Friday, May 04, 2012

Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn (audiobook)

I wanted to make a short post after listening to the audiobook version of Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn.

Highly recommended.

OK, maybe I should add a little bit to that…

I knew very little about Henry VII before listening to the book, which probably reflects his position between the more famous Richard III and Henry VIII. As Penn notes in his introduction, even Shakespeare opted not to include Henry VII in his “sequence of history plays—and not for want of material but, one suspects, because the reign was simply too uncomfortable to deal with.” Henry was able to bring about some order of stability, ending the War of the Roses and setting up a secure succession to the throne (for the first time in about a century) but these pluses came at a cost. The stability proved to be illusory at times as contenders and pretenders to his throne threatened Henry for much of his reign. The appearance of stability came at a high price as a reign of terror, mostly financial in nature, was instituted to keep key subjects in line. Henry rarely dirtied his hands directly in these matters, giving close advisers free reign to impound, tax, and arrest to add to the state’s coffers (and to their own pockets) at an outrageous rate.

The secure succession also proved troublesome, the death of his oldest son Arthur just one obstacle to overcome. Henry had set in place the machinations for Prince Henry (Henry VIII) to assume the throne upon his death but much depended on the assistance of his close advisers. Whether intended or not, by linking their wealth and safety to a smooth transition he increased its likelihood.

There was much in the book I enjoyed, including:
  • The sharp focus on Catherine of Aragon—Catherine’s position in England after the death of her husband, Prince Arthur, proved tenuous as Henry VII and her father (Ferdinand) used her as a pawn in geopolitical games. And there was that matter of whether or not the marriage was consummated, a question that would haunt her.
  • Concentration on Henry’s fixation over finances—I wouldn’t be surprised to see a picture of Henry with a green eyeshade after hearing about his obsession with his account books. The increase in state wealth provided a disturbing part of his reign as he used a heavy hand in the levying of surety bonds and fines among many extrajudicial tactics. More entertaining was watching him undermine the Papal monopoly on the trade of Turkish alum. The focus on finances may bore some but they were an essential part of Henry’s reign.
  • I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep the vast list of characters straight but Penn helps out in many ways—everything from making even minor characters come to life to short “reintroductions” or helpful descriptions if a character has not been mentioned in a while.
  • The focus on the educations of Princes Arthur and Henry—Penn spends a lot of time on the education of the two princes, some of which helps explain some of Henry VIII’s later actions but also provides some interesting speculation on how the reign of a King Arthur would have differed. Penn doesn’t go into explicit detail on either of these topics but he laid the groundwork for it. Speaking of formative years, Penn also spends a lot of time on Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort.
  • Concentrating on Henry’s rise as a geopolitical player—it’s easy to forget that England was dwarfed by many continental powers but Henry shrewdly navigated the political waters of the day. Henry made plenty of mistakes but he constantly learned from them, never afraid to use a light touch or make a veiled threat when appropriate.

My biggest wish would be to have the same focus on Henry’s early life up to the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth as the above topics receive. It’s not that Penn slights this area but, in comparison to the thoroughness spent on the topics of his reign, the early years feels a little vague. Even with that minor wish, I highly recommend the book (and audiobook).
Unsurprisingly, when the seventeen-year-old Henry VIII inherited the throne in the spring of 1509, he had a difficult circle to square. His coronation was accompanied by an outpouring of praise which presented him as his father’s successor, while at the same time distancing him from the disturbing years that had just passed. Court poets reached for Plato’s tried-and-tested idea of the Golden Age: paradise, the first of epochs which, like the seasons, would return. The glorious your prince represented a metaphorical spring, a second coming, seemingly as unlike his father as could be.

It was a model that had been used before—in living memory, in fact. Back in 1485, Henry VII had evoked the Golden Age to define himself against the king he had defeated and called a usurper, Richard III. But in 1509, court poets portrayed Henry’s own reign as a sterile landscape, one in which bears roamed and wolves howled, a time in which the natural order had been subverted—but which, mercifully, was rightfully restored in the shape of his son. In other words, if Henry VIII was the spring, his father was the winter.

(from the Introduction)

Additional links
Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England is available for preview at Google Books.

Video of Thomas Penn discussing his work can be found at:
Simon and Schuster (2:26)
intelligence2 (14:24) Also highly recommended--a quick run through Henry VII's early years and his rise to the throne

Update (30 Jan 2018): I didn't realize it, but Thomas Penn narrated an hour-long 2013 documentary titled Henry VII: The Winter King. It is currently available for Amazon Prime viewers, with several versions of it on YouTube. It is a good overview and introduction of Henry VII, but if this documentary piques your interest you'll want to read Penn's book. He goes into much more detail on every aspect covered in the show.

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