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Henry Vii's Reforms Were Limited in Both Scope and Success.' to What Extent Do You Agree with This View

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‘Henry VII’s reforms were limited both in scope and success.’ Assess the validity of this view (25)

Emily Austin-Howell

The main reforms of Henry VII were to tackle the poor finances of the crown, which had been depleted by wars at home and abroad, law and order, the nobles, whose wealth and territorial power made them potential rivals to the Crown and the uneven control the Crown over the Kingdom due to the lack of a developed system of local administration.

Since Henry VII was an usurper, it was vital that he accumulated the income of the monarchy which would as a result strengthen his position and simultaneously weaken that of the nobility. In some aspects, his reforms, such as taxation, were limited both in scope and success. Taxes were raised during his reign in the ancient system of 15th and 10th which was calculated in the 14th century. This amounted in a predictable sum of £500,000 annually - a reliable income, but not enough. As a result, Henry VII had to use extraordinary revenue methods made up of parliamentary grants, loans and benevolences, clerical taxes, feudal obligations and the Church. Henry used benevolences (forced loans) when he appealed for money for a war with France in 1491, raising £48,500 – a much greater sum than taxation could hope to raise. Henry believed that nobles willingness to pay these loans were a display of patriotic fervour and a sign of how much a person “cherished the king” (Polydore Vergil) and so, those who failed to pay were threatened with appearing before the Royal Council. This policy was therefore limited in both scope, as the practice was introduced by Edward IV in 1475, and in success as it built up resentment – those who grudgingly paid began to refer to the tax as ‘malevolence’ rather than ‘benevolence’. The Council Learned in Law and its leading figures Sir Reginald Bray, Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson were also hugely controversial. The Council Learned was introduced in 1495 by Sir Reginald Bray to defend and manage Henry’s position as a feudal landlord and his feudal rights. It also dealt with the King's financial matters relating to Crown lands and enforced payments of debts, bonds and recognisances. A bond was a written contract of good behaviour or for the individual to perform a specific task. If they failed in this, they lost the money associated with their bond. This was limited in scope since bonds had been used for many years, Henry simply extended their use. However, it a success as they generated a huge income; by 1505 bonds were worth £35,000 a year and 75% of noble families were tied by one. Henry used recognizances immediately after the Battle of Bosworth as guarantees of loyalty and then on as formal acknowledgements of debts and obligations to the Crown. For example, following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the Earl of Northumberland and the Viscount Beaumont of Powicke both had to pay £10,000. If the court then deemed that they had been disloyal to Henry, they would have lost the £10,000. The Council acted as both investigators and judges against noblemen they suspected of not paying their proper dues to the King and imposed harsher penalties than lawful in many cases. This policy was not limited in scope as it was established under Henry VII’s rule, however it was limited in success because, even though it was much more efficient than the Exchequer, by the end of Henry VII's reign the Council Learned had become very unpopular. So much so, that after his death in 1509 the Council was abolished and key Councillors imprisoned and tried for treason.  Most of its unpopularity stemmed from the way that Henry used money to control the nobility. To him, the more money he had, the more authority he gained over the nobility, some of whom were less than loyal in the early years of his reign.

Henry’s financial policies often went hand in hand with enforcing law and order; ensuring total loyalty to Henry, avoiding potential uprisings and rebellions and instantaneously curtailing the power of the nobility. Henry was set on disarming the nobility so that there was no chance that a nobleman could threaten his position. He passed a law in 1485 which made Lords and Commons swear that they would not have a private army, a practice called retaining, and in 1504 which required nobles to obtain a special license from the King to retain a large amount of men or face fines of £5 a month per illegal retainer. Many bonds and fines were indeed forced onto Nobles such as the £70,650 fine placed on Lord Burgavenny in 1506 for the breach of such a recognisance. As a result, the number of retainers fell throughout his reign. Even so, the problem could not be settled so easily and Nobles found new ways to avoid obtaining a license. Therefore, this policy was limited in scope, since laws against retaining had been in place since Edward IV’s 1468 legislation and Henry simply implemented them more successfully, and in success as retaining continued well into the reign of Elizabeth I, although Henry had succeeded in managing it far more than his predecessors. The Justices of the Peace were another way of kerbing the Noble’s power and implementing an effective local and regional government. Justices of the Peace (JP’s) were answerable to the maintenance of public order, the application of laws and the dispensing of justice to criminals in their jurisdiction. Quarterly, they met at the Quarter Sessions, overseen by the Court of the King’s Bench who could still override any decision, so that they could try those who were accused of more grave crimes. Their duties extended steadily as 21 Parliamentary statutes were passed throughout Henry’s reign. For example, in 1487 when JP’s were given the power to grant bail to those awaiting trial. Henry VII preferred to pick his JPs from the second tier of a country’s landowners so that they owed their offices and social advance to the king and so were wholly loyal, even though they were unpaid. This policy was not limited in scope since, even though the office had existed since the 14th century, Henry had completely transformed it. The system was also successful as it was an effective balance of power between the JPs and the Crown, resolving the issue of the centralisation of power by establishing an operative local and regional government.

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