This article is from the February issue of Total Politics

Meritocracy in politics and government service generates social mobility. That social mobility can be disruptive, painful both for established elites and for those seeking room at the top. Certainly that was the experience of the ‘new men’ who served King Henry VII (1485-1509).

They were mostly lawyers and financial officials, but they were versatile in their service to the king. In his council they shared power with great noblemen, bishops and other university-trained clerics, but they were among the most consistent attenders. At court they were close to the king, hunting and gambling with him as well as organising the magnificent display designed to overawe his subjects. They ran all the new or refurbished financial institutions through which he doubled his income over the course of the reign. In the Star Chamber, in the county commissions of the peace, and as town recorders and stewards, they imposed the justice that the king promised his people in the wake of the Wars of the Roses. They were diplomats and they raised and commanded troops to defend Henry’s claim to the throne and his position in Europe.

In the process of enforcing the king’s power they made enemies. Merchants did not like their aggressive pursuit of customs duties. Landowners did not like their relentless search for the feudal revenues due to the king. Churchmen did not like their rigorous assertion of the king’s control over the church’s landholding and the fringes of the church courts’ jurisdiction, where it overlapped with that of the king’s common law courts. Those touched by the slightest taint of treason did not like their fierce policing of dynastic loyalty. Those who traditionally governed different parts of England did not like their growing influence in the localities, through the judicial system, through the management of the crown’s landed estates, through their access to the king to colour his views of local affairs. As a London chronicler put it: never mind who had the mayoral sword borne before him, Edmund Dudley, the king’s fiscal enforcer, “was mayor, and what his pleasure was, was done”.

It was easier to say such things because the new men fitted too well the stereotype of the low-born man of overweening ambition who, contemporaries thought, should never be trusted with power, because he was bound to use it in self-interested ways. Those raising popular rebellion, from Jack Cade in 1450 to the Pilgrims of Grace in 1536, harped on this theme. In 1497 Perkin Warbeck applied it directly to the “caitiffs and villains of simple birth” who had been “the principal finders, occasioners and counsellors of the misrule and mischief now reigning in England” because Henry, “putting apart all well-disposed nobles”, trusted only them.

Those Warbeck named were both powerful and upwardly mobile. Sir Reynold Bray, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was the second son of a surgeon – a blood-letter and bone-setter, not a university graduate in medicine – from Bedwardine, Worcestershire. Sir Thomas Lovell, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was the son of a second son of a minor Norfolk gentry family. Sir Richard Empson, leader of the king’s council and learned in the law, was the son of a minor property-owner in Towcester, Northamptonshire. Henry Wyatt, master of the king’s jewel-house, was of sufficiently obscure origins that he had to ask the heralds to grant him the same coat of arms as a better-known family of Wyatts, being, he asserted with studied vagueness, “descended” of their “house, blood and name”.

The new men also got rich in the king’s service. Fees for offices and gifts from suitors gave them money to spend on land and inside information and political influence enabled them to buy at good prices. Bray assembled lands worth more than £1,000 a year – more than the average income of the 50 or so peers then in the House of Lords – Lovell and Dudley about half that amount, Empson a third. Wyatt’s dealings can be tracked in detail, because his grandson rebelled against Queen Mary and the family deeds were confiscated along with their estates. He spent some £10,000 in 130 or so transactions, sometimes buying plots as small as an acre and a half, to build a concentrated estate around his home at Allington Castle in Kent. Two-thirds of the deals were packed into the years 1524-8, when he served as Henry VIII’s treasurer of the chamber and could thus draw on most of the government’s revenue as a personal credit account. Wyatt, like his fellows, exploited his cash liquidity by buying land on mortgage or buying up questionable titles and defending them at law.

Sharper dealing still was Dudley’s trademark. A Sussex gentleman, Roger Lewkenor, was indicted for murder at Horsham on 13 July 1507, but pardoned on 30 January 1508, a pardon for which he paid the king £200 in a deal brokered by Dudley. By 1509 Dudley had all Lewkenor’s land, though in his will he told his executors to let Lewkenor buy it back. The sordid details can be sketched in from the questions put to Lewkenor in a subsequent lawsuit, even though his answers do not survive: “Who paid for his meat and drink while he was in prison and such fees as belonged to the officers of the prison; And for such apparel as he had new made for him when he was delivered out of prison; Item who got him his charter; And what his charter cost; And who paid for it; [And] who paid the fees and charges when he pleaded his charter; And who agreed with the heir of the man that was murdered?” Doubtless it was Edmund Dudley.  

