A Dynasty Begins
Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, by Thomas Penn (Simon & Schuster, 448 pp., $30)


To show an exhausted England that Lancaster and York were now one, he married Edward IV’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. He liked her well enough, but that part didn’t matter. Though he was only 28, women as women meant nothing to this heterosexual but uninterested man, who never had a mistress and never wanted one. Luckily for him, Elizabeth turned out to be “the embodiment of reconciliation,” the answer to his dynastic prayers. Luckily for her, everyone else loved her even if her husband did not.

She got pregnant right away — always a valuable symbol of unity — and gave birth to a son whom his father, in high PR mode, named Arthur to remind his subjects of an idealized England. Five years later, they had another son, red-haired, named Henry after his father, but created duke of York in another gesture of reconciliation, this one with a warning behind it. One of the threats to Henry VII’s dynasty was an impostor named Perkin Warbeck, later caught and executed, who had claimed to be Edward IV’s son, Richard, duke of York, the younger of the princes in the Tower. By giving his second son the title so soon, Henry effectively announced that there was but one duke of York, and he was the son of a Tudor king.

Now that he had an heir and a spare he should have felt secure, but the insecure never do. Having known too many years of exile and uncertainty, too many contingency plans, too many hopes pinned on other people’s whims, he decided that the only way to protect his crown was to have bigger and better whims. That required money, lots of it, enough to make himself the most powerful monarch of the time. Taking as his guide his contemporary Machiavelli, who advised princes to be “more feared than loved,” he formed a tribunal called the “Council Learned in the Law” that proceeded to obliterate Magna Carta.

It was, simply and plainly, a shakedown. Using a huge network of spies and bribed local officials, the Council “trawled the country assessing individual wealth.” If you looked prosperous, you could obviously afford to pay up; if you didn’t, you were probably poor-mouthing. The Council issued open-ended subpoenas with no precise accusations, just an order “to come and answer to such things as shall be objected against him.” One man paid 500 pounds to avoid being declared a certified lunatic, a ward of the Crown, and having his lands confiscated. Paying up did not end matters, but just made them worse. “The suspended fines, or ‘recognizances,’ meanwhile, were like being on permanent bail,” writes Thomas Penn. “If [they were] triggered, their victims would be ruined.”

Matters got crazily modern, as with the London mercer “who died of ‘an unkind thought’ — stress, perhaps, or a heart attack — brought on by prolonged harassment.” Henry even ran security checks and formed the Yeomen of the Guard to carry them out. If he did not torture his debtors, it was because that was not the low-testosterone way. “Henry VII’s preferred method of punishment, after all, was death by a thousand financial cuts. It made the idea of disloyalty and rebellion not only unthinkable, but unaffordable.”

August 13, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, NO. 15

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Steven Hayward reviews How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, by Roger Scruton.
  • Samuel R. Staley reviews Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth and What We Can Do Now to Regain Our Future, by Grover G. Norquist and John R. Lott Jr.
  • Scott Winship reviews The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It, by Timothy Noah.
  • Florence King reviews Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, by Thomas Penn.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Dark Knight Rises.
  • Richard Brookhiser offers Kerouacian haikus.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .