Saturday, March 3, 2012

Winter King - Thomas Penn

Henry VII is one of the overlooked kings of English history. Sandwiched between the Wars of the Roses & the endlessly fascinating reign of his son, Henry VIII, Henry Tudor is often forgotten. Yet he reigned for 24 years & by establishing the Tudor dynasty, ended the dynastic struggle between York & Lancaster. Maybe it's because I'm an unrepentant Ricardian & I've been unduly influenced by the opinion of Brent Carradine in Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time, "It would cost Henry a spiritual struggle, Mr Grant, to acknowledge that two and two were four. I tell you, he was a crab; he never went straight at anything." or the wonderful description of Henry by his first biographer, Francis Bacon, "A dark prince and infintely suspicious." Maybe it's that portrait which you can see on the cover above. I've just always found Henry a very unattractive character.

Yet, all his most unattractive traits - his avarice, his suspicious nature, his secretiveness, his paranoia - can be explained, if not excused, by the circumstances of his early life & his first tentative years on the throne after he defeated Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. His early life was spent mostly in exile. He was seperated from his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, for much of this time, keeping one step ahead of Edward IV's spies & informers. He spent years in France & Brittany with his uncle, Jasper Tudor & a small group of supporters, & was more French than English by the time he invaded England to take the throne from Richard III. His marriage to Edward's daughter, Elizabeth of York, united the houses of York & Lancaster, although Henry based his title on his (illegitimate) Lancastrian forebears & his conquest in battle, rather than relying on his wife's more direct claim.

The first years of Henry's reign were dogged by the last remnants of the Yorkist cause. Desmond Seward's excellent book, The Last White Rose, examines the many plots & pretenders Henry had to deal with. From the Earl of Lincoln, Richard III's acknowledged heir, to the pretenders who claimed to be one of the imprisoned Princes in the Tower, barely a year went by when Henry wasn't preparing for invasion or trying to coerce his fellow European monarchs to hand over one or other rebel that was sheltering in their dominions.

Henry does seem to have been genuinely fond of Elizabeth & his distress after her death in childbirth at the age of only 37, is very moving. Elizabeth had given the dynasty four heirs - Arthur, Henry, Margaret & Mary - & by 1501 when Arthur, Prince of Wales was married to Catherine, daughter of the Spanish rulers, Ferdinand & Isabella, the Tudors looked secure on the throne at last. However, Arthur's death just six months after the wedding & Elizabeth's death just two years later, marked the beginning of Henry's withdrawal from public life.

Winter King focusses on the last ten years of Henry's reign. Thomas Penn does an excellent job of filling in the background of Henry's early life & accession. The real meat of the book, though, is in the almost forensic level of detail describing Henry's last years. As Henry's health faltered, his greed & avarice took over. He sidelined the Dukes of Buckingham & Northumberland,  traditional advisors to the Crown, & promoted clerks & clever accountants like Edmund Dudley & Richard Empson. Empson & Dudley became the symbols of the cruel extortions & money-grubbing of Henry's last years. England became virtually a police state where a man could be accused of a crime, taken before the Star Chamber where everyone was in the pay of the King & threatened with imprisonment or torture unless a fine was paid. Henry was relentless in pursuing any debt he was owed & people lived in fear that they could be arrested at any time.

In contrast to Henry's slow decline from asthma & tuberculosis, the young Prince Henry's star rose during the final years of his father's reign as people looked to the future. Young Henry was the image of his grandfather, Edward IV. Six foot tall, handsome, an athlete who had been given a classical education, Henry was seen by his father as the hope of the dynasty & by the people as their only hope of escape from an oppressive regime. Prince Henry was kept on a short leash by his father, not allowed to risk his life at tournaments or assert himself at Court. However, as soon as Henry VII died in April 1509, the new king showed how different a monarch he would be. Empson & Dudley were arrested & executed. Henry began lavishly spending the fortune his father had extorted from his people. Most importantly for the future, he married Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur's widow, who had spent the last eight years in limbo while Henry VII & her father, Ferdinand, squabbled over her unpaid dowry & hedged their bets on who would be a good match for young Henry.

Winter King certainly enlightened me on the reign of Henry VII. I don't think I admire him any more than I did before I read it but his reign is an important bridge from medieval to modern England & I enjoyed learning more about him. Hesperus Press have reprinted Francis Bacon's biography of Henry & I have it on the tbr shelves. Written in the reign of the Stuarts once the Tudors were safely dead, I'll look forward to learning more about Henry's reputation only 100 years after his death.


  1. I've got this book on my TBR list. I studied the Tudors for A level history - they are endlessly fascinating.

    1. Joanne, I find them fascinating too but I'm always pleased to read a book about a lesser-known Tudor or someone connected to them that hasn't been biographized to death. I hope you enjoy Winter King when you get to it.