One Cygnet Too Many

John Watts

  • Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn
    Penguin, 448 pp, £8.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 14 104053 0

In a chapter on animals in his Description of England, the Elizabethan antiquary William Harrison told not one but two stories about Henry VII. ‘As the report goeth’, he wrote, the king had had all the mastiffs in England put to death because ‘they durst presume to fight against the lion, who is their king and sovereigne’. And again, ‘as some saie’, the king had beheaded one of his falcons because it was willing to spar with an eagle, ‘saieng that it was not meet for anie subiect to offer such wrong unto his lord and superiour; wherein he had a further meaning.’ By the 1570s, three generations after his death, Henry Tudor’s reputation as a particularly insistent, and somewhat creepy, defender of royal authority was firmly established. Small wonder that Shakespeare confined him to a short sequence of dreary rhyming couplets at the end of his Wars of the Roses tetralogy: while Henry VII may have been as murderous as Richard III, he was nothing like as charming. Francis Bacon was ready to praise Henry’s politic wisdom in the 1622 biography that was to frame perceptions of the king until late in the 20th century, but he could not disguise the price of Henry’s determination to be obeyed: ‘Of the three affections which naturally tie the hearts of subjects to their sovereigns, love, fear and reverence … he had so little of the first that he was beholden to the other two.’ Plainly, the restoration of the monarchy after the civil wars was not a pleasant business.

Among Bacon’s motives for writing was a belief that Henry VII should be better known, and that is also a guiding principle of Thomas Penn’s account of the last decade of his reign. Today’s historians have tried to get away from what Stanley Chrimes called ‘seductive Baconian phrases’; their aim has been to resist Bacon’s ‘imaginative power’ and understand the king and his reign from the ‘contemporary evidence’. For Chrimes himself, writing in the 1970s, this meant a rather dry account of financial, judicial and administrative policies, stressing their continuity with Yorkist precedent. The politics of the reign were reduced to a struggle against a series of pretenders and rebels – the ‘Warmnecks’ and ‘Lamkins’ of 1066 and All That – with a brief coda on the king’s rapacity in his last years. A subtle final chapter sought to uncover something of Henry’s personality, but it scarcely brought him to life, still less liveliness: he was a grafter, a ‘stabiliser’, but his ‘unspectacular statecraft’ laid the foundations for more eye-catching developments under his son and grand-daughter.

Since Chrimes wrote, attention has shifted from the royal administration to a wider range of topics: the king’s relations with the nobility and gentry, the means through which control was maintained (or not) in the localities, the splendours of the court and the implications of its culture, the complexities of the international situation. Thanks to Steven Gunn, Sean Cunningham, Paul Cavill and one or two others, we are beginning to develop a convincing political narrative that joins the story of the pretenders with the innovations in government, their domestic reception and the larger diplomatic and economic environment. But as late as 2009, a major collection of essays on the reign could still be entitled Who Was Henry VII?, and the sense that the king was an ‘enigma’ (Cunningham), paradoxically ‘unfashionable’ despite his location in the trendy ‘liminality’ of the end of the 15th century (Gunn), is still pervasive. Penn’s achievement, in this very readable and perceptive book, is to relate these findings of recent scholarship (including his own work on the literary culture of the reign) with the novelistic skills of a popular historian.

Winter King opens in 1501. Henry had surmounted the prolonged and serious challenge of the second pretender, Perkin Warbeck, and removed the most dangerous alternative claimant to his throne, Edward, Earl of Warwick, the nephew of Edward IV in the male line. The king was poised to celebrate the marriage of his eldest son, Arthur, to the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon. The splendid pageants and tournaments that accompanied the match made much of the king’s achievements. They stressed the ‘rich mount’ of his prosperity, playing on the name of his father’s earldom (Richmond) and his own new palace by the Thames; his likeness to God on earth; the fusing of the white rose and the red in his marriage to Elizabeth of York; its progeny; and its progeny’s progeny which must soon follow, securing the dynasty in perpetuity. But as London thrilled to the rich displays of chivalry, roses, pomegranates, castles, senators and dragons, the king was watching the nobles carefully, because – as he and they knew – the Earl of Suffolk, whose brother had been the pretender Lambert Simnel’s ally in 1487 and who was another nephew of Edward IV, had suddenly fled to the court of Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, and was perhaps already plotting to return in arms and claim the crown.

