Monday, March 4, 2013

Henry VII and the Curse of Prophecy

By Nancy Bilyeau

The Yorkists were a hard-headed lot, basing their right to rule on bloodline. When their last king, Richard Plantagenet, was slain at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, his devastated Yorkist supporters--as well as the rest of the country--waited to hear what claim to the throne the victor, Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, would put forth.

It was a delicate question.

Henry VII
Tudor was the leader of the Lancastrian house, but strictly by default. Stronger claimants had been mown down a while ago. Yes, he'd won the crown in battle but there were laws in England. To hold the crown, he'd have to convince everyone he was the legitimate king. Tudor's father, Edmund, had not a drop of English royal blood; he was the son of French Queen Dowager Katherine of Valois and her Welsh servant, Owen Tudor. (And so half-brother to the last Lancaster king, Henry VI.) Through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor had a stronger claim, as she was in direct descent from Edward III, but the Beauforts were barred from the succession.

We can imagine there was a certain level of suspense as the country waited. Most assumed that the newly declared Henry VII would swiftly marry Elizabeth of York, oldest living child of the dead Edward IV, and attach his weak claim to her greater one. But he did not marry her right away--it was important to him to claim the right to rule on his own.

When he invaded England with French-financed troops, Tudor had marched through his family stronghold of Wales, gaining support and men, under the banner of the red dragon: the battle standard of King Arthur and other Celtic leaders. Now it was announced that Henry Tudor was descended from Arthur himself through Cadwaladr and the Welsh chieftains who were ancestors of Owen Tudor. Genealogists had confirmed this, the skeptical court was informed. Henry's ascension was the fulfillment of prophecy.

Despite such grandiose claims, Henry married Elizabeth of York. But he did not drop the Arthur business. Far from it: He insisted that his first child be born in Winchester, sometimes identified as Camelot in legend. And when that baby boy was born, he was named...Arthur.

Le Morte D'Arthur
What could not be accidental is that in 1485 something else happened in England besides Bosworth. The first printing of Le Morte d'Arthur appeared, a compilation of tales by Sir Thomas Malory of Arthur and Guinevere, Launcelot, Mordred, and the magician Merlin. The tales were so popular, they were reprinted.

Henry VII would not be the first ruler to seize on the romance of Camelot to bolster his regime. But the direct connection of his legal claim to rule to a work of mythic entertainment is bold indeed--if not bizarre. It was as if, in 1977, the year Star Wars hit theaters, a president appeared who announced himself descended from Luke Skywalker.

But there were darker elements to this claim to Camelot. In legitimizing a mystical prophecy, Henry VII was unleashing a certain kind of power that would reach across the entire 16th century and into the 17th, bedeviling his great-great-grandson. Rebels against various Tudor regimes would repeatedly use their own prophecies to rally support. They effectively co-opted Henry VII's modus operandi, down to the symbolic banners. A frustrated Henry VIII sought to ban prophecy from his kingdom after he was nearly engulfed by seers, witches, and necromancers spouting predictions, many of them derived, allegedly, from Merlin and yet coded and obscure, open to many interpretations.

The Pilgrimage of Grace, and its many banners
"The craving to gaze into the future arises naturally in times of great danger and distress," said Madeleine Hope Dodds in the paper "Political Prophecies in the Reign of Henry VIII." It would be hard to imagine more distress caused than the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries. Some of the rebels who rose up in the Pilgrimage of Grace spouted the "wisdom" of Merlin to lead them. Henry VIII was certain it played a part in the rebellion. In the same letter in which he ordered the Duke of Norfolk "you must cause such dreadful execution upon a good number of inhabitants, hanging them on trees, quartering them, and setting their heads and quarters in every town, as shall be a fearful warning," he commanded the duke "send to us the Witch of York."

Again and again, strange prophecies emerged in times of political distress in the Tudor era. After a young nobleman named Anthony Babington was arrested for a treasonous conspiracy to murder Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots, a book of Merlin prophecies was found in Babington's London home.

John Dee and Edward Kelley
More than any other Tudor ruler since Henry VII, Elizabeth tried to harness prophecy, to understand it through her consultations with Dr. John Dee and his colleague, the bizarre necromancer Edward Kelley. She is the hard-headed queen, the ruler who said she had no desire for a "window into men's souls." However, she picked her coronation date based on what Dr. Dee told her to do.

It is with James VI that the brew of prophecy and the occult overflows. James was a Stuart king of Scotland, but part Tudor too, descended through both his parents--Mary Queen of Scots and Henry, Lord Darnley--from Margaret Tudor, the oldest daughter of Henry VII. 

Scotland was already a place uneasy with such fears before James VI was born. The Act of 1563 forbade anyone to use witchcraft, sorcery or necromancy or to claim any of its powers, the penalty for both witch and client being death.

James VI overseeing witch trials

As a young man, James VI became convinced that witches were trying to kill him, specifically creating storms to drown him and his bride, Anne of Denmark, as he tried to bring her to Scotland. Afterward he oversaw witch trials, ordering torture of suspects, that led to a flurry of executions. In 1597 James personally wrote an 80-page book called Daemonologie expounding on his views on the dangers of sorcery and magic. Shakespeare drew from it when writing Macbeth, considered by many a tribute to King James, with its three witches spouting eerie prophecy that would change men's destinies.

His entire life, James VI was tormented by fears of a violent death. In the end he died in his bed, the king of England and Scotland. But fears of prophecy and of witchcraft, which he'd done so much to whip into a frenzy, did not die with him; instead, the frenzy led to the deaths of more English victims, and traveled to America with the Puritan settlers, before finally loosening their hold.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical-mystery trilogy The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. To learn more, go to


  1. Spin-doctoring in history. Fascinating stuff! Thanks!

  2. Can't wait to read it Nancy.. so looking forward to a great "read".

  3. One historical fact that is rather ironic is that the Yorskists themselves were descendants the the female line from Edward III- and their 'claim' to the throne was through the female line- in fact twice over. Through Phillipa, daughter to Lionel of Antwerp, and Anne Mortimer, mother of Richard Duke of York.
    In this sense, the Lancastrians had a stronger claim- they were direct descendants in the male line- but the Yorkists of course killed them off- and did a pretty good job of killing each other off too....

  4. I'll say this for Henry VII, he was canny! Early spin-doctoring is right! I saw a program while on holiday in the UK last year about the Tudors as early brand-builders, which had never really occurred to me before that show. But it was true - they used all the communication tools at their disposal - heraldic devices, genealogy and the story-telling, mythologizing and symbolic banners Nancy mentions.

    Great post Nancy.


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