Henry VII: Winter King and the Shadow of the Tower
If you’re currently enjoying the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I have two recommendations which should be essential for anyone interested in the Tudor age. One is a TV drama, The Shadow of the Tower, and the other is a historical biography, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (2011) by Thomas Penn. Both deal with the founder of the Tudor Dynasty, Henry VII. The Shadow of the Tower was the final series in the BBC’s acclaimed Tudor trilogy produced in the 1970s. It followed the The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) and Elizabeth R (1971), both of which have come to be regarded as the best historical dramas of their kind, and came at the start of what would be a Golden Age of British television drama. The Shadow of the Tower is the prequel to these two dramas, beginning on the day of The Battle of Bosworth Field when Henry Tudor seized the crown from Richard III.
James Maxwell is superb in the leading role, and his performance as Henry is strong enough to recommend the series alone. An American-born actor, who achieved some of his greatest successes at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, Maxwell perfectly captures the cunning, manipulative, and quietly authoritative nature of Henry in every word and mannerism. Characteristics of the monarch Penn describes as:
A sallow young man, with dark hair curled in the shoulder length fashion of the time and a penchant for expensively dyed black clothes, whose steady gaze was made more disconcerting by a cast in his left eye – such that while one eye looked at you, the other searched for you. […] The soft politesse concealed a sharp observer, a gleaner of information, cool under pressure and used to having to think several steps ahead: a leader.
As soon as you think you understand Henry, Maxwell seems to effortlessly change in character and motivation. His purely political marriage to Elizabeth of York (played by Norma West), uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster in the new House of Tudor, becomes one of genuine love and affection. History still provides the basis for the best thrillers, and the threats posed by Yorkist pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, the latter claiming to be Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the princes Richard III imprisoned in the Tower, provide the overarching narrative of the series. Even if you’re knowledgeable about this era of history, you’re still likely to find it suspenseful as the Lambert Simnel rebellion marches south to meet Henry’s forces at the Battle of Stoke Field. It is also quite funny, as the teenage Simnel, who is little more than a pawn of the Yorkists in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, slowly starts to drive his own commanders crazy with his stroppy behaviour. Everyone knows he is a fraud and does not possess a drop of royal blood, but they are forced to pretend he is their king while support seeps away and certain death awaits them. Other episodes are pretty much standalone dramas. There is an episode which deals with John Cabot’s efforts to secure a commission for his expedition to North America (Henry barely appears in this one).
One of the best episodes is titled ‘The Serpent and the Comforter’. In it, Peter Jeffrey plays a preacher who has been imprisoned in the tower, tortured and sentenced to death for heresy; having used scripture to challenge the authority of the Church. Word reaches Henry about the prisoner and, intrigued, Henry summons him. The two men debate the meaning of the Bible and the role of the Church. Henry, for all his malevolence, is sincere in his faith and concerned for the soul of the prisoner, even going so far as praying for him. He wants the preacher to recant before his execution so that, in Henry’s view, his soul will not burn in hell for eternity. However, he is also psychologically cruel, using sophistry to best the preacher and make him doubt his faith. You’ll be left in no doubt that these opposing facets of Henry’s personality can coexist.The performances of Jeffrey and Maxwell as prisoner and king, each determined to convince the other of the rightness of their faith, are outstanding. The episode is very theatrical and, intriguingly, none of the characters are named. Instead they are credited as ‘the prisoner’, ‘the king’, ‘the guard’ etc. We see in the prisoner’s struggle with his conscience a microcosm of an impending conflict that will reverberate through British history for centuries with Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and even events that have happened in my lifetime, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Alas, The Shadow of the Tower did not achieve the same level of success as the two Tudor dramas that preceded it. This is partly due to the fact that Henry VII has never had the same grip on the public’s imagination as other monarchs. Penn wrote ‘the most telling verdict of all is that Shakespeare, who omits Henry VII altogether from his sequence of history plays – and not for want of material but, one suspects, because the reign was too uncomfortable to deal with.’ In his review of Winter King, Toby Clements wrote that ‘Henry VII’s reign comes as a pivot on which the story turns – from the medieval to the modern, the dark to the light, the Plantagenets to the Tudors’, and even the Horrible Histories song about Henry jokes about his relative anonymity compared to other historical figures.
There are also some structural problems with the series. The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R had both followed a six, ninety-minute episode format. The Shadow of the Tower unfolds over thirteen episodes, and even though each episode comes in at a pacy fifty minutes it still feels rather drawn out at times. For instance, there is one completely superfluous episode which deals with Warbeck, after his final defeat and capture, having a series of fantasies/delusions about reigning as King of England. After Warbeck’s execution the series moves at breakneck pace climaxing with the sudden deaths of Prince Arthur and Queen Elizabeth. Rather than ending with the death of Henry, it shows an aging monarch whose meticulous plans for the succession lie in ruins. Henry has lost none of his intelligence, but his passion for life has died with the passing of his first-born son and wife. As a consequence, a tyranny is about to be unleashed, and where the series ends, purely by coincidence, Penn’s narrative in Winter King begins, and this is why the book is such a joy to read after watching The Shadow of the Tower. Penn deals with almost all of the events that feature in The Shadow of the Tower within the first chapter of Winter King. Bosworth Field receives only a few pages of text: the Battle of Stoke Field is afforded even less space. Penn is much more interested in Henry’s plans for the succession of Prince Arthur, and his regime’s descent into rapacious pilfering. There are a number of events of Henry’s later reign that Penn focuses on that I would have loved to have seen dramatized in The Shadow of the Tower. Henry’s longstanding duel with Yorkist heir Edmund de la Pole, and the downfall of two of Henry’s most cruel and unpopular advisers, Empson and Dudley, both of whom were executed when Henry VIII succeeded to the throne, giving the new king a massive popularity boost and propaganda coup. The athletic and dashing Henry VIII was a very different character from his calculating and paranoid father, and Penn argues convincingly that his reign would have seemed like a new golden age for England after the excesses of Henry VII’s last years: ‘This [Henry VIII] was a monarch for whom gold and jewels were nothing compared with virtue and eternal renown.’ Eventually, it became just a different form of tyranny.
Neither The Shadow of the Tower as a drama nor The Winter King as history can fully answer the question as to whether Henry was a good king. It entirely depends on how you define the term and office, and it is akin to asking whether Napoleon Bonaparte was a good dictator. Henry was a deeply complicated man living in turbulent times, and it’s this that makes him a compelling figure for narrative. If we take the contrived Whig approach and judge Henry by the moral standards of later generations then he comes across badly. This was the age of the Star Chamber and crippling taxation. In his defence he did unite the kingdom after years of civil war, created a stable dynasty and avoided expensive foreign wars. Truly, he is one of the most fascinating and neglected figures of British history.
Postscript: I was delighted to spot James Laurenson playing the Earl of Shrewsbury in the first episode of Wolf Hall. I have somewhat encyclopaedic fascination with character actors, and I was sure Laurenson had appeared in the BBC’s original Tudor trilogy. I went straight on imdb.com to see if my memory was correct, and sure enough, Laurenson played Simier in Elizabeth R and the Earl of Lincoln in The Shadow of the Tower. Are there any other direct connections between Wolf Hall and the seventies productions I wonder?