During a visit to my daughter’s, I found this book in a store and bought it, it is a fascinating book on the founder of the Tudor dynasty, the often overlooked Henry VII.

I love the rose both red and white.

Is that your pure, perfect appetite?

Thomas Phelyppes

Since men love at their own pleasure and fear at the pleasure of the prince, the wise prince should build his foundation upon which is his own, not upon which belongs to others; only he must seek not to be hated.


Penn, Thomas. Winter King; Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. 2013.

          On Sunday afternoon 7 August 1485 a group of desperate men landed off the coast of Wales, their objective, to place the crown of England on the head of one Henry Tudor.  Tudor was a man descended from two illegitimate affairs that had occurred over the past one hundred years.  His mother was descended from John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III and his mistress Katherine Swinford,  a relationship that was legitimize when the old duke married the lady, but it was determined that any offspring would not be eligible to wear the crown.  His father was Edmond Tudor, second son of Owen Tudor and his mistress Catherine, widow of King Henry V.  Owen was the Queen’s wardrobe manager and his sons became legitimate when Henry VI rewarded them for their services rendered during his reign.  It was also decreed that the descendants of this union would also be inedible for the throne.  But since the Lancastrian line was exterminated with the death of Edward, Prince of Wales in 1471 and the only claimant left in that line was the product of the marriage of the 13-year-old Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor, the young Henry Tudor.  Lady Margaret cast aside all those old royal decrees and had committed herself to placing her only son on the throne, much like Margaret of Anjou had done with the young Prince of Wales.

        In his new book, Winter King, Thomas Penn takes a look at the life and reign of the first Tudor monarch.  He begins by describing the king as a ruler set between to of England’s most notorious monarchs, Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, and of course his son  the famous, or infamous,  Henry VIII.  Despite his dubious claim to the throne he was able to bring peace to a nation that had been ripped apart by the War of the Roses and passed his crown on to his son Henry in the first uncontested succession since the death of Henry V.  Penn says this about Henry VII:

In English history, Henry VII’s reign is still widely understood as a time of transition, one in which violent feuds of the previous decades gave way to the glorious age of renaissance and reformation.  This was the myth that the Tudors themselves built.  The later Tudors refered to Henry VII as we now see him: the unifier of a war-torn land, a wise king who brought justice and stability, and who set the crown on a sound financial footing.  Nonetheless they were unable to eradicate the lingering sense of a reign that degenerated into oppression, extortion and a kind of terror, at its core an avaricious Machiavellian king who inspired not love, but fear.

         Henry’s first biographer, Francis Bacon called him a dark prince, and said he was infinitely suspicious and filled with conspiracies and troubles.  One of the most telling examples of his unpopularity comes from Shakespeare’s history plays, where one whole play is devoted to Richard III, and another to his son Henry VIII, but except for a small role at the end of Richard III, Henry VII is totally absent from these plays.  For many years this picture of  a dark prince ruled much of the historiography, until the twentieth century where the great Tudor historian G R Elton wrote this about Henry:

In my England Under the Tudors I took the liberty of advancing the view that Henry VII’s reputation for rapacity and extortion is probably not born out by the facts and his policy did not turn from just to unjust exactions.

      Elton goes on to admit that his first view may have been too simple and later in his article (Henry VII: Rapacity and Remorse, Historical Journal, 1 (1958), pp. 21-39) and goes on to argue that faults that occurred later in his reign have overshadowed the patient, meritorious work of his early years.  He goes on:

I belive this historical revision results from an important change in historical method which involves both a more critical attitude to the sources and a better understanding of that age on its own terms.

        When reading Elton one must remember his main theses of this age is that under Henry VIII and Elizabeth  I a great revolution in government occurred.  This occurred under Henry VIII, when Thomas Cromwell  replaced medieval household government with the modern bureaucratic state and laid the foundation for England’s future stability and greatness along with altering the role of Parliament and eventually leading to a Parliamentary democracy in Great Britain.   Today, he is not held as highly as he was in the middle of the twentieth century, but he is still seen as an important Tudor historian.

       Other historians say Henry (Sean Cunningham, Pal Cavil)  ruled at a time of transition and many times is only seen through the eyes of his administrators and advisors creating an impersonal picture of the king.  Cavil argues that his use of Parliament to legitimize his reign and raise money was a first steep in the road to a Parliamentary rule later in British history.  This view is best seen in G J Meyer’s book, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty, where Mayer paints Henry VII as the most competent and  just king of the era.  Henry is basically the hero of his book an Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are characters that do not deserve the reputations they have.  He describes Henry in this way:

And something tremendous was achieved, and the achievement was Henry’s.  None of it would have been possible, if, even in his youth, there had not been something about him – something not quite explainable at a distance of five centuries that won the support and even the affection of the Duke of Brittany, the ruling family of France, and one after another of the older, more experienced men who had fled England after Richard III became king.  Nor could  have succeeded if, whenever enemies appeared to be closing in on him, he had not had the courage and resourcefulness to outwit them.  However colorless he may seem to us, however much the contemporary chronicles fail to make him a fully three-dimensional figure, the only thing that comes through is his unfailing competence.  In temperament he appears to have been more like a modern corporate executive of remarkably high-caliber –  coolly savvy, demanding but amiable enough, a good judge of risk and reward – than some swashbuckling medieval warrior-king.  He always had himself firmly under control, and he seems to always to have been somewhat scrutable.

