I have just read a great book on Henry VII, whom I am fascinated by, called 'Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England' by Thomas Penn. I think this guardian review sums it up excellently:
Henry VII can look a dull king, so dull that Thomas Penn's title omits his name. Shakespeare, drawn to the colour on either side of the reign, skipped it. His history plays depicted the dramatic conflicts of the wars of the roses, which Henry's accession after his victory at Bosworth in 1485 brought to an end. Shakespeare later turned to Henry's son and successor Henry VIII, whose rule brought marital sensation, renaissance spectacle and the reformation. The father's government was an exercise in discoloration. Its goals, relentlessly pursued until Henry's death in 1509, were the establishment of a royal house, the elimination of opposition, and the steady accumulation of power and wealth. Fittingly he dressed in expensive black.
Yet in the hands of a narrator as accomplished as Penn, the reign acquires its own, troubling fascination. Two themes of his book preside: the permanent vulnerability of Henry's regime, and his ruthless methods of rule. His claim to the throne was tenuous and permanently contested. Only through the deaths of more obvious claimants, and after the accession of Richard III in 1483, when Henry was 26, did he become a leading candidate. Effectively an orphan, he had spent wretched years as a fugitive in Brittany. The reigns of his three predecessors were interrupted or foreshortened. Who could have expected that he would rule for 24 years, die in his bed, bequeath the first orderly succession to the throne for nearly a century, and found a famous dynasty?
It was no easy feat. The Lancastrian Henry and his Yorkist wife Elizabeth strove to reconcile the factions, but unreconciled Yorkists, to whom he was no more than a usurper, harassed his reign. The insurrections fronted by the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck emerged from wide and formidable networks of conspiracy that drew in foreign rulers and leading English magnates, and infiltrated Henry's court. Even if the king outfaced his enemies in his lifetime, would they not forestall a Tudor succession? His bouts of grave illness brought the question repeatedly to the fore. In 1502 the death of his heir Arthur left the dynasty's prospects with Arthur's 10-year-old brother, Henry. The king's own death seven years later had to be kept secret until his nervous entourage had ensured the succession.
Henry VII ruled – as Machiavelli, just after his reign, was to advise usurpers to do – through fear rather than love. His spies and informers were everywhere. In 1621 Francis Bacon's history of the reign called Henry "a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious". He had, Bacon added, much to be suspicious about, "his times" being "full of secret conspiracies and troubles". Penn's picture of a reign of terror carries disturbing echoes of the Roman historian Tacitus's account of the emperor Tiberius, another ruler whose abridgements of liberty followed an era of civil strife.
Yet Henry's techniques of power went beyond the needs of surveillance and survival. They did as much to endanger his throne as to secure it. Their main aim was money. Bacon wanted the future Charles I to learn from Henry's reign, but the financial methods that would provoke fatal opposition to Charles look pale beside the exactions levied by Henry from often innocent subjects, who were denied legal process or threatened with trumped-up prosecutions and had to buy their freedom (though at moments of apparently impending death the king would repent of his methods and have the jails cleared and pardons issued).
Penn graphically describes a huge financial racket run by the king and his profiteering advisers. But he leaves us wondering how Henry got away with it. How did a precariously enthroned ruler, lacking a police force or a standing army, manage to run roughshod over the law? Why did the nobility accept the curtailment of the military power it had wielded in the wars of the roses and swallow the elevation of upstarts at Henry's court?
Penn is not one to understate a case. His account of Henry's government is more contentious than he lets on. Historians debate the extent of Henry's rapacity. Some of them have more to say than Penn about the constructive sides of the reign, which developed the state-building methods of his Yorkist predecessors. Still, as Penn observes, the national sense of relief in 1509 was palpable. Rarely was a father's reign so widely disparaged and disowned on the accession of the son. Thomas More hailed the end of "slavery" and the return of "liberty", "the end of sadness, the beginning of joy". He would learn better as the new reign unfolded. Penn notes something else about the paeans on the son's accession: later in the Tudor period, apologists for the regime would remember Henry VII as the restorer of national peace and unity, but in 1509 it was the king's death, not his rule, that was held to have ended a long era of dark instability.
If Penn's interpretation can sometimes seem slanted, its exposition would be hard to over-praise. The expressive and evocative power of his writing, and the union of scholarship with artistry, are rare in modern historical writing. It is a sobering reflection for professional historians that the apparently unpromising territory of Henry's reign has recently produced two memorable books, both of them written outside their ranks: this one, and Ann Wroe's biography of the pretender, Perkin (2003), a longer work on a shorter subject.