The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England

The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, by Thomas Penn

Thomas Penn’s biography of King Henry VII of England is both interesting and confusing. It’s also worth reading. Providing details of Tudor history that tend to stay in the background of popular history books, The Winter King sheds light on a ruler and his time, his choices and their consequences.

Henry Tudor ascended to the British throne following the Battle of Bosworth in the summer of 1485. Already suspect among the English because he had no supportable claim to the throne, Henry VII was seen as an upstart. He was the son of Edmund Tudor and Lady Margaret Beaufort, a royal heiress, descended in an illegitimate line from the House of Lancaster. She would stop at nothing to make her son king.

With the watered-down support of her third husband, Lady Margaret drove the political faction that brought Henry Tudor to power. Her energy combined with the Plantagenets’ abject failure at Bosworth fueled the rise of Henry VII. The author Thomas Penn calls Henry’s accession “miraculous and God-given.” Considering that Henry was penniless and had sought refuge in Brittany, trying to drum up support for his fairly weak military supporters, it’s a fair assessment.

Once in power, however, the unpopular and thoroughly feared Henry VII levied heavy taxes, then confiscated lands formerly owned and controlled by English nobles. Furthermore, he imposed aggressive legislation against privileges or liberties, and harshly punished smallish offences against the Crown, such as the failure to pay taxes.

Thomas Penn’s biography polishes up a moment in English history that’s been overshadowed by that of his son and heir, Henry the VIII. In doing so, he reveals how the father’s paranoia resulted in ultra-tight security and treasure-hoarding. He writes a good back story about the mother, Lady Mother Margaret Beaufort. In writing about the family, Penn gives rise to speculation about how the son, Henry VIII, might have developed the personality traits of a serial killer—a man who murdered two wives and countless others who dared to cross him.

The Winter King, however, is supposed to be about the father, yet it confuses by including so much material on the son. Penn’s maddening habit of starting a passage about Henry VII, but ending it on an incident that actually refers to Henry VIII detracts from what might have been an engrossing biography.

It is a flaw of narration that confuses from time to time (literally), but if, at these moments, you can sort one Henry from the other, the book can be instructive. Penn contrasts the father and son in such close juxtaposition, because it is important to show how the mood of England changed from dark and uneasy to light and hopeful after Henry VII died.

At the end of the book, an anecdote about the English expatriate philosopher, Erasmus, illustrates the difference well. Under Henry VII’s rule, the poet couldn’t make a living, Penn tells us, because of a “complete lack of opportunity in England,” so he moved to the Continent. Under Henry VIII, as one Lord Mountjoy writes in a letter to Erasmus, “Heaven smiles (on England) . . . all is milk and honey and nectar.”

Of course, that was before the messy business about the wives began.

The best that can be said of The Winter King is that it provides insight into an insular, intolerant, tight-fisted king, a crown-usurper who fathered a son that murdered wantonly and became just as insular and intolerant as his father.

The worst is that Penn’s book tends to ramble which can be confusing to readers. For all that, Penn’s beginning chapters are well-written and compelling, with all the facts richly woven into his interpretation of them. Furthermore, the book is well-documented and covers ground that often gets bundled in with accounts of the War of the Roses. On this score, Penn, who holds a Ph.D. in early Tudor history, deserves praise for isolating this fascinating story and bringing it into relief.