This book has received a lot of publicity but I was adamant I was not going to read it seeing as I have always found teaching about, or studying Henry VII mind-numbingly boring. Then a colleague told me that in fact it was really good so I decided to give it a whirl. Unfortunately this was untrue and it has taken me many months to actually finish it.
This book has been pitched as John Le Carre re-writing Wolf Hall, well, unfortunately I didn’t like Wolf Hall much either.
How do you make Henry VII’s system of government and financial administration exciting? Well, Penn does have a go but I think it is an impossible task. Admittedly, certain parts very interesting but these are sandwiched between tedious parts. The sections on Prince Arthur, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and the never-ending marriage negotiations were interesting as was Henry’s hunt for his Yorkist rival the Duke of Suffolk. I also hadn’t realised quite how unscrupulous Henry’s tax collectors and general extorters, Empson and Dudley were, so I now understand how Henry VIII’s decision to execute them was a popularity earner. Henry is represented as leading a regime of terror where nobles were frequently fined, faced trumped up charges, or placed under huge financial bonds. Henry emerges as greedy and unscrupulous. However, Henry’s administration was quite dull, and maybe this is the big problem with Henry, his way of dealing with insecure position due to usurping the throne was to establish a secure system of government and a spying network which isn’t so exciting to read about as continuing to fight for it such as in the Wars of the Roses.
Admittedly this is written by a biased Richard III lover but I really did want to be won over by this book. As a previous A-level question when I was at school asked students to debate “All his doing were motivated by avarice”. I think there is a strong element of truth in this (however unfortunately lots of the students didn’t know what avarice meant), Henry is still to me just a greedy, horrible king, although marginally more interesting than I had thought. If there are any Henry VII fans out there who want to try to change my mind, feel free.