Thursday 16 December 2021

Henry VII - The Shadow of the Tower (BBC TV 1972)

As a young teenager I had the good fortune to watch a BBC Television drama series called The Shadow of the Tower (meaning the Tower of London) - about the Kingship of Henry VII (1457-1509), first of the Tudors. This gave me a lifelong sympathy and interest concerning Henry Tudor, something completely alien to my usual taste in people and periods. 

I was so taken by these plays that a bought a book which accompanied the series. 

As you can see from the cover, one of the features of this series is that the actors were chosen partly on the basis of resembling what is known (from portraits) of the appearance of the historical characters. 

The form was a set of 13 plays by several authors - all performed in studio sets - spanning from the beginning of Henry's reign (1485) at the Battle of Bosworth when Richard II was killed; until around the death of Henry's much loved wife - Elizabeth of York. 

These plays are nothing like any television today. They are very tightly written, subtle, extremely intelligent - and demanding of total concentration. 

The character of Henry (depicted by James Maxwell) comes across as appealing - very clever, subtle, secretive; someone who regarded himself as a father to his nation and God's anointed representative. He certainly left England in a much better state than he found the country - more peaceful , richer, stronger... All too soon most of this was wasted or put to evil use by his Tyrannical son Henry VIII ('the Attila of England' as John Aubrey rightly termed him). 

Yet - to my surprise - Henry VII tends to be regarded pretty negatively; variously as a faceless and characterless individual, a hypocrite, a miser, and a too-careful man of small spirit and scope. Inkling Charles Williams was one of these nay-sayers - in a potboiler biography he wrote for Oxford University Press. But Francis Bacon - author of the first biography about a century after Henry died - called Henry the Solomon of England. 

Shadow of the Tower's sympathetic portrayal of Henry fits what is known very exactly, but hostile portrayals make sense too. This just goes to show how the same facts can be given very different interpretations - how 'evidence' does Not overturn assumptions. 

However regarded; Henry VII came at a fascinating time, right on the cusp of our civilization. He was the last medieval monarch of Merrie England, the last Roman Catholic king - and also the first 'modern', legalistic, mercantile national administrator.

Take a look at the TV series, if you like the sound of my description. The first two episodes, written by Rosemary Anne Sisson, are superb examples of screenwriting craft on a low budget; of great integrity, where less is more; and there is none of the lazy padding or crude manipulation that have since become normal. 

The end of the first episode fixes the camera on the hands of Henry and his new wife Elizabeth as they sit next to each other. At first, the two hands are positioned in a conventional fashion - then, there is a short, affectionate squeeze; depicting with great economy that the relationship began as a political convenience, but developed into love. 

Indeed, Henry and Elizabeth enjoyed one of extremely few (relatively) 'normal', stable and loving family lives among all English monarchs. To me, that says a lot about the man. 


Lady Mermaid said...

I found this series on Youtube several years ago. While Henry VII is often overlooked in light of his infamous son and glorious granddaughter, his rise to the throne was quite extraordinary. He was born to a 13 year widow who almost died giving birth so young and had to flee to Brittany later on after the Lancastrians lost the Battle of Tewkesbury. His blood claim to the throne was so removed that it took the bewildering deposition of the child king Edward V and his brother Richard to even be considered a contender. Henry was then within a sword's width of being killed by Richard III in his first ever battle.

It doesn't surprise me that Henry and his mother Margaret believed that the hand of God was involved in such an improbable story. In fact, Margaret told the later St. John Fischer that she had a vision of St. Nicholas telling her to marry Edmund Tudor instead of John de la Pole as a child. You can debate whether this private revelation was just a young girl trying to make sense of her circumstances, but you cannot deny the spiritual worldview that saw God calling people to fulfill a destiny. It's a shame Henry VIII turned out to be such a monster.

Bruce Charlton said...

@LM - I didn't know that story. It certainly seems that Henry was convinced of his right (and duties); despite the tenuous lineage; and this tenacity (plus his intelligence) finally ended the ruinous War of the Roses - which could have destroyed England (and a lot more lives).

Epimetheus said...

What a peculiar founder for a dynasty. From the wiki, he doesn't come off as warrior-like at all, but his men didn't seem to mind.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

