h i st or y it a convincing, and in places compelling, narrative shape.
He is at his best in writerly evocations of court life: the bitchiness of jobbing poets, and the strange atmosphere, at once courtly and malevolently violent, of elaborately staged tournaments. Spare and effective pen portraits bring the principals to life. Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, makes an early appearance as ‘a cold, lynx-eyed beauty’; Margaret Beaufort, the king’s pious mother, is a ‘sharpeyed’ presence around the court; while the regime’s stalwart and fixer, Bishop Richard Fox, is ‘narrow-eyed’. (Henry VII’s own eyes, as glimpsed in a portrait of 1505, are ‘uneven, heavy-lidded [and] glinting’.) While the narrative drags in a few places – we learn more than we really want to about the interminable negotiations between Henry and Ferdinand of Aragon over the remarriage of the latter’s daughter, Catherine – some moments of drama are brought wonderfully to life: the shattering effect on Henry of the successive deaths of his eldest son and wife in 1502–3; and the coup, orchestrated from the heart of the establishment itself, which brought down the scapegoat advisors Empson and Dudley in the opening days of Henry VIII’s reign. Penn is also good at subtly exploiting our knowledge of what comes next for poignant effect – the arrival on the scene, almost unnoticed, of the ever-obliging Thomas Wolsey; the observations on power and princely conduct of the insider-outsider Thomas More; the joyous promise of the young Prince Henry.
Yet as a window on the early Tudor world, Penn’s account has its blind spots. He is not particularly interested in the devotional ambience of Henry VII’s court and reign, and makes little effort to understand it or evoke it convincingly. Henry’s religion is, for Penn, a matter of (frequently non-specific) rituals, performed conventionally or cynically among ‘relics and graven images’; late medieval prayer involves the muttering of ‘mantras’. (Meanwhile, in a somewhat chronologically disorientating metaphor, the corruption and venality of the late Renaissance papacy is said to have ‘assumed baroque proportions’.) Henry VII’s personal piety moved up a gear as he prepared to meet his maker, though here we should note that the ‘Art of Dying’ practised on late medieval deathbeds was not, as Penn supposes, a matter of giving people ‘the best chance of salvation from the horrors of purgatory’. The intense introspection of the final moments in fact aimed to ensure that Christians did not commit the mortal sin of despair, and thus condemn themselves to hell. The path of salvation led via purgatory, and the strategies for alleviating its rigour and duration were a rather different matter.
Elsewhere in the book, the requirements of propulsive narrative history iron out some of the complexities and uncertainties of the historical record. Penn takes for granted, for example, that the brief and youthful marriage of Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon in 1501 was a consummated one, a thirsty Arthur emerging from his bedchamber the morning after the wedding to demand a cup of ale, ‘for I have this night been in the midst of Spain’. But he omits to tell us that this was testimony solicited many years later, in 1529, when Henry VIII was desperate to assert, against Catherine’s protestations to the contrary, that sexual relations had indeed taken place. If they had not, his entire campaign for a papal annulment of his own marriage was undermined. Historians, like contemporaries, remain divided over the question.
Yet if this book succeeds in raising Henry VII’s profile among the reading public, it will have done history a service. Perhaps because he had only one wife rather than six, and was never brought to life by an artist of Holbein’s extraordinary calibre, Henry has fared badly in comparison with his son in the public recognition stakes. There has been, as far as I can recall, no film treatment of Henry VII’s life, and historical novelists have not in general been drawn to its possibilities. Even Shakespeare swerved conspicuously around Henry in his cycle of modern histories. Shame. The theme of the bold young warrior descending into the vengeful and paranoid king is one he might have been able to do something with. To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 29
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