Subtitled the Dawn of Tudor England, this book by Thomas Penn was shortlisted for History Today magazine’s book of the year for 2011. On the surface, it’s not the type of book I’d read at the moment for not being sufficiently “Londony”. But, in fact, it is very Londony indeed, because it examines the reign of Henry VII, not his whole life, so London is the focus of most of the action. Outside of the annual Royal progress, Henry hardly left the environs of the capital, carefully avoiding foreign wars and the like. I started browsing the opening pages out of curiosity and got swept along through the whole thing. So here we are.
The title – Winter King – is suggestive of the idea that the spring and summer are represented by his dynastic successors, the “sexy” bits under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. What do most people with a half-decent history education know about Henry VII? That he defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485; that he ended the Wars of the Roses by marrying Elizabeth of York; possibly that his family were from Wales; possibly that he was careful with money.
We take the Tudors for granted, like we take the Julio-Claudians for granted. In both cases, if it weren’t for the founders of these dynasties (Henry; Octavian) after a period of extreme and violent political tumult, the situation was far from secure or clear-cut. Consolidation and neutralising potential danger was key. Henry was arguably our shrewdest ever monarch, choosing his councillors very carefully and managing his enemies – real or perceived – more carefully still.
Henry’s reign had two broad themes: securing his and his heirs’ position; and accumulating huge wealth for the Royal coffers. The king followed both of these pursuits meticulously and obsessively. In particular, through foreign policy and espionage, he relentlessly stalked the exiled de la Pole brothers, until their threat to him was eliminated.
As a foreign policy operator, Henry was canny, playing cat and mouse with his counterparts on the European stage: Ferdinand of Spain, Philip of Burgundy, the Emperor Maximilian and the Pope among many. Sometimes he lost, but through patience and persistence, more often he won. I particularly enjoyed reading how he played the humble son of the Church on the one hand while totally undermining the Papal European alum monopoly by dealing in Turkish alum through the Venetians.
Domestically, the reign was characterised by constant tax-farming through both legal and extra-judicial means under the guise of asserting his rights. Henry assembled a network of assiduous tax gatherers and lawyers who stripped the assets of thousands of individuals at every level of society under any pretext they could come up with. And if they couldn’t they would simply invoke the powers of the sinister ‘council learned in the law’. They, and Henry, were relentless. The upshot of all this was that Henry – and by extension, England – was the most solvent prince on the European stage. These processes – potentially both dry and depressing reading – are explained and described by the author in some detail: hundreds of men were involved. Yet Penn manages to do this very engagingly and at pace. I believe this to be the key factor in the unquestionable triumph of Winter King as a history book of exceptional scholarship and worth.
Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn(448pp) is published by Allen Lane. Cover price £20, but available for around £12.