How successful was Henry in reducing the power of the nobility?

Although Henry did not take many direct steps to reduce the power of the nobility per se, he did have a range of sanctions which he imposed to make sure they did not use their power in ways he disapproved of. He asserted his rights to things such as feudal dues to make sure his position as King was clear to the nobility so they would ‘know who was boss’. Henry brought in a number of rewards for nobles that he arguably would not have brought in if he was looking to reduce the power of the nobility as much as possible.

Henry elevated to power and responsibility those that had been loyal to him at Bosworth, and those that demonstrated loyalty and ability. He did not have any close male relatives (like Edward IV had Gloucester and Clarence) which he felt obliged to reward with power, titles and land save for Jasper Tudor who was made Earl of Pembroke, Duke of Bedford and Chief Justice of Wales. But he had spent many years in exile with Henry and can surely be said to have earned these rewards.

The King’s Council was used in a way as an ‘alternative’ to elevating people to the peerage by Henry – for instance, Edmund Dudley, a lawyer who was one of the King’s most trusted advisors and who was made a King’s Councillor. Half of his council were clergymen, such as John Morton who was Chancellor from 1486 – 1500. While a considerable number of noblemen were also present in the Council, few of these were the King’s most trusted advisors – although the Duke of Bedford, Earl of Oxford and Lord Stanley were. These were his friends and relatives whom he knew he could trust. But most of his trusted advisors were drawn from the clergy or professional classes, such as Edward Poynings and Edmund Dudley. As we shall see, the King was very keen to get the most from his estates, and so men who were apt at financial management and understood property law were vital.

The Order of the Garter was, according to S. B. Chrimes “the ultimate mark of honour favoured by Henry VII”. Making someone a Knight of the Garter gave them prestige and made them feel important, but effectively gave them no power or land. This was an effective step in limiting the power of the nobility, and the fact options like this were available is probably why Henry got away with not elevating many people to the peerage.

It was quite normal, according to K. B. McFaraly, a historian writing in the 1970s, for the nobility to lose 25% of its number in 25 years due to war and nobles not leaving sons. This trend continued in Henry’s reign, but the reason people find to comment on it is that Henry did not replace the lost peers with new ones – at the start of his reign there were 50 peers and 16 magnates, and at the end there were 35 peers and 10 magnates. This is a subtle reduction in the power of the nobility.

Henry did not try to win the support of the nobility with patronage as previous Kings had, he instead distributed patronage after someone had demonstrated loyalty and ability. Examples include those rewarded after Bosworth, such as the Stanley family, which had changed sides in the middle of the battle. Lord Daubeney was promoted to the peerage after staunchly acting against the Cornish rebellion. By only handing out patronage in the case of such excellent service Henry increased the perceived value of it. In a way, this increased the power of the nobility – but there were less of them.

Henry’s attitude to retaining is a good example of his overall attitude to the nobility – he never attempted to do away with it completely, but he installed strict personal controls over it. In 1504 he issued proclamations which stated that people had to obtain special licences to retain, which could only be got from the King. This meant he could keep a strict reign on this particular issue of the nobility, without making them feel their power was being sapped too much. Henry applied fines of £5 per month per illegal retainer, which was a big financial threat to many members of the nobility such as Lord Burgavenny, who initially faced fines of £70,550 in 1506 before they were scaled down.

Henry’s control of Crown lands was quite significant, although it might not have seemed so at the time. He seemed determined to retain as much land under the Crown as possible – for instance, he retained almost all the lands once owned by Warwick and the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester. S. J. Gunn estimates in Early Tudor Government, 1485-1558 that crown lands were five times larger at the end of Henry’s reign than they had been at the start! Because 15th century society equated land very much with power, this was quite significant in limiting the power of the nobility, if not directly reducing it. This also increased Henry’s personal power, which meant he relied less on the nobility.

The King kept a tight reign on noble marriages – for instance, Katherine, Dowager Duchess of Buckingham was fined £7,000 for marrying without the King’s licence. By imposing these sanctions he not only gained money, but he good also influence who married who. It would be harder for nobles to marry themselves into situations of such great power that it threatened the King.

Henry used Acts of Attainder as both a sanction and a reward for good behaviour – when someone was disloyal an Attainder would be passed against them, but they could then have it reversed if they behaved well. For instance, Thomas Howard was attainted and imprisoned because he fought for Richard III at Bosworth. After he refused to escape and engage in the Simnel plot of 1487, the process of reversing his Attainder was begun in 1489. As he showed further aptitude and loyalty during the Yorkshire risings, his estates were gradually returned to him. Henry also tended to redistribute the lands of attainted people as patronage rather than giving away crown lands – again, he is centralising the land (and therefore power) with people he trusts and keeping as much for himself. Because of his attitude to patronage (that it was only given to the most loyal of his subjects), he was taking power away from his enemies and giving it to those he trusts. If these nobles are really as trustworthy as he believes, then that power is effectively his own.

To conclude, Henry reduced the power of the nobility at large by centralising as much power and land as possible under the Crown and his very trusted and loyal servants. He was careful only to reward those that had shown themselves to be exceptionally trustworthy, and by doing so created a sort of “ruling class” of nobles. He also moved the focus of government away from nobles who had simply being born into a position – for instance on the King’s Council, which did not shun nobles but only included those that had shown themselves to be both able and loyal. Although the Great Council was comprised entirely of noblemen, it did not actually bestow much power on its members – rather, it was a way for Henry to get their agreement on a particular issue so they could not turn around and bite him later on. Of the five times he called the Great Council, 3 were to get the approval of the nobility – in 1488 to authorise a subsidy for the Burgundy campaign, in 1491 to authorise war against France, and in 1496 to grant a loan for war against Scotland. Only in 1487, when he called the Council in response to Simnel, was there ever any scope for the nobles to influence the King’s decision. The other times he had decided on the issue before he got there, and was just seeking approval.

Henry’s use of marriage licences and retainer licences shows he was trying to put a tighter reign on the nobility, but not actually do away with its power – it just had a little less flexibility in how it exercised it. This was effective because it meant Henry had more personal input into decisions, yet the nobles did not feel their powers were being removed entirely.

Henry had centralised noble power under those who showed ability and loyalty. This centralisation is perhaps more important than the reductions – it made the nobles a lot less threatening because power was wielded by those he could rely on. Although, of course, if someone had proved themselves to be not as loyal as he thought, we might have something different to say about that today.

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