This Day Came the King of Castile

Power and prestige in early modern Europe could turn with a rapidity that almost required belief in the divine for it all to make any sense. Titles, fortunes and crowns could be won or lost on the outcome of a single day’s fighting. The right marriage, the untimely death of an heir or the election of a new Pope could shift the balance of European power as quickly and devastatingly as the slip of tectonic plates. Political earthquakes ensued and no event seemed as unlikely, as miraculous or calamitous (depending on which side you stood) as the gilded capture of the King of Castile by the English in 1506.

The New Year celebrations in the court of Henry VII were especially sombre as 1505 gave way to 1506. It was barely three years since his beloved wife Elizabeth of York had died at the tragically young age of 37 and in childbirth. His wife’s death came less than a year after the death of his eldest son Arthur, Prince of Wales. The death of the teenage heir apparent had shaken the Tudor court and weakened their already tentative grip on power. With the Queen also departed, the Tudor dynasty was more precarious than ever.

Philip the Handsome of Burgundy, King of Castile By Anonymous (Southern Netherlands)  Formerly attributed to Jacob van Lathem Formerly attributed to the Master of the Legend of Mary Magdalen (Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The King and his courtiers thus exchanged their customary New Year gifts in an atmosphere permeated by an unusually solemn gloom. They couldn’t know that just days later they would receive the most unexpected but astonishing of gifts: Philip the Handsome – King of Castile, Duke of Burgundy and the richest flower of European chivalry.

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The Red Dragon and the House of Tudor

The red dragon against a green and white background is an unambiguous symbol of Wales. But how Welsh are these colours and how ancient is the design?

I had always assumed that the Welsh Flag was an ancient design. The green and white stripes have a suitably Celtic feel and are completely alien to the vexillological tradition across the rest of the British Isles. England, Scotland, Ireland and even Cornwall and Devon are represented by crosses inspired by their patron saint.

With a great red dragon superimposed on the two stripes, the design is uniquely Welsh. In Welsh it is usually known as Y Ddraig Goch – the Red Dragon or, more obviously, Baner Cymru – the Flag of Wales.

But the design is not as ancient as I had assumed and its colours are not inspired by a Celtic past. Instead, they are the green and white of the Tudor family and were introduced by the future Henry VII as he made his way to destiny and the Crown on Bosworth Field in 1485.

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Henry the Accountant – was there more to Henry VII?

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.

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A “French-style security force” – the origin of the yeomen of the guard

In Thomas Penn’s ‘The Winter King’, Henry VII is depicted as neurotically protecting his precarious grasp on the English throne. On page 20, Penn describes the security measures the new monarch puts in place:

“One of his first acts was to create a new French-style security force, three hundred strong: the yeoman of the guard.”

The Yeoman of the Guard? French? This was enough to pique my interest and find out more about the force I had always assumed was as British as the beef they legendarily consumed (or not – see below).

The Body Guard of the Yeoman of the Guard was formed by Henry VII in the dazed aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Richard III was slain during this bloody culmination to the Wars of the Roses and Henry was determined to avoid a similar fate.

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Battlefield regicide

“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Alarum. Enter KING RICHARD III and RICHMOND; they fight. KING RICHARD III is slain.”

Richard III, William Shakespeare

Richard III was slain during the battle of Bosworth Field. He became the last king of England to be killed in battle but was not the only one to suffer this brutal fate. King Harold was slain whilst opposing the Norman invaders and a clutch of earlier Saxon and Alpin kings would die in English and Scottish battles respectively

Scottish kings were even more prone to battlefield deaths – two kings from the House of Stuart would be killed within 61 years of Richard III’s death. James III died fighting an army led by his son in the Battle of Sauchieburn. His son would become James IV, and would suffer the same fate as his father but this time at the hands of the English in the battle of Flodden Field.

Richard III was also not the last English king to go into battle. A number of subsequent monarchs commanded their troops personally, a royal tradition that ended with George II’s command at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.

The battle of Bosworth Field was a particularly bloody, brutal and confused affair. Although historians are sure that Richard III died on the battlefield, nothing else about his death is certain. Thomas Penn writes in the Winter King that Richard received so many blows to the head that his helmet was lodged in his skull.