Henry VII and Charles the Bold: brothers under the skin

by Steven Gunn

In the traditional historiographies of the states over which they ruled, Henry Tudor (1485-1509 as Henry VII) and Charles the Bold (1467-77) of Burgundy occupied diametrically opposed positions. Henry was the great restorer, raising England from the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses to the threshold of Tudor glory. Charles was the great destroyer. He rashly gambled the inheritance it had taken his painstaking ancestors a century to construct on a sequence of self-aggrandising conquests; the result was nemesis not only for himself but also for Valois Burgundy.

Traditional historiographies are there to be modified. We now nuance Henry's achievement by according more importance than did our predecessors to the underlying continuities of governmental development, to the Yorkists' refurbishment of the machinery of state and to the developments of Henry VIII's reign. In the same way we stress Philip the Good's foreshadowing of the ambitions of his son Charles the Bold and the contributions of Charles' successors, Maximilian, Philip the Fair and Charles V, to their partial and posthumous fulfilment.

We also recognise the difficulties the dukes faced in pulling together the Burgundian polity, composed as it was of various duchies, counties and lordships with different political traditions, economic orientations and even languages, in some cases separated from each other by stretches of hostile territory. Yet the substance of the received judgements remains. This makes all the more curious the remarkable similarities between Henry and Charles in their styles and programmes of rule.

Each was renowned first for his intense assiduity in the task of governing. Charles was not `Charles le Temeraire', Charles the Bold, to his contemporaries but `Charles le Travaillant', Charles the Worker, who was counselled against unhealthy overwork by his brother-knights in the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1468 and 1473. Working out the details of his financial and military dispositions and writing letters in his own hand frequently occupied him for long periods. Henry's taste for personal negotiation with his debtors, perusal of his accounts and supervision of his ministers was equally marked.

In Charles' case, contemporaries seemed confident that they knew the motivation for this driven activity: 'All his thoughts' wrote the Milanese ambassador in 1475 'are about the acquisition for himself of immortal glory'. We might think Henry's aim less clear-cut and more modest, but we should remind ourselves of the monuments by which he wished to be remembered. His mortuary chapel projected out of the side of Westminster Abbey into the heart of the palace which was the centre of English government, seat of law-courts, council chamber and exchequer. More striking still was his proposed monument in the heart of the Abbey, a statue of himself atop the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, in which he was to be depicted receiving the crown of England by the immediate judgement of God.

Whatever their immortal reputations, both princes succeeded in the short term in antagonising, as much as inspiring, their subjects. It was their leading subordinates that paid the price most conspicuously, in the trials and executions of Guy de Brimeu and Guillaume Hugonet in 1477, and Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson in 1509-10. But at the same time the institutions that threatened to perpetuate Henry's and Charles' aggressive style of government were also swept away, at least temporarily: the parlement (sovereign law court) and chambre des comptes (central financial institution) at Malines, the standing army of the ordonnances, and in England the council learned in the law and the general surveyors of crown lands. In both cases, moreover, their subjects tried to secure guarantees that their most objectionable policies could not be reinstated, by the Grand Privilege and provincial charters of 1477, the widely subscribed general pardon of 1509, and the failed bill for the liberties of the church in the parliament of 1510.

Much of the ill-feeling each generated was predictably born of matters fiscal. Each sought to make war on a larger and more effective scale than his immediate predecessors - Henry at least in 1497 against the Scots if not in his earlier campaigns against France - in addition to meeting expanding costs in domestic government, notably that of the court. Charles' average annual expenditure was more than twice that of his father; the expansion of Henry's budget is harder to measure but must have been of a similar order.

Each drove up the overall burden of taxation, as a range of measures attest. Charles roughly tripled the burden of the aides on Flanders, raised nearly as much in total tax revenues in nine-and-a-half years as his father had done in forty-five, and apparently levied 9.67 times as much as his father each year on the unfortunate town of Lille. Henry raised the customs income to a level more than fifty per cent above that levied during the mid-century slump in trade, levied fifty per cent more per annum in direct parliamentary taxation than had Edward IV, and took a `loving contribution' in 1491-92 more than fifty per cent larger than Edward's 'benevolence' of 1481. In individual years of war he comfortably exceeded the peak levels of taxation raised even by the victorious and efficient Henry V, and by the end of his reign he was exploiting a range of feudal incidents to generate taxation unrelated either to the fortunes of trade or the tractability of parliament.

