Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England

Desmond Seward is impressed by a brilliant debut from a young historian about the uneasy reign of Henry VII

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Reviewed by: Desmond Seward
Author: Thomas Penn
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £20

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The Wars of the Roses continued long after Richard III’s death at Bosworth in 1485.

Henry Tudor, whose claim to the throne was almost non-existent, became king solely because he was the only candidate available to challenge Richard, and although he married Edward IV’s eldest daughter, many die-hard Yorkists would never accept him.

He survived plot after plot, but constant danger turned him into a paranoiac. Thomas Penn brilliantly recreates his strange, Machiavellian personality and the “sustained state of emergency” that was his reign.

Henry VII was threatened by several plausible pretenders. The Earl of Warwick, Richard’s nephew and the last male Plantagenet, kept Yorkist hopes alive until his legal murder in 1499, while for years Henry lived in dread of Perkin Warbeck who impersonated the Duke of York, the younger Prince in the Tower.

The de la Poles, sons of Richard’s sister, were another threat. (A note on their pedigree contemptuously traced the king’s descent from “Owen Tudor, a chamber servant”.) Although the 1487 rebellion of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln (who used Lambert Simnel to double as Warwick), was defeated, with a bit of luck it could well have succeeded.

Henry was so frightened of Lincoln’s brother Edmund that in 1505 he paid Philip of Burgundy £108,000, equivalent to his entire annual revenue, to keep his Yorkist rival safely under lock and key.

By then Henry equated cash with security. His wealth came from financial expertise rather than parsimony (he spent lavishly on clothes, jewellery and building), as he had acquired
a remarkable knowledge of the commodity markets.

Penn shows how he made enormous profits from the illegal alum trade with the Turks, loaning money and ships to Italian merchants, and controlling the supply of alum into England – where it was in demand as a dye-fixer by clothmakers.

In attempting to found a dynasty, his elder son Arthur’s betrothal to the king and queen of Spain’s daughter was a coup for the parvenu Tudors. It was spoiled by the prince’s death and her father’s refusal to pay her dowry. Whether or not Catherine of Aragon would marry the future Henry VIII instead gives the book an extra focus.

Penn makes the first Tudor seem almost – if not entirely – human. We find Henry reading Thomas More’s Latin life of Pico della Mirandola in a French translation, consulting
fortune-tellers, paying his bets on tennis matches, tipping a servant for bringing a bottle of mead for his sore throat.

Lesser figures come across no less vividly. There is Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, clutching her glass of malmsey, or Reynold Bray (son of a humble Worcestershire bone-setter and blood-letter), who in the early years was his leading enforcer: “Not only was Bray more powerful than most nobles; he looked like one too.” The author even succeeds in conveying the appeal of tournaments.

During his last, paranoiac, years, brought to life here as never before, Henry employed two ruthless lawyers, Empson and Dudley, to soak the rich, using bogus accusations and rigged trials.

Their victims paid huge fines or went to prison. London gaols were soon bursting while the crown’s revenue rose by 50 per cent. In 1507 a City haberdasher, Thomas Sunnyff, was falsely charged with murdering a newborn child and then made to pay £500 for a pardon – the fine being approved by Henry, who signed the pardon himself.

This impressive book will certainly become the definitive study of our strangest, most mysterious, king. 

Desmond Seward is the author of The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors (Constable, 2011)
 

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Henry VII’s reign is chronicled in our Tudors audiobook