The structure of government in the fifteenth century was very different to what we are used to today. Parliament was used infrequently often for writs, issued by the King to suit himself (usually when he needed money!).
Although it was the King who would call parliaments and establish councils, this did not mean that he had absolute, arbitrary rule. It was accepted that the King was subject to the laws of the land, and for that reason, those who were ruled by Henry VII, and the other Tudors for that matter, considered constitutional law supreme. This idea went right back to the Magna Carta of 1216.
This was the centre of government. It is sometimes referred to as the King's court - it's the same thing. Henry appreciated the need to make his own household a majestic and glittering court. Where he was frugal with money in other areas of government, he spent enormous amounts of money on his court.
Every noble would have had a household for the administration of their property and the localities over which they presided. This was the highest household in the land, and many nobles would have spent much of their time at court, rather than in their own households, especially if they had a central role in the running of the country. It was mobile, following the King wherever he went, but for most of the time the court was in one of the palaces in London.
As the King owned much of the land in the Kingdom, he had to administer the collection of rents and other dues. The household had another role in that it was where the informal business of government took place. Many issues would have been discussed along the corridors of the palace, and these informal chats could have a significant impact on legislation and cases brought before the numerous courts. This aspect of the Royal household also made it a melting pot for political intrigue and faction.
A council was a group of individuals (councillors) who met on a regular basis to provide advice to the King, to be the centre of national administration, and to be a judicial court. It supervised the economic and religious life of the country also. (To a limited extent Henry already had a council when he became King as he had a number of advisors who had been resident at his court in Brittany, and who helped him win the backing of the French King for his invasion of England.) For most of the time the court was involved with day-to-day mundane tasks, only occasionally was it the centre of high politics.
Historians writing earlier in the Twentieth century held the view that Henry's councils constituted a new way of governing the country, however, nowadays, most historians are agreed that there are not many differences between the councils of Edward IV and Henry VII. Nevertheless, one of the differences was that Henry created offshoots form the main council to deal with specific areas of administration, thereby increasing effectiveness. An example of one of these was the 'Council Learned in Law' established in 1495.
Henry's councils were large (here we see continuity with councils of the past). He had over 240 councillors. Not all of these would meet at one time. Attendance records show that around 24 would meet at any one sitting.
The Great Councils were used later on in Henry's reign. These were more carefully selected men, and they would discuss issues at the heart of policy-making, like how much taxation to levy, foreign affairs and military campaign tactics. The notion of a Great Council, while not Henry's own idea, was a medieval institution that had fallen out of use by fifteenth century monarchs. Towards the end of his reign he ruled with the Council Learned only. John Guy maintains that this was 'personal monarchy at its height'.
So called because the room that this group met in had stars on the ceiling. The role of this group was to preside over the hearings of poor men's legal suits, known as 'requests'. The role of the Court of Star Chamber was increased in Henry's reign to include two tribunals, one of 1487, and the other of 1495. The 1487 court dealt with laws against rioters and the likes. The court of 1495 was set up to deal with offences of perjury. Neither of these tribunals survived Henry's death.
Parliament had the crucial role of being a point of contact between the Royal household and the localities.
- Local representatives would sit in parliament to petition the king with grievances.
- Parliament would also levy taxation. The members were in an ideal position to know how much money their constituency was able to raise.
- The role of parliament was to pass laws that would go into the Statute Book.
However, it was not a permanent institution. Remember that it met only when the King summoned it. Typically, they were used by all of the Tudor monarchs when the King or Queen was short of money. This gave to parliament what historians call 'the power of the purse'. In all, the parliaments of Henry VII met 7 times, and for a total of 24 weeks out of a reign of 24 years. It was an institutionused far more at the beginning of his reign than later on. This was not crucial to Henry since he was careful with money, and he did not pursue an aggressive foreign policy.
What historians say about Henry's use of parliament:
S.B. Chrimes: "Little or nothing of much significance occurred in the history of parliament in the reign of Henry VII...The precedents already set over the previous century or so were followed."
R.L. Storey: "The history of parliament in Edward IV's reign is very similar to what it was in Henry's."
J. Loach: "The parliaments of Henry VII's reign, and indeed, those of Henry VIII before 1529, were very like those of the Yorkists...Henry VII's parliaments were much more concerned with the needs of the monarch and his greater subjects than they were with the good of the country as a whole."
M.A.R. Graves: "Chrimes might dismiss the legislative record of Henry VII's parliaments because few of the 192 Acts were of major importance to the crown. Yet their intrinsic significance should not be denied. Over twenty Acts restored attainted persons. The lawyers' hands were writ large in legal reforms concerning murder, abduction, bail, fraud and counterfeit"