Each was also not content merely to extract old forms of taxation at higher rates of pressure. Charles ordered surveys of hearths in half a dozen provinces in 1469-70 in an effort to break the inefficient and regressive reliance of the taxation system on excises; in 1473 he called together the States General to consent to the first general taxation ever raised in the Burgundian Netherlands, and in 1476 he tried and failed to secure assent to raise additional levies over and above the six-year aide granted in 1473.

Henry tried again and again to modify the fossilised quotas of the 'fifteenth and tenth', the tax granted by parliament at rates fixed in 1334, in the hope of creating a lay subsidy directly assessed on individuals' goods or income. The result in the short term was parliamentary haggling and popular revolt, in 1489, 1492 and 1497. But in the long term his initiatives led on to the highly effective lay subsidies levied by his son. In his extraction of what amounted to a peacetime parliamentary subsidy in 1504 he also anticipated the much-debated innovations of Thomas Cromwell and the mid-Tudors.

Both Henry and Charles complemented their drive to raise taxation with careful attention to their demesne revenues, mostly rents and other income from land. These might become proportionately less important as taxes and forced loans rose so fast: the proportion of Charles' income drawn from the demesne was fifty-three per cent, whereas his father's had been sixty-one per cent. But they remained vital, much more so in the Netherlands and in England, where they generated some thirty-eight per cent of Henry VII's income in 1502-5, than in France, where in 1481 they accounted for less than three per cent of overall royal income.

Henry and Charles had slightly different priorities in their use of the demesnes. For Henry, bent first on achieving solvency and then on the assembly of cash reserves to meet military or political contingencies, cash yields were the focus of attention. His gross income from the Duchy of Lancaster was only seventeen per cent above Henry V's, but his cash income from it was fifty-seven per cent higher. For Charles, in need of immediate campaign funds, the demesnes were at least as useful as security for loans - from Italian banks, from his own officials, but preponderantly from the hard-pressed cities of the Netherlands - as to generate regular income. Despite these differences, king and duke administered their lands in similar ways, seeking to resume alienated lands, retain a conditional element in grants made to their followers, improve auditing, control embezzlement, streamline financial administration and enhance their personal control.

Fiscal pressure was generally resented, although it could be - and was - justified by rulers in terms of the benefits of defence and good government bought by the money it raised. judicial pressure could be equally resented but was more genuinely ambivalent in its implications, providing more effective redress of grievances for some subjects and at least claiming to protect the weak against the strong. Henry and Charles alike drove on judicial centralisation both geographical and political, bringing cases into central courts and bringing local courts under tighter princely tutelage.

Henry's reign saw a continuing expansion in the business of chancery and a series of judgements by King's Bench justices undermining the independence of local courts and church courts, but its most distinctive development was the expansion of conciliar jurisdiction. By the end of his reign, his council attendant was hearing more than 200 suits a year, a dramatic expansion even from the 1490s let alone from the reigns of his predecessors. Meanwhile, the council at Westminster, the future Star Chamber, was expanding its business too. Henry involved himself personally in the most important cases, taking notes in his own hand when Lord Dacre of the North appeared on charges of riot, but more often matters were left to his councillors. Even they, however, must have made an intimidating tribunal for those called before them, a group including at least one in three of the peerage, usually as defendants.

Charles' personal commitment to justice was more ostentatious still: he held audiences lasting two or three hours, three days a week, at which he personally judged the petitions of the poor while his courtiers - whose attendance was compulsory - sat admiringly by. His institutional innovation was likewise more spectacular, though the new parlement at Malines, sovereign for all his Netherlandish territories and thus abrogating the claims of the parlement of Paris, grew out of the jurisdiction of his father's grand conseil just as that of Henry's council did from earlier English practice. The parlement drew in litigation aggressively from provincial tribunals. The level of business it attracted from Luxembourg in the 1470s was not to be matched for forty years by its reincarnation at Malines, the renewed grand counseil. The overall annual level of evocations - cases called out of inferior courts - attained in 1473-76 was not equalled even in the 1530s.

