In my never-ending quest to read possibly every single published book on the Tudor monarchy, I spied this little gem a few weeks ago and picked it up. It's difficult to get a handle on Henry VII. Some of it is due to his personality--he played his cards close to the vest, unlike his son--and some of it is due to Tudor spin--they were, after all trying to bolster up the royal credentials for a man who didn't have that many. Overblown prose trumpeting his reign seemed to be the order of the day.
Although the first quarter of this book is a little dry, at around the twenty-five percent mark Penn all of a sudden takes off and finds his voice. What a beautifully written book. In a sure voice, Penn captures without so much as a hiccup the tenor of these men, an era of the fantastically ambitious and avaricious. Add several whose claims to the throne were considerably more legitimate than Henry Tudor's, and you have an age where the royal fortune is so fragile that success and failure seem to turn on the seemingly most trivial events, like a storm at the right place at the right time. Although these events are dramatic enough in themselves, Penn takes this up several notches by deftly marshalling these events into a coherent, fascinating narrative. The chapters dealing with the alum trade are alone worth buying this book.
The personalities of them men are large and Penn draws these men with the drollest of pens. From the enclave of rapacious Italians to the poets and humanists vying for royal favor, from Henry VII's financial henchmen Dudley and Empson to the emerging players that will play such a huge role in his son's reign (Wolsey, Cromwell, More, and Warham), Penn adroitly weaves in all their stories as the background to what is a monarchy that is obsessed with its legitimacy. Henry VII's solution to his less-than-stellar credentials was to amass so much money that he was able to buy stability, even if it meant terrorizing his people. His son would be no less obsessed and equally adept at terrorizing the populace.
A delightful read, I highly recommend it.