March 15 & 22, 2006
Notes from the Playwright
history isn’t what it used to be
The battle was over…In the victor’s army all was rejoicing. In following the claimant to the throne his supporters had chosen the winning side, and when they saw the golden circlet which had fallen from the King’s head placed on their leader’s, their lingering doubts fled before the conviction that God had blessed his cause, and they hailed him joyously as their sovereign.
The day was 22 August 1485; the battlefield was to be named after the small neighboring town of Market Bosworth; the fallen King was the third and ablest of English monarchs who bore the name Richard; and the man whom the battle made a king was to be the seventh and perhaps the greatest of those who bore the name Henry.
– S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England
Despite his glorious victory at Bosworth, Henry VII sometimes seems like history’s stepchild. Fortunate in war and marriage – he littered the Tudor line with heirs – Henry VII reigned between the notorious Richard III and his own more famous son, Henry VIII, who led a quiet life when not divorcing Rome, six wives, and heads from shoulders. Overshadowed by more glamorous monarchs, Henry VII also failed to attract the attentions of a Stratford playwright, save for a brief cameo at the end of Richard III, where he makes callow and forgettable speeches before dispatching Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Shakespeare’s inattention to the first Tudor king probably accounts for the subsequently marginal role he has played in history’s pageant.
But Henry VII did attract the attention of one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, John Ford (author of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, presented in repertory during the 2006 Actors’ Renaissance Season). But even then, Ford featured not the man who was to be king but the man who wanted to be. In 1634, Ford’s Chronicle Historie of Perkin Warbeck transforms a young pretender to Henry VII’s throne into a tragic hero. In fact, Henry was pestered throughout his reign by a series of comically named claimants – Perkin Warbeck, Lambert Simnel, and Edward, earl of Warwick, son of the duke of Clarence. This last chap’s name is not particularly funny, of course, least of all if your name is Henry VII and you realize that his “brat of Clarence” – as Shakespeare calls him in Richard III – has a better claim to the throne than you do.
The sixteenth-century English historian Polydore Vergil said of Henry VII that, “withal he was not devoid of scholarship.” Neither is The Brats of Clarence completely, which, like Ford’s play, departs wildly from the historical record, but as yet another eminent English author, P. G. Wodehouse wrote, “in the name of art, history goes to the wall.”