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.
First the positives. The book does give a reasonable picture of the personality of Henry VII - suspicious, greedy, wily and increasingly paranoid; the book explains the reasons for this in his disfunctional upbringing amid the chaos and slaughter of the Wars of the Roses. The clear inference is that Henry VII's personality was close to and heavily influenced that of his more famous son. The dynastic instabilty caused by the death of Henry's first son, and shortly after that of his wife in child birth, is well-laid out.
However the book is a bit of a mish-mash. It is in places quite tricky to follow - it has a large cast of supporting actors, and the accounts of the various plots are quite detailed - sometimes in fact the detail gets in the way of the pace of the story. At other times there are various quite tedious and pointless digressions - ten pages on the marriage ceremony between the Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragon, or descriptions of the scholars orbiting the court.
At the end I felt I never really got to know Henry. The characteristics outlined at the start of the review emerge very early, and the portrait doesn't seem to change. I thought that Henry would be a more interesting character, often forgotten sandwiched as he is between two of the most famous occupants of the English throne. I still feel that there is a fascinating character there, but if there is Thomas Penn doesn't manage to uncover it. On the other hand if this is as good as it gets, perhaps it is now easier to understand why Henry VII has been neglected; such was his success in staying in the shadows, that it is now impossible for the historian to dig out the real man.
At any rate the book is a partial success, but does not deserve the fulsome hype it has received in some quarters.
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.
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.
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