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.