Book Review: “Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England” by Thomas Penn

Winter King book cover

I have to start off by saying Thomas Penn has written a rip roaring biography here. It is certainly easy to see how this book won the 2012 H.W. Fisher Best First Biography prize. If you are looking for an in depth survey of the reign of Henry VII, this is your answer.

Penn begins by reminding us how Henry’s reign is overlooked by many historians because of the notoriety of his son Henry VIII and grand-daughter Elizabeth I. He likens the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign to a metaphorical spring, a second coming of sorts because Henry VIII seemed to be the opposite of his father. This is why he named the book the “Winter King”.

Henry VII had a dubious claim to the throne of England based on ancestry alone. He had spent most of his early years in exile on the continent and essentially had no thought or chance of becoming King of England. But when dissent in England reared its head during the reign of Richard III, Henry’s horizon opened up to possibilities. Disenchanted nobles gathered by his side and an invasion was planned, executed and carried forth with worthy results for Henry. This part of the story is genuinely exceptional. After his victory at Bosworth Field, Henry married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York. Almost immediately she gave birth to a son, Arthur, and the Tudor dynasty was on its way to establishing its splendid reputation in history.

After Henry quelled a few rebellions and crushed the hopes of a few imposters to the throne, the reign became relatively quiet. But in 1501-2, Henry’s heir Prince Arthur and then his wife died. It was a time of crisis for Henry. All his hopes were placed in his second son, Prince Henry. This was when Henry became physically ill with the tuberculosis which would eventually be fatal. His paranoia became even more evident. He was cautious and secretive and began resorting to extra-judicial measures. He found men to carry out his rare and extraordinary methods for collecting money and keeping people under control.

Penn is masterful in setting the scene here. He tells us about the men Henry relied on. He talks about secret plots and behind the scenes diplomatic maneuvers. He gives us great insight into the personality of Henry and what his motives were. There are delicious descriptions of visits of ambassadors, Elizabeth of York’s funeral, the entry of Catherine of Aragon into London and her wedding to Arthur Tudor. Really the entire panoply of Henry’s reign is described in great detail.

For me, the best chapters are in the last third of the book. After the death of Arthur and Elizabeth, King Henry brings Prince Henry to court to give him every advantage and to make clear the hopes of the dynasty rested on his shoulders. The education of Prince Henry as well as a great awareness of how he spent his leisure time is recounted. Prince Henry was closely guarded by his father and not allowed much leeway in his behavior. But the descriptions of him and his pals and their military training and jousting antics are really fun to read about.

I found that reading S.B. Chrimes biography of Henry first laid the foundation for a better understanding of Penn’s book so I would recommend that course of action. But it’s not totally necessary. For me the book seemed to start off a little slow, however it certainly picks up after a few chapters and begins to read more like an enjoyable historical fiction book. Only it’s not fiction! Really I can’t recommend this book enough if you are interested in the Tudor era and this overlooked king.

Book Review: “Isabella: The Warrior Queen” by Kirstin Downey

Isabella the Warrior Queen book cover

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Spain recently! There were two biographies of Isabella of Castile on my book shelf and I’ve now completed reading both of them. My interest in Isabella is a result of my lifelong love of Tudor history and the fact that Isabella was the mother of Catherine of Aragon. I tackled Peggy Liss’ biography first which was very interesting. Downey’s book is also a worthy read.

Downey explains in her afterword that she has a lifelong fascination in the life of Isabella. When she was a young girl living in the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone, she was captivated by the ruins of Spanish buildings which have existed since the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Panama was a trade hub for the shipping of the treasures from the New World to Spain and beyond.

While Liss’ biography is an academic work with exceptional detail, Downey has a different, but still relevant approach to Isabella’s life. She writes about the life events of the Queen, sometimes giving a keen insight into her life and at other times giving an overall picture. There is a little more detail in Downey’s book about Christopher Columbus and his voyages and their impact on Spain as well as the entire world.

