After enjoying Thomas Penn’s book on Henry VII, Winter King, I was very much looking forward to watching him present a programme of the same name. I have to say it began well with Penn’s introduction to Henry VII and exciting promises for what was to come. Penn arriving by boat at Milford Haven, the Western most point of Wales, as Henry would have in 1485 started to bring events to life for me – something I think he fully achieves in his book.
Unfortunately, it was mainly downhill from here. For me, Penn is a much better writer than he is a presenter. Everything he said was touched with drama – with some of the points going nowhere and the really dramatic points being lost. This was used to focus the viewer on the ruthless and suspicious nature of Henry VII, which led to his reign ending largely as one of repression and terror. What is missed out here (but explained in the book) are the reasons behind this and the positives of Henry VII. I also found the continually changing scene, particularly the unnecessary walking scenes through London, distracting.
However, there were still a number of positives about the programme. Foremost, it was great to see Henry VII being covered rather than his predecessor (Richard III) or his successor (Henry VIII). Also, while maybe not living up to Penn’s ‘possibly the most extraordinary story of them all’, Henry VII’s story is fascinating. After 14 years in exile, Henry Tudor arrives in his homeland of Milford Haven with a group of political dissidents and mercenaries and with barely a claim to the English throne, defeats Richard III and makes himself King. It gave a very interesting insight into the creation of the Tudor dynasty and how Henry used the existing emblems of the white and red roses of the houses of York and Lancaster to create the Tudor rose. This image of unity and his marriage of Elizabeth of York (daughter of Edward IV) all aided to give his rule credibility. From here Henry VII created the Tudor dynasty and a peaceful succession for his son. Understanding Henry VII also helps us to understand both the legends that have arisen about Richard III (as Henry rewrote history) and some of the actions of his son, in particular his desperate need for a male heir.
Another plus of the programme was the opportunity to see documents that we would not normally have access to. These included the Parliament records from Henry’s reign, the De La Pole geneology roll and minutes of the council meetings of ‘The Council Learned in the Law’. It is here we see Penn at his best as he is so obviously truly fascinated by these documents and presents them to us with such interest and clarity they make the story come to life.
My favourite line of the programme must be Penn’s conclusion regarding the inscription of the tomb of Henry VII and his queen Elizabeth: ‘the inscription concludes by saying that the Land of England should count itself particularly lucky in the foremost of those offspring, the current King Henry VIII – Lucky Old England!’
To anyone wanting to learn more about Henry VII I would highly recommend Penn’s book Winter King in preference to the BBC programme.