The king seems too often to have turned a blind eye to such self-help. It was convenient not to have to reward his servants out of his own hard-won fund of land, a source of revenue on which he could draw without having to trouble Parliament for taxes. It was also useful to have servants who carried the authority in local society generated by wide estates and big houses. Lovell built a palace at Elsings in Enfield, Middlesex, large enough to accommodate the royal court on progress. Bray bought an expensive house at Eaton, Bedfordshire, Empson a house at Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, with gatehouses so large that his neighbours complained they encroached on the king’s highways. Wyatt at Allington and Sir Edward Poynings at Westenhanger, both in Kent, bought 13th or 14th-century castles to lend an air of ancient authority and then built comfortable new lodging ranges inside them. Wealth, influence and office-holding equipped the new men to build up large followings in local society. When Lovell listed the 1,365 men he had retained to serve in his retinue should he be called on to raise troops for the king in 1508, they included seven of the nine richest taxpayers in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, the wealthiest residents of a string of villages and small towns in Oxfordshire, seven past and future mayors of Walsall, Staffordshire, and many of the local elite of cloth-working yeomen from Halifax, frequently active as manor-court jurors, constables and other local officials.

Their evident power, their growing wealth and their ruthlessness in pursuit of the king’s interests and their own put noses out of joint. The Duke of Buckingham, England’s premier nobleman, was outraged that upstarts did not pay him the respect he deserved. He sued the king’s solicitor Thomas Lucas for allegedly remarking that “the said duke hath no more conscience than a dog” and had a stand-up row in court with Lovell in 1514. The Duke claimed that he had been deprived of land by an inquisition taken in Henry VII’s reign, “when no one could have justice”. The inquisition’s finding, countered Lovell, “was as true as gospel”. When arrested for treason seven years later, Buckingham was said to have a list of those he would execute when he became king, featuring Lovell at number two behind Henry VIII’s chief minister Cardinal Wolsey. Some churchmen were equally irate. In a row over the jurisdiction of his diocesan courts, Bishop Nykke of Norwich memorably called Sir James Hobart, the attorney-general, an “enemy of God and His church”.

The enemies of the new men got their chance at Henry’s death in 1509. It was helpful to the new regime to blame some of Henry VII’s servants for the less palatable aspects of his policy, and open season was declared on Empson and Dudley, who were tried on improbable charges of treason and executed in 1510. Yet many of their colleagues worked on for many years in the service of Henry VIII, Poynings until 1521, Lovell until 1524, Wyatt until 1536. In some ways the survivors had been less controversial figures, but they had also been better networkers. Lovell was of humbler origins than Dudley and just as eager, though perhaps more subtle, in asserting Henry VII’s rights, but he was close to other leaders of Henry VII’s regime in a way that Dudley was not.

When the lord chamberlain Lord Daubeney, made his will in 1508, he named Lovell together with Richard Fox, bishop of Winchester, and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as overseers, “for the singular trust and confidence that I have and long have had in them”. In 1509, Oxford’s will named “my old friend” Lovell as the first of his executors, and in 1523, when the Abbot of Waltham sent Lovell a buck for dinner, his household accounts show that he ate it with Fox, perhaps talking over their decades in power.

Such working friendships with those drawn from more traditional elites helped to preserve the new men’s careers, but they also lent strength to Henry’s regime. He could not have governed England with new men alone, but he could not have governed in the intensive way he did without them. That set the pattern for his Tudor successors. Thomas Cromwell and William Cecil were only the greatest of those who would follow in the new men’s footsteps, using their skills in the service of their monarchs, building up their own power and wealth, but having always to negotiate the turbulence created by the speed of their ascent.

Dr Steven Gunn of Merton College, Oxford, is completing a book on Henry VII’s new men and the making of Tudor England.

Tags: Henry VII, Issue 44, Meritocracy, Thomas Cromwell, Tudor Court, William Cecil