Downey covers some new material here as well. She describes the cannibalism the Europeans discovered in the Caribbean and tells us about the possible origin of the sexually transmitted disease of syphilis coming from the New World. She also believes, based on her own journalistic work, that there was a history of sexual abuse in Isabella’s family.

There is some good information about Isabella’s children, especially Prince Juan and her daughter Juana. I particularly enjoyed the details of the life of Juana. Personally, I go back and forth on whether Juana was actually mentally ill or a victim of the men around her. Downey makes the case that Juana was perfectly sane but was unprepared and untrained in how to rule. Juana just wasn’t up to the task. There are some great descriptions about how Juana’s husband, the Archduke Philip, basically abused Juana as well as accounts of how her father plotted to take the throne of Castile from her. This is some really intriguing information and I may have to look into the biographies of Juana listed in the bibliography.

Isabella was an accomplished administrator and a warrior. There are many things to admire about her. But there is also a dark side to her personality. Even taking into account the mindset of medieval and Renaissance Spain, Isabella’s personality is full of religious fervor and rigidity. This leads to some objectionable events during her reign such as the mistreatment and exile of Jews and Muslims as well as the evils of the Spanish Inquisition. Downey argues the Inquisition was mostly the brainchild of Isabella’s husband Ferdinand and he used it for his own purposes for political gains and to increase his personal wealth.

I don’t want to get into a comparison between Downey’s and Liss’ work as both books have their own merits. I will say that Downey’s work is an easier and more enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. Reading both books gives a complete historical rendering of the life of this extraordinary Queen.

Book Review: “Isabel the Queen: Life and Times” by Peggy K. Liss

Liss Isabel the Queen cover

My knowledge of Queen Isabel of Castile is very limited. She is remembered for the Reconquista, the Spanish Inquisition and of course for sponsoring the voyages of Christopher Columbus. And being a fan of Tudor history, I knew of her as the mother of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. But I’m interested in knowing more so I’m reading a couple of biographies about her, including this one.

Ms. Liss wrote this book in honor of the 500th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in North America and a revised edition was released in 2004 for the 500th anniversary of Isabel’s death. It is an academic work, printed by the University of Pennsylvania Press and has been on my shelf for some time. Liss is an expert on Isabel and the book is filled with many great details about the era and Isabel’s reign and personal life.

This is a comprehensive work. As I don’t know much about Spanish history, the short timeline Liss gives is most appreciated. Liss writes a great deal about Isabel’s motivations for her actions as monarch in the context of the history of Spain and she is possibly a bit of an apologist for Isabel. I realize we shouldn’t put our 21st century sensibilities onto an older era. But much of what Isabel did was repugnant as many of the aspects of this book describe.

There is also much to admire about Isabel. She and Ferdinand had something very rare; a loving marriage. She was adamant that her children be educated too, especially her daughters, giving them something she lacked as a child. Isabel worked very hard at consolidating government on the Iberian Peninsula and administering justice. While executing war on various surrounding kingdoms, Isabel acted as quartermaster, raising funds and supplies and getting them to the theater of operations. Basically, whatever Fernando needed, she delivered. When asked by her husband, she would appear before the troops to lift their spirits.

I loved the description of Isabel’s first meeting with her future husband Fernando of Aragon. It was quite romantic. There is an honest assessment of her relationship with her daughter Juana, also known as Juana la Loca. While Isabel knew Juana had mental difficulties, she followed tradition and wrote in her will that she was to succeed her as Queen of Castile. The epilogue of the book describes how a lot of Isabel’s lifetime work for Spain was undone by Juana.

To be honest, Liss’ grammar and syntax are dense and a little hard to read. This is not a curl up with the cat and cuppa tea read and is more suited for historical research. But I still recommend it if you want to learn more about this complex and admirable queen as the details of her reign are extraordinary. On to the next biography.