Book review

My Review of Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England

The road of history is littered with former greats that the chronicles and history books discard to the side to make way for the latest figure of adulation.  For many, Henry VII is a speed bump between the more interest reigns of the mad Richard III and the fascinating Henry VIII; even Shakespeare did not deem him worthy of a historical play.  However, as Thomas Penn explains in this thorough examination of the first Tudor king’s reign, this may have had more to do with the perception of Henry’s rule than with the man himself, whose greatness as a king cannot be denied.

Henry was an adjustment to the English royal scene, the strongest claimant against Richard III who had worn out his welcome with the English gentry (at least according to popular history).  Henry had the essentials for a king that war-torn England was looking for:

  • Enough of a lineage to legitimately claim a right to the throne
  • A wife who was producing and able to produce heirs, to again create a lineage of rulers and avoid the debate over who was the real king
  • The healthy mix of wanting to be adored by his subjects and simultaneously feared, as Machiavelli so aptly described it.

Thus Henry invades England and defeats Richard.  His own actions, however, make him eternally fearful that someone, anyone, with a more rightful claim to the throne could overthrow him.  His fears were not unjustified – not only did nobles with legitimate claims try to steal the throne, his enemies even created impostors in an attempt to overthrow him.  Thus Henry set off a series of events that defined his legacy and set in motion the future of England, allowing his son to revolutionize the way the people and the Church dealt with their ruler.

To prevent a usurper from gaining advantage, Henry had to pay lavishly a network of spies and informants; to create the wealth necessary to pay for this network (which extended across the continent) he had to stretch the meaning of the law and create a network of offenses that could be offset through financial payments.  In addition, to not only show that his family was the one to unify the fighting houses of Lancaster and York, but was the natural progression of a royal dynasty that started with the King Arthur of myth.  Such an illusion required money, and lots of it.  Set backs to Henry’s plans, like the death of his son Arthur, increased the paranoia and thus the financial pressure.

Penn does an excellent job of painting a scene of enemies around every corner but unabashedly pointing out Henry’s flaws.  Could it have been different?  Could Henry have been more lenient or taken a different tack to manage his reign?  It’s hard to see an alternative.  In a country that had been torn apart by civil war repeatedly and where kings had relied too tightly on military might, Henry needed to do something different.  He needed to appeal to his people’s hearts while slipping his hand into their purses.

Penn at times delves too deeply into court gossip and takes tangents into other stories, but overall this book presents the nuanced, complicated rule of a man who, after he died, needed to be portrayed as a winter before England’s glorious spring.  Without Henry’s cold purge of the previous regimes, it would have been impossible for the England of Henry VIII  – and more importantly Elizabeth – to exist.

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