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Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

Posted By Claire on June 14, 2012

UK cover

Winter King by Thomas Penn is a book on Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, but it is not a full biography. I just wanted to clear that up before I launch into my review. Henry VII was born in 1457 and ruled England from 1485 to 1509, but this book opens in autumn 1497 and so does not give you all the details of Henry’s early life, his rise, his claim to the throne etc. and the Battle of Bosworth is only mentioned in the prologue. That surprised me and actually disappointed me because I wanted the whole caboodle, Henry’s whole life in detail. However, I wasn’t disappointed when I started reading because Penn’s book is, as historian Helen Castor described, “a masterpiece”. I would describe it as a narrative, rather than a biography.

I must admit to not having much time for Henry VII before I read this book. Blame it on my History A’ Level course which, if memory serves me right, had me writing many essays on Henry VII’s financial policies. I came away thinking what a miserly and boring king he was and that stuck with me. Thomas Penn’s book changed that perception though. The Henry VII of Winter King is far from boring and it’s easy to see where Henry VIII got his ruthless streak from when you meet Penn’s paranoid Machiavellian ruler who seemed to rule with a rod of iron and wanted to be feared, rather than loved, by his subjects. You can hardly blame the man when he was seen as a usurper and had to deal with so many challenges to his authority.

Penn’s book is divided into three sections:

  • Part One: Blood and Roses – The chapters in this section cover Perkin Warbeck, the Duke of Suffolk’s plot, Prince Arthur’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Prince Arthur’s death, Elizabeth of York’s death, Henry VIII’s education and Henry VII’s worry about the succession.
  • Part Two: Change of Worlds – In this part, we have details on the trials of those implicated in Suffolk’s rebellion, the interrogation of Alexander Symson, courtiers like Buckingham and Northumberland, Margaret Tudor’s journey to Scotland to marry James IV, the death of Henry’s adviser Sir Reynold Bray and the resulting shuffle in the King’s administration, the rise of Edmund Dudley, Prince Henry’s arrival at court. Henry VII’s and Dudley’s customs racket, Catherine of Aragon’s life after Arthur, the meeting of Henry VII and Philip of Burgundy and the resulting treaty, the arrests of Suffolk and his associates, and the visit of Erasmus.

US cover

  • Part Three: A State of Avarice – The “sorrow” in England as a result of Empson and Dudley’s authority, Henry’s illness and Margaret Beaufort’s handling of things, the arrival of Thomas Wolsey, Prince Henry and the royal jousts, Catherine of Aragon’s difficult situation, the 1507 progress of the King and Prince Henry, Henry’s continuing ill health and his preparations for death, Henry VII’s death and the accession of Henry VIII, a new regime and the ends of Empson and Dudley.

As you can see it really does focus on the latter years of Henry’s reign and it does jump around. For example, Elizabeth of York’s funeral is followed by details of her life and role as consort, but I found this easy to follow and it doesn’t happen as much later in the book.It is hard to believe that this is Penn’s debut and he should be congratulated on his writing and research. It must have been an immense task to put this book together and the huge bibliography shows how much research was done. A must-read for Tudor history lovers.


Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: Penguin (1 Mar 2012)
Language English
ISBN-10: 014104053X
ISBN-13: 978-0141040530
Available at – click here, Amazon UK – click here, or your favourite bookstore.


One Response to “Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Great review Claire. I too thought Henry VII was a bore. This book totally changed my mind as well ( I received a ARC copy through Goodread’s First Reads- very thankfully). I found the book to be so intense, I couldn’t wait to have time to get more into the book. One wishes to have that experience in every book ! Thomas Penn is to be congratulated on a superb first book- I can’t wait to see what he authors next! I’m hoping for a book about the Wars of the Roses or a character like Richard, Duke of York !

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