Internet Shakespeare Editions


The Tudor myth

The Tudor rose.

The instability of the English crown did not immediately end upon the accession of Henry VII; the myth that he encouraged indicates the tenuousness of his claim and the unease with which he first sat upon his throne.

The Tudor myth ran roughly as follows: Henry IV's usurpation of Richard II (an anointed king ruling by divine right) spawned almost a century of disorder culminating in the Wars of the Roses and Richard III, the embodiment of evil; harmony was then finally restored by Henry Tudor, the last Lancastrian and God's own white knight, who cast down Richard III and, by marrying the heiress of the House of York, united the two rival dynasties. (Click for more on the sources* of this myth.)

The English people could thus rest assured the new king was once again appointed by God, while being encouraged to regard any enemy of Tudor rule as a threat to society's so recently healed wounds.

But. . . but. . .

But even if one accepts the doctrine of the divine right of kings, Henry IV's usurpation was not unique--King John had committed a similar "sin" without apparently damning his descendants or upsetting worldly order. Similarly, the premise of a dynastic conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York misrepresents the nature of the so-called Wars of the Roses, the causes and effects of which are still debated. The view of a 15th-century nobility divided into partisans of the red and white roses was invented by Henry VII, and provided a convenient symbol of united support for his own regime: the two roses superimposed.

Richard III's deformity (the hunchback) was another imaginative creation, and his actions in gaining the throne can hardly be considered more damnable than the murder of Gloucester, attributed to Richard II. Henry Tudor's own usurpation and subsequent purges of the nobility were certainly neither bloodless nor humane.

Machiavelli's name is often used freely to label the evils of rulers, but it should be remembered that he was only a student of kings such as these, drawing upon history's rich store of similar rulers.


  1. The Tudor apologists

    The two main sources of the Tudor myth were:

    • The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil (Henry VII's official historian), and
    • Sir Thomas More'sHistory of King Richard III, both of which were in print by 1543.

    The views developed in both works were then combined in two further histories:

    • Edward Hall's Union of the Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), which was then in turn used as a reference by
    • Raphael Holinshed and his collaborators who wrote the Chronicles of England, Scotland and Wales (2nd edition, 1587)--which was Shakespeare's primary source for his history plays.