This looks good! Counterintuitively perhaps, my favourite Tudor when I was learning English history as a boy was Henry VII. I think I was influenced by Olivier's film of Shakespeare's Richard III, which my father took me to in a double-bill with his Henry V. Richmond's underdog quality and ultimate victory must have appealed, along with an inchoate sense that there was something better about the 1400s than the 1500s. I've never bought a linear, ever-progressing, view of Man's course; for a long time now my favourite century has been the Twelfth!
Somehow I missed this series at the time; too bad for me.
When I was about thirteen I read a good biography of Henry VII - a few years before the series came out. Found it in the National Portrait Gallery gift-shop. It wasn't too much for a teen-ager to follow, but wasn't just kiddie history. I don't remember who wrote it, only that she was a woman. Tried to find that bio on Amazon, without success.
Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time makes the case that Richard III was the legitimate king, Richmond the usurper and murderer of the princes in the Tower. I didn't find it altogether convincing, but it's a good read. A surprising number of people believe that theory, and got quite excited when Richard's remains were found beneath a Leicester car park a few years ago.
Henry VII grew in my ranking of Tudors later as I dug into their time in more depth and realised just how odious son Henry truly was, and how forbidding and cruel grand-daughter Elizabeth could be (despite her consistently good press).
What if Henry VII's elder son Arthur had survived, and Henry had been succeeded by Arthur II (might not have been numbered so, but sounds good), with the estimable Katharine of Aragon as a true consort rather than hand-me-down to Bluff King Hal?
The couple might have had sons, and Arthur, a milder character than his terror of a little brother, would likely not have revolted against the Church and murdered his wives. Surely a mature Arthur would have been a better guardian of Henry VII's achievement stabilising the country after the Wars of the Roses, and England might not have suffered the capricious cruelty and intermittent violence that characterised Henry VIII's reign.
Imagine England without the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Henry VIII's devastation of the North. How might English Catholicism have developed, and what qualities one associates with Anglicanism might have emerged within Catholic forms? Presumably there would have been no Armada, either.
Could Protestantism have succeeded in Scotland if England had remained Catholic? And imagine Scotland without the depredations of Henry VIII's Rough Wooing. Something more for Scots to ponder: Flodden might never have happened, and the able James IV might have remained King of Scots longer - at least long enough to hand the ever-unstable throne to a grown successor.
I enjoy pondering alternate histories, but thought-experiments don't change what happened.
Footnote: I read this morning that some gaggle of idiots want to remove James II and VII's portrait from 11 Downing Street - because he's now accused, as Duke of York, of having links to the slave-trade. This under a "Conservative" government. Purging the dead doesn't change what happened either, although it twists - as the purgers intend - people's understanding of it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@HRS - Thanks for the nice comment.

Maybe it was the Gladys Temperley biography of Henry VII?

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Dr. Charlton - Thank you. History as a hobby...
Mrs. Temperley's Henry VII biography looks excellent, but more scholarly than the book I remember.

Amethyst Dominica said...

I saw Shadow of the Tower on Youtube years ago and liked it. I think Henry VII gets bad press because his austerity measures made him a lot of enemies. So many that Henry's successor actually banded with them and pulled off a coup against Henry VII's advisors. Henry VII was also sickly and depressed over his wife's death. It doesn't help that he was followed by a couple of the most flamboyant and soap-opera-y royals that England has ever had.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the preceding BBC Henry VIII and Elizabeth R series a lot when they came out, but this somehow never made it to America, back then, and I only caught up with it very enjoyably, like other commenters, on YouTube not so many years ago. My memory of Williams's biography is as pretty positive... in contrast to the Henry VIII of his fascinating Canterbury Festival play, Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury: I shall have to rebrowse it... All which being said, I am a pro-Ricardian, thanks first to Tey, followed up (I think) by Margaret Davidson's My Lords Richard, and cemented by the scholarly work of my dear professor Arthur Kincaid. A lot of Howard Ramsey Sutherland's interesting query-speculations would presumably have had their analogues if Richard had not been defeated.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I can't say I actually enjoy Henry VIII; although Elizabeth is, in theory, a great subject ( )

I didn't much like Charles William's Henry VII - it seemed to settle into a determination to snipe at motivations, to explain every apparent good act (e.g. his mercy to Lambert Simnel, reluctance to kill Warbeck and the real Edward, Duke of Warwick) as motivated by weakness or some base impulse.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Re DLD's comment, I didn't realise the Beeb had made a series about each of the major Tudors, although I remember Elizabeth R. I'm tempted to watch them all in chronological (not date of release) sequence.
Not sure I'm Ricardian, but no longer assume the right faction won at Bosworth Field. Tey planted seeds of doubt about that. And DLD is right:
How, indeed, might our history have played out had the House of York held the throne, and Henry Tudor wound up under that Leicester car park?
Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Becket. Risking the wrath of Pope Innocent III, who oversaw Becket's elevation to sainthood, I must confess I'm a Henrician. Henry II, that is - most definitely not VIII. Becket was brave and determined, but also excessively obstinate and obstructive.
Henry Plantagenet is, overall, perhaps the greatest of English kings so far. Despite being only tangentially English himself. His accomplishments in law alone are remarkable, as was his ability to get England past the Twelfth Century precursor of the Wars of the Roses, the civil war of Stephen's reign, so quickly and completely. Over the Border, his near-contemporary David I of Scots may have been best of the Scottish kings in overall achievement. In Great Britain, at least, the Twelfth Century had some remarkable people.
I know Dr. Charlton will likely not share my estimation of the Angevin, and I'm sure Professor Tolkien would not have. But I don't forget the Anglo-Saxons. I have a soft spot for Alfred, especially, and Edward the Confessor, who was likely far sharper than the image we have of him today suggests. Athelstan is pretty estimable too.