Introduces the key elements of a reign that set the tone for the next century and a half,
This review is from: Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (Paperback)
Penn's telling of the story of Henry VII turns the focus on one of the lesser known Tudors. Surprising, given that as "Winter King" clearly shows, it was Henry VII who established law and order after decades of unruly noble wars and founded the dynasty that was to govern for over 100 years.
The Wars of the Roses had led to chaos and instability for much of the 15th century, Henry Tudor brought this to an end. He signifies the move from medieval monarchy to the age of new centralist government. Penn shows in great detail how this was achieved. The continual preoccupation with usurpers and the variety of ways (some surprising) used to neutralize them; the obsession with ensuring financial independence - so much so that by the end of his reign Henry was considered one of the wealthiest monarchs in Europe, a wealth his son Henry VIII would soon squander after his accession; and the way Henry combined the two using a system of fines and bonds to keep his potentially disruptive nobility in check.
Where "Winter King" excels is in the detail it provides about the individuals who surrounded Henry. The work of his councillors and officials, always tightly monitored by the King are shown in depth. Not just the best known such as Empson and Dudley but Bray, Fox and the many others who worked for him. Catherine of Aragon figures prominently in the narrative of diplomatic dealings. Wife first of the eldest son Arthur, then a pawn in (prolonged) negotiation to marry his second son Henry after Arthur's death. Henry VII though remains central. After the confusion that preceeded his accession, Henry micro manages policy and ministers to maintain tight control. In this Penn's portrait of Henry is in line with that presented by recent scholarship and the main thrust of his argument is that the king presided over a proto-Machiavellian polity, dominated by fear and suspicion, and one in which good government was too often subjugated to the demands of his own greed and paranoia.
Penn makes an intriguing point about Henry's accumulation of wealth in that he ascribes a significant part to England's growing role in the alum trade, used in the textile industry. Due to papal monopoly of alum England carved itself a role importing and re exporting to mainland Europe to circumvent the monopoly in a 15th century version of how multinationals today move capital about between nations to avoid national taxation in any particular one country.
Where I have concerns with "Winter King" is paradoxically due to its strengths. A focus on the work of those individuals around the monarch has been at the cost of policy overview. I longed at time to see how what I was reading fitted into the general policy development of Henry VII. It was like looking very closely at the workings of the wheels and springs of a particularly delicate clock, but never really looking at the time shown on the clockface. Neither is space devoted to showing how much the framework in which Henry VII and his officials operated was dependant on the administrative procedures introduced earlier by Edward IV. This is perhaps a consequence of Penn perhaps attempting to write a story allowing more popular access rather than an academic history. Nonetheless, Penn does the non-specialist a service in introducing the key elements of a reign that set the tone for the next century and a half.