Book review: Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

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Henry VII is still widely viewed as the unifier of war-torn England, the wise king who brought peace, justice and stability after the corrosive divisions of the Wars of the Roses.

So why did 17th century political thinker Francis Bacon, Henry’s first biographer, label him ‘a dark prince’ who was ‘infinitely suspicious’?

Historian Thomas Penn takes up the remarkable story of the mysterious and magnetic Henry VII in an impressive debut which paints one of the most intimate and compelling portraits yet of the founder of the Tudor dynasty.

Winter King is a classy and immaculately researched study of Henry Tudor – his strange personality, his rebellious court and his paranoid politics – but which also reads like a thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Henry, son of Edmund Tudor and the ambitious Margaret Beaufort, an illegitimate descendant of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, laid the foundations of the Tudor line after his famous victory at Bosworth Field.

His claim to the throne was highly dubious but his reign, from 1485 to 1509, was wedged between the two most notorious monarchs in English history – Richard III and Henry VIII – allowing the myth to grow that he was the ruler of a Golden Age.

Penn shows that, in fact, Henry’s reign degenerated into oppression, extortion and ‘a kind of terror’ with an avaricious, Machiavellian king at its core who inspired not love but fear.

As Bacon wrote, his times were ‘full of secret conspiracies and troubles’ – a reason cited by Penn for Shakespeare notably omitting Henry VII from his sequence of history plays in case the volatile material caused royal offence.

Penn’s revisionist biography does not open with the birth of Henry at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses in 1547 but fast forwards to the early years of his reign when he was constantly on the look-out for any signs of disloyalty.

This is not the ‘merrie England’ image invented by the Tudors themselves but a land under the iron fist of a new king who had a flimsy hold on the crown and tried to assert his authority by spying on suspected opponents and punishing his subjects with swingeing taxes and fines.

The king’s favour was imperative in everything from the sale of export licences to marriages, land deals, church sinecures, pardons and wool trading.

But Henry had a crucial asset – his queen, Elizabeth of York, and their children, the living embodiment of his hoped-for dynasty.

In what he considered would be the crowning glory of his reign, his elder son Prince Arthur would wed a great Spanish princess.

When Arthur’s bride, the sixteen-year-old Catherine of Aragon, was widowed only five months later, she later married the second, more charismatic and ebullient Tudor son, the boy who would become Henry VIII and the king styled as ‘spring’ to his father’s ‘winter.’

It was a union upon which the fate of England would hinge...

Winter King is a brilliant evocation of Henry’s claustrophobic reign; full of fascinating detail, history and politicking, it is as revealing as it is entertaining.

(Allen Lane, hardback, £20)