As these figures suggest, Charles' judicial offensive was not as smoothly maintained under his successors as Henry's was to be. Here the parallels between them may be set in the context of the differences in their situation. Both the Malines parlement and Henry's council courts, for instance, reached many of their settlements by delegated arbitration. But Charles' arbitrators were the resented arrivistes who manned the parlement, mainly francophone outsiders trained in Roman law, set over Flemings with their own customary lawcodes. Henry's were local noblemen, gentlemen or common lawyers, or at least royal councillors with local interests, the sort of men who might well have been called on to arbitrate privately between the parties. Henry's courts - with the exception of the fiscally-inclined council learned in the law and general surveyors of crown lands - predictably generated less hostility in 1509 than did Charles' in 1477.

The judicial prerogatives and duties of the ruler were a central element in the ideology of princely power which both Henry and Charles tried to communicate to their subjects. Both revived the rituals of high-medieval sacral kingship and elaborated court ceremonial. Both espoused the terminology and visual symbols of supreme secular power. Charles quested after a royal title and insisted from 1473 that he be addressed not merely as 'most dread lord' but as most dread and sovereign lord'. Henry made much of his arched imperial crown, a claim to more than kingly power, and in his first five years minted a splendid new coin and built a grand new warship, both called The Sovereign. Both Charles and Henry, of course, competed with and therefore imitated the kings of France, who generally led the field in such developments in Western Europe.

Both took great pains to explain themselves to their subjects and to the international audience, circulating manifestos, self-justificatory proclamations and letters to local authorities, accounts of their triumphs and requests for general processions, and prayers and celebrations at appropriate moments. Both patronised historians in the effort to legitimise their power and justify themselves to posterity. Both were visibly pious and enthusiastic for the crusade and monastic reform, yet taxed the Church hard in subsidies and mortmain fees, taking a close grip on ecclesiastical patronage. Both sought redistribution of powers within the church in their realms, with Cardinal Morton's delegated papal authority over specific issues and Charles' proposed reorganisation of the bishoprics in the Netherlands the means, in effect, to move closer to a state church.

The implementation of these fiscal and judicial policies and the promulgation of higher princely pretensions rested on intensifying political control. Both Henry and Charles addressed their subjects en masse or individually in steely terms. Charles warned the Flemish estates in 1475, in a harangue strewn with references to his sovereignty, 'I shall ... punish the disobedient in a manner which others have already experienced, and which I do not recommend'. Henry wrote to the mayor of York in 1494 after rioting in the city 'I must and will put in other rulers that will rule and govern the city according to my laws' and warned two Hertfordshire knights not to do anything 'repugnant to the equity of our laws or rupture of our ... peace, at your uttermost peril'. This was not mere bluster. Rebels and plotters were hunted down by both rulers and others were held in tight discipline, even high noblemen who deeply resented such treatment.

Both princes encouraged the development of narrow loyalist oligarchies to facilitate their control over towns and cities, though this was a more daunting task for Charles facing the rich and assertive municipalities of Flanders. Both equipped trusted and militarily capable courtiers raised from the lesser nobility, such as Giles, Lord Daubeney, Charles, Lord Herbert, Philippe de Croy and Guy de Brimeu, with local offices, and confiscated lands to enable them to dominate regional politics. Both used special councils with judicial and administrative functions, based at Ludlow, York, Arnhem and Maastricht, to oversee outlying areas.

Both expanded the court as a political centre to tie the nobility and gentry more closely to princely service. The membership of Charles' household increased by two-thirds between 1468 and 1473, just as the number of esquires of the body at the English court nearly doubled between Richard III's reign and 1509. Both rulers promoted courtly chivalry as a cult of loyal service and brought noble and urban military resources under closer regulation through the Burgundian ordonnances and Henry's licensed retaining scheme. The testimony to the political centralisation each effected is the scale on which their subjects were prepared to pay sweeteners to those thought to have influence over the impact of government on individuals: Reynold Bray, Edmund Dudley, even groom of the stool Hugh Denis in England, Guy de Brimeu, chancellor Guillaume Hugonet, Charles's bastard brother Antoine de Bourgogne and many others in the Netherlands.

