49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Penn does a good job here of re-telling the foundation of the Tudor dynasty and the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509). Strictly speaking, nothing here is new but if your knowledge of the Tudors is based around Henry VIII and Elizabeth then this is likely to be an interesting and informative read.
Penn excels at re-imagining the pageantry and rituals of the court, and his descriptions of the triumphs, state entrances, coronations etc. are superb. He doesn't just quote from the sources but succeeds in placing himself there, giving us a front-row seat alongside him. He's also very good at replacing Henry within his European context: not just the marriage negotiations but also his trade alliances (e.g. the manoeuvrings to circumvent the papal alum monopoly) and his desire to establish European humanism (e.g. Erasmus, More) in his England, itself a legitimising strategy for the Tudor monarchy.
The book does a fine job of confirming why this is known as the `early modern' period with the growth of the international banking system and commodities trading. Less successful, however, for me, are some of the anti-Tudor political conspiracies: these are sometimes complicated and, inevitably, spread across time and there are points at which Penn doesn't quite succeed in making reading about them less than tortuous.
So this is thorough, detailed and precise with full sourcing and proper referencing. Penn writes elegantly and with a novelist's eye for detail at times - if you're interested in early Tudor history, the personality and reign of Henry VII, or the early life of Henry VIII then this is an excellent choice.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
If you're looking for a book to change your view of Henry VII, two perhaps persuade you that this flinty eyed Welshman was a warm and compassionate human being, you'd better look elsewhere. What you do get from this elegant, excellent history is a sure-footed to re-evaluation by a bright young historian of a vital yet chronically overlooked historical figure. Penn is highly effective in describing the threat of the various pretenders, and the savage battles to establish Tudor authority that took place after Bosworth. He also does justice to the cynical and ruthless manipulation of the marriage market of European royalty that he manipulated with consummate skill and eye watering meanness. If your exposure to Tudor history is dominated by the looming figure of Henry VIII, you will find this an illuminating and wholly necessary read. I for one was struck by the parallels with his granddaughter Elizabeth.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Penn's account of the life of Henry Tudor is a generally very readable and gripping story of a king sandwiched between rather better known, more glamourous, perhaps 'notorious' monarchs, Richard III whom he replaced with dubious legitimacy and his own son Henry, who became heir after the death of Arthur, his elder brother.
The early pages can be a demanding read, largely because of the large cast of characters referred to. However, it is worth persisting to access Penn's view of Henry's realm: this is not a country liberated by the righteousness and justice of the nascent Tudor 'Golden Age', but one in the grip of a near-paranoid, endlessly suspicious monarch. As support at court seems increasingly to wither away, he finds his advisers amongst the ranks of those who owe him everything and are dependent on his patronage. His preoccupation with inventive ways to raise money are well-documented and contribute to the reader's sense of a deeply unattractive figure. This could be a great tragic tale: a great figure corrupted by fears for the crown, the realm and his own survival, but somehow, Henry never seems to me to approach that sense of greatness at any stage and so I found it hard to feel much empathy for him, except perhaps in terms of his relationship with his wife which seems to move from political opportunism to some degree of affection and a shared sense of great loss following the death of Arthur. Though we may like our Tudor myths, this is in many ways much more interesting.
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Henry VII's reign has been a black hole in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the Tudors. At least it has been for me, along with the short reign of Edward VI. Thomas Penn's Winter King has filled in a quarter century of history, and in a readable and well-documented way.
I suppose I had thought that the period following The Wars of the Roses and preceding the drama that was Henry VIII's reign would be dull. Winter King does away with that notion. Consolidating his power and fending off pretenders made Henry VII a very busy monarch.
Penn's Henry Tudor is the sullen, skulking character we might have expected, but he is also three-dimensional, showing real grief when his wife died in childbirth, and when his son Arthur, Prince of Wales, died unexpectedly.
Winter King shows the importance of Henry's reign in establishing the validity of the Tudor line and how hard Henry had to fight to maintain its legitimacy. By the time his son, Henry VIII, took the throne, there was little question of his right to succeed.
