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Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England - Thomas Penn

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Genre: History / Author: Thomas Penn / Hardcover / 480 Pages / Book is published 2011-09-29 by Allen Lane

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      31.03.2013 14:09
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      An excellent book about an heavily overlooked but fasinating king.

      Okay, at the time it was an Abbey but as I was taking the 'out of headlines' approach to titles it had to be that. If it had not been Richard's skeleton, it would have been, 'Henry VIII's Dad'.

      Which sums up the problem and opportunities for any writer of a biography or major study of Henry VII. His son and grandaughter, Elizabeth I, have been done to death - as were many of their friends and relations both at the time and now and in some cases back then, literally, very literally. Their love interests, courtiers and siblings have also received exhaustive coverage.

      In short, normally even those fascinated by the Tudors and widely read on the subject find it very hard to learn anything new or gain a new insight into the dynasty.

      The first Henry Tudor also comes after and kills off the glamourous Edward and contraversial Richard of York/the Car Park and their siblings and love interests - all of whom have also attracted much coverage both historiacally and in novels.

      Henry VII, the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty, on the other hand, if he gets covered at all turns up at the end of Poor Richard's story and kills him and ends the medieval era or gets to be the old miser who set the stage for his more glamourous descendents.

      Okay, when your descendents include: Henry VIII - who changed the course of English History; Elizabeth the Awesome - regular winner of the Best Monarch contest; Bloody Mary - regular loser of the same; and Mary Queen of Scots - winner of the First Monarch to Have Their Head Chopped Off one, this is understandable.

      As this book manages to prove, it is also completely unfair. The old miser turns out to be the one, with his wife, Elizabeth of York (daughter of Edward, niece of Richard) who developed the use of splendour and display to shore up the essentially none existant claim of Henry and tainted claim of Elizabeth to the throne.

      Penn does a very good and very readable job of relating how faint the claim was and how it was spun to give an air of legitimacy to a won of the battlefield situation. He follows it up with how the competing claimants left over from the Wars of the Roses were isolated, controlled and when necessarily hunted down, imprisoned and killed.

      Many words have been expended on Henry VIII's removal of his mother's relatives. Penn does a magnificent job in explaining just how much of that went on in his dad's era and why. We know the Tudor's persisted until they died out. Henry VII did not know they would survive and via Margaret Tudor's descendents continue to reign. He also did not know that the Wars of the Roses were over. There were Yorkists left alive and plotting. He was very, very vulnerable to being another short reigning king and one who would also die young, like the one he killed.

      This is made all the more understandable by Penn's excellent depiction of Henry's early years as a child seperated from his mother, with a father who was killed before he was born, and growing up as a pawn and ward of his enemies in the lethal real life game of thrones. All this topped off with a young manhood as an exile and plotter.

      Penn manages to show how the young man became the king, hunted down his enemies and managed to establish the Tudor Dynasty as a Player on the European stage and marry his children into the older Royal Houses of Europe.

      All of this is done well. In fact, very well, but much of that has been done before, if perhaps not in quite so readable a fashion. So what does Penn do that is new and why should you run to read this book?

      He manages something very rare in historians and almost rarer in economic historians. He explores and not only understands but explains economic warfare and the use of money to achive political objectives at home and abroad. And he does this well.

      Just how much the City of London and the nobility became controlled by Henry VII's use of bonds, fines and informers was not something I was aware of as I should have been. Likewise, how Henry VII and his close group of trusted henchmen used putting the nobility into massive debt and most especially prospective debt if they did anything to displease the monarch, is brilliantly explained in both the mechanics of how it was done and how effective it was.

      The author makes clear not only what a product of the renaissance Henry VII was, but also how well he operated in this period.

      Though it is clear that not only did Henry VII work as a Machievellian era king, he had the skills to be a terrifyingly good corporate raider if he was around now.

      Penn manages to make alum smuggling interesting.

      No, don't turn away.

      On one side we have the Pope, out to centralise the European trade in his own interests both in terms of corruption and power while wrapping it up in centralised crusading religion. Then we have the cloth trades which were the basis of the Northern European economies and revenues of the Hapsburg's as well as England, which needed alum to fix the cloth. Boycotts of Ottoman muslim alum in the name of religion and funding a crusade was the official position, which Henry and the Hapsburg's all paid big lip service to. In real politik, then as now, Money trumps everything and they were up to their profitable ears in alum smuggling.

      Which, combined with the fines, let Henry VII use money rather than expensive armies to achive the Tudor aims of establishing the dynasty and finding, isolating and removing oppostion. As well as leaving Henry VIII a huge inheritance as the richest (in terms of cold hard cash) monarch in Christian Europe.

      All of which funded the magnificence of the son's court, which was something he learned from dad.

      Along with a craving for the kind of loving relationship his parents had. Penn does as good a job at explaining and exploring the human relationships and love Henry VII had for his mum and his wife and how devestated he was both personally and politically by Elizabeth of York's death in childbirth. And as a monarch of the era, how he did try to remarry.

      Also excellently covered is the story of Arthur, the eldest son who died after marrying Catherine of Aragon, and how exhaustively the heir was trained and positioned to succeed and how much a blow his death was, but how the father rallied to train the spare, despite his own failing health.

      Catherine does come across as out of her depth, not good at compromise and caught between a father and father-in-law who did make her life difficult in widowhood. However, unlike some portrayals, she is not portrayed as a plaster saint and Penn's sound research shows how much of her financial and political problems were due to her own lack of ability to manage money and trust the most effective people.

      This is not a short book. It is so complete in its coverage of its subject it could not be. It is 448 pages, but is so well written that it is a page turner.

      It is available in paperback at £6.29 and £6.79 for the Kindle at Amazon. It is also available at the main bookshops and quite possibly at your library.

      It has won many prizes and these are well deserved. It is a good book and well worth reading.

      ISBN-10: 1439191573
      ISBN-13: 978-1439191576

      May be cross-posted to Ciao.

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