It is all very well to point out these parllels, but how are we to explain them? It is fair enough to say that these are the sort of developments in government that were going on all over later fifteenth-century Europe, that one could compare Henry or Charles fairly readily - though not perhaps quite as closely - to Louis XI of France, James IV of Scotland, Ferdinand of Aragon, Frederick the Victorious of the Palatinate, Matthias Corvinus of Hungary or even Ivan the Great of Muscovy. Such an observation, however, merely postpones explaining the similarities between all their regimes. This is not an easy exercise, and it seems to me that any explanation must include a range of different factors operating at different levels of political consciousness. Let us at least canvass the varieties of explanation which might be adduced.

We might point first to the common demographic and economic base on which the 'new monarchies' rested. Charles' demesne revenues relied directly on the steady rise in the level of rents in rural Flanders from the second quarter of the century to around 1480. Henry's rested likewise on the rising rents feasible, for example, in Derbyshire where both pastoral and arable husbandry boomed in 1475-85 and again from 1505. Taxes on trade also fed off economic expansion: Henry's customs income benefited significantly from the sixty-one per cent rise in recorded English cloth exports during his reign. At one remove, taxes on consumption, income or property were equally dependent on economic expansion, while the competitive nature of international relations ensured that each regime would have to try to match its neighbours in their ability to convert their subjects' prosperity into military effort and courtly magnificence.

Economic trends promoted other developments too. Judicial integration and centralisation was fostered by economic integration and the rise of ever more dominant national entrepots such as London, Bruges and Antwerp, whose merchants needed courts with wide-ranging jurisdictions to sue their ever remoter customers, suppliers and partners. In the long term the drawing of the nobility into political tutelage was facilitated by a period in which they found it hard to secure their share of the fruits of economic growth except through the state, in pensions, wages of war and profits of office rather than in rent. Such tutelage was intensified by the proclivity of rulers and their judges to intervene in landlord-tenant relations to the benefit of the tenant when lords did try to cut themselves a share of the cake by enclosure, the exploitation of serfdom or other means.

To these underlying economic conditions we should add underlying intellectual conditions. Roman law promoted a high view of princely power not only in the Burgundian lands, where state formation was inextricably linked with the steady replacement of local customary laws by Roman civil law, but also in England. Cardinal Morton, Archbishop Warham, Bishop Fox, Christopher Urswick and other prominent councillors were expert civil lawyers, and some of them demonstrably linked Henry's council chamber to the world of Continental political debate. Peter Courtenay, Henry's first keeper of the privy seal, had studied at Padua when one of the stars of the faculty was Antonio de' Roselli, one of the highest exponents of princely power in Europe in the era when papalists and monarchists closed ranks against conciliarists and other subversives.

Nor were such parallels confined to the civil lawyers with their common recourse to the universities of Padua, Ferrara, Bologna and Oricans. Councillors trained in the English common law gave Henry's government much of its distinctive tone, but in their overall emphases on the powers of the crown and the limitations of noble and ecclesiastical independence they had much in common with the lay lawyers of the burgeoning Burgundian bureaucracy. Meanwhile Henry's and Charles' noble courtiers shared in a cult of chivalry attuned to princely service and increasingly tinged with a Ciceronian sense of duty to the public good.

Can we move beyond these general parallels to suggest specific imitations of policy? Henry certainly had the means to know about Charles. The affairs of the Great Duke of the West must have been much discussed in Brittany during Henry's long exile in the 1470s, and at the French court in 1484-85 he met some of Charles' former councillors, including Philippe de Commynes and almost certainly Philippe de Crevecoeur, sieur d'Esquerdes. He could have met others in the entourage of Charles' grandson Philip the Fair at Calais in 1500 and Windsor in 1506. Amongst his own ministers, Morton and several other bishops had served on Yorkist embassies to Charles' court and Giles, Lord Daubeney, Sir John Risley, Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, and others could have met the duke during Edward IV's invasion of France in 1475. Knowledge of the Burgundian realms more generally was commonplace amongst the English elite, through involvement in trade, service at Calais and sometimes study at Louvain, where 103 English students were registered between 1485 and 1527.

