Warming to a Winter King
Fiction’s hard wired into my DNA – whether it’s the work of Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck or V.S.Naipaul – I’m an English Lit graduate for goodness sake! Endlessly sailing to the shores of remarkable storytellers is all well and good, but now and again, I’m caught with a craving for a political biography – whether it’s Churchill, Thatcher or Blair – and America’s political leaders, too, notably, presidential sparring partners, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. What made our leaders – and the leaders of the free world – tick? What drove them to the top of their respective greasy poles? .
I’d read the amazing, imaginative work of historical fiction – Wolf Hall – by Hilary Mantel – a little while back. When you see her recommendation name-checked on the cover of a piece of historical biography as you browse Waterstones Bookshop, you know it must be pretty good.
So, Henry VII. What did I really know about this rather shadowy geezer? I say shadowy in the sense that what little I knew of him told me he was the dynastic warm up act for those other two headlining Tudors – Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I – seen below.
What Thomas Penn’s Winter King does is to demonstrate what a pivotal figure Henry VII was. A king who has seized the throne after years of civil unrest and who spent much of his reign looking over his shoulders and dealing with a variety of pretenders to the crown.
I certainly feel like a historical blindspot of mine has been corrected and it’s fascinating to speculate on the fate of the country socially and economically, let alone whether it might ever have declared religious UDI from the dead hand of Rome had Henry VII’s oldest son – Prince Arthur – not succumbed to illness shortly after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Just as today, with our current Queen – Elizabeth II – a simple twist of fate and suddenly the whole dynastic line of succession can change in an instant. Although the book does present a clear picture of the care and attention Henry paid to his elder son’s preparation for kingship and gave us some sense of the loss on his death, the personal ramifications are never fully explored.
What the book occasionally lacks in the account of the personal aspects of Henry and his immediate family is more than made up for in terms of the high level of detail of the wide range of players on the broader political scene. It reminded me of studying the many novels of Charles Dickens at university years ago; my strategy for keeping up to speed with the heaving mass of characters and the spider’s web of relationships was to keep a running list at the front of the book as one by one the characters took their turn on the narrative stage.
Winter King is, at times. a dense read, and you do need to pay attention. But it’s well worth the effort. What I find fascinating is to be able to draw parallels between our modern constitutional monarchy and it’s modus operandi and this Tudor monarch’s attention to ceremonial pomp, splendour and public relations! I’ll be watching tomorrow’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames through the prism of history and the life and preoccupations of the current queen’s ancestor.