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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

“Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England” by Thomas Penn

480 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-1439191569

Like many people, I have always had an interest in perhaps the most famous of English Kings, Henry VIII. However, prior to reading this book, I really knew nothing about the reign of his father, Henry VII, or indeed of Henry VIII’s early years. This book has helped fill much of that gap in my knowledge. However, if the reader knows anything about the War of the Roses, or anything about the Yorkists in particular, they will be driven to fits of frustration as the author knows the period only from the post-Tudor perspective, and that is unfortunate. A retelling of self-serving propaganda is never very enticing. Penn, however, seems to want to rid himself of this albatross, but he seems torn between telling history the way it was in the well-maintained academic and popular perception of the Tudors, and what his own fine intellect and sense of fair play otherwise tells him. Sooner or later we will get to a post-Tudor period and it may be that we look back at Penn’s effort here as a good start.

Penn does a good job relating just how bizarre a victory the Tudors pulled off, and if Henry VII can be said to fascinate at all it is due to his very improbability. He usurped the throne through the agency of others (not his own military prowess like Edward IV, or by popular acclaim like Edward III. The real interest in Henry VII, then, centers on examining how this Lancastrian offshoot found himself an anointed king. It begins with a simple answer: persistent infertility of the House of Lancaster and the exceptionally improbable careers of four illegitimate children, the Beauforts. Penn does not skimp on how acutely sensitive Tudor was about the meagerness of his claim, coming as it was through a female line, and Beaufort at that, as well as deeply resentful of the superiority firstly of Edward of Warwick’s claim and secondly that of his own wife. This led to a poisonous inability to coexist with any member of his wife’s Yorkist family, not just one-time Richardian servants and retainers. Tudor always cast himself as their victim in his own lifetime and certainly what he wanted his biographers to perpetuate. This in itself is so unappealing, and emasculating, that is hardly surprising that he is ignored by historians. Whatever else he was, Henry VIII, the son, was no victim; he did the victimizing, with malicious, narcissistic zeal.

The author’s study of how Henry VII used bonds and fines as a method of exerting control over the aristocracy and of curtailing the power of any potential rivals was fascinating, although, for my personal taste, a little over-detailed at times. Penn painted a picture of a monarch who spent his early years fighting first to gain and then to hold the throne and who in his later years became obsessed with the need to consolidate his position and ensure an undisputed dynastic inheritance for his son. I found it both interesting and unexpected that Henry VII chose to do this by financial control rather than by the axe later so beloved of Henry VIII. Some of the most interesting parts of the book to me were those that dealt with the young Princes Arthur and Henry and with poor Catherine of Aragon, used for years as a pawn in a game of diplomatic chess. The author paints a sympathetic picture of how powerless Catherine was in influencing and determining her own fate (not unusual, of course, but often left undescribed). Penn also gives some great descriptions of state occasions: the marriage of Catherine to Arthur and later to Henry VIII, coronations, funerals, and the socially important jousting tournaments. We also learn who were the influences on Henry VIII’s education, both intellectual and chivalrous, and learn about the early careers of some of those who would be so significant in his later reign: Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey, et al.

This book is very much a biography rather than a social history and as such concentrates almost exclusively on royalty, aristocracy and the rich; furthermore, this is a study of Henry Tudor’s life after winning the crown at Bosworth, and his life before this momentous event is dealt with in a brief introduction. Personally, I would have liked the author to shed a bit more light on how Henry VII’s reign impacted on the commoners. Everywhere Henry Tudor looked he thought he saw a Yorkist’s better claim lurking and the people only too happy to put one of them back on the throne, such was his delusion. Far from delivering the Yorkists and the English people from an alleged parricidal, Henry Tudor’s own inadequacies drove him to becoming that which he claimed to have prevented. And his son was even worse.

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