But as interesting and important as the big picture is, I found the little details most intriguing. For instance, Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort, wore reading glasses much of the time. I didn't know eyeglasses existed in 1500. But apparently only for reading, because Penn tells how Henry VII's eyesight was deteriorating and made him a menace when he indulged in his favorite pastime of hunting.
The image of Henry VII sitting in his castle counting his money like some Midas is also not far from the truth, according to Penn. Henry was deeply involved in the details of the royal finances, finding every possible way to wring more taxes from his subjects. He was also something of a commodities broker, dealing in potassium alum, a valuable mineral used to make dyes color-fast, very important to the textile trade across Europe and beyond.
Winter King also reveals again what many modern historians have shown - that the women of the age were as much a part of the political action as were the men. Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort was a real power behind the throne. So was Henry's wife, Elizabeth of York. Catherine of Aragon came to England as a bit of an innocent, but over her years as Arthur's widow, learned a fair bit of wheeling and dealing, and when she became Henry VIII's queen, was able to give him the benefit of her experience.
For all the popular history of the Tudors that are available, here is a book that doesn't rehash the same old stories and adds some new and original scholarship.
59 of 66 people found the following review helpful
Henry VII is one of my favourite characters in History, The product of an ambitious Mother and an equally ambitious Wife and Mother-in-Law, he became the last king of England to win the crown in battle and went on to sire one of the most famous royal dynasties we have seen.
He was born of Royal Descent but, like many at the time, his claim to the throne was tenuous, as his Mother came from John of Gaunt's disputed relationship with Kathrine Swyford. Although he enjoyed patronage in his early days, he was exiled to France as a young man. He famously went on to win the Crown at the Battle of Bosworth (after his Step-Father, Thomas Stanley, choose to support him and not Richard III) and then married Elizabeth of York, who after the death of her brothers in the Tower, could be conceivably be considered the legitimate heir to the throne.
He remained conscious of the threats to his throne and in turn countered this by building a legacy through his children, his Sons - Arthur and Henry.... And then arranged for his oldest child to marry a daughter of Spain... The tragic Catherine of Aragon... Setting into motion events that were to change the landscape of England for ever.
What Thomas Penn has done with this book is capture the feel of the times, the uncertainty that was in England as a result of the on-going War of the Roses and the desire for peace and stability. He captures the vulnerability of King Henry and his need to consolidate what he started at Bosworth. He has capture this very very well...
If nothing else this will give you an insight into the world that Henry VIII was born into and why he had the desire for male heirs and the impact that was to have.
Well written and easy to read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 April 2012
England was divided following the War of the Roses and this is the story of Henry VII who united the country by dubious means and yet created the most famous dynasty of English kings. There are many cameo appearances by other characters in this book and Carey makes the point in his review that this book is all fact as compared to Mantel's Wolf Hall. What this book does do is explain so much of what comes later but the prequel to Henry VIII is fascinating in its own right. Henry VII's unique way of ruling England that made the country rich is very modern and marks the change from the Middle Ages to Renaissance and Reformation. I knew almost nothing about Henry VII before reading this book, it is a history book rather than a historical novel and I enjoyed the read- the silky feel of the cover is nice too
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2014
If, as Wills Carto once observed, the purpose of real history is to uncover the forces which move on the chess board of the world-then Penn is in the frame but in the end this book is only worth two stars.
Yes, the book is well researched and detailed but Penn is remarkably reticent about drawing firm conclusions from the material.
Certainly, there has been a strange dearth of historical research on his subject: Henry VII. It's strange because the Tudor dynasty that began with his reign shaped the forms of economic and political management that have persisted in this country ever since. However, the early part of Penn's account focusses on tiresomely labyrinthine Yorkist plots, dynastic marriages, Tudor pageantry and tilt yard jousts. It is not until Chapter 6 that Penn finally begins to spill the beans on the kleptocracy Henry VII established and in Penn's words, "micro-managed".
