Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Thomas Penn

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Thomas Penn

Article excerpt

Your book Winter King is about the "dawn of Tudor England". Why are we obsessed with the Tudors?


We associate the Tudor period with two figures in particular: Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Both of them are larger than life. Henry VIII was so monstrous, he captures the imagination in such a way that he tends to eclipse others.

Personalities aside, this is a period of English history that is totally defining. When Henry VII takes the throne in 1485, England is a feudal kingdom. By 1603, it's on the way to becoming a nation state.

What first interested you about Henry VII?

The way he rules. The way he produces what is in fact a very curious and anomalous form of government.

Henry emerges in the book as an almost Machiavellian figure.

You can map Henry VII as a ruler right on to Machiavelli's ideal prince. He has a great will to power and a great sense of realpolitik, both of which are Machiavellian characteristics.

The way he constructs his government is reactive, in that he is looking for mechanisms of control the whole time. One of the things he alights on is the usefulness of financial bonds. These were used at every level of society. They were used as legally binding instruments; they were used in commerce. And kings used them as a way of guaranteeing good behaviour.

Would it be accurate to say that Henry VII is the first modern king?

Yes, absolutely. He is more recognisable to us, in the way that he used capital to rule, than the medieval kings, who usually wielded power at the point of a lance.

Henry was self-fashioned. We associate this idea of the "new man", the constructed self, with the 16 th century, but it was happening throughout the 15th century, too. Henry, Earl of Richmond, who became Henry VII, is an expression of that. It's all about self-fashioning.

Look at the way heraldry works: it's about creating lineages.

You did a PhD in history before working in publishing. Were you ever tempted to pursue an academic career?

No. …

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