From this moment of thwarted triumph, the king’s fortunes rapidly declined: Arthur died in 1502, greatly increasing the temptations for Suffolk and his value to his foreign backers, and Prince Edmund was already dead, so Henry, now aged 45, had just one ten-year-old son left; the queen became pregnant, and hope revived, but a few months later, she died too, and the king, who had lost someone who was clearly much more to him than a political asset, was thrown into a state of grief and illness from which he would never fully recover. By the autumn of 1504, groups of royal agents were discussing what would happen if the king were to die in the near future, something they saw as highly likely: they considered the claims of the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Suffolk, but no one mentioned ‘my lord prince’ – the succession of Henry VIII was off the cards, as far as these experienced and by no means disloyal politicos were concerned.

This was the terrifying prospect facing Henry VII and his councillors, and their response was to use what time they had left to promote the prince’s chances and, as best they could, secure the ground for his accession. This was the context for the nastiness of Henry’s final years, for the harrying of the political elite to ensure that no one stepped out of line, the campaigns of diplomats and spies aimed at parting Suffolk from his backers, the extortions of the king’s councillors Empson and Dudley which helped to produce the vast sums handed over to Maximilian as protection money against the threat from this third pretender. In 1506, Henry had a stroke of luck: Philip of Habsburg, the emperor’s son, was shipwrecked in England, and had to have Suffolk handed over in order to get away. But Henry had seen victory snatched away at the last minute too many times to believe that he was safe and the mood of Penn’s book scarcely lightens. The King withdrew into seclusion at Hanworth and Esher, and his health worsened; the security measures of the last few years were beginning to cause discontent in London; his councillors were divided; his one remaining son – already attracted to the dangerous sport of jousting – was surrounded by a dubious group of young bloods; and all this time Suffolk’s brother, Richard de la Pole, remained out of reach in Aachen. But Henry had done his work well and fate was kind to him: he died in April 1509; the more experienced councillors stitched up Empson and Dudley and managed a series of superficial concessions to public opinion while preserving the essentials of the Henrician regime; Henry VIII ascended to the throne, married his childhood sweetheart, Katherine of Aragon, and it was May morning in England. The winter king had passed and gone.

Penn keeps many different stories in play and the reader’s impression is not of being strung along by a novelist, but rather of seeing history in action – glimpsing the patterns in a time of change, and, just as striking, seeing the men and women of the past as plausible human beings. Only rarely does Penn succumb to biographers’ tricks and clichés: the nobles are a bit too ready to engage in ‘brooding’; the two princes are a bit too much like William and Harry; and can we – should we? – say that Queen Elizabeth and Katherine of Aragon ‘immediately clicked’? For the most part, however, he succeeds in bringing his characters to life through a series of well-chosen and scrupulously documented illustrations from the sources. We learn that Henry VII had a cast in one eye, so that he appeared to be looking at you even when he wasn’t, which would explain his reputation for watchfulness and for unnerving his enemies. That ghastly old humbug Margaret Beaufort, his mother, turns out to have had gold-rimmed spectacles and a penchant for sweet wine; we learn how small she was, and how quickly she descended on the royal household whenever the king seemed about to die; and we see her at Henry VIII’s wedding primly warning the guests that ‘some adversity would follow’ (this time the joke was on her – she had eaten one cygnet too many and was carried off a few days later).

This is the verisimilitude that historians like Macaulay aimed at, and Penn succeeds in it because he has worked so hard on the source material. Henry VII’s reign is conventionally thought of as poorly documented – it falls between the extensive ministerial records that survive from the 16th century and the voluminous chronicles and correspondence of the 15th – but Penn shows how much can be done with what does survive. He has gone through the account books of John Heron, Henry’s treasurer of the chamber, and the notebooks of Edmund Dudley; he has worked through all the diplomatic correspondence (getting a little too caught up in the baroque intrigues of Katherine of Aragon’s entourage); he has read up on the layout of the royal palaces and tackled Stow’s Survey of London to grasp the topography of the early Tudor city; and he makes resourceful and intelligent use of literary materials, whether the hack poetry of Stephen Hawes, the artful letters of the humanists and their patrons, or the official accounts of royal junketings. The result is a remarkably well realised work of historical reconstruction.

