Henry VII, the chancer with the weakest of claims to the throne he occupied for 24 years after defeating Richard III at Bosworth, is traditionally regarded as a stabiliser. Said by his spin doctors to be a “politic prince” who reunited the Houses of York and Lancaster after the Wars of the Roses, he promoted talented men of middle-class origins to his inner circle, shaping them into a rudimentary national bureaucracy.
But there’s a more sinister side to the story. Henry turned sour in the last seven years of his reign, becoming (as Francis Bacon noted in 1621) “a dark prince and infinitely suspicious”. Threatened by plots and pretenders in the first 15 years of the reign and then fixated with guaranteeing his younger son Henry’s succession after the deaths of Prince Arthur, his elder son, and Elizabeth of York, his queen, he turned to Stalinist-style apparatchiks. These agents used a deadly combination of surveillance, blackmail, violence and extortion, cowing opposition even when it didn’t exist. Contemporaries, as under Richard III, called such methods “exquisite means”.
In this remarkable debut, Thomas Penn focuses on these seven “winter” years, allowing Henry’s true character to unfold as a self-made man who dealt only in cash and stayed cool whatever the pressure, his steel masked by a soft veneer of politesse.
Fundamentally a private man, he kept his distance even from his own family, often slipping out through a back door of his palaces to think alone. He meticulously furnished the royal apartments to make it appear as if his dynasty had lived in them for a century. A Machiavellian master-strategist, he preferred a long game, “always groping further” for fresh intelligence before he pounced, ready to nail his victims’ contacts and accomplices.
Henry’s fabled wealth was augmented by his eager participation in the illegal side of the lucrative trade in potassium alum (coveted for its medicinal and cosmetic purposes and as an essential dye-fixer), the 16th-century equivalent of drug smuggling. He used his treasure chiefly to bribe the rulers of Europe to extradite his enemies, once paying a sum equivalent to almost the whole of one year’s legal income to Archduke Philip of Burgundy.
Despite ailing health, he exuded terror in these years. By striving to be feared rather than loved, he created a twilight world most dangerous for its unpredictability. Few apart from his apparatchiks dared to approach him. As Penn shrewdly remarks, you’d be unwilling to go to him even with genuine information for fear of the finger of suspicion pointing at you.
Perhaps inevitably, Henry’s greatest flaw was his reluctance to believe the evil reports against his own agents – notably Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, whom his son executed at the start of his reign.
Winter King unavoidably invites some comparison with David Starkey’s Henry: Virtuous Prince, the first volume of his ongoing biography of Henry VIII published in 2008, covering much of the same ground, but from the young prince’s viewpoint rather than his father’s. Starkey sticks rigorously to chronology, avoiding lengthy flashbacks and flash-forwards, preferring a slicker pace and a more theatrical style. Penn writes just as fluently, but is comparatively relaxed about structure, allowing detail and description to sprawl. Some will be overwhelmed by the intricate machinations of quite so many spies, informers, agents, double agents and agents provocateur.
And yet Penn brilliantly recreates the sterile atmosphere suffocating Henry’s England. His eye for time, circumstance and the telling anecdote is keen. Winter King offers us the fullest, deepest, most compelling insight into the warped psychology of the Tudor dynasty’s founder to have appeared since Bacon wrote. Henry’s near-paranoid obsessions are laid bare for all to see.
John Guy is a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and author of ‘A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More’ (4th Estate)
Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England, by Thomas Penn, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 448 pages