, ineffectual.
England being England, they found a way to make it all work. But I’m still a fan of Richard III, and Henry VII’s marriage does nothing to change that view.