Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England - Thomas Penn

I must admit that before I read this, all I really knew about Henry VII was that he came before Henry VIII and after Henry VI.

 

The Winter King digs deeply into the unsettled origin of the Tudor period and Henry VII's precarious reign.  It explores the cold avarice of the king, his dreams of dynasty, the many stifled uprisings against him.  It opened a world that I was mostly unfamiliar with, and the read itself was entertaining enough to keep my attention captured.  In some ways, Penn's style is more academic than novelistic; he tends to skip back and forth in time, developing individual thesis points rather than telling a more linear story of characters and actions.  For example, when he describes the Queen's death, his goal appears to be to demonstrate her influence on the king, and the effects of the loss of her presence. Penn gives the date of her death, then goes back in time to fill in her personality, role, relationships with the other historical figures.  I would have preferred him to build up the characters in a novelistic fashion, making us understand and care for them, before describing their deaths or downfalls or successes, but the nonlinearity made the book especially interesting upon a reread.  In some sense, the contrast between the storytelling flair of the writing and the overall structure provides a somewhat unsettled tone, a slightly tentative sense of identity. Dramatic phrasing places it more on the storytelling side, yet the wealth of unimportant detail and non-novelistic ordering gives it the solidity of a historical thesis.

 

At the same time, I was absolutely captivated. Penn effortlessly weaves in primary sources, and also does a beautiful job in gracefully paraphrasing or summarizing the sometimes strange wording of these sources.  I was amazed by how many primary sources existed from the time period, from Castillian ambassadors to diaries to privy accounts to philosophers' musings.  Penn unerringly chose fantastic little tidbits to weave into his tale, and these had the benefit of illuminating far more than just Henry VII.  One of the aspects that amused me was the characterization of the philosopher Erasmus--I had no idea he was such a whiner! I was also struck by the fate of Juana, sister of Catherine of Aragon.  I am longing to learn more about the poor mad queen and her struggles against her father.

 

My main issue is Penn's tendency to use lavish overstatements and foreshadowing.  It reminded me strongly of the hyperbolic attempts at cliffhangers in History Channel documentaries, right before the commercial breaks.  In a similar fashion, Penn tends to use dark portents at the end of chapters, only to go onto rather anticlimactic events.  One example that stuck out to me was the description of the King's close advisors towards the end of his life.  Here's the end-of-chapter tag:

Henry was, by degrees, losing control. As he declined, faction stirred at the heart of power: in the king's privy chamber. Barely detectable, it revealed itself, almost inevitably, in his account books.

And what, you might ask, does all that dark foreboding refer to?

Hugh Denys's name is no longer in Henry's chamber accounts.  Nothing else.  No indication that Denys has fallen from favour, no indication that there is a "faction" within the "heart of power."  As Penn says dramatically,

"Why this should have been remains a mystery. Illness is one possibility. Although Denys had survived the sweating sickness the previous summer, it had, perhaps, left him weak and unable to fulfill his duties.  There is, though, a more likely [why more likely? No evidence towards it is given.] explanation: that Denys's influence was fading along with the king, with whom his fortunes were inextricably entwined. Quietly, with no outward change in status, he had relinquished his leading role; others, equally quietly, were stepping into his shoes. None of this was formalized, and to anybody outside the privy chamber, it was undetectable. But for those familiar with the delicate web of relationships that knitted together the king's close counsellors and servants, it was a warning sign.

Note that even in this passage, not even a hint of "faction" is given, and sensational guesses take the place of evidence.  For me at least, such hyperbole, this apparent preference for a hypothesis solely because of its dramatic flair, is troubling in a historic work.  However, there are plenty of cited sources and first-person accounts, so a reader can easily make up their own mind about events.

 

And the details that Penn gives are indeed intriguing.  I had no idea that England's king was so Machiavellian, or that the state of the crown was so unsettled for so long.  I had no idea that one of the rulers was able to so neatly dodge the Magna Carta, to use financial bonds to both bind and alienate his subjects. I was also entertained by Henry VII's black-market trading--not in tobacco or opium or gold, mind you, but in alum! For all of my complaints about the style, Penn's writing is unexpectedly captivating, and I think he has the indescribable flair of a true storyteller.

 

One of the unexpectedly interesting aspects, for me, was the contention between the king and the City of London.  I read a ton of urban fantasy, and have been puzzling for some time as to why stories set in London seemed to be able to capture such a distinctive personality in the city.  The book demonstrates how clearly London defined itself as a distinctive entity, an entity separate from the surrounding country and the kingdom itself.

 

The story of Henry VII's reign is fascinating and left me longing for more detail.  Despite all the primary sources and rich detail, Henry remains an enigmatic figure.  Penn's disapproval of Henry VII, his thesis of him as an avaricious and grasping king, overshadows some of the more positive aspects of this complex figure. Like its subject, The Winter King has an oddly unsettled feeling, a slightly stilted, uncomfortable core hidden by lavish prose and detail, like water churning under an opaque coating of ice.  Overall, an intriguing and informative read, and definitely recommended for anyone interested in this period.