Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England is a biography of Henry VII, England’s first Tudor king – a king of whom Francis Bacon said, “he were a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious, and his times full of secret conspiracies and troubles”.

I previously knew very little about Henry VII and was drawn to this book in the hope that it would be a good introduction to the subject. The book opens with a prologue which details the years of unrest and uncertainty that accompanied the Wars of the Roses and explains how Henry VII came to the throne in 1485. Penn then takes us through all the important moments of Henry’s life and reign, including the marriage of his eldest son Arthur to Catherine of Aragon and Arthur’s subsequent death which led to Henry’s second son (the future Henry VIII) becoming his heir.

Henry VII himself is portrayed as a complex and secretive person, clever and shrewd, manipulative and controlling (especially where money and power are concerned). Something that is emphasised throughout the book is that Henry knew his claim to the throne had not been a strong one and that he went to great lengths to convince his subjects to accept him as a legitimate king of England and to prove to them that the rival houses of York and Lancaster had been reconciled under the Tudor name. Despite his efforts, though, he found himself the constant target of plots and conspiracies. The book goes into a lot of detail in recounting some of these planned rebellions and the reasons why they failed.

As someone who doesn’t read a lot of historical non-fiction and who is not an expert on the Tudors, I still had no problems understanding any part of this book. Although it does require some concentration, I found it a very interesting and absorbing read from beginning to end. For those of you who do already have a good knowledge of Henry’s reign, there might not be anything new here but I’m sure you’ll still find plenty to enjoy. Penn’s descriptions of royal weddings, funerals, court pageants etc are particularly well-written and vivid.

The book is very thorough and detailed, with all sources and references provided in the notes. It’s not what you could describe as a quick and easy read, but it’s still very enjoyable and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning about the reign of Henry VII and the early life of his son, Henry VIII. Thomas Penn appears to have stayed objective and resisted the temptation to let his own opinions and theories get in the way of the facts, giving us a balanced and unbiased view of a fascinating period of history. I hope he goes on to write more books as he’s definitely a name to look out for.

I have to admit, before I started reading this book I already had a very negative impression of Henry VII due to the way he is portrayed in novels such as The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman and The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Winter King hasn’t done much to change my opinion of him, but I’m pleased that at least I’ve now had the chance to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge.

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10 thoughts on “Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

  1. Charlie (The Worm Hole) says:

    I’ve gone from thinking he was awesome and a strong person to defeat Richard (as a child) to seeing him as a weak man who didn’t battle as Richard did and who was not a true candidate to the throne (as an adult). It’s funny how reading and just growing up in general alters your opinions.

    I’d be very interested to read this book, especially as you say it’s unbiased.

    • Helen says:

      I loved the character of Richard as he was portrayed in The Sunne in Splendour and I admit that has a lot to do with the way I feel about Henry VII. I had thought reading a biography of Henry might change my impression of him, but no – I still don’t like him!

    • Douglas R. Bisson says:

      Richard III was hardly a “true candidate tot the throne” (sic) himself. He was a usurper who “removed” his brother’s heirs. Romance novels are not accurate guides to historical figures and events. I am glad to see a new biography of Henry VII. The one in the Routledge Biography Series by Sean Cunningham was good but a trifle dry (but very good on politics and administration).

      • Helen says:

        Thanks for your comment, Douglas. I don’t really consider the books I mentioned to be romance novels but I appreciate that fiction is not always accurate, which is why I was interested in reading this new biography. I do think Richard’s claim was stronger than Henry’s but I suppose that’s a matter of opinion, as is the question of who murdered the princes in the tower. I haven’t read Sean Cunningham’s book but would certainly like to read more non-fiction books on this subject. I think there are benefits to reading both historical fiction and historical non-fiction!

  2. Joanne says:

    I’m definitely putting this one on my TBR list. I studied the Tudors at school and it’s left me with an abiding interest in them. Henry VII always seems to get overlooked in favour of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed learning about the Tudors at school too, but I can’t remember being taught anything about Henry VII. It’s a shame such an important king tends to be so ignored!

  3. Jo says:

    Not one I have heard of, but perhaps one to look out for in the library.

    I do like historical fiction though, and agree that most of the time the Tudor period just covers Henry VIII.

    • Helen says:

      I suppose Henry VIII was a stronger personality and had a more eventful reign, but it’s not really fair that Henry VII is so overlooked. I’m glad I’ve had the chance to learn something about him now.

  4. Anbolyn says:

    I’d be interested in this for the depiction of the early life of Henry VIII and how his family dynamics affected his later choices. You never hear much about his childhood/adolescence.

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