Henry VII, who reigned from 1485 to 1509, is little known compared to his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth I, but Verso Books editorial director Penn does an eminently satisfying job of remedying this.
Popular historians note that Henry VII’s death left England at peace and with a full treasury, but the author emphasizes that contemporaries breathed a sigh of relief at the exit of a paranoid, Machiavellian ruler who inspired no love. A usurper with only a distant claim to the throne, Henry Tudor returned from exile at age 28 to defeat Richard III on Bosworth Field. Although this ended the interminable, destructive War of the Roses, no one realized this at the time. Powerful nobles plotted his overthrow, and many supporters were lukewarm, so he spent his reign battling rebellions, obsessively seeking conspiracies (many genuine) and enhancing his power through surveillance, diplomacy and manipulation of trade. He also filled his coffers with fines, bonds for good behavior and property seizures, the result of a mixture of suspicion, pure greed and treason, real or fancied. Except for a single disastrous invasion of France, he avoided war and began a 300-year policy in which British rulers preferred sending money rather than armies to support European allies. This is straightforward politics-and-great-men history, and readers will refer frequently to the book’s genealogy chart to identify which quarrelsome prince, pretender, duke or earl is tormenting the king at that point.
An entertaining, insightful biography featuring a colorful cast of characters, led by the formidable Henry VII, who passed on the first untroubled succession in 80 years, launching the equally turbulent but more familiar Tudor renaissance.