A Vehicle for Legitimacy: Early Tudor Coronations
Guest article by Sarah Norton
When, in August 1485, Henry VII claimed “glorious victorie” at the battle of Bosworth, the Tudors were a family of little importance, their nobility claimed from the second marriage of Henry VI’s mother Katherine of Valois, and through Margaret Beaufort’s descent through John of Gaunt from Edward III. Henry Tudor was one of the “unlikeliest” men ever to ascend the throne of England, having spent most of his life in exile in France without even the experience of running his own household. The chances of Tudor winning the day at Bosworth – his first major battle – were relatively low.
As a result, following the battle the Tudors were keen to impress upon the nation their legitimacy at every opportunity they could. The dynasty was plagued with insecurity; when Henry VII took the crown there were other heirs lingering with much better claims than himself (the earls of Lincoln and Warwick, for example), and the string of pretenders to the throne made it imperative that the first Tudor king stress his legitimacy. For his son, too, legitimacy was an issue always at the forefront of his mind. Even fifty-six years after Bosworth, Henry VIII perceived such a threat from those with royal blood (direct Plantagenet blood especially) that he had Margaret Pole executed in 1541 despite her being a woman of sixty-seven years old.
One of the first major opportunities Henry Tudor had to display his legitimacy was his coronation. Grand public displays were “magnificent vehicles of Tudor state propaganda” and for Henry VII public displays were in “direct relation to his dynastic insecurity”. Henry was “crouned kyng by the whole assent as well of the comons as of the nobilite”, and he was received with “all honour and gladness” on 30th October 1485. Vergil recites how he was widely welcomed, and the overarching theme of his coronation and early days on the throne was that of a country rescued from the throes of civil war and tyranny.
Before the ceremony, according to the French chronicler Jean Molinet, Henry VII proclaimed that if there were any with a better claim than himself to the throne, Henry VII would “himself help to crown him but no-one appeared”. This is interesting as it is most certainly false, but it served Henry’s purpose and reinforced the ideology that the crown was taken by right rather than conquest. He also made sure his coronation was before the first parliamentary meeting on the 7th November by being crowned on 30th October – this removed all need for Parliament to declare him the rightful king and avoided any opportunity for resistance since he was already anointed. It shows his perhaps personal insecurity on the throne in that he felt the need to go above and beyond searching for ways to legitimise the dynasty even though by law of conquest the crown was legitimately his either way.
Particularly of significance to his coronation was the heavy mythological and Arthurian symbolism that was employed. Although other kings before him had exploited the Arthurian legend, Tudor was the first to exploit its full potential to bolster his rule. He traced his lineage back to the mythical Arthur and the last king of the Britons Cadwaladr. At his coronation his horse wore Cadwaladr’s arms, and after the ceremony he created a new pursuivant (office of the college of arms) named Rouge Dragon in reference to both Cadwaladr and Saint George. He emphasised these connections to mythical figures in order to raise himself above the ordinary population. Henry is known for restoring the sacrality of kingship and the use of myths and legends almost suggests that Henry himself is akin to those great mythical figures. The presence of the King’s Champion at the coronation banquet, though used by kings since at least Richard II’s coronation in 1377, only furthered the chivalrous ideals Henry represented. A fully armed knight, usually a member of the Dymoke family of Lincolnshire, would enter Westminster Hall between courses and present a challenge to anyone who disputed the king’s right to rule. The champion’s role was to “validate authority and reinforce arrangements of precedence” and as such lent all kings, but particularly Henry VII and others with shaky claims to the throne, legitimacy. It offered them a chance to reinforce their validity; the lack of challenge (because, of course, it would be madness to dispute the king’s right to rule at his coronation banquet, and you wouldn’t be leaving with your head on your shoulders if you did dispute it) to the Champion renders the king’s reign uncontested and legitimate since the king had offered the challenge. The role had “Arthurian symbolism encoded” within it and it was the first step in the exploitation of the Arthurian legend that would come to form such a huge part of Henry’s later reign.
This ties in seamlessly with the presentation of himself as the unifier of a war-torn nation. He was eager to show his ascent as “as much by lawful title of inheritance as by the true judgement of God in giving him victory”. This perpetuates the idea of chivalry that was so central to the Arthurian myths. The Arthurian cult flourished under Tudor cultivation and Henry VII encouraged the study of ancient Britain, ensuring that the cult of Arthur gained prevalence in the sixteenth century. By linking the dynasty to the mythical kings of old – and encouraging study to make sure their prestigious heritage was known – they tapped into the rudimental English identity. Arthur, the pinnacle of English kings, served as an invaluable link to England’s past and her own sense of self. Since Henry VII had spent most of his life in France, this link to England was priceless. The mythical imagery was first brought out in grand display at the coronation of 1485, and its use as a tool for legitimacy must have been invaluable.
But it was not just the coronation of the first Tudor king that was manipulated to highlight his legitimacy; the coronation of the first Tudor queen got the same treatment. The perfectly stage-managed coronation of Elizabeth of York took place in 1487 and was, like her husband’s, similarly laden with heavy symbolism and was key to the Tudor policy of legitimisation.
The gap between the marriage that was loudly proclaimed to have united all England and her coronation is telling. There could be many reasons why the coronation of the queen was delayed by two years (Elizabeth giving birth to Arthur in September 1486 being one of them) but a convincing stance seems to be that the queen’s coronation was delayed on purpose. Perhaps it was to emphasise that although she had a stronger blood claim to the throne than her husband, she was not a crowned queen until he made her so. Her crown was carried by Jasper Tudor, the very embodiment of the Welsh roots of the Tudors. Since he was half-brother to the deposed Henry VI, Jasper essentially represented a return to the legitimate succession after the Yorkists since Henry VII claimed the throne as heir to Henry VI. The implication is that the crown is bestowed on Elizabeth by the Lancastrian claim from Henry VI, not her own Yorkist claim through her father, Edward IV. It was a way of “proclaiming the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty to the world” and bolstered the image of Tudor right to rule that her husband had been carefully cultivating since 1485.
