Royal sobriquets are often colourful, grandiose or emotive – Ivan the Terrible, Bloody Mary, Good Queen Bess, the Sun King or Suleiman the Magnificent. Some are obscure – William the Silent, the Universal Spider (for Louis XI of France) or John Soft-Sword. But few are as dull as Henry VII – the accountant king.
It is true that the founder of the Tudor dynasty earned some racier nicknames – the Huckster King, the Welshman and the Winter King. But Thomas Penn’s biography of Henry VII, Winter King – the Dawn of Tudor England, makes it clear that this king knew his numbers and understood the power of revenue to make or break a dynasty.
Henry was one of the few monarchs to process his own accounts – he meticulously noted descriptions of monies owed and paid out and would even count bags of coins to balance the books. As Penn notes (on page 156):
“These were the actions, not of a miser, but of a sophisticated financial mind; a king with a complex, all-consuming obsession with the control, influence and power that money represented, both at home and abroad.”
And Henry was not merely a coin-counter – he has been credited with the creation of the modern English Exchequer. According to F. C. Dietz: “Henry VII completely broke away from the medieval financial system, and laid the foundations for the more modern English revenue system”.
The King’s commissioners were on a constant mission to squeeze as much tax revenue from the people as possible. They devised a system known as ‘Morton’s Fork’, named for Henry’s rapacious chancellor John Morton. It was deviously simple but impossible to argue – those who lived in luxury clearly had money to spare whilst those living frugally were deemed to have accumulated savings that could be paid to the Crown.
Another rich source of revenue for Henry was on the back of the illicit trade in alum. Alum was vital to the wool and cloth trades because of its use as a dye-fixer. There were two sources of alum in Europe – a mine at Tolfa near Rome owned and operated by the Papacy and vast deposits in the Turkish-controlled eastern Mediterranean. The trade was so valuable to the Holy See that the Papacy had declared the trade in alum to be a monopoly, backed by bulls promising “excommunication, anathema and perpetual condemnation on anybody trading alum illegally with the infidel” (Winter King, p. 202).
The lure of vast profits to be made trading with the Turks on so valuable a commodity were too great for Henry to ignore or resist. Soon, London was at the heart of a secret trading network that benefitted both the English treasury and her lucrative wool exports.
Henry’s treasury also benefitted from the end of the ruinous civil war – the peace dividend was substantial. In 1499 the Milanese ambassador reported: “The king here enjoys good fortune and has nothing to do but to guard and accumulate his own immense treasure”. Another Milanese correspondent had noted the stability of the kingdom, and had credited this “first of the king’s wisdom, whereof everyone stands in awe, and secondly on account of the king’s wealth”.
Henry VII left a rich inheritance to his son, Henry VIII. With his treasury bursting with gold, the young king would soon undo all his father’s careful accumulation of wealth. Years of costly wars and extravagant expenditure would soon reverse royal fortunes and create debt and default.