Modern Politicians can Learn from Henry VII

This post is different than my normal posts, because I am going to talk about politics a bit. It is hard to watch what is happening in the American government and not think about how far from the law we are, and how much more freedom the English people had under a king than we Americans do now.

In the minds of most Americans the British monarchy is synonymous with King George III. We hear the title “king” and our gut reacts like George Washington’s- “It will be Mr. President.” We think our government of “for the people, by the people,” this quasi-democracy, is the best it can ever get. And why not? A little less than half of the population gets their way and we’re supposed to all be happy.

The modern politician is an amalgamation of a fast-talking snake oil salesmen and a mini-tyrant. We’ve heard Former-Mayor Bloomberg telling us that he knows what we should eat and drink and will force us to comply. We’ve heard President Obama brag about being able to write laws unilaterally because he has “a phone and a pen.” This is all acceptable to them because under their logic the people voted for them, so any action they undertake is what the people want, or at least what they signed on for, by electing that politician. And, the logic follows, if we don’t like the policies or laws that one administration creates, once their term is up we can get in a new person to undo the damage. Let’s be clear: The damage is never undone and with each consecutive bad politician the policies get worse and the law oversteps into individual rights.

The US Constitution was based on a mix of the Magna Carta and the ideas of liberty that came from the Enlightenment. A major grievance of the colonies was that parliament and the king were ignoring the rules of law set forth in the Magna Carta, saying that it only gave protections to the people who lived in the British Isle, not to the citizens in the colonies. When the war was won and the US had to make its own laws, they took a great deal of direction from the Magna Carta itself. It was there that limits on taxation were first penned. It was there that personal protection from the government originated. It was there that due process under the law became standard. This comes back to the difference between a Limited Monarchy verses an Absolute Monarchy and how that difference effects the lives of the citizens of a country. France was an Absolute Monarchy and its people starved. England was a Limited Monarchy and its people thrived and grew wealthy. The Magna Carta, and the Constitution, both limited the powers and rights of the government, not of the people. A king is the personal embodiment of a government, and though not elected still has to keep the needs of the people in his focus or lose their support.

My plea for politicians to act more like Henry VII.

No, Henry was not a greedy miser who taxed the common people nearly to death. It was not possible for a king to enact taxes that were not approved of by parliament, and Henry was not in a solid position with parliament. There were still Yorkists who wanted him gone and dead, and other nobles who wanted to take the throne. Without parliament’s approval a king could not collect taxes, and the taxes that they approved had to fulfill very strict criteria. Unlike our modern system of taxes, taxation under the Magna Carta had to be for a specific purpose- a war or building project for example- and had to have a specific start and stop date. Taxes could not just give the monarch more money to spend however he wished, and could not be open-ended. Henry VII could not get around those rules, not even to attack France, the normal enemy of the English. When he asked for the taxes to do so parliament refused. And he had no choice but to work with them or give up. He couldn’t just say that all Englishmen must give him this much money every year indefinitely.

So how did Henry get such a full treasury, if he couldn’t tax the people in such a way? He was a shrewd businessman who invested his private money to support trade, which increased the amount of tariffs the crown received from such trade. He also managed the royal lands better than his predecessors, taking a personal interest in the management and cutting out waste. At the end of his reign the royal lands had produced 10,000-pounds under Edward IV, compared with 42,000-pounds per annum.

There was an increase in business due to the increase in security Henry VII fostered. He reigned in relative peace, while Richard III, Edward IV and Henry VI all reigned under violent civil war. This peace created a safer situation on the roads and on trade routes. As well, Henry VII extended the crown’s justice in the realm, so that disputes could be resolved quickly and fairly in his name. Security for the people breeds more income for the government.

“But wait!” I can hear you say. “He made lots of money by creating laws which forced noblemen to pay fines for keeping standing armies and made them bond each other, so he could get rich!” It may be a surprise to hear, but Henry VII did not create those laws, nor did he enact them often. The laws against Retaining and for supplying “Recognizances” were on the books prior to Henry’s reign and were used by both Edward IV and Henry VI. The laws against retaining had to do with noblemen paying for and keeping standing armies in times of peace. In war time every noblemen must bring an army to the field or else pay for it later, but in peace time they could not keep that army to fight among themselves with other nobles or be threatening the king. Under Henry VI and Edward IV it was illegal to do so, but with the constant warfare it wasn’t as enforced as it should have been.

“Recognizances” were a different system. One nobleman was found to be a “risk” to the crown and country, so one of his noble friends would promise to pay a sum of money to the crown if the first nobleman was found to be guilty of treason. If his friend turned on the king in rebellion the nobleman would have to pay the crown for the offense. In a time of warfare this system could have provided a nice income for the crown while giving the nobles a reason not to commit treason. But just as the laws against retaining were rarely enforced, prior to 1485 “recognizances” were rarely used as well.

It is true that Henry used them more, but he did not fill his coffers with these fines, taking an income from them that was only slightly higher than Edward IV’s. Because he was still very precarious on the throne, Henry preferred to have the noblemen feel indebted to him. When a nobleman was found guilty of breaking these laws the penalty would be levied by the courts and was expected to be handed over to the crown. But Henry forgave more of these offenses than he collected on, preferring to seem generous and forgiving and to give the noblemen an example of fair treatment. By forgiving the debts Henry made the noblemen thankful to him for their continued prosperity, and more likely to defend him if rebellion did stir up. He appeared to be merciful and gracious in his actions, and gained more support for his seat on the throne.

Henry VII knew that you catch more flies with honey. By taking actions to keep money in circulation and increasing trade with investment and peace in his realm, Henry gained more revenue than he could have if he had been allowed to increase taxation with a heavy fist. His time as a “beggar earl” in exile made him thrifty and never wanted to be at the mercy of others’ monetary support again. He made the mechanics of government more efficient and cut waste, and knew how to encourage the country to make money for themselves, which in turn made money for him in legal and fair ways.

This is something that is lost on our modern government, who believe that increasing fines and taxes will increase their own funds. It won’t. Instead of cutting waste and operating at a minimum expense they continue to pay for and encourage waste. We focus on things like the fact that some people make very large sums of money while others do not, instead of focusing on how high the standard of living is for even the very poor. The politicians promise to make income equal, instead of focusing on what we already have and how blessed we are. Our lives today are better than Henry VII’s- heat, AC, plumbing, TV.

Judge John Fortescue knew that a limited government made the people wealthy and happy, and that absolute government strangled the people, keeping them poor and miserable. Somehow this message has been ignored. And only by returning to it can we continue to have the freedom and standard of living that made this country a destination for the “troubled masses yearning to breathe free.”


Grant, Alexander. “Henry VII.” Lancaster Pamphlet. 1985. Routledge: London & New York.



Filed under General History

3 responses to “Modern Politicians can Learn from Henry VII

  1. Reblogged this on A Passion for History and commented:
    Indeed…I do believe Henry VII was one of England’s relatively successful and effective medieval kings who managed to keep the peace during his reign in a country that had known practically nothing but bloodshed and strife in the previous decades, so indeed some of our modern politicians who appear to be even lesser at the job than a medieval king can learn from Henry. 🙂

  2. fitzg

    A good post. I have been reading a facebook site – the Henry Tudor one, to learn more about Henry vii. He seems far more interesting than has been presented as “the King sat in his counting house, counting all his money.”

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