Quite ambitious in nature, Thomas Penn attempts to write a portrait of Henry VII and his reign. Why is this ambitious? 1) The number of books on Henry VII can basically be counted on one hand 2) This is Penn’s first book. To say the least, “Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England” is quite an interesting read…
Initially, Penn’s writing is slightly disorganized, disjointed, and lacking a strong cohesive bond. “Winter King” doesn’t follow the traditional (centralized) historical theme which follows a figure from birth to death. On the contrary; Penn describes how Henry came to power in the prologue and begins the chapters with already-progressing events. He tends to jump back and forth chronologically, which creates some distraction and can cause a lack of really “getting into” the book at some points. For example, Penn will speak of Prince Author’s death, then Elizabeth of York’s death but then backtrack to explain the schooling of Prince Author. Luckily, this dissolves as the book unfolds, proving that Penn just needed to get comfortable.
Despite the chunky feel, Penn impresses with an immediate wealth of knowledge. Even as a Tudor buff, I was instantly presented with some facts I was unaware of. This is a huge plus for any history book, nonetheless an author’s first work. Although “Winter King” has some distance from the psyche of Henry himself (which isn’t surprising as he, himself, was detached); the look into the inner workings of his court and numerous account books are illuminating.
Penn’s literary style can also cause some dissonance as it can be too narrative for some readers and also with a sometimes over tide of familiarity (terms are used like “partying”, “bitching”, and sentences begin with “And”). This isn’t done often but that is precisely why it sticks out like a sore thumb. On a positive note, this also dissipates (albeit, not completely) and the tone becomes more scholarly and affirmative while not being too difficult to digest.
Much of “Winter King” discusses the many conspiracies, imposters, and backstabbing at Henry’s court. Although this can become tiring (and I could only read so much at a time); it opens the doors into why Henry was so private, paranoid, and so driven to create an aura of fear encircling his rule. Penn also focuses at length on Henry’s financial dealings. Henry is known for being “thrifty” and “rich” but Penn reveals Henry’s financial acumen and control over his account books, incomes, coffers, rents, bonds, etc. Also explored are Henry’s dabblings in racketeering and illegal money-makers (i.e. Alum monopoly with and against the papal states). Readers seeking to learn more about Henry’s secret dealings and his connection with Edmund Dudley will find it in “Winter King”.
Penn’s work is largely historically accurate although some views contradict other books I have read. Regardless, the unique value of “Winter King” takes hold with the reader gaining an insight into the entire Tudor dynasty foundations which Henry built. This provides a new set of eyes to view subsequent reigns of the Tudors. Plus Penn elaborately shows the intertwining of well-known figures such as Thomas Wosely, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Wriothesley, etc.
Although the ending (literally the last page) was somewhat weak speaking on Thomas More versus Henry VII or Henry VII; the finality of “Winter King” and the epilogue thoroughly provided an insight into Edmund Dudley and his impact on the Tudors. The reader will understand why some of the events during Henry VIII’s reign were the way they were (due to the fact that some of the same councilors were in play).
On a smaller note, Penn uses a satisfying amount of both primary and secondary sources (which we history buffs care about!)
“Winter King” is a terrific first work by Thomas Penn despite some of its flaws. Providing a valuable insight into the founding of the Tudor dynasty for both new and experienced Tudor lovers; “Winter King” is worth a read. Thomas Penn is an author to keep an eye on.