It seems Henry built up a political class of administrators headed by a shady elite group of lawyers and financial specialists called the Council Learned who set about using intelligence disinformation and arbitrary arrest to divest certain families of their wealth and property. Victims were trapped in debt by the Crown and fines set so high they couldn't pay so that Henry's enforcers took over their debts in exchange for their lands at suitably knock-down prices. As Penn euphemistically puts it, the king's style of government "held the mechanisms of law-enforcement, security and fund-raising in fine balance." It seems to me that Penn is actually describing a form of kleptocracy in which rule by an oligarchy bent on its own self-enrichment is the order of the day. It is a form of rule with which readers today will have some familiarity themselves. Like today's political class, Henry's enforcers had stripping the public wealth down to a fine art. This is a Tudor legacy that Penn cannot apparently bring himself to speak of!
Again, while Penn has adeptly uncovered the pieces at work on the Tudor chess board: the Italian merchant banks and Venetian intelligence networks active in London at the heart of Henry's government, he draws no conclusions as to the long-term repercussions of this aspect of the Tudor oligarchy. The Venetian network was active via double agents like Cromwell and Cecil throughout the Tudor period and the Venetian oligarchical system was effectively transplanted in England during 1509-1715. Indeed, the same top-down domination of administration by certain families is still with us today.
Penn's account reads like a Dostoevsky novel with the same labyrinthine plot line and a vast array of characters but he signally fails to draw the glaringly obvious conclusion that the system of arbitrary dispossession of the people Henry VII initiated-that he admits carried over into Henry VIII's reign on an even larger scale-is still with us today!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Biographies exclusively focused on King Henry VII are far and few between in comparison to those looking at his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth I. Initially I was very impressed with the detail that Penn goes into in explaining the intricacies of Henry VII's government, however, upon completion of the book I have to say that a fair bit is omitted, and I was a little disappointed that the focus on the last ten years of Henry's reign and life rather meant that the earlier years were skimmed over. It's true that Penn doesn't discuss anything new, however he does place more emphasis on aspects of Henry's rule that are not widely known about, such as Henry's role in circumventing the papal monopoly of the alum trade - this will be new material for the casual Tudor enthusiast.
At times the level of detail about the fiscal policy and legal wrangling did get a bit tedious and dry, but this is mixed with genuinely interesting snippets placing the reign of Henry VII in its wider international and political context; the papacies of the Borgias and the della Roveres, the illegal alum trade, the rise of the Italian banks, and the lifetime of the shrewdly observant Niccolò Machiavelli. This period also saw the rising fortunes of Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Cromwell, and the Wriothesley family - formerly known as the Writhe clan.
There was one blooper that I noticed in the hardback version of the book, giving the age of Edward IV as just 10 when he marched on London, but hopefully this has been caught and corrected for the paperback.
All in all, a good book, interesting and informative if a tad dry and not a comprehensive biography.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 June 2013
Thomas Penn's study (it's not really a biography) of Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty makes for fascinating reading. The reign of Henry VII marks a clear break in the role of the English monarchy. It was not just that Henry's victory at the battle of Bosworth Field marked the effective end of the internecine strife that later became known as the Wars of the Roses. His reign also marked the transition from the monarchy as a military based government to an financial and administrative government. Of course, the was still military power in the background to back up the state, but that has always been the case, even in democracies.
It is thus fitting that the book mainly concentrates on the later part of Henry's reign which is when his use of financial instruments to consolidate his reign matured - perhaps even became overripe! Before Henry VII, kings ruled via a network of feudal obligations, by the end of his reign the king was ruling via a network of financial obligations. It is perhaps no accident that Henry VII was the last English king to win his crown in battle.
As an adjunct to this the author brings readers a set of finely drawn portraits of the key players and and in depth explanation of the way in which external politics was built around trying to prevent any one of the continental powers from becoming too powerful, using dynastic tools and a system of shifting alliances. The latter was destined to become the hallmark of English politics through to the end of the 18th Century and even into the early 19th Century.
All in all, I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn something about what is generally a rather murky period in English history.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.