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Keeping Up With the Tudors: Lizard on a Rock

Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England

by Thomas Penn
Simon & Schuster, 2012

It is an enduring irony that one of the most evocative dynasties in human history should have a nullity at its very origin, and yet this is just the case with the Tudors. Henry VIII is a cottage industry unto himself; his sisters Margaret and Mary both married kings, outlived them, and made daring second marriages; his wife Catherine of Aragon had a splendid courtroom scene and a heroic death; his subsequent parade of wives captured the world’s undying interest; his son Edward died picturesquely young; his daughter Mary became bravely, entertainingly deranged; and his daughter Elizabeth shone with a light that nearly blotted out the rest, striking a decades-long pose fit for all of time to marvel at. They fought wars, inspired poets and prelates, changed millennium-old laws and customs, and financed explorers who circled the world. They stamped the word ‘Tudor’ so deep into the idea of ‘monarchy’ that the two may never be fully separate again.

And yet, there was a distinction that eluded all of them: they weren’t first. Their brawling, quarreling house was founded by Henry Tudor, erstwhile Earl of Richmond and later King Henry VII, who has captured precisely no popular interest in the last five hundred years. This is odd, because in outline his story is every bit as fascinating as that of any of the brood that came after him.

He was born in Pembroke Castle, Wales, in 1487, the son of easygoing Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond, and Lady Margaret Beaufort, a countess in her own right and a pretty, diminutive creature composed entirely of rabid ambition and some tooth enamel. She was only a dozen or so years older than her son (she’d been hip-deep in dynastic politics literally from the first moment she was able), and she was convinced he was destined for greatness. Edmund Tudor died during the Wars of the Roses, three months or so before his son was born, but what his very young widow really cared about was blood: Edmund had been the son of Catherine of Valois, the wife of Henry V, and Margaret herself was descended from Katherine Swynford, the wife of John of Gaunt, one of the sons of King Edward III – in her mind, those things combined to mean kingship.

In this as in so many other things, Lady Margaret’s mind was just a bit wrong. Edmund Tudor had indeed been the son of Catherine Valois – but not of Henry V. He was the son of the lover Catherine took after Henry V died – Owen Tudor, her long-haired, broad-shouldered stable master. And Lady Margaret was in little better position herself: true, she was indeed descended from Katherine Swynford – but that whole line had started off in illegitimacy, when Katherine was still just John of Gaunt’s mistress, not his wife, and those illegitimate children were later legitimized with the explicit proviso that none of them would ever be eligible for the throne of England. In other words, when Margaret Beaufort cast her flinty, unblinking eyes about her upon learning of her husband’s death in 1456, she would have spotted easily ten or eleven people who had a better claim to rule England than her boy.

Fortunately, it was war time, and they dropped like flies. By the time Edward IV retook the throne from Henry VI in 1471, young Henry Tudor was important enough so that his kin thought it expedient to whisk him off to Brittany for safekeeping. And it was in Brittany that Henry grew to manhood, surrounded by Continental refinement and internationalism of a type unknown back in England. He learned sophistication, realpolitik, and all the finer points of desperation as his hosts kept him on a short financial leash and were never all that discreet when hearing out offers from Edward’s usurper replacement King Richard III to extradite the young man. Richard knew that, thanks to the tireless agitation of Lady Margaret, Henry was the focus of all the remaining Lancastrian dreams of a return to power. Those dreams were shared by an increasing number of powerful factions back in England, from the Woodville relatives of the late king’s wife to the landed gentry who’d never liked Richard much and liked him a whole lot less after he killed his little nephews and stole the throne he was supposed to be safeguarding . And naturally, all of Richard’s enemies were Henry’s new friends, including both scheming Brittany and always-watchful France.

Eventually, Henry had enough support to make his move, and after a couple of setbacks, that move – 6,000 armed men and a toe-hold on England itself – led to the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, in which Richard fought with that reckless personal courage given only to the very wicked. He lost his main allies, his life, and his crown to Henry in one afternoon, and the Tudor dynasty was born. Had Margaret Beaufort been capable of smiling, she might have smiled then.


the tomb of Margaret Beaufort, in Westminster Abbey

Henry immediately set about making peace. He married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, and put the full program of Margaret Beaufort’s propaganda to work healing the breaches between York and Lancaster and bringing the Wars of the Roses once and for all to a close. The cohesion of the country – and the prestige of the throne – had been shredded over the previous thirty years: Henry had a great deal of work to do. He married for politics and begat sons – Prince Arthur and Prince Henry – for dynastic stability, although to his surprise he came to love both his wife and his sons. While Henry was busy squelching periodic insurrections, his picked men were riding the length and breadth of the country, slowly and studiously knitting the monarchy back into the social fabric of the realm.

It’s an epic story: long-shot claimant suffers penurious exile then risks everything to wrest his kingdom from the clutches of a monster, only to succeed, gain the throne, find love, and begin to set things right – and after the fact, the whole thing gets written up by no less a wordsmith than Francis Bacon. The story has drama, passion, pathos, and derring-do (and in the Hollywood movie, an actual human being could be hired to play Lady Margaret, so as not to frighten audiences with the reality).