On top of this, the coronation of Elizabeth of York spouted the same rhetoric of union that surrounded her marriage. Henry created fourteen new Knights of the Bath the night before her coronation, and of the 185 that attended the ceremony, 46% had been knighted since Bosworth. Several others had fought for Richard III at Bosworth and their part in Elizabeth’s coronation shows the active effort made to unite the realm under one banner. Though there were several new names at her coronation, old names remained. Suffolk carried her sceptre, also having carried it at all the coronations between 1465 and 1487. His role has an element of tradition to it and he served as a link to previous Yorkist ceremonies. The role of Suffolk combined with the injection of fresh blood into the court illustrates effectively the ideology of the union of the roses, of both Lancaster and York coming together to bring peace. That some former Yorkists found tolerance under Henry VII only emphasises this further.
The Tudor coronations were vast, embracing vehicles for state propaganda declaring the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. Though the politics of kingship can be tricky, it should be pointed out that the process of anointing, arguably, erases any unsuitability for the throne since the king has been touched with God’s holy oil. This did not stop the routine efforts for legitimacy made by Henry VII and his successors, though, and so the entire coronation was subjected to elaborate displays of the dynasty’s validity, despite being technically valid the moment the oil touched their skin.
Henry VIII’s smooth accession to the throne and coronation in 1509 is a testament to the strength of Henry VII’s policy of legitimisation. In the words of Geoffrey Elton, Henry VIII’s accession was a “triumph” for his father’s policy, with Henry VII’s efforts at last “mingled into one unquestioned claimant to the throne”.
Hall, E. Hall’s Chronicle (London: J. Johnson, 1809)
Molinet, J. Chroniques 1476-1506, (Paris: Verdiére 1828
Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, http://www.british-history.ac.uk.ezproxy.mmu.ac.uk/no-series/parliament-rolls-medieval/november-1485-pt-1#highlight-first [Accessed 24th February 2017]
Vergil, P. Anglica Historia, http://www.r3.org/links/to-prove-a-villain-the-real-richard-iii/these-supposed-crimes/polydore-vergil/
Anglo, S. Images of Tudor Kingship (London: Batsford Ltd, 1992)
Attreed, L. ‘England’s Official Rose: Tudor Concepts of the Middle Ages’ in Hermeneutics and Medieval Culture, ed. Gallacher, P. J, Damico, H. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989)
Byrne, A. ‘The King’s Champion: Re-Enacting Arthurian Romance at the English Coronation Banquet’, English Studies, (94), (2013), pp.505-518
Elton, G. England Under the Tudors, (Abingdon: Routledge, 1991)
Hammond, P. W. ‘The Coronation of Elizabeth of York’, The Ricardian, 6(83) (1983)
Hunt, A. ‘The Tudor Coronation Ceremonies in History and Criticism’, Literature Compass, 6(2) (2009) pp.362-372
Hunt, A. The Drama of Coronation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Rex, R. The Tudors (Stroud: Amberley 2012)
Sharpe, K. Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth Century England (London: Yale University Press, 2009)
Weir, A. Elizabeth of York (New York: Vintage, 2014)
 Edward Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, (London: J. Johnson, 1809), p.422
 Richard Rex, The Tudors, (Stroud: Amberley, 2012) p.9
 Alice Hunt, The Drama of Coronation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p.9
 Kevin Sharpe, Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth Century England, (London: Yale University Press, 2009), p.66
 Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, p.423
 Robert Fabyan, Great Chronicle in English Historical Documents: Volume IV, 1327-1485, ed. A. R. Myers, http://www.englishhistoricaldocuments.com/document/view.html?id=1119 [Accessed 2nd March 2017]
 Jean Molinet, Chroniques 1476 – 1506, (Paris: Verdiére, 1828) p.8
 Lorraine Attreed, ‘England’s Official Rose: Tudor Concepts of the Middle Ages’ in P. J. Gallagher, H. Damico, Hermeneutics and Medieval Culture, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989), p.87
 A. Byrne, ‘The King’s Champion: Re-Enacting Arthurian Romance at the English Coronation Banquet’ English Studies 94 (2013) p.506
 Byrne, ‘The King’s Champion’, English Studies p.515
 Byrne, ‘King’s Champion’, p.516
 ‘Henry VII, November 1485’ in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, http://www.british-history.ac.uk.ezproxy.mmu.ac.uk/no-series/parliament-rolls-medieval/november-1485-pt-1#highlight-first [Accessed 24th February 2017]
 Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York, (New York: Vintage, 2014) p.252
 Hammond, P. W; ‘The Coronation of Elizabeth of York’ The Ricardian 6(83) (1983) p.272
 Hammond, ‘Coronation of Elizabeth of York’, p.270
 Geoffrey Elton, England Under the Tudors, (Routledge, 1991) p.70
I am a 21-year old history masters student with an undergrad degree in medieval and early modern
history. My favourite periods include the wars of the roses, the Tudors, Renaissance Italy
(Leonardo da Vinci is my fave) and enlightenment era France. Favourite historical figures include
Da Vinci, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Woodville, Richard III and Edward IV. I also love Lord of the
Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, traveling the world, and furry four-legged creatures, specifically
my perennially-grumpy tuxedo cat and prince, and excitable fluff-ball Border Collie pup.
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