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.

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