There is something of Gordon Brown in the older Henry VII: an impression of darkness, of paranoia and barely suppressed rage, not to mention the terrifying tax grabs and tormenting of enemies. But Gordon was never quite as entertaining, or frightening, as Thomas Penn’s Winter King in this brilliant mash-up of gothic horror and political biography.
David Starkey once declared Henry VII ‘boring’. But in writing his magnus opus on the supposedly more interesting Henry VIII he got so caught up in the drama of Henry VII’s court that Henry VIII is now largely being relegated to volume two of his own biography.
The first Tudor King had no legitimate English royal blood and no legal right to the throne. His father was the product of a scandalous marriage between a Welsh chamber servant, Owen Tudor, and Henry V’s French widow, Katherine of Valois. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was a descendent of an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt, founder of the House of Lancaster. Henry was born at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, in 1457. Violent death was the common lot of many of his relations, royal as well as non-royal. By mid 1471 Henry was the last man standing in the house of Lancaster. He spent the next 14 years in exile, at constant risk of being handed over to the Yorkist King Edward IV, and later, Richard III. As Starkey observes, ‘The story of how Henry Tudor survived against the odds, and won his…throne against even greater odds, is one of the world’s great adventures’. But that provides just a brief prologue to Winter King.
The 28-year-old who won the battle of Bosworth in 1485 was a leader of some charm, even charisma, but also a damaged man, ‘infinitely suspicious’. He did not know England and was acutely aware that what had been won by the sword could as easily be lost by it. Henry had gained his victory with the support of those Yorkists who had turned against Richard III after the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons, the princes in the Tower. Henry carried out his promise to them to marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, but was crowned in his own ‘right’ – and it was a ‘right’ that was often to be questioned. With the last Plantagenet – the Earl of Warwick – kept in the Tower, his enemies set up pretenders against him. For Penn a key moment is the appearance in 1491 of a young man who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV. Even Sir William Stanley, the man who had crowned Henry at Bosworth, was prepared to betray him for this boy. The pretender was executed in 1499 as Perkin Warbeck. Warwick, who had not left the Tower since childhood, was also killed. But Henry never felt safe, and the deaths of his elder son, Prince Arthur, in 1502, and his wife the following year, seemed to shut all the light out of his life.
Henry disappeared like a spider into his private apartments. There he spun a web that allowed him unprecedented control over his subjects. He described it as keeping them ‘in danger at his pleasure’. Earlier kings had bound offenders and suspects for their good behaviour on pain of paying a ‘debt’. Henry VII extended this system to the entire propertied class. Opposition was priced out of the market. Penn’s description of this Tudor tyranny is a tour de force: both scholarly and a pleasure to read, covering the breadth of the European political scene, while providing the details that allow us to feel intimately the terror at home. Hope for the future fixed on the young Prince of Wales, the future Henry VIII. He is the spring that, at last, follows the Winter King. Unlike Gordon Brown’s successor, Henry VIII inherits coffers stuffed with cash (if Henry VII was ‘led into avarice’, it was, at least, to some good purpose). The monster is dead. People rejoice. But, this being a horror story, Penn leaves us with the icy sensation of some unimaginable terror ahead.