            Thomas Penn now looks at the reign of the first Tudor king in his book, Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn Tudor England, using both primary and secondary resources he tries, and succeeds, in finding the man behind the myth.   He stresses that the formative years of Henry’s early life, with all the intrigue and betrayal that occurs when one has spent his life as an outlaw and an exile, formed the basis for many of the policies that were implemented in his reign.  Henry’s invasion of England in 1485 was a gamble, but one where he held cards that the incumbant Richard III was unaware of, namely an alliance with the ever scheming Elizabeth  Woodville and his mother’s third husband Lord Thomas Stanley.  Stanley’s forces betrayed Richard and attacked his flank dooming the last Plantagenet king, and giving he crown to a man who had dubious, at best, claim to the throne and no experience in governing.

         Penn gives a very readable and detailed account of Henry’s life with a solid amount of background material.  He shows how Henry was able to control and finally destroy the many factors and people who flourished in the civil war we call the War of the Roses.  His reactions to the revolts by Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck and others who  threatened his rule are also detailed.  He used Parliament to legitimized hs rule and set up a government ran by him and his councilors.  First under Sir Reynold Bray and later under Edmund Dudley, Henry set up a system that in his words, “put, many persons in danger at his pleasure.”  Using old laws, fines and permanent bail, Dudley made this a high art form, he bribed and extorted domestic and foreign officials and was able to set up and secure his kingdom.   Penn cites several individuals who were ruined or brought to Henry’s justice by using these means.

          Henry, who exercised total control over his state, used finances to reward those who were loyal and punish those who were not.  Heavy fines for disloyalty would bankrupt anyone, thus disloyalty became not only a blight on one’s honor, but financially impossible, as it forced his enemies into financial ruin, with all profits going to Henry and his councilors.  His favorite weapon in this was the “council learned in law” or “council learned,” an extra legal body answerable to only Henry himself, this group  imposed fines, bails or judgements on any person in England.  this became Henry’s most feared weapon and Penn gives several examples of how it was used.  It was accompanied by a system of spies and informers that any modern state would be envious of and this, as Penn asserts, gave Henry’s reign the dark wintry atmosphere that history has assigned it.

         Henry was also famous for the vast amount of wealth that he amassed during his reign.  Mayer cites his as one of the lucky breaks that Henry VIII got from his father when he assumed the throne.   Henry had used every law and means to basically extort money from the nobility and merchant class, and many of the lower classes as well, even the Church did not escape his eye, as his carefully and voluminous account books, many in his own hand, can attest.   His greatest source of wealth came from an astringent, crystalline, double sulfate of aluminum and potassium, its chemical formula is K2SO4Al2(SO4)3~24H2O, used mainly for its medical and cosmetic properties.   The compound is alum, which was plentiful in the Ottoman controlled Mid East, but only available in Europe from the Papal mines at Tolfa near Rome.

          Penn cites its importance in fourteenth and fifteenth century Europe this way:

But in the late Middle ages, it was used on an industrial scale in the textile industry of northern Europe as a dye-fixer, a property which made it indispensable to the functioning of the wool and cloth trades of England and the Low Countries.  As a result, alum was very big business indeed.  It was, in short, a mineral without which the  Western economy would grind to a halt.

         Popes had in the past used bulls, and other methods to ensure that this monopoly remained in their hands.  It was a major source of wealth for the Papacy, who ignored its own canon law to set up cartels to keep this monopoly totally in their control.  This concerned the Holy Roman emperor, who saw the high prices charged by papal cartels as a threat to their economy, so they sought a another means of getting alum.  In a classic laundering scheme, they sent it through England, where Henry took a generous cut, to get around these cartels, all along proclaiming all involved claimed to be a loyal servant of he Church.  Penn details how this worked, and it made Henry richer than any monarch in Europe.  Henry used his wealth to further his diplomatic aims and insure his rule at home.  It was a plan that Al Capone would have been envious of.

        Henry used this wealth to create a myth of Tudor legitimacy, using many symbols.  One was the Tudor Rose, which combined the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York, consummated in the marriage of Henry with Elizabeth of York.  Despite what had or may have happened during his rise and the War of the Roses, this was a love match that produced seven children, with three of them surviving to adulthood.  His oldest son Arthur was to be the fulfillment of this myth, cemented by his marriage to the rich and powerful Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon.  This was short-circuited by Arthur’s early death in 1502.  Elizabeth died the following year and Henry showed signs of profound grief.  Penn then details the rise of his second son, Prince Henry (later Henry VIII) and shows how he became the promise of a new day in England.

           Henry was the first English king to produce an English pound, a coin given to foreign officials and merchants as a symbol of Henry’s power.  Penn gives insight to the next reign as he shows the rise of the many people who would shape the times of Henry VII’s son, like Catherine of Aragon, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Thomas Worsley and Charles Brandon.  His daughters, Mary and Margaret would also play roles, Mary was the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey,  while Margaret’s descendant is the present queen, Elizabeth II.  Penn also details how after Henry’s death those whom the new king’s counsel determined had done the kingdom wrong, especially, Edmund Dudley, were rounded up and executed for crimes, real and imagined.  Henry VIII would use Parliament more than his father, but ruled in many of the same ways, the paranoia of his father would cast a dark cloud over the rest the dynasty’s time.    Dudley summed up the Tudor society in his last writing, the book ,The Tree of Commonwealth, and would be followed in death by many of those who defined the rule of the Tudors for the next century, including his son John.

            By the time of James I, Henry was seen as the unifying king and the touchstone of the new idea of Great Britain, but the reaction to his death was more joy than grief.  Henry VIII was seen as the spring, and his father as the winter, opinions may have changed, but he still lurks in the shadows, a man who saw an opportunity and took it, and changed the course of history.  Mayer may be right, Henry may be the forerunner of a modern corporate executive. By switching alum for oil and England for Texas, we find this descendant.  Not in some highly competent CEO that Mayer imagines, but in Larry Hagman’s character in the TV show Dallas, Henry VII was the early modern forerunner of  J R Ewing.