And yet despite all that, Henry VII has never caught the zeitgeist. Popular treatments of the Tudors – the films, TV shows, and books that have flooded the market especially in the last thirty years – almost always either downplay or simply excise him from their proceedings. He’s not so much dramatized as invoked – the bloodless party-pooper, the colorless drone, the quintessential parent now providentially absent from the scene, allowing his offspring to indulge every impulse, run riot with every expensive whim. “My father was a careful man, a shrewd man,” young Henry VIII snarls in Showtime’s series The Tudors, “a business man” – the clear implication being he was somehow essentially preliminary, a tedious formality best got out of the way so the real stuff of kinging and queening can happen – infidelities, favorites, schisms, and most of all wars.

The reason for this serial neglect is obvious, though disappointing: money. Henry VII cared about money. Not just money in the abstract – such-and-such an amount in the treasury, such-and-such an expense expected for refurbishing Bolton Castle, etc – but money in the extreme particulars, mulcts, incomes, tax liens, mortgages, compound interest on escheated properties, and so on down the mind-numbing list. He had lived for fourteen years as a genteel beggar in a foreign land, and he was possessed of a monomaniacal urgency never to face the same fate in his own home. He had whole floors of savants poring over his tax-rolls late into the night, and when the last of them had staggered off to bar or bed, he would take up their work and double-check it himself (seeing his precise marginalia on those old, stiff documents is one of the more curiously arresting moments available in British archival research). He revived dozens of antiquated financial laws and invented what was lacking, all with the aim of filling the royal coffers. A thick forest of fines and penalties grew up almost overnight, all backed by the increasing power of the Crown. And the king’s account books record every shilling.

It ices up the hot romance of Bosworth Field like nothing else could. Henry’s two most flamboyant descendants – his son Henry VIII and his granddaughter Elizabeth I – had very nearly the same level of financial obsession, but they were much better at disguising it. They laughed at tournaments, instead of sitting there wearing black and looking distracted. Henry may have won his crown in combat, but he had a dragon for a mother, and he had the soul of a banker. Little wonder biographers have stayed away in droves.

All the more commendation to Thomas Penn, who comes before us now with Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, a boisterous and chummy biography that seeks to drag Henry away from his abacus and scrolls and push him by main force into the Tudor spotlight so long hogged by the rest of his kin. To call it the best biography of the man since Bacon would be a cheeky compliment, since rival claimants for the title haven’t exactly been thick on the ground. But it’s got a much wider canvas than R. A. Griffiths and R. S. Thomas’ 1985 The Making of the Tudor Dynasty, and it’s effortlessly more readable than S. B. Chrimes’ 1999 entry in the Yale English Monarchs series, Henry VII, and more important, readers who pick it up knowing nothing about Henry VII will keep reading, fascinated, to the last page. Penn hasn’t just written the best Henry VII biography – he’s written one of the best Tudor biographies, which is a mighty impressive thing.

One of the keys to the book’s success is its constant mindfulness of its subject’s humanity (crucial because the subject himself so often forgot it), telling us of a “lifetime spent depending on the caprices and whims of others, the hopelessness and boredom of exile punctuated by false hopes.” Penn strikes a high dramatic tone right at the outset and maintains it throughout, with the help of the primary sources he’s mined so thoroughly:

Almost invariably, few – even his closest servants – could tell anything from the king’s outward appearance. Henry’s method was to proceed with ‘suaviter ac saeviter in modo‘, a calm demeanor masking a savage intensity. Soncino, the Milanese ambassador, put it well. ‘As the English say,’ he wrote to his boss Ludovico Sforza, describing Henry’s pursuit of Warbeck, ‘”Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”’

Scholars and purists may balk at that mention of the ambassador’s “boss” (although Ludovico Sforza, were you to go back in time and translate the term exactly for him, would have liked it quite a lot), and if that makes them balk, many of Penn’s other lapses into informality and cliché might make them bolt. Throughout his book, characters have the world at their feet, turn a blind eye, wait to see how the chips will fall, experience ‘win-win’ and ‘no-win’ scenarios, have each other over a barrel, play cat-and-mouse, are chips off the old block, and so on. Some of this is involuntary (on many occasions, Penn will get a word stuck in his head and use it half a dozen times in half a dozen lines before it works its way out of his system – at one point, rather hilariously, so many characters are ‘flourishing’ something in the span of only ten lines you’ll feel like you were at Mardi Gras), but a good deal of it is very intentional, designed, perhaps misguidedly but perhaps not, to enhance his subject’s approachability. The strength of Penn’s research will be obvious even to purists, and it could be argued that this particular subject needed all the rhetorical help he could get.