The verisimilitude extends beyond the characters and their setting. In dealing with each turning point in his story, Penn has taken care to think about what was going on for all the key protagonists and what else was happening at the same time: he is thus able to explain the darkening tone of Henry’s regime not only in terms of the king’s sadness or paranoia, or of the exigencies of foreign affairs (above all, the problem posed by Suffolk’s residence at the court of Maximilian), or of the legalism of Henry’s advisers, or of their insecurities and ambitions regarding one another, but – more realistically – in terms of all these things, and of the relationship between them.

In the miserable saga of Katherine of Aragon’s prolonged captivity in England – her marriage to Prince Henry was arranged very rapidly after Arthur’s death, but then deferred for seven years – we see the profound effects of contingency: first the Europe-altering results of the death of Isabella of Castile in late 1504, and the consequent elevation of Philip of Habsburg who was married to the kingdom’s heiress; then the unexpected symmetry of Philip’s own death, which led to the revival of Ferdinand of Aragon’s position in Castile and the restoration of Katherine’s prospects. From one perspective, time spent on this storyline is time wasted – we know what happens in the end, and the bit of Katherine’s life that turned out to be really important in the divorce crisis of the late 1520s was the few months she spent married to Arthur, not the years of false starts and disappointments before she finally got to marry Henry – but the prolixity of the tale says something about the balancing act in which the regime was engaged and the kinds of thing rulers had to do in a period when all the normal uncertainties of political life were overlaid with a powerful sense of danger.

Penn captures that atmosphere more vividly than any other work on this period that I can remember. That is not only a tribute to his skills as a researcher and writer, it is also a signal benefit of his kind of history, which pays so much more attention to the people of the past and what things felt like to them than most academic writing. In the spirit of balance, however, it’s worth drawing attention to a downside of this, a tendency to oversimplify the context, in particular by neglecting its structural features in favour of the individuals and events through which it presents itself. Nowhere in Penn’s treatment of the Wars of the Roses is there an extended discussion of why the wars had come about, what kept them going, and how they came to take on the appearance they had in the 1490s and 1500s. By these decades, insecurity was endemic, making everyone’s allegiances conditional, which contributed to further insecurity. It was this state of affairs that prompted the usurpations, successful and attempted, of the 1480s and 1490s: it fed, and fed off, the schemes of neighbouring powers; it was the reason for the cowed behaviour of the nobility (and also for their occasional flights of subversiveness, which were largely prompted by panic); it provoked oppressive and sneaky behaviour on the part of kings and ministers, and made them fearful of the results of their actions; it encouraged the spread of rumour, spies and informers, and it inspired belief in these things even when they were not present; in all, it made everyone second-guess their own chances in a world that might change at any moment.

Henry didn’t create a climate of fear in order to control his subjects, as some contemporaries thought and as Penn seems to argue; rather, he and his subjects already lived in a climate of fear, which their own mostly rational actions, combined with contingencies (above all, the death of Prince Arthur), made worse. There was, in other words, an underlying dynamic, expressed through purposive action certainly, but running much deeper, and unless we acknowledge it, we grant too much influence to more superficial and less knowable factors, such as personal temperament and the strength of affinity between individuals. More attention to this dynamic and to other trends of the period – the growing influence of neoclassical perceptions that encouraged writers and readers to look at Renaissance London as if it were Tiberian Rome; the atmosphere of administrative reform, sparked by the civil wars, but issuing in a significant expansion of the personnel and prerogatives of royal government; the shifting structures of social power in a time of economic and political change – might have made for a deeper reading of the politics of the 1500s. But no book can do everything, and there are other works in which the structural aspects of Henry VII’s reign can be more fully explored. Penn has written a learned and highly convincing account of an unusual and important period of English history; that he has done so for a wide audience only adds to his achievement.