The use of such insights in the counsel rendered to the king is undoubtedly hard to document, though those who wrote down their thoughts on English government from Sir John Fortescue and Edmund Dudley to Thomas Starkey, William Thomas and Sir Thomas Smith brought Continental examples and comparisons into their analysis almost as freely as they did the lessons of English history. Was the example of Charles' over-confident campaigning invoked, as that of Richard II's deposition must surely have been, when Henry and his council resolved the king should not set off for Ireland with a large army of conquest in 1506?

The open question of the degree to which Henry and other English monarchs deliberately imitated or avoided imitating foreign rulers reminds us of the limits, but also the benefits, of this sort of comparative enquiry. All the parallels I have suggested argue that England was not as exceptional in the development of its government as historiographical tradition has until recently assumed; yet many of Charles' policies foundered where Henry's, with modification, in part, or at length, succeeded.

Henry's councillors took a few shaky days to seat his son securely on the throne in 1509, but it was the throne of a united England. Charles' heirs almost failed to succeed him in Luxembourg and faced ten years of war in Flanders and a scattering of revolts elsewhere before they could impose their authority effectively. Picardy and the duchy of Burgundy, though key parts of Charles' domains and the sources of many of his leading courtiers and administrators, transferred their loyalties rapidly and permanently to the French king rather than to Charles' successors.

Though the tax burden on the Netherlands eventually rose by the 1520s to exceed that of the 1470s, thoroughgoing reforms in tax assessment foundered again and again, up to and including the Duke of Alba's notorious 'tenth penny' of 1571-72. Though political and judicial centralisation was advancing strongly again by the 1520s, several major provinces never fell under the jurisdiction of the revived grand conseil of Malines. While some of Charles' conquests were recovered by his Habsburg heirs, others were permanently lost. And under the pressure of war and heresy in the 1550s, the integration of individual provinces into a greater whole seemed to run into reverse, paving the way for the Dutch Revolt and the final disintegration of the Burgundian state.

England was not without its difficulties amidst the wars of Henry VIII, the religious turmoil of the mid-sixteenth century, continual conflict in Ireland, and at length the breakdown of Charles I's regime; yet the core of the state, drawn together half a millennium before Charles or Henry was born, survived remarkably well. Though local loyalties were strong in sixteenth-century England, it is hard to imagine English counties seceding from the kingdom as a number of the Burgundian territories did, not least because there was nowhere else to go, no king of France as ancient overlord to whom the Picards might turn, no recently dispossessed native house to restore as the people of Guelders did.

One might well argue that Charles' policies worked better in England than in Burgundy, for England was ready for them and Burgundy was not. One of the benefits of comparing England with other countries is to abandon the unthinking exceptionalism which has too often marred English historical writing in the past. But having compared England with other countries, we may find that some subtler version of our inherited myths is still a necessary part of explaining England's historical development.


S.B. Chrimes, Henry VII (London, 1972); R. Vaughan, Charles the Bold (London, 1973); W. Prevenier and W. Blockmans, The Burgundian Netherlands (Cambridge, 1986); M.M. Condon, `Ruling elites in the reign of Henry VII', in Patronage, Pedigree and Power in Later Medieval England, ed. C.D. Ross (Gloucester, 1979); S.J. Gunn, 'State development in England and the Burgundian dominions, c. 1460-c.1560', in L'angleterre et les pays bourguignons: relations et comparisons. ed J.-M. Cauchies, Publication du Centre Europeen d'Etudes Bourguignonnes, 35 (1995).

Steven Gunn is fellow and tutor in modern history at Merton College, Oxford, and the author of Early Tudor Government, 1485-1558 (Macmillan, 1995).