Penn is a dramatist, and the innumerable asides he makes into character sketches are uniformly heartfelt and enjoyable. Herny VII married his heir Arthur off to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (two of the wealthiest monarchs on the Continent, naturally), and he had many designs on Catherine’s sister, known to history as “Juana the Mad.” Penn takes a moment to give her the humanity she’s often denied even by Tudor historians:

When, on Isabella’s death, Juana refused to sign her Castilian inheritance away to her estranged husband, things deteriorated further. Philip forged her signature and exacted a horrible revenge. He destroyed her credibility as queen, withholding her household expenses and closeting her away, all the while insisting it was for her own good. His wife, he said, was insane. By 1506, Juana’s life at the Burgundian court had become a living hell. If Catherine felt that she had it bad as a prisoner in England, the situation of her older sister, manipulated, abandoned and deeply depressed, was immeasurably worse.

And he finds the fascinating, the picaresque, in virtually every bit-player in his story. Who, for instance, reading this about Thomas Savage, Henry’s archbishop of York, wouldn’t want to read more?

An Italian-trained civil lawyer who had helped broker the original marriage treaty between Arthur and Catherine back in 1489, Savage wore his title of king’s commissioner like a badge of nobility. He was also a flamboyant, worldly sophisticate, a keen hunter and a keeper of peacocks, with an unholy penchant for taking the Lord’s name in vain.

A great chunk of Penn’s book is taken up with money, of course. It couldn’t be otherwise, since it was a central preoccupation of Henry’s quarter-century on the throne. But even when detailing the king’s many and byzantine financial dealings (usually with overseas banking firms of the type Henry had come to know so well while a guest in Brittany), Penn manages to keep things moving briskly – and to work in titillating little glimpses of more dramatic times to come:

In 1502, Girolamo Frescobaldi … had overseen Henry’s 10,000 pound payment to Maximilian; indeed, he had been the only banker willing or able to arrange the transfer of ‘so great a sum’. The Frescobaldi proved particularly Anglophile. The following year, the head of its Florentine branch, Francisco, welcomed an eighteen-year-old English boy into his household, training him as a clerk. His name was Thomas Cromwell.

All aspects of Henry’s reign are given ample treatment in Penn’s pages, from the king’s Continental intrigues to his dealings with potential usurpers (always an exaggerated threat when the king himself is a usurper – it gives everybody ideas) like Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck (not to mention some of his own nobles who continued to think the wrong Rose had won out), and all are decked out not only in facts and ambassadorial reports but also human dimensions. Penn injects as much dramatic supposition into these human dimensions as he can reasonably get away with, although all but his most fastidious readers will thank him for it. He could, for example, have merely reported the marriage of Prince Arthur and Princess Catherine, but instead he works hard to show it to us:

The party drifted through Richmond as if in a dream. The sculpted gardens contained topiaried mythical beasts and trees laden with exotic fruit. Everywhere was entertainment: chess, backgammon, cards, dice, billiards and a purpose-built sports complex– ‘bowling alleys, butts for archers and goodly tennis plays’ and ‘other goodly and pleasant disports for every person as they would choose and desire.’ A Spanish acrobat performed on a tightrope forty feet in the air, juggling with iron chains and engaging in imaginary single combat with a sword and shield. Late on the final evening, as the customary ‘void’ – spiced wine and sweetmeats – was served, more elaborate disguisings in the great hall culminated in the release of a flock of white doves.

Arthur was married in November of 1501 and died in April of 1502, at which point the grieving father began obsessing about Catherine’s dowry and bridal treasures (little guessing that the next generation would obsess about whether or not Arthur and Catherine successfully copulated at any point during those six months), clearly seeing that the key to salvaging the deal was to hold onto the girl. It’s the kind of unsavory stuff that seems designed to drive sympathetic biographers to despair, and Penn is to be commended for how gamely he soldiers through it all. On almost every page of his splendid book, Penn manages show us the man underneath the manager, following his subject to the end – and mildly conjecturing along the way, as when we get to the rainy tail-end of March 1509:

Unable to eat and struggling for breath, Henry’s mind was fixated on the hereafter. On Easter Sunday, 8 April, emaciated and in intense pain, he staggered into his privy closet, where he dropped to his knees and crawled to receive the sacrament.

We don’t absolutely know that Henry’s mind was fixated on the hereafter (given how frequently in those final days he was heard to say that if he were spared he would mend his ways, the opposite inference seems just as likely), but it’s a good guess, an empathetic guess from a biographer who wants his readers at least to understand his subject, even if they can’t ever bring themselves to like him. Henry paid for a great walloping chorus of masses to be said for the mercy of his departed soul, and if he’d guessed that people would still know his name in 500 years, he might have added prayers for a good and merciful biographer. Thomas Penn’s Winter King is the answer to such prayers, and since it’s priced at $30 US and runs to 480 pages, Henry VII would be the first to point out that it’s a good bargain at .06 cents per page.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.

One Comment »

  • IA says:

    Excellent review. Have you read John Ford’s play Perkin Warbeck, written between 1629–34? It’s one of the few plays I know of from the Elizabethan/Jacobean/Carolinean era to deal with the reign of Henry VII. Ford relied on Bacon for his source material and apparently stuck closely to history. It’s a very fine play, though Henry naturally takes a backseat to Perkin as far as character interest goes.

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