This is my review of Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn.
A reign which may seem less glamorous and colourful than that of his descendants Henry VIII and Elizabeth proves on closer inspection to be highly intriguing. Penn shows how Henry Senior sowed the seeds for a successful dynasty, and captures the spirit of an age still trapped in medieval superstition, but with the stirrings of humanism, democracy and "enlightenment".
Henry Vll's mistrustful and calculating nature must have been influenced by a youth spent on the run from the Yorkists, often at risk of being traded for funds and military aid from whoever was on the English throne during the final years of the Wars of the Roses. Once king, marriage to a Yorkist princess was not enough to consolidate Henry's tenuous claim nor to deter disgruntled nobles from passing off a string of impostors as say, one of the Princes in the Tower with a better claim.
It is perhaps to Henry's credit that he preferred negotiating to war – setting out early in his reign to fight the French, he allowed himself to be bought off with a pension. He grasped that he needed money, both to impress everyone with great pageantry and ritual but also to purchase influence on the continent, not least with the impecunious Hapsburg emperor.
The problem was the methods used to obtain money. In an increasingly harsh network of tyranny, Henry hired a mixture of shrewd lawyers and thugs to devise means of depriving subjects of their wealth – the lands of widows and orphans, the simple-minded, or those whose loyalty was suspected were taken over and the profits siphoned off; to hold office under Henry, it might be necessary to pay a large sum as security for good behaviour; in an increasingly Kafkesque world , ordinary people could be fined on trumped up charges. All this was done through new committees and courts set up outside the common law, undermining Magna Carta, "concerning the liberties of England".
Ironically, when Henry Vlll succeeded, although two of his father's main enforcers, Dudley and Empson were scapegoated, they were condemned by men who were also guilty and "much of the private system of finance and surveillance" which under Henry Vll's "obsessive gaze" had "assumed primacy over the legally constituted exchequer" was simply made official.
Unlike some reviewers, I did not mind that Penn has tried to leaven his scholarly work with somewhat jarring colloquialisms. I was fascinated by "trivial" anecdotes such as Margaret Beaufort's sudden death after her son's coronation feast, "it was the cygnet that did it", or how when a blue carpet was laid out for a royal procession, the London crowd descended on it afterwards to hack off bits as souvenirs.
Extracting the gold from this book was hard going because of a wordy style, combined with Penn's habit of introducing more minor characters than I for one could absorb: X the step-son of Y who had married the widow of Z's brother, and so on. The background to say, the frustrations of the Calais garrison or the ambitions of the famous scholar Erasmus, bog the reader down in excessive detail.