Thursday, 13 December 2012

Tudor England's generation gap comes to life in Thomas Penn's Winter King

From The Week of December 3, 2012

Death and renewal, life's fundamental opposing forces, define our world. They breathe change into our seasons and put fuel into the earth. They provide food for organisms and ensure evolutions steady march. No force is beyond their authority, not even the stars that make life possible. But inside these universal systems, death and renewal shape our lives just as profoundly. They define our relationships, our jobs, and especially our goals, demanding that we move through our limited existence with alacrity and desperation, propelled by the knowledge that everything we are and everything we love is not only finite but fleeting. Even if we cannot hear this driving drumbeat of life, it guides our actions which, in turn, shape our kingdoms, our empires, even our nations. This is a truth well-captured by Mr. Penn's engaging biography of the sunset of the life of Henry VII and the sunrise of his sun, the infamous Henry VIII.

Uncounted barrels of ink have been spilled in an attempt to illustrate the lives and times of the House of Tudor, a brief but influential dynasty that, in the sixteenth century, uplifted England from a political also-rand to a mercantile powerhouse to rival Europe's richest empires. Much of this attention has been understandably taken up by Henry VIII, and his numerous wives, and his daughter, Elizabeth I, who governed her country more wisely than most of its kings. One created a religion; the other created an empire. Together, they were salacious and noble, headstrong and ruthless. But though this attention is warranted, it excludes perhaps the most fascinating Tudor ruler, the man who set the stage for the men and women who followed him.

As firm as he was cheap, as wise as he was suspicious, Henry VII spent his life uniting a fractured crown. Forcing his way to power in the wake of the War of the Roses, a merciless conflict that pitted two of England's most powerful families against one another in a devastating war, he devoted decades of his life to improving England's fiscal standing, linking its fortunes to Europe's most powerful banners. In these maneuvers, he was largely successful, partly thanks to his willingness to use any tactic, no matter how underhanded, to achieve his ends. But such a zealous pursuit of wealth and power with which to pass on to ones heirs must leave its marks, not only on the man but the nation as well, and Henry VII was no exception. For as he lay dying, as his promising son stood ready to inherit all that he had wrought, he was powerless to check the cronies and the influencers, the strongmen and the schemers who he'd used to elevate England and who he'd once played so well. And so, though his son would inherit arguably the richest kingdom in Europe, he would also inherit a security state with a keenly self-interested apparatus, one both willing to manipulate its king and be bound by him, a dangerous precedent that served the younger henry not nearly as well as it did his wiser father.

Winter King is a potent and powerful biography of a transformative period in world history. Mr. Penn invites us back to the dawn of the British Empire, a time in which england lay battered and broken by feuds empowered by greed and self-entitlement, an England that no one could have imagined becoming the defining power of the next 500 years. Here, the author winningly illustrates the lives of the two men who did the most to reshape that country's destiny, setting it upon the path of fame and infamy, fortune and conquest. He captures the fundamental differences between the calculating father and the headstrong son, the shrewd king in his final years and the ambitious prince in his roaring youth, leaving no doubt in the minds of his readers that these men, and the events they weathered, loomed over the generations that followed them. Loves and marriages, schemes and tourneys, assassinations and betrayals are all covered here, detailed in a tome inescapably defined by the cruel but inevitable tides of life.

This is not a perfect history. Mr. Penn disappointingly ignores the first half of Henry VII's life, summing it up in a few pages that gloss over the period's most shattering conflict. This is likely a stylistic choice. For throughout most of the work, the author juxtaposes father and son, their duties, their attitudes, their faiths and their friends. He could hardly adhere to this theme if he covered the time before the younger Henry's birth. Nonetheless, a significant degree of context is lost in this choice, context that might well have aided the reader in understanding the zealously frugal elder henry. As it is, we are introduced to him as an older man, one who has already been forged by the crucible of his time.

Notwithstanding its compromises, Winter King is as readable as it is informative. Too much has already been said of the Tudors. And yet, this is less of an homage than it is an acknowledgement of an exceptional man largely overshadowed by the controversial deeds of his dashing son. In this, it is well worth devouring. (4/5 Stars)

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